Monday, 26 October 2015

The Cārvākas against Caste and Gender Discrimination

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

[This is Part II of "Facets of Materialism in India: A Historical Outline". Part I is here]

The Carvakas against Caste Discrimination

Let us now see what these two arch-opponents of materialism say regarding the materialists’ (or, to be more specific, of the new materialists,’ i.e., the Cārvākas’) views on caste and women. 

In Kṛṣṇamiśra’s (eleventh century) allegorical play, Rise of Moon-like Intellect (Prabodhacandrodaya), Mahāmoha (Great Delusion), an avowed materialist, declares:   
tulyatve vapuṣāṃ mukhādyavayavair varṇakramaḥ kīdṛśo…| 2.18ab
If the bodies are alike in their different parts, the mouth, etc., how can there be a hierarchy of castes? (Trans. by S.K. Nambiar)
A heretic in Śrīharṣa’s (twelfth century) Naiṣadhacarita (Life of Naiṣadha) throws a challenge to the forces of status quo ante:
śuddhir vaṃśa dvayī śuddhau pitroryadekaśaḥ | 
tadanantakulādopādadoṣā jātirasti kā || 17.40

īrṣyayā rakṣato nārīrdhikulasthitidāmbhikān | 
smarāndhatvāviśeṣe’pi tathā naramarakṣataḥ || 17.42

tṛṇānīva ghṛṇāvādān vidhūnaya vadhūranu | 
tavāpi tādṛśasyaiva kā ciraṃ janavañcanā ||  17.58 

Since purity of caste is possible only in the case of purity on each side of both families of the grandparents, what caste is pure by the purity of limitless generations?

Fie on those who boast of family dignity! They hold women in check out of jealousy; but do not likewise restrain men, though the blindness of passion is common to both!

Spurn all censorious statements about women as not worth a straw. Why dost thou constantly cheat people when thou, too, art as bad as women?(Trans. by K.K. Handiqui) 
Both the authors intended to depict the Cārvākas as heretics and non-believers. Defiance of the caste system was considered a heretical idea and hence deserved censure.

Is there any truth in labelling the Cārvākas as opposed to the caste system? I think there is. Two oft-quoted genuine aphorisms attributed to the Cārvākas say that the human body is a combination of four natural elements, namely, earth, air, fire and water (I.2-3).[1] Apparently the Cārvākas gave no credence to the late Vedic idea that the Brahmaṇas, Rājanyas (warriors), Vaiśyas (agriculturists and traders), and Śūdras (manual workers) were different parts of the supreme person called puruṣa (Ṛgveda 10.90.11-12): 
yat puruṣaṃ viadadhuḥ, katidhā vi akalpayan? 
mukhaṃ kim asya? kau bāhu? kā ῡrῡ pādā ucyete?

brāhmaṇo ‘sya mukham āsīd, bāhu rājaniaḥ kṛtaḥ; 
ῡrῡ tad asya yad vaiśyaḥ padbhyāṃ śῡdro ajāyata. 

When they divided Puruṣa, into how many parts did they dispose him? What (did) his mouth (become)? What are his two arms, his too thighs, his two feet called? 

His mouth was the Brāhaman [Brāhamaṇa], his two arms were made the warrior, his two thighs the Vaiśya; from his two feet the Śῡdra was born. (transA.A. Macdonell, pp.200-01) 
This was a convenient way of explaining why acceptance and observance of the hierarchy of castes was obligatory. The law books insist on the preservation and continuation of the caste system. The Cārvākas cared nothing for these sacred texts. Hence it is quite probable that the Cārvākas had no faith in the so-called divine origin of castes and did not observe caste rules in social life. A verse attributed to the Cārvākas runs as follows:  
na svarga nāpavargo vā naivātmā pāralaukikaḥ | 
naiva varṇāśramādīnāṃ kriyāśca phaladāyikāḥ ||  

There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul inthe other-world. 
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc. produce any real effect.[2] 

The Carvakas against Gender Discrimination

As to the defence of women and treating them as equal to men, the Cārvākas apparently were very much anti-sexist. They did not believe, as Manu did, that women in general were basically untrustworthy, were not entitled to study the Vedas, and were never to earn freedom but should always be under their fathers’, husbands’ and sons’ protection and surveillance (Manusmṛti, 9.10-20). The Cārvākas’ claim of the equality of the sexes quite logically follows from their basic anti-śāstric stance. Being freethinkers, they could also very well be free from all prejudices against women that are rampant in the law books of ancient India. They did not admit word (śabda), that is, verbal testimony, as a valid instrument of cognition (pramāṇa). So they were not under any compulsion to accept what the Brahmaṇcal law books declared as something sacrosanct. This is why Sāyaṇa-Mādhava could make them say: ”[T]here is no more reason for believing on another’s word that smoke and fire are connected, than for our receiving the ipse dixit of Manu, &c.” dhῡmadhῡma-dhvajayor avinābhāvo ’stīti vacanamātre manvādivad viśvāsābhāvāc ca. [3] 

To sum up then: materialism in India, particularly the Cārvāka/Lokāyata,  appeared heretical to the powers that be, not only in respect of its ontology but also because of its social outlook. This is why two Vedantin poets considered it necessary to present it in poor light, as an enemy of the established order which is founded on the varṇa system and patriarchy. 

One word more. Eli Franco once suggested perceptively: “[A]ll the Lokayātikas were fighting for… was ultimately to found social and political institutions independently of religious dogma…”.[4] He might have had in his mind Frauwallner’s view that materialism in India was created for the Realpolitikers. I do not think so, as I have shown elsewhere.[5] I would, however, heartily agree with Franco’s suggestion. The Cārvākas did have a vision of an ideal society in which organised religion would have no room, and there would be no varṇa and gender discriminations. Their approach was thoroughly rational and they denounced such discriminations as impediments to founding a society based on equality of rights and opportunities. In this sense the social outlook of the Cārvākas was essentially democratic.

Appendix A 

Ajita Kesakambal's 'worldview'

O King, there is no (consequence to) alms-giving, sacrifice or oblation. A good or bad action produces no result. This world does not exist, nor does the other world.  There is no mother, no father. There is no rebirth of beings after death. In this world, there are no samanas [Śramaṇas] or brāhmaṇas established in the Noble Path and accomplished in good practice, who, through direct knowledge (i.e., magga insight) acquired by their own efforts, can expound on this world and the other world. This being is but a compound of the four great primary elements; after death, the earth-element (or element of extension) returns and goes back to the body of the earth, the water-element (or element of cohesion) returns and goes back to the body of water, the fire-element (or element of thermal energy) returns and goes back to the body of fire, and the air-element (or element of motion) returns and goes back to the body of air, while the mental faculties pass on into space. The four pall-bearers and the bier (constituting the fifth) carry the corpse. The remains of the dead can be seen up to the cemetery where bare bones lie graying like the colour of the pigeons. All alms-giving ends in ashes. Fools prescribe alms-giving; and some assert that there is such a thing as merit in alms-giving; but their words are empty, false and nonsensical. Both the fool and the wise are annihilated and destroyed after death and dissolution of their bodies. Nothing exists after death.’ (Ten Suttas, p.83, translation slightly modified.) 

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Sourav Basak, Sunish Kumar Deb, and Krishna Del Toso. The usual disclaimers apply.

Works Cited

Ācāraṅgasūtram and Sūtrakṛtāṅgasūtram  with Niryukti of Ācārya Bhadravāhu Svāmī and the Commentary of Śīlāṅkācārya. (1978). Ed. Ācārya Sarvanandājī Mahārāja. Re-ed. with Appendix by Muni Jambuvijayaji. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Indological Trust.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Firenze: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2009.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Development of Materialism in India: the Pre-Carvakas and the Carvakas, Esercizi Filosofici 8, 2013, pp. 1-12. (2013a). ISSN 1970-0164
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Knowledge and Intervention. Calcutta:  Firma KLM, 1985.
Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Edited by D. Chattopadhyaya and M. K. Gangopadhyaya. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990.
Cowell, E. B. The Chārvāka System of Philosophy, Journal of the Asiatic Society (Bengal), 31(4), 1862, pp.371-90.
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[1] R. Bhattacharya 2009, pp.78-79, 86. 
[2] Qtd. Sāyaṇa-Mādhava in Joshi 1981, p.12. Emphasis added. The verse occurs in the Padmapurāṇa, Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa 13.323. For other sources see R. Bhattacharya 2009, pp.84, 91.  
[3] Sāyaṇa-Mādhava in Joshi 1981, p.9. 
[4] Franco 1991, p.160. 
[5] Bhattacharya 2009, pp.21-32.

Prof Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at Unversity of Calcutta, Kolkota and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He isnow a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkota



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