Tuesday, 1 December 2015

From Proto-materialism to Materialism: The Indian Scenario - Part I

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

1. Introduction

The course of philosophy all over the world did not follow a single pattern. Yet it is interesting to note how the sixth/fifth century BCE threw up several socio-political ideas and philosophical doctrines, both materialist and idealist, in faraway places, unrelated and almost unbeknown to one another. D.D.Kosambi, the mathematician-turned-Indologist, once observed:
The sixth century B.C. produced the philosophy of Confucius in China and the sweeping reform of Zoroaster in Iran. In the middle of the Gangetic basis there were many entirely new teachers of whom the Buddha was only one, not the most popular in his own day. The rival doctrines are known mostly through biased reports in hostile religious documents. However, Jainism still survives in India, and traces its origins to founders before the Buddha. The Ajivikas are known from Mysore inscriptions who have survived as late as the fourteenth century A.D.....Obviously, the simultaneous rise of so many sects of considerable appeal and prominence in one narrow region implies some social need that older doctrines could not satisfy. (1972:97-98)
What Kosambi did not mention is a similar phenomenon in the west:  the rise of a considerable number of thinkers in and around Athens, mostly in the surrounding islands of Hellas (Greece). They are collectively known as the Presocratics. Barring a few like Pythagoras and the like, most of these thinkers were materialists, or rather proto-materialists of some sort.[i] George Thomson has described them as “primitive materialists” (1955: 158).

2. Proto-materialism in India: The Buddhist Tradition

The term, proto-materialism, is employed to suggest the first inklings of an incipient philosophical doctrine when the link with mythology is already snapped but any systematization with a distinct ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc. is yet to be achieved. In the Indian context, Ajita Kesakambala (Ajita of the hair blanket) has been called a proto-materialist (Kosambi 1975:164). He was out to deny whatever was there to be denied. The exposition of his own philosophical views, as found in the ‘Discourse on the Fruits of Being a Monk’ (Long Discourses) ‘Sāmañña-phala-sutta’ (Dīgha Nikāya) consists of a series of negations: 
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…. (Ten Suttas [1984]:83, translation slightly modified.)
Besides this discourse which speaks of Ajita and five more itinerant preachers, there is the ‘The Duologue between King/Governor Pāyāsi and Kassapa’ (Long Discourses) ‘Pāyāsirājañña Sutta’ (Dīgha Nikāya) in the Pali Buddhist tradition which reveals the first appearance of the denier or negativist (nāstika). This word came to signify, whether in the Brahmanical or the Buddhist or the Jain circles, heretics of any sort (in religious terms) and heterodox thinkers or disbelievers (in philosophical contexts). Pāyāsi, however, echoes Ajita in only one respect, namely, the denial of the post-mortem existence of a human’s spirit or soul, and consequently of rebirth:
‘Neither is there any other-world, nor are there beings reborn otherwise than from parents, nor is there fruit of deeds, well done or ill done’ (trans. T. W. Rhys Davids, in Chattopadhyaya - Gangopadhyaya 1990:10).
He is not content with making a simple declaration of denial ex cathedra as did Ajita Keskambala; he is made to claim the validity of his statement by conscious observation and experimentation (following the joint method of agreement and difference). Ajita and Pāyāsi are the two proto-materialists[ii] found in the Buddhist canonical texts. Their words are quoted and re-quoted throughout the corpus of the Buddha’s discourses (for instance, in the Middle-length Sayings Part 2, =Majjhimanikāya, see ‘Apaṇṇakasutta 10.1.3,4, 1958:78-79; ‘Sandakasutta’, ibidem, 213).

3. Proto-materialism in India: The Brahmanical Traidition

As to the Brahmanical tradition, Uddālaka Ārui of the Chāndogya Upaniad represents another aspect of proto-materialism, namely, the primacy of the body over consciousness. His name has been recently suggested as the first scientist in the world (Chattopadhyaya vol. 2, 1991:89-148), who, before Thales of Miletus, had affirmed the  basic materialist idea by proving experimentally (again following the joint method of agreement and difference) that consciousness cannot operate in a starving body (this view later came to be known as “the doctrine of matter and consciousness’’ (bhūta-caitanya-vāda) and “the doctrine of the body and the spirit (as one)” (dehātmavāda).

This is how Uddālaka Ārui teaches his son, Śvetaketu how mind depends upon the body: 
“A man, my son, consists of sixteen parts. Do not eat for fifteen days, but drink water at will. Breath is made of water; so it will not be cut off if one drinks." Śvetaketu did not eat for fifteen days. Then he came back to his father and said: "What shall I recite, sir?" "The g verses, the Yajus formulas, and the Sāman chants." "Sir, I just can't remember them," he replied. And his father said to him: "It is like this, son. Out of a huge fire that one has built, if there is left only a single ember the size of a firefly – by means of that the fire thereafter would not burn all that much. Likewise, son, you are left with only one of your sixteen parts; by means of that at present you don't remember the Vedas. "Eat, and then you will learn from me."  He ate and then came back to his father. And he answered everything that his father asked. And the father said to him: "It is like this, son. Out of a huge fire that one has built, if there is left only a single ember the size of a firefly and if one were to cover it with straw and set it ablaze – by means of that, the fire thereafter would burn very much. Likewise, son, you were left with only one of your sixteen parts, and when you covered it with food, it was set ablaze – by means of that you now remember the Vedas, for the mind, son, is made up of food; breath, of water; and speech, of heat." And he did, indeed, learn it from him. (Chāndogya Upaniad 6.7.1-6. Trans. Olivelle 1998:251) 
The parallel rise of proto-materialism in Greece and India are of course purely accidental. But the figures of Uddālaka Ārui on the one hand and Heraclitus on the other present us with certain insights into the growth and development of philosophical systems themselves. It will be rewarding to trace the course of materialism in ancient India from this point of view.

4. Intellectual turmoil and the Rise of Proto-materialism

It is evident from available sources, notwthstading their fragmentary nature, that materialism does not presuppose any special social basis congenial to or necessary for its birth. On the contrary, it was presumably an intellectual turmoil in the sixth century BCE which threw up both idealism and materialism, as in India so in Greece (See Chattopadhyaya vol.2, 1991: 35-46, 71-88). It was the Second Urbanization and more importantly the use of iron that brought a major change in the then Indian society particularly in the north. We read of no fewer than sixty-two heritical doctrines in the the Pali Tipiaka (‘Brahmajāla-sutta’, Dīgha Nikāya) as also in the Maitrāyaī Upaniad (7.8-10). 

Theodore Stcherbatsky had noted long ago:
In VI-V century B.C., at the time immediately preceding the rise of Buddhism, India was seething with philosophic speculation. A great variety of views and systems was springing up and actively propgated among the differenent classes of its population. Materialistic doctrines, denying every survival of the individual after death and every retribution for his moral or immoral deeds were widely spread.  (Stcherbatsky (1927) 2003: Part II, 2)   
S. Radhakrishnan provides the socio-political backdrop against which the intellectual turmoil took place, at first with special reference to the Upanisads
It is to be noted that while the Upaniad thought developed in the western part of the Gangetic tract, the east was not so much assimilating it as acquiring it. The western speculations were not admitted in the eastern valley without debate or discussion. 

There were also political crises which unsettled men’s minds. Among the small states which were being then established there were pretty dissentions. Outside invaders disturbed the peace of the country. Loud complaints were heard about the degeneracy of the age, the lust of princes and the greed of men. (Radhakrishnan vol.1:1980:276)
The socio–political turmoil led inevitably to further intellectual turmoil: 
The contradictions of the time appeared in conflicting systems, each of them representing one phase of the spirit of the age. It is necessary for us to distinguish in this period three different strata of thought, which are both chronologically and logically successive: (1) The systems of revolt, such as the Cārvāka theory, Jainism and Buddhism (600 BC); (2) The theistic reconstruction of the Bhagavadgītā and the later Upaniads (500 BC); and (3) The speculative development of the six systems (300 BC), which attained definiteness about the end of A.D.200 or so. (Radhakrishnan 1:1980:276).
Some dates require modification; ‘Cārvāka’ in this context is to be understood to mean the earliest form of materialism, as the name is often used figuratively to suggest any form of materialism at any time. Otherwise Radhkrishnan’s observations are essentially sound.

In the Brahmanical tradition, a sceptic note apropos the origin of the world had already been struck in a late gvedic verse, the so-called ‘Nāsadīya Sūkta’ (10.129: ‘‘Then even nothingness was not, nor existence…’’).[iii] The Kaha Upaniad clearly voices the persistence of doubt (vicikitsā, 1.1.20) regarding the state of humans after their death: young Naciketas asks Yama: ‘‘This doubt that [there is] in regard to a man that is deported – ‘he is,’ say some; and ‘this one is not,’ say some…” (Trans. D. Whitney 1890:96). 

A more detailed exposition of proto-materialism in this respect, namely, the non-existence of the other-world, is met with in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaa, Book 2 (Ayodhyā-kāṇḍa) (critical edition, canto 100). Jābāli, a thoroughgoing negativist, tries to persuade Rāma that all post-mortem rites are futile, for nothing of one’s ancestor remains after his death (2.100.1-17. For details see R. Bhattacharya 2015). The primacy of the body over consciousness is asserted in the other epic, the Māhābhārata (Book 12, The Book of Peace (Śānti-parvan) critical edition canto 211.22-28).

These were the two issues, the problems of death and rebirth, and the priority of matter or consciousness, that divided the proto-materialists and the proto-idealists in India long before the Common Era. All other questions relating to epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc. arose later, presumably in the early centuries of the Common Era. The development of philosophy on this line, centering not only round the other-world but about rebirth as well, is somewhat unique in the philosophical scenario of ancient India. 

5. The Question of the First Cause (jagat-kāraa)

Another question, namely, how the world came into being, too, arose simultaneously in India and Greece. If God was not to be admitted as the creator of the universe, how did it come into being? The Presocratic thinkers differed among themselves in determining which one of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) was to be called the first cause (Thales opted for water, Heraclitus for fire, Anaximenes for air, etc.). Their counterparts in India thought of all the elements as one unit (with or without the fifth, space or void, ākāśa or vyoma, added to them) as a claimant to that title. There were other ‘competing causalities’ (Halbfass (1992:291) too. The Śvetāśvatara Upaniad 1.2 records, besides the ‘elements’(bhūtani), five more of such claimants to the title of the first cause: Time, Own-being (svabhāva), Destiny, Accident (yadcchā), the (Primeval) Person (purua, meaning God or the Spirit).  At least two of the doctrines, those of Time and Own-being, have been recognized as materialistic (Bedekar 1961 passim). In the course of time many more claimants to the title of the cause of the universe arose, of which karman was the most important one. (For further details see Bhattacharya 2001:19-13).

However, the rise of such key concepts that comprise the materialist doctrine/doctrines – insofar as they can be identified and isolated – are significant pointers to the ongoing clash of ideas between several systems or quasi-systems of philosophy at a given period of history. The appearance of new ideas also reflects, as Kosambi noted (see above), the inevitable decay or hibernation of at least some of the old doctrines. The history of materialism too contains more than one period of such decay or hibernation and reappearance both in Greece and India. There was apparently no continuation of Ajita Kesakambala’s brand of all-denying materialism.

Here I find myself in disagreement with Kosambi’s opinion that “[t]he Lokāyata school . .  . seems to have taken a great deal from this Ajita . . .” (1972:104). There is not an iota of evidence to support the view that the Cārvāka, the best known system of materialism, owed anything to Ajita, whose name is never mentioned in the Brahmanical works, and the Cārvāka belongs very much to the Brahmanical tradition. In all probability the Cārvāka doctrine emerged in or around the eighth century CE de novo, borrowing nothing from Ajita. Even the elementalism (bhūtavāda) and Lokāyata, two materialist systems mentioned in the Tamil epic, Maimēkalai (see below), each having its own distinct set of doctrines, were in some respects similar but not identical. The similarity between all these doctrines of old (pre-Cārvāka) materialism (before the eighth century CE) and new (Cārvāka) materialism (eighth century CE and after) (For details see Bhattacharya 2013a :1-8) is only to be expected, for they all start from the same negative premises of denial of current religious and idealist views. In other words, they emerged as representatives of anti-fideist, anti-spiritualist and anti-idealist ways of thinking.  However, the doctrinal aspects of these two communities were not simply revived as they had been before in the sixth century BCE, without any change. At every stage of reappearance, materialism adopted a new garb, retaining something of the past doctrines sublated (pace Hegel) in the new but also having some novel elements added to the new incarnation.

[i] While studying Hegels Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol.2 and other philosophical works in a library in Bern, Switzerland, Vladimir Ilych Lenin was thrilled to learn of the Presocratics, particularly Democritus and Heraclitus. See Lenin, 1961 passim.  He copied down in his notebook a fragment from Heraclitus (30 Diels) which runs as follows: The world, an entity out of everything, was created by none of the gods or men, but was, is and will be eternally living fire, regularly becoming ignited and regularly becoming extinguished  . . . .  Lenin added his comment in appreciation: A very good exposition of the principles of dialectical materialism (1961:349). For another translation of the fragment see Freeman (1952:26).
[ii] Frauwallner has mentioned two more names, Purāa Kāśyapa and Kakuda Kātyāyana, in the list of early materialists (German text, Band II, 1956:300-02; English trans., Vol.2, 1973:219-21) but his view has not met with general approval.
[iii] For a translation of the whole hymn see Basham 1954:247-48, reproduced in Eliade 1979:110-111.

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


This essay (with slight modifications) was first published in Confluence - Online Journal of World Philosophies (Volume 3, 2015 - Pages 41-59)


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