The word “materialism,” as the name of a distinct approach to nature, including human nature, in the context of philosophy is found only relatively recently. The first recorded occurrence of the term in English, presumably borrowed from French, dates from the mid-eighteenth century. “Idealism,” the contrary of “materialism,” is not found in English before the late eighteenth century. The systems of philosophy that can be so branded, however, existed long before the names were coined. A clear distinction between the vulgar and technical senses of these two terms should be maintained —philosophically, materialism is the doctrine that every object, whether living or non-living, has a material substratum. Attributes of higher living beings, such as senses, consciousness, and intelligence, presuppose the existence of matter. Materialism does not consider consciousness itself to be material; it does not claim that matter (or body) and consciousness are one and the same. It simply asserts the primacy of matter over consciousness. Conversely, idealism holds that consciousness is primary, matter secondary.
The global history of philosophy bears out that materialism emerged in India, China, and Greece, presumably independently of one another. Nevertheless, a fundamental similarity of approach justifies the use of the term “materialism” to denote each manifestation. Among the seven issues noted below, the first five are common to all materialist traditions everywhere and at all times, while the last two are specifically Indian:
(a) Matter is the first cause (jagat-kāraṇa); it precedes consciousness.
(b) Consciousness (variously called self, spirit, or soul) ceases to exist after the death of the body. (c) There is no other-world (paraloka), that is, heaven and hell.
(d) There is no rebirth or reincarnation (metempsychosis).
(e) Verbal testimony (āptavākya; śabda) is not a valid instrument of cognition (pramāṇa); perception is the first and the best instrument.
(f) Performance of sacrificial rites (yajña) and post-mortem rites for dead ancestors (śrāddha) is useless.
(g) No benefit follows from paying donations and gifts (dāna) to priests and Brahmins.
Pre-Vedic urban centers in what is now northwest and west India existed already in the third millennium BCE; yet in the absence of written records we cannot conjecture about the intellectual aspects of the Indus Valley civilization. The three sections of Vedic literature—the Saṃhitās, the Brāhmaṇas, and the Āraṇyakas—were largely preoccupied with sacrificial rituals. There were skeptics and deniers of the cult of sacrifice even in early Vedic times, but their doubts and denials did not form a cluster of thought that can be called “philosophy.” The oral tradition embodied in the Upaniṣads may therefore be taken as the point of departure. The struggle between sacrificial ritual (karman) and knowledge (jñāna) in Īśā Upaniṣad 2 marks one such moment of transition, when a compromise is reached between the two without denying the importance of either. It is followed by another question, whether or not there is life after death and the existence of the other-world (paraloka). This debate forms the focus of Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.1.20. In the longer Upaniṣads, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya, we read of contests between the sages concerning the character of the Universal Principle (brahman). In the Upaniṣads, materialism is said to be associated with the demons (asuras, lit. non-gods). In any case the Upaniṣadic philosophy of ātman and brahman replaces both the Vedic sacrificial cult and the primitive materialism expounded by Uddālaka Āruṇi (see below).
The sixth/fifth century BCE was indeed witness to great philosophical upheavals, not only in India but also in Greece, China, and Iran. The existence of no fewer than fifty-two itinerant preachers is attested by Buddhist texts such as the Brahmajāla Sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya, although only six are explicitly named. The Ājīvikas formed a large community during the sixth/fifth century BCE, but unlike the Jainas and the Buddhists disappeared from India. The emergence of a number of itinerant thinkers and their followers is recorded in Maitrī Upaniṣad 7.8. They are denounced as non-Vedic (avaidika) (7.10) and negativisist (nāstikya) (6.5)[i]. In Maitrī Upaniṣad 7.9 we come across the precursors of such plebian gurus and their followers in the Āul, Bāul, Sāhebadhanī, Balāhāḍi, and Kartābhajā communities. The Atharvaveda, a product of the acculturation between the Vedic people and the non-Vedic, was for a long time not recognized as a Veda at all. There were differences of opinion even among the Vedists, with Manu, the lawgiver, opposing the entry of the Atharvaveda in the Trayī (the three Vedas: Ṛk, Sāman and Yajus only), and Kumārila and Jayanta, two philosophers belonging to Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya schools respectively, supporting the claim of the Atharvaveda and thereby upholding the concept of “four Vedas.”[ii] Originally the non-Hindus were counted as three: Buddhist, Jaina, and Cārvāka (a later school of materialism; see below). Later they were counted as six: the four schools of Buddhist philosophy, namely, Madhyamaka (or Mādhyamika), Yogācāra, Sautrāntika, and Vaibhāṣika, along with the Jaina, and the Cārvāka[iii]. In another division, the Cārvāka, Buddhism, Jainism, Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya, and Sāṃkhya are treated as “six systems of speculation” (ṣaṭtarkī). In still another account the Cārvāka is replaced by Mīmāṃsā; in yet another, Vaiśeṣika is excluded and the Cārvāka is brought back[iv].
Before the systematization of the schools, the history of Indian philosophy seems to have been concerned with one focal problem: what or who is the first cause (jagat-kāraṇa; literally, the cause of the world)? Several alternatives appear to have been proposed[v]. Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1.2 speaks of six “competing causalities”; they are kāla (time), svabhāva (lit., own being, meaning inherent nature), niyati (destiny), yadṛcchā (accident), bhūtāni (the natural elements), and puruṣa (primeval man, or the self, ātman, or God). In the works of later philosophers the doctrine of own-being/inherent nature is made to be associated with the Cārvāka, although originally this doctrine was distinct from the doctrine of elements (as in Śvetāśvatara 1.2). The word svabhāva too was later interpreted in two diametrically opposite ways: svabhāva-as-accident and svabhāva-as-causality. For some strange reason in later times svabhāva came to signify both accident and causality. The former became identified with the doctrine of accident (yadṛcchā) while the latter was assimilated to the doctrine of natural elements[vi].
Indeed, this doctrine of natural elements may have been the earliest precursor of materialism. The separation of earth, air, fire, and water as the basic constituent elements of all natural objects marks a point of departure from mythology to philosophy. As in Greece, so in India, these four basic elements constitute the basis of much philosophical speculation. All scientific speculation too, whether in the field of natural sciences or of medicine, accepted the concept of the elements as at the root of all phenomena. Unlike the Greeks, however, Indian speculators spoke also of a fifth element, sky (ākāśa, vyoma) or emptiness (śūnya), the five-element formula made to correspond to the five senses: thus, earth corresponds to smell, air to touch, fire to heat, and so on. Even the early, pre-Cārvāka, materialists adopted it. The medical compilation Caraka-saṃhitā is at bottom materialistic and adheres to the five-element theory. The later, Cārvāka, materialism, on the other hand, adopts a four-element scheme. In any case, one conclusion is inescapable: the material basis of everything was universally accepted to be these four or five elements.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Firenze: Società Editriche Fiorentina, 2009; London: Anthem Press, 2011.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “The Social Outlook of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata: A Reconstruction.” Indologica Taurinensia 36 (2010): 37–42.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “The Wolf’s Footprints: Indian Materialism in Perspective.” Interview with Krishna Del Toso. Annali 71 (2011): 183–204.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Svabhāvavāda and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata: A Historical Overview.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40, no. 5 (2012): 593–614.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Verses Attributed to Bṛhaspati in the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha: A Critical Appraisal.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 41 (2013): 615–630.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1989.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad, and M. K. Gangopadhyaya, eds. Cārvāka/Lokāyata. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990.
Dixit, K. K. “The Ideological Affiliation of Jayarāśi—The Author of Tattvopaplavasiṃha.” In Cārvāka/Lokāyata, edited by D. Chattopadhyaya and M. K. Gangopadhyaya, pp. 520–530. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990.
Franco, Eli: Perception, Knowledge and Disbelief: A Study of Jayarāśi’s Scepticism. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1994; 1st edition, Alt- und Neu-Indische Studien 35, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1987.
Jayarāśibhaṭṭa. Tattvopaplavasiṃha of Jayarāśibhaṭṭa. Tr. Esther Solomon; ed. Shuchita Mehta: Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa’s Tattvopaplavasiṁha. An Introduction, Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Notes. Parimal Sanskrit Series 111. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 2010.
Saṁghavī, Sukhlāljī; Pārīkh, Rasiklāl C., eds. Tattvopaplavasimha of Shri Jayarasi Bhatta. Edited with an introduction and indices. Gaekwad Oriental Series 87, Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1940; reprinted, Bauddha Bharati Series 20, Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati, 1987.
[i] Nāstikya is derived from nāstika, which literally means “one who says (or believes) that (it) does not exist.” The opposite word āstika similarly signifies “one who says (or believes) that (it) exists.” Originally it was the assertion and denial of the existence of the other-world, that is, life after death. In course of time āstika and nāstika came to suggest the upholder and defiler of the authority of the Veda, the most sacred book of the brahmanical people, the theist and the atheist, and similar affirmation and denial of any doctrine. See Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata (Firenze: Società Editriche Fiorentina, 2009 and London: Anthem Press, 2011), chap. 23.
[ii] For details, see Dipak Bhattacharya, “Trayī, Triads and the Vedas” (forthcoming) and his “Introductions” to the ongoing edition of the Atharvaveda of the Paippalāda school, particularly vol. 4 (forthcoming). I am indebted to the author for permitting me to read the drafts of both.
[iii] Of these four, the first two were idealist, preaching the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyavāda) and that of the momentariness (kṣanikavāda), while the last two, realist. Madhusudana Sarasvatī (seventeenth century CE), in his Prasthānabhedaḥ (Poona: Ananda Ashram, 1977), 1, first identifies these as “six [negativist] philosophies” (ṣaḍ [nāstika] darśanāni). Cimanabhaṭṭa (Āryavidyāsudhākara, ed. Sivadatta D. Kudala [Lahore: Motilal Banarsidass, 1923], 89–90) repeats it, emphasizing their anti-Vedic character. See also Radhakanta Deva, Śabdakalpadruma (Kalikata: Hitavadi Karyyalaya, 1836 śaka), s.v. nāstika. “The six systems of Indian philosophy,” however, refer to the affirmativist systems only.
[iv] See Gerdi Gerschhiemer, “Les ‘Six doctrines de spéculation’ (ṣaṭtarkī)—Sur la categorization variable des systems philosophiques dans l’Inde classique,” in Expanding and Merging Horizons (Wilhelm Halbfass Memorial Volume) (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2007), 239–258.
[v] See Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, “The First Cause: Rivals of God in Ancient Indian Thought,” Indian Skeptic 14, no. 11 (2001): 19–23; “The first Cause: Syncretic Bias of Haribhadra and Others,” Jain Journal 35, no. 3–4 (2001): 179–184; “Svabhāvavāda and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata: A Historical Overview,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40, no. 5 (2012): 593–614.
[vi] See Bhattacharya, “Svabhāvavāda and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata.”