What’s the matter: a short treatise on Indian Materialism

Materialism is neither new nor mystical. It has been around as a system of thought since the earliest records of human history. Simply put, it maintains that the origin of everything that really exists is ‘matter’

November 23, 2023 10:30 am | Updated 10:30 am IST

For representative purposes

For representative purposes | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Philosophy may be defined as a unified theory of life. The function of philosophy is to explain the universe and all its constituents. To provide oneself with a comprehensive view of life, and to have this view serve as a frame of reference for all of one’s actions.

“Strictly speaking, philosophy is materialism, and materialism is the only possible philosophy. For, it represents the knowledge of nature as it really exists — knowledge acquired through the contemplation, observation and investigation of the phenomena of nature itself,” wrote Indian freedom fighter and radical Humanist philosopher Manabendra Nath Roy in his 1938 opus Materialism. And while the discoveries of the quantum realm and its subatomic elements shook the foundations of material sciences in early 20th century, ‘matter’ in the sense of the substance of physical reality continues to persist.

What is materialism?

Materialism, simply put, maintains that the origin of everything that really exists is matter; that there does not exist anything but matter, that all other appearances, including intelligence, are transformations of matter, and these transformations are governed necessarily by laws inherent in nature, which is fundamentally material.

Materialism is neither new nor mystical. It has been around as a system of thought since the earliest records of human history. In ancient India, Materialism found grounding with the Lokāyata, which was pioneered by philosophers like Brhaspati, Ajita, and Jābāli, among others. The early Greek philosophers who sought to explain the world by itself were materialists. The atomism of Democritus, and Epicurus, as well as the pre-Socratic philosophers’ desire to find an explanation for the constituents of the cosmos were the earliest examples of Materialism in the western tradition.

Materialism is a philosophy that exists everywhere but is yet without a home. In India, the theologically inclined claim that materialism is a western philosophical construct, while in the West, faith-based philosophers decry the evils of materialism. Both in the West and closer home, materialism is painted as a hedonic, indulgent way of living. Yet, so many of the wondrous inventions of our age, as well as the many terrifying weapons we make, owe their development to the progressive understanding human beings have seized from nature’s core.

Unlike our age, ancient times were periods of great resource crunches. Even if the king was wealthy, the populace at large lived on subsistence, and elaborate ceremonies began to dictate the lives of the people as the natural religion of the early Vedic era gave way to the dogmatic ritualism that developed over time in ancient India. This was not unopposed. The Upanishads frankly chastise this obsession with dogmatic sacramentalism and look back to the earliest period of the Vedas. Such profundity of thought is reflected in the early Chāndogya Upanishad, “All this is Brahman. Everything comes from Brahman, everything goes back to Brahman, and everything is sustained by Brahman. One should therefore quietly meditate on it. Each person has a mind of his own. What a person wills in his present, he becomes in the future. One should bear this in mind and will accordingly.” A worldview that sees God in all things and all things in God, leaves little room for traditional religion, and philosophically opens the floodgates of materialism, for it solidifies the real world as divine, and makes it manifest. This was the period when the Lokāyatas found their antecedents. From the time of Brhaspati, the materialists of ancient India had held that the world was real, made up of elements, available to human perception, and that ethics, if any, followed these hard facts.

With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, as well as other social and political developments in the post-Vedic age, the dominant role that Lokāyata enjoyed went into decline. However, the influence of Materialism continued to be felt long after it went out of popular convention.

What’s in a name?

Materialism in India has had many names. Lokāyata, Chárváka, Bhautikvad, Jadavāda, Dehātmavāda etc. are familiar names to describe materialists.

Lokā refers to the world, although the etymological root for it refers to that which can be seen. The Mahābhārata expression ‘lokesu ca samo bhava’ or ‘see all things with equanimity’ expresses the sentiment clearly. Thus, Lokāyata is the worldly philosophy, dealing with objects and entities in the world. Indian Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya famously declares: “Lokāyata means the philosophy of the people. It also means the philosophy which is this — worldliness or instinctive materialism. At every stage materialist philosophy has relied on the practical test of reality and on the necessity of change.”

According to Hemachandra, the Jain polymath, the word Chárváka finds its origin in ‘charv’ or ‘to chew’. Hence the expression, ‘carvatyātmānam cārvākah’ or ‘Cārvāka chews the self’. This refers to the purportedly hedonic life that the Chárvákas espoused. “Aham annam aham annam aham annam aham annādah aham annādah aham annādah aham ślokakrt aham ślokakrt aham rtasya prathamajāh devebhyah pūrvam amrtasya nā bhāyi” or “I am food! I am food! I am food! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food! I am he who maketh the verse! I am he who maketh the verse! I am he who maketh the verse! I am the firstborn of the Law; before the gods were, I am, yea at the very heart of immortality.” This verse from the Vedantic Taittiriya Upanishad captures the sentiment of someone who sees oneself as the ‘eater of self’.

Bhautikvad is derived from the word Bhautika, which means physical or material. Bhautika itself is derived from Bhu, and its derivative Bhava, meaning being and becoming respectively. As such, Bhautika Vignyan continues to be the word for physical sciences in many laboratories across India. One of the names for God, often referred to as ‘Prabhu’ in the theological tradition, literally means that which is ‘prior to being’. Jadavāda refers to the tendency of the Materialists to seek out the jada or root of existence, which they said was material than spiritual. Jatavidyā, or knowledge of the origin of all things, was what they extolled. This desire to seek out the genesis of things is as ancient as human life.

On the subject of the name ‘Materialism’, M.N. Roy had written in his 1947 treatise Science and Philosophy: “Call this philosophical generalisation of the various branches of scientific knowledge, Objectivism, Naturalism or Realism, or by another name you prefer to Materialism. That would make no essential difference.”

Elementary, my dear Watson

The earliest philosophers were all materialists of one sort or another. The Indian philosophic tradition held the existence of the four classical elements in correspondence to their Hellenic counterparts. The four fundamental elements, or Mahābhūtas, were considered to be agni (fire), apa (water), vāyu (wind) and prthvī (earth).

Then, how does reality come into picture though, with its variegated forms, from mere elements? To that the Lokāyatas responded that it is the ‘svabhāva’ or literally ‘self-becoming’. ‘Svabhāva-hētu-jāH bhāvā’ or “self-becoming causes becoming’’ as the Mahābhārata famously puts it. Many philosophical schools, disposed towards a belief in God, argued that the svabhāva was in fact an aspect of Brahman, the ultimate principle. The Lokāyatas, however, expressly rejected any belief in divine providence, refuting the existence of any world beyond the singular one in which we exist. As they would put it, “ihalōkāt parō nānyah svargō’sti narakō na vā | śivalōkādayō mūdhaih kalpyantē’nyaih pratārakaih” or “beyond this world there is nothing; neither heaven nor hell. That there is a world for Lord Śiva (or any other deity) is the imaginings of fools.”

Ancient philosophy also hotly debated the existence of an atman (self) as distinct from the deha (body). As the Bhagavad Gita famously said, “dēhinō’sminyathā dēhē kaumāram yauvanam jarā | tathā dēhāntaraprāptirdhīrastatra na muhyati” or “just as the embodied soul continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this.” To this the Lokāyatas retort, “sthūlō’ham tarunō vrddhō yuvētyādiviśēsanaih | viśistō dēha ēvātmā na tatō’nyō vilaksanah” or “I am fat, young, old, and so on, are all but adjectives. The self is the body itself, and nothing distinct from the body.” In this regard, the Lokāyatas anticipated Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous declaration: “The awakened say: body I am entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.” To this end, the Lokāyatas were aptly referred to as Dehātmavādis, or those who declare that the body and the self are one.

As with the conception of a self, consciousness is also, in Materialist ontology, fundamentally a physical phenomenon. This realisation was evident to the ancient Lokāyatas thinkers as well. Materialist doctrine rejected the dualism inherent in many ancient schools of thought; in its framework the mind is a state of physical composition — “the root elements appear as consciousness, just as mixing betel and areca nut produces the colour (red),” as the Lokāyatas would put it. In our flights of fancy, we may think of our mind as having wandered away to the moon but it is always housed within our brain, which is a physical construct, and when deprived long enough of oxygen or nutrition, the effects of the body on the mind are self-evident. “Matter is primeval, and the properties of matter are inexhaustible. Mind is an aspect of matter, being a function of the brain. Ideas, therefore, are not primary phenomena, but rather the reflection of material processes and changes upon human consciousness which is itself a material process,” the Indian polymath D.D. Kosambi had written in his 1957 collection Exasperating Essays, almost as if recapitulating with a modern accent the fundamental premises of those hoary materialists of millennia past.

For representative purposes

For representative purposes | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

What you see is what you get

The Indian philosophical tradition was born of the same principle by which all philosophical traditions in the world were developed. By the observation, and contemplation of the world around them. Through these observations, various schools of philosophy developed their own fundamental ideas of the world, and set forth their ontological, epistemological, and axiological notions.

All schools of philosophy had to provide proofs, or pramānas, for their conceptual framework. The most common pramāna was pratyaksa, or perception, or more literally that which is within sight. From the Vedantic doctrine, to the Sāmkhyists who followed Kapila, as well as Kanāda’s Vaiśesika school, adhere to pratyaksa as the principal proof. “Pratyaksagamyam ēvāsti nāstyadrstamadrstatah | adrstavādibhiśchāpi nādrstam drstamuchyatē “ or “perception allows access to only existence, non-existence is unseen for it cannot be seen,” as the Śankarācārya recounts in his Sarva Siddhanta Sangraha.

One of the cardinal principles of materialism is that perception is the foundation of all knowledge. The implication of this principle is the denial of innate ideas. Consciousness does not exist independently of outside things. As Ayn Rand, the founder of objectivism, had declared: “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.”

Another contention was that the Lokāyatas did not accede to any proofs beyond perception, particularly to inference, which was accepted by other rationalist schools of philosophy, including Sāmkhya, who believed in psycho-physical parallelism, and Vaiśesika, which was atomistic. However, that myth can also be laid to rest. The Sarva Mata Samgraha, often credited to Rāghvānanda, states: “This rice, because of its riceness, satisfies hunger as it did yesterday — such an inference as this is included there (in the Lokāyata-śāstra) due to its being rooted in perception.” In addition, this verse from the Shantiparva of Mahābhārata reflects memorably on the Lokāyata philosophy. “Pratyaksam hyētayōrmūlam krtāntaitihyayōrapi | pratyaksō hyāgamō’bhinnah krtāntō vā na kiñchana || yatra tatrānumānē’sti krtam bhāvayatē’pi vā” or “perception is the root of doctrine. Perception and doctrine are thus indistinct from each other. This or that inference comes into being as well (through perception).”

Thus, the Lokāyata philosophers did include logically drawn inference as a follow up to the proof of perception. However, if an author claimed that just as a pot needed a potter, the cosmos needed a creator, the Lokāyatas would readily reject it. Additionally, it would lead to the logical quandary of infinite regress, for the creator too would need a creator and so on into infinity.

What is the ethic of Materialism

The dictum of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ is often latched on to the pleasure-seeking ways of materialists. Best encapsulated by the Sanskrit dictum “yāvat jīvēt sukham jīvēt“ or “whilst living, live well”. Let us seek into the origins of this dictum.

“If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for human motives, what did I gain? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” says Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians (15:32). The notion that without the possibility of a life after death, fighting for hope and justice is of no value, leads to the notion that all righteous struggle must be divinely motivated. In India too, the materialists were scorned upon, on the basis of this very charge. For Mādhavācarya recounts in the Sarva Darshana Samagraha, “yāvat jīvēt sukham jīvēt | rnam krtvā ghrtam pibēt || bhasmibhūtasya dēhasya punarāgamanam kutam,’ or “while alive, live well; Enjoy your life as long as you have it. Take credit but consume ghee. For how can the body return once it is turned to ashes?”

But if life is only of this world, what of ethics? Should the dictum of society be ‘every man for himself, devil take the hindmost.’ That is a question each man or woman has to answer for themselves. Values are not a given but are created by human beings. How one acts influences both oneself and the world, whether for better or for worse. This is no dogmatic adherence to the doctrine of karma. If one pollutes the environment, or stands by in the face of global starvation, or looks on as a tyrant obliterates freedom, the materiality of reality will come crashing down on mankind like a ton of bricks. The elemental laws will play themselves out.

After all, in the Materialist schema of things, no divine agency exists to safeguard human society from terrors, either natural or of human provenance. “We do not believe in God, hell and heaven, punishment and rewards, that is in any Godly accounting of human life. Therefore, we must think of life and death on materialist lines… a man with beliefs and ideals like mine, could never think of dying uselessly. We want to get the maximum value for our lives. We want to serve humanity as much as possible,” the Indian revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh had written to his comrade Sukhdev during their imprisonment.

Therefore, while the idea of an afterlife did not bother their thoughts, the Lokāyatas did, however, recast the religious notions of hell and heaven in their own attitude of this-worldliness. “Narakānubhavō vairiśastravyādh yādyupadravah” or “The experience of hell is death by the enemy’s weapon, diseases, starvation and other such pains.” Even today, we witness the abjection caused by war and the despair of the hungry. Is this any worse than the metaphysical fires of hell which await to cause suffering to earthly evildoers?

The Lokāyatas did not conceive of heaven as a supernatural category either. Heaven is very real too. “Rāja bhōgān anubhavan mahā arhān pārthiva ātmaja | vihara tvam ayōdhyāyām yathā śakrah trivistapē” or “O, prince! Enjoy the royal luxuries worthy of you. Enjoy yourself in Ayodhya as Indra the King of Gods does in heaven!” declares Jābāli to Lord Rāmā. The Lokāyatas lived in a patriarchal age, and as such their conception of heaven reflects the male preoccupation with the female of the human species. “Svargānubhūtirmrstā stirdvyastavarsavadhūgamah | sūksmavastra sugandhasrak chandanādinisēvanam” or “The experience of heaven is a beautiful young bride. She sports scant clothes, perfumes, garlands, and other such beautifiers.” If these words seem to betoken the baser instincts in man, one would not be wrong. After all, pleasure itself was not seen as immoral by the materialists. But as Jābāli’s words shout out to remind us “na asti kāchidd hi kasyachit“ or “No one ‘belongs’ to another.” A philosophy that looks at a human being, with the soul as coterminous with the body, cannot but reject the notion of any permanent ‘belonging’. As such, no individual would, or should, be expected to love someone who would coerce or abuse them, nor be expected to hate someone who would care for them.

As the Roman materialist Lucretius had written in On the Nature of Things, both men and women seek the ‘communi voluptas’ or common pleasure. This reciprocity of desire was what one sought in the ‘other’, and what the other sought from oneself. Do these sound like the musings of crude, leering, self-centred philosophers, or, rather, as the materialists in India would have put it — those who wished to ‘consume the self’?

Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

The moral indignity felt by those good men and women of ancient past living at the end of the Vedic age to the repressive social atmosphere generated by the ritualistic excess of the clergy and vainglorious pomposity of the kings gave way to various responses in that hoary age. The Lokāyatas favoured a total rejection of the religious mode of thought.

But there were also the responses of the Buddhists, who sought to retain dharma; to continue the characteristics even if the conventions were to dissolve. Even those who did not break with the Vedic canon themselves saw a response to this age of excess. “Such self-conceited and stubborn people, full of pride and arrogant in their wealth, perform rituals in all but name but with great ostentation, and without regard to the rules,” says Bhagavad Gita 16:17 referring to those with demonic impulses.

If the Gita feels so strongly about this sort of ostentatious ritualism, so as to call it ‘demonic’, it is not surprising that the materialist Lokāyatas would have assuredly found it condemnable. The Lokāyatas, being committed to finding the root of all things, found the rank ritualism in the concluding periods of the Vedic era exploitative and useless, and as such offered the common masses of that era an easy outlet from such beliefs.

Recalling the impact of the Lokāyatas, Dr. Dakshinaranjan Shastri sums up in his 1928 A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism, “They set forth canons and theories with a boldness which is really amazing. Caste, rank in society or orthodoxy of views were out of the question in their society. They entertain the utmost freedom in thought, in religious and social matters. They were absolutely beyond the prejudices and conventions of the ordinary people.” Even Mādhavācarya in his introduction to the philosophy of the Lokāyatas states, “The efforts of Chárváka are indeed hard to be eradicated.”

Hard indeed, for it originates within the human mind. As part of the self-same material reality of which it is a part and parcel of, the mind responds to the stimuli it is exposed to, and in the light of that experience develops ideas. And as long as there is social, psychological and physical oppression of the individual, man’s mind will continue to produce ideas and instruments to break these shackles in its quest for true freedom.

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