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Indian Materialist Philosophy

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Pāyāsi did not directly contribute to the development of logic in India. Since his objection to the existence of the immortal soul, etc. could not be refuted by providing any proof other than comparison or inference by analogy that the author of the sutta of King/Governor Pāyāsi advanced a second instrument of cognition, inference by analogy. Thus the proto-materialists are indirectly responsible for the development of logic.’

Materialism in India had nothing to do with nihilism as such. They were thorough-going realists. However, it could be, as you say, an attack on the dualistic system that spoke of consciousness and matter as two different entities, one can exist without the other.’

Both the Buddhists and the Cārvākas (but not the earlier materialists) accept two instruments of cognition, namely, perception and inference (in the case of the latter, only such inference as is preceded by orgrounded in perception). The earlier materialists, the Pre-Cārvākas, were in two respects quite different. They accepted perception alone, not even inference based on perception, as the only instrument of cognition. Second, the Pre-Cārvākas spoke, like all others, of five elements, namely, earth, air, fire, water and ether (ākāśa, vyoma, often translated as space).’

It was the firm conviction in causality, and not just causality but emphasis on natural causes and the denial of everything called ‘supernatural’ that marks the materialists in India. ‘

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya is the author of 28 books and more than 175 research papers. Writes articles and reviews in both scholarly journals and other periodicals on literature (Indian and European), text-criticism (Bangla and Sanskrit), the history of ideas, the history of science in India, the history of modern India, and philosophy (specially the Carvaka/Lokayata system, materialism and rationalism). Here he discusses when materialism in India began, pre-Cārvāka materialist ideas in India, Jābāli, the development of logic in India, nihilism, Ajita Kesakambala, Bṛhaspati, the relationship of Cārvākasūtra to the Buddhist system, what the Cārvākas really asked the people to accept, the link between svabhava (own being) to the Chinese concept of Tao, and what left the Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition obscure and the Buddhist one so popular.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya: I would hesitate to call myself a philosopher. I have been a lifelong student of philosophy, particularly materialist philosophy as it originated and developed both in India and Greece. Even after reading most of the available secondary sources that refer to the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, I was dissatisfied with the findings. In the late 1980s I started exploring the primary sources and found that much more work was required to make the picture clear. I started publishing on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata at first in Bangla, my mother tongue, and then encouraged by some friends, both in India and abroad, I went for publishing in international journals. So without being a philosopher either by natural inclination or by training, I became a specialist in materialism in India. Of course my worldview, Marxism-Leninism, was also responsible for turning me to the study of materialist philosophy. That’s all that I have to say for the present. If some people like you are so gracious as to call me a philosopher, it is kind of you to do so.

3:AM: You’re an expert in materialism in Indian philosophical traditions. When did this materialist tradition begin in India and was it something that Kings invented as some have claimed?

RB: As I have elucidated in the very first chapter of my book, Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata (Florence 2009, London and New Delhi 2011), the origin of materialism (proto-materialism, to be more exact) was popular rather than royal. While Pāyāsi in the Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya) is described as a prince or a governor, Ajita Kesakambala (Keśakambalin) used to practice austerity to the utmost. The Buddhist sources reveal that the six main exponents of the Sixty-two Heresies have nothing to do with royalty. They used to travel from place to place with their disciples following them. ‘The Discourse on the Fruit of Being a Śramaṇa’ (Sāmañña-phala-sutta) in the Long Discourses suggests a popular origin of proto-materialism. Earlier scholars ignored this aspect and picked Pāyāsi alone. It may be mentioned that though there are similarities in the attitude of Pāyāsi and Ajita regarding After-life/Rebirth, Ajita’s statement is more elaborate and covers many other grounds that are not even touched by Pāyāsi.

3:AM: Are there pre-Cārvāka materialist ideas in India?

RB: The answer is yes. I have dealt with it in detail in my paper entitled ‘Development of Materialism in India: the Pre-Cārvākas and the Cārvākas’, Esercizi Filosofici 8, 2013, pp. 1-12. (2013a). I have cited enough evidence to prove that in south India in the early Common Era, there were at least two schools of materialism: bhūtavāda (elementalism) and Lokāyata. More recently I have come across another old Tamil epic, Nīlakesi, which speaks of bhūtavāda alone. Thus the Buddhists and the Jains in south India considered materialism even before the advent of the Cārvākas (in or around the eighth century ce) as their opponents, not allies.

3:AM: You call Jābāli a proto-materialist who speaks of a philosophy akin to the teachings of Ajita Kesakambala, a senior contemporary of the Buddha. What were the reasons they denied the existence of any other-world and the futility of performing rites for ancestors – were they deliberately attacking traditional beliefs and if so, who were their targets?

RB: Apparently the reason for which the proto-materialists such as Jābāli denied the Other World was their insistence on ocular proof of heaven or hell. As these proto-materialists believed in one instrument of cognition only, namely perception, they stood firmly on this ground and challenged the notion of the Other World as well as the validity of performing post-mortem rites for departed ancestors. They are proto-materialists, not materialist proper, because they had only their ontology, no clear-cut epistemology, nor any explicitly stated metaphysics and ethics. But being hard-boiled realists they came into conflict with traditional beliefs fostered by Brahmanism. The authors of religious law-books that recommended such senseless rites as well as the priests who presided over them were evidently their main target.

3:AM: You have written about the Duologue of King/Governor Pāyāsi’ – a proto-materialist current at the time of the Buddha – as being significant in the development of logic. How did this help the development of logic – and if it’s proto-materialist how can it assert the existence of the other-world?

RB: No, Pāyāsi did not directly contribute to the development of logic in India. Since his objection to the existence of the immortal soul, etc. could not be refuted by providing any proof other than comparison or inference by analogy that the author of the sutta of King/Governor Pāyāsi advanced a second instrument of cognition, inference by analogy. Thus the proto-materialists are indirectly responsible for the development of logic. Yama in the Kaha Upaniad, too, did not prove the existence of the Other World by any other proof but verbal testimony, śabda (lit. word), he being an āpta, knowledgeable person (who but the ruler of the underworld could be better suited to speak of hell?) . Thus these two instruments of cognition, namely, comparison or inference by analogy and word (verbal testimony) were proposed and made use of in order to counter the materialists.

Neither Pāyāsi nor any other proto-materialist ever asserted the existence of the Other World; on the other hand, they denied it vehemently. It was the immaterialists who resorted to comparison and verbal testimony in their attenpt to prove the existence of the Other World.

3:AM: Was materialism linked to nihilism, eliminating the values that were thought only possible in a dualistic system, and was it an attack on dualistic systems of the time?

RB: Materialism in India had nothing to do with nihilism as such. They were thorough-going realists. However, it could be, as you say, an attack on the dualistic system that spoke of consciousness and matter as two different entities, one can exist without the other. Thus the disembodied and incorporeal soul was as much believable as a lifeless body devoid of consciousness.

3:AM: Who is Ajita Kesakambala and to ask your question: nihilist or materialist?

RB: Ajita Kesakambala, as you know, was a senior contemporary of the Buddha and one of the chief exponents of the Sixty-two heresies enumerated in the Long Discourses. He used to wear a hair-blanket in all seasons. This marks him as one practising austerity and self-deprivation. Nevertheless, in the Jain sources he and his followers are accused of being hedonists!

3:AM: Who is Bṛhaspati – is he the founder of materialism in India? Was it from him that the Cārvāka philosophy emerged and were the targets of his thinking the Buddhists and the Jains?

RB: I have shown in a long article Br.haspati and the Ba_rhaspatyas, Annali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie orientale, Vol.54 – Giugno (June) 2018, pp.147-176, Bṛhaspati is a mythical figure, and actually had nothing to do with materialism or any other philosophical system. He is said to be the preceptor of the gods and in this capacity, in some of the Purāṇas, he is made to be responsible for misleading the demons so that they would deviate from the Vedic way. But the tradition is not uniform. In some other Purāṇas, instead of Bṛhaspati, an allegorical figure illusion-cum-delusion (Māyāmoha) appears to be responsible for this. In any case, although Bṛhaspati is often referred to as Suraguru (preceptor of the gods) and the author of the Lokāyata system, there is nothing to show his semi-divine nature.

He is perfectly human in Maṇimēkalai, the Old Tamil epic, on a par with the other founders of the philosophical systems, such as Kaṇāda, Kapila, Jaimini, and others. The same is true of the Padmapurāṇa, Uttara-Khaṇḍa. In Kṛṣṇamiśra’s allegorical play The Moonrise of Intellect (Prabodha-candrodaya) instead of being the preceptor of the gods, he is merely a follower of the Great Delusion (Mahāmoha). Bṛhaspati is said to have been the founder of the materialist system, but this attribution does not seem to have any foundation at all. This Bṛhaspati cannot be the preceptor of the gods, but a mere human. In the Purāṇic tradition (especially in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, 3.18 there is no Bṛhaspati and the thrust of the attack is against the Buddhists and the Jains, not to the materialists, although right from H.H. Wilson and Muir, many scholars, if not all, have taken this chapter to contain the materialist doctrine. I have already pointed out this gruesome error in an article, ‘Verses Attributed to Bṛhaspati in the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha Chap. I: A Critical Appraisal’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 41:6, December 2013, pp.615-30.

3:AM: What does Cārvāka philosophy claim? Is it a thorough going materialistic philosophy that denies any idea of an other-world of supernatural entities? And is it the same as the Lokāyata philosophical tradition?

RB: Yes, the Cārvāka claims to be a thoroughgoing materialist system that arose in India independent of any influence from outside in or around the eight century ce. Lokāyata was an earlier system, most probably a proto-materialist system that arose both in north and south India several centuries before, as attested by the Kāmasūtra by Vātsyāyana, and the Kādambarī by Bāṇabhaṭṭa. But sometime before the eighth century the Cārvāka and Lokāyata came to be known as synonymous, along with Nāstika and Bārhaspatya It is testified by Kamalaśīla in his commentary on Śāntarakṣita’s Collection of Principles (Tattvasaṃgraha). Hemacandra, the Jain savant, in his Sanskrit lexicon has also mentioned these four names.

3:AM: How close is the Cārvākasūtra to the Buddhist system, in particular regarding perception and inference? Can you sketch out what they claim so we can see the salient overlaps and discontinuities?

RB: Both the Buddhists and the Cārvākas (but not the earlier materialists) accept two instruments of cognition, namely, perception and inference (in the case of the latter, only such inference as is preceded by orgrounded in perception). The earlier materialists, the Pre-Cārvākas, were in two respects quite different. They accepted perception alone, not even inference based on perception, as the only instrument of cognition. Second, the Pre-Cārvākas spoke, like all others, of five elements, namely, earth, air, fire, water and ether (ākāśa, vyoma, often translated as space). The Cārvākas, on the other hand, spoke of only four, ether excluded, presumably because it was not amenable to sense-perception. The Buddhists, however, were five-elementalists. Herein lies a major distinction between the Buddhists and the Cārvākas. Nevertheless, the similarity between the Buddhist and the Cārvāka views regarding the instruments of cognition should not be overstressed. There was no love lost between the two, at least from the eighth century ce. Both were at loggerheads. Śāntarakṣita in his Collection of Principles offers the objections raised by the Yogācāra Buddhists and the Cārvākas rebutting them. As with the Buddhists, so with the Jains. Only when there was the question of the inerrancy of the Veda, could they unite.

3:AM: Only fragments of the Cārvākasūtra remain and so there’s a lot of reliance on commentaries. What are we to make of the fact that some commentaries, such as Udbhaṭa, read the text as a dualist system rather than a materialistic monism? Is it possible to understand what the   Cārvākasūtra actually meant given the lack of unity in the commentaries?

RB: Of all the commentators so far known to us, Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa alone takes such a ‘revisionist’ stand. Other commentators apparently followed the Cārvākasūtra itself as redacted most probably by Purandara and remained staunchly monistic. So we can safely ignore Udbhaṭa’s somewhat strange reinterpretations of the aphorisms, particularly on that of matter and consciousness. Udbhaṭa exhibits his propensity towards dualism which is contradicted by the aphorism, ‘Earth, water, fire and air are the principles, nothing else’(I.2). The dissident voice of Udbhaṭa should not mislead us, given the fact that he often misinterprets words in the aphorism itself. I have discussed all this in my papers, ’Commentators on the Cārvākasūtra: A Critical Survey’, Journal of Indian Philosophy (August 2010a), 38: 4. ‘What the Carvakas Originally Meant: More on the Commentators of the Cārvākasūtra’, Journal of Indian Philosophy (December 2010b), 38:6 and ‘Lokāyata Materialism: Classification of Source Material’, in Subuddhi Charan Goswami (ed.). Lokāyata Philosophy: A Fresh Appraisal. Kolkata: The Asiatic Society, 2010. The Cārvāva/Lokāyata was definitely monist, not dualist.

3:AM: Did the Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition ask people to live differently from its rivals. For example, where ‘own being’ is linked with chance then a passive life in entailed, some might say, whereas if ‘own being’ is linked to causality then a more active life is entailed. Were there big differences in attitudes to self, life and agency emerging from the rival philosophical systems? And was causality linked to science or could both causality and chance be liked to science in fact?

RB: There is no way to ascertain what the Cārvākas really asked the people to accept. Apparently they were ostracized in their own society and could exist by concealing their views from the public. All their works were lost by the twelfth century, whether or not their opponents destroyed them. We hear of no name of any Cārvāka after Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa (c. ninth century). But one can infer from the polemical works against them that they were always considered potential enemies, if not present in actual life. It is known from the play,The Moonrise of Intellect by Kṛṣṇamiśra and the Life of Naiṣadha (Naiṣadhacarita) by Śrīharṣa that the Cārvākas did not believe in the caste system and the four approved stages (āśramas) of life. These two did not endear them to the powers that be. As to the adherents of materialism, there is no evidence of their being numerous.

Nevertheless, what Richard Garbe said in this connection may be recalled, ‘[T]here is no doubt that those doctrines had even afterwards as they have to-day, numerous secret followers’ (The Philosophy of Ancient India. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1899 (second ed.), p.25. Italics mine.). All that can be asserted is that they were not fatalists and having emphasized the role of observation and experiment, they must have contributed to the formation of science and the scientific temper. It was the firm conviction in causality, and not just causality but emphasis on natural causes and the denial of everything called ‘supernatural’ that marks the materialists in India. The philosophy behind the texts of medical science is definitely materialistic, albeit of the Pre-Cārvāka kind.

3:AM: Was the sinologist Joseph Needham right to link this notion of  svabhava (own being) to the Chinese concept of Tao and object to it being translated as ‘law of nature’ on the grounds that only a monotheistic culture could come up with ‘laws of nature’?

RB: Whatever be the reason, the similarity between Own Being-as-Causality and Tao is unmistakable. However, there may be reasons other than monotheism and polytheism that led to the formulation of the idea of Own Being. However, Needham, I think, was right to oppose the translation for Svabhāva as ‘laws of nature’ which Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya preferred. I have discussed this issue in my article, ‘What is Meant by Svabhava: Chattopadhyaya and Needham’, Psyche and Society, Vo.10 No.2, December 2012, pp.18-20.

3:AM: Buddhism seems to attract materialists these days who are looking for a religion without supernaturalism and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition is rarely mentioned. Yet Buddhism does seem to be dualistic. As a take home, can you say what has happened to leave the Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition obscure and the Buddhist one so popular to contemporaries?

RB: Buddhism after all is a religion, although it has no God or gods, no sacred book like the Veda to be accepted as an inerrant guide, no caste system and yet it does not deny the Other World and rebirth. On the contrary, the Cārvāka/Lokāyata is uncompromisingly anti-religion and denier of the Other World and rebirth. Unless and until one is firmly convinced as an uncompromising materialist, the Cārvāka/Lokāyata cannot appeal to him or her.

Secondly, Buddhism offers a hope of liberation, nirvāa, getting out of the cycle of birth and rebirth, with suffering accompanying every birth. On the other hand, materialism has nothing to offer but the naked truth that consciousness dies as soon as the body is dead; therefore, there is no question of either liberation or rebirth. The hope for living forever in heaven is not there. Buddhism in this respect offers a middle way between traditional Hinduism and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata.

Scholars like Rahula Sankrityayana and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya have emphasized the role of the Buddha as the originator of the doctrine of Discontinuous Continuity or the Concatenation of Cause and Effect, Paṭicca Samuppāda (pratītya samutpāda in Sanskrit) which foreshadows the doctrine of causality. The concept of the Four Noble Truths, too, contains the rudiments of dialectics, as I have pointed out in my article, ‘Engels, Dialectics and Buddhism’ (Frontier Weekly, Autumn No., Vol. 46, Nos. 13-16, October 6 – November 2, 2013, pp. 35-38). Even without being a Buddhist or a materialist, one can appreciate the contributions of the Buddha to philosophy (although he did not willingly indulge in philosophical speculations).

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

RB: Although I don’t agree with all their conclusions, one might profitably consult 1) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s Lokāyata, 2) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India,

3) Pradip P. Gokhale’s Lokāyata/Cārvāka, and 4) D. R. Shastri’s Materialism, Sensualism and Hedonism in Cārvāka Philosophy.

I would also recommend the articles on ‘Materialism, the Indian school of’ and ‘Lokāyata’ by Eli Franco and Karin Preisendanz in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

and Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism respectively. Finally there are three recent papers by Krishna Del Toso (yet to be collected in a book):

a) ‘The Stanzas on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata in the Skhalitapramathanayuktihetusiddhi’, Journal of Indian Philosophy 38 (2010): 543–552.

b) ‘Is Cognition an Attribute of the Self or It Rather Belongs to the Body? Some Dialectical Considerations on Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa’s Position against Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika’, http://www.scirp.org/Journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=8726] Open Journal of Philosophy 1.2 (2011a): 48–56.

c) ‘The Wolf’s Footprints: Indian Materialism in Perspective: An Annotated Conversation with Ramkrishna Bhattacharya’, Annali Istituto Orientale Napoli 71 (2011b): 183–204.

Johannes Bronkhorst, ‘Who were the Cārvākas?’  Rev. Guillermode Ockham, 14(1), June 2016.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 17th, 2018.