Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
The Materialistic Thought In India
Avula Sambasiva Rao
Former Lokayuktha, A. P. State
Ex Vice-chancellor of Andhra University and
Retired Chief Justice of A.P. High Court
There are two misconceptions about the materialistic thought in India. Either they are mistakenly believed or deliberately propagated. The first one is that materialistic ideas were imported from the West into India, which laid only spiritualistic heritage. The second one is that materialism essentially means and leads to enjoyment of life and physical pleasures. Nothing can be farther from truth.
In fact, materialism is the basic concept for atheism. It is as ancient as Indian philosophy. However, unfortunately, the teachings of the earliest thinkers who had rebelled against the Vedas and the concept of Gods and creation were lost, presumably destroyed out of intolerance. Still some tangible evidence is available to indicate the existence of rebels and their ideas The existing schools of philosophy referred to such earlier thinkers as "heretics" and "Nihilists". Those who denied the authority of the Vedas were dubbed as "heretics". Others who took the view that nothing really existed except thought and that reality was only a void were described as "Nihilists". Though fragmentary the evidence available is, it could be safely and reasonably assumed that even in very early times, several thinkers challenged the authority of the Vedas.
As happened in ancient Greece, so in India also the human intellect tried to probe and understand nature. It gave birth to philosophy. Since the attempt was to understand and explain natural phenomena, philosophical thought was materialism. So philosophy in India started as materialism. It was called Swabhava vada (naturalism). The Vedas and early Upanishads refer to Swabhava vada and its concepts. The latter rejected the Gods of natural religion. and the dominance of the priests, which were the products of the Vedas: for them, perception could be the sole source of knowledge. It must be, however, clarified that the references to Swabhava vada and its doctrines censured the Vedas, and the early Upanishads were made only for the purpose of refuting them. It is ironical that while refutations are available, the doctrines which were refuted have disappeared. The cause for such disappearance can be easily deducted.
Many Darshanas attempts at explaining nature and its phenomena came into existence. Lokayata Darshana appears to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, philosophical endeavour. Its authorship was ascribed to the great sage Brihaspati. This "Lokayata", also called "Charvaka" system is considered as the concerted materialist philosophical thought in ancient India. Krishna Mishra, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, states the essence of Lokayata Darshana as follows: "In it only perceptual evidence is authority. The elements are earth, water, fire and air. Matter can think. There is no other world. Death is the end of all."
Coming to the two popular epics, Ramayana relates the episode of "Jabali" who questions faith and scriptural laws. Mahabharata ridicules atheists who deny the reality of soul. The Gita refers to heretics who deny the existence of God.
Indian materialism was a reaction to Nihilism which propounded the doctrine that nothing existed. In order to controvert the concept of Sunya (voidness), it was necessary to refer to and rely on the existence of the material world. Sage Kanaada's Vaisheshika Darshana is frankly materialistic in its conception and exposition, according to which atoms are the cause of the world. Kapila's Saankhya is materialistic in its exposition. It relies on the material world to establish the reality of existence.
Some of the Upanishads refer to matter. For instance, in Svetasvatara Upanishad, Agni (fire) is assumed as "the one unborn and from which everything springs".
Buddhism arose in the sixth century BC and was very popular in India for nearly a millenium. The realist school of Buddhism defines the existence of a thing as its causal efficiency. The existence of an abstract principle cannot be proved. The "Sunya Vada" or the Nihilist school of Buddhism of which Acharya Nagariuna was the predominant propounder is deduced from realism. The world is visualized as a self-originating process. Buddhist materialism was very much akin to Vaisheshik atomism. This positive materialistic content of Buddhism made it very popular in India for nearly a thousand years. That shows that materialist thought was very. much appreciated in India for several centuries.
Jainism, which was a contemporary movement along with Buddhism, rejects the doctrine of Brahman (God). It critically examined the conceptions of absoluteness, unity and eternity, and concluded that the doctrine of Brahman (God) was not acceptable. It, however, believed in soul, and contrary to orthodox belief, perceived it as a constantly Changing entity. The phenomenal world, in the view of Jainism, is permanent and real with a continuous change.
In this short paper only a brief account of the history of materialist thought in ancient India has been attempted. Later, as Jain and Buddhist movements declined in effectiveness, Sankarachaya came on the scene in the seventh century AD and advanced his "Advaita" school which was a powerful part of Vedanta movement. The middle age of history of India was a dark age period culturally as well. As it lost its political independence, it also became culturally backward. One of the consequences of this backwardness was the decline and in several parts eclipse of materialistic thought.
Yet the fact remains that materialism started the process of the beginning and growth of philosophy in India. It was rich in its variety or speculation and doctrine. It illuminated the Indian mind for nearly two thousand years. It was no less brilliant and no less scientific than the Greek (then the only Western) philosophy and materialism.
It is therefore essential to recognise that materialist thought is a valuable ancient Indian heritage.