The Carvakas -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Carvakas

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There were always those who denied the authority of the Vedas and the life of the soul after death. The earliest Indian materialists, like their Greek counterparts, regarded the elements (water, fire, air) or else time or space, as the primary substance of the universe. The earliest information of this materialist doctrine is to be found in the Vedas and in the Sanskrit epics. The name, Lokayata, means "the view held by the common people", "the system which has its base in the common, profane world", "the art of sophistry", and also "the philosophy that denies that there is any world other than this one". Tradition attributes the Lokayata doctrine to a sage called Brihaspati, who, along with another figure called Charvaka (or Charvak), were the most outstanding proponents of the materialist doctrine. Since nothing is known about them, many have thought them to be mythical personages. But then, very little is known about the early Greek philosophers either, yet we usually accept them as historical figures.

Carvaka rejected the notion of an afterworld, the authority of the sacred scriptures, the Vedas, and the immortality of the self. All such non-material objects as "afterlife", "destiny", or "soul" do not exist. Consciousness thus is viewed as a product of the material structure of the body and characterises the body itself -rather than a soul- and perishes with the body. The Lokayata doctrine conceived of the universe as being formed of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. In some texts, a fifth element (the ether) is added. These elements, in turn, were said to be composed of atoms, indivisible units which were conceived as immutable, indestructible and having existed for all time. The properties of any given object were determined by the atoms that comprised it. Likewise, consciousness and the senses were the result of a particular combination of atoms and the proportions in which they were combined. After the death of an organism, this combination disintegrated into elements that then combined with corresponding types of atoms in inanimate nature.

This early Indian materialism, for its incompleteness and naïve elements, contains the germs of a profound idea and represents a brilliant anticipation of modern atomic science, in the same way as the philosophy of Democritus, Leukippus and Epicurus in ancient Greece. Moreover, in some ways it anticipated the modern theory of evolution. Some of the texts describe how certain elements originate from others, with the earth as the primordial source of all development. In the field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) the doctrine of Lokayata is sensory, that is to say, it states that all human knowledge is derived from the senses (sense-perception). The sense-organs can only apprehend objects because they themselves are composed of the same elements. Like is known to like. Therefore it denied the possibility of any indirect knowledge. Inference and conclusion were regarded as false instruments of cognition. Of the recognised means of knowledge (pramana), the Carvaka recognised only direct perception (anubhava). "Seeing is the source of all evidence," Brihaspati is supposed to have said.

This shows the negative side of early Indian materialism, which tended towards a narrow sensualism. But this is a defect which it shares with all materialism before Marx. The same narrowness can be seen in, say, the English empirical materialism of Bacon, Locke and Hobbes who nevertheless represented a giant step forward in relation to the idealism and religious obscurantism of the Middle Ages and laid the base for the whole development of modern science. What is astonishing about this early materialism is not its limitations but its extraordinary insight and profundity.

In striking contrast to the mysticism and asceticism of the prevailing religion, the Indian materialists denied the existence of god, the soul and the idea of retribution ("Karma"). This school was alone in the whole gamut of Indian thought that rejected the transmigration of souls. instead, the predominant feature of Lokayata was a healthy and cheerful hedonism. Against the perspective of a never-ending cycle of life and death with the prospect of an eventual spiritual liberation, Carvaka ethics urged each individual to seek his or her pleasure here and now. "As long as you live, live life to the fullest," said Charvaka. "After death, the body is turned to ashes. There is no re-birth." These words, so full of love for humanity and life, are strikingly reminiscent of the life-enhancing philosophy of Epicurus.

With great courage, and also with a lively sense of humour, the Carvaka materialists mocked religious ceremonies, saying that they were invented by the Brahmans (the priestly caste) to ensure their livelihood. When the Brahmans defended animal sacrifices by claiming that the sacrificed beast goes straight to heaven, the members of the Carvaka asked why the Brahmans did not kill their aged parents to speed them on their way to heaven!

Of other early Indian materialists, Geetesh Sharma writes: "Kapil's 'sankhya-philosophy' is basically atheistic. Buddha and Mahavir did not believe in the concept of God yet Mahavir was more spiritualist. Buddha conceived of a religion that had the absence of a Godly concept and was rather based on humanistic principles, logically formulated, illustrating the basic human values of life. He wanted to bring about the emancipation of suffering humanity and therefore based the fundamental principles of his religion on those values, while still being an atheist.

"Madhavacharya, in his works, has elaborated on the theory of materialist philosophers who believed only in the present existing world. They did not believe in the theory of divine creation of the universe by a supernatural power. According to them, if there is a benevolent God supervising humanity, then why is it that a majority of the human population is in the throes of misery and suffering? If there is a just God above us, then why is there so much injustice on the earth, against the poor and deprived sections of society?

"Saint Brihaspati, pioneer of materialism, during the age of the Rig Veda, believed that fire worship, ritualism, practising the Vedas, smearing ashes all over the body, etc., were antics performed by those who considered themselves powerful and learned (...) Dhishan, the disciple of Brihaspati, considers the composers of the Vedic texts a group of confidence-tricksters. The Vedic thinker Permeshthin considered matter as the complete truth. According to him, it is the only source of ideal knowledge." (G. Sharma, Man, God and Religion, pp. 36-7.)

Unfortunately, little is known about the details of this philosophy. Owing to the fierce opposition of the Vedic establishment, not a single document has come down to us, and we are obliged to learn about the ideas of these heroes from the writings of their enemies, particularly the philosophical treatises and compendia (darsana) written by the Vedic opponents of Lokayata between the 9th and 16th centuries. Ultimately, the supporters of materialism were fighting a lost battle. The triumph of the Vedas and Upanishads was consolidated in the classical period. But even then there was always a strand of unorthodox thinking that challenged the Vedic authority upheld by the orthodox Mimamsa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika and Vedanta schools. Apart from the consistently atheist and materialist schools of Charkvakas and Lokayata, there were also non-orthodox movements such as the Buddhist and Jainist schools.

All anti-Vedic schools, and even some Vedic schools such as Samkhya and Mimamsa, were atheistic. The existence of god was a standard topic for rational debate. In the 11th century Udayana, in his Flower Offerings of Arguments, set forth five ways of proving the existence of god. The atheists put forward excellent rejoinders, like the following: "If the universe requires a maker because it undergoes change, even God needs a maker because he sometimes creates, sometimes destroys."

 
This Post has 1 Comment Add your own!
rk - 7 Eylül 2009 00:43

Hi.. Thanks for this informative article. I really liked it. I also came across this similar site with nice articles and videos on vedic prinicples - http://www.vichaar.tv

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