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Durable Link to this BlogFriday, August 27, 2004

Indian Materialism

Lokayata (Charvakism)

Materialism is a system of philosophy that considers only facts established by the nature of the matter. It believes in the physical world. It attaches prime importance to the individual and his comforts. It denies existence of god and supernaturalism. Even in very ancient India, along with the Vedas, developed the philosophy of Lokayata (loka= physical world)is almost similar. Later a sage tried to summarise existing scattered concepts of this materialistic school and his name was Charvak. Hence 'charvakism' stands for hedonistic view of life.

The lines ascribed to Charvak are "Live merrily as long as you can. Drink ghee and even a debtor be! When this body is reduced to ashes, where is rebirth?." Ghee was and still is expensive food in India. Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, as well, believe in rebirth. Charvak stands for denial of certain inherent beliefs like rebirth in Indian thought. But the above lines are too simplistic. Specific features of Lokayata thoughts as appearing in Pali and Sanskrit works, could be summarized as below:

  1. God is non-existant.
  2. There is no pre-existence or after-ife.
  3. There is no such thing as salvation (moksha); death itself is salvation.
  4. Happiness is the only goal of life.
  5. The wise should seek happiness with productive work.
  6. Pursuit of music, erotics, medicines etc., add comfort to life.
  7. Distinction of class and caste are humbug.
  8. The term "chastity for women" is rubbish (men and women are alike as far as chastity is concerned).

Thus Lokayata philosophy sounds quite rationalistic when we consider that its elements are as old as Vedas. Rigvedic gods were treated like human beings and bribed with good food and drinks, through sacrificial oblations. There were skeptics who asked, which gods should we propitiate with oblations? (kasmai devaya havisha vidhema?) implying thereby there are innumberable gods that they cause confusion. Recitation of mantras was compared to croaking of frogs in Manduka sukta. Traits of nonbelief were not only tolerated, but Lokayata as a branch of learning was admitted by Chanakya (Kautilya) and Patanjali and mentioned in not complimentary terms in Ramayana. At times Lokayatas were accused of jugglery of words (vitandavada), and not highly respected because they challenged the authority of Vedas and connected rituals. In fact Charvak though a sage is referred to as a demon.

By eighth century A.D., Lokayata having assimilated Charvakism developed into a philosophical system which could not be ignored. The profession of priesthood was denounced. People were advised to take up productive activities like agriculture, and other useful pursuits of the physical world. Stress was laid on justice in all the walks of life. Hence inequality in the case of gender and caste were opposed. But the ideology only remained in palm-books!

In middle ages, Lokayata was considered as an important subject of study. Nitivakyamritam of Somadeva Suri (tenth century), a handbook of polity, mentions Lokayata as a compulsory subject of study for would-be-kings. It helped the king to understand ways of the world better, and protect his subjects from enemies. Lokayata also finds rightful place in Madhavacharya's Sarvadarshanasangraha of 14th century, a compendium of Indian schools of philosophy.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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