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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Gods Came Afterwards…

Contrary to what many believe, India in Vedic times had a robust tradition of philosophic speculation, scepticism and rejection of dominant philosophies in favour of more liberal ,inclusive thought ;it is the birthplace of the world's first materialist philosophical system. It was only after the medieval ages that questioning was stifled by ritualism and canonical ideas ...
One of the most abiding perceptions about India is that it is a land of uncritical beliefs steeped in monolithic ancient wisdom cemented by unchanging social practices. Westerners, mainly British colonialists, have largely contributed to this image though some nationalists added to it, seizing upon a fabled past to fight the intruders. Modern-day revivalists, too, have used this image for theocratic ambitions.
But the truth - confirmed by historical evidence - is that since the time of the Vedas there has been a strong tradition of philosophic speculation, scepticism and even rejection of dominant philosophies in favour of heterodox thought. India has for long been the philosophical equivalent of a bazaar - with its noise and chaos, heated arguments and hair-splitting - of shifting moods and tempers. And among them was the first-ever materialist philosophical system that the world has known.
To trace the history of Indian materialism, we have to go back to the pastoral Vedic society and its thought processes. Rig Veda, the oldest existing canonical work on earth and the mainstay of Hindu philosophy, contains an astonishing brand of free speculation:
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen - perhaps it has
formed itself, or perhaps it did not
The one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven,
Only he knows - or perhaps he does not know.
That's from the celebrated 'Creation Hymn' (Nasadiya Sukta) in the tenth chapter of the Rig Veda. The sages are speculating about the most fundamental question of philosophy - how did this universe originate? They are even willing to say that the gods came afterwards and that even the all-pervading spirit may or may not know the answer. And, remember, this is roughly 1400 BCE.
The Vedas also refer to a trend of thinking called the svabhava-vada, which is naturalism. This philosophy tries to understand reality by natural causes, refusing to accept supernatural intervention in what exists.
Perhaps as a result of the strong philosophical tradition thus set up, where people freely and boldly speculate on fundamental questions of existence, consciousness, creation and human practice, there evolved different streams of thought coalescing into distinct schools of philosophy. Between them, they covered all the variations of deductions that humans can make in trying to understand reality.
There were six astika (orthodox) schools upholding the Vedas. Advaita was committed to the primacy of a single supreme being, and concluded that matter is mere expression of it. The Dvaita school tried to argue that both matter and spirit were real and coexisted. But Vaisheshika, a philosophical school said to have been formulated by the rishi Kanaada, held that matter was made up of atoms. Saankhya, another school which was founded by the rishi Kapila, too adopted a materialistic method of exposition, although it had a dualistic philosophy, relying on purusha (self) and prakriti (nature) as the two elements of reality.

The Bhagwad Gita, which is a distillate of the dominant mode of Hindu philosophy, too deals with the question of matter-consciousness duality in its famous chapter 13,positing that while the Brahman (the supreme spirit) lies beyond the material world and senses, it pervades nature and body, and thus associates with it.
So there were mainstream schools of thought that had materialistic trappings - they even denied the existence of a personified god. However, all of them ultimately accepted the primacy of the Vedas, and hence of the principle of rebirth, and the law of karma. By doing so, they actually no longer remained truly materialistic or atheistic.
But there was one school of philosophy, said to have been founded by the rishi Brihaspati, which was avowedly materialistic and hence atheistic. It came to be known as the Charvaka school (from a sage of that name in ca.600 BCE) or the Lokayata school (in Sanskrit,l ok is people and ayat is rules or precepts).
That this school of thought remained widely popular over nearly two millennia can be gauged from the fact that most of the important philosophical treatises and commentaries are at pains to refute it. There is no surviving work of the Lokayatikas, but its shadow can be seen everywhere. Kautilya and Patanjali refer to it; Sankaracharya devotes considerable space to its refutation, and followers of Lokayata make an appearance in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even Abul Fazl's Ain-e-Akbari, written in 1578,and Mobad's Dabistan, written in 1653,mentions the materialists.
Charvaka composed the Brihaspati-Sutra, spelling out the materialistic philosophy as derived from its founder Brihaspati. Other major Lokayatikas, possibly contemporaries of Buddha, were Ajita Kesakambli and Payasi. Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya, the renowned historian of philosophy, says that the Lokayatikas believed in the exclusive reality of the world we live in.
Thus: There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world.
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc, produce any real effect.
Clearly, they were opposed to the four varnas - the foundation of the caste system - and they rejected rebirth and afterlife. So they broke away from the dominant Vedic tradition of the law of karma.

It is often thought that the materialism espoused by the Lokayatikas implied some kind of hedonism - the dedication to enjoyment of sensual pleasures, like the Greek Epicureans. Chattopadhyaya has shown that this perception is inconsistent with all their known beliefs. It is more likely that their opponents propagated this image in polemics against them.
Buddhism and Jainism, along with Lokayata, are all categorised as the nastika (heterodox) schools of philosophy, because they reject the concept of a personal creator-god. The philosophy of Buddhism and Jainism is often described as 'spiritual atheism', because while rejecting the creator god, they uphold an all-encompassing spirit that pervades the universe. But it is only Lokayata that takes a further step to espouse complete materialism, making matter the primary and only source of creation and existence.
By medieval times, the great Indian tradition of philosophical speculation had been ground down and stifled by ritualism and canonical thought. Amongst the common people, the ideas of the materialists lived on, but incoherently. It was only when sections of the Indian population were exposed to Western ideas in the 19th century that a revival of atheism and materialism took place. Such individuals came from varied backgrounds - from Bhagat Singh, who embraced Marxist ideas and wrote the famous pamphlet Why I am an Atheist to Jawaharlal Nehru, E V Ramasami Naicker and Nobel laureate Subramaniam Chandrashekhar, the astrophysicist.


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