The Sunday Observer, June 1993
The Charvaka lesson for modern-day radicals
All those who are trying their best to build a mass movement for democracy and social justice in Indian can not get very far in national politics, unless they learn from the failure of the materialistic Charvakas and turn for inspiration to the spiritually-minded Bhaktas who nevertheless touched the hearts and minds of the people and achieved deeper social change. A thorough objective assessment of our philosophic and cultural traditions is a must to move towards developing Indian social theory to deal with our reality.
To recapitulate briefly, the Charvaka, also known as Lokayata trend in Indian philosophy is very intriguing to say the least. It is an ancient trend which is mentioned with respect in old Pali Buddhist tests. Chanakya considered it as a necessary part of a princes’ education in philosophy in his Arthashastra (4th Century BC). After that, one rarely hears of it except in polemics of its opponents. To this day no authentic Charvaka text has been found which can tell us something about this intellectual tradition and its chief architects. The conception handed down by its opponents is that it was mainly an epicurean outlook that revelled in hedonism and vulgar materialism.
But reading the polemics of its opponents, one realises that it was a serious materialist philosophy. It denied the existence of the soul, the creator and the other world. If claimed that perception was the only source of knowledge and denied the place of inference, though some researchers have pointed out that Charvakas did not rule out all inference but objected to inferring the supernatural from natural phenomenon. It claimed that everything in this world including consciousness is a product of material elements. Today many people who feel oppressed by the domination of the highly theistic Vedanta at the cost of all other atheistic trends in Indian philosophy are pleased to see such a potentially scientific trend exist in ancient India.
The question that has bothered many is how this trend died out. Apparently the law givers like Manu passed strictures against this and other nastika trends, that is trends which denied the supreme position of Vedas. Thus it is said that extra-philosophic reasons were responsible for the disappearance of this materialist trend. I feel that besides the extra-philosophic sociological reasons, there were inherent weaknesses in Charvaka that led to its marginalisation and eventual demise.
Firstly the debate whether matter is a product of consciousness or the other way around, that is the debate between philosophic idealism and philosophic materialism, was a dry metaphysical debate for many. In the absence of any deep understanding of the laws of the material world in the then prevalent society this was inevitable.
The exploitation of this condition of human ignorance by priests is a different issue and aroused indignation among the common folk. At this juncture a trend which just asserts that everything is material could not find much support, though its critique of priests was accepted and became a part of the folklore. Thus while the priests, the caste system and oppressive social inequality needed questioning the questioning of a personal God along with it was not acceptable to the people. This led to Charvakas not being able to effect any radical change in the society at large.
Another trend that requires serious study is the Bhakti movement. In medieval India the Bhaktas appeared at places as individuals and at others as groups and movements as in the case of Veerashaivaas of 12th century Karnataka or Sikhs of 16th century northwest India. They proposed an intensely personal God and proclaimed that they could attain salvation from the world through devotion to this personal God. This may not sound very radical but they used the same platform of Bhakti to oppose the caste system, the priests, social inequality and oppression of women.
Though it was largely aimed at social reform at times they also took a political stand that it is just to oppose an oppressive state. This appealed to the sentiments of the common people. The Bhakti movement till today inspires many social reform movements. Bhakti movement also expressed itself in beautiful songs and poems. In fact the vachanas of Veerashaiva saints of 12th century constitute some of the best poetry in free verse in modern Kannada literature. Many an Indian language reached maturity and grandeur during the Bhakti movement. Millions of people till today sing the songs of Bhaktaas.
I think here in lies a serious lesson for the radicals of our day. If we do not understand the psyche of our people we cannot communicate with them and cannot truly build a mass movement for change even if we are articulating the grievances of the people with utmost personal honesty and integrity. So allegorically speaking, the question before all those wanting fundamental change in the socio-economic system in India towards greater democracy and social justice is whether they want to be Charvakas and get marginalised or they want to be Bhaktas who achieved far deeper change.
Of course this would require far more serious study of Indian philosophy, culture to gain insight into that elusive but real thing called Indianness. In other words it would require the development of Indian theory. If it sounds sacrilegious to some people to talk of Indian theory then let me remind them that while the Greeks called insight into the world around them as philosophy – love of wisdom, the Indians called it darshana – revelation. That is Indians conceived of nature unfolding itself and revealing itself. This rules out dogma. After all if nature reveals itself this way then there is no other choice. Now if the reality of Indian society demands its own social theory then all our prejudices cannot stop it.