Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Charvakas and Bhakti movement

The Sunday Observer, June 1993
The Charvaka lesson for modern-day radicals

Shivanand Kanavi

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.


The Observer of Business and Politics, May 1993
The man who showed the rainbow
Debiprasad Chattopadhyay wrote profusely on materialist and atheistic trends in Indian philosophy and their link with the history of science in India.
Shivanand Kanavi
PROFESSOR Debiprasad Chattopadhyay who passed away on May 8, 1993 at the age of 75, belonged to a generation of Marxist scholars like D D Kosambi who tried to apply the Marxist method to study Indian history, philosophy and culture. This was both his strength and weakness.

Professor Chattopadhyay was a prolific writer. Besides a large number of research papers in academic journals he also wrote a number of monographs for the layman. His style though repetitive at times, was very lucid to the reader. The enthusiasm of a new discovery by the author was clearly visible. His Lokayata: a study of ancient Indian materialism blended scholarly research into this ancient materialist trend in Indian philosophy with readability. Particularly significant were his insights into tantra as having originated in magical rituals with naive materialist intent in primitive agricultural society.

His monumental work History of Science and technology in ancient India Vol I and II were again scholarly and could be read with profit if the reader had a little patience. His discovery of the scientific method in the approach of the ancient sage Uddalaka Aruni mentioned in the Chhandogya Upanishad is conveyed with great enthusiasm and thoroughness. He also argued that Uddalaka’s approach to scientific method was much more mature than the ancient Greeks like Anaxagoras (510 BCE-428 BCE) and who should hence be considered as the father of modern scientific method. He battled continuously against Euro-centric prejudices of many a science historian. He also traced the later development of Uddalaka’s method in the atomists of Nyaya-Vaiseshika and still later in the great Ayurvedic traditions of Charaka and Sushruta.

Indian Atheism, What is living and what is dead in Indian philosophy, In defence of materialism in ancient India were the more popular expositions of his views on Indian philosophy. In these books he battled against the dominant view among orientalists and Indologists from Max Mueller to Radhakrishnan that Indian philosophy is basically spiritualism and Vedanta is the last word. He tried to show the rainbow in Indian philosophy and in fact made the startling assertion that not only Lokayata but Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, Samkhya are also atheistic besides Buddhism and Jainism. Though this looked as a swing from the traditional orientalist view to the other extreme, he argued his thesis with great care and conviction as he realised that his views will not be easily accepted. The main weakness in his thesis was not that these trends in Indian philosophy were atheistic, at any rate in their origin, but the explanation for the fact that they either vanished later or changed their form to some sort of theism. Professor Chattopadhyay’s argument that the social strictures passed by law givers like Manu etc led to the disappearance of Lokayata is highly unsatisfactory. It fails to look at the weaknesses in the mechanical materialism of Lokayata itself which become more obvious when we see the success of Bhakti much later in gaining widespread acceptability while fighting against social injustice, casteism and absolutist dogmatic attitude towards scriptures. It is clear that Bhaktas had a far more dialectical outlook towards the times they lived in as opposed to the mechanical materialism of Lokayata.

Though Chattopadhyay was a soldier for atheism he did not fail to recognise the role religion played in what V Gordon Childe called the ‘first urban revolution’ – the rise of colonies of artisans and priests – the cities and the use of religious superstition to appropriate surplus from peasants so that technology can grow! His book, Religion and Society that came out of a series of endowment lectures he gave in Calcutta University has argued this case eloquently. He along with D D Kosambi tried to do to ancient Indian history and philosophy what Gordon Childe and Needham and George Thomson had tried to do to the ancient Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Chinese and Greek Societies.

His interpretation was refreshing in an atmosphere where religiosity, reverence and subjectivism were more dominant than objectivity. More so, when students of ancient Indian history face the uphill task of reconstructing it with hardly any reliable sources. His bold questioning of certain theses of Orientalism will always find him a place in Indian intellectual milieu. The weakness in his approach as in most other Indian Marxists is the mechanical approach without looking at Indian Darshanas holistically, a task which sadly is still unfinished.

At the time of his death he was editing a eight volume series called Global Philosophy for Everyman. As usual his style in this series was polemical and accessible to the general public. He was deeply disturbed at the growth of communalism and obscurantism in Indian polity. All those interested in Indian Philosophy would dearly miss him. 

Social Darwinism-Comment

The Observer of Business and Politics, 10 September 1992

Why Social Darwinism is wrong

Shivanand Kanavi

Let the fittest survive. This is the slogan that is fashionable nowadays and is being applied indiscriminately. But leave alone the moral questions, applying a theory that explains the development and evolution of the animal kingdom, viz the theory of natural selection or Darwinism, to social development is not even based on any deep understanding of social dynamics or biological evolution itself.

Modern view of evolution is that differences in organisms come about through chance genetic mutations but only those that have the requisite characteristics to survive in the prevalent environment thrive while others become extinct. This process carried out through millions of years has produced various species that can thrive in the earth’s biosphere. Their environment not only consists of the elements of nature but also other species. The struggle is mainly between the species and the elements of nature and then come the factors of inter-species struggle, the predator-prey balance etc.

With the evolution of homo sapiens we have a species which has been described variously as thinking, conscious, etc, but perhaps the most distinct feature of homo sapiens is the tool-making ability. Biologists and anthropologists have emphasised the development of a moveable thumb that facilitated man in holding a tool as a factor as important in human evolution as the development of his brain itself. This tool-making character has made a world of a difference between man and the other species. While all other species had to adapt themselves to the natural environment, man fashioned nature to satisfy his needs.

Further development of man has depended on his energy being less and less spent on satisfying his basic needs. With better technology yielding higher productivity, he could spend more and more energy on other intellectual pursuits. Now we have the danger of man’s effort to extract more and more from nature, without taking long term effects into account, leading to ecological destruction and eventually to a threat to man himself. Thus, the fact of man affecting his natural environment and not just natural environment affecting man, is the first distinctive feature that we have to take into account.

While increasing the productivity in extracting food and other needs from nature, mankind for the first time faced the problems associated with surplus. Division of labour was imperative for further growth of surplus and thus the distribution of existing surplus became an important social question. As Gordon Childe has pointed out through his archaeological researches, religion and magic played an important role in organising the division of labour between food producers, artisans and the priests who acted as overseers and organisers of society, leading to the first urban revolution. The development of the state – a separate body with an armed apparatus – institutionalised the division of labour. The distribution of surplus came next.

When these conditions led to the overall development of society the majority of its components accepted it, but when the order did not suit large sections of society the more powerful among the discontented mobilised the rest of the discontented to change the prevailing order. In the ancient society man was faced with a combination of natural and social causes which determined his condition, over which he had no control nor did he have a clue about the dynamics of these natural and social causes. The concept of fate – another word for inexplicable reasons for your condition – was strengthened. With the development of man’s knowledge of both nature and society an anthropocentric view exemplified by the French encyclopaedists emerged.

The dialectic between fate & anthropocentrism; necessity & freedom has been one of the fundamental philosophical problems explored by the Bhagvad Gita, ancient Greeks, the French encyclopaedists and the Marxists. Anyhow, the underlying assumption in today’s society is that man consciously tries to change the social condition of his being. This is the second important feature that characterises human development.

Thus, we are dealing here with a species whose evolution towards excellence is not governed by ability to adapt himself passively to the environment depending on genetic accidents as in the case of other species. Social Darwinism thus can not provide a clue to human development. In today’s world, it is cruel and ill-informed indictment of the poor and the underprivileged to say that their condition is bad because that is what they are fit to be.

If the state does not intervene in favour of the aspirations and needs of the majority of people, and concerns itself only with the interests of the rich and the powerful then it loses its raison d’etre. It is natural that sooner or later the discontented will try to overthrow the status quo and the state that upholds it.

Origin of the Universe-Ancient Indian theories

Sunday Observer, 26 April, 1992

Within the terrible womb of Kali

Shivanand Kanavi

Stephen Hawking mentions in his A Brief History of Time that in 1981 the Catholic Church organised a seminar on cosmology. At the end of the conference the participants of the seminar were granted an audience with the Pope, who told them that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but they should not enquire into the Big Bang itself, because that was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God!

What happened at the Big Bang or before it? Physicists say these questions cannot be answered in the present model. The Big Bang represents a critical point in the theory. At that point certain quantities become infinite, certain others become zero, or in mathematical terms the Big Bang represents a singularity in theory. For the same reason we cannot extrapolate the model backwards to the period before Big Bang. Though the Big bang model satisfactorily explains the observed data so far, scientists do not like infinities appearing in theory.

Thus attempts are on to avoid the Big Bang singularity. Hawking himself has worked on one such attempt called the ‘no boundary model’, but in this model we have to give up our present concept of time. Here time has to be treated as any other space dimension or in mathematical terms we have “Euclidean space-time”.

But the predictive capacity of various cosmological models is extremely limited. Even basic data regarding distances of various galaxies from ours, the rate of expansion of the universe and the total matter in the universe is still not available. Till more observational data is available, maybe, from the Hubble Space Telescope or the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, we have not much to choose from one model or the other, which predict the expansion of the universe and the leftover primordial Microwave Background Radiation.

How did ancient Indian philosophers view the creation of the universe? While the various theistic cosmogonies of the Puranas and other Vedic literature are know, what are not so well known are the equally ancient atheist explanations of the origin of the universe.

In his book Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye says that he once mentioned to Stephen Hawking the Kali myth in Hinduism – “the terrible one of many names whose stomach is a void and so can never be filled, whose womb is giving birth forever to all things”. He then tried to draw a connection between Kali and black holes. Hawking snorted : “It’s fashionable rubbish. People go over board on Eastern mysticism simply because it is something different that they have not met before. But as a natural description of reality, it fails abysmally to produce results... If you look through Eastern mysticism, you can find things that look suggestive of modern physics or cosmology. I don’t think they have any significance”.

If one tries to find scientific theories in ancient philosophy or myths and legends, then one would be disappointed unless one looks for space travel, nuclear weapons etc in the Ramayana, Mahabharat as some try desi versions of an Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods) type of mumbo jumbo.

But ancient Indian philosophy is not homogenous in content. There are theistic, super-theistic and atheistic trends in it. Moreover proto-scientific elements can be found in the naturalist and observational approach of some of them towards their hypotheses. This is far more important than the hypotheses themselves. The atheistic explanations later became part of definite schools of philosophy to such an extent, that different schools having divergent world views and some times having their own quaint metaphysics like Samkhya, Lokayata, Purva-Mimamsa, Buddhism, Jainism and even early Nyaya-Vaiseshika, that is, almost all schools of Indian philosophy except Vedanta and later Nyaya-Vaiseshika shared one common element – their enthusiasm for nirisvaravada or atheism !

As Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has pointed out, one of the earliest references to atheistic cosmology is in a strongly theistic Svetasvatara Upanishad placed roughly before the sixth century BC. In it, the author mentions seven atheistic alternatives for the “fist cause”: 1) kala (time), 2) svabhava (inherent nature), 3) niyati (fate), 4) ydrachha (accident), 5) bhutta (elements of matter), 6) prakruti (female principle, primeval matter), 7) purusa (male principle)

The first alternative – that time is the first cause of the universe – seems to have been associated with some ancient astronomers, but in subsequent developments this did not find any serious adherents. Similarly the alternatives of fate, male principle and accidentalism also did not have much of a future.

However the explanations of svabhava, bhuta and prakruti are most interesting both in their scientific orientation and deep influence on Samkhya, Lokayata, early-Nyaya-Vaiseshika and even Buddhism.

As Gunaratna, the great medieval Jaina logician, explained: “The naturalists claim as follows: By svabhava is meant for transformation of objects by themselves – because of their inherent nature. Everything that exists comes into being because of svabhava is meant the transformation of objects by themselves – because of their inherent nature. Everything that exists comes into being because of svabhava. Thus for instance earth is transformed into pot and not cloth... form the threads is produced cloth and not pot. Such regular occurrence cannot happen without the operation of svabhava. Therefore everything is to be finally viewed as due to svabhava. So it is said:

‘Who makes the thorn sharp?
And the beasts and birds so varied?
All these come into being from svabhava.
There is none whose desire forms them;
What is the use of postulating his effort?”

As Hiriyanna comments, “svabhavavada or naturalism recognises that ‘things are as their nature makes them’ traces all changes to the thing itself...Hence according to svabhavavada, it is not a lawless world in which we live; only there is no external principle governing it. It is self-determined and not undetermined.” Thus in svabhavavada, a protoscientific theory, we have the early recognition of law of nature.

Svabhavavada was recognised as the mechanism of origin of universe by Lokayatas who considered everything to be made up of elements of matter or bhutas. Samkhyas who spoke of prakruti or pradhana or female principle or primeval matter transforming itself into everything in the universe also adopted svabhavavada.

Even the early-Nyaya-Vaiseshikas, the atomists, also drew on svabhavavada to explain atomic combination. Only while discussing foetal development, due to lack of development of embryology. Gautama, one of the early atomists, spoke of the adrishta (unseen) as also an active element, besides the atoms. This unseen is not to be seen as God but as material force, as elsewhere the atomists cite the case of water rising up the plants and needle being attracted by the magnet as examples of the unseen.

Out of the two theistic philosophies Vedanta showed unconcealed contempt towards logic and the technique of debate. The only concession made by Samkara in Advaita Vedanta was that logic was alright so far as it agreed to rationalise scriptural declarations- as embodied in the Upanishads – a view strikingly resembling the warning given by the Pope to Hawking and other participants in the seminar on cosmology in 1981.

However, the other theistic school of later-Nyaya-Vaiseshikas tried their utmost to provide serious, logical, inferential proofs about God as the nimitta karana or efficient cause of the universe. Thus all the medieval atheists belonging to Budhism, Jainism, and Purvamimamsa concentrated their energies on demolishing the later –Nyaya Vaiseshika inferential proofs. These proofs were based on examples such as : While clay (matter) is necessary for making a pot, the clay by itself does not become a pot but needs a potter. This God, is required to put the atoms (which he did not create) together and create the world. Sophisticated arguments were worked out by the atheists to show the fallacies in this inference.

It is interesting to note that the only serious theistic philosophers themselves took recourse to God, only to provide the “first impulse” for the formation of the primeval dyad; diatomic molecule in modern parlance. From the all powerful creator of all beings, God is thus reduced to the role of a cosmic potter (brahmanda kulala) who does not even create the clay but only puts it all together!

This turn towards theism among the atomists seems to be a compromise with the prevailing religious pressure. A phenomenon we are all too familiar with in Indian scientific circles even today. Of course, one should also recognise the low level of understanding in those days about the laws of combination of atoms and that they had to rely on primitive technological examples from pottery, weaving or masonry.

Hawking does not seem to be aware of the nuances of ancient Indian philosophy. It is another matter that with the overwhelming presence of millions of gods, idealist metaphysics all around and the fact that these proto-scientific theories could not develop their potential due to mainly sociological and political reasons, that many Indians themselves are not aware of it.