The Lokayat tradition - Materialism in Ancient India


Hinduism is an extremely diverse religion in which various sects and philosophies co-existed. Often there was a dialogue between these sects and often there was conflict. One of the best instances of this was the ancient tradition of the Lokayats, often called the first instance of materialistic tradition in the country. Read on to know more about this topic.

What was the Lokayat philosophy?

The Lokayat philosophy or the Charvak philosophy as it is sometimes known, was a school of thought in Ancient India that accepted materialistic ideology. What I mean when I say this is that the Lokayats used perception as the only valid method of ascertaining the truth. Whatever is perceived by the senses is the only truth. According to them, an inference may or may not be true, and therefore is not a valid way to find out the truth. Obviously, they also accept the fact that certain elements may not be perceived by the senses. Even then we should not use inference in an excessive manner.

This philosophy sounds simple. But it has numerous implications. Since the soul cannot be perceived by the senses, therefore there must be no soul. Since we cannot see God with our eyes or hear him with our ears, there must be no God either. Due to such anti-orthodox ideas, the Lokayats were generally looked upon with disfavour by the people of the other sects.

Relation with the other traditions

The Lokayats also rejected the supernatural ideas of other philosophies. According to them, natural phenomena occurred due to the inherent characteristics of the elements. The water feels cool and refreshing while the fire burns anything that touches it. No God is behind all of this. Instead, it is the result of the inherent properties of these elements.

The disfavour that the Lokayats enjoyed among other sects resulted in the gradual marginalisation of its ideas. An example of such marginalisation is the absence of the original texts of this philosophy. While we know that the Lokayat tradition was originally started by Brihaspati and the original ideas of this tradition are encapsulated in the Brihaspati Sutra, we do not have the original text itself. Was the text destroyed by the orthodoxy that generally also enjoyed political power? We do not know for sure. What we do know is that the rejection of the traditional ideas by the Lokayats resulted in strong reactions from the other sects who wrote in opposition to the 'heretics'.

In the absence of the original texts, we have to rely on the writings of the other sects against the Lokayats. These writings are in marked opposition to the tradition of tolerance to opposing philosophies generally seen in Ancient India. There is even a possibility that some of the ideas of Lokayats, like opposition to moral values, were exaggerated and misrepresented by these opposing traditions. Nevertheless, whatever we know today about this distinctive tradition is from these very texts. For example, some of the Buddhist texts like Sutta Pitaka, reveal certain elements of the Lokayat tradition through a part of a dialogue between Ajatshatru and Buddha himself. The opening portion of the Sarva-Darshana-Sangraha also mentions the Lokayat tradition as one of the schools of thought.

The relation between the Lokayats and other religious traditions was actually quite complex. While certain ideas of the Lokayats, like the rejection of Karma and rebirth, were vehemently opposed by the Buddhists, the Buddhists themselves accepted the Lokayat technique of philosophical scepticism. Whatever research work has been done by the modern-day scholars, including the one by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya would not have been possible in the absence of these critical commentaries by the other traditions.

A tragic disappearance

Here one question is bound to be raised. Why did the Lokayat philosophy die out abruptly after the 12th century? One explanation is the lack of patronage from ruling dynasties. Religions such as Buddhism and Jainism too challenged the authority of the Vedas. Yet these religions had the backing of various kings and ruling dynasties and therefore they have survived till today. On the other hand, in case of the Lokayats, kings starting from Ajatshatru to Akbar have found their ideas hard to digest.

A second reason might be the inherent lack of theistic ideas in this system. It is useful to remember that the period under consideration is the ancient period. This phase in Indian history is marked by an exclusivist system of knowledge dissemination. Only certain sections of the society had access to knowledge while the vast masses lived in conditions of abject ignorance, at least regarding philosophical matters. Therefore these classes necessarily had to depend on the priests, many of whom were unlikely to be sympathetic to the Lokayat tradition. In the absence of a well-organized body of followers, the tradition slipped into oblivion. This is not to say that materialism itself disappeared. Materialism survives till now and has become stronger in the modern age. But there is neither a well-documented doctrine nor any philosophical defence of materialism.

Why should we care about the Lokayats?

What would India have been like if materialism would have become the dominant ideology? After the 18th and the 19th centuries in Europe, when the authority of the Church declined, we saw an almost unanticipated development of science. Maybe the situation would have been similar in Ancient India as well. Or maybe there might have been totally different outcomes. This is one of the 'what ifs' of history which isn't all that important.

What is important is that it is no longer possible to argue that all of the traditions in Ancient India were other-worldly and that everyone was drowned in a flood of superstition. We had our own version of thought that employed methods somewhat similar to the scientific one. We had a philosophical doctrine that systematically refuted superstition. And all of these took place almost two millennia before the European scientific revolution.


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