Ancient Indian scepticism - August 2009

By: Namit Arora

The Carvaka school of philosophy offered some of the first rationalist opposition to the otherworldly tendencies of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Venantius J Pinto
Through the ages, various societies have sparkled with bursts of creative and intellectual energy. Historians have a penchant for dubbing these ‘golden’ ages, examples of which include the Athens of Herodotus, the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid, and the India of the Buddha. But though India has long been famous for its ‘ancient wisdom’, the few historical sources that survive shed woefully inadequate light on the Sakyamuni’s society. By contrast, very adequate portraits of classical Greece and Abbasid Baghdad are available.

Evidence at hand suggests that around 600-500 BC, in parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain of North India, people were asking some very bold and original questions: What is the nature of thought and perception? What is the source of consciousness? Are virtue and vice absolute or are they mere social conventions? Old traditions were under attack at the time, as new trades and lifestyles were emerging; with urban life in a churn, the power of uptight Brahmins was being steadily eroded. In this marketplace of ideas, philosophical schools flourished, and included chronic fatalists, radical materialists, self-mortifying ascetics, diehard sceptics, cautious pragmatists, saintly mystics and the ubiquitous miracle-mongers. “Rivalries and debates were rife,” the historian Romila Thapar wrote in 2002. “Audiences gathered around the new philosophers in the kutuhala-shalas – literally, the place for creating curiosity – the parks and groves on the outskirts of the towns … The presence of multiple, competing ideologies was a feature of urban living.” It was also an age of nascent democratic republics, which, like Athens later, did not ultimately survive the march of monarchy and empire.

Ever since the colonial encounter, the West has strongly associated India with the homegrown spiritual tradition. Often this has been out of sympathy, respect and the best of intentions, but sometimes dismissively as “the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices”. Such assessments, writes Amartya Sen, are clearly problematic. As he has argued, the history of India is incomplete without its tradition of scepticism, as well. To see India “as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplification of India’s past and present.” The West, Sen claims, focused unduly on India’s spiritual heritage, on “the differences – real or imagined – between India and the West”, partly because it was naturally drawn to what was different in India. Sen continues:

The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions. While India has … a vast religious literature [with] grand speculation on transcendental issues … there is also a huge – and often pioneering – literature, stretching over two and a half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now.

Sen marshals a good deal of evidence in support of his view of India’s long tradition of heterodoxy, openness and reasoned discourse. While India might offer “examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution to the religious problem”, he submits that they “coexist with deeply sceptical arguments … (sometimes within the religious texts themselves).” Among his examples is the radical doubt expressed in the ‘Song of Creation’ of the Rig Veda, which the scholar of the history of religion Wendy Doniger has called “the first extensive composition in any Indo-European language”. “Who really knows?” the Rig Veda asks.

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.

Only this world
“Until recently”, Thapar has observed, “it was generally thought that Indian philosophy had more or less bypassed materialism.” But scholars now widely recognise that in ancient ‘spiritual India’, atheistic materialism was a major force to reckon with. Predating even the Buddhists, the Carvaka (pronounced ‘Char-vaka’) is one of the earliest materialistic schools of Indian philosophy, named after one Carvaka, a great teacher of the school. Its other name, Lokayata, variously meant ‘the system based in the common, profane world’, ‘the art of sophistry’, and also ‘the philosophy that denies that there is any world other than this one’.

The Carvakas offered an epistemological justification for their materialism that echoes the British empiricist and sceptic David Hume, as well as other so-called logical positivists. As far as a means of attaining valid knowledge, the Carvakas would only accept sense perception; and they stridently challenged inference on the grounds that it inherently requires a universal premise – for instance, the assertion that “Wherever there’s smoke, there’s fire” – even while there is no way to be certain about that premise. Since inference is not a means of valid knowledge, anything that exists beyond the range of the senses – things like ‘destiny’, ‘soul’ or ‘afterlife’ – does not exists, according to the Carvakas.

Even more boldly, the Carvakas denied the authority of all scriptures. First, they said, knowledge based on verbal testimony is inferential. The scriptures, they continued, are characterised by three faults: falsity, self-contradiction and tautology, or false logic. Based on such a theory of knowledge, the Carvakas instead put forward an idea of ‘reductive’ materialism, according to which the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – are thought to be the only original components of being; all other forms are, thus, products of their composition. In this way, consciousness would be thought to arise from the material structure of the body, and it – rather than a soul – would characterise (and perish with) the body.

Ajita Keshakambalin, a prominent Carvaka and a contemporary of the Buddha, proclaimed that humans literally go from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “Man is formed of the four elements,” he wrote. “When he dies, earth returns to the aggregate of earth, water to water, fire to fire, and air to air, while his senses vanish into space … When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death.”

According to the Carvakas, the ‘soul’ is merely the body qualified by intelligence. It has no existence apart from the body, only this world exists, there is no beyond – the Vedas are a cheat, the “incoherent rhapsodies of knaves”, which serve to make men submissive through fear and ritual. Nature is indifferent to good and evil, and history does not bear witness to divine providence; rather, pleasure and pain are the central facts of life. Virtue and vice are not absolute, but are mere social conventions. The Carvakas advised:

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e’er again return?

The Carvakas particularly mocked religious ceremony, calling them inventions of the Brahmins to ensure their own livelihood. The authors of the Vedas were “buffoons, knaves and demons”. Those who make ritual offerings of food to the dead, why do they not feed the hungry around them? Like the other two heterodox schools, Jainism and Buddhism, they criticised the caste system, and stood opposed to the ritual sacrifice of animals. When the Brahmins defended the latter, claiming that the sacrificed beast goes straight to swarga loka, the interim heaven before rebirth, the Carvakas asked why the Brahmins did not kill their aged parents to hasten their arrival in Swarga Loka. “If he who departs from the body goes to another world,” they asked, “how is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?”

Pleasurably, sensibly, nobly, justly

Echoes of Carvaka thought appear in the Ramayana of Valmiki. In the epic, Ram is not the god that he later became, but rather is an epic hero, who, as Amartya Sen has noted, has “many good qualities and some weaknesses, including a tendency to harbor suspicions about his wife Sita’s faithfulness.” In that version, a pundit named Javali “not only does not treat Ram as God, he calls his actions ‘foolish’ (‘especially for’, as Javali puts it, ‘an intelligent and wise man’).” Echoing Carvaka doctrine, Javali even asserts that “there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that … the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people.”

In their ethics, the Carvakas upheld a kind of hedonism. The only goal people ought to pursue, they said, is maximising sensual pleasure while avoiding pain, the kind that proceeds from overindulgence and instant gratification. As is common with confrontational schools of thought, they were accused of “immoral practices”, and depicted as “hedonists advocating a policy of total opportunism … described as addressing princes, whom they urged to act exclusively in their own self-interest, thus providing the intellectual climate in which a text such as Kautilya’s Arthashastra (“Handbook of Profit”) could be written” – a text that elevated the material wellbeing of both the nation and its people, and favoured an autocratic state to realise it.

By the 15th century, Carvaka doctrine had largely disappeared, perhaps a casualty of the same religious wave that swept the Subcontinent from the south and which helped push Buddhism out of India – namely, Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism. But the doctrine’s erstwhile importance is confirmed by the lengthy attempts to refute it found in both Buddhist and orthodox Hindu philosophical texts (some written as late as the 14th century). For instance, in the ninth century, Jayanta Bhatta refuted the Carvaka view that inference is not a means of valid knowledge; Udayana, in the 10th century, challenged the Carvaka identification of the self with the body; and in his 11th-century allegorical drama Prabodhacandrodaya, Krsnamisra refuted the Carvakas through ridicule and caricature.

These refutations also constitute the main sources of our knowledge of the Carvaka doctrine, since none of the original Carvaka works has survived. It may well be that the Buddhists felt threatened by the Carvaka emphasis on pleasure, rather than on suffering. Just as the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome resemble the Buddhists in their emphasis on mental tranquillity through self-awareness and the reining-in of the ego and selfish desire, the Epicureans (the Stoics’ intellectual opponents) are reminiscent of the Carvakas, who likewise disavowed irresponsible sensualism and upheld ethical ideals similar to the Epicureans.

What defines the Carvaka is not their atheism. After all, two of the six orthodox schools of ancient Hinduism, Samkhya and Mimamsa, were also atheistic. Rather, it is their total rejection of all that is otherworldly – the authority of the Vedas, and all of the rituals and customs derived from them. Though the Carvaka were forgotten long ago, their spirit lives on today in all those who risk something to defy an orthodox tradition, ritual or otherworldly idea.

Namit Arora is a travel photographer, writer and creator of Shunya, an online photo journal on India. He divides his time between San Francisco and New Delhi.