Saturday, April 30, 2005

Charvaka (Carvaka, Chaarvaaka)

Charvakism was an Indian school of thought which perhaps the only Indian philosophy that was materialistic in nature. However, their real influence on Indian social life was absolutely nothing. Perhaps, a wrong step in the evolution of civilized Indian society.

The basic features:
Via Amma's Column(Jyothsna Kamat's Blog) at Kamat's Potpourri

* God is non-existent.
* There is no pre-existence or after-life.
* There is no such thing as salvation (moksha); death itself is salvation.
* Happiness is the only goal of life.
* The wise should seek happiness with productive work.
* Pursuit of music, eroticism, medicines etc., add comfort to life.
* Distinction of class and caste are humbug.
* The term "chastity for women" is rubbish (men and women are alike as far as chastity is concerned).

It is said that, Charvakas were attacked for the fourth point. What about other points? Not much is said about that except they were called 'vitandavaadi's(one who indulge in jugglery of words). Madhvaacharya said that it was very difficult to refute their arguments. At that time India was a society where many schools of thoughts supposed to have lost out to Vaidiks in debates. And Charvakism was supposed to be undebatable! So even with such strong foundations why couldn't they attract the great majority of intelligent people of that period to its fold?

The fringe philosophers:
The other name for Charvakism is Lokayata. Some people define it as 'philosophy of common people'. But I would go with the other definition that is 'philosophy of worldly'. Since I am sceptical about the number of common people among its followers I won't go with the former definition. In my opinion, there were only few philosophers at any point of time subscribing to this school of thought. And they didn't have any position in the society.

One striking feature of Charvakism was its relentless opposition to Brahmins and its call for rebellion against authority. These two things possibly demonstrate their position outside the public sphere of influence. Also, since none of the Indian schools of thought or the establishment found it necessary to open educational institutions for the common people, it was impossible for Charvakas to attract the vast majority of the population which was too superstitious, barbaric and illiterate to accept their philosophy.

So it leaves us with brilliant people of that era. Though I have talked about tendency of Indians to follow whatever their ancestors had said without any question, this kind of closed mindset baffles me. Was Charvakas’ strong stand on happiness too distasteful for the ascetic minded Indians? Extremely hard to believe. Were Charvakas the people outside the Aryan (this includes Vaidiks, Jains and Buddhists) society? Were they descendents of Greeks(who had developed such kind of materialist philosophy by that time) who stayed back in India. Hard to say since they were not called as Mlechchas, Yavanas, Panchamas etc. in any of the Vaidik literature. Or were they really Indus Valley people as claimed in the Wikipedia article on Charvakas? At this point this claim is too preposterous considering the number of questions it would raise. Not least of them is the question of Dravidians.

Charvakism and the concept of Maya:
Ironically, whatever we know about Charvakas is because of their arch rivals’, Vaidik, Buddhist and Jain, literature. The philosophers belonging to these schools of thought had written about the works of Charvakas sometimes with a neutral angle or sometimes with an intention of refutation. So whatever might be their intention they never really overlooked that philosophy, especially Brahmins.

Brahmins, being dominant, were always at the receiving end of Charvakas’ arguments. However, they were never closed minded to whatever Charvakas said. I suspect they might have used at least one observation of Charvakas to complete and be comfortable with their theory of Maya (illusion)

Charvakas refused the role of inference and accepted only direct perception to prove the truth. This is more in line with modern Western philosophy of refuting ‘divine influence’. Whereas West went on to develop empiricism which gave a complete role for observation and experimentation in developing theories for the world’s mysteries, Charvakism failed to give a proper direction for its philosophy.

After refusing the role of inference, the later philosophers went on to reject the role of perception in finding the truth! In a sense, they said truth can’t be understood either by inference or by perception.

The Vaidik school of thought that had become stagnant because of its total devotion to its founding fathers’ words found a new proof in Charvakas’ philosophy to further their own theory of world(confusion about the world would be more appropriate). As claimed by Charvakas, if truth about the world can’t be found either by inference or perception then where was the proof that truth existed at all. It was only Maya (illusion). This theory became a dominant and salient feature of Brahmanical religion after Shankara’s time. I am sure the Charvaka philosopher who rejected the role of direct perception must be Shankara’s antecedent.

Charvakism is not a great loss:
Indian society could have been more civilized had it embraced at least few points of Charvakism,viz., No caste, Equality of sexes. However, considering it as a philosophy which would have heralded a scientific thinking in line with Greek philosophies which put the foundations for the modern Western philosophy would be far fetched. As I have discussed, they failed to give the right direction for their philosophy. However, they were the ones who came very close in achieving it.

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