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In Defence of the Charvaka

Posted on 1-May-2006

In a country like India, where at the slightest provocation, people can start long monologues about the relinquishment of all earthly desires, the transience of wordly existence, the union of the atman, usually translated as the self or the soul, with the Brahman, usually translated as the Absolute Reality, yoga, meditation, release of the energies contained in the serpent lying dormant at the base of the spine and where in some circles it can be a mark of grossness of the spirit not to have a personal guru, tantrik or astrologer, and a sign of crass materialism not to practice some form of yoga and meditation, it is not usual to speak in defene of the little known charvaka. All that is known about their ancient sect comes from Hindu or Jain philosophical texts in which theirs is one of the ‘heresies’ to be refuted and condemned. As denouncers, the authors of such texts could hardly have given an impartial account of their doctrines. As pure materialists, the charvaka, who denied the authority of the Vedas and the scriptures, do not seem to have believed in an after life or rebirth; they thought that if there was a soul it resulted from the interaction of the four elements in the human body which, after death, disappeared with the body. For them the only reality was that which could be perceived directly by the senses and people’s actions were determined by the svabhava or the nature of the elements; different phenomena were products of accidental combinations of matter. According to some versions, they believed that this life, being the only one, was meant to be enjoyed and physical pleasure was all that mattered.

The Upanishads, the earliest texts containing Hindu metaphysical and philosophical notions tried, through catechism and the use of formulas such as neti, neti (not this, not this) and tat tvam asi (That art thou), to make their disciples instinctively grasp the nature of the atman and the Brahman. Subsequent philosophical texts used language and terminology which could be understood only by the initiated or by those who in theory were gifted with the ability ‘to see’. Philosophy in Hindu tradition came to be regarded as something meant only for a few and the ‘superior’ (intellectual) path to moksha, or release from the cycle of birth or rebirth, through acquisition of jnana (i.e. knowledge of truth about the universe) was looked upon as being beyond the ken of ordinary people, condemned to live in ajnana, or ignorance, whose salvation lay in living according to the laws of god.

Other Hindus thought that an alternative to the pursuit of knowledge of the Ultimate Reality was direct communion with an all loving, compassionate, even humane divinity. In this they were not unlike Christian or Sufi mystics. The object for them was the supreme bliss of union with the divine, a kind of bliss which could only be experienced directly and could but imperfectly be described in words. For them that was moksha. Evidently it was only a few who could attain such a state.

In this intellectual ambience in which such other-worldly pursuits had primacy over all other ends of human action, the charvaka were bound to become caricatured figures. According to one popularised description, they lived by a motto which can be translated thus: ‘Borrow and consume ghee (ghee in this context symbolises rich food). Live in pleasure while you live’. The name charvaka inevitably acquired a pejorative sense of crudeness and vulgarity, nearly a term of abuse.

Physics, deeply rooted in empiricism and logic, concerning itself with the nature of the material world should represent reality which can be grasped directly by the senses. It should in other words be the very antithesis of all kinds of spiritualism and metaphysics and correspond to the worldview of the charvaka. But such seems to be the nature of the intellectual pursuit of truth and reality that some of the objects dealt with by modern physics, such as sub-atomic particles whose location or speed cannot be precisely determined, or dark energy and dark matter whose existence can only be inferred, appear quite non-substantial. Discussions about the nature of the singularity from which the Big Bang is supposed to have started appear akin to metaphysical speculations about Ultimate Reality.

For the overwhelming majority of members of our species, the world of the atman and the Brahman and the world of a mystic union with divinity are as incomprehensible as a ten dimensional brane world. No one who is not specially gifted or properly initiated can understand the former, or so it is averred, just as no one who is not trained in higher physics and mathematics can hope to even partially grasp the latter. On the other hand, for almost everyone, the one incontrovertible fact is that he (or she) is an individual biological entity for whom the first necessity is to fulfill his physical needs. He is endowed with a mind which is as capable of abstract thought as of making things which can render the business of living easier. And no matter what he has been taught about ‘higher’ things such as a soul and a god and about life after death, he lives his daily life as if there is no other. For most ordinary people, it is the world that can be reached by the senses which has primacy; all else is of little practical relevance. To put it differently, the ancient charvaka’s vision of reality—howsoever distorted and partial our knowledge of it may be—is closer to the way people look at the world around them, than that of Vedanta or that of modern physics. It is also a vision that is close to contemporary life in the affluent, industrialized countries of the world—a kind of life to which most of the rest of humanity aspires. It is not surprising that charvaka doctrines should also have been known as lokayata, or that which is found among people in general.

While the ancient texts talked of dhurtta (sly or crafty) and sushikshita (well-educated or cultivated) charvakas, we could introduce our own two categories: good and bad charvakas.Being a materialist like the charvaka need not mean leading a base, meaningless, bestial existence. As a species which has evolved as a social being, man is certainly selfish, aggressive and violent like his evolutionary cousins the chimpanzees. But since, as some recent studies of chimpanzees and baboons have shown, the higher apes are also capable of affection for each other and of altruism, it is almost certain that such attributes are part of the nature that has come to man with the genes he has inherited from his evolutionary forbears. It would seem that selfishness and concern for the others are both part of man’s svabhava. There is no reason why a godless man, a good charvaka, should not be able to live an ordered social life according to the laws of man in which self-interest should be tempered with consideration for others and pursuit of riches can be combined with compassion for the weak and the helpless. A good modern charvaka can, like his maligned ancestor, have as his goal the good life, if by good life is meant not only a life without hunger, disease, covetousness and murderous violence or a life in which all basic needs have been taken care of, but also a life in which there is room for the pleasures of the mind such as poetry, the arts, the love of nature and the love of myriad other things that make up man’s physical environment. Pursuit of eternal truth or union with the divine can in this world be private pastimes for a few who in any case are obliged to live the greater parts of their daily lives like any good charvaka.

Contrariwise, a world in which people’s basic needs have not been taken care of is a desert in which pursuit of truth, whether of the scientific or of the spiritual kind, cannot for long survive the hot winds of surrounding misery and want. According to a Hindi proverb, there can be no prayer on an empty stomach and according to one of the tenets of Buddhist monastic life, the best time for meditation is when the stomach is neither empty nor too full. Perhaps mindful of all this, modern purveyors of Hindu spiritualism of different kinds go to some length to ensure their and their disciples’ bodily comforts—one Hindu guru had in his ashram a fleet of some two and a half dozen Rolls Royces, while another graduated from the Himalayan foothills to the more agreeable surroundings of the Swiss Alps. For yet others preaching the illusive nature of the world of phenomena becomes a source of enormous worldly riches. I wonder if the charvakas should not be laughing at these concessions to their doctrines by self-proclaimed possessors of spiritual truth. Or are such merchants of eternal truth after all only bad charvakas in disguise?

 

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