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Carvaka and Existentialism

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A Term Paper
Presented to the Faculty of
The Department of Philosophy
School of Arts and Sciences
University of San Carlos
Cebu City, Philippines

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In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for


the course Philosophy 606: Oriental Philosophy
Master of Arts in Philosophy

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Submitted by:
Ryan Vincent F. Alisaca
MA-PHILO

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December, 22 2018
Materialism in India

The negativity that materialism brings about in our ordinary thoughts may have its origin

from the fact that we, as human beings, are in need of something spiritual or transcendent. In the

first place, why is any life worth living? Most people, if not all, would find the idea that we are

simply a product of chance absurd. For most of us, the ‘why’ is the final and ultimate question we

must answer. However, the thought of a meaningless life comes to us once in a while. In the shower

in our morning preparations for the day, in idle moments when we contemplate the sky (or the sea

if you’re in the beach), in the night when we close our eyes and prepare ourselves for sleep, in our

most painful and difficult situations, and even in in our prayers when we ask ourselves whether or

not we are really heard, and all other seemingly mundane moments in our life, the irrational comes

to us with all suddenness. There might be no answer to the ‘why’. All that is there is randomness

and chance. Perhaps we do not entertain these thoughts. Perhaps our moments of realization are

those same moments of forgetfulness. And after all these, we carry on with our activities, not really

wondering about anything else. And yet, the thought is there, hidden beneath the ordinariness and

redundancy of life.

People who take the question seriously are bound to do those things which they perceive

will give them answer to their questions. Here I will tell a Hindu story of a king who, seeing and

observing that there is no soul, believes that there is indeed no soul. One of his experiments was

said to have been throwing a thief alive in a burning pot and then covering it with a strong brass

lid just to see whether the soul of a person could escape after death. In another story, the king was

said to have placed another thief alive in a burning pot and weighing him after so as to see whether
there was any difference in this thief’s weight that would signify the loss of a soul in him.1 While

the veracity of this story cannot be verified, it would be worthwhile to mention that a similar story

exists in a Jain source wherein the materialist, i.e. he who does not believe in the soul, is in an

argument with a Buddhist or a Jainist monk.2 The story, and all of its other versions, end with the

materialist being defeated and bought into submission. Materialism, after all, cannot have positive

acceptance in a culture that is highly spiritual and mystical. It might be said that those stories are

merely made to reduce materialism to absurdity.

It might be so indeed. But if people are capable of going to lengths as to boil humans just

to discover the truth of the soul, then the question might truly be urgent and serious. The question

cannot simply be forgotten at the next moment.

Now, materialism seems to give us a very hedonistic world-view. Indeed, if we reject the

soul or any kind of spirituality for that matter, we might as well give much attention to the pain

and pleasure our bodies experience daily. If pain, gives us that feeling of constant discomfort, then

pleasure might be the only thing worth searching for in our lives. This hedonism which recognizes

only the material is a Hindu school of thought in the name of Carvaka/Lokayata. It is claimed that

the earliest record of hedonism comes from the Carvaka tradition.3 Another characteristic of this

tradition which flows from its materialism is its rejection of the Vedic Scriptures4 as the Vedas is

highly religious and is filled with metaphysical content. In this materialist school of thought, we

therefore see a certain atheistic marks. To clearly point out these characteristics, let me mention

that Carvaka/Lokayata holds that there is no God, no soul, and no after-life of some sort. But what

1
Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata (London: Anthem Press, 2011), 22.
2
Ibid.
3
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “hedonism,” accessed December 12, 2018,
https://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/
4
Bhattacharya, 26.
paved way for this materialist school in the highly spiritual culture of India? Perhaps the excessive

monkdom and asceticism in that time which inevitably includes external ritualism which ignored

substance, all of which are not at all suitable for the masses.5

Let us, however, suspend our judgement first against this materialist school. Indeed, a

hedonistic world-view, such as the one earlier expounded, as flowing from materialism, cannot be

a good-world view to hold. However, we cannot be certain that this materialism, as we know it

and as has been handed down to us, has not been tainted with prejudice. Ajita Kesakambala,

generally recognized as an early materialist in India, has been thought of as a rival by the early

Buddhists and Jainists. There has been no authentic report of Ajita’s preachings that has been

handed down to us this day. We know of him only from Buddhists and Jainists sources. Hence,

their accounts might not be accurate and without prejudice.6 Perhaps with this knowledge a hand,

it might be easy for us now to say that materialism may not always be identified with hedonism.

Indeed, for materialism is not necessarily that. Materialism might deny the existence of the divine,

and it might also posit that there are no pleasures to be found aside from that which is of this word.7

However, I believe this is truly a misunderstanding of materialism. In fact, these people who

understand materialism as identical with hedonism are called by Engels as ‘philistines’.8

At this point, I would like to present some verses attributed the Carvaka-s.9
1. There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in
another world.
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce
any real effect.
5
Thoughts taken from the PowerPoint presentation given by Maria Majorie Purino, Ph.D which was
discussed during our Oriental Philosphy class, slide 4.
6
Bhattacharya, 45.
7
Ibid., 30.
8
Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (Peking: Foreign
Languages Press, 1976), 27.
9
Bhattacharya., 91. These verses, taken from the different source and different commentators of the
Indian Materialist tradition, are English translations done by the author of the cited book.
2. Bṛhaspati says —The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the
ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes,—
(all these) are the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge
and manliness.

3. If a beast slain in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite will itself go to


heaven.
Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own
father?
7. While life remains let a man live happily; nothing is
beyond death.
When once the body becomes ashes, how can it even return
again?

14. O! The one with beautiful eyes! Drink and eat (as you
like). O! The one with a charming body! That which is past
does not belong to you. O! The timid one! The past never
comes back. This body is nothing but a collectivity.

Carvaka and Existentialism

Here, I would like to show how these points are able to point out the existentialism implied

in the Hindu school of materialism. However, the verses may not necessarily be taken up in the

order presented above. Let us start with the third verse:

3. If a beast slain in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite will itself go to

heaven.

Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own

father?

Here, we see a seemingly comical and yet real protest against the ritualism and religiosity

of Hindu life. It somehow reduces to absurdity the idea of sacrificial offering. However, I see in

here something which is very existentialist. In the first analysis is the idea of the priority of man.

Indeed, in any existentialism, man has always been viewed as the arbiter of everything, himself
the being “who possesses the possibility to make history.”10 Why would an animal be better off to

heaven than man? If a beast can deserve a place in heaven, how can man not deserve the same

place? Let us move to the ultimate analysis. Knowing that Carvaka is a materialist school should

allow us to understand that the third verse’s ultimate meaning is that there is no after-life, no world

beyond ours. Here, then, is also the ultimate assertion of existentialism gathered from the first

analysis and the ultimate analysis: man is not of the same dignity with other beings in this world.

Sartre rightly says that man, “is of a greater dignity than a stone or table[.]”11 It is because of this

dignity that man takes a priority in beings. He exists primarily because he is propelled towards a

future, a fact which he is well aware of, and this makes him a project, a being with a subjective,

inner life which sets him apart from beasts and vegetation.12 With this consideration at hand now,

let us continue to prioritize this human existence which we are, right now, speaking about.

Let us proceed now with the first verse:

1. There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in

another world.

Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce

any real effect.

10
Hazel Barnes, introduction to In Search for a Method, by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Alfred.A.Knopf,
1963), xvii.

11
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Atheism is a Humanism” in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter
Kaufman (Meridian Publishing Company, 1989), par. 10, accessed December 20, 2018
https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

12
Ibid.
This verse does not hesitate to show us the power with which materialism rejects the

metaphysical. Any reading of this would immediately tell us that Carvaka is essentially anti-

spiritual and only has cares for satisfaction of carnal pleasures. However, when we look at the

second part of the verse, we actually realize something. Perhaps it is already well known that most

of the people in the Hindu nation of India still believe and adapt the caste system. This is because

of their belief in Karma and Dharma. Karma is the moral law governing the Hindu universe while

Dharma is the duty bound to be done by someone in accordance to the caste assigned to him by

Karma. The better one does the Dharma assigned to one’s caste, the higher the chance of one

getting a better and higher form of caste in the next life as dictated by Karma. The oppression

becomes apparent here when we realize that these caste system can actually cause one to believe

that there is nothing one can do about one’s fate. This here is an example of oppression based on

a class division, something which Karl Marx was very critical about (the theme is similar although

the class division here is not something which is developed dialectically throughout history). And

precisely, the cause of this oppression is the spirituality followed by the people of India.

At this point, let me say that Marxist materialism will have its stage later on. For now, let

us first consider what existentialism has to do with any of this. Indeed, the religious inclinations

of the Hindu people would lead them to believe that there is nothing to be done but to do well in

one’s Dharma. However, I believe this is exactly the type of predetermined attitude which Sartre

was trying to address in his essay “Atheism is a humanism.” All things are determined in some

ways or another insofar as these things are thought of by their respective artisans before their

creation. However, if God does not exist, then there is at least one being which is not determined:

man.13

13
Sartre, “Atheism is a Humanism,” par. 10.
The Carvaka tradition, being atheistic in its philosophical tone, I believe, is actually giving humans

the freedom to become true to themselves and to decide for themselves as to how they would like

to live their lives. This becomes all the more true when we hear Sartre say, “Thus, there is no

human nature,” and indeed so. A materialist school must reject human nature because one cannot

have an empirical grasp of that ‘nature’. Thus, not only is the above-verse a rejection of the after-

life or God. It is a denial of human nature and a denial of the determined nature of Karma and

Dharma, and thus a way for man’s freedom to finally burst forth like the fruit tearing away the

flower. Indeed, he can now become what he wills himself to be and how he conceives himself to

be in existence. In other words, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”14

Let us proceed with the fourteenth verse:

14. O! The one with beautiful eyes! Drink and eat (as you

like). O! The one with a charming body! That which is past

does not belong to you. O! The timid one! The past never

comes back. This body is nothing but a collectivity.

At first glance, we see a very hedonistic proposition. In fact, it might be because of verses

like these that the spiritual Hindu society seems to identify Carvaka’s materialism with hedonism.

The phrase, “Drink and eat (as you like),” seems to give everything away already. However,

another way of looking at it might be that the verse is actually praising the qualities of the human

person. “O! The one with beautiful eyes! O! The one with a charming body!” While these verses

might be sexual innuendos for carnal desires, they might also be a revelation of something which

14
Ibid.
has always been overlooked in the Hindu society. Its spiritual understanding of man is incomplete

as it seems to emphasize only the immaterial and abstract man. It is also for this reason that

Feuerbach was criticized by Marx and Engels as being still an idealist. Indeed, both Feuerbach and

the excessive monkdom of the early Hindu spiritual leaders forget to place man in a real world

which is historically determined and which comes into being historically. 15 If we would put man

into this socio-historical context, then we realize that man is determined in such a way that he

needs food and drink. Because of this, his labor for these things must be a summary of man’s

activity. Man therefore, is an active being.16 Thus, a real existentialism, if it must be a humanism,

if it must make man its priority, must not fail to take into account the social and historical nature

of man.

The sentence which goes, “That which is past does not belong to you. The past never comes

back,” is only a further negation of the rules of Karma and Dharma. Indeed, anything done in the

past cannot define you because what you choose to define yourself to be is what you are.

Here I would like to say that the sentence “The body is nothing but a collectivity,” is

precisely referring to that idea of man. By collectivity, the body must simply be a collection of

material elements. And it is only upon this consideration that we are finally able to see that man

must be placed in the context in the material world if we wish to understand him/her more fully.

In here, we see the little flaw of Sartre’s existentialism. Man is not so undetermined as to freely

choose his own manner of existence. He is, after all, determined materially and historically.

15
Engels, 33.
16
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Moscow. Progress
Publishers, 1959), 30, accessed December 1, 2018
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf
Let us now proceed to the second verse.

2. Bṛhaspati says —The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the

ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes,—

(all these) are the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge

and manliness.

Here we see the value of labor. For the followers of the Carvaka tradition, the ascetic way

of life is not the good way of living life.17 We see in here a mockery of the monkdom of Hindu

society describing it as “…the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.”

However, beyond the seeming mockery of the verse is a realization that man cannot become fully

himself without proper labor. Indeed, if we truly wish to understand man, the real man, the man

placed in the real world, then we must realize that this asceticism is merely an escape from the

world. To live in the world is to be expressed in the world. He does not merely eat and drink

although he certainly does that also. The animal that is him needs has biological needs as he is

biologically determined. However, we cannot stop at that consideration of man. “Inasmacuh as

man is not productive, inasmuch as he is receptive and passive, he is nothing, he is dead.”18 Thus,

for Marx, man finds this expression in his labor, in productive activity. At this point, it must first

be pointed out that for Marx, labor was not at all an economic category as it was an anthropological

17
Bhattacharya, 92. In here, I would to insert the twelfth verse as a proof that the followers of the Carvaka
Tradition were not at all pleased with the spiritual kind of life. “O, the naked one (Jain), ascetic (Buddhist), dimwit,
given to practising physical hardship! Who has taught you this way of leading life?”
18
Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961), chapt. 4 par.7
accessed December 1, 2018 https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch01.htm
one.19 Labor, when it is considered in itself as it ought to be, is an expression of life.20 Labor

expresses the life of man in a manner that it is a genuine activity of man, is a meaningful expression

of human energy, and is an end in itself.21

Therefore, in the second verse, what is criticized is not only the excessive monkdom, but

the fact that this monkdom are impediments to real human development. Man cannot find

fulfillment in mere asceticism and constant mortification. Man finds ultimate expression of life in

labor. Carvaka, in this manner, is truly a humanism.

Let us now proceed to our last verse, the seventh:

7. While life remains let a man live happily; nothing is

beyond death.

When once the body becomes ashes, how can it even return

again?

In here, we see the reality of death. Again, at first reading, the verse seems to propose a

hedonistic way of living. Eat! Drink! Be merry! For tomorrow we die. Nothing remains after death.

It would be a waste of time to practice asceticism if there is no after life. The body, when it becomes

ashes, cannot return anymore. Enjoy with your body while you still can. This interpretation comes

to us, however, only when we have already been hardwired to believe that materialism is identified

with hedonism. How then, should we understand the phrase, “let a man live happily,”?

19
Ibid., par. 20.
20
Ibid.
21
Ibid.
With the given exposition above, it should be easy for us by now to see the humanistic

undertones of the verse. It is first and foremost a confrontation with the reality of death. In here

now, we are given the idea of the absurd. Death indeed! For what use are all of human endeavors

if all are bound to the same end: death. Life is now seen as absurd. Indeed, at a realization, we

recognize that we can give a reply to anything in the world that hurts or offends us except “this

chaos, this sovereign chance and this divine equivalence which springs from anarchy.”22 Whether

or not this world has a meaning which is beyond us is not something which we can simply answer.

But one thing is certain: we cannot know that meaning. If so, we might as well be meaningless.

Thus all human activities are rendered futile.

Now, the position above stands to refute all of the thesis which we have already posited.

We talk about labor, freedom, actualizing one’s self when in the end there is nothing at all. Perhaps,

Carvaka was not at all a humanism as it is a nihilism? Might not this verse show us that nihilism?

But in fact a nihilism is also a humanism of some sort. I believe it is this verse that truly defines

Caravaka’s humanism. Indeed, Camus tells us that it might be difficult to continue on living with

the knowledge of all contradictions and absurdity in the world. The point, however, is to live.23

This attitude at the face of the absurd is what Camus calls the ‘revolt’. Man must always live in

defiance of that absurd. It must be the truth that man must always live up for. Hence, the absurdity

does not negate in anyway all that we have earlier posited for Carvaka as a humanism. All those

which we have earlier discussed are the manner by which man actualizes this revolt against the

absurd.

22
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus an Other Essays, (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 51.
23
Ibid., 65.
Conclusion

Perhaps, the bias against Carvaka has always been the prejudice of the highly spiritual

Hindu society of India against materialism. However, I do not absolutely claim the followers of

the Carvaka tradition were humanists in the sense which I have just expounded. But to immediately

accuse materialism and identify it with hedonism is just as invalid. Indeed, if the accusations

against the abuse and excessiveness of monkdom if true, then a humanistic and at the same time

materialistic philosophy is bound to surge up like revolt. It is not enough to consider man

something spiritual, although I do believe that spirituality too is necessary for man. However, it is

also necessary to recognize man’s social and economic needs. Turning a blind eye from this would

result to all sorts of oppression and human degradation.


Bibliography

“Hedonism.” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosopy. Accessed December 12, 2018,


https://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/

Barnes, Hazel. Introduction to In Search for a Method, by Jean-Paul Sartre, vii-xxxi. New York:
Alfred.A.Knopf, 1963.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata. London: Anthem Press, 2011.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien New
York: Vintage International, 1955.

Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Peking:
Foreign Languages Press, 1976.

Fromm, Erich. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961. Accessed
December 1, 2018 https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch04.htm
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan.
Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959. Accessed December 1, 2018
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-
Manuscripts-1844.pdf

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Atheism is a Humanism” in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed.


Walter Kaufman. Meridian Publishing Company, 1989. Accessed December 20, 2018
https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm