Communism, Culture, Essays, History, Philosophy, Saswat
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Matter & Consciousness: Revisiting Lokayata

By Saswat Pattanayak 

“Thought and consciousness are products of the human brain and the human being is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brains, being in the last analysis products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.”

– Engels

Various schools of thoughts within philosophy, psychology, linguistics and anthropology have attempted to analyze matter and consciousness through dualism and monism.

Spinoza had considered mind and matter, or everything spiritual/intellectual and everything material, as aspects of the same basic Substance. But like Hegel’s idealism, his monism attributed this substance to a God as the totality of all things. Error to him was not external to truth: “The truth is its own measure and the measure of what is false.”

Hegel likewise separated consciousness (sense-certainty, perception, and understanding) from self-consciousness (struggle for freedom), reason (observation, actualization and rationality) and finally the idealistic aspect of spirit (ethics, culture, morality, religion, art, death and absolute knowledge).

Berkeley’s idealism was equally absolute. Turning Locke’s empiricist philosophy into metaphysical, he argued that one could not separate the primary and secondary distinctions, i.e., it was not possible to distinguish the primary shape of an object without its secondary color. Drawing upon Locke’s illogicalities, Berkeley reached the conclusion that all our experiences were mental ones caused by God and that our every experience was a gigantic illusion, as formulated in his famous maxim: esse est percipi; to be is to be perceived.

One step further was the sophisticated idealist, Kant, who replied to Hume’s assertion about gradual building up of conceptual apparatus from human experiences, with an argument that unless human beings have some kind of mental conceptual apparatus to begin with, no experience would be possible: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

As against the backdrop of such eternal idealistic truths, Marxism developed a scientific, dialectally materialistic outlook, whereby the interplay between environment and consciousness found adequate attention with an aim to overthrow the hitherto existing philosophical fixations. The premise of dialectical materialism in Marxist sense claimed that it is not the consciousness that determines existence, but on the other hand, the existence that determines the consciousness. The matter, above all. But it did not just stop there. What set Marx apart from all the materialists before him was his understanding of consciousness as a sensuous activity, a function of the brain and the nervous system, raising the relationship between matter and consciousness to the level of dialectical materialism.

Marx displayed great disdain towards philosophers and intense optimism towards philosophy. Unlike the materialists preceding him, he treated philosophy as the practical, revolutionary knowledge which needed to be acted upon, in order to change the world, and in the process, salvage itself. Certainly, he denounced the idealists, the Utopian socialists and those that would resemble the abounding postmodernists. But that was only the given. What made Marx a radical was his constant critique of the materialists themselves. The spontaneous atheists of the ancient era (Fan Wanzu, Shen Xu, Heraclitus, Democritus), the metaphysical materialists of the modern times (John Locke, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Feuerbach), and the democratic revolutionaries of subsequent periods (Chernyshevsky, Markovic, Khristo Botev) provided to him insufficient, if not reactionary, grounds for applicability of philosophy as an emancipatory medium.

Materialists throughout the history accurately identified humans as products of circumstances. But it took Marx to declare that it is the people themselves who must change circumstances. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice,” Marx theorized.

The aim of the present study is to locate Marxism’s possible roots (spontaneous, or not) within the ancient Indian materialism: the Lokayata, which also remains as the very first exposition of empirical materialism in the history of philosophy.

Lokayatikas considered the soul to be nothing but body with the attribute of consciousness. While seeing the soul in the body itself, they argued that there is nothing called soul apart from the body. According to them, consciousness emerges when transformed into the form of the body. That, the human being is nothing but a body qualified by consciousness. There is thus, according to them, no soul separate from the body capable of going to heaven or of obtaining liberation, because of the presence of which in the body, the body is supposed to acquire consciousness. On the contrary, the body itself is conscious; it is the soul.

Lokayata did not deny the consciousness so much as it complicated it. Instead of acceding to an assumption that consciousness could be a peculiarity of the spirit, it depicted consciousness as an attribute of the body. This occurred, according to them, because whereas the material elements comprise the living body, consciousness is produced in it. This was augmented by the Lokayata stipulations, according to Sankara: a) Wherever there is body, there is also consciousness (anvaya), and b) wherever there is the absence of body, there is also the absence of consciousness (vyatireka).

What Lokayata did in an unprecedented manner was to explain the origin of consciousness from the matter itself. In other words, to explain unconscious from the conscious. According to Sankara, consciousness to the Lokayatikas was like the intoxicating power of the alcoholic drink which was produced from certain ingredients, none of which has the intoxicating power. Sankara explains, “(According to the materialists) anything whose existence depends on the existence of another, and which ceases to be when that other thing is not there, is ascertained to be an attribute of the latter, as, for instance, heat and light are attributes of fire. As regards such attributes as the activities of the viral force, sentience, memory, etc., which are held to belong to the soul, they too are perceived within the body and not outside; and hence so long as any substance other than the body cannot be proved, they must be the attributes of the body itself. Hence the soul is not distinct from the body” (Gambhirananda). Like Sankara, another critic of Lokayata was Jaina philosopher Haribhadra who alluding to the above wrote that for Charvakas, the folly was then to renounce what is actually observed – the pleasures of the world – in favor of what is never observed – heavenly pleasure.

D. Chattopadhyaya argues that Lokayata took a fully naturalistic view of fermentation and distillation and discarded the ‘spiritual’ view of it, which even the 17th-century European science was to outgrow. “In the Lokayata view, there is nothing mysterious about the origin of the intoxicating power…Only the material elements are real and everything in the world is caused by them.” Such a radical position was unique to only the Lokayata. As S. G. Sardesai points out, “Even among the materialists the Lokayata was the only exception to the rule. All the rest, while persistently rejecting the conception of a creator, of anything existing prior to matter in one or another form, kept company with religious beliefs, rites and even cults in daily life.” Although, to their credits, Charaka and Sushruta had adopted the same views as Lokayata, regarding consciousness being a product of the el
ements, while rejecting the idealist positions as untenable.

K. Damadoran writes that the Charvakas denied the independent existence of an immaterial soul. When the body perishes, consciousness also perishes, because consciousness is only a function of the body. So the doctrine of transmigration also is false: “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world. Neither in experience nor in history do we find any interposition of supernatural forces. Matter is the only reality and the mind is matter thinking. The hypothesis of a creator is useless for explaining or understanding the world.”

The rationalism and necessary atheism in Lokayata was the logical consequence of their consistently materialistic outlook. As a result, they were vigorously attacked by numerous idealists, most prominently by scholars of the Vedanta school (such as Madhavacharya), so much so that most literatures available about them are mere criticisms that have expounded on their positions. Whereas the idealists considered attainment of moksha to be the aim of life, the materialist (Lokayata) philosophers do not entertain a possibility for freedom from feelings, sorrow or joy. Lokayatikas vehemently criticized the priests and Vedic mantras. For them, Vedas were not only human compositions, but were also meaningless recitals. If the priests argued that the animals sacrificed at yajnas attained heaven, the materialists urged them to instead send their own parents to heaven by sacrificing them. Whereas Vedanta laid a claim to “perfect” knowledge, omniscience, and supernatural intuition (antardrishti), Lokayata Sutras rejected such conceptions because according to them, the very objects of study – nature and human society – were constantly changing and revealing ever new features that did not exist before.

The attempt at idealistically delineating matter as different from consciousness through the employment of Vedic scriptures was considered by the Lokayatikas as “devices of greedy brahmins to earn wealth by cheating the common folk” (Damadoran). The Lokayatikas also pointed out the stupefying effects of religion, which to them was as harmful as opium-intoxication. Prayer was the hope of weak without the will-power, worship was the insincere egoism to save oneself from tortures of hell, and prophets were the greatest liars of any generation (Sastri).

Lokayata’s influence was vastly noted by prominent scholars of various ages, whether they agreed with them or not. If Kautilya mandated that the princes (in “Arthasastra”) study Lokayata along with Samkhya and Yoga systems, Radhakrishnan (in “Indian Philosophy”) acknowledged it duly, “Materialism signifies the declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual and the rejection of the principle of authority. Nothing need be accepted by the individual which does not find its evidence in the movement of reason. The Lokayata philosophy is a fanatical effort made to ride the age of the weight of the past that was oppressing it. The removal of dogmatism which it helped to effect was necessary to make for the great constructive efforts of speculation.”

For a philosophy to become truly relevant, it must encompass all humanity; the most basic needs and deepest aspirations of the majority. Until the world is transformed into a classless society free of exploitation, the political thoughts of Lokayata and dialectal materialism will continue to empower the majority into attempting at progressive revolutions.

(First written for Red Monthly).

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