Monday, August 11, 2014

Ancient non-believers: The Carvaka

"If the universe requires a maker because it undergoes change, even God needs a maker because he sometimes creates, sometimes destroys." - Flower Offerings of Arguments

Around 600 B. C., someone by the name of Brihaspati wrote a classic atheistic philosophical treatise known as Barhaspatya Sutras. Later on, his philosophy came to be labeled as Lokayata (“pertaining to the world”) or Cârvâka (“Sweet-tongued”) philosophy. 

Who or what is this Cârvâka?

We really don’t have much information regarding the Carvaka school of thought. Sadly, there were no surviving texts. Owing to the fierce opposition of the Vedic establishment, not a single document has come down to us, and we only have ideas of these ancient Indian materialists from the writings of their enemies and critics, particularly the philosophical treatises and compendia (darsana) written by their Vedic opponents between the 9th and 16th centuries.

Tradition attributes the ancient Indian materialism to Cârvâka along with another sage called Brihaspati. According to the Puranic Encyclopedia: the name “Cârvâka ” can be traced to two places in the Hindu mythos. Certain Sanskrit texts refer to a philosopher named Cârvâka who began this school of extreme materialism.

In the Mâhabârata, Cârvâka is a rakasa (A goblin, evil spirit, fiend, and enemy of the Aryas) friend of the prince Duryodhana who disguised himself as a Brahmin and reviled Yudhiºþhira’s triumphant entry into Hastinâpura after the Great War, preaching profane, atheistic, and heretical doctrines. He was soon exposed by real Brahmins and reduced to ashes by the fire of their eyes. This description from the epic poem Mahabarata represents the indignation of religious schools in India against the materialistic philosophy of the Cârvâka.

The Cârvâka (which by the way they are also called Lokâyata, from loka, the Sanskrit word for “world,” since it holds that only the materialistic world exists and nothing more, such as the soul, heaven, or hell.) school of though teaches the following:

1. God is non-existant.
2. There is no pre-existence or after-life.
3. There is no such thing as salvation (moksha); death itself is salvation.
4. Happiness is the only goal of life.
5. The wise should seek happiness with productive work.
6. Pursuit of music, erotics, medicines etc., add comfort to life.
7. Distinction of class and caste are hypocrisy.
8. The term "chastity for women" is rubbish (men and women are alike as far as chastity is concerned).

They also rejected the authority of sacred scriptures and they believe that an immortal soul and the metaphysical spirit are impossible because there aren’t any non-material objects that survive death as afterlife. For them, the idea of retribution ("Karma") and the concept of reincarnation are hogwash. Consciousness is view as a product of the material structure of the body, characterizes the body itself rather than a soul and perishes with the body. Consciousness and the senses were the result of a particular combination of atoms and the proportions in which they were combined. After the death of an organism, this combination disintegrated into elements that then combined with corresponding types of atoms in inanimate nature.

Sounds too familiar?

Like their Greek counterpart, the Cârvâka regarded the elements (water, fire, air) or else time or space, as the primary substance of the universe. The Universe was formed by these 5 elements (Panchamahaabhutas) namely: Prithvi (earth or solidity), jal (water or liquidity), agni (fire or fieriness or brightness), vaayu (wind or movement), and aakaasha (aether or emptiness), These elements, in turn, were said to be composed of atoms, indivisible units that were conceived as immutable, indestructible and having existed for all time. The atoms that comprised it determined the properties of any given object.

The Cârvâka criticize the Verdic priesthood, Brahmanism, rituals, and the caste system just how non-theists and anti-theists denounce today religions and churches like Christianity and Islam. They scorn the Vedic foundations upon which orthodox schools base their philosophies (Six of the so-called schools of Indian philosophy – Sankhya-Yoga, Nyaya-Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta – regard the Vedas as authentic).

Cârvâka ethics urged each individual to seek his or her pleasure here and now. "As long as you live, live life to the fullest," said Carvaka. "After death, the body turns to ashes. There is no re-birth." These words, so full of love for humanity and life, are strikingly reminiscent of the life-enhancing philosophy of Epicurus.

Since the afterlife, priesthood and those stories taught by the Vedas is considered worthless, the Cârvâka recommend people to take up productive activities like agriculture, and other useful pursuits of the physical world. Stress was laid on justice in all lifestyles. Hence, inequality in the case of gender and caste was opposed. Contemporary Humanists share this basic idea - therefore,Cârvâka is humanistic.

To paraphrase what the Cârvâka believes here are some extracts from the verses collected by Madhava - an orthodox Sanskrit writer of fourteenth century CE - in his compendium of Indian philosophy titled Sarva-darshana-sangraha.

While life is yours, live joyously;

None can escape Death's searching eye:

When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it ever again return?
The pleasure which arises to men from contact with sensible objects,
Is to be relinquished as accompanied by pain - such is the reasoning of fools;
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.
There are four elements, earth, water, fire and air;
And from these four elements alone is consciousness produced -
The fire is hot, the water cold, refreshing and cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety? From their own nature was it born.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes -
Brihaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.
If a beast slain in the Jyotishtoma rite will itself go to heaven,
Why then does not the sacrificer, forthwith offer his own father?

Beyond the disputes on the issue of priesthood and ritual, the opposition against the Carvaka/ Lokayata is on the matter of its materialistic doctrine. The idea that leads to Cartesian dualism (The doctrine that the soul is distinct from the body) is not new. Since time immemorial, our ancestors have always thought that a disembodied soul leaves the body at death or that the soul gives the material body consciousness. This same idea also predominate most ancient Indian orthodox school of thought.

According to Vedanta-sutra 2.2.1,2,8 matter cannot cause creation because it cannot be shown how and why the passive dead matter started to act. The argument is how this can be the case, especially since the material elements are unconscious, while a human has consciousness. According to the most orthodox school of thought, that is impossible without the use of any spiritual element.

The Cârvâkas defend their position in several ways.
First, they contend that stating that a new quality cannot emerge from a combination of base elements is an assumption – such cases exist. Their example appears in the above quote of the Sarvadaroeanasamgraha, where the new intoxicating quality appears in liquor when one mixes ingredients devoid of such a quality in a particular manner.

Secondly, the Cârvâka posit that consciousness must be a product of the material human body. The fact that the body alone is material is admitted by all. The question becomes whether consciousness is a quality of the body and not a spiritual quality of its own. In Indian logic, a causal connection between two phenomenon is established by an anavaya, or uniform co-presence, confirmed by a vyatireka, or uniform co-absence. For example, fire can be established as the cause of smoke because the two are always together, and similarly the absence of fire also results in the absence of smoke. The same reasoning can be attributed to the body and consciousness. Where there is a body, there is consciousness, and wherever there is an absence of body, there is also an absence of consciousness.

Today, thanks to modern neuroscience, we now have a better idea that the “soul” and the mind are just a product of purely material processes. Traditional belief about the immortal soul, the mind and the issue of dualism are now just the blather of archaic philosophies and religion and the Cârvâka were right to doubt it.

Until then.
John the Atheist

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