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Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Ajivika and Charvaka School

Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Ajivika and Charvaka School

  • By and large, the six systems of philosophical teaching promoted the idealistic view of life. All of them became paths of attaining salvation. The Samkhya and Vaisheshika systems advanced the materialistic view of life. Kapila, the earliest exponent of the Samkhya, teaches that a man’s life is shaped by the forces of nature and not by any divine agency.
  • Materialistic ideas also figure in the doctrines of the Ajivikas, a heterodox sect in the time of the Buddha. Charvaka, however, was the main expounder of the materialistic philosophy which came to be known as the Lokayata, which means the ideas derived from the common people.

Ajivika Sects:

  • The Ajivika sect seems to have been quite old, as there are allusions to prececessors of Makkhali Gosala, its most important leader, in the 5th century BCE.
    • Apart from Gosala, Buddhist tradition also connects the Ajivika doctrines with Purana Kassapa and Pakudha Kachchayana.
    • Ajivika is one of the nastika or “heterodox” schools of Indian philosophy. It was a sramaṇa movement and a major rival of early Buddhism and Jainism.
  • There are many scattered references to this sect.
    • Jaina and Buddhist traditions give accounts of the birth and parentage of Makkhali Gosala, but these seem aimed at giving an etymology for his name and ascribing a low social origin to him, and may therefore have no historical basis whatsoever.
  • Ajivika philosophy of niyati:
    • A central Ajivika idea was that of niyati (fate), the principle that ultimately determined and controlled everything. Human effort was of no consequence in this strictly deterministic doctrine.
    • There is no free will, that everything that has happened, is happening and will happen is entirely preordained and a function of cosmic principles. Ajivika considered the karma doctrine as a fallacy.
    • Karma and transmigration existed, but human effort played no role in it, as the paths for souls over thousands of years had already been mapped out.
    • Whereas other groups believed that an individual can better his or her lot in the course of transmigration of soul, the Ajivikas supposedly held that the affairs of the entire universe were ordered by a cosmic force called Niyati (destiny) that determined all events, including an individual’s fate, to the last detail and that barred personal efforts to change or accelerate improvement toward one’s spiritual destiny.
      • As a result of this static and melancholy view of the human condition, the Ajivikas practiced austerities rather than pursue any purposeful goal.
  • Ajivika rejected the authority of the Vedas, but they believed that in every living being is an atman – a central premise of Hinduism and Jainism.
  • Ajivika metaphysics included a theory of atoms similar to the Vaisheshika school, where everything was composed of atoms, qualities emerged from aggregates of atoms, but the aggregation and nature of these atoms was predetermined by cosmic forces.
  • The Ajivikas had regular places (known as sabhas) where meetings were held and important ceremonies performed.
    • This suggests that they had a corporate organization.
  • They had canonical texts, and Buddhist and Jaina texts contain quotations or paraphrases from them.
  • The Ajivikas practised severe asceticism, often eating very little food (though the Buddhists accused them of eating secretly).
  • They seem to have practised ahimsa (non-injury, non-violence), but apparently not as strictly as the Jainas, since the Bhagavati Sutra mentions that they were allowed to eat meat.
  • They practised complete nudity.
  • Jaina texts criticize them for not observing celibacy.
  • The Ajivika sect did not practice discrimination on the basis of caste or class, and its ascetics and laity came from various sections of society.
    • Some, for instance, a certain relative of king Bimbisara, were Kshatriyas.
    • The ascetic Panduputta was the son of a wagon-maker (considered low in the social hierarchy).
    • Makkhali Gosala used the workshop of a woman potter Halahala as his headquarters at Shravasti.
  • Patrons:
    • Prasenajit, king of Kosala, seems to have been a patron of the Ajivika order.
    • In the nearby Nagarjuni hills, inscriptions record the dedication of three caves to them by Ashoka’s successor, Dasharatha.
    • Apart from royalty, urban and trading groups were prominent members of the laity.
  • The severe criticism of the Ajivikas in Buddhist and Jaina texts indicates that they were considered worthy rivals:
    • In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha describes Makkhali Gosala as a foolish man who had brought grief and sorrow to gods and men. Clearly, the Buddhists considered his doctrine the worst and most dangerous of samana doctrines.
    • Jaina texts too reflect bitter rivalry and conflict with the Ajivikas. The Bhagavati Sutra describes a violent quarrel between Makkhali Gosala and Mahavira.
  • The Ajivika sect continued to be influential during later centuries as well:
    • The Mahavamsa suggests that its influence had spread as far south as Sri Lanka.
    • The Divyavadana tells the story of an Ajivika fortune-teller in the Maurya king Bindusara’s court, who prophesied the future greatness of Ashoka.
    • Inscriptions in the Barabar hills record Ashoka’s dedication of some caves to Ajivika ascetics.
    • In the nearby Nagarjuni hills, inscriptions record the dedication of three caves to them by Ashoka’s successor, Dasharatha.
    • Ashoka’s seventh pillar edict urges officers known as the dhammamahamatas to busy themselves with the affairs of sects, including the Ajivikas.
    • The Maurya period may have been the heyday of the Ajivika sect, but references to it continue in various sources till the early medieval period.
  • Ajivika reached the height of its popularity during the rule of the Mauryan emperor Bindusara around the 4th century BCE. This school of philosophy thereafter declined, but survived for nearly 2,000 years through the 14th century CE in the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
  • The Ajivika philosophy, along with the Charvaka philosophy, appealed most to the warrior, industrial and mercantile classes of ancient Indian society.

Charvaka Philosophy of Materialism:

  • The Charvaka school was a philosophical movement in India that rejected the traditional religious order by challenging the authority of the Vedas as well as the hegemony the Brahman priests.
  • This school is considered part of the heterodox systems of Indian philosophy, and it is also known as Lokayata, which means “Worldly”.
    • It underlined the importance of intimate contact with the world (loka), and showed a lack of belief in the other world. Many teachings are attributed to Charvaka.
  • The Charvaka school started to develop around the 7th century BCE, during the time when the culture of world renunciation emerged in India. Buddhist scriptures occasionally mention the Charvaka as part of the wandering religious groups known as sramanas.
    • Before the time of the Charvaka school there were other materialistic schools in India, but none of them managed to systematize their teachings like the Charvaka did.
  • The most prominent member of this school during the time of the Buddha was a man named Ajita Kesakambali, whose ideas are summarized in a Buddhist Pali text known as Samannaphala Sutta, where he denies the doctrine of transmigration of the soul.
  • The earliest texts of the Charvaka were written around the 6th century BCE, but unfortunately they have been lost.
  • From what we can piece together, mainly through later works, these thinkers believed in a rigid materialistic perspective in which only things that could be perceived directly were thought to exist.
  • The members of this school did not believe in ideas such as the soul, reincarnation, spirits, or gods.
    • Religion, they said, is nothing but a fraud devised by clever men who want to take advantage of others.
    • Soul or consciousness can be explained in natural terms as a side effect of having a healthy body: When the body dies, consciousness simply disappears. No existence other than the physical body exists for the Charvaka.
  • The attitude towards human conduct in the Charvaka school was a very flexible one: Right or wrong were seen as merely human conventions. The cosmos, they believed, was indifferent to human behaviour.

Some of the key principles of this doctrine of materialism were:

  • Charvaka theory of knowledge:
    • Accepted sensory perception as the only source of knowledge.
    • He accepted the existence/reality of only those things that could be experienced by human senses and organs.
      • This implied a clear lack of faith in the existence of brahma and god.
    • Rejected the role of inference, verbal testimony, comparison etc. in providing authentic knowledge to a person.
    • Idea that only what is perceptible by the senses is true is the guiding principle behind their philosophy.
  • Charvaka Metaphysics:
    • Rejected the existence of all transcendental entities like soul, God, incarnation, law of karma, rebirth etc. (as per doctrine of sense perception)
    • He was opposed to the quest for spiritual salvation. He denied the existence of any divine or supernatural agency.
    • Rejection of God-
      • God has been rejected as he cannot be perceived by the senses.
      • The dilemma that arises in this respect is that if there is no God then who created the universe? The Charvakas have accepted the universe to be a made from the four basic elements of air, water, fire and earth. Thus the world’s existence is purely mechanical.
    • Rejection of soul-
      • Similar to God, soul also does not exist as it cannot be perceived.
      • A question that arises here is that then how are we supposed to explain consciousness?
        • Charvakas reply that consciousness is a property of the body which arises due to the mixture of the basic elements in a fixed proportion.
        • Just like the mixture of areca nut, lime and betel gives rise to red color on being chewed, these elements also give rise to consciousness when mixed in the right proportion.
        • When the body dies, consciousness simply disappears.
        • No existence other than the physical body exists for the Charvaka.
    • Rejection of religion
      • For Charvaka, religion is nothing but a fraud devised by clever men who want to take advantage of others.
      • Providing a good living for the priests is a sufficient explanation for the practice of religion.
      • According to Charvaka, the brahmanas manufactured rituals in order to acquire gifts (dakshina).
  • Charvaka Ethics:
    • Since there is no soul, there can be no case for liberation.
    • Charvakas believe in the present life and their dictum is to live this life fully.
    • They promote egoistic hedonism, i.e.- pleasure for one’s own self.
    • Of the four purusharthas mentioned in Indian scriptures- dharma, artha, kama and moksha; the Charvakas have accepted only Kama and Artha.
    • Heaven and hell are nothing but inventions. The only goal of humans is to enjoy pleasures and avoid pain.
      • To discredit Charvaka, his opponents highlight only one of his teachings. According to it, a person should enjoy himself as long as he lives; he should borrow to eat well (that is, take ghee).
      • However, Charvaka’s real contribution lies in his materialistic outlook. He denies the operation of divine and supernatural agencies and makes man the centre of all activities.
    • The attitude towards human conduct in the Charvaka school was a very flexible one: Right or wrong were seen as merely human conventions. The cosmos, they believed, was indifferent to human behaviour.

Conclusion

  • The schools of philosophy with emphasis on materialism developed in the period of an expanding economy and society between 500 BC and AD 300.
    • The struggle against the difficulties presented by nature in founding settlements and leading day-to-day life in the Gangetic plains and elsewhere led to the origin and growth of iron-based agricultural technology, the use of metal money, and the thriving of trade and handicrafts.
    • The new environment gave rise to a scientific and materialistic outlook which was principally reflected in Charvaka’s philosophy and also figured in that of several traditional schools.
  • By the fifth century AD, materialistic philosophy was overshadowed by the exponents of idealistic philosophy who constantly criticized it and recommended the performance of rituals and cultivation of spiritualism as a path to salvation; they attributed worldly phenomena to supernatural forces.
    • This view hindered the progress of scientific inquiry and rational thinking. Even the enlightened found it difficult to question the privileges of the priests and warriors.
    • Steeped in the idealistic and salvation schools of philosophy, the people could resign themselves to the inequities of the varna-based social system and the strong authority of the state represented by the king.
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