Indian Materialist Philosophy

Whither Rationalist Movement?

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

[Following is a slightly shorterned version of a speech delivered by the author at the 11th Conference of Federation of Indian Rationalist Association (FIRA), held at Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, on 5-6 January, 2019] 

Dear President and Fellow Workers of the Rationalist Movement,

I thank the organisers of this conference for nominating me as its chief guest. I would confine my address to a few observations relating to the task of the rationalist movement in India today. However, before getting into it, I propose to pay my homage to the martyrs of this movement in India and elsewhere. Martyr and its synonym in Urdu (from Arabic) shahid have religious associations, but over ages both have acquired a secular signification. Noted activists for rationalism, such as N A Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, to name the more recent ones, have been brutally murdered. They laid down their lives only to further the cause of freethinking. 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,' as the Christians used to say during the days of their persecution in ancient times.

First of all, I assert that miracle-busting and exposures of the misdeeds of all gurus and godmen of all religious communities have been and for a long time to come, should remain one of our chief tasks. Demonstrating that there is nothing called supernatural, notwithstanding what the believers may say, is to be continued. People should be made aware of the fraud involved in the so-called miracles. However, this is not enough. Unless we can provide a philosophical basis of our views, no lasting effect can be expected.

And here, we, Indians, have an advantage. Side by side with the ideas concerning heaven and hell, God or gods, etc. materialist philosophy, variously known as Bhutavada (elementa-lism, as found in the Old Tamil epics), Charvaka, Lokayata, and the like developed from a rudimentary stage to full-fledged doctrines, right from the time of the Buddha (fifth century BCE) down to the twelfth century CE, after which all works, base texts and commentaries, vanished from the face of the earth. Long before we came into contact with western philosophy our forefathers had formulated philosophical systems which denied the concept of rebirth, karmaphala (result of action), and unswerving adherence to the Veda. They boldly challenged all the claims of theism and fideism, squarely blamed the priests and ridiculed mercilessly all rituals, yagas and pujas, etc.

So many misrepresentations have been made by the opponents of materialism that the Charvaka/Lokayata philosophy is generally understood to be one with hedonism, 'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die'. It needs to be asserted and reasserted that the half-line, rinamkritvaghritampibet (drink clarified butter even by incurring debt), is a gross distortion of the original half-line, nastimrityoragocharah (nothing is beyond the view of death). How this distortion was made to stay has been shown quite elaborately in my book, Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata (Florence, 2009; London, New Delhi : Anthem Press, 2011) Chapter XIX, pp.201-206). The Charvaka/Lokayata system was not the precursor of consumerism. It advocated, as Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, used to practise, the pleasures of the intellectual kind, not of the physical or sensual. Nor did it approve of asceticism, depriving oneself of all food and drinks, etc. by fasting. This has been misinterpreted to imply, rather slyly, that the Charvakas were thoroughly hedonistic in their approach to life. The distinction between non-performance of penance, fasting, etc. was equated with indulgence in limitless eating and drinking. It is a blatant lie and a spade should be called a spade.

As to the other objections against the Charvaka/Lokayata are related to such issues as whether perception alone can be adequate for attaining knowledge about everything in the world, and similar philosophical problems. Here, too, very crafty misrepresentations tend to overshadow the picture. Since Indian materialists refused to believe anything that was not perceptible, that is, amenable to the sense-organs, they were dubbed as simpletons. What the materialists wished to assert is that inference, words of an authority, etc can be accepted with the proviso that they are based on or verifiable by perception. In older times, maybe before the 8th century CE, some materialists did not accept anything but perception as the valid means of knowledge. But the Charvakas, who appeared in or around the 8th century CE, clearly stated that they were ready to accept inferential judgement insofar as they were not derived from religious scriptures, gurus, and such like invalid sources. All this has been discovered from Sanskrit works, translated into English and in some modern Indian languages too. But they have not been widely publicised. The enemies of materialism continue to speak against it and most unethically suppress the fact. Yet, not only materialists like Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Mrinalkanti Gangopa-dhyaya and others, but also immaterialists like Richard Garbe, Mysore Hiriyanna, and Satkari Mookerjee have pointed out the obvious error in the position of the critics of the Charvaka/Lokayata.

I deliberately digressed a little in order to draw your attention to the rich heritage of rationalism in India that can be made use of even today. We should make it known more and more through our writings and speeches in order to silence the voice of the enemies of materialism in India, more particularly the idealists following one or the other of religious sects, be they Hindu or Muslim or Christian or whatever.

We should recognise the fact that mental blocks cannot be removed one by one. Our aim should be to deal a sledgehammer blow to all at a time. Superstitions, faith in miracles, in God or gods, and the like are inherited in most of the families from parents that they, in their turn, had got from their forefathers. They are transmitted from one generation to other. Our task is to provide an alternative philosophy of life that could be set against the traditional view of living. This task, first of formulating and then of presenting the alternative way of life and thought, is no doubt difficult. The priorities would differ from place to place, from one social stratum to another, and even from family to family in the same space and time. Our presentation of the alternative view should, therefore, be both dynamic (ever-changing in accordance with the needs of the time) and flexible (suited to different circumstances and persons). Exhorting like a prophet or speaking like a preacher must be avoided at all costs. We have to learn to be modest yet firm in offering the rational point of view as opposed to the conventional one.

Secondly, the cultivation of regional languages,and even local dialects of smaller ethnic groups needs to be taken up more earnestly than before. In a multilingual state we do need a common language for communication. For the better or for the worse, English continues to remain the only link language. It is indeed curious to observe that the use of English—admittedly a foreign language—still brings all the linguistic communities of India together. At the same time, it also alienates all who had no opportunity to learn this alien tongue. The person who is fluent in English, is respected, and even revered;although, his words fail to touch the mind of the masses who do not know English. We can hope to communicate directly with the people at large only when we learn to speak in their language.

However, knowing, speaking and writing in Bangla, Hindi, Tamil,Telugu, etc., would just be the beginning. We must also learn the way other minds work and their idiom. Only then we can convey our ideas to them. High sounding words, long and complicated sentences and obscure allusions, etc. have to be avoided in our writings and speeches. We must not consider ourselves superior to the common people. It is as an equal to an equal that we should approach others.

This point, I think, requires some elaboration. Human beings have been defined as a rational animal; rationality being ingrained in them. Nevertheless, instinct and emotion are as much ingrained as reason. The way of reason is thus often found to be full of obstacles; instinctive and instant reactions, outpourings of emotion thwart or block its path. It needs a lot of effort to allow reason to operate without being encumbered by instinct and emotion. It needs learning from experience, constant self-examination and occasional self-assessment. Before we are able to educate and re-educate the people, we, the rationalists everywhere in the world, are in need of educating and reeducating ourselves.

Vol. 51, No.30, Jan 27 - Feb 2, 2019