Materialism


One of our major misfortunes is that we have lost so much of the world’s ancient literature—in Greece, in India, and elsewhere. Probably this was inevitable as these books were originally written on plam-leaves or on bhurjapatra, the thin layers of the bark of the birch tree which peel off” so easily, and later on paper. There were only a few copies of a work in existence and if they were lost or destroyed, that work disappeared, and it can only be traced by references to it, or quotations from it, in other books. Even so, about fifty or sixty thousand manuscripts in Sanskrit or its variations have already been traced and listed and fresh discoveries are being constantly made. Many old Indian books have so far not been found in India at all but their translations in Chinese or Tibetan have been discovered. Probably an organized search for old manuscripts in the libraries of religious institutions, monasteries and private persons would yield rich results. That, and the critical examination of these manuscripts and, where considered desirable, their publication and translation, are among the many things we have to do in India when we succeed in breaking through our shackles and can function for ourselves. Such study is bound to throw light on many phases of Indian history and especially on the social background behind historic events and changing ideas. The fact that in spite of repeated losses and destruction, and without any organized attempt to discover them, over fifty thousand manuscripts have been brought out, shows how extra-ordinarily abundant must have been the literary, dramatic, philosophical and other productions of old times. Many of the manuscripts discovered still await thorough examination.

Among the books that have been lost is the entire literature on materialism which followed the period of the early Upanishads. The only references to this, now found, are in criticisms of it and in elaborate attempts to disprove the materialist theories. There can be no doubt, however, that the materialist philosophy was professed in India for centuries and had, at the time, a powerful influence on the people. In the famous Arthashastra, Kautilya’s book on political and economic organization, written in the fourth century B.C., it is mentioned as one of the major philosophies of India.

We have then to rely on the critics and persons interested in disparaging this philosophy, and they try to pour ridicule on it and show how absurd it all is. That is an unfortunate way for us to find out what it was. Yet their very eagerness to discredit it shows how important it was in their eyes. Possibly much of the literature of materialism in India was destroyed by the priests and other believers in the orthodox religion during subsequent periods.

The materialists attacked authority and all vested interests in thought, religion and theology. They denounced the Vedas and priestcraft and traditional beliefs, and proclaimed that belief must be free and must not depend on presuppositions or merely on the authority of the past. They inveighed against all forms of magic and superstition. Their general spirit was comparable in many ways to the modern materialistic approach; it wanted to rid itself of the chains and burden of the past, of speculation about matters which could not be perceived, of worship of imaginary gods. Only that could be presumed to exist which could be directly perceived, every other inference or presumption was equally likely to be true or false. Hence matter in its various forms and this world could only be considered as really existing. There was no other world, no heaven or hell, no soul separate from the body. Mind and intelligence and everything else have developed from the basic elements. Natural phenomena did not concern themselves with human values and were indifferent to what we consider good or bad. Moral rules were mere conventions made by men.

We recognize all this; it seems curiously of our day and not of more than two thousand years ago. How did these thoughts arise, these doubts and conflicts, this rebellion of the mind of man against traditional authority? We do not know enough of social and political conditions then, but it seems clear that it was an age of political conflict and social turmoil, leading to a disintegration of faith and to keen intellectual inquiry and a search for some way out, satisfying to the mind. It was out of this mental turmoil and social maladjustment that new paths grew and new systems of philosophy took shape. Systematic philosophy, not the intuitional approach of the Upanishads, but based on close reasoning and argument, begins to appear in many garbs, Jain, Buddhist, and what might be called Hindu, for want of a better word. The Epics also belong to this period and the Bhagavad Gita. It is difficult to build up an accurate chronology of this age, as thought and theory overlapped and acted and reacted on each other. Buddha came in the sixth century B.C. Some of these developments preceded him, others followed, or often there was a parallel growth.

About the time of the rise of Buddhism, the Persian Empire reached the Indus. This approach of a great Power right to the borders of India proper must have influenced people’s thoughts. In the fourth century B.C. Alexander’s brief raid into north-west India took place. It was unimportant in itself, but it was the precursor of far-reaching changes in India. Almost immediately after Alexander’s death, Chandragupta built up the great Maurya Empire. That was, historically speaking, the first strong, widespread and centralized state in India. Tradition mentions many such rulers and overlords of India and one of the epics deals with the struggle for the suzerainty of India, meaning thereby probably northern India. But, in all probability, ancient India, like ancient Greece, was a collection of small states. There were many tribal republics, some of them covering large areas; there were also petty kingdoms; and there were, as in Greece, city states with powerful guilds of merchants. In Buddha’s time there were a number of these tribal republics and four principal kingdoms in Central and Northern India (including Gandhara or part of Afghanistan). Whatever the form of organization, the tradition of city or village autonomy was very strong, and even when an overlordship was acknowledged there was no interference with the internal working of the state. There was a kind of primitive democracy, though, as in Greece, it was probably confined to the upper classes.

Ancient India and Greece, so different in many ways, have so much in common that I am led to believe that their background of life was very similar. The Peloponnesian war, ending in the breakdown of Athenian democracy might in some ways be compared to the Mahabharata war, the great war of ancient India. The failure of Hellenism and of the free city-state led to a feeling of doubt and despair, to a pursuit of mysteries and revelations, a lowering of the earlier ideals of the race. The emphasis shifted from this world to the next. Later, new schools of philosophy— the Stoic and the Epicurean—developed.

It is dangerous and misleading to make historical comparisons on slender, and sometimes contradictory, data. Yet one is tempted to do so. The period in India after the Mahabharata war, with its seemingly chaotic mental atmosphere, reminds one of the post-Hellenic period of Greece. There was a vulgarization of ideals and then a groping for new philosophies. Politically and economically similar internal changes might have been taking place, such as the weakening of the tribal republic and city-state and the tendency to centralize state power.

But this comparison does not take us very far. Greece never really recovered from these shocks, although Greek civilization flourished for some additional centuries in the Mediterranean and influenced Rome and Europe. In India there was a remarkable recovery and the thousand years from the Epic Period and the Buddha onwards were full of creative energy. Innumerable great names in philosophy, literature, drama, mathematics, and the arts stand out. In the early centuries of the Christian era a remarkable burst of energy resulted in the organization of colonial enterprises which took the Indian people and their culture to distant islands in the eastern seas.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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