What is religion?

Here’s something worth pondering: Perhaps religion is not really a cultural universal. There’s a good case to be made that “religion” as we understand it today is a category that arose out of European Christianity, specifically Protestantism, and that what today are called “Eastern religions” are not really religions at all. To be clear, this isn’t one of those “Eastern religion is really just a way of life” takes. Rather, the point is that terms like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shinto, Taoism and so on don’t refer to real social phenomena. And the same could be said of pre-Christian European pagan religions.

What we do observe in pre-modern societies, European or otherwise, is roughly the following: veneration of the gods/spirits/ancestors, rituals and ceremonies for their propitiation, mythology and folklore, norms and customs that dictate what kind of behavior is acceptable, intellectual traditions and monastic communities, modes of political organization, festivals and ceremonies etc. The problem with “religion” as a category is that it assumes that all these social spheres are tied together to form some sort of unified, centralized whole, when this is simply not how most pre-modern societies worked. There are good reasons to think that such a view is many ways distinctive of early modern Protestantism, and so it’s hardly surprising that the creation of categories and identities such as “Hinduism,” “Buddhism and “Shinto” can in large part be attributed to Protestant scholars. The same view continued unchallenged through the Enlightenment and was presupposed when secular studies of religion were conducted by colonial anthropologists and historians.

We can see how a particularly Protestant understanding of religion was imposed on non-European societies. The best example of this is the phenomenon of British colonialists and Indologists trying to understand Indian society by translating various Indian “sacred texts.” The assumption behind this was that these texts dictate what the native population believes, and these beliefs are what cause them to engage in certain practices and behave in certain ways. (To see how absurd this is, imagine if a group of Indian scholars thought the correct way to understand how 17th century European society worked was to simply read translated verses from the Bible.)

What’s worth noting is that the relationship between text and doctrine, doctrine and belief, and belief and practice is itself nowhere near as clear cut as colonial historians assumed. It rests on false assumptions about these societies, and perhaps most crucially, misses the importance pre-modern societies attach to tradition. For most people, the fact that certain customs, rituals and traditions were handed down by their ancestors was reason enough to continue with the same practices. No further justification was needed. Again, we see the same thing in Greco-Roman paganism. Cicero and Plutarch were both skeptical of the existence of the gods, and yet they not only took part in traditional rituals and the veneration of the gods, they actually led them, as priests / augurs. This is not because they were somehow cynically manipulating the masses, but because – and they state this explicitly – of the importance they placed on carrying on the traditions handed down to them. We see similar views in India – here’s a record of what some Tamil Brahmins said to European missionaries in the 17th century [1]:

Such and such Actions are related of the Gods which would be criminal and sinful in any Man to do the like…Yet the Gods are subject to no Law or Precepts…and we are no more allow’d to withdraw from them the useful Religious Worship paid to them for so many Ages by our Forefathers, than we are to deny our Allegiance to our Lawful King.

In sum, the entire methodology European scholars (whether they were Protestant or otherwise) is probably suspect. Basically, what I’m hinting at is that our conceptual framework for understanding non-European societies, both in historical and contemporary terms, might have to change. And part of it might involve abandoning the practice of viewing aspects of these societies through the totalizing lens of religion, breaking them down into more sensible components like the ones I discussed above (rituals, folklore, veneration and so on) and anthropologically studying each of those in turn.


[1] Young, Richard Fox. “Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Apologetics in Early Nineteenth-Century India.” 1981. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Posted in anthropology, Hinduism, history, politics, religion | Leave a comment

On Class Reductionism

Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was one of the greatest Indian intellectuals of the 20th Century. He was social and political reformer and played a crucial role in drafting independent India’s constitution. Born in 1891 to a Dalit (outcaste / untouchable) family, he grew up experiencing the horrors of caste-based oppression. The following is an excerpt from his most revolutionary work, The Annihilation of Caste (written in 1935), in which he criticizes the belief that fighting economic oppression should take precedence over fighting other forms of oppression. I’m posting it here because it is still relevant, both in India and everywhere else in the world. 

The Socialists of India, following their fellows in Europe, are seeking to apply the economic interpretation of history to the facts of India. They propound that man is an economic creature, that his activities and aspirations are bound by economic facts, that property is the only source of power. They therefore preach that political and social reforms are but gigantic illusions, and that economic reform by equalization of property must have precedence over every other kind of reform. One may take issue with every one of these premises—on which rests the Socialists’ case for economic reform as having priority over every other kind of reform. One may contend that the economic motive is not the only motive by which man is actuated. That economic power is the only kind of power, no student of human society can accept.

That the social status of an individual by itself often becomes a source of power and authority, is made clear by the sway which the Mahatmas (“great men”) have held over the common man. Why do millionaires in India obey penniless Sadhus and Fakirs (sages and mystics)? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth, and go to Benares and Mecca? That religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India, where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than that of the magistrate, and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily takes a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist.

The fallacy of the Socialists lies in supposing that because in the present stage of European Society property as a source of power is predominant, that the same is true of India, or that the same was true of Europe in the past. Religion, social status, and property are all sources of power and authority, which one man has, to control the liberty of another. One is predominant at one stage; the other is predominant at another stage. That is the only difference. If liberty is the ideal, if liberty means the destruction of the dominion which one man holds over another, then obviously it cannot be insisted upon that economic reform must be the one kind of reform worthy of pursuit. If the source of power and dominion is, at any given time or in any given society, social and religious, then social reform and religious reform must be accepted as the necessary sort of reform.

One can thus attack the doctrine of the Economic Interpretation of History adopted by the Socialists of India. But I recognize that the economic interpretation of history is not necessary for the validity of the Socialist contention that equalization of property is the only real reform and that it must precede everything else. However, what I would like to ask the Socialists is this: Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order? The Socialists of India do not seem to have considered this question. I do not wish to do them an injustice. I give below a quotation from a letter which a prominent Socialist wrote a few days ago to a friend of mine, in which he said, “I do not believe that we can build up a free society in India so long as there is a trace of this ill-treatment and suppression of one class by another. Believing as I do in a socialist ideal, inevitably I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of various classes and groups. I think that Socialism offers the only true remedy for this as well as other problems.”

Now the question that I would like to ask is: Is it enough for a Socialist to say, “I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of the various classes?” To say that such a belief is enough is to disclose a complete lack of understanding of what is involved in Socialism. If Socialism is a practical programme and is not merely an ideal, distant and far off, the question for a Socialist is not whether he believes in equality. The question for him is whether he minds one class ill-treating and suppressing another class as a matter of system, as a matter of principle—and thus allowing tyranny and oppression to continue to divide one class from another.

Let me analyse the factors that are involved in the realization of Socialism, in order to explain fully my point. Now it is obvious that the economic reform contemplated by the Socialists cannot come about unless there is a revolution resulting in the seizure of power. That seizure of power must be by a proletariat. The first question I ask is: Will the proletariat of India combine to bring about this revolution? What will move men to such an action? It seems to me that, other things being equal, the only thing that will move one man to take such an action is the feeling that other men with whom he is acting are actuated by a feeling of equality and fraternity and—above all—of justice. Men will not join in a revolution for the equalization of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.

The assurance of a Socialist leading the revolution that he does not believe in Caste, I am sure will not suffice. The assurance must be the assurance proceeding from a much deeper foundation—namely, the mental attitude of the compatriots towards one another in their spirit of personal equality and fraternity. Can it be said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognises no distinctions except that of the rich and the poor? Can it be said that the poor in India recognize no such distinctions of caste or creed, high or low? If the fact is that they do, what unity of front can be expected from such a proletariat in its action against the rich? How can there be a revolution if the proletariat cannot present a united front?

Suppose for the sake of argument that by some freak of fortune a revolution does take place and the Socialists come into power; will they not have to deal with the problems created by the particular social order prevalent in India? I can’t see how a Socialist State in India can function for a second without having to grapple with the problems created by the prejudices which make Indian people observe the distinctions of high and low, clean and unclean. If Socialists are not to be content with the mouthing of fine phrases, if the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite reality, then they must recognize that the problem of social reform is fundamental, and that for them there is no escape from it.

That the social order prevalent in India is a matter which a Socialist must deal with; that unless he does so he cannot achieve his revolution; and that if he does achieve it as a result of good fortune, he will have to grapple with the social order if he wishes to realize his ideal—is a proposition which in my opinion is incontrovertible. He will be compelled to take account of Caste after the revolution, if he does not take account of it before the revolution. This is only another way of saying that, turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.

You can read The Annihilation of Caste in its entirety, along with Ambedkar’s back-and-forth with Gandhi on caste and religion here

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Famines and Free Markets

From 1876 to 1902, anywhere between 12 and 30 million Indians died in a series of famines. Although these deaths are often seen as effects of natural causes, nothing could be further from the truth. They were the result of very specific economic policies put into place by the British empire. In Late Victorian Holocausts, historian Mike Davis agrees with economist Amartya Sen’s assessment that “Famine is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat” (20). In his book, Davis defends the following central claim:

“Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system,’ but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” (9)

Although this applies to India, China, Brazil and Ethiopia, I will focus on one particular case here: the Great Madras Famine of 1876-78. It began in the south and later spread to central India, with conservative estimates putting the death toll at 5.5 million (although the actual numbers were almost certainly higher).

It is essential to note that India was no stranger to devastating famines in pre-colonial times. However, none of them were on the scale of those that swept through the lands under British rule. Although this is partly the result of specific geographical conditions (the drought in 1876 was particularly bad), the economic policies of the British empire were nothing short of catastrophic. The traditional Indian agrarian economy had systems in place to mitigate the effects of famines. There were stockpiles and reserves that held grain, which was then distributed by agents of the local government. Moreover, reports of the East India Company from the 17th and 18th century record Mughal and Maratha rulers “opening their treasuries” to the poor during times of famine and starvation (286).

The British saw these measures as violations of the principles of free market economics, and systematically dismantled them, leading directly, as we shall see, to the deaths of millions. Of course, none of what I have said is to be construed as a moral defense of India’s traditional feudal society. Rather, it serves to highlight the absurdity of colonial propaganda, which often justified Britain’s policies by portraying them as valiant attempts to liberate Indian peasants and laborers from the despotism of their rulers.

Free Market Fundamentalism 

When famine struck in 1876, the British government in India was led by the Viceroy Lord Lytton, who was a fanatical believer in laissez-faire economics. He was convinced by Adam Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations, that state intervention during famines was to be avoided at all costs because it would only make conditions worse. Market forces were to be trusted to restore the balance. Lytton vehemently opposed any programs of relief or aid, insisting that the market sort itself out.

The market did nothing of the sort. Prices of food and grain skyrocketed, bringing hunger and starvation even to places where rainfall had not been particularly scarce. Railroads, which were expected to help with the flow of supplies, “were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters).” Telegraphs were used to coordinate price hikes in different cities (26). In fact, the exorbitant taxes that had been imposed on farmers and workers to construct the railroads and telegraph lines actually made it harder for them to buy food and only exacerbated the levels of starvation (27).

In 1877-78, as millions of peasants died for lack of food, 700 million pounds of wheat were exported from the Indian subcontinent to Europe.  While the famine still raged, Lytton organized the “Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India” (28). An elaborate week-long feast was prepared for the Queen, her officers, maharajas, and wealthy landlords. Davis characterizes it as “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history” (28). More than 100,000 people died in Madras during the time of Queen Victoria’s visit to India.

While this might seem like genocidal callousness, it was not all that surprising, given the views Lytton actually held. His insistence on laissez-faire economics was combined with his adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Malthus. Malthusianism was the view that the unchecked growth of a region’s population would lead to widespread poverty, and natural disasters like famines were necessary to curb excessive increases in population. Lytton concurred, claiming that the Indian population “has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil” (32).

The result of all this was a scene that could quite reasonably be described as apocalyptic. Journalists and Christian missionaries described sights of men, women and children by the hundreds dying of hunger on the streets. There were reports of dogs feeding on the corpses of children. There were even some recorded instances of cannibalism. Several British officials deliberately refused to report these events, stating that they were caused by diseases like cholera and dysentery instead (34).

Relief / Concentration Camps 

When it was finally decided that something must be done to aid the starving population, relief camps were set up by the administration under Lord Lytton’s lieutenant, Richard Temple. However, to call them relief camps would be an abuse of language. During an earlier famine (1873-74), Temple had been severely criticized by British officials for setting up systems of aid. He decided to take a different approach in 1877.

“Relief” was organized, but only for those who were willing to engage in hard labor, with the compensation being food rations of almost negligible quantity. Most people were far too weak to participate in hard labor by this time, but they were left with no choice. Moreover, since all relief was seen as an interference in the free market, Temple’s task was “to make relief as repugnant and ineffective as possible” to discourage its use (37). Laborers were deliberately forced to travel long distances outside their area of residence to work. Temple intentionally made rations as minimal as possible as part of what he described as an “experiment.” In fact, most laborers were given fewer rations than prisoners.

The relief camps began to look more and more like concentration camps. Most laborers died in these camps, with records from 1877 putting the mortality rate at 94%. Temple blamed the situation on the victims, chastising them for being lazy and stubborn. He didn’t see the enormous loss of life as particularly tragic either. “Nor will many be inclined,” he is recorded as saying, “to grieve much for the fate which they brought upon themselves, and which terminated lives of idleness and too often of crime” (41). Several peaceful demonstrations were organized by peasants and relief camp laborers to protest the policies of the British government, all of which were dismissed with contempt. Temple described the men in relief camps as “a school full of refractory children” (38).

There was one organized armed rebellion under a Maratha chieftain, but it did not amount to much and was crushed with relative ease. Davis suspects that the lack of violent uprisings could be attributed in part to the fact that only 20 years had passed since the Great Revolt of 1857, which was put down with some of the worst brutality in colonial history. The images of mass hangings and captured rebel soldiers being strapped to the ends of cannons and blown to bits were probably still fresh in the minds of the people.

Imperial Hypocrisy 

While millions of laborers and landless peasants died under policies of free market economics, something quite different was happening in Britain. For all of Lytton’s free market fetishism in India, when it came to trade between the colony and the ruling empire, what existed was the very opposite of free trade. The British state played a crucial role in regulating the flow of goods. In the early 18th century, India had a thriving textile industry that was one of the largest exporters of high quality finished products to Britain. However, this was not to last. The government intervened to ensure that the British textile industry would not collapse due to being outcompeted by Indian textiles. High tariffs, and in some cases, outright bans, were placed on Indian exports to ensure the continued existence of the British industry. After the Industrial Revolution, Indian markets were flooded with cheap machine-spun cloth, transforming India from an exporter to the largest importer of British goods. Indian weavers were left with no chance of competing in a market that had been deliberately and artificially stacked against them.

The enormity of this change can be seen in the numbers. In 1750, India’s share in the world manufacturing output was 23.1%, compared to the UK’s 1.9%. By 1860, Britain had 19.9% of the world’s manufacturing output, while India had only 8.6%. The textile industry that had flourished in Bengal, Punjab and Madras was more or less completely dismantled. The weavers were reduced to poverty and beggary (294). Clearly, the idea that economic superpowers attained their wealth and status through free unregulated trade is a myth. An accurate reading of history informs us that the centers of industrial capitalism grew wealthy not because of “free markets” but through a combination of protectionism and violent imperialism.

Ranking Evils 

Terms like “genocide” and “holocaust” are obviously provocative and ought to be used with great care. The holocaust under Nazi Germany, with the systematic torture and annihilation of entire groups of people, is certainly unique in its brutality. Given this, is Davis’s use of the term for the title in his book appropriate? Does it make sense to compare and rank evils in this manner?

I do not intend to answer these questions here. All I ask is this: if millions of people are dying specifically because of your decisions, and despite having the ability to save these people, you deliberately let them die – indeed, explicitly state that it is no great tragedy that they are dying – is it really all that different from killing them yourself? Mike Davis certainly thinks it is not, and argues that the term “holocaust” is appropriate. No wonder then that the preface to his book concludes by saying: “The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations, not illustrations” (22).

Note: I initially thought about including some photographs from the Great Madras Famine in the post, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. They were just too heart wrenching and disturbing. You can find many of these pictures online if you want to see them. 

Works Cited:
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. London: Verso, 2001. Print.

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Atheism, Materialism and Anti-Clericalism in Ancient and Medieval India: Part Two

Read Part I here. This post examines the teachings of the most famous school of materialism in Indian thought, the Charvaka school.


The Charvakas were strict empiricists. They held that observation and sense-perception were the only real sources of knowledge. Several religious commentators claim that the Charvaka school rejected all forms of inference and testimony and insisted that direct perception was the only way to gain knowledge. An extreme form of empiricism such as this would have some pretty absurd consequences. For instance, upon seeing smoke, we wouldn’t be able to infer that there was a fire nearby, since the fire itself was not directly perceived. This would lead to a radical form of skepticism in our everyday lives. Opponents of the Charvakas pointed this out repeatedly, arguing that the Charvaka worldview was unlivable and hence ought to be rejected as ridiculous. “O Charvaka who accepts only direct sense perception as evidence,” an early early 18th Century orthodox philosopher wrote tauntingly, “why do you sadly sigh as you suspect your wife is pregnant from her paramour? (1)”

Over the last few decades, scholars such as Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Ramkrishna Bhattacharya have challenged this traditional interpretation of Charvaka epistemology. The Charvakas, they argue, had a much more nuanced theory of knowledge. Drawing upon two important Jain sources, they point out that the Charvakas didn’t reject all forms of inference. They only rejected inferences to supernatural entities such as gods and other realms that couldn’t themselves be directly observed. Evidence for this can be found in the Tarka Rahasya Dipika, a Jain treatise that summarizes the Charvaka view of inference in the following manner (2):

[T]he Charvakas admit the validity of inferences which tend to facilitate the activities of ordinary people; such as the inference of fire from smoke, but they never admit the validity of extraordinary inferences which seek to establish heaven, merit and demerit, etc.

What was the justification for this distinction? The answer can be found in another Jain document, which quotes the 7th Century Charvaka philosopher Purandara as saying:

The main reason for upholding such a distinction between the validity of reference in our practical life of ordinary experience, and in ascertain­ing transcending truths beyond experience, lies in this that an inductive generalization is made by observing a large number of cases of agreement in presence together with agreement in absence, and no cases of agreement in presence can be observed in the trans­cendental sphere; for even if such cases existed, they could not be perceived by the senses.

To put it simply, fire-from-smoke type inferences are not questioned since they have their basis in “previous perceptual knowledge, i.e. the experience of the invariable co-presence of fire with smoke,” whereas the same cannot be said of supernatural beings, since they bear “no relation at all to previous empirical evidence (3).”


The Charvakas claimed that ultimately, only the four elements: earth, water, fire and air existed. Everything else in the world was composed of these elements. This included human beings. The mind had no existence apart from the body, and perished along with the body at death.

Arguably the most formidable threat that any materialist ontology must face is the problem raised by consciousness. Consciousness, by its very nature, seems fundamentally different from everything else in the world. It is, first and foremost, an internal and first-person phenomenon and appears to resist a purely physical description. It is this experiential and qualitative side of consciousness that materialists find hard to explain. The challenge raised against the Charvakas was this: how does consciousness arise from materials such as water, fire and air which are themselves utterly devoid of consciousness?

The Charvakas had a remarkably sophisticated theory of the mind. They treated consciousness as an emergent property, and clarified their position by way of the following analogy: Consider intoxicating drinks. The individual ingredients that go into making these drinks don’t induce intoxication by themselves. But when they’re combined in a specific manner, as part of a specific process, the resulting drink has a mada-shakthi: an “intoxicating power.” This form of emergence is something we see around us all the time, the Charvakas claim, so there’s no reason to think the same can’t be true of consciousness. When the elements come together in a certain pattern as part of a specific process, consciousness emerges. Whether not this adequately addresses the challenge (I’m not sure it does), it strikes me as well thought out response (4).

There was an additional argument the Charvakas used to claim that consciousness must have a material basis, and it was pretty straightforward. Jayanta Bhatta of the orthodox Nyaya school captured it in the following way (5):

It is commonly observed that a body well-nourished with food and drinks has improved con­sciousness. The reverse happens in the reverse case (i.e. in the absence of nourishment of the body, there is a deterioration of consciousness). Besides, the body of a young man who takes the Brahmi-ghrita (a medicinal tonic) shows a remarkable improvement of consciousness . . . . Thus the improvement and deterioration of consciousness is directly explicable by the presence or absence of the excess of material elements.

The materialist view of the mind/body relationship was severely criticized by other schools of thought, but going over those criticisms will require another essay.


Very little can be ascertained about what the Charvakas taught about ethics. I mentioned in Part I that they were portrayed as hedonists by religious thinkers. This is captured by this quote attributed to them in the Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Compendium of All Philosophies) (6):

While life remains, let a man live happily; let him feed on ghee (clarified butter) even though he runs in debt…

Such a view is understandable, since they would have had little use for religious concepts such as piety or austerity. In fact, they seemed to have had nothing but contempt for organized religion, and were vocally anti-clerical. This is also from the Sarva Darshana Sangraha: 

If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
How is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that brahmins (the priests) have established here
All these ceremonies for the dead – there is no other fruit anywhere.
The authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves and demons.

The deeper question is whether the Charvakas were pleasure-seeking egoists unconcerned with ethics, as their opponents usually claimed they were. We can’t know for certain, but there is some evidence to the contrary. They may have actually held some pretty progressive opinions for their time and questioned the prevailing social order.

In an 11th century play called Prabodhachandrodaya (Rise of the Moon of Intellect), a materialist is depicted as challenging the caste system in the following way: “If the bodies are alike in their different parts, the mouth, etc., how can there be a hierarchy of castes?” It is worth noting that the materialist asking this is not a sympathetic character in the play: he is depicted a heretic, and his name Mahamoha roughly translates to “Great Delusion.” Similar themes can be seen in a 12th century poem, the Nasiddhacharitha (The Life of Nasiddha), where a materialist challenges the established norms relating to caste and gender (7):

Since purity of caste is possible only in the case of purity on each side of both families of the grandparents, what caste is pure by the purity of limitless generations?

Fie on those who boast of family dignity! They hold women in check out of jealousy; but do not likewise restrain men, though the blindness of passion is common to both!

Spurn all censorious statements about women as not worth a straw. Why dost thou constantly cheat people when thou, too, art as bad as women?

It would be unwise to draw any far-reaching conclusions about the progressive nature of the Charvakas’ ethical outlook based on these passages. However, given that they rejected the authority of the Vedas and the priestly class, it would not be surprising if they did in fact come to such conclusions.


Works Cited

[1] Baladeva Vidyabhushana’s Vedanta Shyamantaka 

[2], [7] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Studies in Lokayata/Carvaka.” Web. December 2011.

[3], [4], [5] Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. “Lokayata Materialism.” Indian Thought: An Introduction. Print. 1975.

[6] Gough & Cowell’s translation. “Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy.” 1882.

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Atheism, Materialism and Anti-Clericalism in Ancient and Medieval India: Part One

The different religious and philosophical schools of thought that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent in ancient and medieval times can be divided into two broad categories. The orthodox schools were those that accepted the Vedas as being scripturally authoritative. Much of what we consider to be contemporary religious Hinduism is derived from a subset of these schools of thought. The heterodox schools were those that rejected the authority of the Vedas. These included Buddhism, Jainism, and the subject of this essay: materialism.

A materialist holds that the material world is all there is, and denies the existence of supernatural entities. Materialism seems to have been not uncommon in ancient India. It can be traced all the way back to the philosopher Ajita Kesakambali, who lived during the 6th Century BCE and was a contemporary of the Buddha. An early Buddhist document, the Digha Nikaya, describes Ajita as denying the existence of gods, karma and reincarnation. Although not the dominant view, materialism was prominent enough that proponents of other schools of thought felt the need to refute their arguments (1).

There were different schools of materialism, but they were all usually lumped together under the label lokayata (literally: “this-worldly” or “of this world”). They are alluded to in numerous Buddhist, Jain and orthodox documents. The Manimekalai, a Tamil Buddhist epic composed sometime in the 6th Century CE, quotes a materialist as saying that life “appears by the mixing of elements, vanishes when they separate as sounds from a drum… This birth and its effects conclude now. Talk of other births is falsity” (2).

References to the lokayata school of thought can be found in different works up until the 16th Century, after which point they appear to have faded away into obscurity. Starting in the 1570s, the Mughal Emperor Akbar held numerous religious debates and dialogues in his capital city of Fatehpur Sikri. The materialists seem to have made an appearance there, as recorded by the Muslim scholar Abū l-Faḍl in his work Ain-i-Akbari (3):

They [the materialists] recognize no existence apart from the four elements, nor any source of perception save through the five organs of sense. They do not believe in a God nor in immaterial substances, and affirm faculty of thought to result from the equilibrium of the aggregate elements. Paradise, they regard as a state in which man lives as he chooses, free from the control of another, and hell the state in which he lives subject to another’s rule. The whole end of man, they say, is comprised in four things: the amassing of wealth, women, fame and good deeds. They admit only of such sciences as tend to the promotion of external order, that is, a knowledge of just administration and benevolent government. They are somewhat analogous to the sophists in their views and have written many works in reproach of others, which rather serve as lasting memorials of their own ignorance.

As we can see, he was not very charitable in his portrayal of the materialists. This is a recurring problem with almost all the sources of information available to us. We know very little about what the materialists actually believed, since none of their original writings exist. All we have to go on are  descriptions of their views in secondary sources: mostly Buddhist, Jain and orthodox philosophers attempting to prove them wrong. These documents usually heap scorn and ridicule on the lokayatas, depicting them as hedonistic and unrighteous. There are good reasons to believe that many of these sources give us only a caricature of their views, as we shall see in Part II.


Emperor Akbar participating in a religious discussion (courtesy: news.stanford.edu)

In medieval India, the most well known materialists were the Charvakas. The Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Compendium of All Philosophies), written in the 14th century by an orthodox scholar, summarizes the sixteen major schools of thought at the time, in the order of most heretical to most acceptable. Charvaka is the first worldview on the list and is described as “the crest-gem of the atheistic school” (4). The Sarva Darshana Sangraha sums up their view of life with the following verse:

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e’er again return?

Like their predecessors, they were atheists, and denied the existence of a supernatural creator, as this aphorism attributed to them in the Sarva Darshana Sangraha shows:

The fire is hot, the water cold, refreshingly cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety? From their own nature was it born.

As I’ve stressed in this post, there is very little we can know for certain about materialists like the Charvakas. They were viewed and portrayed as intellectually and morally destructive by most religious thinkers. In the Mahabharata (one of the two major Hindu epics), for example, a scholar who goes by the name of Charvaka turns out to be a demon in disguise (5). Clearly, everything we read about them from secondary sources must be taken with a grain of salt. Despite this, in recent years, scholars and intellectual historians have managed to piece together parts of their worldview. In Part II, I will go over what the Charvaka school taught on matters concerning epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.


Works Cited

[1] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Studies in Lokayata/Carvaka.” Web. December 2011.

[2] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “The Development of Materialism in India.” Web. 2013.

[3] Wojciehowski, Hannah. “East- West Swerves: Cārvāka Materialism and Akbar’s       Religious Debates at Fatehpur Sikri.” Web. 2015.

[4] Gough & Cowell’s translation. “Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy.” 1882.

[5] Book 12, Chapter 39 of The Mahabharatahttp://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m12/m12a038.htm

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Animals and Liberty

In his paper Do Animals Have an Interest in LibertyAlasdair Cochrane draws a distinction between two different kinds of interests. A being has an instrumental interest in liberty if their interest is “dependent on its facilitation of other goods, such as the avoidance of suffering.” A being has an intrinsic interest in liberty if, for that being, liberty is good in itself, “irrespective of its contribution to and facilitation of other goods.”

Cochrane is of the view that while nonhuman animals have an instrumental interest in liberty, they do not have an intrinsic interest in liberty. He uses the example of a dog who is treated well by a kind owner. As long as the dog is allowed to act in accordance of his preferences and satisfy his desire for food, comfort, sleep, etc., Cochrane thinks the dog isn’t harmed if he is seen as the owner’s property. Cochrane then asks us to consider the position of a slave who is owned by a “kindly master” who generally doesn’t interfere in his daily life. Assume the slave genuinely believes that he is inferior to his master and strongly desires to serve him. Cochrane thinks that the slave is still harmed by his property status, even though he is able to satisfy his preferences. Thus, human beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty, while animals only have an instrumental one.

So, why is it that only humans have an intrinsic interest in liberty? Cochrane connects this interest with the the notion of autonomy. Autonomy has a very specific meaning here, and is related to rationality. Very simply, Cochrane’s conception of autonomy “refers to a ‘second-order’ capacity pertaining to the choice and pursuit of one’s own conception of the good.” In other words, it hinges on a being’s ability to step back and reflect on his/her desires and evaluate his/her reasons for pursuing certain ends and holding certain goals. This is what makes the human slave’s case different from that of the dog. The human, because of his property status and indoctrination, is being denied the opportunity to evaluate and revise his goals. He is prevented from creating his own ends or pursing a different set of goals due to his relationship with his owner. There is something intrinsically wrong with his situation, whereas the same isn’t true of the dog’s, since the dog lacks this kind of autonomy.

Cochrane’s position faces an obvious challenge: what about human beings who lack the kind of autonomy necessary for an intrinsic interest in liberty? Do severely mentally disabled people, for instance, not have an intrinsic interest in being seen as someone else’s property? Cochrane actually bites the bullet here and admits that he doesn’t think they have an intrinsic interest in liberty. They do have an instrumental interest though, so in Cochrane’s view, as long as their preferences are satisfied and their welfare is protected, it wouldn’t matter if their official status is that of property. This is an internally consistent position, but still extremely counter-intuitive.

In her response (Animals Do Have an Interest in Liberty) to Cochrane, Valery Giroux makes the case that all sentient beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty. Her paper is worth reading in full. She makes a number of interesting points about autonomy and liberty. I’ll restrict myself to going over only one of them here. She proceeds by first analyzing the case of the indoctrinated human slave. She then provides an alternate account of why he has an intrinsic interest in not being owned by another person, no matter how benevolent. She then argues that this argument can be extended to nonhuman animals as well, which means they too have an intrinsic interest in liberty.

Regarding the case of human slavery, Giroux’s basic contention is the following:

[S]laves who belong to a charitable master who does not interfere in their daily lives are never the less subject to this master’s authority and are at the mercy of his will because he can always decide to start controlling them more rigorously…

In other words, the slave always faces the threat of having his interests thwarted. The slave owner could suddenly decide not to be so gentle, or sell the slave to a harsher owner. But notice that exactly the same is true of someone who owns a dog. The nonhuman animal faces exactly the same threat that the human slave does. Giroux sums it up in the following manner:

Since they have an interest in not being prevented by others from what they want to do, sentient nonhuman animals also have interest in being in situations in which this first interest is not threatened by an inferior moral or legal status they might have. If they have an interest in not undergoing constraints or interference, sentient nonhuman animals also have an interest in not risking undergoing them…


The phrase “threatened by an inferior moral or legal status” is important here, because the moral and legal status define the animal’s position in society. No matter what welfare laws are in place, as long as they are seen as property, they always risk having their interests overridden by those of their owners.

If this line of reasoning has some merit, then it follows that all sentient beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty. Now, this doesn’t mean that the very idea of keeping a companion animal is morally problematic. Companion animals are fine, as long as they are treated with love and respect. It is the norms, attitudes and institutions that deem the ownership of animals as property acceptable that are flawed and need to be abolished. Giroux’s argument also doesn’t force us to conclude that owning humans and owning nonhumans are both equally morally wrong. One could certainly argue that since humans incur an additional harm when they are property  – i.e., the violation of their autonomy that Cochrane describes – owning humans is worse than owning animals.

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Veganism and Species Extinction

Some critics of veganism and animal rights advocacy claim that if we stopped eating meat, many species of farm animals would go extinct. The extinction of a species is seen as a bad thing, and so it is argued that we ought to keep breeding animals for food.

It isn’t obvious to me that many farm animals would go extinct if animal farming came to an end, but let’s ignore that. I want to challenge the claim that it’s an instrinsically bad thing if a certain species ceased to exist. The first thing to note is that “species” is a concept. A species is not an individual. It isn’t conscious, it has no experiences, and hence it cannot have an interest in continuing to exist. An individual who is sentient, on the other hand, does have an interest in continued existence and not being killed.

Consider the following scenario: animal rights activists have their way and industrial farming comes to an end. The existing cattle at the time are taken care of and live reasonably good lives. A few generations down the line, cattle go extinct, due to low rates of breeding. What exactly about this is unethical? Is this a bad outcome?  If it is, who exactly is harmed by this state of affairs?

It can’t be the species of cattle. As I stated earlier, a species has no interests, and hence can’t be harmed. It can’t be the individual cows of the last generation either. They lived out their lives and weren’t harmed in any way. Perhaps it’s all the future cows that could otherwise have existed, but didn’t, that were harmed? But this doesn’t make sense. A being can’t be harmed by not being brought into existence – because there isn’t anyone to be harmed in the first place. If not bringing individuals into existence is somehow harmful, then we ought to maximize procreation and have as many children as we can, and that sounds pretty absurd. Perhaps the environment is being harmed in some sense? Again, it isn’t clear how the nonexistence of a certain species of farm animal could harm the environment more than industrial farming.

In the above scenario, no one is harmed. If we continue to slaughter cows for food, certain beings are harmed, since cows have an interest in not suffering and in staying alive. So if the goal is to avoid harm, our choice is obvious.

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