August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


6 - Indian Materialism

The Greeks played the leading role in the foundation of science and philosophy, and in the detachment of these from religion, but they are not alone in having made this progress. It is no more than just to mention the great intellectual labor performed by the people of the East, even though this labor was not as consequential as that of the ancient Greeks. The elements of materialism which were developed in the East can there serve as a point of departure for dialectical materialism. Therefore, before concluding the first section of lectures, I should like to speak of materialism in ancient India. I will reserve discussion of China for the last section. In the next chapters I proceed directly to the doctrines of Marx and Engels.

Materialism had already appeared in ancient India by the sixth century B.C. This is the period which immediately follows primitive times. This period of primitivity is also called the period of the Vedas, because the Vedas, the oldest religious poems of ancient India, afford the best reflection of this period. The time in which materialism made its appearance is called the epic period of India, because then the great popular epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, emerged. It was a time of great religious and philosophical agitation; Buddhism then made its appearance as the new world religion and with it an allied religious reform called Jainism. It was thus a time of profound crisis for ancient religious views, a crisis for the ancient religion which bore the name Brahmanism. The members of the ancient priestly caste of India were called Brahmans. It was a time of broad mass movements against the authority of this Brahman caste and against the religious views on which the authority of the Brahmans rested.

Whence came this crisis? There were profound transformations in the class relations which, in the last analysis, brought on this crisis. Originally the Brahmans were priests of magic and sacrifice, such as we find more or less among all undeveloped peoples. Brahma originally signified the magic inherent in them. The Brahmans, the priests, thus developed into the highest ruling caste. They claimed authority over the other three principal castes. They obtained this authority chiefly through their talent for knowing the rituals of sacrifice, which they had built up into a highly developed system. This priestly caste lived at the expense of the other classes on sacrificial offerings which they exacted from them.

The Brahmans ruled without serious competition in this early period, in the time of the Vedas. This was a time when the communistic village-community prevailed in its primitive form. This village-community was founded on agriculture and stock-farming, without great economic differences between the individual members of the community, without great differentiation; hence a village-community had an economically and socially democratic government. But then the old inhabitants were subjugated by lighter-skinned Aryan Indians who immigrated into India from the north, a fair-complexioned people, linguistically very closely related to European groups (Greeks, Celts, Persians, etc.). The conquered natives were made the slaves of the conquerors.

Thus was created, instead of free and equal members of the democratic, communistic village-community, a class of people who lived not on a basis of social and legal equality, but who were the oppressed, the slaves, the enthralled. The opposition between the ruling conquerors and the defeated natives carried class opposition even into the ranks of the conquerors themselves. So there appeared more and more class oppositions in this primitive communistic village-community. The primitive Aryan peasants who were part of the conquerors were often replaced by native slaves. Large estates were built on the foundation of this slave enterprise. The great landed proprietors were, first of all, war-lords and great merchants. Merchants often ran their businesses with slaves also, just as we saw in ancient Greece. In time the agricultural slaves raisied themselves to a higher rank, to thralls such as we have in the Middle Ages. These thralls or slaves formed the lowest caste in ancient India. They were called the Sudras. In the northeast where Buddhism and the religious reform movement emerged, class oppositions developed more sharply than in the east where the old Brahmanist religion had long held sway.

I will now briefly describe the situation in the sixth century, just when materialism and Buddhism emerged in ancient India. At this time the communistic village-community still prevailed. But it had already begun to disintegrate. The land could already be bought or leased, which was not the case in the pure, primitive communistic state, since the land belonged to the community; from time to time it used to be apportioned to individuals, but it could neither be bought nor leased. Since then many merchants had become land-buyers. There were even some free wage laborers, but only in very insignificant numbers. For the most part they worked on the greater landed estates, either for board and lodging, or for wages. The real slaves were mainly domestic slaves, just as they have been in China for a long time. Crafts developed. Craftsmen were organized in corporations or guilds. Rich merchants already existed in this period. They did a large business by means of caravans overland, or by maritime trade to China, to Alexandria, to Egypt, etc. This trade comprised mainly silks, fine cloths, ivory, jewels - by and large, luxuries for the use of kings and nobles. For the most part, barter had already been replaced by money transactions. At this time there were already money-lenders, and in the village the usurer already played an important role. Accordingly one can say that a disintegration of the primitive, simple, communistic village-community was already taking place. This disintegration was connected with the introduction of commodity production, and the latter, in turn, with the development of the forces of production in agricultural economy and with the development of private property. The introduction of slave labor, of the labor of thralls, was linked with the establishment of great landed estates, with the formation of commercial and money capital. Thus, when we consider the class divisions of this society in which materialism emerged in ancient India, we have the following main characteristics: on one side the ruling priest caste stood opposed to the noble landed proprietors and the rich merchants. The latter struggled with the priest caste for social supremacy. On the other side, there developed a caste of freemen, whoowned little or no property, and a caste of slaves or thralls. These profound social changes from primitive times gave the impulse for a spiritual and religious crisis. On one side Buddhism emerged as a new reformed popular religion opposed to the ancient Brahmans, who were set against the broad masses of the people. On the other side materialism emerged, the materialistic philosophy which was already breaking through the limitations of religion. Its bearers were characteristically the richest merchants, just as they were in the Greek commercial colonies of Asia Minor.

Class differentiation assumed a peculiar form in India, however; namely, the form of a caste system. A caste comes into being when the division of labor in a certain society becomes hereditary. That is, the son of a warrior must become a warrior; the son of a potter, a potter, etc. Associated with this homogeneity of castes is the fact that the members may marry only in their own caste, that each such caste has special religious customs, special customs in daily life, in eating, in dressing, etc. The precepts and customs of a given caste completely govern all details in the life of a man who belongs to the caste. The formation of castes is not limited to India. In antiquity we also have a very strong caste system in ancient Egypt. The starting point for the formation of castes in ancient India is already described in the term. The old Indian word for caste, Varna, originally mans color. The starting point was the separation of the light-complexioned Aryan conquerors from the dark-complexioned natives who were made slaves or bondsmen. From this separation of dark-colored natives from light-colored conquerors there came the partition into castes. Four main castes are distinguished. I list them in the order of rank: The first, the most aristocratic and the ruling caste, was the Brahman or priest caste; the second, the warrior caste; the third was the caste of the rest of the free men, merchants, and farmers; and the fourth and lowest was the caste of slaves, thralls, or Sudras, whom we have already named. Without these class oppositions in the form of castes the development of thought in ancient India after the Vedic times is not understandable. Therefore, at the outset, one must explain the castes, their significance and role, in order to understand the problems about which thought in ancient India revolved.

The fundamental questions of Indian thought revolve around problems related to the nature of the castes, that is, the nature of the special form which class relations assume in India. The fundamental conceptions of Indian thought are derived from this and understandable only through this: The fate of individual men in a caste society was completely deter-mined by the caste into which they were born. Thinking on social questions had to assume the following form: What determines the caste into which an individual is born? The individual wanted to be able to determine this. For him this offered the only possibility of determining or changing his fate. But this possibility rests upon two assumptions: first, that connection exists between the individual's present existence in a certain class, his previous existence in another class, and his future existence in still another form. These connections quite naturally give rise to the idea of regeneration, of the eternal recurrence of birth. The Indian name for this is Sansara, recurrence. This name and this conception are familiar to everyone who has same knowledge of Buddhism. The same conception of eternal regeneration grew up in ancient Egypt and was based on the same relationships. I have already mentioned that ancient Egypt likewise had a caste system. We have here two main concepts. The first concept, Sansara or regeneration, is the basis for the second fundamental concept: Karma, which means that my birth is determined by the fact that I have lived aprevious life. If I conduct myself well in this life I shall perhaps later be born again into a higher caste or if I behave badly, into a lower casteor even as an animal or a plant. If my behavior is completely god, I may be reborn as a god or a hero, etc. This is the basic concept of Indian thought, and only in this form (fantasy) is it possible to change caste, to change my social destiny. Indian thought revolved about these two fundamental concepts as soon as class oppositions developed and began to be more and more embodied in castes.

Buddhism emerged as a rebellion against the caste system in general, and against the supremacy of the priest caste in particular, but as a rebellion still in religious form. I can only touch upon Buddhism here. According to evidence, Buddha himself, the founder of this religion, was a simple nobleman. He belonged to the second caste. He was not the son of a great king, as has often been said. He allied himself with the two castes which were struggling against the Brahmans for social supremacy. Buddhism opposes priestly sacrifice as a means of deliverance. In the acknowledgement of the exclusive power of the Brahman priests to make offerings lay the foundation of their social dominance, and their economic position was ideologically based on the same thing, since the priests lived on the offerings which were brought to them. Thus Buddhism taught - and this constitutes its basis - that freedom from Sansara cannot be attained through sacrifices, but through knowledge of religious truths and through the stifling of passions. At the basis of Buddhism lies the principle of victory over the caste system; not an actual, but an ideal fantastic victory. Accordingly, the injunction of poverty is established, the organization of religious beggary. This must be considered as reaction against the existing class differentiation, a reaction which naturally must have been very agreeable to the exploited levels of the population.

Buddhism, like Christianity, did not persist in its original form. In the course of time and in consequence of its transplantation into different lands, it has undergone extraordinary changes. Buddhism qualifies as a world-religion, because, first, like Christianity, it raises itself above local and national ceremonial rites; second, because it propounds a completely universal formula for the redemption of human wrongs which is thus applicable to the most various social forms and classes; to exploiter as well as to the exploited, to slaves, free nomads, as well as to merchants.

The most radical form of criticism of Brahmanism, a criticism which went beyond the bounds of religion, was ancient Indian materialism, of which I shall now speak. This ancient Indian materialism certainly existed in 500 B.C., that is to say, simultaneously with Buddhism. In all probability it existed even somewhat earlier than Buddhism. Unfortunately this ancient Indian materialism is known to us only through statements of it made by opponents - the Brahmanist scholars - so that much of what was said about ancient Indian materialism is slander and misrepresentation. This ancient materialism was called Lokayata, derived from an old Indian word, Loka, meaning the (secular) world. It is thus the theory of laymen, as opposed to the theory of priests. The theory was also called Tcharwaka, from Tscharv (to eat greedily). This is the name which the opponents of the doctrine gave to it. They wanted to describe it as a theory of men whose eating and drinking are their chief concern. These materialists directed an extremely sharp attack against the Brahmans. Their aim was to break the monopoly of the Brahman priests and establish complete religious freedom. As merchants these materialists had a great interest in religious tolerance.

I will briefly describe the main theories of this ancient Indian materialism. It maintained that the source of all knowledge is simply sensory experience. They did not recognize the authority of religious revelation; but neither did they recognize the course of reason, the drawing of conclusions from given experiences, as the source of knowledge. Only immediate sensory experience is the source of all knowledge: all spirituality arises, according to this conception, from the material, from the four elements (which they had in common with the Greeks). Thought they considered as an activity of matter, matter alone is knowable and real. There is no hereafter and no immortality of the soul. The priests, they say, are deceivers and buffoons who perform their sacrifices, their ceremonies, etc., in order to cheat the people and live on the sacrifices. These materialists were also opposed to the Buddhists. One of the basic doctrines of Buddhism is that all is sorrow and that all pleasures of the world are illusory and had. To that the materialists answer: it is absurd to condemn pleasures because they are mixed with sorrow and dissatisfaction. Man does not throw rice away because the kernel is wrapped in a rough shell.

I will quote a few verses which present a concise summary of the theory of ancient Indian materialism. They run thus:

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.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing one's self with ashes,
Were made by Nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.
If a beast slain in the Jvotistoma rite will itself go to heaven,
Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
If the Sraddha produces gratification to kings who are dead,
Then here, too, in the case of travellers when they start, it is heedless to give provisions for the journey.
If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Sraddha here,
Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?
While life remains let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt.
When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?
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 Brahmans have established here
All these ceremonies for the dead - there is no other fruit anywhere,
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves and demons.
All the well-known formula of the pundits, jarphari, turphari, etc.
And all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Asvamedha,
These were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
While the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.1)

With that I leave these materialists. I might simply mention, in conclusion, that in ancient India there was an independent development of the theory of thought or logic. This theory was called Nyaya, that is, the theory of concepts, etc. This logic developed in ancient India as it did in ancient Greece: from discussions of various conflicting philosophical systems as a defensive technique in these discussions and as an aid to thought. This was one of the great achievements of ancient India.


1) Translation from Radhakrishnan, S., Vol. I, Indian Philosophy, pp.282-3. Quoted in German by Thalheimer from P. Deussen, Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie, Erster Band, dritte Abteilung, die nachvedische Philosophie der Inder, p. 212.