Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

The theory goes as follows: magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the actual mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. It is worth experimenting with at the very least. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magical beliefs and practices into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes ossify into religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] These are likely magic rituals to induce crops, or protect cattle adapted into a theistic framework. Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” (In the case of the Rbhus, this is made explicit: being mortals they earned immortality”, RV, I.110.4) which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors, who were perhaps thought to be able to control physical processes from the next world. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals, not dissimilar from what we find in Tantra. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective in inducing samadhi states. In other words, early meditative practices can be thought of as successful early attempts at quasi-scientific experimentation with the human body and brain. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.


According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines


This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

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King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)


The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray

When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.


A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

(If on the main page, hit “Continue Reading” for more [theres pretty pictures ahead {do it}])

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