On the Materialist School of Indian Philosophy – Ethics and epistemology of ancient Indian Materialists

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Source: The post on the Materialist School of Indian Philosophy has been created on the article “Ethics and epistemology of ancient Indian Materialists” published in “The Hindu” on 23rd November 2023.

UPSC Syllabus Topic: GS Paper 4 Ethics – Contributions of moral thinkers and philosophers from India and world.
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News: The article discusses the materialist school of Indian Philosophy and its principle teachings.

The Indian philosophical tradition encompasses a wide range of beliefs, theories, and perspectives on existence, knowledge, ethics, and spirituality. Rooted in ancient texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and various philosophical treatises, it includes several major schools of thought like Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta, and more.

Each of these offers distinct insights into the nature of reality and the human condition through rigorous inquiry, debate, and exploration of fundamental questions about life and the universe.

In this tradition, all schools of philosophy had to provide proofs, or pramānas, for their conceptual framework.

What are the different pramanas accepted in Indian Philosophy?

PramanaDefinition
PratyakshaDirect perception or knowledge gained through sensory perception, i.e., seeing, hearing, etc.
AnumanaInference, or knowledge obtained through logical reasoning based on observations or evidence.
UpamanaAnalogy, where knowledge is gained by comparing or likening something to a familiar object.
ShabdaTestimony, or knowledge derived from trustworthy sources such as scriptures or experts.
ArthapattiPostulation or presumption, used to explain a fact when no other pramana can explain it.
AnupalabdhiNon-apprehension, or knowledge obtained from the absence or non-existence of something.

What is the Materialist School of Indian Philosophy?

The Materialist School upheld the pratyaksa pramāna (perception, or more literally that which is within sight) as the foundation of knowledge.

Its tenets included:

Perception as Foundation of All Knowledge: The implication of this principle is the denial of innate ideas (ideas or consciousness exisiting independent of the material world).

Pleasure-seeking: The dictum of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ describes the pleasure-seeking ways of materialists, best encapsulated by the Sanskrit dictum “yāvat jīvēt sukham jīvēt“ or “whilst living, live well”.

Focus on Individual and not Collective Ethics: Unsound ethics will have consequences on the material world. So the question of ethics is left for each person to answer for themselves.

Lack of a Divine Agency: No divine agency exists to safeguard human society from terrors, either natural or human. They do not believe in God, punishment and rewards.

Material Notion of Hell: The experience of hell is defined as death by the enemy’s weapon, diseases, starvation and other such pains.

Material Notion of Heaven: The Lokāyatas’ conception of heaven reflects the male preoccupation with the female of the human species.

Discarded Ritualism: The Lokāyatas found the ritualism in the concluding periods of the Vedic era exploitative and useless.

Against Orthodoxy and Social Ills: Caste, rank in society or orthodoxy of views were out of the question in their society. They entertained freedom in thought, in religious and social matters.

Question for practice:

Indian Materialist philosophy and its teachings have important lessons to offer in today’s age of socio-religious strife. Discuss.

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