In ancientIndia, there were broadly three schools of philosophical thought — Vedanta, Sankhya and Lokayata. Vedanta is theistic & spiritual, Sankhya and Lokayata are atheistic & materialistic.
What little we know today about the latter two schools are mostly from derogatory and dismissive references to these in the Vedanta literature.
The essence of Vedanta philosophy is that all human beings (animals and inanimate things too?) have souls (Atman). And although physically all beings have a separate existence, their souls are actually not separate. They are merged into one supreme soul (Param-atmah) or the absolute soul (Brahman). This unity of different souls is called Advaita or non-dualism (also called Monism). The doctrine of Advaita is central to Vedanta philosophy. The visible and palpable universe around us is considered to be unreal (Mithya) which is but an illusion (i.e. Maya), while that which is the supreme reality, the absolute soul (Brahman), cannot be perceived by our normal senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch or taste.
The above are dogmatic (and allegedly ” sanatana ” or eternally valid) statemements about the nature of the universe. None of these are falsifiable (through future evidence or possible observation), and hence I would think of these to be of no practical significance in furthering our understanding the universe. Not so in a way that can be of any practical use…
Vedanta as a philosophy, is authoritarian. Vedanta premises that its own dogmas about nature are “sanatana”, and not subject to revision by later observation through our senses . (When was Vedantic “knowledge” last revised?). Insights of Vedanta were allegedly acquired by its authors as part of “revelation” or through “dhyana” (inner contemplation). Those who have not had this personal spiritual experience (revelation of the sanatana truths) are expected to accept the dogmas about nature on faith.
According to Sankhya (Numbers) school, everything begins with matter (Prakriti — female); but this matter in itself is inert or dead, it is activated by the stimulus provided to it by the motive power (Purusha — male) and the result of this is the active universe with its twinkling stars and rotating planets of which we, with life and concsiousness, are a part. The Sankhya system of ideas assumes the existence of both matter (Prakriti) and motive power (Purusha) to begin with. The universe is not looked upon as the creation of a supreme creator.
Despite the above element of “atheism”, the Sankhya doctrine is not entirely materialistic. According to Sankhya, matter (Prakriti) exists without any creator having created it, but is inert until it is activated by the motive power (Purusha). Sankhya would thus seem to be a dualistic philosophy — which is understandable as this preceded the information about “life” and its origins (that we now have) by several thousand years.
The Sankhya doctrine was not incorporated into religion (Brahmanism). It never obtained wide acceptability among Hindu philosophers as did Vedanta. Lokayata, unlike Vedanta and Sankhya, tried to explain the nature of the universe without the intervention of either God, spirit or devil. “Truth”, for Lokayata Philosophers, consisted only of that which could be perceived by human senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch. Nothing was accepted as a matter of faith, and the quest to know more about the unknown was the driving force of this school.
According to the (then conclusions of) Lokayata school, the universe was made up of physical forces which activated and stimulated each other. These physical forces, although active, did not move about consciously towards any set purpose. The exponents of Lokayata did not believe in concepts such as life after death or rebirth. A charge that was made against adherents of this philosophy was that they emphasized only the material aspects while disregarding spiritual ones. But this was natural in a school which looked upon only the perceptible as real.
The Lokayata philosophy, which seems closest to the modern science or rationalism, seems to have been popular at some stage of history in ancientIndia. The term Lokayata itself can be translated as “widespread among the people”. Its main exponent is considered to be a philosopher named Charavaka who is said to be a contemporary of Sri Krishna and if legend is to be believed, he was burnt at the orders of Yudhisthira after the Mahabharata war. His crime was apostasy in declaring that the Vedas are not the ultimate in human knowledge.
The “deep investment” made by Vedanta in promoting patriarchy is by way of the “chatur-varna” concept. Unfortunately, this got to be used to justify (as part of monistic “nature”) a hierarchical social order — including the rightful place for the woman who has no caste. This is not a Brahminical interpolation on to the philosophy. This “natural social inequality” is an intrinsic part of Vedanta monistic philosophy of Karma & Rebirth. Buddha had rebelled against just this feature of the Vedanta philosophy.
It would seem that modern science has managed to truly internalise the “courageous spirit of enquiry” as no other school of thought ever succeeded in the past. (Attempts by those like Charavaka of the Lokayata schools inIndiawere quickly smothered — literally burnt –by the powerful and authoritarian Vedanta school)
In more recent times, Dr. Ambedkar’s interpretation of the Buddha philosophy is interesting. In his opus, “Buddha and His Dhamma” he sees the Buddha as having promoted the scientific and rational spirit — in the same sense of the terms as emerged much later in Europe, during the period of Enlightenment.
Enlightenment inEuropesaw the relegation of the role of religion from philosophy, public affairs, education etc., to something purely personal. Religion’s ability to provide explanations regarding the nature of the universe was totally discounted as a result of social changes during Enlightenment. And by religion, it was not merely “Abrahamic religions”, but also the “pagan” systems of thought that existed inEuropeprior to the spread of Christianity and Islam. Enlightenment inEurope was not a rejection of this or that religion — rather it was the positive emergence of an entirely novel “materialistic” method of investigating and understanding the universe.
According to Ambedkar, the Buddha (like those who led Enlightenment inEurope, much later) had rejected the earlier modes of thought that were prevalent at his time. He held that people must continuously update knowledge and philosophy based on information as available — and not look upon ancient texts or passed-on-philosophies as repositories of “sanatana” (eternal) wisdom. Ambedkar disregarded Buddha’s own views on rebirth etc., as these were based on limited information available at the time when these concepts were conceived. Ambedkar claims that had the Buddha been around today, he would have rejected some of his own earlier views (asNewton too would have) and whole heartedly accepted the methods and findings of modern science. He would definitely have abandoned specific parts of his own perceptions that have lost validity based on increased information that is available in the 21st century. It is ironic that Ambedkar’s “dhamma” has now become a “sacred book” for the dalit convertees to his “religion”. (They take their marriage vows over this book!).
It is in the above context that we need to appreciate the intellect and foresight of the Lokayata thinkers of ancient India…