Brian Morris: Indian Materialism

Systematic ideology presents the major ideologies as following the same broad outlines in all advancing societies. This view sometimes meets the objection that in the East, and especially in India, development has followed a different course, spiritual rather than technological or materialistic. “The mystic East” is a key phrase. This article provides, from Indian sources, evidence to support the s.i. view. It first appeared in the Indian Secularist, was reprinted in Ethical Record, and appears here by permission of the Indian Secularist. – GW

In his well-known book The Discovery of India, written in 1944 when he was imprisoned, Jawaharlal Nehru (1946) remarked that the notion that there was a fundamental difference between the “Orient” and the “Occident” was meaningless; that it was a vague and unscientific idea. During the course of his study he drew some interesting parallels between the socio-economic background and the philosophies of ancient India and Greece. He was also, like M. N. Roy, anxious to dispel the idea that Indian culture was essentially “Spiritual.” He took pains to outline the importance of early trade, the cultural links between India and Greece, Iran and China, and the materialistic philosophies and the sciences that were prominent from the time of the Upanishads. He lamented the fact that much of the literature on materialism had been lost, probably destroyed by, the priests and other believers in the orthodox religion, and that the only references we now had to it were contained in the criticisms of it, and in the elaborate attempts of people like Sankara to disprove materialist philosophy. Consequently Nehru felt that Indian history was characterized by two streams of thought and action; one was religious, stressing the inner life and essentially representing the principle of life negation; the other was an expression of an intense joy in life and nature, a desire to understand the material world, a stream of life affirmation. Materialist philosophies were a reflection of this “acceptance of life.” He admitted that the idea of detachment runs through Indian thought and philosophy, as it does through most other philosophies, but unlike his contemporaries and such writers as Radhakrishnan, Nehru refused to equate Indian thought with the Vedantic tradition.

According to Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, materialist doctrines in India are of ancient origin. Given their systematic expression in the Sankhya school of philosophy, he believed that they owed their origin to two sources, the early tantric cults and the Lokayata beliefs that were associated with the common people. Both sources he felt were a part of the pre-Vedic tribal culture.

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991.