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What’s the matter: A short treatise on Indian Materialism

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  • Published
    27th Nov, 2023


Philosophy of Matter and Materialism as concepts and Indian lens.

Exploring the philosophy of Materialism

  • Philosophy may be defined as a unified theory of life.
  • The function of philosophy is to explain the universe and all its constituents. To provide oneself with a comprehensive view of life, and to have this view serve as a frame of reference for all of one’s actions.
  • Materialism is neither new nor mystical. It has been around as a system of thought since the earliest records of human history.
  • Materialism, simply put, postulates that the origin of everything that really exists is matter; that there does not exist anything but matter.
  • That all other appearances, including intelligence, are transformations of matter, and these transformations are governed necessarily by laws inherent in nature, which is fundamentally material.
  • At its core, philosophy is essentially materialism, understanding the world based on tangible, real-world observations through contemplation, observation and investigation.
  • Even though the discoveries in quantum physics challenged some ideas in the early 20th century, the concept of 'matter' as the substance of the physical world still remains.

The roots of materialism and historical analysis

  • In ancient India, Materialism found grounding with the Lok?yata, which was pioneered by philosophers like Brhaspati, Ajita, and J?b?li, among others.
  • The early Greek philosophers sought to explain the world by itself were materialists.
  • Examples: The atomism of Democritus, and Epicurus, as well as the preSocratic philosophers’ desire to find an explanation for the constituents of the cosmos was the earliest examples of Materialism in the western tradition.
  • Materialism is a philosophy that exists everywhere but is yet without a home.
  • In India, the theologically inclined claim that materialism is a western philosophical construct, while in the West, faith based philosophers decry the evils of materialism.
  • Both in the West and closer home, materialism is painted as a hedonic (a way of living that is associated with pleasure and indulgence) indulgent way of living.
  • Yet, so many of the wondrous inventions of our age, as well as the many terrifying weapons we make, owe their development to the progressive understanding human beings have seized from nature’s core.

Countering the established views

  • Ancient times were periods of great resource crunches. Even if the king was wealthy, the populace at large lived on subsistence, and elaborate ceremonies began to dictate the lives of the people as the natural religion of the early Vedic era gave way to the dogmatic ritualism that developed over time in ancient India.
  • This was not unopposed. The Upanishads frankly chastise this obsession with dogmatic sacramentalism and look back to the earliest period of the Vedas. Such profundity of thought is reflected in the early Ch?ndogya Upanishad, “All this is Brahman.
  • Everything comes from Brahman, everything goes back to Brahman, and everything is sustained by Brahman. One should therefore quietly meditate on it. Each person has a mind of his own. What a person wills in his present, he becomes in the future. One should bear this in mind and will
  • A worldview that sees God in all things and all things in God, leaves little room for traditional religion, and philosophically opens the floodgates of materialism, for it solidifies the real world as divine, and makes it manifest.
  • From the time of Brhaspati, the materialists of ancient India had held that the world was real, made up of elements, available to human perception, and that ethics, if any, and followed these hard facts.
  • With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, as well as other social and political developments in the post Vedic age, the dominant role that Lok?yata enjoyed went into decline. However, the influence of Materialism continued to be felt long after it went out of popular convention.

Lok?yata: Philosophy of Worldliness

  • The term "Lok?" denotes the world, emphasizing the visible and tangible aspects. The Mah?bh?rata'sguidance, 'lokesucasamobhava' or 'see all things with equanimity,' encapsulates the essence of Lok?yata.
  • In essence, Lok?yata is a philosophy grounded in the material world, dealing with observable objects and entities.
  • DebiprasadChattopadhyaya, an Indian Marxist philosopher, succinctly defines Lok?yata as the philosophy of the people, signifying worldliness or instinctive materialism.
  • He emphasizes its reliance on the practical test of reality and the imperative of change at every stage.


  • Derived from the word Bhautika, which means physical or material. Bhautika itself is derived from Bhu, and its derivative Bhava, meaning being and becoming respectively.
  • As such, BhautikaVignyan continues to be the word for physical sciences in many laboratories across India.
  • One of the names for God, often referred to as ‘Prabhu’ in the theological tradition, literally means that which is ‘prior to being’.
  • Jadav?da refers to the tendency of the Materialists to seek out the jada or root of existence, which they said was material than spiritual.
  • Jatavidy?, or knowledge of the origin of all things, was what they extolled. This desire to seek out the genesis of things is as ancient as human life.

In traversing the expansive landscape of philosophy, materialism emerges as an age-old companion to human contemplation. Defined as a unified theory of life, philosophy aims to elucidate the universe and provide a comprehensive framework for human actions. Materialism, existing since the earliest human records, posits that the origin of all that exists is rooted in 'matter.'

Materialism, whether as Lok?yata in ancient India or manifesting as Bhautikvad, remains a philosophy grounded in the tangible, observable aspects of the world. It beckons humanity to explore the genesis of existence, fostering a dynamic relationship between philosophy, materiality, and the evolution of human understanding.

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