Indian Philosophy

Carvaka Elements in Upanishads? – An Account From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

This is a disputed, yet interesting question. Can we find materialistic elements in a highly spiritual text, the Upanishads? Almost all opinions tend to be negative because the Upanishad teachings are strictly in spiritual level, not in materialistic level. Even then, there are certain portions in Upanishads which can be interpret-able as carrying materialistic ideas. Thus in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the great sage Yanjavalkya is conversing to his wife, Maitreyi, that ‘it is for its own sake that Self perform everything’.

“He said. It is not for the sake of the husband, my dear, that he is loved, but for one’s own sake, that he is loved. It is not for the sake of wife, my dear, that she is loved, but for one’s own sake that she is loved. It is not for the sake of the sons, my dear, that they are loved, but for one’s own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of wealth, my dear, that it is loved, but for one’s own sake it is loved. It is not for the sake of the Brahmana, my dear that he is loved, but for one’s own sake that he is loved. It is not for the sake of the Kshatriya, my dear, that he is loved, but for one’s own sake that he is loved. It is not for the sake of worlds, my dear, that they are loved, but for one’s own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of Gods, my dear, that they are loved, but for one’s own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of beings, m dear, that they are loved, but for one’s own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of all, my dear, that all is loved, but for one’s own sake that it is loved. The self, my dear Maitreyi, should be realized – should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. By the realization of the self, my dear, through hearing, reflection and meditation, all this is known.[1]”

This portion of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is often pointed as supportive to the Carvaka system. ‘Whatever we do in real life is said to be for the sake of our own soul’. Though this portion does not openly propose that pleasure is the primary goal, there is enough liberty to interpret the above verses as not discouraging the hedonism of Carvakas. There are ‘pleasure seeking’ elements in the above lines, and therefore, interpreting these verses in line with materialism is not totally baseless.

But, the credibility of this argument loses its clout when readers proceed further with the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Yajnavalkya’s other teachings in the same Upanishad have disputed the materialistic claims very well. So interpretation of this portion of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as supportive to Carvaka Materialism is neither sure nor final.

Further more, the ending verse of this verse is in agreement with Vedantic conception. It advice the student to ‘hear’ the teaching about the Atman from a teacher, then internally perceive[2] the truth contained in the teaching, and finally, meditate[36], to realize the knowledge about Brahman.

Indra – Virochana Conversation: –

In the much celebrated story of ‘Prajapati – Indra – Virocana’[3], first Prajapati tells Indra and Virocana (who inquired to Prajapati about Self/Atman) that “body is the Self… When the body is well adorned, attired and clean, then Self also will be well adorned, attired and clean.”

On hearing this reply Virocana was satisfied and walked away. But Indra did not. He scrutinized the reply and again went back to Prajapati to ask further questions. In the following portion of the Upanishad, Indra comes to understand that, what actually the Self is.

Here is also a hint about the Carvakas. Virocana and his followers, who believed Prajapati’s answer, ‘body is the Self’, might have acted and lived accordingly.

As we saw above, materialistic elements are very weak in Upanishads. The central teaching of Upanishads is Brahma-vidya only.


[34] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. II.IV.5
[35] Internal perception is often equated to ‘reflection’.
[36] The verse is not indicating that meditation has a prominent place to realize Brahman, but may be said to enjoy a subordinate role.
[37] Chandogya Upanishad. VIII.8.3

Categories: Indian Philosophy, Upanishads

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