The Gita is an attempt to include a diverse set of teachings from various schools, most prominent among them the Stoic-like Sankhya School of philosophy and the Vaishnava sect of devotional Hinduism, in one scripture. It seeks to establish Lord Krishna–the Christ-like Eastern Dionysus–as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and also to incorporate ideas about the caste system, work-as-worship, and other similar concepts in order to advance a ruling-class agenda whose intention was to promote a certain ideal of societal order.
The Gita also seeks to include many techniques, therapeutic practices (known as yogas) and recommendations that are supposed to assist people of different tendencies and natural constitutions to cope with existential anxiety and to find meaning. There are interesting considerations regarding Purusha (Spirit) and Prakriti (Nature, Matter) which are somewhat Platonized, but they help the student of nature to separate himself from the object being studied and so there may be pragmatic use to these considerations.
Besides all these points, the Gita has inspired countless beautiful works of art–mainly in the form of music, paintings, and sculpture. It has enormous poetic value and has the power to move and inspire the soul, and to help mortals weave meaning into their lives.
The Charvaka “Gita”
In an essay on Lokayata / Charvaka School of heterodox Hinduism, which has much in common with the Epicurean School and has often been called a parallel tradition, I wrote:
It is believed that Lokayatas produced writings that were destroyed by future generations, and that a few surviving fragments were preserved by their opponents, which cited them in order to refute them.
I will therefore end the blog series on the Gita by giving my readers a flavor of what an atomist alternative to the Gita may have felt like. We’ll never know what the name of the Charvaka sutras or shastras or scriptures was, so I’ll simply name the portion A Charvaka Gita.
By including the Charvaka (or Lokayata) School of heterodox Hindu philosophy, I mainly intend to remind people that Hinduism is an all-encompassing spiritual civilization and that the Bhagavad Gita, while an important source, is not the definite authority when it comes to Hinduism. Dharmic traditions include two main lineages: the astika (those that believe in the Vedas, Isvara/God or atma/soul) versus the nastika (“unbelievers or deniers”, like Charvaka and Buddha).
Also, by citing the Charvaka School in a blog that contains mainly Epicurean content, I do not intend to say that Charvaka is entirely in line with Epicurus, although there are many parallels. Epicurean philosophy, for instance, accepts that we can infer about the non-evident based on the evident. According to carvaka4india.com, for the Charvakas “nor can inference be the means of the knowledge of the universal proposition, since in the case of this inference we should also require another inference to establish it, and so on, and hence would arise the fallacy of an ad infinitum retrogression.”
However, the Charvaka School offers its own literary and scriptural tradition, as well as a necessary and brilliant critique of the caste system, of blind ritual and superstition, of religious privilege, and many other problems that can be observed in other Hindu lineages. And so I will here cite from the eloquent Charvaka sources which survived, and may have originally been part of a materialist alternative to the Gita–which at once rejects orthodox beliefs as unnecessary restrictions and superstitions, insults Hindu priests, and invites them to sacrifice their own fathers if they really believe that sacrificial victims go to heaven:
A Lokayata Gita
And all this has been also said by Bṛihaspati:
There is no heaven, no final liberation,
nor any soul in another world,
nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc.
produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves,
and smearing one’s self with ashes,
were made by Nature
as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.
If a beast slain in the Jyotishṭoma rite will itself go to heaven,
Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
If the Śráddha produces gratification to beings who are dead,
then here, too, in the case of travelers when they start,
it is needless to give provisions for the journey.
If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Śráddha here,
Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?
While life remains let a man live happily,
let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?
If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
How is it that he comes not back again,
restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood
that Brahmans have established here.
All these ceremonies for the dead,
there is no other fruit anywhere.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulæ of the pandits, jarpharí, turpharí,
and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Aśwamedha,
these were invented by buffoons,
and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.
Hence in kindness to the mass of living beings
must we fly for refuge to the doctrine of Chárváka.
Such is the pleasant consummation.
India’s Silenced Lokayata Tradition