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All across India, there was an emergence of different schools of thoughts and philosophies from the seventh century BC. Most of them were materialistic in nature.
Though the most proclaimed feature of Indian philosophy is spirituality, the truth is that materialism has also played a much greater role in forming what is called Bharata Darshana (the Schools of Indian Philosophy). At many points in history, materialistic philosophy was more dominant than the others.
Even though these materialistic philosophies emerged as sects after the seventh century BC, we can see many instances of sages and philosophers in Vedic literature who questioned the prevalent beliefs.
For example, in Ramayana, there is an incidence of Sage Jabali insisting Rama on withdrawing from his vow to his father and reigning his kingdom. He advised Rama not to believe in Paap-Punya (wrong doing-right doing) and rebirth.
Thus we can see that it is through such constant interactions and conflicts between spirituality and materialism that Indian philosophies took form.
It is always a matter of debate for the historians on how to discriminate between the spiritual and materialistic nature of Indian Darshanas. There was a differentiation of these Darshanas as Astika and Nastika.
Astikas (Theists) were those who accepted the supremacy of Vedas and were based on or inspired by the Vedas. The Nastikas (Atheists) were those which denied the authority of Vedas.
According to this division, the Darshanas like Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaishesika, Purva Mimamsa were considered to be Astika. Ajeevika, Lokayatas, Madhyamiks, Jainism, etc. were considered to be Nastikas (we will discuss each of them later).
Just because Nastika Darshanas were against Vedic supremacy, they were considered to be against Dharma (right behavior and social order) during that period. The proponents were vehemently criticized, insulted and sidelined by the priest class. Hence the proponents of many Darshanas (e.g. Samkhyas) supported the Vedas outwardly just for the existence and propagation of their ideologies.
Anyway the new thought processes paved way for the growth of different forms of knowledge. The branches of Science like Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, etc. started developing during this period.
The first materialistic Darshana we are about to discuss is Ajeevika. The most important leader of the Ajeevika Sect was Makkhali Gosala who was a contemporary of Buddha and Mahavira.
The Ajeevikas’ core belief was that absolutely everything is predetermined by fate (Niyati). They criticized the ‘Karma’ belief (human action which has a consequence in the rebirth) spread by the priest class and proclaimed that it is fate, not Karma that determines one’s path in life. They believed that the basic building units of everything in the Universe were Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. They denied the existence of Brahma.
For Ajeevikas there was no caste discrimination and people from all walks of life could join them. Hence Ajeevikas were proclaimed by the priest class as enemies of the society. They stated that anyone who opposes the Varna System will lead the society to destruction.
Despite all the suppressions by the priest class, the schools of philosophies like Ajeevika were widely accepted by a large section of the society. Because majority of the society was totally dissatisfied with the Varna System and discrimination. They found solace in this new philosophy. Ajeevikas became quite influential and popular and had many powerful followers.
To be continued….