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Materialism and Society

How much has the world changed in the last century? How much has technological advancement reshaped our lifestyles, and has made them comfortable? What motivated the industrial revolution in Great Britain that began in the 1760s? How would our society have been without the advancement of science and knowledge?   

Materialism, the belief in the importance of money and possessions, is what has pushed society into what it is today. MATERIALIST principles drive innovations. Our desire to earn more and an endeavor to have a comfortable lifestyle is what gives birth to technology. Materialistic beliefs make civilizations grow and prosper. 

While materialism surely may have a negative side as well like Global warming, Climate Change, Exploitation, Capitalism, etc. It is because of this that materialism has got a negative impression. There is a belief that people who prioritize “material or money” are inherently selfish and self-centered. But this is not the only way to look at it, and the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. There is a bigger positive side to the story, and an ethical approach to a materialistic lifestyle would further eliminate the negatives as well [ethical materialism discussed later……].

Isn’t it true? That if it were not for the materialistic principles, and the human desire to have more, humans would have never made the great technological triumphs that we made. If we were only content with what nature offered us crudely, human society would not have seen the great innovations and the material benefits.

Origin of materialistic principles:

Materialistic views, as a system of thought in some form or other, have always been present in India, and its occasional references can be traced back to the Vedic times. 

But Charvaka was one systematic work on materialism, that had an organized school of followers as any other philosophical school of thought. Brihaspati is known as the founder of Charvaka philosophy.

Charvaka’s philosophy of materialism:

Charvaka, also known as Lokayata, is an ancient school of materialism. Although no independent works on Charvaka philosophy have survived, their works have survived in secondary sources, mainly in criticism of its ideas by other schools of thought, by those who criticized their [Charvaka] materialistic standpoint.

Sarva-darśana-saṅgraha (literally: all-philosophy-collection), a book by 14th century Advaita Vedanta philosopher Madhava Vidyaraṇya from South India, is one of the widely studied references to the Charvaka philosophy. The book attributes the following words to Charvaka;

‘’ While life is yours, live joyously;

None can escape Death’s searching eye:

When once this frame of ours they burn,

How shall it e’er again return?’’

Charvakas held two prominent materialistic beliefs:

  • Pleasure is the ultimate good in life; the only evil is pain.
  • The sole purpose of human existence is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.


Ethical or righteous materialism:

Happiness indeed consists in the possession of things. But, an extremely materialistic path can be a risky path too. So, there is certainly a need to eliminate the negative aspects of materialism, while advocating for a positive[ethical] materialism.

The common myth that materialism is just plain bad is untrue. Or, in an old-fashioned spiritual sense, you cannot be an authentic person, if you remain in pursuit of material things. And, you must make a stark choice; either you can be materialistic and that means obsessed with money and possessions, or you can reject materialism, be good and focus more on spiritual aspects of life.

It doesn’t make any sense to suggest that there cannot be a thing called ethical or moral materialism. Of course, good materialism is possible. The distinction between good materialism and bad materialism is very clear. While extracting the natural resources we should do it as per our needs, and not greed.

While bad materialism may unleash negative feelings and can be destructive, there’s also the concept of good materialism—a form of consumerism that can make us feel fulfilled, content, and happy. Indeed, money alone cannot buy happiness, but it surely is a stepping stone to happiness. Money can solve a lot of problems that plague our society. It can eradicate poverty. It can build healthcare. It can build schools. It can provide a homeless shelter. It can ensure a decent lifestyle for each citizen of a nation. 

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