Charvaka – The Materialist and Empiricist Philosophy of Hinduism

Article of the Month - Dec 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

Charvaka – The Materialist and Empiricist Philosophy of Hinduism

“But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?”

-       Chapter 10, Rigveda

The Charvaka (sweet-talkers), also known as Lokayata philosophy, is a heterodox Hindu philosophy named after its founder and often classified with its fellow dissenter philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. However, unlike Jainism and Buddhism, Charvaka has not turned into its own religious sect and remains a philosophical ideal. Being a heterodox school of thought means that Charvaka rejects the idea that the Vedas are revealed texts (sruti) and also rejects the power of the Brahmin priestly class (see King 19). It is a materialistic philosophy that places most of its emphasis on the here and now and life as we perceive it as we live through it. The Charvaka system only accepts perceived knowledge to be true and therefore dismisses the concept of an afterlife. Although the philosophy is believed to be quite old, there are very few texts that deal directly with the system itself.

चार्वाक - Charvak

The Charvaka vision rejected all supernatural claims, all religious authority and scripture, the acceptance of inference and testimony in establishing truth, and any religious ritual or tradition. The essential tenets of the philosophy were:

  • Direct perception is the only means of establishing and accepting any truth
  • What cannot be perceived and understood by the senses does not exist
  • All that exists are the observable elements of air, earth, fire, and water
  • The ultimate good in life is pleasure; the only evil is pain
  • Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is the sole purpose of human existence
  • Religion is an invention of the strong and clever who prey on the weak

There is no single piece of extant literature that is solely based on the materialistic philosophy of the Charvaka. The few writings that clearly relate to the system are not very old in Hindu terms (a few centuries) but many scholars believe that there is evidence of criticisms of the Charvaka principles in earlier writings by adversary philosophers such as Sankara (Hiriyanna 187). The Charvakas played a significant role in the history of Indian philosophy (King 21). It was very unnerving to the leaders and priests of the orthodox tradition because of the rejection of their sacred texts and the rejection of immaterial forms of existence. The importance of the materialist philosophy is most likely underplayed because of the lack of extant texts of Charvaka or Lokayata itself. The Brhaspati Sutra apparently set out the principles of the system but the text has been lost. The orthodox opposition wrote the only known writings pertaining to philosophy. The only possible extant writing on the Caravaka philosophy is the Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Charvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still, the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Charvaka philosophy.

Charvak Darshan (Bengali)

The lack of texts to support it made the tradition unlikely to survive, unlike its fellow heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism adhering to their own sacred texts. The only possible extant writing on the Charvaka philosophy is the Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Charvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still, the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Charvaka philosophy. There is also evidence of the Charvaka system in the Rgveda. The poets of the Rgveda never show a desire to reach another world but instead put emphasis on the here and now facts of life, just as the Charvaka system does (Raja 24). The philosophy receives much ridicule in ancient literature. This is presumed to be because of the gaps and deficiencies in the system of thought itself because fellow heterodox systems that reject the Vedas and authority of the priestly class do not receive such negative commentary. Since most of the writings on the Charvaka are by followers of opposing schools of thought, it may be misinterpreted and its weaknesses overly emphasized.

Charvaka Philosophy (An Old and Rare Book)

One of the reasons that many philosophers reject Charvaka is because of the dogma of perception. The doctrine states that the only valid knowledge (pranama) is that which is directly perceived– sense knowledge. The reasoning is completely rejected as a valid way of acquiring knowledge (King 132). The explanation for this is that there is not sufficient cause for believing in the truth of the inductive relation that forms the basis for the idea. The inductive relation can be different to each individual and is not physically apparent. It takes on the approach of modern science (Raja 30). Universal relationships can be accepted only if they can be warranted by direct observation (anubhava), much like a science experiment. Inference requires perceptual knowledge to establish its validity. Giving probabilities rather than definitive answers was the main reason for resistance to inferential reasoning (King 133). The limitations on thought and reasoning provide a rigid barrier to giving deeper meaning to life and thereby contribute any new ideas or perspectives to Indian philosophy (darshanas).

All About Hinduism (From Vedas to Devas and Past to Present)

In ancient Hindu society, the upper three varnas were allowed to participate in Vedic ritual practices and receive an education. The lack of inclusiveness of commoners may have provided a base for their support of Charvaka. Not being allowed to participate in Vedic rituals and having the powerful priestly class causing dissent made the philosophy’s position of rejection of the Vedas and Brahmins very appealing (King 17). It is easy to reject the power of the Vedic text when one is not allowed to participate in rituals or is unable to read them.

The specific purposes of human existence are undecided from the Charvaka philosophical viewpoint. In traditional Hindu society righteousness (dharma), pleasure (kama), worldly success (artha), and liberation (moksa) were the basic principles of human existence. The materialists believed that the main goal of life was kama or the pursuit of pleasure (King 18). A follower of the doctrine would try to maximize the pleasures in his or her life. The Charvaka promotes a lifestyle based on the avoidance of sorrow or suffering. Some scholars also believe that success or wealth (artha) was another main goal of the Charvaka life. The philosophy is often criticized because of these materialistic purposes for life. In later writings, distinctions seem to have been made between refined materialism, which had a hierarchical scheme of pleasures and approving of intellectual over sensual pleasure, and more crude materialism (King 18). The hierarchal system is probably a more valid description of how the original philosophy was practiced, with the intellect being important and adherents not having a blatant disregard for the moral issues that go along with the attempt to have artha and kama.


Lokayata/Carvaka - A Philosophical Inquiry

Lokayata often has a negative reputation because of the lack of dharma as an absolute goal of life. The philosophy cannot just be projected as an unreflective hedonistic perspective. Dealing with moral issues and rejecting the actions that may cause harm to others has evidentiary support (King 19). Since there was a lack of the goal of righteousness derived from dharma, the idea of kama controlled the actions of the followers. The Kama was not believed to be for just oneself, but a universal goal to avoid suffering for oneself and others. Charvaka also condemned war and the Vedic animal sacrifices much like the Jainas and Buddhists (Chattopadhyaya 31). Both of these practices add to the suffering of other individuals, making them unacceptable to the Lokayata.

The doctrine dismisses all gods, devas, and supernatural beings (Hiriyanna 193). It is also recognized that there is no god who governs the universe, no life after death, or conscience (dharma). The material world is all that exists and there are no other worlds in which to be reborn. This fixates a follower totally on the world of sense around them and does not inspire elevated thoughts of a deeper reality. There is no God who created the world, but a conglomeration of matter that is able to produce things out of itself (Dasgupta 175). Charvaka rejects the idea of Brahman because nobody has come back to relate to us what happens after death. Brahman is inferred, and cannot be perceived by the senses. Therefore the Charvaka rejects Brahman. Only the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air are recognized and these together produce intelligence that is destroyed when the body perishes. Just like intelligence, atman or the soul is not believed to be a separate entity from the body as it is unable to be demonstrated that it does exist. Although there are no remaining practitioners of the Charvaka philosophy it still remains an integral part of Indian philosophical history. There may be a resurgence in the interest and study of such materialistic philosophies as this with the changing views of western culture today.

Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought

These same concepts were developed, most likely independently, in ancient Greece and elsewhere. Although the Athenian politician Critias never established a formal school, his extant work echoes the same vision as Brhaspati's. Critias wrote that religion is nothing more than a means whereby the strong controlled the weak, enriching themselves by maintaining laws that operated for their benefit. The philosophy of Aristippus of Cyrene is nearly identical to Charvaka in that he believed the noblest goal one could dedicate oneself self to in life was the pursuit of pleasure. Aristippus believed in living for the moment and enjoying himself self as much as one could. His philosophy is often compared to that of the Chinese hedonist philosopher Yang Zhu (l. 440-360 BCE) who also believed religion was an artificial construct to control people and worrying about what defined a “right action” and a “wrong action” was a waste of time when one could be enjoying one's self doing whatever one wanted.

The best-known hedonist, of course, is Epicurus who also believed that the pursuit of pleasure should be one's highest goal. Epicurus' philosophy, however, was actually far from the kind of hedonism championed by Charvaka or by Aristippus or Yang Zhu. To Epicurus, the pursuit of pleasure meant enjoying fully what one had without worrying about what one did not. Pleasure produced happiness only as long as it could be enjoyed without stress or concern which meant one should observe moderation in all things in order to live as long as possible in optimal health to enjoy as much as one could.

Conclusion

Possibly one of the most interesting and seemingly counter-intuitive viewpoints in ancient Hinduism is Charvaka, a school of thought which grounds its philosophy in materialism and empiricism dating back to 600 BC. Therefore, it rejects notions of an afterworld, a soul, and any authority outside of the material world (the Vedic scriptures, Hindu Gods, and so on). It further dismisses the idea of karma, i.e. good or bad actions manifesting as consequences in an individual’s life, and moksha, the idea of liberation from the vicious karmic cycle. Instead of relying on these ideas written down in sacred texts of the time, Charvaka professed the power of sensory inputs and direct perception and ground all reliance on these. Although one of the six darshanas in ancient Hindu philosophy, it greatly differs from the other five in its increasing tendencies towards open atheism and materialism. Because of its open disregard of Hindu deities and rituals, Charvaka garnered a good amount of criticism. Followers of Charvaka were often accused of being run on their own self-interests and of being hedonists and opportunists, wanting to accumulate material gains by professing a school of thought that validates it.

An Insight Into Hindu Philosophy Life and Beyond

Charvaka holds direct perception, empiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of knowledge embraces philosophical skepticism, and rejects ritualism and supernaturalism. Brihaspati is traditionally referred to as the founder of Charvaka or Lokāyata philosophy. The Charvaka did not believe in karma, rebirth, or an afterlife. Charvaka believed that there was nothing wrong with sensual pleasure. Since it is impossible to have pleasure without pain, Charvaka thought that wisdom lay in enjoying the pleasure and avoiding pain as far as possible. Charvakas rejected many of the standard religious conceptions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivakas, such as an afterlife, reincarnation, samsara, karma, and religious rites. They were critical of the Vedas, as well as Buddhist scriptures. Charvakas concluded that the inference could not be used to ascertain metaphysical truths.

References and Further Readings:

-       Chattopadhyaya, D. (1968) Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

-       Dasgupta, Surendranath (1962) A History of Indian Philosophy: vol. V. New York, N.Y.: The Cambridge University Press.

-       Hiriyanna, M. (1968) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

-       King, Richard (2000) Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. New Delhi: Maya Publishers PVT. LTD.

-       Raja, Kunhan C. (1974) Some Fundamental Problems in Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 

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