Atheism, Materialism and Anti-Clericalism in Ancient and Medieval India: Part One

The different religious and philosophical schools of thought that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent in ancient and medieval times can be divided into two broad categories. The orthodox schools were those that accepted the Vedas as being scripturally authoritative. Much of what we consider to be contemporary religious Hinduism is derived from a subset of these schools of thought. The heterodox schools were those that rejected the authority of the Vedas. These included Buddhism, Jainism, and the subject of this essay: materialism.

A materialist holds that the material world is all there is, and denies the existence of supernatural entities. Materialism seems to have been not uncommon in ancient India. It can be traced all the way back to the philosopher Ajita Kesakambali, who lived during the 6th Century BCE and was a contemporary of the Buddha. An early Buddhist document, the Digha Nikaya, describes Ajita as denying the existence of gods, karma and reincarnation. Although not the dominant view, materialism was prominent enough that proponents of other schools of thought felt the need to refute their arguments (1).

There were different schools of materialism, but they were all usually lumped together under the label lokayata (literally: “this-worldly” or “of this world”). They are alluded to in numerous Buddhist, Jain and orthodox documents. The Manimekalai, a Tamil Buddhist epic composed sometime in the 6th Century CE, quotes a materialist as saying that life “appears by the mixing of elements, vanishes when they separate as sounds from a drum… This birth and its effects conclude now. Talk of other births is falsity” (2).

References to the lokayata school of thought can be found in different works up until the 16th Century, after which point they appear to have faded away into obscurity. Starting in the 1570s, the Mughal Emperor Akbar held numerous religious debates and dialogues in his capital city of Fatehpur Sikri. The materialists seem to have made an appearance there, as recorded by the Muslim scholar Abū l-Faḍl in his work Ain-i-Akbari (3):

They [the materialists] recognize no existence apart from the four elements, nor any source of perception save through the five organs of sense. They do not believe in a God nor in immaterial substances, and affirm faculty of thought to result from the equilibrium of the aggregate elements. Paradise, they regard as a state in which man lives as he chooses, free from the control of another, and hell the state in which he lives subject to another’s rule. The whole end of man, they say, is comprised in four things: the amassing of wealth, women, fame and good deeds. They admit only of such sciences as tend to the promotion of external order, that is, a knowledge of just administration and benevolent government. They are somewhat analogous to the sophists in their views and have written many works in reproach of others, which rather serve as lasting memorials of their own ignorance.

As we can see, he was not very charitable in his portrayal of the materialists. This is a recurring problem with almost all the sources of information available to us. We know very little about what the materialists actually believed, since none of their original writings exist. All we have to go on are  descriptions of their views in secondary sources: mostly Buddhist, Jain and orthodox philosophers attempting to prove them wrong. These documents usually heap scorn and ridicule on the lokayatas, depicting them as hedonistic and unrighteous. There are good reasons to believe that many of these sources give us only a caricature of their views, as we shall see in Part II.


Emperor Akbar participating in a religious discussion (courtesy:

In medieval India, the most well known materialists were the Charvakas. The Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Compendium of All Philosophies), written in the 14th century by an orthodox scholar, summarizes the sixteen major schools of thought at the time, in the order of most heretical to most acceptable. Charvaka is the first worldview on the list and is described as “the crest-gem of the atheistic school” (4). The Sarva Darshana Sangraha sums up their view of life with the following verse:

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?

Like their predecessors, they were atheists, and denied the existence of a supernatural creator, as this aphorism attributed to them in the Sarva Darshana Sangraha shows:

The fire is hot, the water cold, refreshingly cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety? From their own nature was it born.

As I’ve stressed in this post, there is very little we can know for certain about materialists like the Charvakas. They were viewed and portrayed as intellectually and morally destructive by most religious thinkers. In the Mahabharata (one of the two major Hindu epics), for example, a scholar who goes by the name of Charvaka turns out to be a demon in disguise (5). Clearly, everything we read about them from secondary sources must be taken with a grain of salt. Despite this, in recent years, scholars and intellectual historians have managed to piece together parts of their worldview. In Part II, I will go over what the Charvaka school taught on matters concerning epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.


Works Cited

[1] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Studies in Lokayata/Carvaka.” Web. December 2011.

[2] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “The Development of Materialism in India.” Web. 2013.

[3] Wojciehowski, Hannah. “East- West Swerves: Cārvāka Materialism and Akbar’s       Religious Debates at Fatehpur Sikri.” Web. 2015.

[4] Gough & Cowell’s translation. “Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy.” 1882.

[5] Book 12, Chapter 39 of The Mahabharata

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One Response to Atheism, Materialism and Anti-Clericalism in Ancient and Medieval India: Part One

  1. Pingback: Atheism, Materialism and Anti-Clericalism in Ancient and Medieval India: Part Two | The Skeptical Stingray

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