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

Read Part I here. This post examines the teachings of the most famous school of materialism in Indian thought, the Charvaka school.


The Charvakas were strict empiricists. They held that observation and sense-perception were the only real sources of knowledge. Several religious commentators claim that the Charvaka school rejected all forms of inference and testimony and insisted that direct perception was the only way to gain knowledge. An extreme form of empiricism such as this would have some pretty absurd consequences. For instance, upon seeing smoke, we wouldn’t be able to infer that there was a fire nearby, since the fire itself was not directly perceived. This would lead to a radical form of skepticism in our everyday lives. Opponents of the Charvakas pointed this out repeatedly, arguing that the Charvaka worldview was unlivable and hence ought to be rejected as ridiculous. “O Charvaka who accepts only direct sense perception as evidence,” an early early 18th Century orthodox philosopher wrote tauntingly, “why do you sadly sigh as you suspect your wife is pregnant from her paramour? (1)”

Over the last few decades, scholars such as Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Ramkrishna Bhattacharya have challenged this traditional interpretation of Charvaka epistemology. The Charvakas, they argue, had a much more nuanced theory of knowledge. Drawing upon two important Jain sources, they point out that the Charvakas didn’t reject all forms of inference. They only rejected inferences to supernatural entities such as gods and other realms that couldn’t themselves be directly observed. Evidence for this can be found in the Tarka Rahasya Dipika, a Jain treatise that summarizes the Charvaka view of inference in the following manner (2):

[T]he Charvakas admit the validity of inferences which tend to facilitate the activities of ordinary people; such as the inference of fire from smoke, but they never admit the validity of extraordinary inferences which seek to establish heaven, merit and demerit, etc.

What was the justification for this distinction? The answer can be found in another Jain document, which quotes the 7th Century Charvaka philosopher Purandara as saying:

The main reason for upholding such a distinction between the validity of reference in our practical life of ordinary experience, and in ascertain­ing transcending truths beyond experience, lies in this that an inductive generalization is made by observing a large number of cases of agreement in presence together with agreement in absence, and no cases of agreement in presence can be observed in the trans­cendental sphere; for even if such cases existed, they could not be perceived by the senses.

To put it simply, fire-from-smoke type inferences are not questioned since they have their basis in “previous perceptual knowledge, i.e. the experience of the invariable co-presence of fire with smoke,” whereas the same cannot be said of supernatural beings, since they bear “no relation at all to previous empirical evidence (3).”


The Charvakas claimed that ultimately, only the four elements: earth, water, fire and air existed. Everything else in the world was composed of these elements. This included human beings. The mind had no existence apart from the body, and perished along with the body at death.

Arguably the most formidable threat that any materialist ontology must face is the problem raised by consciousness. Consciousness, by its very nature, seems fundamentally different from everything else in the world. It is, first and foremost, an internal and first-person phenomenon and appears to resist a purely physical description. It is this experiential and qualitative side of consciousness that materialists find hard to explain. The challenge raised against the Charvakas was this: how does consciousness arise from materials such as water, fire and air which are themselves utterly devoid of consciousness?

The Charvakas had a remarkably sophisticated theory of the mind. They treated consciousness as an emergent property, and clarified their position by way of the following analogy: Consider intoxicating drinks. The individual ingredients that go into making these drinks don’t induce intoxication by themselves. But when they’re combined in a specific manner, as part of a specific process, the resulting drink has a mada-shakthi: an “intoxicating power.” This form of emergence is something we see around us all the time, the Charvakas claim, so there’s no reason to think the same can’t be true of consciousness. When the elements come together in a certain pattern as part of a specific process, consciousness emerges. Whether not this adequately addresses the challenge (I’m not sure it does), it strikes me as well thought out response (4).

There was an additional argument the Charvakas used to claim that consciousness must have a material basis, and it was pretty straightforward. Jayanta Bhatta of the orthodox Nyaya school captured it in the following way (5):

It is commonly observed that a body well-nourished with food and drinks has improved con­sciousness. The reverse happens in the reverse case (i.e. in the absence of nourishment of the body, there is a deterioration of consciousness). Besides, the body of a young man who takes the Brahmi-ghrita (a medicinal tonic) shows a remarkable improvement of consciousness . . . . Thus the improvement and deterioration of consciousness is directly explicable by the presence or absence of the excess of material elements.

The materialist view of the mind/body relationship was severely criticized by other schools of thought, but going over those criticisms will require another essay.


Very little can be ascertained about what the Charvakas taught about ethics. I mentioned in Part I that they were portrayed as hedonists by religious thinkers. This is captured by this quote attributed to them in the Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Compendium of All Philosophies) (6):

While life remains, let a man live happily; let him feed on ghee (clarified butter) even though he runs in debt…

Such a view is understandable, since they would have had little use for religious concepts such as piety or austerity. In fact, they seemed to have had nothing but contempt for organized religion, and were vocally anti-clerical. This is also from the Sarva Darshana Sangraha: 

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 brahmins (the priests) have established here
All these ceremonies for the dead – there is no other fruit anywhere.
The authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves and demons.

The deeper question is whether the Charvakas were pleasure-seeking egoists unconcerned with ethics, as their opponents usually claimed they were. We can’t know for certain, but there is some evidence to the contrary. They may have actually held some pretty progressive opinions for their time and questioned the prevailing social order.

In an 11th century play called Prabodhachandrodaya (Rise of the Moon of Intellect), a materialist is depicted as challenging the caste system in the following way: “If the bodies are alike in their different parts, the mouth, etc., how can there be a hierarchy of castes?” It is worth noting that the materialist asking this is not a sympathetic character in the play: he is depicted a heretic, and his name Mahamoha roughly translates to “Great Delusion.” Similar themes can be seen in a 12th century poem, the Nasiddhacharitha (The Life of Nasiddha), where a materialist challenges the established norms relating to caste and gender (7):

Since purity of caste is possible only in the case of purity on each side of both families of the grandparents, what caste is pure by the purity of limitless generations?

Fie on those who boast of family dignity! They hold women in check out of jealousy; but do not likewise restrain men, though the blindness of passion is common to both!

Spurn all censorious statements about women as not worth a straw. Why dost thou constantly cheat people when thou, too, art as bad as women?

It would be unwise to draw any far-reaching conclusions about the progressive nature of the Charvakas’ ethical outlook based on these passages. However, given that they rejected the authority of the Vedas and the priestly class, it would not be surprising if they did in fact come to such conclusions.


Works Cited

[1] Baladeva Vidyabhushana’s Vedanta Shyamantaka 

[2], [7] Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Studies in Lokayata/Carvaka.” Web. December 2011.

[3], [4], [5] Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. “Lokayata Materialism.” Indian Thought: An Introduction. Print. 1975.

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

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