by Jayaram V
"Atheism is a necessary protest against the
wickedness of the churches and the narrowness of the creeds.
God uses it as stone to smash these soiled card-houses."
- Sri Aurobindo
Of the numerous schools of thought that gained prominence
during the epic
period as a reaction against the excessive ritualism and empty
dogmatism of vedic religion or perhaps the increasing rigidity
of caste system, one school of thought attracts the attention of
present day scholars not only for its radical approach to the
problems of blind belief but also for its similarities with the
modern day rationalism and materialism of the west. It was the
lokayata school of thought, believed to have been founded by
Charvaka, whose history is shrouded in great mystery and myth.
The world lokayata was used to refer to the person who
believed in the reality of this world and the physical existence
of man and of other beings on earth and nothing else. 'Loka'
means the world and 'lokayata' means he who is centered around
or relies upon this world only. The lokayatas believed in
the existence of this world only, neither in heaven nor in hell,
neither in vice nor virtue. They accepted only that reality
which they could subjectively perceive and interact with, not in
any imaginary world or some kind of ideal world. Practical and
down to the earth, they believed in the existence of four
elements only, namely the earth, water, fire, and air instead of
the five elements of the vedic scriptures of which space or
ether was the fifth element.
The Charvaka system of thought believed neither in God
nor in the after life of man. Their doctrines are traced to an
ancient scripture called the Charvaka Dharma probably written by
an author of the name of Charvaka. Reference to the
Charvakas or the Lokayatas was found in some ancient Hindu and
Buddhist Scriptures such as the Prabhodha Chandrodaya, an
allegorical play in which a character sums up the beliefs of
this school, and also the epics, the Ramayana and the
One of the chief protagonists of this school existed during
the time of the Buddha and his name was Ajita Kesakamabali. He
recognized only four elements and declared that a combination of
these four elements produced certain vitality called life, which
is very much in tune with the modern theories of creation of
life on earth. At the time of death these four elements would
return to their respective sources, earth to earth, air to air
and so on. There was no mystery of life beyond this. "
When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and
perish. They do not survive after death."
According to the Charvakas there was no soul. Death was the
end of all existence. The body itself was Atman and enjoyment of
this life in the bodily form should be the chief purpose of
life. Whatever was within the field of perception was true
and it alone existed. Anything beyond the senses was false, a
mere illusion or self induced delusion. Inference by itself
could not be the basis of truth and therefore it was invalid. We
should not depend upon the experience of others to know the
truth. We should not base our belief upon the teachings of
others as long as they were not confirmed by our own personal
experience. Subjective experience was therefore the basis of all
truth and of ones conduct in this world.
The Charvakas did not accept the Vedas, nor the vedic rites
prescribed by the Vedas. They contended that one should not
practice these religious rites, whose results no one could
verify with certainty. They did not believe in karma or the
concept of sacrifice. What was the use of sacrificing something
today, in the hope of getting some future benefit whose arrival
was never certain? Earthly enjoyment was the highest ideal and
it should not be sacrificed in the hope of some better after
Since matter was the only thing that was perceivable by the
senses, matter alone was real. Intelligence was also a form of
matter, like the body, because it was produced by the
modification of the four elements and was destroyed the way the
body was destroyed when these elements were dissolved. The
physical self alone was real and the mind and the body were part
of this physical self.
Two interpretations are given for the word Charvaka.
According to one
interpretation, the word 'char' means 'charming and alluring and
the word 'vak' means speech. Probably the Charvakas were good
orators and their words were instantly appealing to the audience
as they appealed to the senses directly and required no blind
faith to sustain themselves. According to another
interpretation, the word 'charva' means grinding and chewing and
the world 'Charvaka' means he who grinds both vice and virtue.
The Charvakas are also known as Brihaspatayas because it is
believed that Brihaspathi was the author of this doctrine.
Another sect which was close to the lokayatas in their thinking
was the sect of the kapalikas, who believed in the practice of
sex and gory rituals to gain siddhis or spiritual powers.
Probably the Charvaka school must have provided some background
from which the later schools of Tantricism emerged both in
Hinduism and Buddhism as a way of compromise between materialism
The disbelief and atheism of ancient India is summed up in
the following lines from the Savradarshana Samgraha.
"There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor
any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes, etc.,
produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's
three staves, and smearing one's self with ashes,
Were made by Nature as the livelihood or
those destitute of knowledge and manliness."
The Charvaka school of thinking had many draw backs. Its
chief weakness was its excessive reliance upon subjective
experience and upon sensory perceptions, as the basis of truth.
These two are not perfect and reliable instruments of truth and
they would not always guarantee complete wisdom. The Charvakas
ignore the fundamental fact that our perceptions can be very
misleading and that they are colored by our own prejudices,
fears, anxieties, expectations, desires, thoughts and most
important of all by our own ignorance. They also fail to
explain the role of Nature, the rationale for good social
conduct or the need for social harmony. The Charvakas
provide very simplistic solutions to the complex problems of
pain and suffering, and fall short of providing
lasting solutions to the real problems of human life and
society. In short they fail to explain such human needs and
aspirations that are not purely physical or mental but
spiritual, and the importance of such morals and social values
in human life that distinguishes us from the world of the
Suggested Further Reading