Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Materialism of the Charvakas Lokayatikas

 V Brodov

Brhaspati (c. 7th-6th century B. C.) is believed to be the founder of the Charvaka Lokayatika School and the author of its Sutras. The Charvakas Lokayatikas are materialist philosophers. It would be a rude error, however, to restrict the Brhaspati line to the materialism of the Charvakas Lokay­atikas. That would mean narrowing down the social basis of Indian materialism, belittling its significance, and distorting the actual history. The materialist tendency is actually inherent in nearly all the sys­tems or schools of Indian philosophy, including the objective-idealist system of the Vedanta of the new times, which is shown in the second half of the present work.

To characterise the philosophical materialism of the Sutras period, it is important to single out the following general features:

  • recognition of the fact that the external world, of which man is part, exists objectively and is therefore not a product of his brain but exists independently of any consciousness;
  • recognition of the fact that the external world manifests itself in a law-governed fashion, the laws being capable of change only through physical action rather than through ideas, magic, or prayer;
  • negation of the existence of supernatural forces; the view that the world develops spontaneous­ly, without outside interference;
  • recognition of man's perceptions of the objects or phenomena of the outside world (sense experien­ces) as the only source of knowledge;
  • rejection of the view that knowledge is esote­ric, innate, or intuitive (mystical);
  • recognition of the fact that the nature of man's life and activity is determined by the condi­tions of his life and not by a deity.

Some of these features are inherent, in some form and to a certain extent, in many systems of Indian philosophy of the medieval period and even of the modern times.

It was Brhaspati who gave ancient Indian mate­rialism its distinctive shape. Another outstanding representative of this school was Bhishan. One of the most ancient puranas, the Padma Purana, says that a certain man named Kanada discovered the great teaching called Vaisesika. Gotama compiled the Nyaya shastras, Kapila wrote the Samkya sha­tras, a certain Brahman named Jaimini expounded the greatest atheist teaching and a man named Bhishan, the despised Charvaka teaching, while Vishnu himself, to rout the demons, took the image of Buddha to preach the completely impious doctri­ne of Buddhism.

This passage from the Padma Purana is also quoted by Vijnana Bhiksu, a major representative of the Samkhya philosophy. Bhishan's name is mentioned in the Mahabharata (Santiparva and Salyaparva), in the writings of Manu, and so on. Expressing the hopes and moods of the poorest strata of Indian society, Bhishan was sharply crit­ical of Brahmanism, the Vedic religion, and the ideology of the priests. The compilers of the Vedas,

he said, were hypocrites and swindlers. Invoking the Vedas, the priests dupe the simple people with meaningless jumbles of words, living in luxury at the expense of the poor people bringing them of­ferings. Who the offerings for? Gods were non­existent and had never existed. Should there be of­ferings to the deceased relatives? But these became dust and needed no food. Just as a lamp that became extinguished would not be rekindled if oil was added to it, a dead man would not rise from the dead after a sacrificial ritual. Even if we assume that our dead relatives need food, why should we pass the food to the priests? Why should the priests eat the food if our dead ones are to be fed? That is about the same as feeding the people of one village while intending to feed those of another.

The Charvakas rejected the idea of the existence of God, recognising four material elements as the substance: earth, water, fire, and air. Combina­tions of these elements produce all objects and phenomena of nature, both material and spiritual. The soul is a body endowed with consciousness; the soul does not exist outside the body. Conscious­ness emerges from unconscious elements as their temporary combination in a specific form under definite conditions. In substantiating this proposition, Bhishan said that a man could not get drunk by eating some rice and a kind of molasses made of beetroot. A mixture of rice and molasses, however, is used to prepare wine on which man can get drunk. Consciousness is nothing but the result of a certain process of combining material elements. A man's death signifies simultaneous destruction of both consciousness and soul. A Charvaka named Ajita Kesakambalin (6th century B. C.) said that both a wise man and a fool die along with the body, both are dead, and have no existence after death.

The Charvakas decried religious superstition which kept the people ignorant and oppressed, and opposed their view of cognition as the result of sense perception to religious visions. This viewpoint of naive sensualism certainly had its weak points. While recognising sensations and perceptions to be the only source of knowledge, the Charvakas failed to realise the dialectical unity of the sensual and the rational elements in cognition. They viewed the results of man's cognitive activity in the form of abstract thinking as untrue or at any rate unrelia­ble, containing elements of subjective arbitrariness and errors. The mind (that is, abstract thinking), said the Charvakas, did not exist without sensa­tions and perceptions. Propositions and syllogisms were only possible on the basis of those data which were obtained through sensory channels. Moreover, abstract logical thinking (the mind) could not add anything to that which was given in sense percep­tions. In other words, they failed to see the dialectics of the transition from cognition of phenomena to cognition of the essence, having a very limited and narrow conception of human practice and its role in the process of cognition. For the Charvakas, prac­tice was the process itself of sense perception of the individual objects and phenomena of nature. The role of practice as the criterion of truth was reduced to the verifying activity of our sense organs.

Vasiliĭ Vasilʹevich Brodov
It should be borne in mind, however, that the primary goal of the Charvakas was dealing a crush­ing blow to the ideology of Brahmanism. Jawa­harlal Nehru wrote on this account: "The materia­lists attacked authority and all vested interest in thought, religion and theology. They denounced the Vedas and priestcraft and traditional beliefs, and proclaimed that belief must be free and must not depend on pre-suppositions or merely on the authority of the past. They inveighed against all forms of magic and superstition. Their general spirit was comparable in many ways to the modern materialistic approach, it wanted to rid itself of the chains and burden of the past, of speculation about matters which could not be perceived, or worship of imaginary gods ... " 1

The opponents of materialism (mostly the priests, the Brahmans) did not only persecute the materi­alist philosophers themselves, they burned their works, so that materialist literature (the literature of the Charvakas Lokayatikas) was almost comple­tely wiped out. "Among the books that have been lost," Nehru points out, "is the entire literature on materialism which followed the period of the early Upanishads. The only references to this, now found, are in criticisms of it and in elaborate attempts to disprove the materialist theories.,,2

The Charvaka materialism is characterised by direct orientation against idealist and religious doct­rines, the desire to prove the untenability of ide­alism and to denounce the falsity and deception of religion and its preachers. Thus the Charvakas' main purpose was denouncing Brahmanist ideology rather than creating a consistent philosophical sys­tem.

The doctrine of the Charvakas Lokayatikas can be reduced to the following four propositions.

(1) Four material elements (mahabhuta) are the basis of all that is: fire, earth, water, and air.3 These elements are spontaneously active, with a force of their own (svabhava) inherent in them.

(2) Only "this world" (laka) exists; there is no hereafter or life after death;4 that is, after man's death, his life is neither continued "there" (that is, in the Brahman-Atman world) nor revived "here" (on this earth). The Charvakas said:

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?5

The Charvakas criticised the religious idealist proposition that "consciousness is the property of the immortal soul", insisting that consciousness died with the death of man, while man himself disintegrat­ed into the four basic elements. "Man is composed of four elements," they wrote. "When man dies, the earthly element returns and relapses into the earth; the watery element returns into the water, the fiery element returns into the fire, the airy element returns into the air, the senses pass into space.'6

(3) There are no supernatural (divine) forces. God is an invention of the rich to dupe the poor. Charvakas taught that the religion of Brahmanism, just as any other religion, was untenable and harm­ful, for it distracted the attention and strength of the poor towards worshipping imaginary gods, off­ering sacrifices to unknown forces, listening to abstract preaching, etc. Religious writings were based on the fantasies of a certain group of persons materially interested in all this.

(4) There is no soul - in the sense in which the ministers of religious cults and, in agreement with the latter, the philosophers used the term. It is matter that thinks, rather than the soul which is alleged to exist independently of matter.

(5) The law of karma (requital for both good and bad deeds) is an invention of the adherents of religion employed also by idealist philosophers. The source of evil on this earth should be looked for in the cruelty and injustice existing in society rather than in the properties of human nature and inevitable sufferings said to be predetermined from on high.

(6) The only source of the knowledge of nature is sense perception. Only direct perception (through the five senses) gives man genuine knowledge (pra­tyaksa). Only that exists which can be directly perceived. That which cannot be perceived does not exist; it does not exist precisely for the reason that it cannot be perceived. By "that which cannot be perceived" the Charvakas meant first and fore- most such religious "essences" as God, the soul, the heavenly

According to the Charvakas, sense perceptions can be of two kinds, external and internal. Internal perceptions emerge through the action of reason (manas). External perceptions are linked with the activity of the five sense organs.

Accordingly, knowledge itself is divided into two kinds or forms: the first kind is the result of contact between the sense organs and the objects of the external world; the second kind of knowledge arises through mental operations on the basis of sense data. 


  1. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1961, p.100
  2. Ibid. The same idea is to be found in many other studies in the history of Indian philosophy. Debiprasad Chattopad­hyaya, a prominent Marxist scholar, writes: "Apart from the mere mention of such lost treatises, what we now concretely possess are a few stray references to the Lokayata - views, or to its followers called the Lokayatikas, as preserved in the writings of those who wanted only to ridicule and refute the Lokayata ... This philosophy had the misfortune of being known to us only through the writings of its opponents ..:' (D. Chat­topadhyaya, Lokayata. A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959, p. 7) 
  3. Hence one of the most probable versions of the origIn of the name "Charvaka"; char "four", vak "word", that is, "four words".  
  4. Loka means "world", so that the ancient Indian materi­alists are sometimes called "Lokayatikas". Etymologically, the word taka means "that which is widespread among the people"; "that which is essentially secular". 
  5.  S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1977,p. 281
  6. Ibid, p. 273 

Title: Indian Philosophy In Modern Times
Author: V Brodov
Translated from the Russian by: Sergei Syrovatkin
Publisher: Progress Publishers, 1984
Length: 366 pages


This book is a type of copy paste. The pain of decoding and seeing the implied meaning of sutra or principles has been sidelined. It is the school which talks about democracy and character.
It became a prey of academic scam.

This book is a type of copy paste. The pain of decoding and seeing the implied meaning of sutra or principles has been sidelined. It is the school which talks about democracy and character.
It became a prey of academic scam.

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