Saturday, 11 August 2012

Cārvāka/ Lokāyata: Some Common Misrepresentations Examined

(a) Did the Carvakas Refuse to Admit Inference?

In the Indian philosophical context, besides the issues of rebirth, after­life and other­world, the instruments of cognition (prammana) are considered to be of seminal importance. The Carvakas are generally branded as a philosophical school that accepted perception as the only means of knowledge. But there are enough evidence to show that, in addition to perception, the Carvakas also admitted inference as a valid means of cognition in so far as it was based on perception and hence verifiable by perception. As to verbal testimony, analogy and other instruments of cognition accepted by various schools, the Carvakas refused to accept them. We shall now delineate on this issue.

All college textbooks and most of the popular digests and handbooks of Indian philosophy describe the Carvakas as pramanaikavadin, i.e., they recognize no other instrument of cognition except one, viz., perception. Vacaspatimitra (ninth/tenth century) satirizes the Carvakas in the following way:

Moreover, even beasts, with a view to obtaining the beneficial and avoiding the harmful, move towards a field green with soft, fresh grass and leave one full of dried grass and thorns. The Nastika, not knowing what would lead to his own good or what would lead him into harm, is more beastly than a beast. In this matter (of determining a thing as desirable and undesirable), which is the basis of an effort for obtainment (pravrtti) or an effort for avoidance (nivrtti), and can only be known by inference, perception is not capable of doing anything.11
Many other Brahminical and Jain philosophers have similarly condemned the Carvakas as pramanaikavadin. But such a branding is not only wrong but betrays some design as well. Let us take the following instance.

To prove that the Carvakas declined to admit inference as a valid means of knowledge Santaraksita and Jayantabhatta cite several verses. All of them, however, are taken from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. Silanka, Vacaspatimitra and Vadidevasuri too follow them. Now Bhartrhari was a staunch Vedist. He did not believe in any other means of knowledge except verbal testimony. Both perception and inference were unacceptable to him. Yet the opponents of the Carvakas prefer to cite his view as if it corresponds to the Lokayatikas’. If there were any aphorism denying the validity of inference in the Carvakas works, why did the antagonist all quote Bhartrhari and then set out to refute the Carvakas? One has the impression that Santaraksita and others simply use the Carvakas as their Sikhandin: the butt of their attack was really Bhartrhari or the school of grammarians, although they never declared it in so many words.12 If any school of Indian philosophy is to be branded as pramanaikavadin, it is the school of grammarians, not the Carvakas.

The fact is that the Carvakas did admit inference along with perception as an instrument of cognition. Let us have a look at the evidence.

Kamalasila in his commentary on Tattvasangraha, verses 1481­82, quotes a line: “Purandara however says, ‘The Carvakas too admit of such an inference as is well-known in the world, but that which is called inference [by some], transgressing the worldly way, is prohibited [by them]’.” Soon after the publication of this work (1926) Satkari Mookerjee (1935) referred to this sentence as did Surendranath Dasgupta (1940).13 Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (1989), too, devotes a section on “The Evidence of Purandara”.14

Dasgupta also refers to Vadidevasuri, who says that, according to the Carvakas, “Since in the supposed supra­sensuous transcendent world no case of the hetu [reason] agreeing with the presence of its sadhya [inferable property] can be observed, no inductive generalization or law of concomitance can be made relating to this sphere.”
M. Hiriyanna too notes that the opponents of the Carvakas may even have misrepresented its tenets:

Thus it is commonly assumed by the critics that the Carvakas denounce reasoning as a pramana; but to judge from the reference to it in one Nyaya treatise, they seem to have rejected only such reasoning as was ordinarily thought sufficient by others for establishing the existence of God, of a future life, etc.15

Hiriyanna observes: “Such a discrimination in using reason alters the whole complexion of the Carvakas view. But this is only a stray hint we get about the truth. What we generally have is a caricature.”

The Nyaya treatise Hiriyanna mentions is Jayantabhatta’s Nyayamañjari, the first printed edition of which appeared as early as 1895. None before Hiriyanna, however, noticed this hint. (Hiriyanna in his turn also failed to notice the passages in the works of Kamala†„la and Vadidevasuri which provide categorical assertions—not mere stray hints—regarding the limited validity of inference admitted by the Carvakas).

Besides Kamalasila, Jayanta and Vadidevasuri, Sarvamata­sangraha, an anonymous and undated digest, presents the Carvakas view more elaborately:

This rice, because of its riceness (annatva) satisfies hunger as it did yesterday—such an inference as this is included there (sc. in the Lokayata Sastra), due to its being rooted in perception. The fruits of worldly goods (abhyudaya) and summum bonum (nihsreyasa), the matter of religion and brahman as well as the Veda are devoted to the pretersensual, hence are not (to be admitted as) means of knowledge— this is the conclusion.16

Ratnaprabh‚, a Jain philosopher, too, seems to echo Purandara when he writes:

The Carvakas, however, contend that they admit inferences which are of practical utility, such as the inference of fire from smoke, and deny only those which deal with such supernatural matters as the heaven, the unseen power (apurva) which generates in a next birth fruits of acts done in a present life, etc. etc.17

Gunaratna, another Jain philosopher, repeats the same view:

The Carvakas admit the validity of inference which tend to facilitate the daily activities of ordinary people (loka-­yatra-­nirvahana-­pravanam), such as the inference of fire from smoke, etc., but they never admit the validity of extraordinary inferences which seek to establish the heaven, merit and demerit, etc.18

Last but not least, Sukhlalji Sanghvi, the eminent Jain scholar of our times, prefers to follow this view. The Carvakas, according to him, belongs to the side which accepts the dominance of the senses (indriyadhipatya-­paksa) as opposed to those who reject the senses (in favour of the mind or the self), those who admit the dominance of both the senses and the mind (or the self), and those who admit only the dominance of the Vedas.19

In fact, the distinction made between two kinds of inference—one confined to the ways of the world (laukika), and the other relying on the scriptures or the supra­sensual (sastrasiddha)—is the lasting contribution of the Carvakas to Indian Logic. It is a sad commentary on the state of scholarship that the true Carvakas view regarding inference has all along been distorted and willfully misrepresented. Is it too much to expect that the writers of the twenty-first century will take note of these discoveries (not all of them very recent) and put an end to caricaturing the Carvakas position? They should realize what S. Radhakrishnan, no friend of materialism, said long ago in relation to the verses at the end of SDS, ch. 1: “A philosophy professed seriously for centuries could not have been of the coarse kind that it is here reported to be.”20

(b)    Were the Carvakas Sensualists?

All that has been said above is enough, I think, to dispel the notion that the Carvakas were a happy-go-lucky lot and their sole aim in life was sensual gratification. Had it been so, all their opponents would not have dealt with them so seriously. The Carvakas, of course, did not believe in the other­world and were not credulous enough to believe in the existence of two separate places called heaven and hell. So the opponents of the Carvakas have portrayed them as immoral people preaching “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. But none of the opponents quotes a single sutra in support of such representation. Serious scholars like Richard Garbe and M. Hiriyanna noted long ago that such a (mis)representation has all the characteristics of a caricature.

Let us re­examine the sources of the basis on which the Carvakas have been branded as unrestrained hedonists. The only “evidence” that is cited is a verse found in SDS.

yavajjivet sukham jived rnam krtva ghrtam pibet /

bhasmibhutasya dehasya punar agamanam kutah//

While life remains, let a man live happily; let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt; when once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?

The same verse, however, is quoted in no fewer than thirteen sources both before and after SDS and almost everywhere the second hemistich reads nasti mrtyor agocarah (nothing is beyond the scope of death).21 Whatever other variants there may be, nowhere does the second hemistich reads rnam krtva ghrtam pibet, excepting in SDS. More interesting is the fact that Sayana-­Madhava himself quotes this verse twice in the same chapter, once at the beginning and again at the end. In the first instance he too quotes the second hemistich as nasti mrtyor agocarah!

There is no proof to show that the verse under discussion originated from among the Carvakas. It is first found in the Visnudharmottara Mahapurana (108. 18­19). Here, too, the second hemistich reads nasti mrtyor agocarah. The verse is attributed to King Be‹a who, both in this Purana and elsewhere, is represented as a king who did not believe in the other­world. So he never cared to conform to the traditional duties of a devout person. There is no mention of any such term as Barhaspatya or Carvakas or Lokayata in this context. In fact, most of the verses that are attributed to Brhaspati by Sayana-­Madhava and others are of doubtful authenticity.

Whatever be the authenticity of the yavajjivet verse, the fact remains that this very verse has been generally taken to be the quintessence of the Carvakas philosophy. But what the verse says in its original form is pretty simple. The message is quite clear: Since there is no rebirth, there is no use of practising austerity; death will overpower everyone anyway.

Let us look at the matter from another angle. Jayantabhatta has no soft spot for the Carvakas. He controverts at some length the Carvakas regarding the acceptance of inference as an instrument of cognition both in his philosophical work, Nyayamañjari and his allegorical play, Agamadambara. He, however, refuses to accept the view that the Carvakas prescribed any hedonistic doctrine. He rather believes that the Lokayata “is only the assertion of the vaitandika (representing merely the destructive criticism of others); it is not really a body of precepts.” 22

A putative opponent is said to object: “But then there it has been (positively) prescribed: ‘Live in pleasure as long as you live’.” Jayanta brushes aside this objection. “No,” he says, “the fact being naturally established, a prescription in this regard becomes useless.” 23 In other words, the verse, according to Jayanta, does not contain any prescription at all.

It is also to be noted that other philosophers who have crossed swords with the Carvakas have concentrated solely on epistemological questions. We may mention the names of Sankaracarya, Santaraksita and Prabhacandra who find fault with the Carvakas doctrine on both epistemological and metaphysical grounds, but they never call it hedonistic or anything of that sort. There is no denying the fact that the Carvakas did not abide by the Vedas, nor did they believe in the doctrine of rebirth and karman; they also refused to accept any statement based on inference unless it was supported by or based on perception. All these objections have been raised and contested from the Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain points of view. But in the philosophical works no charge has been levelled against them that involves moral depravity. It seems that a facile equation was made by the custodians of orthodoxy between the denial of the other­world and indulgence in sensual gratification.

Such an equation is also met with in ancient Greece. Epicurus (341­270 BCE) lived an austere life, as did Ajita Kesakambala.24 Yet Epicurus was maligned as a glutton in subsequent Greek and Roman literature. Two modern English words, ‘Epicure’ and ‘Epicurean’, stand for “a person who takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink” (as given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2001).

But did Epicurus not preach that pleasure was the highest good? Most certainly he did. But by “pleasure” he meant intellectual pleasure. In a letter to Menoeceus he made his position amply clear:

So when we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of the dissipated and those that consist in having a good time, as some out of ignorance and disagreement or refusal to understand suppose we do, but freedom from pain in the body and from disturbance in the soul. For what produces the pleasant life is not continuous drinking and parties or pederasty or womanizing or the enjoyment of fish and the other dishes of an expensive table, but sober reasoning which tracks down the causes of every choice and avoidance and which banishes the opinions that beset souls with the greatest confusion.25

If, in spite of, such crystal clear exposition, the Epicurean view of pleasure could be so much distorted, what could the poor Carvakas do? Not a single fragment of the Carvakas sources contains any reference to pleasure or what the founders of that system meant by pleasure. Yet, thanks to some poets and playwrights and the writers of popular digests of philosophy (both ancient and modern), the word, carvaka, has become synonymous with sensualism. Generations of men and women have been victims of this malign campaign. It is high time that we get rid of such a misconception.


What comes out of the above is pretty clear: The Carvakas were uncompromising materialists, caring nothing for religion of any sort, be it Brahminical, Jain or Buddhist. They refused to go beyond nature and rejected everything called ‘supernatural’. They made fun of asceticism, priestcraft, rituals and glorification of gift (dana) to the Brahmins. The system betrays a very early origin, since it is firmly rooted in the concept of four basic elements (bhutas, viz., earth, air, fire and water). But one cannot fail to notice the keen observation implicit in their philosophical speculations. Referring to aphorism 1.5, B. K. Matilal remarks, “This empirical methodology might have been the precursor of scientific thought in India.”26

The Carvakas did not believe in the caste (varna) system (see verse 1) in which respect they are at one with the Buddhists as they are in their rejection of the infallibility of the Veda. More importantly, they were gifted logicians, well versed in the technicalities of Nyaya. At the same time, they knew how slippery was the path of argumentation, which started from certain axioms concerning some concepts not verifiable by perception (e.g., heaven and hell, God, etc.). All these made them targets of attack of all other philosophical schools, more particularly of the followers of Nyaya (including Vaisesika), Mimamsa‚ and Vedanta among the Vedists, the Yogacara and Madhyamaka Buddhists, and the Jains. The denial of heaven and hell was misconstrued to suggest that the Carvakas were addicted to sensual pleasure and hence thoroughly immoral in their attitude to life. Their insistence on perception as the only viable instrument of cognition was distorted to mean they were so stupid as to deny the validity of inference as such. And, last but not least, they were projected as naive and rather infantile, not worthy of consideration by serious philosophers.27

Although some modern writers, in spite of their affiliation to one idealist system or the other, doubted the veracity of such representation, the authors of textbooks and popular digests of Indian philosophy persist in the same game of maligning the Carvakas, as their counterparts in Europe did in slandering Epicurus. How much is ignorance of primary sources to be blamed, and how much ideological opposition, is worth pondering.

Notes and References 

11. Bhamati, sub­-commentary on the Brahmasutra (3.3.53). See Debiprasad Chattopadhayaya and Mrinal Kanti Gangopadhyaya ed. Carvaka/Lokayata. 1990. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research. p. 243.
12. Santaraksita quotes verses 32­34 in their right order, Jayantabhatta quotes verses 32, 42, and 34 (in this order both in Nyayamañjari and Agamadambara). ¤„l‚¥ka quotes verse 42 only, while Vacaspati and Vadidevasuri quote verse 32 only. For textual details, see Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 1999. ‘Paurandarasutra Revisited’. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 27(5): 489, 495.
13. Mookerjee, Satkari. 1935. The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux. Calcutta: Calcutta University. pp.368­69; Dasgupta, S. N. 1940. A History of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Vol. 3, pp. 536, 539.
14. Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. 1989.  In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House. pp. 52­54.
15. Hiriyanna,   M. 1932. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India). 1973 reprint. p. 188.
16. Sarvamatasamgraha. 1915. T. Ganapati Sastri ed. Trivandram. p. 15.
17. Commentary on Vadidevasuri’s Pramana-­naya­-tattvalokalamkara. 1967. Hari Satya Bhattacharya trans. Bombay: Jain Sahitya Vikas Mandal. p. 504.
18. Tarka-­rahasya-­dipika, commentary on Haribhadra’s Sad-darsana­-samuccaya. 1914. Luigi Suali ed. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society. p. 306; Carvaka/Lokayata (n. 11 above). p. 273.
19. Sanghvi,     Sukhlalji. 1941. ‘Tattvopaplavasimha, Carvaka Darsana ka eka Apurva Grantha’ in Tattvopaplavasimha of Jayarasi Bhatta. 1987. Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati. pp. 23­24. The article first appeared in Bharatiya Vidya, 2 (1) and included in Sanghvi’s Darsana evam Cintana. Vadodora: Gujarata Vidyasabh‚.
20. Radhakrishnan, S. 1929. Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin. Vol, 1. p. 283.
21. For details see Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 1996. ‘“mam krtva ghrtam pibet”—Who Said This?’ Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 14(1): 170­174 and 1999. ‘“jivika dhatrnirmita” or “jiviketi brhaspati”? ’ JICPR, 17(1): 171­176.
22.Jayantabhatta. Nyayamañjari. Ahnika 4. Part I, p. 388.
23. Nyayamañjari (n. 7 above). p. 388.
24. For details see Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 1999. ‘Ajita Kesakambala: Nihilist or Materialst?’ The Journal of the Asiatic Society, 41(1): 74­83.
25. Long , A. A. and Sedley, D. N. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vol 1, p. 114.
26. Matilal, B. K. 1987. ‘Carvaka’ in Mircea Eliade ed. Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.Vol. 3, p. 165.
27. Jayantabhatta derisively calls the Carvakas varaka, “wretched” in Nyayamañjari
(n. 7 above). •hnika 3. Part I, p. 229. Hemacandra also employs this derogatory word against the Carvakas in Yogasastra. 1926. Bhavnagar: Srijainadharma Pracharasabha. 2. 38. f. 96b. 

This is the second part of the essay “Lokayata Darsana and a Comparative Study with Greek Materialism”, which we published earlier. This essay was originally published in Partha Ghose (ed.), Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying VistasNew Delhi: Centre for the Studies on Civilizations, 12:5, 2010, pp.21-34. 

To download the essay in pdf format, please Click Here

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata. His published works include Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata (Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of Religions). Anthem Press; Bilingual edition (December 15, 2011)

His essays available on our website can be accessed at: 


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