Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Social Outlook of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata: A Reconstruction


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya


The Cārvāka/Lokāyata school of philosophy flourished in India in or around the eighth century CE and was a living system till the twelfth or thirteenth century. Thereafter it seems to have vanished into the blue, without leaving any trace whatsoever. It was the most uncompromising philosophical system that ever appeared in India. It refused to accept the notions of after-life, heaven and hell, rebirth, any creator God, and the infallibility of the sacred texts (the Vedas in particular). Its sharp satire against all this is often reminiscent of the French Enlightenment writers. In short, it was a materialist or physicalist system through and through. All idealist schools of India, particularly Vedanta, Mimamssa and Nyaya among the orthodox (āstika) systems, and the Buddhist and the Jain among the heterodox (nāstika) ones, tried their best to refute the Cārvāka/Lokāyata views. Unfortunately, all the Cārvāka/Lokāyata works - the basic texts (a collection of aphorisms, sutra-s) and its commentaries and sub-commentaries - are lost. All that we have are fragments quoted or paraphrased by their opponents. Attempts have been made to reconstruct the basic tenets of the system on the basis of such a pitifully few specimens.1

It is not easy to say what the Cārvākas really meant. The case is similar to that of many of the Presocratics whose works have come down to us in similar conditions. However, it is known that the views of the  Cārvākas have been distorted and willfully misrepresented by those who were not only idealists and Vedic fideists, but also strong supporters of status quo ante in their socio-economic outlook.

Materialism in India did not begin with the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. There were inklings of pre-Cārvāka materialist thought as well as of genuine scepticism, sensualism, etc. in much older works. Like the  Cārvākas, some earlier thinkers, right from the Vedic times down to the days of the Buddha and Mahavira (sixth century BCE) and even after, asserted the primacy of matter (consisting of five basic elements, namely, earth, air, fire, water and space) over consciousness, futility of performing religious rituals, and of offering gifts (dāna) to Brahmins. The Cārvāka/Lokāyata seems to have absorbed all such views that had originated before its times and turned out to be the vigorous "negative arm".2


Attempts have been made to reconstruct the epistemology of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system by assiduously collecting the fragments of the sutra work and its several commentaries as found quoted or paraphrased by its opponents. But no serious attempt has so far been undertaken to reconstruct its social outlook. It appears from the works of Krsnamisra and Sriharsa, two Vedantin philosopher-poets, that the Carvkas were opposed to caste (varna) and gender discriminations. Since we are forced to reconstruct the whole of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata on the basis of the evidence provided by its opponents, of course with due care taken regarding the possibility of misrepresentation, and because both the authors mentioned above have been already utilized by the scholars and historians of Indian philosophy, it is at least probable that their presentation of the social outlook of the  Cārvākas may not be far from the truth.

The  Cārvākas against Caste and Gender Discriminations

Let us now see what these two opponents of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata make it say regarding caste and women.

In Krsnamisra's (eleventh century) allegorical play, Prabodhacandrodaya (Rise of Moon-like Intellect), Mahāmoha (Great Delusion), an avowed materialist, declares:
tulyatve vapusām mukhadyavayavair varnakramah kldrso, .. |
2.l8ab
If the bodies are alike in their different parts, the mouth, etc., how can there be a hierarchy of castes?

A heretic in Srjharsa's (twelfth century) Naisadhacarita (Life of Naisadha) throws a challenge to the forces of status quo ante:
suddhir vamsa dvayi suddhau pitroryadekasah |
tadanantakuladopadadosa jatirasti ka || 17.40
irsyaya raksato narirdhikkulasthitidambhikan |
smarandhatvavisese pi tatha naramaraksatah || 17.42
trnaniva ghrnavadan vidhunaya vadhuranu |
tavapi tadrsasyaiva ka ciram janavancana || 17.58
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? 17.40
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! 17.42
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? 17.58
Both the authors intended to depict the  Cārvākas as heretics and non-believers, Defiance of the caste system was considered a heretical idea and hence fit for censure.

Is there any truth in labeling the  Cārvākas as opposed to the caste system? I think there is. Two oft-quoted genuine aphorisms attributed to the  Cārvākas say that the human body is a combination of four natural elements, namely, earth, air, fire and water 3 . Apparently the  Cārvākas gave no credence to the late Vedic idea that the Brahmins, Rajanyas (warriors), Vaisyas (traders and agriculturists), and Sudras (manual workers) were different parts of the Supreme Being called purusa (Rgveda 10.90):
Yat purusam vyadadhuh katidha vyakalpayan |
Mukham kim asya kau bahu ka uru pada ucyete || 11
Brahmanosya mukham asid bahu rajanyah krtah |
Uru tad asya yad vaisyah padbhyam sudro ajayata || 12
When they divided Purusa, into how many parts did they dispose him? What (did) his mouth (become)? What are his two arms, his too thighs, his tow feet called? 11
His mouth was the Brahaman [Brahamana], his two arms were made the warrior, his two thighs the Vaisya; from his two feet the Sudra was born. 12 4
 This was a convenient way of explaining why the hierarchy of castes was bound to be accepted and observed in social life. The law books insist on the preservation and continuation of the caste system. The  Cārvākas cared nothing for Manu, the chief of the law givers. They did not consider either the words of the Vedas or of Manu to be an acceptable means of cognition 5. Hence it is quite probable that the  Cārvākas had no faith in the so-called divine origin of castes and did not observe caste rules in social life. A verse attributed to the  Cārvākas runs as follows:
na svarga napavargo na naivatma paralaukikah |
naiva varnasramadinam kriyasca phaladayikah ||

There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world.
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc,
produce any real effect 6.
As to the defence of women and treating them as equal to men, the  Cārvākas apparently were very much anti-sexist. They did not believe, as Manu did, that women in general were basically untrustworthy, were not entitled to study the Vedas, and were never to earn freedom but should always be under their fathers', husbands' and sons' protection and surveillance 7. The  Cārvākas' defence of the equality of the sexes quite logically follows from their basic anti-sastric stance. Being freethinkers, they could also very well be free from all prejudices against women that are rampant in the law books of ancient India. They did not admit word (sabda), that is, verbal testimony as a valid instrument of cognition (pramana), and so were not bound to accept what the Brahminical law books declared as something sacrosanct. This is why Sayana-Madhava could make them say: dhumadhumadhvaj ayoravinabhavo stiti vacanamatre manvadivadvisvasabhavacca, «... there is no more reason for believing on another's word that smoke and fire are connected, than for our receiving the ipse dixit of Manu, & c.» 8

One word more. Eli Franco once suggested perceptively: «... all the Lokayatikas were fighting for ... was ultimately to found social and political institutions independently of religious dogma... »9 He might have had in his mind Frauwallner's view that materialism in India was created for the Realpolitikers. I do not think so, as I have shown elsewhere.10 I would, however, heartily agree with Franco's suggestion. The  Cārvākas did have a vision of an ideal society in which organised religion would have no room, and there would be no caste and gender discriminations. Their approach was thoroughly rational and they denounced such discriminations as impediments to founding a society based on equality of rights and opportunities. In this sense their social outlook was essentially democratic.

The rationalism and secularism of the  Cārvākas are relevant even today when irrationalism fostered by the postmodernists and fundamentalism fanned by reactionary politicians are so rife all over the world.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Krishna Del Toso. The usual disclaimers apply.

1. BHTTACHARYA (2009:69-104)
2. COWELL (1862:382)
3. BHATTACHARYA (2009:78-79, 86; aphorisms:1.2-3)
4. Macdonell (1978:200-201)
5. Sayana-Madhava in JOSHI (1982:8)
6. Sayana-Madhava in JOSHI (1981:12). Emphasis added.
7. Manusmrti, 9.10-20.
8. Sayana-Madhava in JOSHI (1981:9)
9. FRANCO (1991:160)
10, BHATTACHARYA (2009:21-32)


Works Cited

BHAlTACHARYA 2009 = Bhattacharya, R.: Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Societa Editrice Fiorentina, Firenze 2009; Manohar Books, New Delhi 2010.

COWELL 1862 = Cowell, E.B.: "The Charvaka System of Philosophy", Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 31.4 (1862), 371-390.

FRANCO 1991 = Franco, E.: "Paurandarasutra". In: Aspects of Jainology (vol. 3). Ed. by M.A. Dhaky, Sagarmal Jain P.Y. Research Institute, Varanasi 1991, 154-163.

JOSHI 1981 = Joshi, K.L. (ed.): Sarva-darsana-samgraha of Miidhavacaya. Trans. by E.B. Cowell and A.E. Gough, Parimal Publication, Delhi 1981.

MACDONELL 1978 = Macdonell, A.A.: A Vedic Reader/or Students. Oxford University Press, Madras 1978 (reprint).

Manusmrti - Dave, JH. (ed.): Manusmrti with Nine Commentaries (vols. 1-6). Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1972-1984.

Naisadhacarita = Sivadatta and Y.L. Panshikar (ed.): Naisadhacarita of Sriharsa. Nirnay Sagar Press, Mumbai 1928; Handiqui, K.K. (trans.): Naisadhacarita of Sriharsa. Deccan College Postgraduate Research Institute, Poona 1956.

Prabodhacal1drodaya = Nambiar, S.K (ed. and trans.): Prabodhacal1drodaya of Krsna Misra. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1971.

[This article was first published in Indologica Taurinensia, Vol. 36 (2010). We have uploaded this article with the kind permission of Dr Irma Piovano, editor of the publication]



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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