by Jayaram V
"Lokayata is always the only sastra; in it only
perceptual evidence is authority; the elements are earth, water,
fire and air; wealth and enjoyment are the objects of human existence.
Matter can think. There is no other world. Death is the end of it
all." - Prabodhachandrodaya
"When attempts are made to smother the intellectual
curiosity of people, the mind of man rebels against it, and the
inevitable reaction shows itself in an impatience of all formal
authority and wild outbreak of the emotional life long repressed
by the discipline of the ceremonial religion." - S Radhakrishnan
"Perception is our only knowledge or real religion.
Talking about our soul for ages will never make us know it. There
is no difference between theism and atheism. In fact, the atheist
is the truer man." - Swami Vivekananda
"Veiled by My Yogamaya, I am not seen by all.
Hence these foolish men do not know Me as the unborn and imperishable
Supreme Self - The Bhagavadgita (Ch 6.25).
During the post Vedic period, around the time some of the principal
Upanishads were composed, ancient India witnessed the rise
of many heterodox schools, which were mostly atheistic or materialistic
or agnostic in nature and enjoyed a strong following of their own.
They questioned the religious authority of the Vedas and challenged
the prevailing beliefs and practices of the orthodox schools of
Hinduism based on the empirical evaluation of their sensory perceptions
and rejection of the traditional means of knowledge. They thrived
in an environment of religious and intellectual freedom, which
was characteristic of Indian society since ancient times. The heterodox
schools emerged partly in response to the growing weight of the
Vedic ceremonies and weaknesses of the Vedic society which relied
heavily upon ceremonial fare and privileges based upon hereditary
rights. As S.Radhakrishnan stated, it was the time during which
the "faith of centuries was dissolving like a dream,"
as the "hold of the authority" was loosening and "traditional
bonds" were weakening.
Ancient Indian society was not without its own shackles. People
had to live within the framework of the caste system and cope with
the dominance of priestly families, who wielded enormous religious
authority based on scriptural knowledge to keep the rulers and the
people alike within certain bounds. There was also the fear of retribution
and the possibility of social disapproval, which kept people adhere
to their ancient gods and ways of life. But the Vedic tradition
was oppressive enough only when people were willing to remain within
its rigid confines and adhere to the beliefs and practices it advocated.
Those who were bold enough to break out of the orthodox and the
traditional mindset and challenge the excesses of the Vedic puritanism
had enough opportunities outside its pale of influence to explore
new ways of experimenting with the truth and cultivating their distinct
Ancient India was a like a melting pot of diverse thoughts and
cultures as is the USA today where new age religions and experimental
philosophies seem to sprout like mushrooms after a rainy day. India
was then a land of opportunity and religious freedom, with layers
upon layers of complexity built into its social structure and religious
milieu that made it difficult for any religious or political authority
to thrive without opposition and fair amount of critical evaluation.
The organic growth of religious institutions and the existence of
diverse linguistic and racial groups ensured that the rulers would
be better off if they remained above partisanship in social and
religious matters. The rulers were mostly religious, but prudent
enough to confine themselves to temporal matters and limit their
interference in the religious beliefs of the people they ruled.
Sometimes if they tried to enact the role of divine authority, they
did so with tolerance and humility. They worshipped gods, promoted
religious debates, prized the advice of the priests and supported
religious institutions according to their beliefs and values, but
did not deem it necessary to enforce their own beliefs and thoughts
upon others. They considered it prudent to let people work for their
own salvation in their own individual ways or according to the divine
law (dharma), rather than according to the wishes of their temporal
authority which they found to be too fragile in times of war and
unrest to replace the law of God (dharma).
Religious freedom and freedom of enquiry led to a great churning
of human thought in ancient India and culminated in the rise of
many heterodox schools of philosophy around 6th Century B.C.E.
Some of them rejected speculative philosophies and relied exclusively
upon sensory experience to make sense of the world and find solutions
to the problems of human life purely in human terms. They rejected
all notions of speculation and imagination and relied upon tangible
proof and rationale methods to arrive at truth, an approach that
is very similar to the one followed by the scientists of the modern
The paradox of religion
A million theories exist today as to the nature of God, after
life, soul, heaven and hell. People get emotional, societies dissolve
into turmoil, nations go to war and crowds turn into frenzy because
of differences in beliefs that cannot be resolved peacefully through
debate or discussion. Each religion or school of philosophy holds
on to its own specific beliefs and practices tenaciously and relies
upon faith rather than rationality to perpetuate itself. In this
conflicting medley of thoughts and emotions, people are simply confused
and lost because they do not know what to follow and whether it
is worthwhile to spend their valuable time for some future good
or use it here and now for their own enjoyment.
People faced similar dilemmas in the past also. The conflict
between self-interest and moral responsibility, or enjoyment and
enlightenment, has always been present ever since man became civilized
and established social and religious institutions. Religions thrive
on faith and belief. Religions promote unconditional submission
and obedience to scriptures and divine authority. Religions offer
future rewards for present actions and try to bridle the inhuman
in human so that transformation can be accomplished within the personality
and new vistas of spiritual experience may present themselves to
the adherents. But when man exercises his reason truthfully, all
religions begin to crumble. When people begin to explore and enquire,
faith without conviction begins to shake and the scriptures show
deep crevices in their presentation of theological and spiritual
This is a problem with which mankind has been battling since
the earliest times. Reason is what sets man apart and reason is
what pits him against established traditions of religious institutions,
especially when they demand unconditional surrender and unquestionable
loyalty, without satisfying the intellectual curiosity of educated
minds. It is a significant dilemma that cannot be resolved
without the exercise of fear or hope. We need proof to have faith
and we cannot have proof unless we have faith. This is a paradox
that has no simple solutions, till spiritual transformation and
transcendental states of consciousness become more frequent, common
and verifiable among a vast number of human beings.
From nature's perspective, religion is unnatural because
it dictates man to deny himself or undo himself by sacrificing his
own interests and assume social and moral responsibility for the
world and the people in general with no immediate and apparent gains
in return. Religion is a dull and dry subject to which we do not
turn easily. It does not actually appeal to our base emotions or
interests, unless we are shaken by some disturbing developments
in our lives. It is hard to be religious or spiritual, because religion
seems to unsettle us by demanding changes in our thinking and behavior
to which we are not accustomed. It aims to reengineer our lives
or reverse the process of creation by subjecting us to an arduous
process of transformation and reconditioning. From a materialistic
perspective, it looks regressive and depressing to make personal
sacrifices for some ultimate good that is not quantifiable in material
When you practice religion, you swim against the currents of
life with no certainty of you ever reaching the shore. We
do not turn to religion seriously, unless it adds some meaning and
value to our lives. People like to be part of some religion outwardly
because it helps them identify with certain religious values
and feel affinity with certain groups. When religions fail
to provide these, people begin to look for alternatives and move
towards more radical solutions that are less taxing upon their minds
and bodies. No wonder, in ancient India atheism was considered to
be the way of the world or the most popular public opinion because
it demanded no austerities or the rigors of the ascetic life. Most
important of all, it castigated vedic caste system and birth based
The heterodox schools
The Buddhist texts mention the names of a few heterodox teachers
such as the following who rose to prominence during the post Vedic
period of ancient India.
- Sanjaya who questioned the existence of
soul and focused on attainment of peace.
- Purana Kasyapa who believed in creation
without cause, moral relativism and passive nature of soul.
- Ajita Kesa Kambali who proposed a materialistic
philosophy discrediting intuitive knowledge, Vedic rituals and
enlightenment of perfected teachers, and acknowledged only four
elements, earth, water, fire and air.
- Gosala who preached fatalism and predetermined
progression of events over which men had no control.
- The Carvakas, an atheistic and materialistic
school, who acknowledged only sense perception (pratyaksha)
and considered happiness or enjoyment as the ultimate goal of
- Prakhadu Katyana who identified soul as
the sixth element and considered pain and pleasure stemmed from
the permutation and combination of the elements.
Of them the Carvakas were the most prominent. They proposed a
down to earth approach to the enjoyment of life that stood in stark
contrast to the theological and other worldly idealism of
spiritual philosophies which suggested self-negation and sacrifices
as the means to liberation. They rose to prominence some time during
the post Rigvedic period, but certainly before the birth of the
Buddha (567 B.C.E). The Carvakas got their name for their sophistry
and polemical disputation. The word "carvaka" means sweet
tongued or those who chew their words carefully. They were vehemently
opposed to the Vedic establishment and its single-minded preoccupation
with the appeasement of divinities through sacrificial ceremonies.
We cannot call the Carvakas aspiritual in the modern sense because
they believed in the existence of a soul that lived for a lifetime
and died, in contrast to the Vedic belief in the existence of an
immortal soul or the Buddhist belief in the non-existence of soul.
They considered the sole purpose of human existence ought to be
happiness and harmony by avoiding pain and suffering to the extent
possible. For them spiritual practice meant keeping the mind and
the body stable and healthy by maximizing pleasure and enjoyment
and minimizing pain and suffering not only to oneself but to others.
Because of their popularity, materialism and worldly orientation,
the Carvakas were also called Lokayatas (proponents of worldliness).
We do not know much about how the school of Carvakas came into
existence. According to tradition it was originally founded
by Brihaspati and made popular by Carvaka, after whom the school
got its name. Brihaspati (of the Vedic pantheon) was probably a
mythical figure while Carvaka seems to be a historical person with
a following of his own. The teachings of this school were compiled
into Carvaka Sutra or the Lokayata Sutra. It might have been composed
by Carvaka or his followers. But we are not sure of its authorship.
Unfortunately the text is presently unavailable. The Carvaka philosophy
was distinctly Indian, although it shared some common features with
the theories of Ionians, Atomists and the Sophists who flourished
in Greece between 6th and 4th Century B.C.E.
Our knowledge of Carvakas comes to us mostly from four traditional
works: Krsna Misra's Prabodha Chandrodaya, Madchavacharya's
Sarva Darsana Samgraha, Sankara's Sarva Siddhanta Samgraha and
Jayarasi Bhatta's Tattvopaplavasimha. These works were
composed long after the Carvakas ceased to be a force to reckon
with in the social mileu of ancient India. Excluding Jayarasi, the
authors of these texts had a strong contempt for the Carvakas and
referred to them in their works either to refute their ideas or
present them in a contrasting way so that they could present their
own philosophies in a meaningful manner. They are therefore not
very helpful to understand the true significance of the Carvakas
and their role in the development of Indian philosophy. The very
fact that the philosophy of the Carvakas was often used for juxtaposition
(purvavada) proves the extent of their influence and importance
in the intellectual circles of ancient India.
The philosophy of the Carvakas
The Charvakas rejected the authority of the Vedas, which they
declared to be the work of "buffoons, knaves and demons."
They vehemently opposed the sacrificial ceremonies and the notion
of subjecting the mind and the body to suffering for spiritual advancement.
They argued that there was neither God nor Soul. Creation was without
cause and objects of the world come into existence because of material
processes involving the aggregation and segregation of the four
elements, namely earth, fire, water and air. This was in contrast
to the traditional belief that the elements were five in number,
including ether (akasa), the fifth element, which the Carvakas rejected
because it was imperceptible and immaterial.
The Carvakas considered death to be the end of all life.
According to them, there was nothing beyond death. Karma, gods and
goddesses, heaven and hell were mere illusions of the human mind,
invented by "the imposters of other schools of thought,"
to mislead the humanity. Direct perception was the only way of knowing
things. All other means of knowing, such as inference (anumana),
testimony (sabda pramana) of the scriptures, intuition and dreams,
were false, unreliable and erroneous. The senses were the only reliable
means of true and sure knowledge. They recognized two kinds of perception,
the external and the internal. In the external perception
the senses were in direct contact with the objects of the world,
while in the internal perception the mind intercepted the knowledge
presented by the senses. The Carvakas' rejection of inference
and testimony were widely criticized by the scholars of various
schools of Hinduism and Buddhism and is considered to be one of
its main weaknesses.
The Carvakas denied the existence of an immortal soul or atman
that transmigrated from birth to birth. According to them, the soul
was mortal (dehatma), and not separate or independent from the body.
It perished at the time of death. The living body was but the soul
and it was subject to death and disintegration. The mind or consciousness
was an extension or secretion of the matter, just as the wine
of fermented grains, while thoughts, feelings and emotions were
expressions of the body like the color or scent of a flower.
The Carvakas broke with the tradition completely and advocated
against caste system, performance of sacrificial rituals, wearing
of religious marks and observation of religious duties. Since they
did not believe in the existence of karma or heaven and hell, they
asked people to disregard moral scruples and make enjoyment the
sole purpose of their lives. Since enjoyment cannot thrive in a
sea of suffering, they implied social responsibility by asking the
adherents to practice non-violence and non-grievous attitude towards
others. The Savra Siddhanta Samgraha summarizes the Carvakas'
emphasis on enjoyment in the following words1.
The heaven of enjoyment lies in eating delicious
food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes,
garlands, sandal paste, etc.
The pain of hell lies in the troubles that
arise from enemies, weapons, diseases, while liberation (moksha)
is death which is the cessation of life-breath.
The wise therefore ought not to take pains
on account of that (liberation); it is only the fool who wears himself
out by penances, fasts, etc.
Chastity and other such ordinances are laid
down by clever weaklings. Gifts of gold and land, the pleasure of
invitations to dinner, are devised by indigent people with stomachs
lean with hunger.
The construction of temples, houses for water
supply, tanks, wells, resting places and the like, is praised only
by travelers not by others.
The Agnihotra ritual, the three Vedas, the
triple staff carried by the priests, the ash-smearing, are the ways
of gaining livelihood for those who are lacking in intellect and
If a beast slain in the Jyotistoma rite will
itself go to heaven, why then does the sacrificer not offer his
own father immediately?
While life remains let a man live happily, let
him eat ghee (clarified butter), even if he runs into debt. When
the body turns to ashes how can it ever return again?
The wise should enjoy the pleasures of this
world through the proper visible means of agriculture, keeping cattle,
trade, political administration, etc.
The Carvakas were the most well organized and vehement proponents
of atheism, materialism, naturalism, liberalism and individualism
of the ancient world. They were not skeptical about their beliefs.
Hence we cannot label them as agnostic. They enjoyed popular support.
Although their literature and way of life are lost to us, their
influence upon ancient Indian society can be seen in the rise of
heterodox schools such as Jainism and Buddhism which were essentially
atheistic in nature and shared some beliefs of the Carvakas. The
Carvakas were one of the multitude of sects that thrived in ancient
India as a reaction against established religious traditions that
lost their shine due to certain excesses and decadence. They advocated
a philosophy that was rooted in the immediate experience and evolved
as a natural and practical response to the fragile and flitting
nature of life in general.
It may be surprising to know for many in the west that the ancient
Indian philosophies were not particularly religious or theistic.
This was because till the emergence of Buddhism the concept of organized
and monolithic religion was alien to the Indian tradition. The Carvaka,
Mimansa, Samkhya schools were particularly atheistic, just as Buddhism
was, while some like the classical Yoga and Jainism did not acknowledge
a creator God. The Vedas focused on the worship of a multitude of
individual deities, where as the Upanishads envisioned Brahman,
a Supreme God of universal dimensions, who was also identified as
the Creator God who inhabited and encompassed the worlds He created
as the One and all. Saivism and Vaishnavism personified Brahman
as Siva and Vishnu respectively and advocated bhakti or single minded
devotion as the best means to liberation. Worshippers of Shakti
on the other hand, saw the Mother Goddess as the supreme, eternal,
universal and primeval matter and energy dynamic, encompassing and
inhabiting all the manifestation, and capable of suffusing the human
mind and body with higher forms of energy and consciousness. Some
of these schools encouraged free enquiry to overcome the barriers
of conditioned thinking and blind adherence to religious authority.
We cannot judge the Carvakas on the merits or demerits of their
religious beliefs, simply because they did not believe in the existence
of God. The Carvakas played a significant role in the evolution
of religious thought in ancient India. They exposed the weaknesses
of Vedic religion and the need for reform and retrospection. Most
of us, at some point of time in our lives, suffer from self-doubt
and despair and question the validity of our religious beliefs.
On such occasions, when our faith wavers, we temporarily embrace
the skepticism of the atheists. Our reaction on such occasions may
be momentary or long lasting, but the fact remains that from time
to time people have to cope with the conflicting demands of faith
A person who considers himself to be a person of faith, but is
insincere and dishonest to himself and God is not different from
an atheist in religious temperament. There are many in this world
who practice religion with a demonic mindset, which is delineated
in the Bhagavadgita, and for reasons that are directly in conflict
with its chief purpose, which is to cultivate divine qualities and
personal purity (sattva) through the practice of divine law (dharma)
that would ultimately lead to our spiritual transformation (moksha)
and final liberation. An atheist is probably more sincere and honest
towards his beliefs and worldview than such people.
Of the four aims of human life (purusharthas) projected by the
Vedic religion, the Carvakas aimed for only two, artha (wealth)
and kama (sexual pleasure) and ignored the other two, dharma (religious
duty) and moksha (liberation). There are many who profess to be
religious, but spend their entire lives in pursuit of the same two
aims (wealth and pleasure) with the assumption that they can practice
the remaining two (religious duty and liberation) at some time in
future when they are old and retired. They are not different from
the Carvakas, except that they live in a state of denial.
Atheism is a phase in the evolution of life and intelligence.
The animals have no religion, but according to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist
beliefs they continue to evolve according to their deeds. Human
beings are not judged by the religion they practice but by the deeds
they perform. Pleasure is not a sin. Even by Hindu standards, it
is one of the four aims of human life. The Carvakas preached enjoyment
as the main purpose of human life. But they also recommended non-violence
and responsible living by practicing normal occupations that were
conducive to both personal enjoyment and social welfare. We arrive
at theism through atheism. This is an established fact. It is why
we have initiation ceremonies in almost all traditions.
The atheists and materialists of ancient India were against moral
pretentions and exploitation of human sentiment with the use of
speculative theology. But they were not against humanity or indiscriminately
hedonistic. They preached non-violence and avoidance of harm and
suffering to others because one could not truly enjoy life by inflicting
suffering upon others. They were also not entirely indifferent to
the need for moral and social responsibility as the outcome of evil
and immoral behavior was within the grasp of the mind and the senses
and universally verifiable through direct perception. They preached
against blind faith and superstition and relied upon empirical evidence
to arrive at the truths concerning life, which is also the hallmark
of modern science. The Carvakas may not be correct in their interpretation
of God and soul and their rejection of inference, testimony and
other means of knowledge, because from experience we know that our
senses have their own limitations, but their reliance upon objectivity
to arrive at truths concerning human life cannot be disregarded
nor their criticism of the excesses of traditional religions, precipitated
frequently by the corruption of the human mind.
Suggested Further Reading
1. Sarvadarshana Samgraha as quoted by
and Moore, Charles A. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Princeton,
N.J., Princeton University Press, 1957, and
Richard King, Indian Philosophy An Introduction
to the Hindu and Buddhist Thought, Georgetown University Press,