by Cristian Violatti
published on 06 February 2013

Charvaka (also known as Lokayata), along with Jainism and Buddhism, is considered part of the heterodox systems (also referred to as heresies) of Indian philosophy. It rejected the authority of the Vedas as well as the speculations and the sacrifices of the Brahman priests. Those who see India as an entirely religious and spiritual place might do well to look into this philosophy: the Charvaka school is one of the most irreligious and skeptical systems of thought ever devised. There are notorious similarities between Charvaka and the materialistic schools of philosophy in the West, such as Epicureanism.

The element of skepticism can be traced back as far as the Vedas. Charvaka started to develop around the 7th century BCE and its earliest texts came around the 6th century BCE, but unfortunately they have been lost. From what we can piece together, mainly through later works, these thinkers believed in a form of materialism in which only those things that could be perceived directly were thought to exist. Some of the key principles of this doctrine of materialism were:

  1. The principle that all things are earth, air, fire and water.
  2. That which cannot be perceived does not exist; to exist is to be perceivable.
  3. Heaven and hell are nothing but inventions. The only end of man is to enjoy the pleasures of life and to avoid pain.
  4. The practice of religion has its sufficient explanation in providing a good living for the priests.
  5. The connection of cause and effect must be understood perceptually, also, and when we do so, its basis disappears for we may perceive the two horns of a cow successively and one horn would not seem to be the cause of the other.
  6. Neither existence nor non-existence of anything can be firmly established.

These thinkers did not believe in ideas of the soul, reincarnation or gods. They said that religion is a fraud devised by men who wanted to take advantage of others. Soul or consciousness is nothing but a side effect of having a healthy body: when the body dies, consciousness simply disappears since there is no existence other than the physical body. Right or wrong are merely human conventions and the cosmos is indifferent to our behaviour. If this life is all there is, if there is no afterlife whatsoever, then we should live enjoying the physical life the best we can.

Among the members of the Charvaka school we find Brihaspati, who wrote a number of aphorisms that have also been lost. Only a brief poem used to denounc the priestly caste has survived:

The costly rites enjoined for those who die
Are but a means of livelihood devised
By sacerdotal cunning, nothing more....
While life endures let life be spent in ease
And merriment; let a man borrow money
From all his friends, and feast on melted butter

(Durant, 418)

This poem is particularly provocative if we keep in mind that butter was poured into the sacrificial fire by the Brahman priests in Hinduism.

In the novel about the life of the Buddha named "A Spoke in the Wheel", the author paraphrases some of the criticisms of the Charvaka school concerning the practices of Brahman priests. Although this is only fiction, it reflects some good points of conflict between the Charvaka and the traditional religious order:

[...] Spells, incantations, rituals, even the duties of the four varnas [castes] - all these are nonsense, invented for the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness. If a beast slain in the Jvotistoma rite [Vedic ritual] goes straight to heaven, why doesn't the sacrificer offer his father instead? If offerings to priests can feed ancestors in heaven, how is it that that person standing on top of a house cannot be gratified by food served inside? They cannot - because all such long-distance gratification is buffoonery!

(Kanekar, 181)

Materialism in India was popular for quite a length of time. Charvaka argued that the truth can never be known except through the senses. The body, not the soul, feels, sees, hears and thinks. Men think religion necessary only because, being accustomed to it, they feel a sense of loss, and an uncomfortable void, when the growth of knowledge destroys this faith. Nature is indifferent to good and bad, virtue and vice, and lets the sun shine equally upon knaves and saints.

Charvaka challenged the traditional religious order in India. It weakened the authority and reputation of the priests leaving Indian society in a sort of spiritual vacuum that compelled the development of new religious alternatives. The materialistic ideas were so strong, that the new religions which arose to replace the old faith were devotions without a god or, in other words, non-theistic religions. Such an idea might sound like a contradiction in itself, but that was exactly the approach of the two main religious movements that appeared as a result of this religious controversy. In a reaction against the priestly class, these new religions originated in the Kshatriyas caste (the warrior rulers caste), opposing the traditional priestly ceremonialism and theology. In this context, Jainism and Buddhism were born.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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