The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Carvaka, also frequently transliterated as Charvaka, and also known as Lokayata, is a thoroughly materialist and atheist school of thought with ancient roots in India.


Destruction of Original Works

Carvaka philosophy appears to have died out sometime after 1400 CE. No original text of the Carvaka School of philosophy has been preserved. They have all been destroyed, possibly by their brahmanical opponents. Its principal works are known only from fragments cited by its Hindu and Buddhist opponents.

Madhavacharya and Carvaka System

Madhavacharya, the 14th century Vedantic philosopher from South India, for instance, starts his famous work The Sarva-darsana-sangraha with a chapter on the Carvaka system with the intention of refuting it. After invoking, in the Prologue of the book, the brahminical gods Siva and Vishnu, (by whom the earth and rest were produced), Madhavacharya asks, in the first chapter, ...but how can we attribute to the Divine Being the giving of supreme felicity, when such a notion has been utterly abolished by Charvaka, the crest-gem of the atheistical school, the follower of the doctrine of Brihaspati? The efforts of Charvaka are indeed hard to be eradicated, for the majority of living beings hold by the current refrain-

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?

Some Quotes (attributed to Carvaka) from Sarva-Darsana-Sangraha

The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes,-
Brihaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.
In this school there are four elements, earth, water, fire and air;
And from these four elements alone is intellgence produced,-
Just like the intoxicating power from kinwa &c, mixed together;
Since in "I am fat", "I am lean", these attributes abide in the same subject,
And since fatness, &c, reside only in the body, it alone is the soul and no other,
And such phrases as "my body" are only significant metaphorically
If a beast slain in the Jyothishtoma rite will itself go to heaven,
Why then doesnot the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
If the Sraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead,
Then why not give food down below to those who are standing on the house-top?
If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
How is it that he come not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here
All these ceremonies for the dead, - there is no other fruit any where.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, &c.
And all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in Aswamedha,
These were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
While the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.

Those quotes which survive indicate a strong anti-clerical bias, accusing brahmins of fostering religious beliefs only so they could obtain a livelihood.The proper aim of a Charvakan or Charvaka, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, and productive life in this world. This may be termed the Carvaka Philosophy for which modern evidence has recently come to light from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. A recent new story on Indus Valley Script [17 December 2004 Science pages 2026ff] is relevant in this connection. Very short inscriptions, maximum 17 characters, in the form of clay tablets, have been found, thrown in dustbins, rather than at prominent places like homes or temples. This points to destruction by Charvaka opponents. In fact, the most cospicuous structures in Mohenjodaro and Harappa are public utilities, rather than temples, as in most other ancient civilizational remains. In Indus Valley, there are no temples or altars or such monuments, in line with the identification of this civilization with Charvakas.

Systems of ancient Indian thought can be divided into two broad classes: the Carvka philosophy and Vedanta philosophy. Buddhism and Jainism were originally major atheistic branches, though later they incorporated theistic concepts alien to them.

The Sanskrit word Chaarvaaka is generally understood to be a compound of two words chaari and vaak; chaari means sweet, attractive and vaak means speaking. Some other meanings are also ascribed to the word, but 'sweet speaking' is the most plausible. This school of thought was also called Lokayata probably from pre-Vedic times. Lokayata would broadly mean 'prevalent among people' or 'prevalent in the world' (loka and ayata)

While countering the argument that the Carvakas opposed all that was good in the Vedic tradition, Dale Riepe says, "It may be said from the available material that Carvakas hold truth, integrity, consistency and freedom of thought in the highest esteem." (The Naturalistic Tradition of Indian Thought, Motilal Banarasidas, Varanasi, p75)

Brihaspati and Lokayata

It is said that the Hindu sage Brihaspati, the preceptor of the Vedic gods, founded and preached the Lokayata thought, though this reveals a number of contradictions with Hindu scriptures which would aver otherwise. In all likelihood, Brihaspati was another philosopher of the same name. Ancient texts like Brhati, a commentary on Saabarbhaashya, Sarvadarsanasangraha, etc, mention Brihaspati as the founder and champion of the Carvaaka doctrine.

The most well-known verse attributed to Brihaspati enunciated a principle that is ironically used by the opponents as a handle to beat them with:

Yavajjivet sukham jivet |
Rinam kritvaa ghritam pibet ||
Bhasmibhutasya dehasya |
Punaraagamanam kutah ||

(As long as you live happily, take a loan and drink ghee. After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?)

In Ayurveda, a Hindu medicinal system, "ghee is life" (aayurghritam) is a standard quotation. This is the seventh verse in a set of eleven in Sarvadarsana Sangraha. These verses criticise the financial benefits earned by Brahmins in religious functions. Whether the words are Brihaspati's or not is doubtful, but the sense does agree with the Chaarvaaka line of thinking. Ghee occupied a central place: it was symbolic of good food and had long been a primary offering to the sacrificial fire of Hindu ceremonies.

The Carvakas took to the idea that good-living, symbolized by ghee, was the route to self-fulfillment. Critics of the Carvaka school see this cleaving to only artha and kama, without regard of dharma (and ultimate moksha) an extreme of self-centred hedonism.

In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Charvaka, who was a friend of Duryodhana, was burned alive. This Charvaka was one of the few descendants of the then ancient Charvakas as per Krishna, the avatar of the Hindu god of preservation, Vishnu. (Shantiparva, Adhyaayas 38,39).

Hinduism, Buddhism & Jainism vs. Lokayata

Carvakas cultivated a philosophy wherein theology and what they called 'speculative' metaphysics were to be avoided. The Carvakas accept the direct perception as the surest method to prove the truth of anything. Even though their opponents tried to caricature Lokayatikas' arguments, the latter did not completely reject the method of inference. Debiprasad Chathopadyaya quotes S.N.Dasgupta : Purandara (a Lokayata philosopher)...admits the usefulness of inference in determining the nature of all worldly things where perceptual experience is available; but inference cannot be employed for establishing any dogma regarding the transcendental world, or life after death or the law of karma which cannot be available to ordinary perceptual experience. (Indian Philosophy, Page 188)

A Carvaka's thought is characterised by an insistence on joyful living, whereas Buddhism and Jainism are known to emphasise penance. Enjoyment of life in a tempered manner, much like the Epicureans of Greece, was their primary modus operandi.

The Carvakas did not deny the difference between the dead and the living and recognised both as realities. A person lives, the same person dies: that is a perceived, and hence the only provable, fact. In this regard, the Carvakas found themselves at odds with all the other religions of the time. Of the five fundamental elements, the Panchamahaabhutas, Prithvi - earth or solidity, jal - water or liquidity, agni - fire or fieriness or brightness, vaayu - wind or movement and aakaasha - ether or emptiness, the Carvakas recognised the validity of only the first four and thought that a combination of these four elements produced certain vitality called life.

Rejection of the soul apart from the body leads the Carvakas to confine their thinking to this world only. This does not mean that they denied the cause-effect relationship. They accepted the 'like causes like result' (Karmavipaaka ) rule, restricted it to this life and this world and admitted exceptions to that rule.

Whereas most systems of Hindu philosophy advocated caste system, the Carvakas denounced the caste-system calling it artificial, unreal and hence unacceptable. "What is this senseless humbug about the castes and the high and low among them when the organs like the mouth, etc in the human body are the same?" (Prabodhachandrodaya, 2.18)

The Carvaka scholars carried on research, termed Aanvikshiki, into every branch of knowledge and developed it elaborately. It is possible that they also observed and kept records of the historical supernovae, which the Chinese, the Incas and Mayans and all other ancient civilizations did, as per records left to posterity in the form of astrological writings (Chinese), cave paintings (Incas and Mayans). However, the Indian records are yet to come to light, perhaps due to the predominance of oral tradition in India, liable to easy distortion. But more probably, any records have been destroyed by Charvakas' opponents. A short novel on this theme is "The Cosmic Explosion" by J. V. Narlikar, published by Children's Book Trust, New Delhi, India, translated into English from the original Marathi.

They considered artha (finance) and kaama (satisfaction of passions) as the two purposes of life, discarding the other two, dharma (religion) and moksha (salvation), as proclaimed as the fourfold goals system by the Hindu thinkers. While summarising the Carvaka position in Sarvadarsanasangraha Sankara, the main exponent of Advaita Vedanta, the Hindu sage Adi Sankara, stated that those having self-respect undertake farming and other means of creating real property.

Abul Fazl on Lokayata

An extract from Aaine-Akbari (vol.III, tr. by H. S. Barrett, pp217-218) written by Abul Fazl , the famous historian of Akbar's court, mentions a symposium of philosophers of all faiths held in 1578 at Akbar's instance. The account is given by the historian Vincent Smith , in his article titled "The Jain Teachers of Akbar". Some Carvaka thinkers are said to have participated in the symposium.

Under the heading "Nastika" Abul Fazl has referred to the good work, judicious administration and welfare schemes that were emphasised by the Charvaka law-makers. Somadeva has also mentioned the Charvaka method of defeating the enemies of the nation.

Lokayata on the role of Women

The Carvaka doctrines of equality and freedom preserve and enhance the dignity of women. Woman's position in a world controlled by man largely depends on the tendencies of the man she comes in contact with. The Carvaka concepts had an uphill task in counteracting the traditional attitudes towards women.

In Naishadhiya (17.42) a character named Carvaka says, "Fie upon the men who restrict women out of jealousy. Men and women both have passion, but their restrictions are directed towards women only; men are not subject to any restrictions."


  • Aastikashiromani Chaarvaaka (Marathi): Dr. A. H. Salunkhe
  • The Naturalistic Tradition of Indian Thought: Dale Riepe, Motilal Banarasidas, Varanasi
  • Lokayata: A study in Ancient Indian Materialism: Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • Indian Philosophy - A popular introduction: Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • Indian Atheism - A Marxist Analysis : Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • What is Living and what is dead in Indian Philosophy: Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • The Sarva-darsana-sangraha of Madhavacharya or Review of the different systems of Hindu philosophy: Translated by E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough, Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Private Limited, Delhi
  • Prabodhachandrodaya: Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Private Limited, Delhi
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04