Atheistic Materialism in Ancient India

By Namit Arora | May 2009 | Comments

(A modified version of this article appeared in the Aug 2009 issue of Himal Southasian — read the text HERE.)

KushanCourtesan Various societies at different times have dazzled with their bursts of creative and intellectual energy. Historians have a penchant for dubbing them Golden Ages. Examples include the Athens of Herodotus, the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid, and the India of the Buddha. But though India has long been famous for its "ancient wisdom", the few historical sources that survive shed woefully inadequate light on the Buddha's society. By contrast, far better portraits of classical Greece and Abbasid Baghdad are available to us.

Still, evidence at hand suggests that around 600-500 BCE, in parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain of north India, people were asking some very bold and original questions: What is the nature of thought and perception? What is the source of consciousness? Are virtue and vice absolute or mere social conventions? Old traditions were under attack, new trades and lifestyles were emerging, and urban life was in a churn, reducing the power of uptight Brahmins.

SarnathTurbanaedMale Philosophical schools flourished in a marketplace of ideas, and included chronic fatalists, radical materialists, self-mortifying ascetics, die-hard skeptics, cautious pragmatists, saintly mystics, and the ubiquitous miracle mongers. "Rivalries and debates were rife. Audiences gathered around the new philosophers in the kutuhala-shalas—literally, the place for creating curiosity—the parks and groves on the outskirts of the towns.... The presence of multiple, competing ideologies was a feature of urban living."[1] It was also an age of nascent democratic republics, which, like Athens later, did not ultimately survive the march of monarchy and empire.[2]

Ever since the colonial encounter, the West has associated India strongly with its spiritual tradition—often out of sympathy, respect, and the best of intentions, but sometimes dismissively as "the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices."[3] But such assessments are problematic. As Amartya Sen has argued, the history of India is incomplete without its tradition of scepticism. To see India "as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplification of India's past and present." The West, Sen claims, focused unduly on India's spiritual heritage, on "the differences—real or imagined—between India and the West," partly because it was naturally drawn to what was unique and different in India.[3]

NalandaStoneTemple02 The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions. While India has ... a vast religious literature [with] grand speculation on transcendental issues ... there is also a huge—and often pioneering—literature, stretching over two and a half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now.

Sen marshals a good deal of evidence in support of his view of India's long tradition of heterodoxy, openness, and reasoned discourse. While India might offer "examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution to the religious problem," Sen submits that they "coexist with deeply sceptical arguments ... (sometimes within the religious texts themselves)." Among his examples is the 'song of creation' of the Rig Veda, which the scholar of history of religion Wendy Doniger has called "the first extensive composition in any Indo-European language" and the radical doubts expressed therein.

Sunset02 Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it has formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know.


The historian Romila Thapar has observed that "until recently, it was generally thought that Indian philosophy had more or less bypassed materialism." But scholars now widely recognize that in ancient "spiritual India", atheistic materialism was a major force to reckon with. Predating even the Buddhists, the Carvaka is one of the earliest materialistic schools of Indian philosophy (named after one Carvaka, a great teacher of the school, with Brhaspati as its likely founder). Its other name, Lokayata, variously meant "the system which has its base in the common, profane world," "the art of sophistry," and also "the philosophy that denies that there is any world other than this one."

The Carvakas offered an epistemological justification for their materialism that echoes British empiricist and skeptic David Hume, as well as logical positivists. The Carvakas admitted "sense perception alone as a means of valid knowledge", and challenged inferential knowledge "on the ground that all inference requires a universal major premise (e.g., "All that possesses smoke possesses fire") but there is no way to reach certainty about such a premise". The premise "may be vitiated by some unknown "condition,"" and we can't know that such a vitiating condition does not exist. "Since inference is not a means of valid knowledge, all supersensible things" like "destiny," "soul," or "afterlife," do not exist. To say that such entities exist "is regarded as absurd, for no unverifiable assertion of existence is meaningful".[5]

The Carvaka denied the authority of all scriptures. "First, knowledge based on verbal testimony is inferential and therefore vitiated by the flaws of inference". The scriptures, they claimed, are "characterized by three faults: falsity, self-contradiction, and tautology". Based on such a theory of knowledge, "the Carvaka defended a complete reductive materialism according to which the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air are the only original components of being and all other forms are products of their composition". Consciousness arises from the material structure of the body and characterizes the body itself—rather than a soul—and perishes with the body.[5] Ajita Keshakambalin, a prominent Carvaka and contemporary of the Buddha, proclaimed that humans literally go from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:

VaranasiGhats47 Man is formed of the four elements. When he dies, earth returns to the aggregate of earth, water to water, fire to fire, and air to air, while his senses vanish into space. Four men with the bier take up the corpse: they gossip as far as the burning-ground, where his bones turn the color of a dove's wing and his sacrifices end in ashes. They are fools who preach almsgiving, and those who maintain the existence [of immaterial categories] speak vain and lying nonsense. When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death.[5]

According to the Carvaka, the soul is only the body qualified by intelligence. It has no existence apart from the body, only this world exists, there is no beyond—the Vedas are a cheat, the "incoherent rhapsodies of knaves"[5]; they serve to make men submissive through fear and rituals. Nature is indifferent to good and evil, and history does not bear witness to Divine Providence. Pleasure and pain are the central facts of life. Virtue and vice are not absolute but mere social conventions. The Carvaka advised:

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?

The Carvakas mocked religious ceremonies, calling them inventions of the Brahmins to ensure their own livelihood. The authors of the Vedas were "buffoons, knaves, and demons." Those who make ritual offerings of food to the dead, why do they not feed the hungry around them? Like the other two heterodox schools, Jainism and Buddhism, they criticized the caste system and stood opposed to the ritual sacrifice of animals. When the Brahmins defended the latter by claiming that the sacrificed beast goes straight to Swarga Loka (an interim heaven before rebirth), the Carvakas asked why the Brahmans did not kill their aged parents to hasten their arrival in Swarga Loka. "If he who departs from the body goes to another world," they asked, "how is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?"

RamaStatue Carvaka thought also appears in the Ramayana. In the epic, Rama is not the god that he later became, but an epic-hero, who, as Sen notes, has "many good qualities and some weaknesses, including a tendency to harbor suspicions about his wife Sita's faithfulness." In the epic, a pundit named Javali "not only does not treat Rama as God, he calls his actions 'foolish' ('especially for', as Javali puts it, 'an intelligent and wise man')". Echoing Carvaka doctrine, Javali even asserts that "there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that ... the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people."

In their ethics, the Carvakas upheld a kind of hedonism: the only goal people ought to pursue is maximizing sensual pleasure in life while avoiding pain—the kind that proceeds from over-indulgence and instant gratification. As is common with confrontational schools of thought, they were accused of "immoral practices" and depicted as "hedonists advocating a policy of total opportunism; they are often described as addressing princes, whom they urged to act exclusively in their own self-interest, thus providing the intellectual climate in which a text such as Kautilya's Arthashastra ("Handbook of Profit") could be written,"[6] a text that elevated the material wellbeing of both the nation and its people and favoured an autocratic state to realize it.

By the 15th century, Carvaka doctrine had largely disappeared, perhaps a casualty of the same religious wave that swept the subcontinent from the south and which helped push Buddhism out of India, namely, Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism. But the doctrine’s erstwhile importance is confirmed by the lengthy attempts to refute it found in both Buddhist and orthodox Hindu philosophical texts (some written as late as the 14th century). For instance, in the ninth century, Jayanta Bhatta refuted the Carvaka view that inference is not a means of valid knowledge; Udayana in the tenth century challenged the Carvaka identification of the self with the body; in his eleventh century allegorical drama Prabodhacandrodaya, Krsnamisra refuted the Carvakas via ridicule and caricature.[7]

These refutations also constitute the main sources of our knowledge of the Carvaka doctrine, since none of the original Carvaka works has survived.[8] It may well be that the Buddhists felt threatened by the Carvaka emphasis on pleasure, rather than on suffering. Just as the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome resemble the Buddhists in their emphasis on mental tranquillity through self-awareness and the reining-in of the ego and selfish desire, the Epicureans (the Stoics’ intellectual opponents) are reminiscent of the Carvakas, who likewise disavowed irresponsible sensualism and upheld ethical ideals similar to the Epicureans. Indeed, a Carvaka sage could well have uttered these words by Epicurus:

When we say that pleasure is the goal, we mean ... being neither pained in the body nor troubled in the soul ... it is not possible to live pleasurably without living sensibly and nobly and justly. A just man is least troubled but an unjust man is loaded with troubles ... the pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking-bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning.

What defines the Carvaka is not their atheism—two of the six orthodox schools of ancient Hinduism, Samkhya and Mimamsa, were also atheistic—but their total rejection of all that is otherworldly, the authority of the Vedas, and all rituals and customs derived from them. Though the Carvaka were forgotten long ago, their spirit lives on in all those who risk something to defy an orthodox tradition, ritual, or otherworldly idea. 

[1] Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, 2002, p. 164.
[2] Steve Muhlberger, Democracy in Ancient India, 1988.
[3] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin, 2005.
[4] AL Basham, The Wonder That Was India, Digha Nikaya, 1.55, p. 296.
[5] Madhavacarya, Sarva-darsana-samgraha (“Compendium of All Philosophies”), 14th century CE
[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, Carvaka, 2008.
[7] Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Editor, Carvaka / Lokayata: An Anthology of Source materials and Some Recent Studies, 3rd edition 2006.
[8] Such as [5]. Haribhadra in his Sadharsanasamuccaya (“Compendium of the Six Philosophies,” 5th century CE) attributes to the Carvakas the view that this world extends only to the limits of possible sense experience. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica 2004.

Photos (in order of appearance):
—Vasantasena, Bacchanalian relief with intoxicated courtesan, Kushan, 2nd century CE, Mathura, UP; National Museum, Delhi.
—Turbaned Male Head Maurya, 3rd century BCE, Sarnath, UP; National Museum, Delhi.
—Musician, 5th-6th century CE, Nalanda University, Nalanda, Bihar.
—Sunset in Kausani, 2005, Uttaranchal, India.
—Funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganga, 2006, Varanasi, India.
—A statue of Rama on a traffic island in Rishikesh, 2005, UP, India.

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