Perspectives on Charvaka as a School of Hindu Philosophy

Perhaps one of the most interesting and seemingly counter-intuitive viewpoints in ancient Hinduism is Charvaka, also known as Lokayata, Sanskrit for “worldly ones”, a school of thought which grounds its philosophy in materialism and empiricism dating back to 600 BC. Therefore, it rejects notions of an afterworld, a soul, and any authority outside of the material world (the Vedic scriptures, Hindu Gods and so on). It further dismisses the idea of karma, i.e. good or bad actions manifesting as consequences in an individual’s life, and moksha, the idea of liberation from the vicious karmic cycle.

Instead of relying on these ideas written down in sacred texts of the time, Charvaka professed the power of sensory inputs and direct perception and grounds all reliance on these. Although one of the six darshanas in ancient Hindu philosophy, it greatly differs from the other five in its increasing tendencies towards open atheism and materialism. Because of its open disregard of Hindu deities and rituals, Charvaka garnered a good amount of criticism. Followers of Charvaka were often accused of being run on their own self-interests and of being hedonists and opportunists, wanting to accumulate material gains by professing a school of thought that validates it.

Through this journal, I would like to provide my own assessment of the principles of Charvaka and how they contrast with typical Hindu principles. Through these anomalies, I intend to enforce this rather deviant part of Hinduism often locked up and tucked away from common people. No, a crime would not land you up in the depths of hell to be roasted for eternity, you would not be reincarnated to balance out the sins and the virtues of your present life, and all of reality is contained within the world you live in. Therefore, eat, drink and be merry for today is all there is.

The Nasadiya Sukta in Chapter Ten of Rig Veda hints towards this road.

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

This enforces that even the Vedas do not owe attribution to the Gods. My personal interpretation of the above lines is that it aims to raise the question of cause and arising. Most arguments in favor of the existence of a God are mathematical tautologies drawn based on the premise that “something” existed prior to all creation, and hence God is the beginning of all creation. But, juxtaposing these lines in context to the ontological proofs drawn by logicians and mathematicians, I find that the major contrast is created by the third line itself- The gods themselves are later than creation. This is a wonderful perspective; the Gods not being the absolute beginning of anything at all and rather, subsidiaries of the process of creation. Gods are products of creation. This throws everything into a toss.

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

This is a brilliant skeptical argument. The lines do not aim to provide reason or answer to the question they raise. Rather, they exist to raise the question. In my opinion, Charvaka, to some extent, brings about the classic argument of empiricism versus rationalism, perhaps the most significant clash of schools in Western philosophy, and brings back memories of Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Descartes. Charvaka, however, is placed in an Indian context, and hence stands out of the crowd by dejecting mindless ritualism and religious dogma in Hinduism present at its time, which continues to exist today. Through deliberate questioning and skeptical arguments, Charvaka brings about a philosophical dimension to Hinduism. It is not a philosophy against philosophy, but a philosophy against religion. This intensifies its importance, because to a society of blind followers, a question can get it to stop rushing into faith and speculate.

To me, the Charvaka school of thinking was not complete. I do agree that it was important, but it had many drawbacks, some of these arising from the classic rationalism versus empiricism debate.

To provide background to my following points, Advaita Vedanta accepts six sources of knowledge- Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāṇa (inference), Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation), Anupalabdi (non-perception, cognitive proof) and Śabda (testimony of past or present reliable experts). On the other hand, Charvaka accepts only the first one i.e. Pratyakṣa (perception).

The chief weakness, perhaps, was the entire focus on senses, perceptions, and experiences as the ultimate source of truth. It is important to note that these can be subjective, and Hinduism often seeks an objective truth. In the process, other sources of knowledge, such as mathematical patterns and logical reason are ignored. Charvaka sees events in the universe as being unpredictable and occurring by chance, randomly and without cause. This conflicts with the scientific spirit which tends to observe patterns and cause-effect relations in events. The ideas of interference and design in science are missing in Charvaka.

Moreover, our perceptions also depend upon internal human programming which brings our desires, fears, beliefs, prejudices, vices, and virtues, expectations and ignorance into the picture. If the Charvakan reality relies solely on perception, it could be a rather distorted one.

The second drawback, in my opinion, is the absence of order or social conduct in a Charvakan society. Charvaka believes wholeheartedly in following one’s passions and indulging in pleasure. However, pleasure and pain are two dualities that reside on the same coin. It is impossible to have one without the other. To counter this, Charvaka professes that one should gain pleasure and stay away from pain as much as possible. In this way, it was quite different from other philosophies in India during that time. There was no concept of abstinence, temperance, fasting or self-denial in their philosophy. Again, I can draw similarities between the lectures on Hedonism and Charvaka, wherein a brief portion of Charvaka was touched and discussed upon again.

According to the scripture,

The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste… while moksha is death which is cessation of life-breath… the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha. A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings.”

Here, I would like to add that it is an exceedingly simple and uncomplicated philosophy, and this works in its favor. There are no excessive rules and regulations to abide by, no prophecies to head to, no God to believe in. It is a very human and passion-driven philosophy, something very central to the primitive human brain. But, in being uncomplicated, it fails to acknowledge a need for social harmony and societal well-being. Simplistic solutions work in the short run and on an individual level, but fail to work in the long term for societies as a whole, and may cause pain and suffering to more people. Through ideas of a soul, a God and rebirth, Hindus in positions of power were able to control animalistic behavior and keep the masses in check.

The rejection of spirituality and a higher consciousness is one more thing that I do not specifically like about Charvaka. Indian society has been rich in the gems of meditation, spirituality, and yoga from the beginning. These are separate from religion and are obtained through sensory experiences itself, but there is a long and tiring path to follow before one can unlock them. According to Charvaka, the path is not worth taking because it goes against the pursuit of pleasure. But, the gain overrides the losses made in the journey.

Charvaka dwindled after the 12th century, but the ideals remain and continued to inspire many Hindus into skepticism and pursuits of science even after it ceased to exist as a proper umbrella school of thought. Slowly, Western philosophy introduced its stronghold in the Indian society, and science became a thing of the present.

I believe that in today’s society, a balance between dialectical materialism and utilitarianism needs to be achieved in order for it to function well. A close inspection of the cognition and emotional centers of the human brain would reveal that most of our actions are propelled by purely animalistic signals. Hence, introspection and meditation along with a bit of self-regulation become necessary in order to ensure that no harm is inflicted upon other sentient beings. According to me, our aspirations and desires may be as material as possible, and that is okay, as long as they do not cause other beings suffering.

To me, it is important to make students of science and humanities aware of Charvaka so as to present to them a complete and holistic dimension of Hinduism, and not just a section of it projected by the Brahmins. Charvaka is an excellent example of how accommodating Eastern philosophy has been of conflicting views, and even though looked down upon by many, made it to be one of the six darshans.

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