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Imagine There’s No Svarga: Rediscovering Cārvāka, India’s 2,700-Year-Old Atheistic Tradition

The Cārvākas considered only matter—that which could be sensed—to be real.

· 8 min read
Imagine There’s No Svarga: Rediscovering Cārvāka, India’s 2,700-Year-Old Atheistic Tradition
Four of the Six “Heretical Teachers” depicted at the Dazu Rock Carvings, including Ajita Kesakambali (far right), India’s first known materialist philosopher.

The Indian sub-continent is the birthplace of four major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. And even in the mostly-Christian West, many identify India as a land steeped in religious meaning. Authors J. D. Salinger and Leo Tolstoy were moved by 19th-century Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda and Vedanta philosophy, a tradition kept up by The Beatles, Steve Jobs, and scores of modern Western celebrities seeking spiritual enlightenment. Upon witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in July 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” would later remark that the experience reminded him of a passage from Hindu scripture (the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God), “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” At the Swiss facilities of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN), there stands a statue of the Hindu god Shiva performing the Tāṇḍavam—a divine dance that, in physicist Fritjof Capra’s words, mirrors the “pulsating process of creation and destruction” observed among subatomic particles, and which forms the “basis of all existence.”

CERN statue of the Hindu god Shiva performing the Tāṇḍavam.

Amid such deep reverence of India’s spiritual and religious traditions, perhaps it’s not surprising that Indian treatments of materialism—the view that reality is shaped by purely physical processes—have gotten a lot less attention in the West. Yet India’s earliest materialist movement, Cārvāka, actually predates its 2,300-year-old Western counterpart, Epicureanism. According to one precept, “While life remains, let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt / When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?” (Or, in the original Sanskrit, “yāvaj jīvet sukhaṃ jīved ṛṇaṃ kṛtvā ghṛtaṃ pibet / bhasmībhūtasya dehasya punarāgamanaṃ kutaḥ”).

The Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha—a 14th-century compendium of philosophical systems, compiled by guru Madhvacharya—begins its treatment of Cārvāka Darśana (Darśana in Sanskrit means an insight, or a lens through which to glimpse reality) with that latter quotation. Ancient Indian knowledge systems had by then been divided into nine schools. There were six Āstika (orthodox) schools: Nyāyá, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedānta, and three of the Nāstika (heterodox) variety: Buddhism, Jainism, and Cārvāka. (There are references to the Ājīvika and Ajñāna movements being counted as separate Nāstika schools, but most of the literature in Indian philosophy relies on the nine-school typology as definitive).

Put in the most simple terms, an Āstika is a believer, and a Nāstika is a non-believer. But in truth, the dichotomy is not that simple. While there are many opinions on how the difference between the two categories should be defined, the most popular formulation is that Nāstikas did not accept the infallibility of the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest texts. (The 12th-century Indian grammarian Hemachandra went so far as to state that a Nāstika is one who thinks that there is no virtue and no vice: nāsti puṇyaṃ pāpam iti matirasya nāstikaḥ. But this is not a widely accepted view among ancient or current Indian philosophers.)

Dating the Cārvāka Darśana is a difficult task. While we know Epicurus was born in 341 BC and died in 270 BC, the Cārvāka school of thought can’t be traced to one person. Secondary references to the literature of Cārvāka (also known as Lokāyata) begin appearing around 700 BC. But the primary sources, known as the Bārhaspatya sūtras, have been lost except for the fragmentary quotations that appear in later texts—such as the third-century BC Arthashastra (which contains the first known usage of the word Cārvāka in connection to materialist philosophy) and the epic Sanskrit poems Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana.

In terms of leading philosophers, the first known proponent of Indian materialism was sixth-century BC thinker Ajita Kesakambali, though his primary writings, too, have not survived. Secondary references to his work suggest the Cārvāka Darśana developed further during the period of about 600 to 400 BC. But it is difficult to trace the development of its precepts with precision because even later texts (such as the aforementioned Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha; the eighth-century Sarva-Siddhānta-Saṅgrahaḥ; the 11th-century Sanskrit allegorical drama Prabodhacandrodaya; and the Tattvopaplavasiṃha, a famous philosophical tome written in the ninth century by Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa) tend to reference Cārvāka by way of the rhetorical technique known as purva paksha (steelmanning). That is to say, the authors in question tend to endorse opposing schools of thought, and relate the Cārvāka view only insofar as is required to refute it.

In the Indian philosophical tradition, there are six pramāṇas (means of knowledge): Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāna (inference), Upamāna (comparison), Arthāpatti (presumption by circumstance), Anupalabdi (inference by absence), and Śabda (reliance on the testimony of reliable experts and sacred texts). But the Cārvākas considered only one pramāṇa to be valid: Pratyakṣa (perception). They considered perception to be of two kinds—external and internal. External perception is a product of the five senses, while internal perception involves the mind. In the end, all knowledge is derived from the interplay between these two means of perception.

(The Cārvāka view on Anumāna, or inference, is nuanced. As one scholar has put it, “when the Cārvākas denied the status of inference as an independent means of knowledge, they ipso facto did not reject all kinds of inference, but accepted only such inference as was found true in everyday practice [lōkavyavahāra]. Thus, in the Cārvāka conception, perception includes both what is sensually apprehended and inference based on such apprehension. Only such inferences as derived from the scripture, Veda and Smriti [Hindu texts], are not admitted.”)

The Cārvākas considered only matter—that which could be sensed—to be real. They saw matter through the fourfold typology of earth, water, fire, and air, while rejecting the idea of ether because it could not be an object of perception. Consciousness, as per the Cārvākas, is an epiphenomenon, i.e., a secondary phenomenon that emerges from the four elements coming together. They would say things like “matter secretes mind as liver secretes bile.” Eighth-century Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara described this materialist view, as regarding the soul, to present the body as “characterized by the attributes signified in the expressions, ‘I am stout,’ ‘I am youthful,’ ‘I am grown-up,’ ‘I am old,’ etc. It is not something other than that. A sentient being does exist … This bundle of elements is void of self, in it, there is no sentient being. Just as a set of wooden parts receives the name of carriage, so do we give to elements the name of fancied being.”

The Cārvākas completely deny the existence of the Ātman (soul), Īśvara (god), heaven (svarga), or any form of Punarjanma (reincarnation) or transmigration of souls. The Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha shares verses such as: “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world”; “When once the body becomes ashes, how can it even return again?”; and “If he who departs from the body goes to another world, how is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?” They also completely reject rituals performed by the Vedic priests.

Hindu Durga Puja festivities, as depicted in a 19th-century painting.

Naturally, The Cārvākas were portrayed by their opponents as hedonists who believed only in sensual pleasures. Shankara, for instance, lampooned the Cārvāka view from a Hindu perspective by describing it as teaching that “the enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc.” Even if one rejects this description, a neo-Cārvāka is faced with the problem of defending a movement that, for centuries, was defined principally through the writings of those who sought to reject its teachings.

At the same time, a neo-Cārvāka might see this historical moment as a time of opportunity; as the atheistic movement is generally dominated by precepts that have their roots in the Judeo-Christian West, and so is due for an injection of fresh perspectives. While there are cursory references to the East in Christopher Hitchens’s influential 2007 book God is Not Great (in the chapter titled, “There Is No Eastern Solution”), and in Sam Harris’s 2014 bestseller Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, the East and its knowledge traditions have generally been ignored by the many Western thinkers who push for a strictly materialistic understanding of the human world.

Indian materialists are very much in the country’s minority. But their days of being dismissed as outliers may be numbered. While religion is still an important badge of identity for most Indians, the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism indicates that the number of non-religious people in India has been rising. And from 2001 to 2011, the number of people listed in the census category, “Religion Not Stated” went up from 700,000 to 2.9 million.

One problem here is that Western polling methods don’t always map well onto Indian belief systems when it comes to religion. Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a detailed survey titled Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation. “Belief in God is nearly universal in India (97%), and roughly eight-in-ten Indians (79%) say they believe in God with absolute certainty,” Pew reported. “Majorities among all major religious groups believe in God.” But consider the fact that only one percent of surveyed Jains said they “do not believe in God.” How does one interpret that statistic in light of the fact that, as a BBC summary put it, “Jains do not believe that any form of god is necessary to keep the universe in existence, or that any form of god has any power over the universe.” (Nor do Jains believe that the Earth was created by God, or that God set out the cosmic laws that govern the universe.) Which is to say that surveys such as this one tend to be built around the Western idea of knowledge systems divided cleanly between the Abrahamic view of a world created and lorded over by a particular kind of god, and an atheistic rejection of the very idea of god.

In some Eastern contexts, one can reject God’s relevance to humanity while still being nominally classified as a “believer.” One can also follow overlapping religious systems, such as can be seen in Japan, where about two-thirds of people participate in Shinto practices, and about two-thirds of people participate in Buddhist practices. Most Japanese, it turns out, practice both religions.

Even in the case of Hinduism, it isn’t clear how many Indians who are given to ticking the Hindu box on surveys truly endorse Āstika (orthodox) Hindu beliefs. Rather, many may be Nāstikas who are deferring to cultural or political trends, by which Indians are encouraged to sort themselves into faith communities as a matter of tribalism. In many cases, there is no real conflict between the self-asserted Hindu identity they describe to pollsters and their Nāstika beliefs.

In coming years, Indian neo-Cārvākas can be part of a trend toward political and intellectual reform, especially if the movement’s adherents recognize that their ideas are authentically Indian, and not derived from some modern book written in English. Just as our earliest faith traditions took form independently of Western influences, so, too, did the materialist tradition that emerged in opposition.

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