The Charvaka school was a philosophical movement in India that rejected the traditional religious order by challenging the authority of the Vedas as well as the hegemony the Brahman priests. Contrary to the view that India has always been an entirely religious and spiritual land, the Charvaka school is one of the most irreligious and skeptical systems of thought ever devised. This school is considered part of the heterodox systems (also referred to as heresies) of Indian philosophy, and it is also known as Lokayata, a term which in Sanskrit and Pali means “Naturalist” or “Worldly”.
Origin & Early Development
The Charvaka school started to develop around the 7th century BCE, during the time when the culture of world renunciation emerged in India. Buddhist scriptures occasionally mention the Charvaka as part of the wandering religious groups known as sramanas. Before the time of the Charvaka school, there were other materialistic schools in India, but none of them managed to systematize their teachings like the Charvaka did.
The founder of the Charvaka school is considered to be Brihaspati, who seems to be more of a legendary figure rather than an actual person. The most prominent member of this school during the time of the Buddha was a man named Ajita Kesakambali (Ajita of the Hair Blanket), whose ideas are summarized in a Buddhist Pali text known as Samannaphala Sutta, where he denies the doctrine of transmigration of the soul.
Charvaka Doctrine & Core Beliefs
The earliest texts of the Charvaka were written 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 rigid materialistic perspective in which only things that could be perceived directly were thought to exist. Some of the key principles of this doctrine of materialism were:
- All things are made of earth, air, fire and water.
- That which cannot be perceived does not exist; to exist implies to be perceivable.
- Heaven and hell are nothing but inventions. The only goal of humans is to enjoy pleasures and avoid pain.
- Providing a good living for the priests is a sufficient explanation for the practice of religion.
The members of this school did not believe in ideas such as the soul, reincarnation, spirits, or gods. Religion, they said, is nothing but a fraud devised by clever men who want to take advantage of others. Soul or consciousness can be explained in natural terms as a side effect of having a healthy body: When the body dies, consciousness simply disappears. No existence other than the physical body exists for the Charvaka.
The attitude towards human conduct in the Charvaka school was a very flexible one: Right or wrong were seen as merely human conventions. The cosmos, they believed, was indifferent to human 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.
There were a number of aphorisms ascribed to Brihaspati that have also been lost. Only a brief poem used to denounce the priestly caste has survived to our days:
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
This poem is particularly provocative if we keep in mind that butter was poured into the sacrificial fire by the Brahman priests.
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!
The materialism that the Charvaka school advocated in India was popular for quite a long time. It claimed that the truth can never be known except through the senses: The body, not the soul, feels, sees, hears and thinks. Religions flourish only because people have become accustomed to them. Faith is destroyed by true knowledge and when this happens, people feel a sense of loss and an uncomfortable void that's difficult to handle. Nature is indifferent to human conventions, such as good and bad or even virtue and vice. The sun shines equally upon sinners and saints.
The Charvaka school challenged the traditional religious order in India, weakening the authority and reputation of the priests and encouraging a sort of spiritual vacuum in Indian society 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 gods or, in other words, non-theistic religions. Such an idea might sound like a contradiction in itself, but that was exactly the approach of some of the 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 hegemony. In this context of religious crisis, Jainism and Buddhism were born.