Main photo: A «Carvaka Ashram», founded by Boddu Ramakrishna in 1973, is dedicated to the atheist tradition of India. In Nidamarru, close to Mangalagiri in Andhra Pradesh (south-eastern India), busts are set up, outside the ashram, to commemorate rational thinkers like the 19th c. Dalit couple Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule; in addition to the 15-16th c. Telugu poet Vemana. Photo: TheNewsMinute.
India has the world’s oldest recorded continuous atheist and materialist tradition. These philosophical schools are known as Cārvāka or Lokāyata – and the ideas can be traced to ca. 700 BCE, while the skeptical arguments in Rigveda are more than 3,000 years old. Such topics are covered in two lengthy texts, written by Dag Herbjørnsrud, at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA) in June 2020 (bold added below):
Part I: «The untold history of India’s vital atheist philosophy» (June 16, 2020)
Part II: «India’s atheist influence on Europe, China, and science» (June 24, 2020)
Excerpts from the texts (labeled as «Research» at the Blog of the APA)
Intro: «Rationality, skepticism, and atheism have been central parts of Indian thinking for 2,700 years. Contrary to common belief, the hallmark of India’s philosophy is its critique of religions.«
«This is part I of Herbjørnsrud’s text on the Cārvāka/ Lokāyata philosophy of India. The second and last part will cover three other aspects when it comes to these non-religious Indian schools of thinking: first, the Mughal era, atheism, and the influence on Europe; second, the spread of Lokāyata ideas to China; and third, it’s impact on Indian science.«
Main text: «Who said the following?
Fools prescribe alms-giving; and some assert that there is such a thing as merit in alms-giving; but their words are empty, false and nonsensical. Both the fool and the wise are annihilated and destroyed after death and dissolution of their bodies. Nothing exists after death.
No, this anti-religious statement is not from the latest American Atheists convention; rather it is a quote from the atheist philosopher Ajita Kesakambala (ca. 500 BCE) in the classical text “Discourse on the Fruits of Contemplative Life,” written in the Indian language of Pali. In this ancient Theravada Buddhist text, a king asks six “seeking” (sramana) ascetics about their different worldviews. Another of those teachers quoted, is the skeptic Sanjaya Belatthiputta (belonging to the Ajnana tradition, another heterodox school in Ancient India) – whose answer might be said to define radical agnosticism:
If you ask me whether there is another world, well, if I thought there were, I would say so. But I don’t say so. And I don’t think it is thus or thus. And I don’t think it is otherwise. And I don’t deny it. And I don’t say there neither is, nor is not, another world.
According to popular belief, atheism is a modern invention: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1882. Supposedly, it was the modern European mind that invented the criticism of religions and religiosity.
But what if it was the other way around? What if philosophical skepticism, rational arguments, and non-religiosity came first, while religions developed later? What if irreligiosity was suppressed by medieval religious minds, before this worldview was resurrected in the modern era? In the beginning was … atheism?
In that case, we need look no further than the birthplace of philosophy, alongside Mesopotamia and Egypt (Kemet), namely India (Bhārat). There, the world’s oldest and most persistent documented tradition of atheism and skepticism has been around for almost three millennia, since Vedic times and the oldest of the Upanishads (commentaries to the Vedas), ca. 7th century BCE. Hundreds of years later, Pyrrho – who reportedly traveled east with Alexander the Great and discussed philosophy with the Indian gymnosophists – later introduced skepticism to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greeks. But Pyrrho and Epicurus did not denounce the gods: hence, the European traditions lack a deeper historical and philosophical treatment of materialism and atheism. Contrary to the common Orientalist stereotype, both in the “West” and the “East” (including present-day India), the Indian philosophical traditions are more rational and less theistic than the European ones.
The Indian school that rejected supernaturalism was originally named Lokāyata, which can be translated as prevalent (ayata) among the people (loka) – in addition to meaning “this-worldliness”, “worldly”. Since the last half of the first millennium CE, the term Cārvāka (or Charvaka, possibly from “alluring speech”, caru vak, or from grinding with the teeth, carva) has also been used for these atheist, skeptical, naturalist, and materialist traditions.
The skeptical Indian schools have their forebears in the oldest of the Vedic texts. In Rig Veda (“Knowledge of Verses”, created in Punjab, in today’s Pakistan/India, ca. 1500–1100 BCE), we find a remarkable agnostic worldview. In contrast to the fairly clear-cut answers of the later monotheistic religions, the “Creation Hymn” (10.129) of the Rig Veda offers questions and speculations:
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?
Such extracts illustrate that agnostic doubts do exist in the earliest of Indian writings. But could atheism, or irreligiosity, have been present as well?
Not according to today’s canonical sources in the US. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not even have a headword on Lokāyata/Cārvāka or Indian atheism. But the systematic works of present-day scholars deserve better recognition – as a clearer picture has emerged in the 21st century.
Three recent scholarly perspectives
In spring 2020, Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, a Fellow of the Pavlov Institute in Kolkata, published More Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) – summarizing a quarter of a century of work. He underscores two themes: that there have been many varieties of materialist thought in India; and that there is no foundation to the accusations of hedonism nor to the claim that these schools reject inference (anumāna) per se as a way of knowledge (pramāṇas).
In 2018, Ethan Mills launched Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India, dealing with the three central skeptics Nāgārjuna (c. 150–200 CE), Jayarāśi (c. 770–830 CE), and Śrī Harṣa (c. 1125–1180 CE). Of special interest here is how Mills identifies the South Indian Brahmin Jayarāśi Bhatta as belonging to a skeptical sub-school of Carvāka, as one who developed the materialism of the previously mentioned skeptic Sanjaya. Jayarāsi’s 1,200 year-old tome The Lion of the Destruction of Principles (“Tattvôpaplava-siṁha”) – a palm leaf version was rediscovered in 1926 and published in 1940 – is the best primary source we now have for Lokāyata/Cārvāka philosophy and irreligious skepticism. He atheistically states that “there is no other world” (paraloka), quoting the legendary materialist Brhaspati.
In 2015, meanwhile, Professor Pradeep G. Gokhale published an Oxford University Press book that demonstrates how “philosophy as a purely secular, rational, and non-dogmatic discipline in the context of Indian philosophy can be appropriately located in the Lokāyata approach.” Gokhale discusses the cognitive skepticism, extreme empiricism, and mitigated empiricism of these irreligious and materialist schools; a “pluralist approach.”
Hence, in addition to diversity among the Indian atheist philosophers of the past, there is also a complexity of approaches amid present Lokāyata/Cārvaka scholars.»
«Consequently, we have a peculiar situation in which the atheist philosophies (Lokāyata/Cārvāka) seem vital for both the original Brahmin Vedic scholars (cf. Bronkhorst, Doniger, etc), the people at large (Madhavacarya, Chattopadhyaya), and the Dalits (Rao, Quack) – not to mention the influence the atheists had on the other philosophical schools and religions. This complexity clearly calls for more inquiry.
Just look at the vital and earliest 19th century social reformer of the Dalit movement, the defender of women’s rights, Jyotirao Phule (1827–1890). In one of his central books Phule quotes the anti-religious maxim of Brhaspati that “the Vedas were made by thugs.” (Brhaspati’s Cārvākasutra is lost, but has been reconstructed by Bhattacharya, who stresses that we know of at least four commentators on it: Bhāvivikta, Kambalāśvatara, Aviddhakarṇa, and Udbhaṭa – who can be viewed as revisionists or reformists.) Thus, this earliest modern Dalit leader concludes that it is untenable to say that religious texts were God-created and proposes the reinstatement of a traditional and pre-Vedic egalitarian Indian society.
In the mid-19th century, Gulab Das (1809–1873) gained a large following (Gulabdasis) of Dalits and women in Punjab, around Lahore in today’s Pakistan, by propagating what has been described as an atheist doctrine for the people. Gulab Das was born a Sikh, a religion which opposed castes, and in line with Cārvāka tradition he propagated a this-worldly life.
His closest companion was the Muslim-born female writer Piro Preman (1832–1875), as Anshu Malhotra describes in her book Piro and the Gulabdasis. Gender, Sect, and Society in Punjab (Oxford University Press, 2017). Preman came from the lower castes and challenged religious leaders, and Gulab Das saved her from captivity. Today, Preman is recognized as Punjab’s first modern female poet. Her words against both men and religions are harsh: “They make false religions making false promises.”
Preman and the Gulabdasis are included here to showcase how modern religious criticism can be understood within this larger Indian historical tradition of atheist skepticism. As Bhattacharya has attested, women’s rights were also a natural part of the Cārvāka movement against the religious patriarchy.
But there is more – for example when it comes to the connection between Indian atheism and the European intellectuals from the late 16th century and beyond. This will be covered in part II on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata philosophy here at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA)»
Intro: «The atheist Carvaka philosophers were present at the Muslim emperor Akbar’s court in the late 16th century, and beyond. How much did they influence modern Europe, and China from the 3rd century?«
Main text: «The initial piece of this text on the ancient atheist and materialist philosophy of India covered the development from the Harappa and Vedic era to the modern Dalit movement. In this second part I will argue that there are three more aspects of the Lokayata/Carvaka philosophy that could be dealt with more thoroughly, especially in American and European scholarship.
First, that this atheist philosophy endured into the Mughal era and influenced European intellectuals from the 16th century onward; secondly, that Lokayata philosophy spread east to China from the third century, and thirdly, this school’s impact on Indian math and science.
Let’s start with the endurance of atheist and skeptical philosophy, and its connection to modern Europe.
According to the common view among many scholars, the Carvakas vanished in India after the 12th century. The British Encyclopedia states that this materialist doctrine had “disappeared by the end of the medieval period.”
But, contrary to this claim, we have rather decisive proof that the non-religious Cārvāka philosophical tradition continued to flourish in India until the arrival of European colonial representatives and beyond. These atheists were reportedly present at the court of the Muslim-born Mughal ruler, Akbar (1542–1605). Akbar was a patron of arts and libraries, and the foremost of the emperors of the Mughal Empire (16th–19th century), an inquiring skeptic who believed in “the pursuit of reason” over “reliance on tradition.”
Thus, in 1578 he started inviting philosophers and representatives of the different religions to his new “House of Worship” (Ibadat Khana) in Fatehpur Sikri every Thursday. In this unique setting, religious leaders met to discuss their views of the world and afterlife (in the end, Akbar began to promulgate a new, tolerant, and syncretic religion, known as “God’s religion,” Din-i Ilahī, in 1582).
According to the liberal, Persian-writing chronicler Abul Fazl (1551–1602), those discussing religious and existential matters at Akbar’s court included the Hindu Brahmin Devi, the Parsi Dastur Mehrji Rānā, the Jain ascetic Hiravijaya, and the Catholic Jesuits, Ridolfo Aquaviva and Antonio Monserrate.
Atheists at the Mughal court
In addition, Fazl writes in his third volume of the official chronicle Akbarnama (1602), the atheist Cārvākas were present. He describes them as follows:
They do not believe in a God nor in immaterial substances, and affirm faculty of thought to result from the equilibrium of the aggregate elements (…) They admit only of such sciences as tend to the promotion of external order, that is, a knowledge of just administration and benevolent government. They are somewhat analogous to the sophists in their views and have written many works in reproach of others (…)
Here, we may note Abul Fazl’s emphasis on the Carvākas’ promotion of “just administration and benevolent argument”, and the fact that he also compares them with Sophists.
Fascinated by the religious openness and discussions, the Jesuit missionaries mentioned above reported back to Europe – first in 1582, with further reports in the 1590s and the early 1600s, in Latin, French, and German.
The Europeans were surprised by the openness and rational doubts of Akbar and the Indians. In Pierre De Jarric’s Histoire (1610), based on the Jesuit reports, the Mughal emperor is actually compared to an atheist himself: “Thus we see in this Prince the common fault of the atheist, who refuses to make reason subservient to faith (…)”
As Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski concludes about the Jesuit descriptions in her groundbreaking paper “East-West Swerves: Cārvāka Materialism and Akbar’s Religious Debates at Fatehpur Sikri” (2015):
…The information they sent back to Europe was disseminated widely in both Catholic and Protestant countries (…) A more detailed understanding of Indian philosophies, including Cārvāka, began to emerge in Jesuit missionary writings by the early to mid-seventeenth century.
The Jesuit Roberto De Nobili wrote in 1613 that the “Logaidas” (Lokayatas) “hold the view that the elements themselves are god”. Some decades later, Heinrich Roth, who studied Sanskrit in Agra ca. 1654–60, translated the Vedantasara by the influential Vedantic commentator Sadananda (14th). This text depicts four different schools of the Carvaka philosophies.
As Wojciehowski notes: “Rather than proclaiming a Cārvāka renaissance in Akbar’s court, it would be safer to suggest that the ancient school of materialism never really went away.”
This argument is supported by the fact that the logician, and Jain, philosopher Yashovijya (1624–1688), from Gujarat on the western coast, also noted that there were at least two branches of this materialist and rational school.
What’s more, we have the 400-page book Dabistan (School of Religions, ca. 1660), credited to the Persian historian writing in Kashmiri, Mohsin Fani (b. ca. 1615). This text – possibly supported by the Mughal prince Darah Shikoh – discusses more than 20 philosophical and religious schools, including Carvaka.
As far as I can see, Dabistan is not discussed in the existing Carvaka/Lokayata literature; this means there is still potential for further scholarly treatment, since Fani devotes several pages in this book to the atheists (rupa skandha, “understood by means of the senses”). His description is not written from a critical but rather from a non-dogmatic perspective. Fani states, in his Dabistan, that these 17th century atheists argue that “the world and its inhabitants have no creator (…)” » (…)
Export” of Lokayata to China
The second rather unexplored part of Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy is the spread of this thought system not only to the west, but also to the east.
The presence of these atheist schools in both the north and south of the Indian subcontinent has gradually been revealed: Krishna Del Toso has demonstrated how this material school is described in Buddhist manuscripts that are only extant in Tibetan. And Ramkrishna Bhattacharya has covered, for example, the classic Tamil epic play Manimekalai by Satthan, written in this Dravidian language in Southern India in the first centuries of the common era: The epic’s female protagonist is in pursuit of the best philosophy, and after exploring the teaching of nine different thought systems in Tamil Nadu, she ends up with the Bhuta-Vadi (materialists), who declare that they follow the Lokāyatas:
It is absurd to believe in the existence of another life in which we would gather the fruits of our deeds in this one. Our existence as well as our joys and sorrows terminate with our life.
Far more absent from present-day Carvaka/Lokaya scholarship, as far as I can see, are discussions on how this atheist tradition traveled east as well – especially to China.
This Indian-Chinese materialist connection is documented in a little-known but groundbreaking paper by professor Huang Xinchuan, “Lokayata and Its Influence in China,” published in Chinese in 1978 (English version in the quarterly journal Social Sciences in March 1981). Xinchuan, a senior researcher at the China Academy of Social Science, demonstrates how the Indian Lokāyata schools exercised an influence on ancient Chinese over the centuries.
He lists 62 classical texts in China that refer to these Indian material-atheistic schools, from the Brahmajala Sutra translated by Zhi Qian (Chih Chien, 223–253), of the Kingdom of Wu, to An Explanation for Brahmajala Sutra written by Ji Guang (Chi-kuang, 1528–1588) of the Ming Dynasty. In addition, Xinchuan mentions four texts on Lokayata in Chinese by Japanese Buddhist writers.
Xinchuan’s paper explains how the Buddhists regarded the Lokayatikas as fellow-travellers of the Confucian and the Taoist Schools, and how they launched an attack on them because of their materialistic views. Xinchuan cites, as also Rasik Vihari Joshi noted in 1987, dozens of texts where Chinese classical works describe Lokayata either as “Shi-Jian-Xing” (“doctrine prevailing in the world”), “Wu-Hou-Shi-Lun” (“doctrine of denying after-life”), or refers to “Lu-Ka-Ye-Jin” (the “Lokāyata Sutra”).
We might note that Xinchuan states the Lokayatikas had “a great influence among the traders, craftsmen, peasants and other lower sections of the people in the village communities of that time.” He also writes:
As recorded in the Matangi Sutra and the Brahmajala Sutra, most of the Lokayatikas studied medicine, astronomy, agronomy and so on and engaged themselves in secular work. Again in the Mulasarvastivada — nikaya— vinaya (fasci. 35), it is said that the Lokayatikas, while debating with Indian Buddhists, burst into such rough manners that they fought each other with blows and kicks.
One example of such a philosophical confrontation is a 7th century debate between Xuan Zhuang (Hsiian-tsang) and an Indian Lokayatika at Nalanda Monastery. The latter affirmed that the four basic elements are the origin of all human beings and substance, while the former “refuted him by elaborating [the] Mahayana doctrine.”
On the influence of Indian Lokayata on China’s philosophical thought, Huang Xinchuan notes that there are certain similarities between Chinese Taoism and Indian Tantrism, which in many respects have the “same fundamental concepts and close relationship with Lokayata.”
For example, Ji Zang (Chi-tsang) (549–623) classified the materialistic ideas of the Confucians and the Taoists and Lokayata into the same category when he was forming the idealistic system of San-lun (“Three Sastras”) in China. Hence, Huang Xinchuan summarizes:
In conclusion, Lokayata as a materialistic system of philosophy is by no means of little significance, as has been suggested by some scholars. On the contrary, it had won wide support and popularity among the people, as its name itself shows. It spread as far as China and exercised an influence on ancient Chinese thought and literature and art. As far as its popularity is concerned, Lokayata matched other systems of Indian philosophy and is an important cultural legacy of India deserving further study and exploration.
Huang also states that more facts about Lokayata and the Lokayatikas would emerge if similar research were to be done “in other countries where Indian cultural influence has been felt”; which makes make one think of the huge Hindu-Buddhist impact in Indonesian Java (Borabudur) and in Cambodia (Angkor Wat).» (…)
Atheist influence on Indian science
Thirdly, and finally, there seems to be one more rather overlooked topic in Carvaka/Lokayata scholarship – namely these schools’ influence on science. As Amartya Sen has highlighted, the remarkable achievements of Indian science and mathematics from the 5th century and Gupta period onwards, “benefited from the tradition of skepticism and questioning which had been flourishing in India at that time.”
The foremost scientist of that era was the mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata (476–550), from the southern Indian Asmaka region of Deccan where the Lokayatas had a particularly strong following. Not only did Aryabhata begin to use zero in the place value system some three hundred years before the Indian numerals were spread to the Arabs; he also demonstrated that the Earth rotates around its own axis – an idea that provoked reactions from the orthodox Brahmins and even his successor Brahmagupta (7th century). Aryabhata was accused of “false knowledge”.
In his main work, supposedly from 499, Aryabhata explains lunar and solar eclipses, and he challenges those who do not use perception as the basis of knowledge. He – like the Lokayatas – argued that the world was made up of four, not five, elements.
Thus, in the paper “Aryabhata and Lokayatas” (1977), Grigory M. Bongard-Levin concludes: “Aryabhata advocated a number of rationalist ideas which are comparable to the concepts of the Lokayata, the most consistent materialist school of ancient India.”
Also the Persian polymath Muhammad Al-Biruni (b. 973), who studied for years in India in the early 11th century, declared that “the followers of Aryabhata” contended: “that which is not reached by perception is not knowable.” By chance, this is one of the main arguments of the Lokayatas. We might note, since Bongard-Levin misses this point, that in the same volume Al-Biruni also writes about Brihaspati’s book Laukayata. According to Al-Biruni, this materialist Lokayata book says that “in all investigations we must exclusively rely upon the apperception of the senses.”
One of Aryabhata’s main followers, the polymath astronomer Varahamihira(6th c.) stated that the gods have nothing to do with “the truth of science”. Such “rational trends”, Bongard-Levin writes, “played an extremely important role, exercising a tremendous impact on the development of Indian scholarship.”
One might wonder: How important have the atheist, skeptical, and materialist traditions of India been to the development of our modern societies? We do not know, as we have barely attempted to investigate this yet. But as S. Radakrishnan concluded close to a century ago, “the heretic, the sceptic, the unbeliever, the rationalist and the freethinker, the materialist and the hedonist all flourish in the soil of India.”
It seems reasonable to say at least that the atheist Carvaka and Lokayata thinking – whether its prototypes began in the Harappa civilization 4,000 years ago or later – have permeated all the vital parts of India’s philosophies and religions until the present day.»
- Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 2011. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. London: Anthem Press.
- Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 2020. More Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha. Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden: Brill.
- Bronkhorst Johannes. 2016. “Who were the Cārvākas?” Revista Guillermo De Ockham, 14 (1) pp. 1–21.
- Chattopadhyaya, Debipràsad, and Mrinalkanti Gangopadhyaya. 1990. Cārvāka/
- Lokāyata: An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies. New
- Delhi: People’s Publishing House.
- Del Toso, Krishna. 2019. “Where Do Those Beautiful Ladies and Wolf’s Footprints Lead Us? The Mādhyamikas on Two Cārvāka/Lokāyata Stanzas.” Part I. Sezione Orientale 79, pp. 202–235.
- Franco, Eli. 1994. Perception, Knowledge and Disbelief: A Study of Jayarāśi’s Scepticism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
- Gokhale, Pradeep P. 2015.Lokāyata/Cārvāka: A Philosophical Inquiry. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
- Huang Xinchuan. 1981. “Lokayata and Its Influence in China.” Social Sciences, March (Vol. II, no. 1: The Social Sciences Publishing House, Beijing) [Chinese original: 1978].
- Jayarāsi Bhatta. 2010. Tattvopaplavasimha. An Introduction, Sanskrit Text, English Translation & Notes. Transl. by Esther Salomon. Ed. by Shuchita Mehta. New Delhi: Parimal Publications.
- Joshi, Rasik Vihari. 1987. “Lokāyata in ancient India and China.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 68, No. 1 (4) (Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar 150th Birth-Anniversary Volume), pp. 393-405.
- Mills, Ethan. 2018. Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. Lanham: Lexington Books.
- Rao, Katti Padma. 1997. Charvaka Darshan: Ancient Dalit Philosophy. Translated by D. Anjaneyulu. Madras: The Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute.
- The University of Washington. List of secondary literature on Cārvāka and Lokāyata: http://faculty.washington.edu/kpotter/xsec.htm
Dag Herbjørnsrud (@DagHerbjornsrud) is a global historian of ideas, former editor-in-chief, and author. Latest journal article: “Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method” (Global Intellectual History, 2019). Herbjørnsrud is the founder of Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).