Charvak: The Vedic Atheist

Exclusive to Vedic Management Centre by U. Mahesh Prabhu

“Hindu” is mainly a modern word, gaining prominence over the past several centuries. It relates to Sindhu meaning river. We first find it in the Zend Avesta of the Persians, who called India Hapta Hindu related to the Vedic terms Sapta Sindhu or the land of the seven rivers.

Hindus are not a people of a single faith or religion in the modern western sense of these terms from monotheistic and Biblical traditions. Hindus are a union of people from the ancient nation called Bharat. Bharat is the traditional name of India going back to Vedic times. Hindus are those who follow the broader view of Vedic knowledge and the various spiritual, religious and cultural practices that have derived from it.

Few modern Hindus believe that there are atheists among them, though the Hindu concept of Divinity is very different from western religion. Actually, atheism was one of the traditional Indian or Bharatiya schools of thought. It’s incorrect to believe that atheism is a foreign concept or a modern one. History can testify to the fact that atheists, materialists, rationalists, and hedonists, were always found in this land of India, along with Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and many other groups over time. Atheists co-existed cordially among theists and mystics of various hues and colors without any violent conflicts. Their conflicts resolved through civilized discussions and debates. There was never the idea of spiritual people in India that atheists were evil or should be silenced or suppressed. Atheism was regarded as one point of view, though usually not the highest, that could be addressed at the level of thought.

The greatest testimony to this fact is the existence of Charvak‘s school of thought that is athetist and materialist in nature from ancient times.  The name Charvak has been associated with the philosophical school of materialism in Indian literature for over 3,000 years. References to this philosophy are found not just in Vedic but in early Buddhist literature. Yet this philosophy of materialism in the Indian subcontinent never became a dominant power as it has become in the West. Believed to have born during a period of discontent, it seemed to have soon perished from being regarded as a highly regarded point of view.

According to an ancient legend, Brihaspati (here the name of a teacher opposed to the Vedas) is considered as the traditional founder of this school of materialism. His sutras (formulae), now long lost, are said to have been propagated by the Devas (the wise) to Asuras (those trapped in body consciousness) to allow them their karmic activities.

Charvak is said to be the chief disciple of Brihaspati. According to another view, Charvak is the name of the founder of this school. According to still another the , the word ‘Charvak’ is not a proper name, but a common name given to a materialist, and it signifies a person who believes in ‘eat, drink and be merry’ (the root word ‘charva’ means to eat), or a person who eats up his own words, or who eats up all moral and ethical considerations, or a person who is ‘sweet-tongued’ (charu-vak) and, therefore, whose doctrine is superficially attractive. A synonym of Charvaka is Lokayata which means a worldly person and therefore, by implication, a person of low and unrefined taste. In the Ramayana, they are branded as ‘fools who think themselves to be wise and who are experts in leading people into doom and ruin’.

Charvak’s philosophy was completely atheistic. At a point of time when everyone was propounding some approach to higher consciousness, Atman or Nirvana, it was a very bold step to come out with the principle of materialism, highlight the value of this physical world and lay stress on the enjoyments of this world and not higher consciousness as the most important pursuit. Many consider Charvak, not Brihaspati, as the father of materialism. His thought was based on the living in the present and making the best of it by gratifying one’s senses through all means possible.

Charvak’s thought is very well reflected in following lines:


Loose translation: As long as you are alive, live happily. One should drink ghee (a sign of luxury) even if it puts you in debt.

According to him, one should live with all possible luxuries and need not worry about the future. If a person does not have sufficient funds to support such lavishness, he should borrow money from someone else. Here, the primary stress is on the attainment of luxuries through any means.

This worldly philosophy was criticized when it was first propounded. The main reason for this was that people then believed in spending as per their actual earnings; they believed in self-contentment, not self-indulgence. There was, however, a group of people as perhaps always, who believed in living lavishly even if their capacity to pay for it did not support it. But people of this mindset did not command respect in society and were looked down upon as they eventually went beyond their means and ended in difficulties.

Interestingly, these principles surfaced across the world with the advent of capitalism which, in many ways, reflects the essence of Charvak’s philosophy of putting material gain and bodily pleasure above all. People around the world are keen on achieving everything as soon as possible. They are not patient. They want to have all the luxuries at once. As soon as a person gets a job, he begins thinking what he can buy; he wants a house, a luxury car, etc, almost immediately. It is not possible to buy these all at once, at least not without institutions that lend them money at “attractive interest rates”. In the past, people took loans from relatives and friends. Now, there are many institutions that feed such greed and ambition by encouraging people be impatient and expect to get everything quickly and at minimal effort.

There are many banks and finance corporations that try to turn these dreams and fantasies into reality. They offer easy credit and quick loans to people to fulfill their desires. Today, people are going cashless and rely on plastic money as they can spend more than they have with the help of a magical credit card. But this is only the bright side of a bigger story of being taken in by fantasies and gaining a false sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. It is a mere illusion as people end up trapped in a web of never-ending desires.

There is a dark side to this plastic money. Remember the economic recession, which hit the world in 2008? This depression started in America and the major cause was lack of liquidity in the market. One prominent reason for this was the pending clearance of payments (bad debts) made by credit cards and easy bank loans. People used credit cards without realizing they have to eventually pay the credit card bills and loans. And when they failed to do so, there was a scarcity of money in the market. This resulted in bankruptcy for many companies and retrenchment for others. The downsizing of organizations resulted in jobs lost and increased unemployment, which further worsened the problem.

Gradually, this recession gripped the entire world and every economy had to face the severe implications. India was also affected. But, the Indian economy soon showed signs of recovery and no companies in India went bankrupt. The reason behind this was that the debt to liquidity ratio was much better among Indian corporations. This was less than two percent of India’s population used plastic money. As a result, there was no liquidity crisis in India and the Indian economy survived a major blow. But the situation in India is now changing, and fast.

People who admired those without debts are now hailing and, sometimes, even worshiping the debtors as better citizens. Therefore, they are inching closer towards the Charvak philosophy, according to which Lokayata is the only true Shastra. Sensory perception is the only authority; earth, water, fire, and air are the only elements of value; enjoyment is the only end of human existence; mind is only a product of matter. There is no other world: death means liberation.

They are fast becoming followers of the idea that there is ‘… no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world… 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 here?’

In this regard, it would help to learn the many causes for the downfall of Charvak in historical India. Charvak didn’t just denounce the Vedas but also rejected fundamental human values. Life without values is an animal life. Sensual pleasure is a very faint shadow of the supreme happiness. There is a qualitative difference in pleasure. The pleasure of a pig is certainly not the same as the joy of an enlightened sage.

September 18, 2018

2 responses on "Charvak: The Vedic Atheist"

  1. Nice. Filled some gaps in my knowledge.

  2. Would have loved to read more about this topic. I feel the article ends abruptly.

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