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Carvaka, also frequently transliterated as Charvaka, and also known as lokayata, is a thoroughly materialist and atheist school of thought with ancient roots in India. It appears to have died out sometime after 1000. Its principal works are known only from fragments cited by its Hindu and Buddhist opponents. Those quotes which survive indicate a strong anti-clerical bias, accusing brahmins of fostering religious beliefs only so they could obtain a livelihood. The proper aim of a Charvakan or Charvaka, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, and productive life in this world. This may be termed the Charvaka Philosophy for which modern evidence has recently come to light from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. The Sanskrit word for atheist is naastik or nastik, and the antonym is aastik or astik, meaning "believing in what is before one's eyes". In this sense, the Charvaka school of thought is aastik rather than naastik.

The Chaarvaaka's thought is characterised by an insistence on joyful living, in a word "materialism" (sometimes termed "hedonism") often used in a derogatory sense, whereas Buddhism and Jainism are known to emphasise, in a word, pity and penance respectively. In practice most people follow the Chaarvaaka ideal, a sizeable number cultivating and encouraging virtues like honesty, care for others, etc, because they are by nature generous.

Not one original word of the Chaarvaaka philosophy has been preserved. While countering the argument that the Chaarvaakas opposed all that was good in the Vedic tradition, Dale Riepe says, "It may be said from the available material that Chaarvaakas hold truth, integrity, consistency and freedom of thought in the highest esteem." (The Naturalistic Tradition of Indian Thought, Motilal Banarasidas, Varanasi, p75)

(Most references are taken from the Marathi book Aastikashiromani Chaarvaaka written by Dr. A. H. Salunkhe, Professor of Sanskrit, L B Shastri College, Satara, Maharashtra, India. All references are gratefully acknowledged.)

Table of contents
1 Spokesmen, Original Texts Destroyed
2 The Chaarvaakas and Harappa and Mohenjo-daaro Civilisations
3 Systems of Proving Truth
4 Buddhism, Jainism vs Chaarvaakas
5 The Soul Unreal, Unacceptable
6 Fundamental Elements of Creation
7 The Cause-Effect Relation
8 Dhamma and Religion
9 Trade, Industry, Agriculture
10 If Necessary, Borrow and Drink Ghee
11 Public Administration
12 Man-Woman Relationship
13 Husband not only Lord and Master, but God

Spokesmen, Original Texts Destroyed

No original text of the Chaarvaaka School of philosophy has been available for many centuries now. Chaarvaaka literature has all been destroyed.

Systems of ancient Indian thought can be divided into two broad classes: the Chaarvaaka thought, Buddhism and Jainism are major atheistic branches, and Vedaanta and others are major theistic branches of philosophy surviving today.

The Sanskrit word Chaarvaaka is generally understood to be a compound of two words chaari and vaak; chaari means sweet, attractive and vaak means speaking. Some other meanings are also ascribed to the word, but 'sweet speaking' is the most plausible. This school of thought was also called Lokaayata probably from pre-Vedic times. Lokaayata would broadly mean 'prevalent among people'. It is almost certain that the sage Brihaspati, the preceptor of the gods, founded and preached the Lokaayata thought. Ancient texts like Brhati, a commentary on Saabarbhaashya, Sarvadarsanasangraha, etc, mention Brihaspati as the profounder and champion of the Chaarvaaka doctrine.

In Mahaabhaarata a Chaarvaaka who was a friend of Duryodhana was burned alive. This chaarvaaka was one of the few descendants of the then ancient Chaarvaakas as per Krishna, the god of Mahaabhaarata (Shantiparva, Adhyaayas 38,39).

The Chaarvaakas and Harappa and Mohenjo-daaro Civilisations

Vaarta was an important branch of the Chaarvaaka learning and it included trade, agriculture, and the rearing of animals. In the poem Naishdhiya a Chaarvaaka says, "Do not those who worship the cow consider themselves meaner than the animals?"(p17-67.)

Systems of Proving Truth

The Sanskrit word for authority which makes anything true is pramaana. The Chaarvaakas accept direct perception as the surest method to prove the truth of anything.

Buddhism, Jainism vs Chaarvaakas

Image worship, prayers and most other rituals (barring violent sacrifices and the caste-system) were common to Vedaanta, Buddhism and Jainism except that the gods were different. The Chaarvaakas went the whole rational length and had no corresponding point at which those other schools could touch them. The Chaarvaakas had no option but to be righteous in their conduct, for otherwise they would be unhappy.

The Soul Unreal, Unacceptable

The Chaarvaakas who could not deny the difference between the dead body and the living body and recognised both as realities stopped their perception at the entity of death. A person lives, the same person dies, that is a perceived fact.

Fundamental Elements of Creation

Of the five fundamental elements (Panchamahaabhutas) Prithvi (earth), solidity; aap (water), liquidity; tejas (fire), brightness or fieriness; vaayu (wind), movement and aakaasa (ether? or emptiness), the Chaarvaakas recognised the validity of the first four.

The Cause-Effect Relation

Rejection of the soul apart from the body leads the Chaarvaakas to confine their thinking to this world only. This does not mean that they denied the cause-result relationship. They accepted the 'like causes like result' (Karmavipaaka) rule, restricted it to this life and this world and admitted exceptions to that rule.

Dhamma and Religion

There is a Mahaabhaarata verse wherein a kingless state devoid of crime and punishment is said to have existed in pre-Vedic times when dhamma was practised by all and it resulted in perfect amity. The Chaarvaaka thinker denounced the caste-system. "What is this senseless humbug about the castes and the high and low among them when the organs like the mouth, etc in the human body are the same?" (Prabodhachandrodaya, 2.18).

Trade, Industry, Agriculture

The Chaarvaaka scholars carried on research, termed Aanvikshiki, into every branch of knowledge and developed it elaborately. They considered artha (finance) and kaama (satisfaction of passions) as the two purposes of life, and discarded the other two dharma (religion) and moksha (salvation), proclaimed by the Vedic thinkers. While summarising the Chaarvaaka position in Sarvadarsanasangraha Sankara, the main exponent of Advaita Vedaanta stated that those having self-respect undertake farming and other means of creating real property.

If Necessary, Borrow and Drink Ghee

The most well-known verse attributed to Brihaspati enunciated a principle that is ironically used by the opponents as a handle to beat them with:

Yavajjivet sukham jivet |
Rinam kritvaa ghritam pibet ||
Bhasmibhutasya dehasya |
Punaraagamanam kutah ||

(As long as you live happily, take a loan and drink ghee. After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?)

In Aayurveda "ghee is life" (aayurghritam) is a standard quote. Ghee toccupied a central place: it was symbolic of good food.

Critics of the Chaarvaaka school see in this verse an extreme instance of self-centred hedonism. This is the seventh verse in a set of eleven in Sarvadarsana Sangraha. These verses criticise the financial benefits earned by Braahmanas in religious functions. Whether the words are Brihaspati's or not is doubtful, but the sense does agree with the Chaarvaaka line of thinking.

Manusmriti lays down two, three, four and five percent monthly interest from the Braahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra debtors (8.142). It is cruel to charge the impoverished Sudra the highest rate. In repaying the loan the rule says (8.177) a lower caste borrower may repay it in the form of labour if he is not able to pay it in cash, but a higher caste borrower may repay at his leisure. For sacrifices, a Braahmana priest or host may legally rob a lower caste householder (11.11-15). The Chaarvaaka position is: the caste-system is artificial, unreal, hence unacceptable. Loans are purely financial transactions in which castes cannot interfere.

Public Administration

An extract from Aaine-Akbari (vol.III, tr. by H. S. Barrett, pp217-218) written by Abul Fazl, the famous historian of Akbar's court, mentions a symposium of philosophers of all faiths held in 1578 at Akbar's instance. The account is given by the historian Vincent Smith, in his article titled "The Jain Teachers of Akbar". Some Chaarvaaka thinkers are said to have participated in the symposium.

Under the heading "Naastika" Abul Fazl has referred to the good work, judicious administration and welfare schemes that were emphasised by the Chaarvaaka law-makers. Somadeva has also mentioned the Chaarvaaka method of defeating the enemies of the nation.

Man-Woman Relationship

The Chaarvaaka doctrines of equality and freedom preserve and enhance the dignity of women. Woman's position in a world controlled by man largely depends on the tendencies of the man she comes in contact with. The Chaarvaaka concepts had an uphill task in counteracting the traditional condition of women. The opinions about their attitude to women in other treatises are mostly adverse. In short, free sex was advocated by them, in some works. But in Sarvadarsanasangraha, the scholar Madhava described the Chaarvaaka school of philosophy as impossible to defeat in the battle of wits.

Husband not only Lord and Master, but God

The century-old cruel burning of a live widow on her dead husband's funeral pyre was declared unlawful and punishable by the British governor-general. The custom has surfaced recently in the sati incident in Raajasthan. uncommon.

Renukaa, the wife of Jamadagni, was accused of infidelity only because she spared glances at passing gandharvas, a species of humans, and on his order his son, Parasuraam, removed her head from her body so as to kill her. The son obeyed the father. Raama banished his wife Sitaa after rescuing her from the abductor, Raavana. He accepted her after the fire-god's assurance of her purity, but again expelled her to the uninhabited forest where she would have been killed but for Vaalmiki's protection. God Indra under the guise of Gautama committed adultery with Gautama's wife, Ahilya. When Gautama cursed him to become a perforated body, he got it repaired, but the wife cursed to be a stone remained in the stone-form for centuries.

In Naishadhiya (17.42) a character named Chaarvaaka says, "Fie upon the men who restrict women out of jealousy. Men and women both have passion, but their restrictions are directed towards women only; men are not subject to any restrictions."