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Cārvāka: The Atheist-Materialist School of Indian Philosophy

Cārvāka is an unorthodox school in Indian Philosophy which deals with epistemological questions like – How far can we know reality? How does knowledge originate and develop? What are the different sources of knowledge? And further subscribes to atheism and hedonistic part of living. The article discusses the school’s main ideas, influence on Indian Philosophy narrative, comparison with Positivism, and future scope of the field.

   Cārvāka is an unorthodox school in Indian philosophy often termed as ‘Indian Materialism’. The school of thought considers that matter is the only true reality — mind and consciousness as products of matter. Due to this, it opposes spiritualness and religion texts like the Vedas and consequently is called the atheist school in Indian Philosophy.

The word Cārvāka has a complicated history as some say it was the name of a sage who propounded materialism and others say the word generally means who ‘eat, drink, and merry’. However, some writers also say Brhaspati is the true founder of materialism. Whoever the founder was, Cārvāka is now synonym with the Indian Materialism where sometimes it is also called Lokayata (literally translated ‘philosophy of the people’) which means ‘the system which has its base in the common, profane world’ and also ‘the philosophy that denies that there is any world other than this one’.

Due to the materialist notion, the school holds that the only dependable source of knowledge (pramāna) can be found through perception (Saṃjñā) for an individual and rejects any other sources of knowledge. It criticises the two important knowledge sources used by many Indian schools of thought – inference (anumana) and testimony (śabda).

An inference is a type of knowledge source where we consider some relationship between one event to another because of a perceived pattern. For example, if there is smoke coming from a forest, we believe or take a leap in the dark for the existence of fire. The validity of such inference is justified if there has been previous knowledge of — all smoke incidents are incidents of fire, and thus if there is smoke from the forest, there is fire. However, Cārvāka criticises this kind of knowledge source, as such relationships between fire and smoke can only be established if there exist all cases of such incidents and there is no doubt. We cannot perceive all cases of smoke and fire, and therefore a universal relation (vyāpti) cannot be established. Also, inference argued from other inferences or testimony cannot be established as they also run into the same problem of developing a prima inference.

But one can argue that there might be a relationship between smoke and fire and we can hence establish that there is a causal relationship or uniformities between the two events. The Cārvāka would reply that causal or any other relation cannot be established merely by witnessing the two things occurring together as we cannot be certain there might be no other unperceived condition (upādhi) on which the relation might depend on. There has to be unconditionality, and that might not exist as there might be some factor which might not be perceivable. The doubt always persists and hence, we cannot establish that our inference is true. Yes, our inferences can lead to correct outcomes but it can also not. So there is always uncertainty about the knowledge through inference, and therefore it is not regarded as a valid source of knowledge (pramāna) for the Cārvāka school.

The other source of knowledge which the Cārvāka rejects is testimony — knowledge received from a reliable source— an authority figure like the Vedas, other religious texts or experts. Knowledge from testimonies is a perceived knowledge from a source which is conveyed to us in words (generally). We do not perceive the knowledge on our own but is given to us through verbal or written testimonies which might not be completely free from errors and doubts. Especially, in the cases where testimony is from an authority which might want to regulate or control our perception.

“there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that … the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people.” – Javali, Ramayana

However, the question arises — won’t our knowledge be limited and practical life be impossible? What if the authority is an expert in the field? The Cārvāka would reply that the testimony itself basis on such types of inferences — This person’s testimony should be accepted because it is reliable as she is an expert. Such inferences can be true and lead successful results, but sometimes it will not. Therefore, testimony cannot be regarded as a valid source of knowledge due to uncertainty in the knowledge source (pramāna). For practical purpose, the school considers inferences in terms of probability rather than certainty.

Because of the unreliability of testimony and inference, only perception is a valid source of knowledge for Cārvāka. This reasoning leads to the metaphysics part of the school where because of the materialist notion and the lack of perceivable existence of God, the school rejects that there is any God and subscribes to the idea of atheism. It is not surprising that because of the school’s unorthodox views on knowledge and especially the idea of God that it has been disliked and not taken seriously by other dominant schools of Indian philosophy and hence, was never adopted by many people in the sub-continent. Nevertheless, the school was able to establish scepticism and anti-dogmatic view within the field of Indian philosophy because of its rejection of blindly believing in testimonies from higher authorities and doubting the concept of inferences. It established that knowledge could only be known if perceived by the individual, a thought which was considered low in stature in Indian Philosophy but significant to show the different ideas within the discourse.

Cārvāka’s critique on inference and testimony is not to dismiss such sources of knowledge but to analyse and show that reliance on such sources can lead to uncertainty about the topic and hence we cannot be sure or certain about such knowledge ideas. This argument plays an essential role in the modern philosophy of science discourse, where there is doubt on the certainty of knowledge through induction (inference)  — the relationship between fire and smoke or the famous black and white swan example. Similar problems were discussed in the west by the empiricist David Hume and John Locke. The inference concern is also discussed in the field of positivism which believes that scientific knowledge can only come from positive affirmation through scientific method (observable and measurable evidence). However, both Cārvāka and Positivism are critiqued for the problems of objective (neutral) perception which is used by them to establish knowledge. The Jainas critiques the Cārvāka (and this is similar for Post-Positivism for Positivism) that the reliability of objective perception is doubtful as the perception itself can be influenced by inferences, theories, background, other knowledge etc. This type of influence on the perception can lead to biases and can distort the objective perception which both in same way argue. But, from a discovered manuscript called Tattvopaplavasimha, the author Jayarāśi (a Cārvāka) is thought to believe in extreme scepticism on the validity of perceptual knowledge and argues against in the existence of physical elements. Thus, the scepticism of perception might have been discussed by Cārvāka practitioners, and therefore its epistemology questions are open to be further developed.

Ethics and part of living for the Cārvāka School are opposed to the generalised thought of other schools in Indian Philosophy — typically constructed on higher moral ideals and service to God. The school also rejects any ‘liberation’ of the soul from the physical bondage which is considered in Bauddha and Jaina Schools as it does not believe in the idea of the soul itself due to the materialist conception. All this is followed up with Cārvāka’s argument that because our body can witness both pleasure and pain in the materialist sense, we should, therefore, maximise the goal of attaining the highest pleasure for the self — compared to hedonism. This type of thinking, some argue, leads to an egoistic kind of ethics where only the self matters compared to some higher morals, ideals, or even the community. However, for maximisation of happiness of the self, we may require a just and equitable society because of our interdependence. So one can argue against this parochial egoistic idea of ethics discussed by some in Cārvāka school.

The value of the Cārvāka school enriches the Indian philosophy discourse through its anti-dogmatic view, scepticism, and contribution in epistemology. It was able to establish its distinct voice in a field which was dominated by higher ideals, moral truths, metaphysics, spirituality, and God. The school asked relevant questions and was able to build a conversation with different schools which enlarged the argumentative environment in India. The school also impacts the history of philosophical thought through its materialist notion and pragmatic view of life with the uncertainty of knowledge. A comparative study on it with various materialist and positivist schools throughout could provide an interesting narrative in the history of philosophy and philosophy of science.


Divanshu Sethi is the philosophy section editor for Catharsis Magazine. He holds a masters degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and bachelors in Economics and Business from University College London.

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