This is Part – II of Dr. Kamath’s series on Heretics, Rebels and Revolutionaries. Read Part – I here.
Around 600 B. C., when numerous heretical philosophies were budding in the turbulent post-Vedic period of India, someone by the name of Brihaspati wrote a classic atheistic philosophical treatise known as Barhaspatya Sutras. Later on his philosophy came to be labeled as Lokayata (“pertaining to the world”) or Charvaka (“Sweet-tongued”) philosophy. Westerners labeled this philosophy as “Materialism.” Because vested interests of theistic philosophies perceived this atheistic philosophy as too dangerous, they mercilessly ridiculed it, deliberately misinterpreted it, and freely caricatured it. In his classic treatise on ancient philosophies of India titled Sarva-Darshana-Samgraha, Madhavacharya (1268 -?) sarcastically referred to this philosophy as, “Crest-gem of Nastik schools.”
There is no philosophy in the world today about which there are so few original documents, and yet on which so many eminent people have commented so much. Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, if you just Google “Charvaka” numerous excellent articles on Charvaka philosophy will pop up, which give you a lot of factual information and divergent opinions on it. Therefore, there is absolutely no point in my writing another article summing up the materials from those articles. Instead, I decided to put some flesh and blood into the skeletal information available from the semi-original sources, and humanize this philosophy, and to give it a historical context. Thus, I have invented a conversation with a Charvaka philosopher of medieval times, say 14th century A. D., who has suddenly materialized in the twenty-first century. By means of this conversation, I hope to convey the true spirit of Charvaka philosophy to the reader.
Mr. Charvaka, what is the essence of your philosophy in life?
I have but one life to live; and therefore, if there is an object of the senses I can enjoy, or a pleasurable sensation I can experience, let me go for it today and not defer it till tomorrow, for I shall not pass this way again.
What is the basis of your Atheistic temperament?
We believe that all valid knowledge (Pramana) must be gained only by means of perception of our five senses (Pratyaksha). We do not accept knowledge gained by inference (Anumana), intuition or testimony. All these three are hotbeds of false knowledge. Therefore, we do not believe in supra-sensory stuffs such as Atman, Brahman, god, Karma, Dharma, heaven, hell, Papam (sin), Punyam (merit), Moksha, Nirvana and all other supra-sensory stuff Indian religions are made up of. Nor do we believe in various mindless rituals and practices such as Yajna, Pooja, Yoga, astrology, miracles, and the like, which were invented to gain or lose these non-existent supra-sensory entities.
How is it that your philosophy was so much hated and caricatured by theistic systems?
Opposition to the Vedas and Veda-based rituals is as old as Vedas themselves. You know that the post-Vedic period of 800-200 B. C. was one of great turmoil due to steady decadence of Brahmanism, which became obsessed with sacrificial rituals, superstitions, class system and other nonsensical stuff. We Charvakas were the only people who challenged them, “Prove your claims or just shut up.” Unlike other rebels, we did not mince words when we did so. Whenever someone challenges Brahmanic shenanigans, their response is to indulge in personal attacks against him. They portrayed us as some type of demons who were born to destroy the world. So they attacked us, distorted our philosophy and caricatured us as some freaks of nature, and even destroyed our literature.
What aspects of Brahmanism do you agree with?
Well, first of all Brahmanism of ancient India was somewhat different from Brahmanism of today. Its goals were Kama (desire), Artha (wealth), Dharma (Law) and Samsara (transmigration of soul). Today’s Brahmanism is the result of incorporation of Upanishadism and Bhagavatism, both of which were clearly designed to overthrow Brahmanism. As a result, somewhat incongruously neo-Brahmanism claims that its newfangled goals are: Kama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha (liberation from Samsara and union with godhead). Therefore, neo-Brahmanism is a bundle of contradictory ideas and doctrines, for as we will discuss later, Kama and Artha will guarantee that one will not attain Moksha.
In principle, we are in agreement with Brahmanism as far as Kama and Artha are concerned. Like Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Vedic times, we believe in ceaseless pursuit of happiness. Life is for us to enjoy it to the fullest extent. The problem was that Brahmins claimed then, and they claim even today, that one could obtain wealth (Artha) and pleasure here on earth and heaven hereafter by means of Kama-driven Yajnas and rituals (BG: 2:43; 4:12; 9:20). There is absolutely no valid proof whatsoever to this claim. To us, this was a straightforward case of scam. When we accused them of fraud, they began to hate us.
Why are you opposed to Dharma?
We are not opposed to Dharma when it stands for pure Righteousness. However, we have problem with the idea of Dharma as defined by Brahmanism. What Brahmanism loyalist call Dharma is nothing but Adharma, pure and simple. The hallmarks of Brahmanism are Varna Dharma and Jati Dharma. How can a Dharma consider some people as inherently inferior to others and condemn them to a life of servitude? The doctrine of the Gunas of Prakriti and Law of Karma, the very foundation of Brahmanism and Varna Dharma, were evil inventions of Brahmins to maintain their class superiority over everyone else, and to rule them for personal profit and security. By brainwashing people about these dogmas (BG: 3:5, 27, 33; 18: 40-45; 59-60), they practically enslaved them psychologically. Over three thousand years, millions upon millions of people suffered untold misery due to class and caste discriminations officially sponsored by Brahmanic Adharma.
A Dharma, which does not treat all people as equals; mistreats people on the basis of their skin color, race, occupation or some other feature; and which does not strive for the welfare of all people in the society, is not Dharma at all. It is Adharma. Even Upanishadists declared Brahmanism as Adharma (BG: 4:7-8) and proceeded to replace their doctrines with Upanishadic doctrines (BG: 2:39-40) of Brahman and Yoga. Even they condemned Varna Dharma by saying that Brahman was the same in all and therefore all people are equal (BG: 5: 18-19). Brahmanism pretended to embrace Upanishadism and yet kept on promoting Varna and Jati Adharmas.
So you do not believe in the Gunas of Prakriti?
We Charvakas believe in the Theory of Naturalism -Svabhava- Vada. We believe that each object in nature has its own inherent quality. For example, fire is hot; water flows; air blows, etc. This is distinct from Brahmanism’s theory of the Gunas. Now, where is the proof that three Gunas of Prakriti exist in reality? This is nothing but a figment of imagination. There is no proof to the fact that certain groups of people share a specific Guna. If the doctrine of the Gunas were true, how come so many “lower class people” allegedly of Tamasic Guna are more “Sattvic” than many “high class” Brahmins of Sattvic Guna? If the Gunas determine the quality of all actions, how come so many “lower class” people perform such great and honorable deeds? To be candid about it, Brahmins even stole our Svabhava-vada idea to justify Guna-based class distinction (BG: 18: 41-44, 47). After declaring that the classes were divided as per unequal distribution of the Gunas and Karma (BG: 4:13), they declared that their deeds were based on their respective Svabhava!
Why do you reject Law of Karma?
Old Brahmanism claimed that one is born again in another body after one dies. They called this cycle of birth, death and rebirth Samsara. They claimed that one’s enjoyment or suffering in this life was determined by their deeds in their previous lives. Where is the proof for all this nonsense? We believe that the body is made up of four base elements: earth, fire, water and air, and consciousness arises from these elements no different than alcohol arising from a mixture of grain, hops and yeast. When we die consciousness also dies with it, and these elements go back to their original forms.
To profit from this concept of Samsara, Brahmins conceived a place out there in the sky, which they called heaven. They brainwashed people into believing that if they followed Brahmanic dictates faithfully and performed expensive and elaborate sacrifices to please gods, they would go to heaven after death. If they did not follow Brahmanic dictates, they would suffer dishonor here on earth and go to hell hereafter. This was a classic reward-punishment tactic to control people and profit from it. So the hoax of Law of Karma not only served the purpose of keeping the “lower classes” subjugated, but also was a source of income to Brahmins. Brahmanism primarily operated from inside this Samsara box.
Why do you reject Moksha?
The brief answer is this: Since there is no valid evidence (Pramana) to either Samsara or Moksha, we rejected them both. Now let me explain. Moksha was a Bhagavata concept, specifically conceived to overthrow Brahmanism. This is an example of creating one fraud to tackle another. Moksha (liberation) has basically two meanings. The first meaning is liberation from Samsara followed by one’s Atman merging with Parameshwara, residing in the Abode of Parameshwara (Supreme God) located somewhere out there in the sky. No one knows where this Abode is. This Abode was offered to replace heaven, the Abode of various Vedic gods. The difference between these two abodes is that, the ticket to heaven is two-way and the ticket to Abode of Parameshwara is one way (BG: 9:20-28).
The second meaning of Moksha is liberation from the evil of Brahmanism. Bhagavatas declared that Krishna was the Dharma himself (BG: 14:27); and by taking refuge in him, one could transcend the force of the Gunas (BG: 7:14); and by offering fruits of one’s deeds to him one could overcome the Law of Karma (BG: 9:28). Thus, by overcoming these two Brahmanic doctrines, one would conquer the three evils emanating from these doctrines: Shokam (grief), Dwandwam (mental agony) and Karmaphalam (Samsara). In fact, Bhagavatas repeatedly claimed that one could never attain Moksha by means of the Vedas, Yajnas, Tapas or Brahmanic rituals (BG: 11:48, 53). Yet, Brahmins fraudulently claimed that Vedic sacrifices led to Moksha (BG: 17: 25). Such is the duplicity of neo-Brahmanism.
What is your opinion of Yajna?
If one truly believed that he could send meat to gods in heaven by sacrificing animals in the fire, why can’t one jump into the fire so he could reach heaven immediately? Where is the proof that heaven exists? The truth is, it is by deluding people with the idea of appeasing supernatural beings with sacrificial rites and other senseless rituals that Brahmins make their living. They like to make their living by easy means. They know that they are hoodwinking naive people with their ever-scheming minds. They claim that the Vedas are sacred. What makes them so sacred? Ancient priests churned out these Vedas for purposes that are little understood and long gone. These priests hang on to every word in them not knowing their real intent or meaning. They have absolutely no relevance to current times, and they serve no useful purpose except to fill the stomach of Brahmins.
Why do Upanishadists condemn you?
Upanishadists’ main goal was to dismantle Brahmanism by developing a new set of doctrines. They came up with the doctrine of Brahman/Atman to replace the Brahmanic doctrine of the Gunas of Prakriti. They put forth the practice of Yoga to replace the ritual of Yajna (BG: 4: 33). The problem is that they too tackled one fraud by creating another. As you know, they created the “all-pervading” Brahman, which was beyond the perception of the senses (“not this, not this”) without realizing the long-term consequences of their creation. Then they said that a small portion of Brahman resides in one’s heart as Atman. If you cleave open the heart of man, you can’t find this Atman there. How can an entity exist and not be perceived by the senses? When questioned by doubters, their patent answer was, “Have Faith!”
It might surprise you to know that just as we agreed with Brahmanism’s goal of Kama and Artha, we agreed with Upanishadists’ goal to dismantle Brahmanism. However, that is where we parted ways with them. We do not believe in Atman as the “life force” which is the source of our consciousness or knowledge. We believe that consciousness arises from the chemical interaction between the four components that make up the body: earth, fire, wind and water. When the body dies consciousness also dies. Even the great Upanishadic sage Yajnavalkya admitted this in one of his moments of befuddlement (Brih. Up: 2:4:12):
“Thus verily, O Maitreyi, does this Being, endless, unlimited, consisting of nothing but knowledge, rise from out of these elements, and vanish again in them. When he has departed, there is no more knowledge, I say, O Maitreyi!”
Besides, we reject Upanishadists’ claim that since enjoying sense objects is the womb of pain (BG: 5:22) one should quit enjoying sense objects. Just because one risks getting hurt does not mean he should refrain from enjoying life. Every action of ours comes with a pain-pleasure warning label. Just because you risk getting into an accident, you do not give up driving a car. Just because all medicines are potentially poisonous, you do not refrain from using them. Just because a chainsaw is potentially dangerous, you do not avoid using it. While pursuing pleasure one should be smart enough to avoid pain, or deal with it, if and when it appears. That is no reason to avoid enjoying life. Besides, pain is essential to stimulate growth of intellect.
Upanishadists are a bunch of hypocrites. I tell you why. When king Janaka tempted Yajnavalkya (Brih. Up: 4:1:1), “For what object did you come, wishing for cattle, or for subtle questions?” the greedy sage replied, “For both, Your Majesty!” This was the same man who told his wife Maitreyi (Brih. Up: 2:4:2), “But there is no hope of immortality by wealth.”
Because of our rejection of Atman/Brahman, they have condemned our philosophy as false knowledge created by Brihaspati to delude demons: Maitrayani Up: 7: 9:
“Brihaspati, having become Sukra, brought forth that false knowledge for the safety of Indra and for the destruction of the Asuras. By it they show that good is evil and evil is good. They say that we ought to ponder on the new law, which upsets the Veda and other sacred books. Therefore, let no one ponder on that false knowledge. It is wrong. It is, as it were, barren. Its reward lasts only as long as the pleasure lasts, as with one who has fallen from his caste. Let that false science not be attempted.”
Now you tell me, which of the two is false knowledge? Upanishadists claim that Brahman/Atman, which is “not this, not this” because it is beyond the senses, is Real, and all material things we perceive by means of the five senses is Unreal, or just Maya (illusion). We say exactly the opposite. To the skeptics like us who question their claims they say, “You should have Faith in the testimony of great sages that they have intuitively attained Atman through Yoga; and one could infer validity of this claim by looking at their glowing faces.” Forgetting that the original purpose of creating Brahman/Atman and Yoga were simply to overthrow Brahmanic doctrines of the Gunas and Karma, these ignorant “sages” have made these doctrines an end in themselves. Now Yoga is a multibillion-rupee/dollar business in the world.
What beef do Bhagavatas have with you?
When Brihaspati in his Sutras spelled out Charvaka philosophy around 600 B. C., the word Nastik meant, “One who does not believe in the Vedic Dharma.” It did not mean, “One who does not believe in god.” The concept of god, as we know it today or even in the Bhagavata sect, was born much later. There was no great god for us not to believe in when Brihaspati wrote his Sutras. However, since we did not believe in the concept of supernatural, Bhagavatas branded us as Atheists, meaning those who do not believe in god. As you know, Bhagavatas came much later than the Upanishadists. Their only goal was to dismantle Brahmanism from top to bottom. However, being rabidly theistic, they demonized us atheists and condemned us to no end! Look what they had to say about us:
BG: 16: 7-11: The demoniac know not what to do and what to refrain from; neither purity nor right conduct nor truth is found in them. They say, “the universe is unreal, without a moral basis, without a God, born of mutual union, brought about by lust; what else?” Holding this view, these ruined souls of small intellect, of fierce deeds, rise as the enemies of the world for its destruction. Filled with insatiable desires (Kama), full of hypocrisy, pride and arrogance, holding evil ideas through delusion, they work with impure resolve. Beset with immense cares ending only with death, regarding gratification of lust as the highest, and feeling sure that that is all (there is to life).
As you know, Barhaspatya Sutras disappeared from circulation altogether. Either Charvakas were too busy in their pursuit of pleasure to save and promote their own treatise, or Brahmins destroyed them as too dangerous for the society. That is why all original information we have about Charvaka philosophy comes to us from condemning articles written by our sworn enemies. You can imagine how reliable they might be as evidenced by the above shlokas!
What is your view about means (Pramana) of gaining valid knowledge?
Well, we believe that knowledge gained only by direct perception (Pratyaksha) by means of five senses is true knowledge. You can say that we were probably one of the earliest scientists in India. We do not ordinarily believe in inference (Anumana), intuition or testimony. As we discussed before, this is exactly opposite of what Upanishadists believe in. We are not entirely opposed to inference. For example, if my bedroom were filled with smoke while I was asleep, I would immediately run for a safe exit to save my life inferring that my house was on fire. I would not be foolish enough to verify if there was actually a fire in the house. What we object to is inferring that there is a supernatural power or an object based on such claims as, “We performed a Yajna and it rained the next day. So god of rain obliged us.” Or, “Baba produced ashes by the wave of his hand.” In our view, people who fall for this kind of fraud are plain stupid.
How do you address the accusation that Charvakas are devoid of moral principles?
To the uninformed, the idea of enjoying life appears to be narcissistic and devoid of morals. This is not true. Just because there is no literature available of our philosophy does not mean we did not have morals in our philosophy. We do not believe in hurting anyone else in the pursuit of our happiness. However, we do not make a ‘great production’ of our morals, and use morality as a method of declaring our superiority over others. We do not believe in pronouncing Satyamaeva Jayate, Naanritham (Only Truth Will Prevail, Not Untruth), and indulge in deceptive practices with a straight face. With us, what you see is what you get. One does not need a religion or gods to be a good, moral and decent person.
We believe that enjoying life to the fullest extent does not necessitate one to be greedy or dishonest. In fact, when one is liberated from the shackles of fear of evil, and dependence on gods and rituals for fulfillment of one’s desires, one is free to enjoy life to the fullest extent. We believe that a man must work hard and honestly to earn his money and enjoy his life. Now let me ask you: How moral are holier-than-thou Brahmins who fleece innocent people of their life-savings by making false promises to them about gaining wealth here on earth and heaven hereafter? How moral are Brahmins who extort money from people in distress promising to ward off unknown evil by means of mindless rituals? We disapprove of the ways by which priests delude people to make their living. When we question this fundamental modus operandi of Brahmanism, they get bent out of shape because their very livelihood is threatened. No matter how you slice it, the ultimate purpose of religion and gods is just this: To fill one’s stomach.
Mr. Charvaka, you have given us core values of your philosophy. Thank you very much. Is there anything I can do for you?
Well, I am hungry! Is there a good steakhouse around here where I can have a couple of drinks and good steak dinner? By the way, may I borrow a couple of bucks from you?
I knew then that this was, indeed, a genuine Charvaka!
Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.