Indian Atheism

India is known for its varied spiritual traditions, but there is a very strong naturalist tradition in that country, as well.  In this lecture I shall be discussing naturalism versus theism, the concepts of karma, reincarnation and moksha, and some of the ancient atheistic thinkers and schools in India.  My final and most important focus will be on the ancient school of thinkers, known as Carvaka and Lokayata, at their height in the 5th and 6th Centuries BCE, who exemplified the naturalist tradition of India.  They were, according to Lavanan, the foremost materialistic philosophers of ancient India.  Lavanan is the director of the Atheist Center in India.

While some other thinkers, religious groups and sects embraced either outright atheism or some form of atheism, very few schools rejected belief in some sort of karma.  We have already discussed karma from a Buddhist and general Eastern point of view in a previous lecture (see an Atheist Perspective on Buddhism), but a review of this topic is in order. This review is necessary because first, the Indian point of view is somewhat different, and second, while many ancient Indian philosophers and sects were in agreement concerning non belief, as I just mentioned, the majority of them did not eschew some type of belief in karma.

Traditional Indian atheism is quite ancient.  Despite the general agreement concerning non belief in god, as well as skepticism concerning god’s existence, the different non believing schools and philosophers represented very different world outlooks.

As a result, atheism in the world of ancient India developed differently according to each diverse school.

Many philosophers adjured belief in a god or gods, but did not carry their atheism forward into their varied philosophical preoccupations. It was only the Carvakas and Lokayatas who embraced a clear and consistent materialist, naturalist philosophy.  Let me emphasize that in India, an atheist was not merely an unbeliever in a god or gods, but also one who rejected the authority of the Vedas, or scriptures. I am going to glance at instances of atheism in ancient Indian religion and philosophy.  It is interesting, and annoying at the same time, to find later members and leaders of many of the schools which began with philosophies of unbelief, inserting theism into them over the generations.

There was Samkhya, an early system of rationalist philosophy, whose speculations centered on a primary substance and a sentient principle that disturbed the primary substance, thus bringing about the existence and evolution of the universe. Kapila, usually considered the founder of Indian philosophy, began the Samkya School, somewhere around 800 BCE, which believed in an active principle that can best be described as evolution.  But later members smuggled the concept of theism into this school, and inserted a god who presided over both nature’s laws and evolution.

The Mimamsa School believed very strongly in the beneficial effects of ritual, the chanting of the Vedas, or scriptures, and felt no need of god.  But notice their dependence on scripture. 

There was the Nyaya School, often dated around the 3rd Century BCE to the 1st Century CE, whose proponents stressed rationalism, particularly rigorous logic in argumentation.  However, this was yet another school where theism was allowed to gradually creep in. The philosopher, Kanada, whose dates are unknown, founded a school which believed in a form of atomism, but a similar deterioration set in there, also.  It took many years, but eventually god was imported into Kanada’s atheistic concepts.

As I have said, there is a long history of atheism in India, as well as a long tradition, much better known, of theistic or polytheistic religion.  According to historians, there were numerous atheists to be found in India, even in the eras when the Upanishads were being compiled.  Prior to the Buddhist and Jain schools, most of whose proponents were atheistic, there were atheists known as no-sayers, as well as nihilists and agnostics.  Many revered philosophers were known atheists.  It is of note that the central Hindu epic, the Ramayana, refers to a teacher of humble birth who was a skeptic about god and not covertly, but outspokenly.  The oldest Buddhist texts, as well as the Upanishads, speak of heretics by name who denied god’s existence.

According to Chattopadhyaya, the “overwhelming majority of the accredited exponents of major philosophical views were committed atheists.” He goes on to argue: “They were not simply indifferent to the question of god, as some of the Greek philosophers perhaps were.  The Indian philosophers, on the contrary, faced the problem of god with all the seriousness they were capable of and they reached the reasoned conviction that his existence could be admitted only at the cost of clear logic.

 Such a situation is really unique,” he continues, “it has hardly any parallel in the history of world philosophy.

Many ancient Indian thinkers endeavored to prove that god was an illusion and they had a great deal of success in this area.  They propounded the firm conviction that god is not an object of reverence but a superstition, an empty assumption.  Here is Chattopadhyaya again on the status of god in ancient India: “Of all our major philosophies, only the Vedanta (with some reservations) and specifically the later version of another scriptural work were theistic.”  In his 1983 work, Indian Atheism, he refers to many schools that, in their original forms, propounded a committed atheism.  Thus, the stupendous importance of atheism in Indian wisdom,” he maintains, “can be questioned only by disallowing the largest majority of the significant Indian philosophers representing it.

However, it is important to keep in mind that atheism was never a truly safe position in the ancient world, and India was no different.  Some atheists were bold freethinkers and some of them had strong support, forcing opponents to take atheism seriously, but non believers were still under suspicion.  There is a tradition which claims the legendary lawgiver, Manu (around 1500 BCE), had put forth the injunction that an atheist should be driven out of good society.  Many generations obeyed that injunction.  We shall shortly see how thoroughly the Carvakas and Lokayatas’ thinking and works were destroyed by their Brahmin opponents. 

But for now, I would like to segue into the question of unbelief and karma.  It is important to understand that many Eastern schools of thought, sects and religions were and are atheistic, but not necessarily naturalistic or materialistic.

Most of them were, and are, neither naturalists nor materialists. It was the Carvakas, and the Lokayatas who could be clearly defined as materialists, trusting in logic and a naturalistic outlook.  They were firmly against all superstition as well as supernatural concepts.

When I wrote on the Illusion of Immortality, (see, for the link to the lecture and text of that topic, Part Two,) I spent a great deal of time discussing the Eastern idea of karma specifically with regard to Buddhism, but also as applied to most Eastern religions; and I discussed the concept of reincarnation as well.

I intend to revisit the concept of karma in mainstream Hindu religion and to explain why it involves a supernatural, mystical belief system. Many of its proponents still attempt to maintain that karma is part of a system of natural laws. Then I shall discuss why the Carvakas and Lokayatas stood apart from such notions and came closest to our current understanding of naturalism, although there were of course, some exceptions with regard to their thinking and our modern ideas.

In Sanskrit, the word, karma, simply means actions or deeds. Another definition is that it means duty. In a religious context, karma usually means intentional, often moral actions that affect a person’s fortunes in this life and in the next.  Karma, as I have said, is a term common to mainstream Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.  This lecture will refer to the Hindu ideas primarily.  The Rig Veda contains the first appearance of the word, karma, but interestingly enough, in that text, the word merely means religious action and animal sacrifice. 

According to scholars, the first time that karma is referred to as a principle of cause and effect that is due to one’s actions is the Upanishads.

I am dependent on my sources for my definition of Hindu karma.  Karma does not rely on a god or gods to bring its principles into reality, nor is it a process that any gods can interfere with.  In Hinduism, karma is understood as a law of nature, automatic and mechanical.  Karma frequently, although not always, refers to bad karma.  One accumulates bad karma due to one’s wrong actions.  Bad karma binds a person’s soul (atman) to the unfortunate cycle of rebirth (samsara), and leads to various misfortunes in this life and unfortunate conditions in the next life.  It is explained that the moral energy of an intentional moral act in this life bears fruit in the next, automatically, and has a definite outcome with regard to one’s character, disposition and class position.

There are many activities in the Hindu texts that can apparently wipe out the effects of bad karma.  Acts of devotion and pilgrimages to holy sites, good karma, are thought to have positive results rather than being totally neutral.  This idea is a concept in play- not all Hindus accept this particular version of good karma.

In the Vedanta and Yoga teachings there are three types of karma.  One is karma experienced in this life; the second the accumulation of karma that has not yet come to fruition; and the last is karma that has accumulated in this present life but that will bear fruit in the next life.

Karma always works through the concept of rebirth, which we shall revisit in a moment.  This is the process.  First, good or bad actions will make an impression in the mind, resulting in more actions, or more karma. 

The seeds of karma are carried in the subtle body, called the lingua, into which the soul migrates.  Finally it is in the physical body that the fruit of karma is experienced and also where more karma is created.

The purpose of life in the Hindu religion is to minimize bad karma, so as to have more fortune in one’s present life and a better rebirth in the next.  The ultimate goal is to achieve release, called moksha, from the samsara or rebirth cycle permanently.  It may take hundreds or thousands of rebirths to get rid of all the accumulated karma and attain moksha, or liberation from samsara. Once this occurs, the person does not accumulate any more karma.  What happens at this point differs with the concepts of each diverse school. “Some devotees believe they will attain perfect peace and happiness with the realization of oneness.  Others believe they will attain heaven, a spiritual world and spend eternity with the Supreme Being, usually manifested as the god, Shiva, or Supreme Oneness, more of a spiritual state.”

The most common methods of attaining moksha, although diverse schools’ ideas vary about these practices, are avoiding attachments to impermanent things, carrying out one’s duties and attaining the realization of the unity between one’s soul, or self (atman) and the ultimate reality, Brahmin, or the universe itself.  One can see that there was little naturalism or materialism in mainstream Hinduism, nor in most of its minor schools. Riepe’s excellent volume in the Bibliography section of this lecture at provides a scholarly and fascinating overview of naturalism in many Indian schools of thought. I am writing of the ancient world of Indian belief, but the belief system is quite similar in the present day Hindu religion.

Being born in a human body is not a frequent event.  If people spend all their current human incarnations pursuing transient pleasures and goods, they may be reborn in lesser life forms, as animals, insects and so on.  Hindus often equate this misfortune with being in prison.  A human reborn as a lesser form of being may wait hundreds of years to be reborn as a human.  The message is quite clear- do not waste your present incarnation as a human.

There are no laws of nature that we are aware of in the world of science that operate as the putative laws of karma in Eastern thought.  I will undertake a listing of flaws in the concepts of both karma and reincarnation beliefs, but first I would like to look at some specific markers of idealism which Hinduism frequently refers to and then contrast it with naturalism. I am arguing that naturalism is the stance that the ancient scholars of Carvaka and Lokayata embraced. The two schools’ naturalistic and materialistic concepts were very similar to some ancient Greek philosophy and are also strikingly near contemporary atheism. We shall be examining the Carvaka and Lokayata schools’ philosophical system, but first I would like to make clear the difference between idealism and naturalism.  I am using the definitions and examples of that excellent scholar of Indian thought and the naturalistic tradition within it, Dale Riepe.

Riepe locates the markers of idealism as follows: (1) a belief there are more valuable avenues of knowledge than mere sense experience; (2) a belief that the most important knowledge is that of understanding the subjective self and the mental life itself, not the external world or external nature; (3) A belief that what we really know about the external world is subjective; (4) A belief that the order of the external world is either mindistic  or impressed upon it by man; (5) a belief that there is some kind of purpose in the world which is neither intrinsic to nature (immanent) nor impressed on it by man; and (6) a belief that man has transcendent goals involving a spirit beyond man.

Here are the markers of naturalism in a philosophic school or belief system. (1) The naturalist accepts sense experience as the most important avenue of knowledge; (2) the naturalist believes that knowledge is not esoteric, innate, mystical or intuitive; (3) the naturalist believes that the external world, of which man is an integral part, is objective and hence not “his idea” but an existent apart from his, your or anyone’s consciousness;  (4) The naturalist believes the world manifests order and regularity and that, contrary to some opinion, this does not exclude human responsibility.  This order cannot be changed by thought, magic, sacrifice, or prayer but requires actual manipulation of the physical world in some physical way; (5) the naturalist rejects supernatural teleology.  The direction of the world is caused by the world itself; (6) the naturalist is humanistic.  Man is not simply a mirror of deity or the absolute but a biological existent whose goal it is to do what is proper to man.  What is proper to man is discovered in a naturalistic context by the moral philosopher.

I would like to add some remarks made by Tom Flynn, the editor of the Skeptical Inquirer.  He maintains that “religion, if properly understood, entails supernaturalism. “ Here is his definition of religion: “Religion is a life stance that includes at a minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”

Flynn is consistently emphatic that “the everyday world of matter, energy and their interaction is either all that exists or all that matters” to non believers.  Flynn maintains: “Most unbelievers see human nature as monistic; consciousness is simply what goes on in our brains as viewed from the inside.  Many reject the idea of ‘spirit’ or immaterial causation.  Everything is physics.  Most unbelievers see the universe as unplanned, as purposeless, as something not understood in toto as yet.

 On morality, opinion is diverse.  Some unbelievers feel that morality must be utterly flexible and relative.  Others believe they can see the outlines of a moral code.  But what most unbelievers agree on is that no part of morality has been ordained, that there is no entity on hand to do the ordaining.  On all the best evidence, eternity is not in the cards, either for individuals or our universe.”  And hence, argues Flynn, “unbelievers attach sole importance to this life.”  Presently we shall see how near the Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy is to present day naturalism.

Let us keep Riepe’s criteria and Flynn’s remarks in mind as we peruse some of the most salient critiques of karma and reincarnation.  They will help illuminate matters when I turn to the Carvaka/Loyataka philosophy and its definitive rejection of superstition and Hindu orthodoxy.  The Carvaka/Loyataka Schools offered a significant challenge to the notions of rebirth, the soul, and diverse religious practices.  They appear astonishingly modern when we peruse the fragments of their written works. My position during this lecture will be that it is in the Carvaka/Loyataka schools that ancient Indian atheism came to fruition.  India would not see atheism of that sort again until the challenge mounted by Indian unbelief in the early to mid twentieth century and up to the present day.

Below are some of the logical difficulties posed by the religious concepts of karma and reincarnation.  People following this lecture series will remember most of these problems from previous discussions of An Atheist Perspective on Buddhism and also from the Illusion of Immortality, Part Two.  You can read the lectures and hear them on YouTube if you wish a review.  The links are on

Riepe states “that from very early times it was thought more odd and dangerous in India to reject karma than to reject the existence of the gods, at least until the supremacy of the Moguls, with their insistence upon belief in Allah.”  Let us keep in mind that atheism was not the real difficulty for Indian idealism, but rather the rejection of the concept of karma.  It is to those Carvaka/Lokayata thinkers who freed themselves from irrationality and superstition that we must soon turn in order to consider ancient Indian atheism, and even more to the point, naturalism. They rejected scriptures and the doctrines of karma and rebirth.

First, however, I shall go over the best critiques of karma and reincarnation.  For those who have already encountered these arguments in earlier lectures and do not want a review, I suggest you skip the following section and go immediately into the discussion of the Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy.

The difficulties with both karma and reincarnation are numerous.  Karma surely was an advantage to maintaining the status quo in India.  The caste system, with aristocratic Brahmins at the top and the lowest class, the untouchables, at the very bottom, endured for centuries in India until recently.  The wealthy and ruling classes profited from such beliefs. 

If people accepted that they merited their fate because of past acts in former lives, then credence and reification were extended to the wealthy and ruling classes.  The fortunate and wealthy deserved their situation, and the poor and wretched had brought it on themselves.  Birth defects, alcoholism, being born into a poverty stricken home- all such misfortunes were touted as being the result of immoral acts in past lives.

The notions of both karma and reincarnation seem to assume a just universe.  But from where do such judgments issue?  The ancient priests and sages of India and other Eastern nations never explained the operations of karmic law sufficiently.  As I have mentioned, atheism was not uncommon in Indian schools of thought, but belief in some form of karma and reincarnation was widespread.

 Karma was not, apparently, a physical force.  How then did karmic destiny become a reality?  How could a non physical force have any effect on physical objects?  The philosophers never seemed able to explain sufficiently who or what they envisioned as the administrators of karma and what necessities or duties such administration of karmic justice entailed.  How were the workings of the karmic universe sorted out?  From where did the justice issue?  How were acts of merit or wickedness recorded?  It was the Carvaka/Lokayata schools, as we shall see, which had the logic and the courage to question and discard ideas of karmic operations.  Their exposure of the illogic and superstition of such beliefs was courageous and admirable, particularly when the orthodox view was that karma and rebirth were strictly in accord with nature’s laws.

The Indian idea of reincarnation is an excellent example of dualism, an idealistic notion that the mind and body are separate entities and that the mind, or spirit, or soul is independent of the embodied brain.  Many philosophers have come to the conclusion that the ancient concept of rebirth was the most extreme form of dualism.  Most of the philosophic Eastern schools maintained that the spirit or consciousness goes on beyond death, leaving each individual body behind in its journey toward eventual enlightenment.  The Bhagavad Gita stated: “As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves his mortal body and puts on one that is new.”  Such a solution to mortality was unacceptable to Carvaka/Lokayata.

Then there were the more philosophic and physical difficulties with the concept of reincarnation.  One of the sticking points was, and continues to be, how the spirit, released from the dead person’s body, manages to undetected invade the womb of the new mother and be reborn.  There have been various official answers to this problem, but none that satisfied materialists like the Carvaka then, or the secular community in the present day.

Another difficulty was the interregnum, where the souls went or what region they inhabited prior to being reborn in the new body.  Buddha was said to explain how the dying person, whose whole energy clung to life, at the moment of death, sent out karmic energy like a flash of lightning that would hit the mother’s womb, ready for conception.  In that case, the souls would not need a waiting place to be reborn. But then there was, and remains, the difficulty with the problem of the age of the reborn.  If the souls departed the bodies at different ages in human life, how was it they came back again at a uniform age?

Some contemporary difficulties with the concept of karma and reincarnation are not relevant to the study of ancient Indian belief. We cannot critique ancient Indian thought on reincarnation and its contradictions by our present day understanding of human evolution.  Ancient philosophy did not have access to Darwin.  Nor can we fault the ancients for their lack of access to knowledge of the Big Bang.

However, the early Indian believers in reincarnation would have been aware that the population of their country had grown significantly since the earliest mention of rebirth in scriptures.  Reincarnation believes there are only stationary souls.  Every birth was believed to be a rebirth and it was generally thought that human souls were most often transported to other human bodies. Obviously increased population and static souls could not be explained satisfactorily in the past nor can this notion be explained in the present day.  The thinkers in ancient India who embraced naturalism and materialism found the entire paradigm of karma and reincarnation absurd and heaped scorn on the notion.

Now we arrive at the thorough atheism of ancient Indian philosophy. Carvaka originated at some time during the 7th Century and its philosophy became more fully developed by 600 BCE to 500 BCE.  The Carvaka School had died out by 1400 CE.  We do not have the principal works.  There are merely fragments quoted by its theistic opponents- orthodox Hindu and Buddhist theologians and philosophers. The practice is reminiscent of Christian theologians quoting heretical works in order to disparage them.  It is somewhat ironic that their enemies ended by preserving the Carvaka philosophy which they had set out to discredit and destroy. 

It has been noted that Carvaka displays a profound similarity to Greek philosophy, especially some of the pre-Socratics.  Many scholars have theorized that if the rising of the Carvaka philosophy was between 600 and 400 BCE, it might have been chronologically possible for the following schools of Greek thought to have had an influence on Carvaka: the Ionians, the Atomists and the Sophists.  However, the question seems to have been settled by meticulous scholarship during the early nineteen fifties. The most likely schools to have influenced the Carvaka would have been the Atomists and the Ionians.  The 5th and 6th Century BCE Ionians were the forerunners of atheism in ancient Greece (see Atheist History, Atheism from Greece to the Modern World, at and the Atomists were those who believed minute particles made up existence.  The philosopher, Democritus (460- 370 BCE,) is the most well-known proponent of the Atomist School. (See How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern at

However, the consensus seems to be that ancient Greek philosophy did not influence Carvaka thought.  The answer appears to be a decided negative, although there are still some who think otherwise.  There was a meticulous scholar of the subject in question, C.P.Conger, who made an extended overland trip through Afghanistan, Iran, Western India and beyond, trying to discover traces of connection between Greek and Carvaka thought.  He had no tangible results.  There is no evidence that either the works or the members of the Ionian and Atomist Schools were ever in India, or that any Indian philosopher ever traveled to Greece during the time in question.  Most of the tales, such as Democritus associating with Indian philosophers, appear to be fabrications. 

Interestingly enough, however, is the fact that the Carvakas and the early Greek philosophers shared qualities of mind and intellectual approaches to the worlds of both nature and morality.  As Riepe puts it: “They were both critical of official theology, disposed to treat dogma lightly, presenting uncommonly open minds to speculation concerning epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.”  The two groups of philosophers, Indian and Greek, both believed in the right of philosophers to look at the universe in a manner that was indicative of a private concern, their own look, as it were, rather than through the eyes and mind of received opinion, and not as spokespersons for a cherished and stagnant religious tradition. 

But if the Carvaka were of the Brahmin caste, even if apostates to that group, then they did not engage in public life as many of the Greek philosophers, such as Thales, the Ionian thinker, did.   

There is a question concerning from which class the Carvaka originated.  Many scholars believe they were Brahmins.  However, Th. Stcherbasky, the author of Buddhist Logic, 1930-1932, holds to the opinion that the Carvaka arose from the merchant or governing classes.  It is nearly impossible to find definitive information about the Carvaka/Lokayata, as their works and history were nearly completely obliterated. There was a text from about the 7th Century CE that the expert, Charles A. Moore, believed was an extant work of Carvaka origin. However, Walter Ruben, doing a close study of that text, has since discovered that it was not Carvaka/Lokayata, but written by the agnostic, Jayarasi Bhatta.  The bibliography at the end of this lecture is invaluable for those who want to learn more about the Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy. 

If the Carvaka were indeed apostate Brahmins, it is of note that the Brahmin class, about the time the Carvaka arose, was engaged in an intellectual and philosophical crisis. Therefore diverse opinions would not be unknown to them and among them.

It might even have been a possibility that the extreme positions of the Carvaka would have helped define and affirm orthodoxy for the Brahmins, rather than Carvaka thinking being a touchstone for change.  The Carvaka would have had a more difficult time asserting themselves than the early Greek thinkers, because Greek culture did not have a rigid tradition of sacred scriptures to contend with. The Carvakas were denying the tenets of a large and influential body of sacred books, the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the earlier Upanishads and more.  Furthermore, the Carvaka were at cross-purposes with the vested interests of those who interpreted the scriptures.

There is speculation that during the 5th and 6th Centuries, Carvaka developed as a system, a systematic philosophy.  This thinking is probably correct, because nearly all of its opponents, as well as the majority thinkers in Indian philosophy, treat Carvaka as a system.  It was not a scattershot attack against orthodoxy, as some of its enemies liked to pretend.

As for the development and disappearance of Carvaka, we have speculation once again.  Most mainstream scholars of Indian naturalism are of the opinion that Carvaka formulated its tenets over time, “stealthily making its way into Indian speculation and after creating turmoil, mostly of an unpleasant nature, passed away as mysteriously as it arose.” 

I believe there is not as much mystery as reluctance, in that last statement made by G.P. Conger, to voice the conclusion that Carvaka/Lokayata works and history were methodically destroyed.  There is another idea, from a respected scholar, D.R. Shastri, who argues that “Carvaka was originally a tendency of opposition and systematic criticism, largely on the theological level. 

Then it became incorporated into a kind of naturalism as interest in cosmology and epistemology came to the fore.  It next became interested in ethical problems, developing its doctrine of hedonism. “Finally, Shastri argues: “…it merged with other more powerful schools, such as Buddhism and Jainism, in opposition to Brahmanism.”

There are two large problems with the view of merging.  Shastri produces no evidence for his position, and there is no mention of such a merger in Jain or Buddhist literature.  I am of the opinion that Carvaka was a school of systematic materialism, and as Riepe states, by implication, naturalism.  For every school that is materialist is naturalistic although not all naturalistic schools are materialistic.  But of its systematic nature, there cannot be much doubt.  It was a legitimate school, with a developed philosophy.

Here is Giuseppe Tucci’s listing of the Carvaka school’s putative opinions.  Tucci made an exhaustive study of all the relevant sources and he has listed the following tenets as those embraced by Carvaka. (1) Sacred literature should be disregarded as being false. (2) There is no deity or supernatural. (3) There is no immortal soul; nothing exists after the death of the body. (4) Karma is inoperative; it is an illusion. (5) All is derived from material elements. (6) Material elements have an immanent force. (7) Intelligence is derived from these elements. (8) Only direct perception gives true knowledge. (9) Religious perceptions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (10) The aim of life is to get the maximum pleasure.  We can deduce from Tucci’s exhaustive research that Carvaka was a materialist and hedonist school, very likely opposed to all Brahminical orthodoxy.

The meanings of the words Lokayata and Carvaka are of interest.  Both seemed to have been used as terms for Indian materialism in ancient times.  The Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy from 1973 states that this materialist doctrine was called Lokayata and its adherents were called the Carvaka.  Yet I have found other highly respected authorities who view both Carvaka and Lokayata as related, but separate, schools of Indian materialism.  Other scholars deal with them as one group.  By the eighth Century BCE, the terms were used interchangeably to denote materialism in philosophy.

Here are some of the meanings attached to both terms.  Lokayata is made up of two Sanskrit words, loka and ayata.  Loka meant “in the world” and ayata meant “basis of prevalence.” Lokayata as an adjective meant prevalent in the world, but as a technical definition it meant “the science of disputation, sophistry and casuistry.” This rather critical definition of Lokayata sounds very like the description of the 5th Century Greek philosophers from the Sophist School by their critics.  An orthodox Indian text interprets the word, Lokayata, as the basis of the thinking of the foolish and profane world.  A turn of the 20th Century text on Indian philosophy states that there is a claim that there was a book called Lokayata in existence earlier than 150 BCE, and it was believed to be a “text of logic, disputation and sophistry.”

Carvaka usually meant materialism more specifically than the word Lokayata.  Why Carvaka was the preferred word for materialism seems to be because there was a philosopher called Carvaka who propounded materialist doctrines in India.  But it also seems to have a separate implication, based on the meaning of the word itself, which in Sanskrit, literally means “sweet-tongued.” So Carvaka might mean pleasant words, say historians, because there was a perception of Carvaka philosophy as one of “eat, drink and be merry.”

There were two commentaries written about or before the 7th Century CE, which discussed and interpreted differently a work called the “Carvaka-sutras.”  A certain Brhaspati was supposed to have been their author.  The writer was thought to be the son of Loka, and this name would seem to connect to the Lokayata School.  How frustrating it is to be without these original atheist sutras.  They, too, were destroyed, as well as the other atheist texts of Lokayata/Carvaka, as we have learned.  Such obliteration leaves their opponents to quote the atheist philosophers, revile them and unfairly dispute them.  And yet, the arguments against the atheists meant that Carvaka ideas were taken seriously, as a bold and cogent threat to orthodoxy. 

The rigorous opposition of the orthodox has preserved our knowledge of Carvaka/Lokayata through many centuries.  Learning about them has been a personal delight.  These ancient Indian philosophers were stronger, bolder and more outspoken than the early Greek skeptics and atheists.  Brahmin critiques and other arguments against the Carvaka continued until about the 16th Century CE.  Were there still adherents to their materialism then? Was Carvaka a living doctrine?  It appears we shall never know.

I am going to first discuss Carvaka’s system of knowledge and then the moral tenets of the school.  It will be seen that Carvaka concepts were very modern and a refutation of idealist dualism, both in ancient India and today.  Carvaka ideas concerning knowledge are often compared to the concept of the origin of knowledge stated by the Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, in the 1st Century BCE. But remember, although the two systems were very much the same, Lucretius’ account, based on the Greek philosophers, Democritus and Epicurus, was four or five hundred years later than the early Carvaka School.

The Carvaka School held that knowledge was only acquired through perception by means of the five senses.  Here is a quotation: “Whatever is arrived at by means of a direct perception, that alone exists. That which is non-perceivable is non-existent, for the very reason that it is not perceived. There can be a perceiver and enjoyer of experience as long as there is a body, not destroyed by death.”  Perception was believed to consist of two kinds by the Carvaka: external and internal.

The external type of perception is represented by means of the five senses, and the internal by the operations of the mind.  When there is contact between some external object and the senses, knowledge of some sort results.  Further knowledge may result from the operations of the mind stimulated by sense knowledge.  Carvaka believed that ultimately all knowledge came from the five senses and that only matter consisting of the four elements- air, earth, fire and water, may be said to exist.  Charles S. Pierce, the 19th Century founder of American Pragmatism, said something startlingly similar.  He stated that he did not believe in anything he could not perceive.

The Carvakas did not believe in inductive inference, because induction must rely, they thought, upon some universal and necessary relation.  “They thought that by mere multiplication of individual instances obtained by sense perception, “explains Riepe,”it was impossible to ascend to a knowledge of individual truths.”  They claimed Universals were inadmissible on the grounds that they did not exist because they had never been perceived.

Such a strong position was amended somewhat by the philosopher, Purandara, in the 7th Century CE.  He stated that the usefulness of induction could not be denied when it was applied to the world of perceived appearance.  However, when orthodox Brahmins attempted to apply induction to some realm of the transcendent, Purandara said that type of induction was worthless. He also argued that the transcendent realm of the Brahmins included what was not open to perceptual experience, namely dogmas about the transcendent world, transmigration and karma.  Carvaka/Lokayata tenets resemble some of the ideas of the 18th Century British Skeptic philosopher, Hume and the skeptics from Greece and Rome such as Carneades (216-129 BCE) and Sextus Empiricus (160-210 CE.)

That last section concludes our quick glance at Carvaka’s system of knowledge.  Now we shall glance at the Carvaka/Lokayata position on metaphysics.  Carvaka metaphysics was an unqualified materialist monism.  The Carvaka stated that the world was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water.  Furthermore, the elements were not created by any deity nor were they guided by any supernatural force.  Here is a quotation from Rangacarya: “There is no celestial world of enjoyment and no hell.

The world of Siva and other such worlds are all invented by those who are followers of other systems of thought than what is followed by ourselves and are therefore ignorant imposters.”

Carvaka believed the universe was not created, that it was made up of matter from which all things were produced.  Matter was not conscious, they thought, but in certain arrangements or orders, some elements could have consciousness.  This idea is quite similar to the thinking of Lucretius, who believed consciousness depended on the arrangement of atoms. 

Consciousness in humans, said the Carvaka, was due to a combination of elements produced in the same way as non-intelligent matter and made up of particular arrangements of material parts.

There was no supernatural guidance or creation- no deity. The following extracts are from an ancient text which quoted Carvaka  extensively.  “The fire is hot,” the Carvaka said, “the water cold. Refreshing cool the breeze of morn.  By whom came this variety? From their own natures was it born.” They stated: “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world.”  Carvaka believed the soul, or actually the self, was born with the body, then lived with and died with the body.  Since the soul or self died completely in this world, there was no reward or punishment to reap in the next world.

The Carvaka had six telling arguments against belief in the soul, and I am gratefully dependent on Riepe for the following clarifying breakdown. (1) “If the soul moves from one body to another in a cycle of births and deaths, why does not an individual remember events that occurred in his previous existence? “(2) “If the soul is reborn into another body, why is it that it never returns in such a way to be observed?” (3) The Carvaka additionally noted that putative believers in rebirth did not act as though they really believed.  Carvaka thinkers said that if believers actually thought: “If a beast is slain in a rite, will itself go to heaven, why then does not the sacrificer forwith offer his own father?” (4) No consciousness belonging to one body and one series of events can be the cause of a series of events or consciousness belonging to another body. (5) There is no consciousness in early fetal life carried over from a previous existence, for in the fetal stage the organs are not properly developed and there is no consciousness apart from their proper development.  Finally, (6) states that no one has ever seen the transfer of consciousness from one body to another.  Several of those arguments are very similar to those of Lucretius.

Those interested in  a firsthand look at the ancient play, “The Rise of the Moon Intellect,” written about 648 CE, can find the complete text on the web and facsimile copies at sites such as Amazon and Google.  In this lecture I am quoting from J.M. Hecht’s Doubt: A History.  You may go to her book and find many quotes from the play concerning the Carvaka, well selected and explained. “Moon Intellect” contains some of Carvaka philosophy. There are three characters that Hecht quotes in the play: the personified Passion, Materialist and Pupil. Materialist explains the world to his pupil in this manner.  He states that the chief realities of existence are pleasure and pain, and the point of life is to avoid pain and seek pleasure. 

He goes on to maintain that people behave according to the precepts of the Sacred Literature because they fear punishment.  Materialist argues that “…the three Vedas are a cheat, because they pretend there is a higher system of justice in this world.” They are also a cheat, he sneers, because they prescribe all sorts of inefficacious ritual.

I referenced a few moments ago an ancient text which quoted extensively from Carvaka writings.  Fortunately for us in the present day, such critiques or studies were often accompanied by long quotations detailing the Carvaka position.  Here is more Carvaka philosophy from that long verse: “…When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?  If he who departs from the body goes to another world, how is that he comes not back again, restless for the love of his kindred?  Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmins have established here all these ceremonies for the dead- there is no other fruit anywhere.”  The same ancient text quotes the Carvaka as saying that the rituals of the Brahma are useless and that the Vedas are “…tainted by the three faults of untruth, contradiction and tautology.”

Here are Carvakas’ own words about karma: “Others should not here postulate {the existence} of merit and demerit from happiness and misery.  A person is happy or miserable through {the laws} of nature; there is no other cause.”  For the Carvaka, again in their own words: “…there is no world other than this,” and all sorts of religious promises to the contrary …are invented by stupid imposters of other schools of thought.”  One can hear their contempt for other philosophies, ones that promised rebirth, believed people’s problems were caused from wicked actions in a former life, and that people in unfortunate circumstances were people who had earned their fate.

That same text quotes the Carvaka position on the so-called wonder of the world at some length. Its perspective seems very similar to the viewpoint of present day atheism. The Carvaka believed that we got humans, flowers, the world, the sky, the earth and all things on it, not miraculously, but rather as things happen every day.  Such appearances of the natural world came from the world “following its own nature, and became itself, with no one to help it,” as Hecht explains.  Here are the Carvakas’ words: “An opponent will say, if you thus do not allow any unseen force, the various phenomena of the world become destitute of any cause.  But we cannot accept this objection as valid since these phenomena can all be produced spontaneously from the inherent nature of things. ..Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing?  There exists here no cause excepting nature.”

How modern they sound, the Carvaka concepts, how sensible.  Those philosophers arrived at a complete rejection of the most important set of beliefs in the Hindu religion: samsara, karma and moksha.  The similarities with Lucretius and the Greek Epicurean philosophy, as I mentioned earlier, are marked.

The ethical system of the Carvaka is a fascinating topic.  It is difficult to tease out from its opponents’ perjuries the true position of ethical standards this philosophy held.  Let me say at the outset that Carvaka proponents were not unprincipled pleasure seekers.  If you recall from my earlier lecture on Lucretius, the Epicureans were vilified in the same manner.  Some of the lies were based on sly or gleeful remarks made by the Carvaka philosophers themselves, clever pokes they made at sensual love or honesty. 

Here is an example: “Chastity and other such cunning inventions have been invented by clever weaklings.” Carvaka also did not make qualified distinctions between sensual pleasures and the so-called higher ones, such as reading, thinking, and so on, as J.S. Mill did in the 19th Century when he described Pragmatic Philosophy. 

But similar to the philosophy of the 18th Century skeptic, David Hume, Carvaka maintained that practicality was a factor in attaining pleasure.  Here is just one quotation regarding practicality and deferred pleasure.

“By adopting only those means which are seen to be practical, such as agriculture, the tending of cattle, trade, politics and administration and etc., a wise man should always endeavor to enjoy pleasure here in this world.” Carvaka writings display that the real activities of this world were what they valued.  They devalued priestly activities purporting to give men rewards in the next, fictive world, such as rituals, smearing oneself with ashes, and building temples. They also disdained those who earned their living from such priestly activities.  They believed such people were stupid and lacking energy, or that they were dishonest.

Nevertheless they were great believers in putting off temporary pleasures to gain greater ones later.  They found agriculture and trade particularly conducive to leading to material pleasure.  Both callings involved deferring temporary gratification.

As Riepe states: {The Carvaka} had a distrust of everything traditionally regarded good, high, pure and compassionate.” Riepe continues: “Unqualifiedly, from the available material, Carvaka held truth, integrity, consistency and freedom of thought in the highest esteem.” 

The regard for such traits was likely on account of their analysis of knowledge.  Truth was not to be found in the sacred scriptures but in perceptual assertions.  After all, to Carvaka, integrity depended on following the injunctions of sense-knowledge, rather than the dictates of the powerful priesthood who were guided by the authority of tradition and the sacred literature. How could Carvaka not prize freedom of thought above all other virtues, when they were the thinkers who most exercised it in their time?!

Carvaka found the role of religion to be detrimental to the ethical life.  They felt religion was perpetuated by dishonest men to get a living from foolish people.  Sacred scripture was a complete mess of contradictions seemingly reconciled by cunning compilers and interpreters. Priests called things sins and virtues to get people to do what was advantageous to the priests.  Carvaka philosophers rejected religious rites and stated that so-called experts in knowledge of the deities and the next life must be either stupid or dishonest because these things did not exist.  They also apparently did not regard the caste system with any more respect than they did the ascetic orders.

Everything I have discovered from the reputable sources and which I have talked about in this lecture concerning the Carvaka and Lokayata system reveals that they were materialists and naturalists of the highest order.  I shall close my admiring discussion of them with the words of another Greek philosopher, Democritus, as the Carvakas, I believe, would have approved of his words.

“Every land is open to a wise man; for the native land of the noble soul is the entire universe.” Secular thought belongs to the world. 

In the meantime, however, many nations and their citizens are held captive by the dogmatism and provincialism of fundamental religions.  Happiness, sexual freedom, rational societies and peace between people and nations are abrogated when religion holds sway.  A rational and moral outlook on life breaks out in different times and places, every so often.  We are once again in a period when rationality and secularism are on the rise. Such a tendency has gained strength with each century since the Enlightenment.  

I hope we can dedicate ourselves to a thriving and prevailing secularity, like that of the Carvaka/Lokayata, of Lucretius, of Diderot, and in this country, Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. We cannot afford, nor can our earth, the destruction of rationality and the rise of supernaturalism and superstition once again.  I am sure we can prove ourselves worthy of the great people who came before us and bequeathed to us the serious thoughts and the secular wisdom that to this day has not lost its sterling worth, or its inspiration.

Additional Reading

Wendy Doniger

In the May 8, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books is an excellent article on censorship of alternative views of Hinduism by Indian conservatives. 

In 2010, Penguin India published Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger is a distinguished professor and historian, with several works to her credit.  She is very well regarded in the world of Indian scholarship.  Her The Hindus won two important awards in India.

But then, a retired headmaster in India, Dina Nath Batra, a member of the far-right organization RSS, began a series of civil and criminal suits against the book, claiming it violated the Indian Penal Code’s Article 295a.  This article forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.”

After four years, Penguin gave up and agreed to cease publication of Doniger’s book and to pulp any remaining copies.  None were pulped as they were all bought up from the bookstores.  There was a large outcry, with many authors and literary people incensed that Penguin would give in.  But Doniger’s article makes clear that Penguin may have lost the suit.

Here is the link to Professor Doniger’s article:

The link is provided for those who wish to pursue the issue of religious censorship in more depth.  Doniger also makes clear that Hindu organizations in the United States have been pushing to have public school textbooks altered to give a more favorable view of Indian history.  But it is quite obvious that such organizations also seek to have their religious outlook, complete with incorrect dates and scientific claims, included and validated in American children’s textbooks.

The Hindus are not singular in this egregious quest.  Muslim organizations have also mounted a similar attack on our public school books.  The Christians have never ceased fighting for equal time for creationism and Intelligent Design, incorrect claims about American history and so on in United States classrooms and textbooks. 

Video of Lecture: Indian Atheism

Lecture: Indian Atheism

Video of Discussion: Indian Atheism

Discussion: Indian Atheism


Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad.  Carvaka/Lokayata: An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies. 3rd Ed. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2006.

___________________. Indian Atheism: A Marxist Analysis. Mumbai: People’s Publishing House, 1973.

Conjer, G.P. “Did India Influence Early Greek Philosophers?” Philosophy East-West.  (Honolulu,) Vol.II (July 1952.)

Flynn, Tom. “Introduction- Against the Seductions of Misbelief.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 15-20.

Hecht, Jennifer Michael.  Doubt: A History.  New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Lavanam, G. “Ancient Indian Materialism” in Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

“Carvaka” in Radhakrishnan, S. and Charles A. Moore, Eds. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.  227-249.

Riepe, Dale. The Naturalist Tradition in Indian Thought.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961.

Stcherbatsky, Th. Buddhist Logic. 2 Vol. (Bibliotheca Buddhica) Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1930-32.

Tucci, Giuseppe. “Linea di una storia del materialism Indiano.” Atti della Reale Accademia Nationale dei Lincei.” (Roma, Serie sesta, Vol II. (1926.)