Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought

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I’m working on a much longer article (or series of articles?) on the Charvaka/Lokayata school of philosophy, so I’m going through a whole bunch of texts on the school of thought. As this one was the shortest, I finished it first. And as I’ve got a lazy saturday afternoon on my hands, I’ll supply a short review:

Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought (or a version thereof) served as Dr. Bupender Heera’s doctoral thesis, so my expectations were high in terms of the scholarly quality of this text. However, in total I was disappointed. Heera doesn’t offer a new perspective on Charvaka, nor does he synthesize some of the existing viewpoints on Charvaka into one coherent conception, nor does he give a clearly worded survey of the range of theories about Charvaka. I also found that many of the book’s claims were either sourced in a frustratingly obscure way (i.e. a claim would appear [for example] five times throughout the book, but would cited only the third time.) To a degree this is unavoidable, but it made the text problematic as a research material.

Heera has clearly read the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, but he neither utilizes his theories on Charvaka effectively, nor addresses/refutes them. Chattopadhyaya for example, points out that most of the academic viewpoints on Charvaka rely on the description of the philosophy which is contained in Madhvacharya’s  Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha as a basis point, without properly accounting for Madhvacharya’s Vedantic bias, and his argumentative style. Madhvacharya tried to “put himself in the shoes” of his opponent, which often led to him presenting a position derived from a blending of his own Vedantic beliefs, and the beliefs of the opposing system, as purely the beliefs of the opposing system. Thus, the uncritical reliance on Madhvacharya’s account renders most accounts of Charvaka distorted. Heera’s work largely falls prey to Chattopadhyaya’s criticism, without attempting to justify why Madhvacharya’s account should be accepted as basically consistent with actual Charvaka practice. For instance, on page 42, where Heera claims that Charvakas quote scripture in defense of their position, a claim which derives completely from Madhvacharya’s account, and without which would seem bizarre.

The book also contains numerous internal contradictions. Heera cannot seem to decide whether or not the Charvakas had any actual texts, or not. On page 17 he says:

“Many of the above mentioned works, by way of quoting with acknowledgements the sutras, karikas and slokas pertaining to materialistic school of thought, hold out a clear and unmistakable evidence to the effect that there once existed, at least, two works of the Indian materialists, namely the Barhaspatya-Sutra and the Lokayata Sastra. Patanjali’s Mahabhasya on Panini’s Vyakarana refers to another work of the Lokayata School — One by Bhaguri, a commentary on Lokayata Sastra.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Then on page 87 he says:

They did not have any literature of their own like other philosophical systems of traditional Indian thought. The Carvakas did not have any sutra… In the case of Carvaka we hear only Barhaspatya Sutra which is very small in size besides being a sutra of questionable authenticity.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Another notable inconsistency is the notion that Charvaka was simultaneously the first Indian philosophical system, and a reactionary movement against asceticism and brahmanism. In an attempt to simply describe Charvaka without getting entangled in any of the historical controversies, he presents a wide range of mutually exclusive scholarly opinions (without prefacing them as such) and thus creates an incoherent view of the Charvaka philosophy.

There are also certain confusions which occur towards the end of the book, such as the idea that the Charvakas were not condemning the Vedas, but were rather condemning their distortion and misinterpretation by brahmanas. This claim is not sourced*, leading me to believe that this is Heera’s opinion or personal interpretation. Thus, I theorize that Heera in an attempt to be charitable, has formed a conception of Charvaka which is strongly influenced by his own spiritual outlook. In this sense, he is himself a modern Madhvacharya.

Nevertheless, the book was useful to me. It has pointed out many source texts to explore further, and summarized some of the beliefs of prior scholars. There are also useful analogies made to Western philosophers like Hume, Locke, Lucretius, and Strato of Lampsacus. For this, I humbly thank Dr. Heera, though I have trouble recommending his volume. Nevertheless, it is the briefest (and cheapest) exposition of Charvaka philosophy on the market, so if you can tolerate some inconsistencies and are aware that this perspective may be distorted, why not check it out? Even with all the problems, it still provides a more nuanced and complete perspective on Charvaka than any online resource I’ve discovered so far.

*Interestingly, this claim is only remotely plausible if Madhvacharya’s account is discarded. The Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha (page 10) contains an alleged quotation from Brihaspati in which the authors of the Vedas are explicitly condemned as “fools, knaves, and demons.”

7 comments on “Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought

  1. RAJU JALUTHRIA says:

    respected bhupender sir, i want to read about carvaka/lokayat in hindi,please suggest me some books, i will be very thankful to you
    raju jaluthria
    new delhi

    • राजू ,
      comment के लिए धन्यवाद

      मेरी हिंदी बहुत बुरा है, लेकिन मैं हिंदी में देवीप्रसाद चट्टोपाध्याय प्रकाशित किया है किताबें लगता: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=RZJTZBvX1uMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

      That Google Book is incomplete, but you might be able to find a complete print copy in Delhi. So far, ‪Chattopadhyaya‬ is the best writer on Lokayat I’ve read.

      मैं अभी यात्रा कर रहा हूं. When I go home I’ll look in the bibliographies of all my Carvaka books for Hindi titles. कुछ ही दिनों में मैं एक सबसे अच्छा जवाब दे देंगे.

      -विदेशी

  2. bhupender heera says:

    carvaka darshana ki shastriya samiksha by dakshina ranjan shastri

  3. henry says:

    I’m impressed, I have to admit. Really seldom do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you have reach the toenail on the brain. Your concept is outstanding; the issue is a thing that not enough individuals are speaking intelligently about. I will be very happy that we stumbled across this particular in my look for something relating to this.

  4. Mohsin says:

    Dear Sir,
    I want this Book Charvaka/Lokayata philosophy in Gujarati Language so please give me Address as soon as possible so I can purchase
    Regards and thanks
    Mohsin

  5. Azaad says:

    I just happened to purchase Lokayuta – A Study In Ancient Indian Materialism.It’s in English & cost me Rs 298/.You can get it at :

    People’s Publishing House.
    Meher House,15,Cawasji Patel Street,Fort.
    Mumbai-400001.
    Tel : 022 – 22873768.

    The listed price was Rs 350/- The sellers were good enough to pass on a discount.It took me nearly a year of data mining on the net essentially & doing the rounds of popular book stalls in & around Mumbai of sellers & re sellers before I got to know of this quaint little bookshop.Admittedly, although my job in sales involves criss crossing the city , it’s with not a little bit of embarrassment that I confess never having come across this book store before nor having heard of it.

    This particular store happens to be the authorised outlet for People’s Publishing House – the publisher of this book.It’s a treasure trove for those seeking books on Leftist & Dalit literature , stocking both the publisher’s books as well as those from other publications specialising in subaltern studiedly.

    If , I’m not mistaken , the book is also available in translations to Hindi & Marathi.This is a Delhi based Publishing House in Jhandewalan.All other details can be sought from the net or telephonically.

    Hope you have a good read & cheers!!

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