Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines


This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

Skepticism: Lokayata skepticism took on three forms:

1. Perception is the only valid means of knowledge. [1] As quoted in Abhayadeva’s Tattva-bodha-vidhayini: “Inference is not valid.” and “Perception is the only valid proof.”[2]

2: Perception and inference are both valid, but inference is not valid for supernatural questions. As quoted in Sadananda’s Vedantasara: “The world-known inference is equally desired by Carvaka, only inference beyond this world, accepted by others, is denied. [3]

3: All knowledge is impossible. As written by Jayarasi Bhatta: “Where the instrument is vitiated and where there is the apprehension that it is false, that cognition alone is incorrect. This very statement is incorrect.”[4] And “All principles being thus upset, all verbal expressions are consistent in as much as they are complacent so long as not investigated.”[5]

The rationale for the first and third positions is more or less the same criticism of inference given by David Hume. With our mere human faculties, it is impossible to prove that any two factors universally coincide, and as a result inferences cannot be proven absolutely true.

Deha-vada: The identification of the self with the body. In Lokayata, it also implied a lack of belief in an afterlife. However, as there were multiple competing models within Lokayata, this belief takes on slightly different forms. Sadananda’s Vedantasara describes four different models of deha-vada:

One school of Charvakas, however, holds that this physical body is the Self…

Another school of Carvakas speaks of the sense-organs as the Self… owing also to the fact that the movements of the body ceases when the organs cease to work….

Still another school of Charvakas holds that Prana or vital force is the Self…owing also to the fact that with the cessation of the working of the vital force, the sense-organs cease to function…

Yet another school of Charvakas holds that mind (Manas) is the Self…owing also to the fact that the vital force etc. cease to work when the mind goes into deep sleep…[6]

Kama Purushartha: The belief that pleasure is a prime goal of life. As quoted in Madhava Acharya’s Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha:

While life is yours live joyously ;

None can escape Death’s searching eye :

When once this frame of ours they burn

How shall it e’er again return?[7]

Madhava portrayed Lokayata as a form of extreme hedonism: “While life remains, let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt;”[8]

However, Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra portrays it as a model of hedonism more similar to a Epicureanism: “Moreover, it is better to have a pigeon to-day than a peacock to-morrow; and a copper coin which we have the certainty of obtaining, is better than a gold coin, the possession of which is doubtful.”[9]

Artha Purushartha: The belief that acquisition of wealth is a prime goal of life. In Lokayata, this manifested in the proliferation of theories about how to gather and produce wealth, in other words applied social science. This was a somewhat later development, which allowed Lokayatas to participate in matters of state and economy.

Kautilya reports: “The school of Brihaspati say that there are only two sciences: Varta and the science of government, inasmuch as the Triple Vedas are merely an abridgment (Samvarana, pretext?) for a man experienced in affairs temporal (Lokayatravidah).”[10] And from Krishnamisra’s Prabodha-Candrodaya: “The only lore (vidya) is science of politics. Herein is included agriculture”[11]

Svabhavavada. Materialism or naturalism. This was paired with the belief that all things are made up of atoms, which are composed of usually four, but later on, possibly five elements.[12] The differences we see in nature are due to the different traits of these atoms. No direct fragment or quotation referencing the atom is available to us, but Ajita Kesakambali is often referenced as an atomist, and Buddhist literature consistently identifies atomism with Lokayata.[13] Madhava Acharya does attest to Lokayatas holding to Svabhavavada in the Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah:

The fire is hot, the water is cold, refreshing cool the breeze of morn ;

By whom came this variety? From their own nature it was born.[14]

Amoralism: The Lokayata did not believe that Dharma, at least as defined by their contemporaries was a purushartha. As quoted in the Kama-Sutra:

One should not follow religious duties.

Since the result is in the future.

And doubtful.[15]

Magic Spells and rituals: This was most common in the early Lokayata period, when it was much closer to Tantrism and the proto-materialist base of all Indic philosophy. There is no direct fragment or quotation to attest to this, but Buddhist texts make reference to Lokayata mantras and yajnas.[16]

Anti-clericalism: Lokayatas usually expressed a disdain for theism and Brahmins, as indicated by this quote from Madhava Acharya‘s Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha:

The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes,—

Brihaspati says, these are but a means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.[17]

Populism: Lokayata was a popular belief system amongst the great mass of people, and denied the caste system. Madhava Acharya claimed that:

The mass of men, in accordance with the Śástras of policy and enjoyment, considering wealth and desire the only ends of man, and denying the existence of any object belonging to a future world, are found to follow only the doctrine of Chárváka. Hence another name for that school is Lokáyata,—a name well accordant with the thing signified.”[18] Though their denial of the Vedas may imply a negation of caste, Madhava Acharya also explicitly quotes Brihaspati as saying “Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, &c., produce any real effect.”[19]


Many thanks to Dr. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, without whose research this would have been impossible to write. Image Source: Polish Wikipedia.

These are the main characteristics which make Lokayata notable. We will see these emerge again in future posts. Core features such as the identification of the body with the self, atomism, and a (four or five) element based model of reality tend to reoccur as a cluster, such as in the examples of Samkhya or Vaisheshika. The systems influenced by Lokayata also tend to cluster geographically around northeast India, the zone of Lokayata’s origin. Given the current dearth of textual evidence on Lokayata it is impossible to determine direct lines of intellectual influence with any certainty. I aim only to report these “coincidence,” so that myself or some future scholar can at some point give them further attention, and discern if they are indeed coincidences.

However, even if Lokayata did not directly influence later schools of thought, all Indian schools of thought have a proto-materialistic basis, as I’ll explore in the next post.

(Click to continue on to Part II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions)

(Click to continue on to Part III: Orthodox Darshanas)

(Click to continue on to Part IV: Social and Physical Sciences)

(Click to continue on to Part V: Arts, Culture, and Modernity. (+Bibliography)

[1] Pradeep P. Gokhale, “The Carvaka Theory of Pramanas: A Restatement,” Philosophy East and West, 43, no. 4 (1993): 675-682, . (accessed October 28, 2013). Note: Gokhale argues that even “type 1” Lokayata accepted a limited form of inference, as a form of perception.

[2] Rasik Vihari Joshi, “Lokayata in Ancient India and China,” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 68, no. 1/4 (1987): 401-404.

[3]Joshi, “Lokayata in Ancient India and China,” 403-404.

[4] Jayarasi Bhatta, Tattvopaplavasimha, trans. Esther Solomon, ed. Shuchita Mehta,        (Delhi: Parimal Publications, 2010), 7. Note: Chattopadhyaya among others does not consider Bhatta to be a Lokayata. I have included him. There is no scholarly consensus on his darsana, but his ideas clearly come closer to Lokayata than to any other darsana.

[5] Bhatta, Tattvopaplavasimha 229.

[6] Sadananda, and Swami Nikhilananda, Vedantasara of Sadananda, (Mayavati: Swami   Vireswarananda Advaita Ashrama, 1931) commentary-of-Swami-Nikhilananda-of-Ramakrishna-Order-1931 (accessed October 25, 2013), 73-76.

[7] Madhava Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, trans. E.B. Cowell, and A.E. Gough, (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 2.

[8] Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah, 10.

[9] Vatsyayana, The Kama Sutra Of Vatsyayana, trans. Richard Burton, Bhagavanlal Indrajit, and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide, (London: Cosmopoli, 1883) (accessed October 25, 2013), 19.

[10] Kautilya Kautilya, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, trans. R Shamasastry,  (Bangalore: Government Press, 1915)’s_ arthasastra.pdf (accessed October 25, 2013), 9.

[11] Joshi, “Lokayata in Ancient India and China,” 401-404.

[12] Ramakrishna Bhattacharya, Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata, (London: Anthem Press, 2011), 35.

[13] Joshi, “Lokayata in Ancient India and China,” 398.

[14] Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah, 10.

[15] Joshi, “Lokayata in Ancient India and China,” 401-404

[16] Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, (New Delhi:     People’s Publishing House, 1959), 37-38.

[17] Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah, 4.

[18] Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah, 2.

[19] Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgrah, 10.

9 comments on “Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines

  1. Madhu Ahluwalia says:

    I could not understand it at all but sounds very intellectual

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Madhu,

      It was written for someone already generally familiar with Indian history, philosophy, and Lokayata, but I’m still saddened that you weren’t able to understand it *at all*. Sounding intellectual is useless fluff if information is not communicated. If you let me know what aspect or section the piece you had difficulty understanding, I’ll respond at length in the comment section.

  2. Agnes says:

    This is amazing, thank you so much!

  3. sk says:

    How about a search tab, the tags help but I keep ending up on the more complex articles,such as this one and the gurkani alam one, it would really be helpful to navigate the articles.

    • Sk,

      Thats a really good idea. I’ll see if I can find some way of inserting a search function. Short of that, I’ll try and clean up the tags so that they are more organized. I created the tags as I built the site, so its kind of patchwork and confusing at the moment. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    • Just added a search tab! Still need to reorganize the tags though…

  4. Roy Waidler says:

    May I interest you in doing a short interview to be posted at our website and our Tumblr? It would be in the format used by the New York Times ‘Sunday Magazine,’ “10 Quick Questions for……” I should add that I got to your site while looking for material about Lokayata / Carvaka. I recently got a rather disorganized book, “Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy” by Bhupender Heera (from Amazon) and will be getting a second one published by Motilal Banarsidass soon. But I find your posts interesting and quite stimulating. Should you decline, that’s perfectly okay, but you should know that you have a fan or three here! Roy Waidler, counselor, Outlands Community USA

    • I’d love to have a chat! Contact me at and we can set things up.

      I agree with you, that book was very disorganized. I wrote a negative review of it here if you havent seen it already. There are some better works out there on Lokayata/Carvaka, though the best one (Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s magnum opus) is very difficult to acquire. Hope your buy from Motilal Banarsidas is more satisfying.

  5. maxwell says:

    This kind of value given to tantra,common folk etc is more a part of marxist ideology than reality.Also of the poor dalits, however honest attempt shall show this cannot be true. In fact, valuing skepticism itself is not a product of common folk, much as people mistake works like as aesop fables as work of common folk. It is categorically wrong, because it takes active preservation of memory over long time to engage in such analysis or come up with such literature. Only two societies have had such incredible diversity of philosophies.Only Greece & India. Greece being much better as a result one finds more degeneration in India as they left & mingled with others. Grammar,logic,philosophy,mathematics are product of such ideas. Not some common folk or blood thirsty tantra. Also, this appeal to tantra in name of magic being the origin is laughable, seems to me a deliberate attempt to give Bengal the primacy of origin of these analytical arguments. Not surprising to see the ideologues who make such parochial arguments are from bengal.

    Suggest u to read

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