Hinduism Cārvāka
Ramkrishna Bhattacharya
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0194


Although Cārvāka is a proper name, the Cārvāka, also called Lokāyata, has been used as the generic name for all schools and doctrines of materialism that flourished in India from the time of the Buddha (6th–5th century BCE). It continued to reappear until the 12th century CE. Thereafter, all written records, including the base text (a collection of aphorisms) and commentaries thereon seem to have disappeared. All that remains is a set of fragments, a handful of aphorisms, and extracts from the commentaries (five of such works are known). They have been collected from (1) a number of doxographical works prepared by the opponents of the Cārvāka, and (2) the works of opponents, which comprise, besides the Brahmanical authors (mainly belonging to the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Vedānta schools), the Buddhist and the Jain polemicists. All of them were intent on refuting materialism and established their own religious and philosophical doctrines. Despite the absence of any text embodying the doctrine of the Cārvākas (the claim that Jayarāśi’s Tattvopaplavasiṃha is a Cārvāka text is disputed) and the paucity of information regarding them, it is possible, however tentatively, to reconstruct the basics of materialism as it arose and developed at various times in different parts of India. Materialism in the Indian context starts with a number of denials—of the existence of the Other World, of the disembodied soul, of the infallibility of the Veda, and of any God or gods. It also asserts the priority of matter over consciousness and insists on perception as the first of the means of knowledge (as against faith in the veracity of any holy book or inference based on such works). It will, however, be unwise to think of materialism as a single system of philosophy that contained the same cluster of views, current over millennia in all parts of India. On the other hand, it is reasonable to treat the appearance of the Cārvāka as the last school of materialists in or around the 8th century CE as the watershed, dividing the old materialists from the new. The fundamental ideas of old materialism are first found in two Tamil epics, the Maṇimēkalai and the Nīlakeci, composed by a Buddhist and a Jain poet, respectively. In North India, however, the language of the available fragments is classical Sanskrit. One Bṛhaspati is called the originator of the system both in North and South Indian sources.

General Overview

Proto-materialist views in India can be traced in their incipient stage in the relatively late sections of the Vedas, but it would be too much to claim that “Vedic religion, philosophy, and ethics had a naturalistic origin and were materialistic in character” (as proposed by Gupta 1987, p. 246). The first statement concerning doubt, not in the existence of any creator of the world (as in the Ṛgveda 10.129), but in what happens to humans after their death, is expressed unambiguously in Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.1.20. This may very well be taken as the point of departure signifying the growing predominance of the view that sought to deny the existence of heaven and hell. The concept that became the battleground between the naysayers (nāstika) and the yeahsayers (āstika) had its origin in this Upaniṣad. In spite of the unavailability of the base text and any commentary thereon, there are just enough fragments that enable us to form an overall view of the Cārvākas. Bhattacharya 2011, Namai 1976 (cited under Anthologies), and Shastri 1957 provide collections of such fragments. Some of the sources have been scrutinized and found to have been derived from Buddhist and Jain works (Bhattacharya 2013b, cited under Journal Articles, including Book Reviews), for they were opposed to eating meat and drinking spirituous liquor in the sacrifices and rites for the ancestors. They, too, did not believe in the status of the Veda as an infallible means of knowledge. In these respects they were at one with the materialists. Scholars generally agree on the materialistic character of the Cārvāka system. Dasgupta 1975, Frauwallner 1973, and Sinha 1956 (all cited under Histories of Indian Philosophy), along with Franco 2011 and Franco and Preisendanz 1998 (both cited under Encyclopedias), provide synoptic accounts of the basic tenets. Chattopadhyaya 1989 studies the doctrinal aspects. The sources, both primary and secondary, are translated in Chattopadhyaya and Gangopadhyaya 1990 (cited under Anthologies). However, there is no unanimity concerning some aspects, such as whether the Cārvāka was a philosophical system at all (Gokhale 2015 holds that the Lokāyata/Cārvākas were merely a group of freethinkers). However, Saletore 1942 (cited under Journal Articles, including Book Reviews) provides enough epigraphic evidence treating the Cārvāka on a par with Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, Sāṃkhya, and so on. Whether all materialists in India accepted perception alone as the valid means of knowledge is another point of dispute. Although it is certainly known that the Cārvākas admitted both perception and perception-based inference as two valid means of knowledge, most of the older books and modern textbooks continue to represent the materialists as admitting perception alone. Whether Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa was a Cārvāka (materialist or not) is another issue on which opinions are still divided. A separate section dealing with the problem will be found below. The South Indian (Tamil) sources of materialism were first pointed out by Vanamamalai 1973 (cited under Journal Articles, including Book Reviews). Tibetan sources are also being made use of more recently; see Del Toso 2010 (cited under Journal Articles, including Book Reviews). Bhattacharya 2013a (cited under Journal Articles, including Book Reviews) proposes to distinguish between the pre-Cārvāka (who flourished prior to the 8th century CE) and the Cārvāka (8th century onward) materialists. Most authors have tried to reconstruct the materialist system as it developed in India. The emphasis of Chattopadhyaya 1959 and Chattopadhyaya 1989 is on the doctrinal rather than the historical aspects. Gupta 1987 seeks to trace the roots of such doctrines in the Vedas. Mittal 1974 and Shastri 1957 rely more on later, post-Vedic texts. Riepe 1961 extends the area of materialism to non-Cārvāka systems, such as Sāṃkhya and Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. Gokhale 2015, contrary to the prevalent perspectives, describes them as freethinkers rather than materialists. Bhattacharya 2011 covers a wider area and provides a collection of fragments (aphorisms, extracts from the lost commentaries, and some verses traditionally ascribed to the Cārvāka). It also questions the widely accepted views that the Cārvākas were hedonists and admitted no other means of knowledge than perception.

  • Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. London: Anthem Press, 2011.

    A theme-wise, text-wise, and finally a verse-wise survey of the primary sources; contains the latest collection of Cārvāka fragments, with translation, pp. 55–64. Published in 2009 by Società Editrice Fiorentina (Firenze, Italy).

  • Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Lokāyata. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1959.

    One of the earliest studies on the material basis of philosophy. Several chapters draw much from anthropology and Marxism.

  • Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1989.

    As the title suggests, this volume is an exposition of the Cārvāka doctrines and seeks to find their allies in the doctrine of Own Being (svabhāva) and Nyāya.

  • Gokhale, Pradeep P. Lokāyata/Cārvāka: A Philosophical Inquiry. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199460632.001.0001

    The study reverts to the view that the Cārvāka was not a philosophical school proper, but a loose collection of freethinkers’ views on religion and society.

  • Gupta, Uma. Materialism in the Vedas. New Delhi: Classical Publishing, 1987.

    Verses and passages from the Vedic texts are cited with a view to locating full-fledged materialism.

  • Mittal, Kewal Krishna. Materialism in Indian Thought. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1974.

    A broad overview on the basis of available Sanskrit texts. No distinction is made, however, between the genuine Cārvāka sources and the non-Cārvāka ones (allegedly akin to materialism).

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

    The survey not only includes well-attested Cārvāka sayings, but also attempts to locate their parallels in other, so-called āstika (Veda-abiding) schools. Published by Motilal Banarsidass in 1964.

  • Shastri, D. R. A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism. Calcutta: Bookland, 1957.

    Provides a summary of the views that are traditionally regarded as atheistic, non-Vedic, and anti-ascetic. First published 1930. Reprinted, slightly abridged, in Chattopadhyaya and Gangopadhyaya 1990 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 394–431.

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