The expunged two thousand year history of Indian materialism

The facade of Lomas Rishi cave, Barabar Hills, Bihar

The facade of Lomas Rishi cave, Barabar Hills, Bihar

Nothing could better exemplify pure cant and the results of hatred than that those who themselves have developed intricate religious systems and argue or have argued for the use of intellect and the  focus of philosophic and spiritual concern on self and fellows, should succeed in expunging from the face of this earth, other than in their own polemics against them, every trace of two systems of belief, both existing almost concurrently, that lasted for two thousand years. As the Dvaita Vedantist Madhvacharya (1238-1317 CE) wrote: ‘The efforts of Carvaka are indeed hard to be eradicated’.1

The core of this hatred towards the Ajivikas and the Carvakas or Lokayatas2 was the determinism3 of the former and, particularly, the materialism of the latter. In raising the subject of materialism one is discussing a subject no less emotive now than it was in India in the lengthy period under review. The creative bile of the fifteenth centuryCE Jaina Gunaratna regarding the Carvakas4 is echoed in the much more recent words of Rhys Davids who argued that ‘Lokayata’ and ‘Lokayatika’ were pegs on which certain writers hung views they attributed to their adversaries, giving them an odious name, that such a philosophy hardly existed, like European materialists – although ‘one or two may be discovered by careful search …’5

On the other hand, and about the same Lokayatas, another wrote ‘They exhorted all people to cast off all their shackles which had bound them for ages and to march shoulder to shoulder towards freedom.’ One can almost hear the cry ringing through the villages ‘Lokayatikas of the world unite!’ Yet theirs was the one philosophy that did utterly reject not only ‘another world’ but the ‘buffoons, knaves and demons’6 who made a living advocating it. Clearly, words and views concerning the Ajivikas and Carvakas must be treated with the utmost circumspection. Nevertheless, what comes through in the writing of those who hated them or were opposed to them are somewhat more than bare outlines of two most important philosophies – particularly the Carvakas who were astonishingly bold and different to all the other schools.

My definition of ‘materialism’ is simple – it is a system of belief holding that that which is independent of consciousness and thought – matter – is primary and that consciousness and thought are secondary to and derivative from it. The world comes first and exists independently of us. We as products of it reflect it in our consciousness and thought. Shastri wrote that materialists in India did not attempt to lay down a system of philosophy but only to refute the foolish orthodoxy of other schools.7 The evidence argues clearly against this, both with regard to the materialist Carvakas and the religious Ajivikas, whose philosophy had elements strongly recognising the primacy of the world.

Basham wrote that not only did the Ajivikas have a canon of sacred texts in which their doctrines were codified, they had a fully developed system of belief and their own philosophers and logicians. At the core of their beliefs was niyati – the universality of which controlled all phenomena and actions and which made effort futile.8 The Ajivika universe in which time was infinite had finite contents, was highly complex, ordered and material,9 and within which samsara (like a ball of string unravelling)10 and karma (which for Gosala was effectively replaced by niyati and was without moral force) functioned.11 Chance (sangati), nature (bhava) and causality were illusory modifications of niyati – niyati was manifest through them. The Ajivika nirvana did not entirely transcend the world. Basham wrote that the atomist Pakudha Kaccayana and the amoralist Purana Kassapa were, with Gosala, among the founders of the Ajivikas and that when the King in the Milinda Panha asked Purana ‘Who rules the world?’ he replied ‘The earth rules the world’.12

The Jaina version of the Ajivika canon, given in the Bhagavati Sutra, in addition to two Maggas,13 include an eightfold Mahanimitta14 which clearly shows the importance they placed on the recognition and consideration of the world. This is again clear in the four key elements of the Ajivika faith.15 The four material elements had characteristic properties and tendencies: earth (hard with a downward tendency), water (cold with a similar tendency), fire (burns, moves upwards), air (motion in a horizontal direction). These elements16 and the atom of life17 (different to the material elements) were held together by wind or air, they were united by ‘eternal action’ (most probably a synonym for niyati. These theories, along with a theistic bent, were developed in the Dravidian south, after the decline of the Ajivikas in Magadha, from the end of the Mauryan period.

Although Madhvacharya begins his study of sixteen schools with the Carvakas – that school furthest from his beliefs – ‘the crest gem of the atheists’18 come through wonderfully as cocky, with a belief in themselves, humorous, determined, contemptuous of religious and philosophic fraud, straightforward and materialist. They have been referred to as sceptical, empiricist, positivist and pragmatic. As with the Ajivikas, what has been written about them – both anti- and pro- should be carefully considered. Although I have only found some internet references linking them to atomic theory I consider them materialist, not because of what they rejected (everything otherworldly)19 but because of what they asserted – which in effect amounts to the primacy of matter, and because of their consistency in doing so.

They held that the world and all in it are real, that everything is comprised of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water; that as alcohol is made from mixing certain elements, everything is constituted of those four, as is the body with its intelligence. When the elements separate, the body dies and intelligence ceases with it – our only ‘liberation’ is the dissolution of our bodies after death.20 ‘Soul’ or ‘self’ are only the body.21 Their assertions that consciousness is a material construct and that consciousness, sensation and perception are dependent on the body were both utterly logical and, in understanding the relationship between the body and the world, immensely sophisticated.

The fundamental principle for the Carvaka is nature (svabhava). It comprises the four elements behaving according to their own principle, combining and dissolving.

Fire is hot, water cold,

refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;

By whom came this variety?

They were born of their own nature.22

Svabhavavada denies the existence of over-all purpose in the universe23 but does not contradict purposive activity on the part of humans. As the protagonist in the Samannaphala Sutta sought the fruits of a homeless life, the Carvakas condemned asceticism and argued that the fruits to be found in this life lie in how we live it – with our thought oriented to a material world and to do the best for ourselves and  live life to the fullest.24

I strongly suspect that the repeated attempts by their opponents to argue that the Carvakas rejected inference were another distortion,25 that their objections against inference were to show that not certainty (Truth) but only a practical probability (truth) can be established, that their fundamental objection to inference was that it be used to establish the existence of fate, the soul, another world and God/s, that their objection was not to reason as a tool. Likewise their rejection of testimony was with regard to testimony that relates to the unverifiable, particularly the religious. Still, the replies of their opponents to the arguments they attributed to the Carvakas on inference and testimony are often significant explorations of those concepts.

In his book The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, Fuller gives an account of the various views that are stated to be wrong-views in the four primary Buddhist Nikayas. He writes that for Buddhism, our actions produce consequences – the view of ‘nihilism’ (attributed to the Lokayatas/Carvakas) is sometimes used to explain attachment (to sensuality, to view, to precepts and vows and to the theory of the self). ‘To deny that actions have consequences is … in a certain way, an expression of greed, hatred and delusion.’26 He wrote that K.N.Jayatilleke holds that ‘nihilism’ is based on the notion that ‘perception’ alone is the only valid means of knowledge and that since this is so, ‘higher perception’ is denied. Since, according to the ‘nihilist’ view the person is composed of the ‘four great elements’, there is no self and morality has no value. He cites Tucci who holds that the essential part of the view of ‘nihilism’ is the phrase ‘no fruit or result of good and bad actions’, and that this is in fact the central idea of Indian Materialism. The view of ‘nihilism’ denies the possibility of transformation and is a view that produces an unwholesome course of action and it is a wrong-view.27

I have several disagreements with the Buddhist positions, some already discussed. For the Lokayatas/Carvakas there is a self – it is the living body, and only the living body. The Lokayatas/Carvakas did have an ethic – not only to make the best of this one life we have but, by implication from their sharp and mocking criticisms of those who exploit religion, to do so honestly. A comparison could be made with Aristotle’s ethics on this point – although they are ultimately directed towards the perfection of the self of a self-focused man, and to a contemplative life. The central idea of ‘Indian Materialism’ is not the phrase ‘no fruit or result of good and bad actions’, nor the rejection of god/gods, of an afterlife, samsara and karma but the affirmation that matter (represented by svabhavavada and the four elements) is primary and the recognition of the consequences of that. The only possibility of transformation denied by the Lokayatas/Carvakas was that in ‘another’ world. And it is for this (essentially, their materialism) that they earned the hatred of the Buddhists and of those who advocated karma.

The Ajivikas were religious ascetics, the Carvakas/Lokayatas were materialist hedonists, similar to the Greek Epicureans. Both sects (as the Buddhists and Jainas) had arisen at a time of great intellectual ferment. Although the Ajivika doctrine of niyati was developed into a Parmenidean-like notion of ‘unchanging permanence’ by the southern Ajivikas and incorporated with theistic elements that facilitated their eventual absorption into Jainism, niyati was the taking of rta to its conclusion – the recognition of order in the universe. Basham wrote that by so doing, Gosala anticipated by over two thousand years the world view of the nineteenth century physicist.’28 The Ajivika canon and their belief in the four primary elements embodied their recognition of a material universe. Their theorising on the atom in that universe was brilliant, but they still were a religion – a sect for whom earthly forces assumed unearthly forms. The Brhaspatyas/Lokayatas/Carvakas were unique amongst all the schools.

If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Sraddha here,

Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing

on the housetop?29

Earth, air, fire and water are the original principles.

From these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced.

When these are destroyed, intelligence ceases also.30



1. Madhava Acharya, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, trans., E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough, Trubner, London, 1882, p. 2 Basham wrote of the intense odium theologicum felt by the Buddhists and Jainas towards the Ajivikas. A.L.Basham, History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion, Luzac and Co., Ltd., London 1951, p. 38 The mutilation of the inscriptions of Asoka and his grandson Dasaratha on the Barabar and Nagarjuni caves which were given to the Ajivikas by the Mauryan king Asoka, and the omission of his grandson’s name from the king-lists both of the Buddhists and the Jainas suggests that their patronage of the Ajivikas was strongly disapproved of by both other sects. The inscriptions were mutilated in such a way that indicates that the original inhabitants of the caves were evicted in favour of their religious opponents. Basham wrote ‘The selective nature of most of these defacements indicates that they were carried out by the religious rivals of the Ajivikas, who made use of the caves after them, and did not wish to be reminded of the former occupants.’ A.L.Basham op. cit., p. 156. ‘Salting the earth’ – which Carthage was supposed to have experienced at the hands of the Romans, is another example of ‘erasing’ one’s opponents. I am now thinking again about the writing of Democritus who wrote as much and as widely as Aristotle…

2. As with so much to do with these two sects, even who founded them and their names present problems. Of the Ajivikas, Basham, citing the Bhagavati Sutra wrote that there were Ajivikas before Makkhali Gosala, Basham op. cit., p. 27. Again ‘There are arguments to prove that (the Ajivikas) originally had nothing to do with Gosala. Ajivika was the name of a much older sect and Gosala’s father Mankhali also belonged to it.’ Sharma, Brij Narain, Social Life in Northern India AD 600-1000, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1966, p. 215. Another has argued that even the name, consistent with the supposed humble origins of Gosala, was given to them by their enemies: ‘The name Ajivikas was given to the sect by their opponents. The word ajivika is derived from ajiva, meaning one who observes the mode of living appropriate to his class.’ Of the Carvakas/Lokayatas my view is that their school originated with Brhaspati who wrote a Bhraspati Sutra and his school then became known as either the Lokayatas (‘worldly ones’) or Carvakas (‘fond of debate’). Other possibilities are that one was a sub-sect of the other or that Carvaka was the follower of Brhaspati. The meaning of the names might be a clue to any possible temporal order. Basham and Fuller use ‘Lokayata’ and ‘Carvaka’ interchangeably, Bronkhorst gives a number of versions as interchangeable.

3. ‘Fatalism’ has a certain relevance here – Basham recounts that Gosala, having experienced ‘repeated failures in all his ventures’ bought two bulls with the remainder of his resources. These were both killed by a camel. He thereupon ‘uttered a long chant on the power of destiny, and the advisability of desirelessness and inactivity.’ He ‘cast off all desires and attained immortality.’ Basham op. cit., p. 38

4. ‘They take spiritous drinks and meat and also copulate with those unfit to be sexually approached (agamya) like the mother, etc. Every year, on a particular day, they assemble and copulate randomly with women. They do not consider dharma to be anything different from kama. Their names are Carvaka, Lokayata, etc.’ From Gunaratna’s Commentary on Haribhadra in Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya Ed., Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi, 1994, p. 267a. Such charges were made over and again against both the Ajivikas and the Carvakas by their opponents – to extend the metaphor, ‘eat, drink and be merry’ is the standard fare.

5. Rhys Davids, ibid., p. 371

6. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, op. cit., p. 10

7. D.R.Shastri, A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism, (1930) in Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies op. cit., p. 399

8. Basham stated that the Ajivikas did recognise free will in ‘everyday’ life. History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion op. cit., p. 230 Bronkhorst provided an expansion on this by stating that the Ajivikas held that bodies act according to their own natures, that although the real self does not act, that ‘activity belongs to the material world, which includes body and mind.’ Johannes Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, Brill, Leiden, 2007, p. 47 This could offer a connection between life under niyati and svabhavavada.

9. Basham op. cit., p. 258

10. Samannaphala Sutta in The Long Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Digha Nikaya, Trans., Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995, p. 95

11. Bronkhorst argues that the Jainas and the Ajivikas ‘interpreted the doctrine of karma in the same way, believing that bodily and mental movements were responsible for rebirth. But whereas the Jainas believed that motionlessness might destroy past karma, the Ajivikas did not accept this.’ Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, op. cit., p. 45

12. Basham succinctly stated the core reason for the loathing of the Ajivikas: ‘The fatalism of Makkhali entails the antinomianism of Purana. Since there is no possibility of modifying one’s destiny by good works, self-control, or asceticism, all such activity is wasted.’ Their opponents then accused them of luxury and licentiousness. This charge can be countered in different ways: Basham repeatedly pointed to the severe asceticism and self-mortification of the Ajivikas, that references to this are in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist literature. Basham op. cit., p. 112 Again, regarding Jaina hypocrisy on their charge of the Ajivikas’ non-celibacy he wrote ‘It is clear that many ancient Indian ascetics, including the proto-Jainas who followed Parsva, took no vows of chastity. … Their own religious literature shows that the Jaina monks themselves were not always as strict in the maintenance of chastity as the founder of their order might have desired, and that occasional lapses were often looked upon as mere peccadilloes.’ Basham op. cit., p. 126 That the Ajivikas survived for so long in the face of such intense hostility is testament to their sincere austerities and moral discipline. ‘Ajivikas generally pursued their religious quest by the traditional Indian paths of pain, fasting, and gentleness.’ Basham ibid. He wrote that their community was drawn from all sections of society, that women were inducted into their sect, they had educated members, they did not encourage caste distinctions, their monks were active in everyday life, that not only had they enjoyed the support of the kings of Magadha and got their greatest support from industrial and mercantile classes, in later centuries the Dravidian Ajivikas were supported by ‘men of substance’ Basham op. cit., p. 134. Because the Carvakas denied another world and denied karma they were hated by all the other sects. Johannes Bronkhorst, op. cit., pp. 364-365

13. Religious song and ritual dance.

14. ‘Of the Divine’, ‘of portents’, ‘of the sky’, ‘of the earth’, ‘of the body’, ‘of sound’, ‘of characteristics’, ‘of indications’

15. The atomic structure of the universe, the Lord, the Elements, their modifications. The divine Markali delivered these scriptures.

16. Later additions to these elemental categories were ‘joy’, ‘sorrow’ (dukkha) and ‘life’ (jiva). Basham wrote ‘These elemental theories seem gradually to have gained in importance at the expense of the doctrine of niyati, which … plays a lesser part in the Tamil than in the Pali and Prakrit texts.’ Basham op. cit., p. 263 The atoms are neither destroyed nor created, cannot penetrate one another and will not split, multiply, nor expand. The atoms in Manimekalai do move and combine, at least on the lower level of truth. They may come together densely or loosely. In Manimekalai and Civanana-cittiyar atoms combine in fixed ratios. Single atoms can only be detected by a divine eye, but large aggregations can be seen when they form objects. The Ajivika atomic theory was most probably derived from Pakudha Kaccayana and was possibly the first in the world (Basham op. cit., p. 3). The Buddhists, Jainas and Vaisesikas also had atomic theories, again most probably derived from Pakudha and therefore from the Ajivikas (Basham, op. cit., p. 269)

17. Basham wrote that throughout their history, the Ajivikas maintained the material nature of the soul. Basham op. cit., p. 269. He attributed the origins of the Ajivika doctrine of the atomic nature of the soul to animism whereby the life of man was viewed as a solid substance. Basham op. cit., p. 284 For the Jainas, the soul is not material but both dharma and karma are atomic.

18. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 2

19. ‘The Carvakas’ denial of another world is enough for those who hold that ethics must be rooted in it to pronounce that the Carvaka had no ethics.’ Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 55 ‘Rejecting sacrifices on the basis of their involving bloodshed and obscene rites, the Carvakas are little expected to preach adultery, stealing and the like (crimes) which they are represented to do.’ Ibid., p. 59 The parallels between the charge against the Carvakas by their opponents (including the proponents of caste) that they were (at the least) pleasure seeking egoistic hedonists and that against the atomist Epicureans by their rivals the Stoics and Christians (who shared a belief in ‘Providence’) is noteworthy. The damage done to the philosophy of Epicureanism persists to this day, encapsulated in ‘epicure’. The arguments of Epicurus against a fear of death are also echoed in words attributed to the Carvakas: ‘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?’ In The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 2 Jaina morality is expressed negatively (non-stealing, non-killing) and the Jainas believe in mortification as a positive element of right conduct. Compare with the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha and the tortured death of Christ which point to salvation through the recognition of suffering as being at the heart of life.

20. ‘Fools and wise, at the breaking-up of the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death’ attributed to the materialist and possible forerunner of the Carvakas Ajita Kesakambali. In Samannaphala Sutta op. cit. p. 96 ‘The Carvaka view on the soul or consciousness especially that of its discontinuity at death … met with severe criticism from the Buddhists who sought to maintain that there is an eternal flow of momentary conscious states’ The Buddhists argued that ‘the Carvaka cannot assert that the self (soul) dies at the dissolution of the body because in so doing he contradicts his epistemological position that nothing is to be accepted as true that is not given in perception. Nobody can report his own (absolute) death unless we hold belief in some sort of survival.’ Kewal Krishan Mittal, Materialism in Indian Thought, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1974, p. 48

21. In his Sariraka-bhasya (commentary on the Brahma-sutra) Sankara wrote ‘Here now, some materialists (Lokayatika), who see the Self in the body only, are of the opinion that a Self separate from the body does not exist; assume that consciousness, although not observed in earth and the other external elements – either single or combined – may yet appear in them when transformed into the shape of a body, so that consciousness springs from them … and that man is only a body qualified by consciousness. … in the same way as we admit the existence of that perceptive consciousness which has the material elements and their products for its objects, we also must admit the separateness of that consciousness from the elements. And, as consciousness constitutes the character of our Self, the Self must be distinct from the body. … consciousness is permanent … the body may be used (by the Self) as a mere auxiliary.’ In Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies op. cit., pp. 237-240

22. Sarvadarshansamgraha, quoted at:

23. For the Carvakas svabhavavada was the chance flow of nature, the coming into being and passing away of its formations. Nyaya-Vaisesika thinkers rejected the view of the Carvakas as ‘chance theory.’ Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 52

24. In his book, Mittal made excellent points regarding the Jainas – that there is very little in common between Carvaka and Jaina thought. He argues that the Jainas are not intentionally materialist. On the contrary, they are opposed to materialism. According to them, matter and the material are responsible for human bondage. The goal of human endeavour is to achieve kaivalya of the jiva from pudgala (matter). Further, one is to mortify the flesh and undergo austerities to achieve this end. Subduing and even destroying the instincts is recommended. Matter binds and degrades the jiva, the real self of humans – it is chaff to be sifted from the grain. Materialism in Indian Thought op. cit., p. 103 The Carvarkas, through Madhvacharya, would reply ‘The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains/What man, seeking his own true interest/would fling them away/because of a covering of husk and dust? Sarvadarshansamgraha, quoted at: op. cit.  

25. ‘The Carvakas do not admit any pramana (validity) except perception. According to them, that which is not perceived cannot be admitted as existent; its non-apprehension proves its non-existence. … the Carvaka assertion that whatever is not perceived is proved to be non-existent leads to sheer absurdities. One leaving one’s home does not perceive his relations, and therefore should believe in the non-existence of these relations and even of his home itself. There will be no point for such a man to return home.’ Gautama’s Nyayasutra with Vatsyayana’s Commentary/Elucidation in Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, op. cit., pp. 79-80

26. Paul Fuller, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2005, p. 17

27. The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, op. cit., pp. 14-18

28. History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion op. cit., p. 285

29. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy op. cit., p. 10

30. Ibid. p. 2


Basham A.L., History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, A Vanished Indian Religion, Luzac and Co., Ltd., London 1951

Bronkhorst, Johannes, Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India, Brill, Leiden, 2007

Chakraborti, Haripada, Asceticism in Ancient India, S.K. Bhattacharya, Calcutta, 1973

Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar, Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind, The Nyaya Dualist Tradition, State University of New York Press, 1999

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad ed., Carvaka/Lokayata, An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi, 1994

Fuller, Paul, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism – The point of view, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2005

Acharya, Madhava The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, trans., E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough, Trubner, London, 1882

Mittal, Kewal Krishan, Materialism in Indian Thought, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1974

Organ, Troy Wilson, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man, Ohio University, 1970

Sharma, Brij Narain, Social Life in Northern India AD 600-1000, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1966

Internet resources (accessed 26.10.10)



Encyclopaedia Britannica/Charvaka

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Lokayata/Carvaka


Ian Whicher on Yoga and freedom