India has always been a land of ideas. Our civilisation has evolved enormously over time and so has our views of the world. Philosophy is deeply rooted in our culture. The ancient wisdom of the Vedas, the Puranas, and even the Buddhist and Jain schools of thought have left a deep impression on our collective mythology and cultural heritage.
Nonetheless, the Hindu religion has predominantly been polytheistic with immensely diverse narratives. Today this faith is so predominant in our conscience that any scope for atheism and radical rationalism often becomes heresy. Even Buddhist and Jain spirituality have a supernatural connotation. However, more detailed analyses of these religious and philosophical texts do provide clues that reveal that atheistic materialism was indeed a part of India’s ancient legacy.
Charvaka, otherwise called Lokayata, emerged as one of the earliest materialist schools of thought, long before Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that is, before the west started reassessing its beliefs in God. Lokayata, as the name infers, is the ‘philosophy of the real world’. The Charvakas denied the existence of God, or rather the existence of anything that was unverifiable.
Their epistemology emphasised on perception/evidence (pramana) and observation (anubhava) of the real, material world and to subject the inferences thus obtained to doubt. Only thus could the truth be found. That, perhaps, was the beginning of logic and scientific theory – a legacy often misattributed. Surprisingly, evidence for such ideas is found in the great Hindu epic Ramayana: “O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge.”
Charvaka ethics was one of hedonism. They believed in sensual pleasures as the only true purpose of human existence and denied any obligations for an afterlife, or karma. There was, however, a sense of subjective moral principle of avoiding pain and suffering in the process of pleasure. Death was considered an eventuality and therefore, to live one’s life to the fullest was the only wise act.
“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?”
But why do we need to reconsider Charvaka again?
In a world filled with hatred born out of differences in firmly established and seemingly unquestionable beliefs, the Charvakas teach us that scepticism is the way to liberation. To observe, to think, and to act only as per the rational argument is what science too has been telling us. The legacy of the Lokayata is one of a liberal approach to faith. It holds us responsible for our actions rather than comforting us with the utopia of dharma and karma.
Perhaps a saner world is possible only when people are not afraid of questioning dogmatic belief systems and instead work tirelessly to build a life that creates happiness for all.