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Charvak: The ancient Hindu atheist, materialist & hedonist


Hindu is mostly a modern word. Believe me when I say that none of the Hindu scriptures have even a word called “Hindu” or even closely related to it. That’s because the word came into being mostly after the Alexander “the great” failed conquest of India. Hindu was the word they pronounced whenever they tried to say Sindhu – the mighty river of Himalayas which today flows mostly in Pakistan.

Therefore Hindus are not a people of single faith or religion. They are union of people of an ancient nation called Bharath (India as it was called before it lost its land to modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other few ASEAN nations) with assorted beliefs. Very few Hindus actually believe that there are even atheists among them. It’s completely incorrect to believe that atheism was foreign concept brought to India by western imperialists. History can testify to the fact that atheists, materialists, rationalists, hedonists etc. were never new to ancient India. They all co-existed cordially among theists of various hues and color without any violent conflicts. Their conflicts were resolved mostly through civilized discussions.

The greatest testimony to this fact is existence of Charvak‘s school of thought.  The name Charvaka has been associated with philosophical school of materialism in Indian literature for over 3,000 years (at least). References to this philosophy are found not just in “Hindu” (read Vedic) but in the early Buddhist literature as well.  But this philosophy of materialism in the subcontinent has never been a force to reckon with. Believed to have born in discontent, it seemed to have soon died in serious thought.

According to an ancient legend Brihaspati, a heretical teacher, is regarded as the traditional founder of this school of materialism. His sutras (formulas), now long lost, is said to have propagated by the Devas (demigods) to the Asuras (demons) to cause their doom.

Charvaka, after whose name this school is so called, is said by some to be the chief disciple of Brihaspati. According to another view, Charvaka is the name of the founder of this school. According to still another view, the word ‘Charvaka’ is not a proper name, but a common name given to a materialist, and it signifies a person who believes in ‘eat, drink and be merry’ (the root word ‘charva’ means to eat) or a person who eats up his own words, or who eats up all moral and ethical considerations, or a person who is ‘sweet-tongued’ (charu-vak) and therefore whose doctrine is superficially attractive. Another synonym of Charvaka is Lokayata which means a commoner and therefore, by implication, a man of low and unrefined taste. In Ramayana, they are branded as ‘fools who think themselves to be wise and who are experts in leading people to doom and ruin.’

Charvak’s philosophy was completely atheistic. At a point of time when everyone was propounding theism, it was a very bold step to come out with the principle of materialism and accepting the existence of this world and laying stress on the life in this world and not the life after death. Many consider Charvak, not Brihaspati, as the father of materialism. His thought was based on living in present and making the best of it by gratifying ones senses through all means possible.

Charvak’s thought is very well reflected in following lines:

Yaawat jeevait sukham jeevait Rinam kritva grihtam peebait

Meaning: Till the time you are alive live happily. One should drink ghee (a sign of luxury) even by resorting to debt.

According to him one should live amid luxuries and need not to worry for future – at all. If he is not having the sufficient funds to support lavishness he should borrow money from someone else. Here the main stress is on luxuries and attainment of luxuries by any means. This philosophy was criticized when it was propounded. The main reason for this is at that point of time people believed in the principle of spending as per their earning and they believe in the principle of self-contentment. They believe in making both the ends meet. At that point of time there was a group of people who believed in living lavishly even if it is not supported by their capacity to earn. But people of this mind-set did not command any respect and they are looked down upon as they are not able to support themselves.

Believe me or not these principles have surfaced back to life and across the world with advent of Capitalism – which in many ways has all the essence of Charvak’s philosophy. Until 1980s, or 1990s at best, people stressed on their savings before incurring any expenditure. Today, it is quite contrary. People around the world are very keen at achieving everything as soon as possible. These are the people who are without patience. They want to have all the luxuries at once. When an individual joins a job, the very next day he’s aspiring every luxury; like an own house, luxury car et al. which are not possible for him/her to buy at once; not without institutions who can lend them money at “attractive interest rates”. In the past they used to take loans from their relatives and friends. But now there are institutions who are airing such ambitions of the people by making them to shun patience and get everything instantaneously.

There are lot many banking and non-banking finance corporations who are making the dream a reality of these aspirants. They first offer loans to these people and “help” them to make their dreams become “reality”. The prevalence of plastic money is one such example. Today people are going cashless and rely on plastic money. As they can spend more than they have with the help of this magical credit card. But this is only the shining side of this beautiful story of fulfilling ones dream and having a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. This is a mere illusion and a way of fooling once own self as people are trapped in a web of never ending desires as they are now having a way of full filling all their aspirations and expectations.

There is one darker side of this plastic money. Remember the great economic recession which hit the world quite recently? This depression started in America and the major cause of this was lack of liquidity in the market and one prominent reason for this is the pending clearance of the payment (bad debts) made by credit cards. People were using the credit cards without having the thought that one day they have to pay it back. And when they failed to do so then there was scarcity of money in the market. This resulted in bankruptcy of many companies and retrenchments. Trimming of organizations resulted in a great population of unemployed which further worsened the problem.

Gradually this recession gripped the entire world and every economy had to face the severe implications of this. India was also affected by this. But Indian economy soon showed the sign of recovery and not even a single company in India went bankrupt. The reason behind this was that the debt to liquidity ratio was very good in Indian corporate. The prominent reason behind this was less than 2% population of India is using the plastic money. As a result there was no liquidity crisis in India and Indian economy survived a major blow. But the situation in India is, now, changing and fast.

People who admired those without debts are now hailing and, sometimes, even worshiping the debtors. This is why they are inching closer towards the Charvaka philosophy according to which Lokayata is the only Shastra; perception is the only authority; earth, water, fire and air are the only elements; enjoyment is the only end of human existence; mind is only a product of matter. There is no other world: death means liberation.

They are fast adoring the ideas of ‘… no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world… While life remains let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt; when once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return here?’

It’d help to learn about the many causes for the downfall of Charvaka in historical India. Charvak didn’t just denounce Vedas, but also very fundamental human values. Life without values is the animal life, not the human life. Sensual pleasure is a very faint shadow of the supreme pleasure. There is a qualitative difference in pleasure. The pleasure of the pig is certainly not the same as the pleasure of the philosopher.

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