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Authors born between 1000 and 500 BCE

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Only the Material World Exists

Pleasure and Pain

Ritual as a Livelihood

Hell as Mundane

Intelligence Resides in the Body

No Logical Basis for Inference

Testimony as no Basis for Inference

Comparison no Basis for Inference

Spontaneity in Nature







The system of philosophy named after its founder, Carvaka, was set out in the Brhaspati Sutra in India probably about 600 BCE. This text has not survived and, like similar philosophies in Greece, much of what we know of it comes from polemics against it and remarks by its critics. There is a further similarity with Greece in that this is a rationalistic and skeptical philosophy, thus undermining the widespread belief in the West that Indian philosophy is primarily religious and mystical. Amartya Sen has argued, in fact, that there is a larger volume of atheistic and agnostic writings in Pali and Sanskrit than in any other classical tradition—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or Arabic. He adds that this applies also to Buddhism, the only agnostic world religion ever to emerge.


Carvaka’s philosophy developed at a time when religious dogma concerning our knowledge of reality, the constitution of the world, and the concept of an afterlife were being increasingly questioned, both in India and elsewhere. Specifically, the school of Carvaka contained within itself a materialism that ruled out the supernatural (lokayata), naturalism (all phenomena described in terms of the properties of the four elements), rejection of the Vedas (nastika), and a skepticism that included rejection of inferential logic, or induction.


One of the best sources for Carvaka’s atheistic argument happens to be a book, Sarvadarshansamgraha (the collection of all philosophies), written in the Fourteenth Century by Madhavacarya, a Vaishnavite (Hindhu) scholar. Extracts from this are provided below.




Only the Material World Exists


1   The efforts of Carvaka are indeed hard to eradicate, for the majority of living beings endorse the current refrain—

While life is yours live joyously;

No one can avoid Death's searching eye:

When this body of ours is burnt,

How can it ever return again?

In accordance with the dictates of policy and enjoyment, the mass of men consider wealth and satisfaction of desire the only ends of man. They deny the existence of any object belonging to a future world, and follow only the doctrine of Carvaka. Hence another name for that school is Lokayata—a name well accordant with the thing signified [that only the material world, loka, exists].



Pleasure and Pain


2   The only end of man is enjoyment produced by sensual pleasures. Nor may you say that such cannot be called the end of man as they are always mixed with some kind of pain, because it is our wisdom to enjoy the pure pleasure as far as we can, and to avoid the pain which inevitably accompanies it. Thus the man who desires fish takes the fish with their scales and bones, and having eaten the parts he wants, desists. Or the man who desires rice, takes the rice, straw and all, and having taken that which he wants, desists. It is not therefore for us, through a fear of pain, to reject the pleasure which our nature instinctively recognizes as congenial. Men do not refrain from sowing rice because there happen to be wild animals to devour it; nor do they refuse to set the cooking-pots on the fire, because there happen to be beggars to pester us for a share of the contents.

        If any one were so timid as to forsake a visible pleasure, he would indeed be foolish like a beast, as has been said by the poet—

That the pleasure arising to man

from contact with sensible objects,

is to be relinquished because accompanied by pain—

such is the reasoning of fools.

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?


Ritual as a Livelihood


3   If you object that, if there be no such thing as happiness in a future world, then why should men of experience and wisdom engage in the sacrificial offering to fire and other phenomena, which can only be performed with great expenditure of money and bodily fatigue? Alas, your objection cannot be accepted as any proof to the contrary, since the sacrificial offerings are only useful as means of livelihood.

      The Veda is tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology. The impostors who call themselves Vedic scholars are mutually destructive, as the authority of the chapter on knowledge is overthrown by those who maintain the authority of the chapter on action. Conversely those who maintain the authority of the chapter on knowledge reject that on action. Lastly, the three Vedas themselves are only the incoherent rhapsodies of rascals, and to this effect runs the popular saying—


          The Sacrifices, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, 

              and smearing oneself with ashes—

          Brhaspati says these are but means of livelihood 

              for those who have no manliness nor sense.


Hell as Mundane


4   Hence it follows that there is no other hell than the mundane pain produced by purely mundane causes, such as thorns and so forth. The only supreme being is the earthly monarch whose existence is proved by all the world's eyesight. And the only liberation is the dissolution of the body. By holding the doctrine that the soul is identical with the body, such phrases as "I am thin", or "I am black," are at once intelligible as the body’s attributes of thinness or blackness. In a similar way, self-consciousness will reside in the same subject.



Intelligence Resides in the Body


5   In this school the four elements, earth, fire, water and air are the original principles. From these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced—just as the intoxicating power of some herbs is developed from the mixing of certain ingredients. When the body is destroyed, intelligence at once perishes also. They quote the Vedic text for this:


    Springing forth from these elements itself

    solid knowledge is destroyed

    when they are destroyed—

    after death no intelligence remains.


Therefore the soul is only the body distinguished by the attribute of intelligence, since there is no evidence for any self distinct from the body. Therefore the existence of such a separate self cannot be proved, because this school holds that perception is the only source of knowledge and does not allow inference as an alternative source.



No Logical Basis for Inference


6   "It could be," says an opponent of this view; "that your wish would be gained if inference, or logic, had no force of proof; but they do have this force. If they had not, then how, on perceiving smoke, should the thoughts of the intelligent immediately proceed to fire. Or why, on hearing another say, "There are fruits on the bank of the river," do those who desire fruit go off at once to the shore?"

     All this, however, is only the inflation of the world of fancy. Those who maintain the authority of inference accept the sign or middle term as the causer of knowledge, which middle term must be found in the minor and be itself invariably connected with the major. Now this invariable connection must be a relation destitute of any condition accepted or disputed. This connection does not possess its power of causing inference by virtue of its existence, as the eye or other sense organs are the cause of perception, but by virtue of its being known. What then is the means of this connection being known? We will first show that it is not perception, which is held to be of two kinds, external and internal.

     External perception is not the required means; for although it is possible that the actual contact of the senses and the object will produce the knowledge of the particular object thus brought in contact, yet as there can never be such contact in the case of the past or the future, the universal proposition which was to embrace the invariable connection of the middle and major terms in every case becomes impossible to be known.

      Nor may you maintain that this knowledge of the universal proposition has the general class as its object, because, if so, there might arise a doubt as to the existence of the invariable connection in this particular case.

      Nor is internal perception the means, since you cannot establish that the mind has any power to act independently towards an external object, since all allow that it is dependent on the external senses. As has been said by one of the logicians, "The eye and other sense organs have their objects as described; but mind externally is dependent on the others." Nor can inference be the means of the knowledge of the universal proposition, since in the case of this inference we should also require another inference to establish it, and so on, and hence would arise the fallacy of an infinite regression.



Testimony as no Basis for Inference


7   Nor can testimony be the means thereof, since we may either allege in reply, in accordance with the Vaisesika doctrine of Kanada, that this is included in the topic of inference; or else we may hold that this fresh proof of testimony is unable to leap over the old barrier that stopped the progress of inference, since it depends itself on the recognition of a sign in the form of the language used in a child's presence by an old man. Moreover, there is no more reason for our believing on another's word that smoke and fire are invariably connected than for our receiving the unsupported assertion of the existence of Manu [a mythical being with no body] and the like.

        And again, if testimony were to be accepted as the only means of the knowledge of the universal proposition, then in the case of a man to whom the fact of the invariable connection between the middle and major terms had not been pointed out by another person, there could be no inference of one thing, such as fire, on seeing another, such as smoke. Hence, on your own showing, the whole topic of inference for oneself would have to end in mere idle words.



Comparison no Basis for Inference


8   Then again, comparison and the like must be utterly rejected as the means of the knowledge of the universal proposition, since it is impossible that they can produce the knowledge of this invariable connection, because their end is to produce the knowledge of quite another connection, namely, the relation of a name to something so named.

        Again, this same absence of a condition, which has been given as the definition of an invariable connection or universal proposition, can itself never be known; since it is impossible to establish that all conditions must be objects of perception. Therefore, although the absence of perceptible things may be itself perceptible, the absence of non-perceptible things must be itself non-perceptible; and thus, since we must here too have recourse to inference, we cannot leap over the obstacle which has already been planted to bar this.

        But since the knowledge of the condition must here precede the knowledge of the condition's absence, it is only when there is the knowledge of the condition that the knowledge of the universality of the proposition is possible, i.e., a knowledge in the form of such a connection between the middle term and major term as is distinguished by the absence of any such condition; and, on the other hand, the knowledge of the condition depends upon the knowledge of the invariable connection. Thus we fasten on our opponents, as with adamantine glue, the thunderbolt-like fallacy of reasoning in a circle. Hence by the impossibility of knowing the universality of a proposition it becomes impossible to establish the validity of inference.

        The step which the mind takes from the knowledge of smoke, etc, to the knowledge of fire, etc., can be accounted for by its being based on a former perception or by its being an error. Or in some cases this step is justified as accidental, just like the coincidence of effects observed in the employment of gems, charms, drugs, and so forth.



Spontaneity in Nature


9   From this it follows that fate and its various counterparts do not exist, since these can only be proved by inference. But an opponent will say, if you thus do not allow the existence of unseen forces the various phenomena of the world become destitute of any cause. But we cannot accept this objection as valid, since these phenomena can all be produced spontaneously from the inherent nature of things. Thus it has been said:


Fire is hot, water cold,

refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;

By whom came this variety?

They were born of their own nature.


This also has been said by Brhaspati:

There is no heaven, no final liberation,

nor any soul in another world,

Nor do the actions of the four castes,

orders, or priesthoods produce any real effect.


If a beast slain as an offering to the dead

will itself go to heaven,

why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father?


If offerings to the dead produce gratification

to those who have reached the land of the dead,

why the need to set out provisions

for travelers starting on this journey?

If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,

why not make food offerings down below

to gratify those standing on housetops?


While life remains, let a man live happily,

let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;

When once the body becomes ashes,

how can it ever return again?


If he who departs from the body goes to another world,

why does he not come back again,

restless for love of his kinfolk?

It is only as a means of livelihood

that brahmins have established here

abundant ceremonies for the dead—

there is no other fruit anywhere.


Hence for kindness to the mass of living beings

we must fly for refuge in the doctrine of Carvaka.





Adapted from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translated by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough.  Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner, London, 1914.


"An Assessment of the Millenium" by Amartya Sen. UNESCO Lecture, New Delhi, 1998