It is not known what the word Lokâyata originally meant (a similar problem exists with Sânkhya). The word has not been defined in early references, including the Amarakośa, and therefore its meaning has to be constructed from later sources (check the Etymology section for details).
The phase of Lokâyata when it was identified as Cârvâka and as Bṛhaspati’s teaching, is reasonably well understood. However, its earlier form, where it finds mention in ancient sources, is unclear. It would seem reasonable to assume that it must have meant the same skeptic/materialistic position, in ancient times too. But all available references indicate otherwise. None of the ancient atheistic doctrines – and there are several of them – are labeled Lokâyata. There are no references from that period which associate Lokâyata with Bṛhaspati. In contrast, the Arthaśâstra calls it a logical philosophy, grouping it with Sânkhya and Yoga. Early Buddhist texts refer to it as a branch of learning of Brâhmanas. Though these references do not tell us tell us what it was, it is clear that Lokâyata here cannot mean atheism. What was it then? Was it the art of disputation as suggested by Dasgupta? Was it Nature Science as suggested by Rhys David? Or was it political science as suggested by Tucci?
To account for these two different forms of Lokâyata, it would be appropriate to divide the history of Lokâyata into early Lokâyata (early and pre-Christian era) and later Lokâyata.
The name Lokâyata appears in several places without being defined, which makes it hard to understand what it was about, without examining contextual evidence. Some of the main references are –
In Book I, Chapter 2 of the Arthaśâstra, the author states that there are exactly four vidyas from which everything about righteousness and wealth is learnt. These four vidyas are
He adds, “the science of Anvikshaki is most beneficial to the world, as it keeps the mind steady and firm in weal and woe alike, and bestows excellence of foresight, speech and action. Light to all kinds of knowledge, easy means to accomplish all kinds of acts and receptacle of all kinds of virtues, is the Science of Anvikshaki ever held to be” – Translated by R. Shamasastry
Manu Smriti 7.43 says the Kshatriya King should learn the Veda, Anvikshiki and âtma Vidya from a learned Brâhmana, which implies the three are distinct branches of learning. From this description of Anvikshiki in the Arthaśâstra, and other references, it becomes clear that Lokâyata here is different from its later meaning as atheism. It should be noted that the name of Bṛhaspati occurs in the Arthaśâstra, but is not connected with Lokâyata.
It does not appear to be political science as theorized by Tucci or nature science as identified by Rhys David. It also does not appear to be sophistry or the art of dispute as suggested by Dasgupta. A more probable option is Lokâyata was a logical philosophy – something on the lines of early Nyâya (proto-Nyâya) which concerned itself with rational thought and identifying right knowledge. It would be natural for such a school to develop the art of disputation or debate, which would be an extension to the process of rational thought and discovery. Several centuries later when Vâtsyâyana (6th century CE) commented on the Nyâya Sutra, he explained that by Anvikshiki, the author of the Arthaśâstra meant Nyâya.
Following this line of thought, it is entirely possible that Lokâyata subsequently developed into the metaphysical Nyâya, after which it did not have much standing by itself as purely a rational method of examining knowledge – except perhaps by some atheists who picked up the technique of polemy to challenge scholars of other doctrines, while retaining the original name of Lokâyata. It is also possible that the later atheistic Lokâyata had no relation to the earlier Lokâyata and the name is merely a coincidence. However, this is all conjecture, and it should be noted that there just isn’t sufficient evidence to know the exact nature of Lokâyata during the time of Bhâguri, Pâtanjali and Kautilya. All we know is, it could not have been atheistic or anti-vedic.
Buddhaghosha (5th century CE) described Lokâyata as vitanda, meaning sophistry where the person engages in debate with no position of his own and is only debating to invalidate the opponent’s position. After this time, practically all references to Lokâyata are negative, where it is unambigiously identified with one or more of atheism, materialism, skepticism and hedonism.
Before getting into more detail on Lokâyata, a short survey of atheistic thought in ancient India is in order. Atheism goes back a long way, and there are several references to people who held atheistic position rejecting the Veda, after life and God. The following are some accounts of atheism and though they are not always named as Lokâyata/Cârvâka, the content is repeated verbatim in other places where it is specifically labeled Lokâyata (or Cârvâka) and hence, can safely be assumed to be such.
In the Katha Upanishad, Nachiketa discusses the doubts of people about their existence after death. In the Bṛhadâraṇyaka, Yajnavalkya’s statement that death is like salt dissolving into sea, is interpreted to negate afterlife. In the Buddhist text Dîghanîkâya, Ajita Keshakambalin talks about the futlity of sin and virtue as there is no afterlife. Th body is made up of the four elements and on death and these elements return to nature on death. The Gita 14.7-18 describes asuras as having no discrimination, no belief in a creator and do not believe in life after death.
In the Mahâbhârata, Lokâyata is mentioned multiple times and Cârvâka is mentioned too, though not as a school or philosophy. Draupadi talks about her education by a Lokâyata Brâhmana at which Yudhistira chastizes her for learning heretical doctrines. There are references to learned Lokâyata Brâhmanas who did not believe in paraloka. Cârvâka, perhaps symbolically, appears as a demon disguised as a Brâhmana, who in truth, is a friend of Duryodhana. This Cârvâka criticizes Yudhistira for being the cause of several deaths at which the Brâhmanas in the assembly are outraged and burn him down by the power of their Vedic chants.
In the Manu Smriti, several references are made to heretical doctrines. One informative verse reads as “A Brâhmana who is inclined to rationalistic doctrines and despise the two sources of knowledge should be cast out as an atheist and reviler of the Veda”. These unnamed doctrines may in most cases include other nastika doctrines such as Buddhism, Jainism, etc. However, the specific mention of hetu-śastra, which should be taken to mean doctrines which do not rely on scriptural authority, are most aptly applied to Lokâyata. Medhâtithi, the commentator of the Manu Smriti, identifies Nâstikas with Lokâyatas in the verse 8.22.
In the Râmâyana, Jâvali, the Brâhmana counsels Râma about the futility of valuing relationships, vice, virtue and the false nature of afterlife. His advice to Râma is to focus on this life and live a joyous life. The tenor is similar to that of the criticism found in the Vishnu Purâna.
The Vishnu Purâna described a heretical doctrine as propounded by Mâyâ Moha, which appears to be a veiled criticism of Buddhism. However, several of these points are reproduced by Vidyâranya in his Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha, when describing Lokâyata. The doctrine of Mâyâmoha runs as follows – These Asuras abandoned the entire system founded on the Trayi. They reviled the Veda, Gods, Yajna and Brâhmanas. They criticized animal sacrifice, mocked the idea that throwing butter into fire can produce future merit. If the sacrificed animal attains heaven, why not sacrifice your aged father? If a man can be satiated by the food eaten by someone else, then shrâddha should be offered to a traveler so he does not have to carry food. Assertions that come from the sky (scriptural authority) have no value and only assertions based on reason can have value.
In Nyâya texts, Lokâyata finds a mention several times as an untenable, hostile position. The Nyâya age of polemics was primarily based on epistemology (check epistemology for details). Besides the disagreement over pramânas, the most common criticism against Lokâyata was their refusal to admit the existence of a soul outside the body. Several arguments are attributed to the Lokâyata opponent in favor of this position and criticized by the Nyâya scholar. Based on the authorship of the Tattvopaplavasimha during this time, it is possible that there existed some individuals who engaged in polemics and favored the position of Lokâyata, though there is no evidence that they labelled themselves Cârvâkas or Lokâyatikas. Jayanta in his Nyâya Manjari, says Lokâyata has no position of its own (na svatantram) and only discusses the opponent’s position. He adds that the Lokâyata text prescribes no duties and is therefore not an âgama, its nature being merely vitanda.
Among Jaina texts, Dasgupta has written at length about Sîlânka’s opinion on the subject of Lokâyata. Sîlânka, the Jain, says Lokâyatas do not admit the existence of a soul separate from the body. Thus, the Lokâyatas do not think there is anything wrong in killing. They cannot discriminate between good and bad as they do not admit any principle by which such a distinction can be made. Therefore, there is no such thing as morality. He adds that the Lokâyata system has no form of initiation and there can be no ascetics of that school. It is ascetics of other schools such as Buddhists who in some cases were influences by the Lokâyata view, converted over and preached the same to others.
The Tattvopaplavasimha, among all the available sources on Lokâyata, is the only source that is favorable to the Lokâyata position. All other sources of information come from writers belonging to other schools, who wrote about Lokâyata as a pūrvapaksha, which they disagreed with. However, the Tattvopaplavasimha does not call itself Lokâyata or Cârvâka. It is a Lokâyata text because of its ideological affinity with Bṛhaspati. Authored by Jayarasi Bhatta, it is purely a polemical and skeptical text which argues against the validity of Pramanas as used by all the leading schools of its time. A true skeptic, Jayarasi has no position for himself, except for a single quote on the worldy path (laukika marga) being a better alternative. Jayarasi respects and quotes Bṛhaspati, but does not claim to be his follower. More details on this text can be found in the Epistemology section.
Śankara mentions the Lokâyata in his commentaries and attributes to them the doctrine of dehâtma-vâda, that is, the non-existence of a soul outside the body. Śankara identifies asuras describd in the Gita with Lokâyata. No specific sūtra or text or person is quoted and there is no evidence that he acquired this information first-hand. Circumstantial evidence points to the possiblity that the view on Lokâyata during his time was hearsay.
Kamalashila, the Buddhist, mentions two different lines of Cârvâkas – which correspond to the two branches of Cârvâka – Sushikshita and Dhūrta, as described by Jayanta in his Nyâya-Manjari. The difference between these two branches appears to be their position in epistemology. The Sushikshita Cârvâka accepts pratyaksha as the ony pramâna, while the Dhūrta Cârvâka rejects all pramânas. The latter was perhaps labeled Dhūrta as it was hard, if not impossible, to debate them without accepting one or more pramânas. Clearly, the Tattvopaplavasimha belongs to the Dhūrta category. It is possible that Jayanta was specifically referring to the Tattvopaplavasimha when he wrote about Dhūrta Cârvâkas.
The Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha (15th century CE) attempts to give a concise view of Lokâyata as known to the author. As mentioned earlier, there is no mention of an individual or text, which would mean the author was relying on information that has came down through rival schools.The content is similar to that of the Vishnu Purâna, with mention of the hedonistic nature of the Cârvâka who lived a life of depravity like there was no tomorrow, borrowing money without worry about repayment, eating in excess, etc. The following quotes are from the translation by Cowell and Gough. Most of these quotes are found in older sources such as the Vishnu Purâna.
There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world.
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Yedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes, Were made by Nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.
If a beast slain in the Jyotishtoma rite will itself go to heaven,Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
If the shraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead, then here, too, in the case of travellers when they start, it is needless to give provisions for the journey.
If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Srdddha here, then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?
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 again?
If he who departs from the body goes to another world, how is it that he comes not back again restless for love of his kindred?
Hence, it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here.
All these ceremonies for the dead, there is no other fruit anywhere.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari,and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Ashwamedha, these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests.
The various vâdas (Philosophical positions)
Multiple heretic vâdas have been recorded and several of these were placed under the common unbrella of Lokâyata/Cârvâka. Some of the known vâdas are –
The Lokâyata/Cârvâka Philosophy
Atheists have been known to be in existence back from the Upanishad days or even earlier. However, there is no evidence that they organized themselves into a formal school of atheism. During the early days, before the advent of philosophical doctrines, when Vedic Yajnas and Pitru worship were widely practised, their criticism focused mainly on the futility of performing these actions on the grounds of lack of evidence. Scriptural authority was dismissed as baseless and therefore vice, virtue, merits of Yajna, paraloka, etc., were invalidated as they were all based on scripture. During this phase, the term Lokâyata meant something else and the term Cârvâka was not yet in recognized use.
In later times, philosophies like Nyâya, Buddhism, etc., came to the forefront and the focus now was on the soul and its emancipation, which was the common factor among all the leading doctrines of that time. Epistemology became a prominent and central part of these doctrines, primarily for polemics. Skeptics, on the other hand, had no doctrine to defend and consequently had no use for epistemology other than to engage the opponent in debate. During this period, different skeptics took different positions in epistemology (more details in the epistemology section). During this period they were considered a collective whole, labeled Lokâyata, Cârvâka and followers of Bṛhaspati. However, once again, there is no evidence that atheists organized themselves or called themselves as Lokâyata or Cârvâka. The only text available, the Tattvopaplavasimha does not call itself by such labels and does not consider Bṛhaspati as a Guru. It is not uncommon to associate atheism with questionable morals and this was true for Lokâyata as well. A common perception, was that Lokayatikas were hedonists with loose morals, leading a life of depravity. There is no factual basis for these claims and taking into account the acrimony and bias against Lokâyata, these accusations are without value.
After Colebrooke first wrote about the Cârvâka, mostly based on the Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha version, there has been more research into the topic and more information has been uncovered to give a better, if still incomplete picture of Lokâyata over time. Due to considerable blanks, different people have filled these blanks with their own perceptions, many of which do not stand scrutiny. Some identified Cârvâkas with Kapalikas, some see them as hedonists, some see them as politicians, and some scholars have taken the position that they never existed. Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient evidence to back any of these claims. In the absence of clear evidence, it is best to be conservative and limit ourselves to the following conclusions.