The Value and Basic Idea of the Charvaka System in Indian Philosophy

Read this article to learn about the value and basic idea of the Charvaka system in Indian philosophy!

Of the Nastik systems of Indian philosophy, none is as anti-Vedic as the Charvaka School. It is more a philosophy of life than a theory of ultimate reality.

It has its truth in man’s eternal urge for pleasure. It has its novelty in challenging all the traditional values.

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In metaphysics, ethics and epistemology, Charvaka stands in marked contrast to all other Indian philosophical systems. That is its weakness as well as strength and contribution. To initiate discussion and rethinking on time old principals is always valuable in philosophy. Charvaka dogmatically rejected all dogmas.

As Hume aroused the celebrated philosopher, Kant from his dogmatic slumbers by challenging all that was hither to accepted in philosophy so Charvaka gave a death blow to all traditional thought and values and this created the need for rethinking and revaluation, necessary for all living philosophy.

The Meaning of the Word Charvaka:

The origin of the word Charvaka is not definite. According to some scholars, a seer named Charvaka who is mentioned in the Mahabharat, ‘enunciated this school of philosophy and it is named after him. Others consider Charvaka to be the name of the pupil who was first of all taught this philosophy by its author. The word Charvaka is derived from the root ‘carva’ which means to chew or to eat. The special emphasis laid on eating and drinking in this philosophy explains the name given to it. There is yet another viewpoint. This philosophy is very pleasing to our ears.

So the welcome utterance (caru-vak) found in this philosophy account for its name. Charvaka school is also referred to as ‘Lokayat-school’ because it is widely popular among the common (Loka-Ayat). It is not certain if Charvaka was the particular name of some individual or merely an epithet of the followers of Lokayat school. In fact, Charvaka and Lokayat are used as synonyms in Indian philosophical works.


Perception is the only testimony:

For Charvaka school, perception is the only testimony. Originally, they equated perception with visibility but afterwards they widened its scope and maintained five types of perception based on the five senses. Perception is further divided into two categories—external and internal. External perception comes through the contact of the external senses with objects. Internal perception depends upon external perception. Inner actions of the mind are based upon material received through external perception. But all perceptions are not authoritative and authentic. Some perceptions are but illusions.

Repudiation of Inference:


Giving credence only to perception, Charvaka philosophy repudiates other means of knowledge. The Charvaka philosophers rebut inference by the following arguments—

(1) In Nyaya philosophy inference depends upon concomitance (Vyapti). According to Charvaka philosophers, concomitance is impossible because: firstly, it is based on perception and secondly, it deduces the imperceptible from the perceptible. That smoke is an inevitable concomitant of fire cannot be inferred from seeing smoke with fire at some old places.

Charvaka agrees with Hume that a general rule can be formed only on the basis of a large number of events of a particular type. Unless one sees fire of all times and places, one cannot vindicate the rule that everywhere fire is invariably accompanied with smoke.


The conditions for making it valid being obviously impracticable, concomitance cannot be sus­tained by perception. It is the inevitable inter-relationship between all actions of cause and effect. It cannot be perceived with the help of external senses. It cannot be known by inner perception also, as the latter depends upon external perception.

(2) Nor can concomitance be established by inference because the inference will also depend on concomitance and perception will again be required to prove the concomitance. Concomitance is based on inference and vice-versa. So they suffer from the fallacy of inter-dependence

(3) Concomitance cannot be known by testimony because the authority of the latter also, in its own turn, is based on inference. Secondly, taking inference to be based on testimony, everybody will always have to depend upon the words of some other person or inference. There will be no end to this chain. It will again lead to inter-dependence.

(4) The validity of causation cannot be established but on the basis of perception. Universal (Jati) or Samanya cannot be known either by external or internal perception. The Naiyayikas try to establish inevitable relationship between fire and smoke although they have not seen fire and smoke of all the times and of all the places. It being patently infeasible, smokiness can be equated only with those objects with smoke whose perception it is. Evidently, smoke is not inevitable and it cannot lead to knowledge of concomitance.

(5) Concomitance cannot be established on the basis of comparison. Com­parison depends on the universal relation between words and objects signified by them. This, again, is not the object of perception.

(6) Concomitance is without conditions (Nirupadhi), but it is impossible to know all the conditions of an inference. The relationship between Pratijna and Upanaya depends upon the absence of conditions. But the knowledge of the conditions must necessarily precede the knowledge of its absence. The knowledge of all conditions being impossible, we cannot know their absence and we cannot be certain of concomitance.

Causation is not valid:

The Charvakas do not believe in causation and its universality, as it also depends upon concomitance. Any two events may happen together on many an occasion and consequently we may be led to expect that they will invariably go together. But there is, in fact, no certainty about their concomitance. The inference of causal relation between fire and smoke, from the sight of smoke with fire several times, admits of loopholes, as it overlooks several conditions e.g., the wetness of fuel.

Wood gives out smoke only if it is wet. The relationship of cause and the perception of all conditions cannot be known with the help of inference or testimony because they themselves are not valid. The accidental conjunction of all antecedents and consequents cannot indicate concomitance. So inference cannot be immune from doubts.

The Arguments of Santaraksit:

Santaraksit puts forth the following arguments to repudiate the validity of inference.

Inference by itself cannot hold water for the reasons given below:

(1) Because, it is brought about by the middle term with three characteristics, which is invalid, like a wrong cognition “One’s sense organs are for the use of others, because they are composite things, like a chair.” This inference is fallacious notwithstanding the fact that the middle term has the three required characteristics. It is present in the minor term. It exists in the positive instances in which the major term exists. It does not exist in the negative instances in which the major term does not exist.

(2) Because, the presence of the three characteristics in the middle term cannot be the means of influence, they are also present where there is no inference, like the two characteristics of middle term.

(3) Because, in every inference, contradiction of it is possible. The major term cannot reside in the minor term, because it is a part of all the factors necessary for inference, like the minor term itself.

(4) Because, an inference, drawing a conclusion, may be refuted by another valid inference. “Sound is non-eternal because it is a product like a jar”, this inference is countered by the inference, ‘Sound is eternal’, because it is a quality of Akasa, which is eternal.

(5) Because, in every inference, it is possible to find a middle term, which has invariable concomitance with the contradictory of the major term. The inference “Sound is non-eternal, because it is a product like a jar,” is contradicted by the inference “Sound is eternal because it is perceptible by the ear, like the genus of sound.” Purander (700 A.D.), a distinguished Charvaka, holds inference valid in regard to the perceptible world but invalid in regard to supersensible entities. It should not be taken to mean that inference leads to successful actions.

But this is purely accidental. Inference is not invariably true, though the possibility of its validity in odd cases cannot be ruled out. Inference may be accidentally true according to Kakataiiya Nyaya. But truth is not the essential character (dharma) of inference. Induction is doubtful and dedication suffers from the defect of interdependence.

Criticism of the Charvaka View:

Faith in the validity of inference is a common trait of almost all the schools of Indian philosophy. So they have made a common cause against Charvaka philosophy which strikes vehemently at that faith.

(1) According to Buddhist philosophers, the Charvakas know it with the help of inference that other philosophical schools have faith in inference. Thus the very refutation of inference by the Charvakas is itself based on inference. The thoughts of other people are not the object of sense perception, but that of inference. So the Charvakas cannot refute inference.

(2) Venkath Nath, a disciple of Ramanuja, asserts that in case the absence of definite knowledge is accepted as a valid ground for denying the validity of inference, the argument can also be used against the authority of perception as it lacks definite knowledge.

If inference conduces to both Pravritti and Nivritti, perception also suffers from this very fact. The invalidity of inference can be proved neither by perception nor by inference. In fact, inference is not indefinite in character, because common sense regards it as definite knowledge.

(3) The absence of causation is advanced by the Charvakas as an argument against the validity of inference. But in doing so, they themselves put forth an argument. In fact, the Charvakas cannot propound their own theories without the help of inference.

(4) The main argument used against concomitance by the Charvakas is that it cannot be ascertained in all the conditions. This argument is applicable only when it is valid in all the cases. Even if it is not so, concomitance cannot be proved to be invalid.

(5) The Charvakas do not accept any argument without conditions. Thus their own argument is self contradicted, as it is without conditions.

(6) According to Udayana, a leading Naiyayika, life depends not on prob­abilities and presumptions but on the definite knowledge of presence or absence. According to him, whatever there is doubt there is inference and the absence of doubt conclusively proves the latter.

Regarding concomitance as conditional, the Charvakas point out the probability of its exception in future or at remote places. This argument is itself based on inference, because the future and the remote places depend not on perception but on inference. As a matter of fact, after the start of an action definite knowledge replaces doubts and presumptions.

(7) The Charvakas have refuted the existence of the cause-effect relation. Udayana sees no reason in doubting the inevitability of the cause-effect relation. Otherwise any cause may lead to any effect. Truly speaking, the reason for doubt in concomitance can be established on the basis of the double method of agreement in presence (Anvaya) and agreement in absence (Vyatireka). The same method also makes concomitance a valid source of knowledge.

Sabda is also invalid:

According to the Charvakas, the words of reliable persons are authoritative in the case of perceptible things. These words are also known by perception. But scriptures cannot be valid in the case of imperceptible things. Even the Vedas are no authority so far as imperceptible things have no existence. Those who choose to talk on such topics are knaves.

The Vedas are fraught with untruths, contradic­tions and tautologies. The authors of the Vedas happen to be those fruitless priests whose sole aim was to exploit the ignorant and credulous people for furthering their own selfish ends. The so-called bliss of heaven is nothing but senseless talk of the knaves. So the three Vedas which dwell on heavently bliss, are the preposterous statements of knaves.

Word being based on inference is doubtful like the latter. According to the Charvakas, the knowledge gained through words is also based on inference. That the words of all reliable people are valid is the general rule on the basis of which we have implicit faith in these words.

But inference itself is not valid. How can, then, the word based on it be valid? Words also, like inference, casually come out to be true. But it does not indicate the view that the word is necessarily and invariably an instrument of authoritative knowledge.

Criticism of the Censure of the Vedas:

Udayana, a famous Naiyayika, has strongly denunciated the criticism of the Vedas by the Charvakas. Far from being the creation of priests out to deceive the people, the Vedas are the master works of those great seers who were well-known for their integrity, uprightness, magnanimity and selflessness. These seers moved on a high moral place and were immune to flaws like hypocrisy, selfishness, acquisitiveness and other mundane pursuits. Coming out of such exceptionally spiritual people, the Vedic hymns are above doubt and suspicion. Venkathnath has put forth similar arguments. Needless to say that the Charvaka view of the Vedas is one sided.


As has already been said, the Charvaka philosophy is materialistic. Perception being the only authority for them, the Charvakas recognize no other existence except that of matter. God, soul, heaven, next world, the eternity of life, etc., cannot be perceived and hence they are not recognized by the Carvakas. Indian philosophers trace the origin of universe to five elements—earth, water, air, fire and ether (Akasha).

The Charvakas, materialists as they are, do not recognize ether, as it is known not through perception but through inference. The whole universe, animate is well as inanimate, is composed, according to them, of the remaining four elements. Living beings are born of them and they merge into them after death.

Theory of Soul:

Soul is nothing but Animate Body:

Being materialistic, the Charvakas do not believe in the existence of an invisible, unchangeable and immortal soul. Consciousness is, in fact, the quality of body. It does not exist separately from or outside the body. We do not perceive any soul; we perceive only the body in a conscious state. The combination of the five elements is termed as body. Consciousness is produced by the coalition of these five elements.

The question naturally crops up, how can a soul or a conscious being originate from inanimate objects? Charvaka replies that just as combination of betel leaf, nut, lime and catechu produces red colour, in the same way the fusion of these elements sparks off consciousness.

The actions attributed to the soul are really the actions of the body. In our day-to-day practice also we identify body and soul. Sentences in common use like ‘I am lame’, or ‘I am fat’, clearly indicate that common people do not differentiate between body and soul. According to the Charvaka, everybody should follow the path pursued by men in general. Knowledge, action, conscience, memory, experience, etc., are not the attributes of the body.

Of the Charvaka, there are two types viz., the Dharti or cunning Charvaka and the Sushikshit or educated Charvakas. The former consider the conscious body to be the soul. With that body it exists and with that body it perishes. Consciousness can be experienced nowhere except in the body. So consciousness is not the attribute of the soul, which has a separate existence of its own.

It is associated solely with the body. The educated or refined Charvakas, on the other hand, believe in the separate existence of the body. The soul has eternal knowledge and enjoys different experiences. But it perishes with the body. The soul does not migrate from one body to another.

Had it been so, man would have retained the experiences of previous life, just as he remembers his experiences of childhood. Thus some of the Charvakas are Dehatmavadin, i.e., those who identify body and soul. Others are Indriyatmavadin, because they consider the senses to be the soul.

There are others who regard the soul as nothing but the vital principle (Prana) and are therefore termed as Pranavadin. There are still others among the Charvakas who see no difference between mind and soul’ and are known as Atmamanovadin. Sadanand has described these four categories of Charvakas in his ‘Vedarusara’. But all of them unanimously hold that the soul does not survive the body. Hence, their repudiation of the theories of rebirth, heaven, hell, karma, etc.

Criticism of the Charvaka View:

The above-mentioned views about the soul have come under heavy fire. The soul occupies a very high and important place in Indian metaphysics.

So the other Indian philosophers have put forth the following strong arguments to contradict the Charvaka view:

1. Vatsyayan’s view:

According to Vatsyayan, a prominent Naiyayika, the fact that consciousness resides in the body does not necessarily make the former an attribute of the latter. For example, water can be hot, but hotness is the quality not of water but of fire. Similarly, consciousness, though residing in the body, is an attribute not of the body but of the soul.

Secondly, the body is composed of different parts. Had consciousness been the attribute of the body, it should have been located in some particular parts of the body. But it is found in all the parts of the body. The qualities of the body are either perceptible by the external sense organs or imperceptible. But consciousness is neither perceived by the external senses nor is imperceptible, so it is not a quality of the body.

2. Udayana’s Criticism:

According to Udayana, body is changeable. If consciousness is the quality of the body, it should also be changeable. In that case, the memories of childhood cannot be retained by a young man. Recollection is not the function of the body, because we remember actions of a particular part of the body, even when that part is severed from the body.

Nor can we maintain that past experiences are remembered by the atoms of the body. If it were so, then recollec­tion would not be perceived because the atoms in which it subsists are impercep­tible. That consciousness is a quality of the body is clearly ruled out by these arguments. It is immune to change and recollection is possible because of it.

3. Jayant’s argument:

Jayant has also put forth a similar argument. According to him, if consciousness were the quality of the body, the latter would not be exposed to unconsciousness and death. Further, any increase or decrease in the body would necessarily entail a corresponding increase or decrease of conscious­ness. It also cannot be a quality of the mind or the senses. If the Charvaka persists in regarding it as conscious, his mind differs from the self (atman) only in name. In fact, consciousness is the quality of the soul.

4. Argument by Vijnan Bhikshu:

Vijnan Bhikshu repudiates the Charvaka doctrine of the origin of consciousness. Only that thing can result from combination of some elements, which though in a dormant stage, is already possessed by the latter. Obviously, therefore, consciousness cannot be the outcome of the fusion of the four inanimate elements.

Again, if it were a natural quality of the body it should be always with it, since a natural quality persists so long as the substance persists. Moreover, if consciousness were the quality of the body, it would be found in different parts of the body, even when they are divorced from the body.

But a part of the body, separated from it, loses consciousness. The qualities of a thing exist in its material ingredients. So if consciousness does not exist in the component parts of the body, it cannot exist in the body as a whole also. It is more reasonable to believe in an eternal soul having consciousness as its attribute, than to regard body as full of several powers of consciousness.

5. Arguments by Samskara and Vachaspati Misra:

Samkara and Vachaspati Misra have given the following arguments against the Caravaka contention:

(a) If consciousness is the specific quality of the body, it should exist even in deep sleep, swoon, and the like.

(b) If consciousness is the quality of the soul, why is it not perceived by other people? Other qualities are perceptible to others. Why is there an excep­tion in the case of consciousness?

(c) Consciousness is either insentient or sentient. So it follows that conscious­ness is also insentient. But an insentient cannot be apprehended by another insentient object. Then how does consciousness apprehend other insentient things? Thus, it is clear that consciousness is different from insentient matter. Consciousness is self-luminous and illuminates other objects also, therefore, consciousness can never be identical with its objects.

(d) Recollection, etc., cannot be the function of the changeable body. Only an eternal and unchangeable soul can account for such actions.

(e) Consciousness cannot be the quality of the body, because when a person dreams, consciousness remains active, although the body becomes in active.

(f) There cannot be usual perception, without light. The perception however, is not a property of the light, but of the eyes. There is no consciousness without body. But consciousness is a quality, not of the body but of the soul.

(g) Subject cannot be identified with object. The body is the subject and the soul is the object. So the soul has an existence separate from the body. Consciousness is the quality of the soul. It is identical with the soul.

6. View of Rajasekhar Suri:

According to Rajasekhar Suri soul is one, it is permanent, and it is the perceiver. The identification of the body with the soul cannot explain recollection, the synthesis of different sensations and process of perception. It cannot be attributed to the body.

7. Argument by Vidyanandiswami:

Vidyanandiswami, a Jain philosopher, has exposed the Charvaka doctrine of the origin of consciousness. The existence of the soul is proved by self-consciousness (Swasamvedana). The existence of the soul is known by self-awareness. So a conscious being is different from insentient objects. The latter are perceived by sense oigans. The former is self-conscious and self-aware.

Charvaka Ethics:


Pleasure, according to the Charvakas, is the ultimate end of life. Money is a means to enjoyment and consequently it is necessary to earn it Pleasure cannot be rejected on account of its complicity with pain. No intelligent person may forego wheat merely because it is m mixed with chaff.

One cannot give up diet offish because of the bones in it. Farming cannot be abandoned for fear of animals devouring the crops. One cannot stop cooking merely because of the possibilities of some beggar demanding a share in it. One should not renounce the pleasures of this life in the false hope of a future life.

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. It is silly to give wealth to others. Thus, maximum pleasure is the ultimate end. Any action rendering more than pleasure is wrong. In this way the Charvakas are hedonists in their ethical considerations.

The hedonism of the Charvaka school has been bitterly criticized. But though the acceptance of the theory of pleasure as the ultimate end of life involves many difficulties, yet the impertinence of pleasures in life cannot be denied. Actually, all the Charvaka principles contain some element of truth, the chief mistake lying in their treatment of their one-sided view as the most superior and complete.

As it is, even on the question of hedonism, the Charvakas are divided in their opinions. The unrefined hedonists support gross hedonism, but refined Charvakas, like Vat- syayatta, established the refined and cultured hedonism, in which there is much evidence of profound thought. Vatsyayana, the author of Kama Sutra, described 64 arts.

He was firm believer in God and the other worlds and the purusharthas, of which in his opinion, Kama was the supreme. The basis of action is satisfaction of the five elements. And for the preservation of the body, the satisfaction of the senses like that of the sex is necessary. Vatsyayana stressed the importance of celibacy, religion and good citizenship.

Mastery over the 64 arts can be attained only by observance of celibacy and study of the Vedas. Vatsyayana stressed the control of sense organs and transformation of passions to concur with religion and ethics. Proper enjoyment of pleasure can be achieved only by a scientific analysis of the states of, and means to, pleasure.

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