There were intelligent seekers of truth even in India as far back in history as seventh century BCE. One such school was Charvaka whose doctrine was known as Lokayata. Very little information about them has survived to our day. No copy of their central text, the Brihaspati Sutra, which dates from 600 BCE, is available now. It is assumed by historians that the Lokayata texts were systematically destroyed by the Brahmins whose authority was questioned by these texts. But, rather ironically, the works which argued against the Lokayata texts were preserved and thus we have sufficient information about this rebellious doctrine.
The adherents of this doctrine, the Charvakas, rejected life after death. They considered such beliefs funny. Thinking and feeling are part of our physical system and in the due course of time they wear out and die. Nothing is left to live on after death. The ancient play, The Rise of the Moon Intellect, has a character who ridicules religious believers as “uncivilised ignorant fools” who expect fruits to hang from trees growing in air. This character supported the Lokayata doctrine.
Truth is obvious, according to Lokayata. You can perceive it through your senses or reason. Entities like gods are creations of the imaginations of crooked people whose intention is to deceive others.
The Charvakas thought of the ascetic’s approach to life as sheer waste. We have just one life, this one here on earth. It is our duty to enjoy it as much as possible.
The Charvakas were highly critical of religious approaches to life. They considered the Vedas as fraudulent. The Vedic faith in a higher system of justice was particularly questioned by this school. The Vedas cheat people, according to Lokayata, by imposing absurd rituals on them. There are some interesting arguments given by the Charvakas. The Vedas say that the animals slain in religious sacrifices will ascend to heaven. If people really believed that, surely they would sacrifice their parents and thus give them an express ride to paradise.
Lokayata obviously did not believe in gods or heaven. They believed in hell which, they insisted rather gleefully, is here below. We create the hell with our actions and frustrations mostly. If we exercise our intellect properly, we will do things to avoid pain and increase pleasure. Virtue belongs to the intelligent, in other words.
Religion is both foolish and fraudulent. The Sarva-darsana-samgraha cites the Charvakas as saying that the Vedas are “tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology.” The Charvakas ridiculed the Brahmins as people who used religion as a means of livelihood. Death was the best for them. There are so many ceremonies associated with death.
Interestingly, Lokayata and its adherents did not survive for long. What they considered irrational, absurd and ridiculous survived and flourished. Why? This is what Lokayata should make us wonder about. Why do we still – nearly three millennia after the Lokayata doctrine – keep killing people for the sake of divine entities whose existence is not even certain? Why are we so irrational and absurd though we keep claiming that we are rational and capable of great wisdom?
This is something that has baffled me for years. In the autumn of my life, I am still left with this enigma. In a very enlightening book titled Doubt, the author Jennifer Michael Hecht makes a very interesting observation. “People throughout the ancient world had argued that a thinking person could be happy and moral without God or gods, but most of them worried about what the average man or woman would do, and feel, without religion.” Doesn’t that imply that religions and their gods belong to the mediocre? Well, I’m not arrogating intellectual superiority to myself and other doubters. But I’d like to leave that question to all those who go around peddling gods even using the electronic media.
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The previous posts in this series can be read here.