Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Tracing the History of Charwak Philosophy

The book, Charwak: History and Philosophy is originally written in Marathi by a noted historian Prof Sadashiv Athavale (1923 -2003). Amongst the well-known Maharashtrian historians like K N Sane, Vasudevshastri Khare, Rajwade, Sardesai, Parasanis, Bhave, Apate, Shejwalakar, G H Khare, Setumadhav Pagadi, etc who enriched the history in general and Maratha history in particular by writing in vernacular language, Prof Sadashiv Athavale has a distinct place amongst them. Due to his frank and pragmatic insight about the historical personalities and painstaking efforts he put to support his statements and conclusions, he did not get much acclaim as expected while he was alive nor posthumously. In fact he gave new dimension to the traditional biographies like Rana Pratap, Chhatrasaal of Bundelkhand, Krishna Devarai of Vijayanagar etc. and educated the scholars of Maharashtra. However amongst his interest and books written, the research paper on Charwak appears to be the one of the most acclaimed and popular essay recognized by historians. We must thank Ms Suman Oak for translating the book in English in verbatim and Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee for making it available to non-Marathi speaking readers. Author tracks the historical aspects of Charwak Philosophy in this lucid volume of 100 odd pages.

There are very many misconceptions about Charwak even among rationalists. Some think that there was a person whose name was Charwak which is not true. One will find lot of bitter criticism and outright condemnation by supporters of Veda and Hindu priests about Charwak philosophy. Prof Athavale makes it clear that rather than a person and his teachings this was a philosophy of materialism which can be traced back to ancient India. The book makes an attempt to trace the origin, development and rise and fall of this philosophy. According to the author, Lokayatvaad and Charwak philosophy are one and the same and are two sides of the same coin.

Charwaks in Ancient India

Author makes it very clear about what he meant by history.  We generally have a totally wrong conception about history. For us history means genealogies of dynasties, battlefields, maps and strategies, chronological details of particular kingdom, region or society. This has still been imbibed in our minds. However sensible people now think of history as the vision of entire human life. This book is a small chapter in the long history of trends of reflective deliberations in ancient India. The ancient period begins from the time Sanhitas were compiled and goes up to 13th – 14th century AD. It is quite surprising that the ancient Indian studies covered all fields of knowledge; not confining to only religious knowledge but also knowledge of economics, erotic science, medical science and of course knowledge of the Brahma – the supreme. This is in fact the creative literature in the history. This has been made available to us by many oriental and occidental scholars who meticulously studied, interpreted and presented us the conclusions. However the most neglected of this rich and veritable literature appears to be Charwakvaad, the secular – materialist philosophy enunciated in ancient India.

Human beings are quite inquisitive all along the history. They were pondering over a number of questions: who created the animate and inanimate universe? How does it run? Is it controlled? Who controls it and how and why does that entity (God, Supreme) do it? Why was I born? Why I am living? Why am I going to die? What is the meaning of life? Why should we live? From where did I have arrived? Where I am going? How am I related to creator and controller? Is there any creator or controller? From where has the surrounding world come? and so on so forth. This innate desire to know gave birth to various doctrines like theism, atheism, determinism, law of chance, fatalism, spiritualism, materialism, humanism etc. We Indians felt that the quest for the Brahma will answer all these questions. But a few amongst us were not satisfied with this Vedant philosophy and hence they interpreted in some other way. Though the Vedant philosophy was popular in ancient India, it does not mean that others were wrong. This philosophy of minority is generally termed as Charwak philosophy which had been existing all along since the time when the ancient Indian Rishis visualized the Richas some 3-4 thousand years BC.

The philosophy of Charwaks has many extraordinary characteristics. They were the first to refute the validity or legitimacy of Vedas. They stressed that the Vedas are not Apourusheya (i.e. of superhuman origin). They cannot be divine or made by god. Nor do they have inner validity of their own. On the contrary they are the creation of foolish but shrewd men – priests and Bhikshuks, living on religious offerings. Agnihotra, Shraaddha, the cycle of births and deaths, heaven and hell, the fruits of our deeds and all such conceptions are their sweet fabrications that ensure the gullible into their design. Chasing the impossible objectives like Moksha (liberation)  and Nirvana (salvation) is as good as wasting one’s life. The life on this earth is real and human beings should enjoy it and live happily. All the caste and colour discrimination is unscientific. The value of fidelity and slave like mindset in relation to the husband forced on the women are weapons of the cruel men to subjugate women. In support of these ideas author had reproduced the Sutras which were handed over to us from 14th -15th centuries AD.

According to author, Charwak philosophy as we know, it can be tracked down almost Rigved period. Though Rishis (and people!) believed in gods, deities, Yadnyas, the benefit of performing Yadnyas etc, there were some sizable Rishis expressed diverse thoughts. Plain materialism was in the vogue. Many Pandits openly refuted rebirth and maintained that death means total extinction of a person. In fact there were broadly three schools of philosophical thoughts: Vedant, Sankhya and Lokayata. Vedant was theistic and spiritual; Sankhya and Lokayata were atheistic and materialistic. In fact we may find derogatory and dismissive references to Lokayata in Vedant literature. Most of them were in a messy and disorganized form. In fact Charwak Darshan was not systematically enunciated and could not be called a logical rational philosophy that Lokayatya Shaastra is.  

It is indisputable that Charwak philosophy with all its Sutras came into being before the Buddha period. In fact, Bouddhas treated Charwak/Lokayata philosophy as Vitandvaad (argumentative) rather than Praman Shaastra – the science of validation. Jain Granthas too were adapting this line of thinking. Even Brahmanic literature like Ramayan, Mahabhashya (Patanjali), Arthashaastra (Chanakya) also mention about Lokayata. Arthshaastra considers Lokayata to be discipline of investigation (Anvikshiki Vidya). If it is so then it cannot be Vitanda. Supports for antiquity of the Lokayata philosophy are a plenty. First it is in the Vedas and Upanishads, later in the Bouddha and Jain literature, i.e. from 6th century BC to 2nd century AD. In fact the word Charwak comes into picture in the 6th century BC.

Who is Charwak?

            Generally we have curiosity that who that Charwak in whose name the famous atheist philosophy is propagated. Had there been any Charwak in the ancient past? According to Prof Athavale, this has been extensively debated and there is no evidence on the basis of which any decisive conclusion can be drawn. No biographical information regarding a person named Charwak the philosopher, who propounded Charwak Darshan, is provided in any available Sanskrit or vernacular ancient literature. Many writers play upon the word Charwak and tried to explain it. Some have made a pun on the word Charwak. According to fun makers Charwaks are those who believe only in Charvan (eating) and do not care about sin and merit. Another interpretation is they are Charu Waks; who have a sweet tongue.

In fact there was character of this name in the play Prabodhanchabdroday. Madhvacharya too refers Charwak as a proper noun instead of adjective and describes him as Nastik Shiromani.  In Mahabharat Charwak appears as demon. In the history of Charwakvaad there are many personalities who adhered to this philosophy. Ajit Keshkambali, Brihaspati, Bharadwaj, Pradeshi, Virochan, King Kuruchandra are  some of the names appear as charwajvaadi in the ancient Vedic, Bouddha and Jain literature.

Distinctive Nature

In the ancient days all Vedic, Bouddha and Jain philosophers proceeded to solve the mystery of the universe. They raised the questions in this regard and tried to answer them. Every one thought that their conclusions are logically correct. However they seem to slip somewhere. But one philosophy stands out and shows no such weakness and again it is Charwak Darshan.

Charwakvaad’s logic and its way of examining validity are quite extraordinary. They reject all religious books and all sacred statements. When they reject the validity of the Word, they honestly stick to their statements. They do not have faith in any Shruti, Smruti or in any Tirthankar (Jain) or Tathagat (Bouddha). They don’t start their discussions by bowing down before their founder Brihaspati. Word testimony has no place in their logic. They even refused the analogies. For them sense of perception is base for their inference.

They refute all deceptive validation like authority of Veda, attempts by elders, and advocated uncompromising rationalism. They are the founders of rationalism. They gave us a specific method of reasoning. Today’s advance logic takes up exactly the same stand as was adopted by Charwaks. Their science of validation was meant for the smooth running of world affairs and daily routines of the individual and social life. Can a rationalist student in search of truth takes up a stand other than Charwak philosophy?

As typical Indians (who believes in Sanatan dharma) firmly believe that the Vedas and Upanishads have amassed all knowledge; they contain all scientific discoveries in them; they have already revealed all the truths regarding human life and there remains nothing more to be said. And we expect others to agree with this. All the Sankhya, Naiyayik, Vaishishik, Vedant and other philosophers were engaged in deep and incisive thinking; but all their thinking concentrated on problems of the universe, its nature, nature of life and external world. They needed some comfort to carry out their studies without interruption. This peaceful atmosphere, they must have thought, could be assured by maintaining status quo. So they were interested in keeping Varnashram and caste system alive and also insisted that people should adhere. They never felt need for more justice in the social life of those days. They might have said that killing animals for sacrifice might pollute Yadna rituals. But they did not doubt about the fruits of rituals nor rejected the Yadna culture. Manusmruti was the guide and philosopher to all of them.

The Jains and Bouddhas opposed the Yadna system and shook the concept of priest’s superiority. They also realized that instead of Vedic rituals, good conduct on part of the people will improve the social condition. But could they do away with caste discrimination with success? Jain religion has survived with all its defects of Brahminic religion – castes, untouchability and all. The Bouddhas have almost disappeared from India. The Bouddhas and Jains had suggested that it is possible to replace the traditional discriminatory social system that is dominated by the priestly class with some alternative method. But when we try to find out what they were contemplating our illusions wither away. Nirvan did not pull out of the quagmire of the concepts of rebirth, heaven and hell. They did not tell common man how to lead a rich and happy life. For the common man to live a secular worldly life, he needs good food, good clothes and healthy sensuous fulfillment. But when some great soul tells him that the chasing of such a goal is wrong, he is perplexed. Their teachings humiliate the humble innocent people. In fact priests were replaced by Muni and Bhikshu.

Charwaks’ criticism of Vedas was altogether different. When they reject the Vedas, they rejected the testimony of the Word too. They were very sincere and truthful to their stand. They spoke very clearly without any ambiguity. They rejected the divine and eternal nature of Vedas. Charwaks demonstrated how ridiculously childish and foolish were the concepts on which the Vedic rituals are based.

The Jains and Bouddhas too had criticized Vedas like the Charwaks. But later they had to propagate theories of omniscience and attribute of possessing indisputable religious knowledge. They could not envision a happy prosperous life on this earth nor could they offer it to others. Only Charwaks could advocate explicitly that one should not rise above confounding concepts of heaven, Yadnayaag, penance, liberation, caste discrimination etc and do something useful and productive like agriculture, trade … and lead a happy life. The Charwaks alone could take this firm stand that could lead to worldly life which would have made common man happy.

 Scientific Base

The ancient Indian thinkers confronted with questions regarding life and surrounding world. Charwaks too entered into this intellectual arena, but their findings were altogether different than others. They tried to progress as directed by their logic of validation by direct sense perception. In fact this made their life very difficult.  The theist philosophers found it very convenient to transfer it to the agency of everything that happens to be god and shirk all responsibility. For them everything is in Veda and if required interpret from Richa. Though Bouddhas had no faith in either god or Veda, they left all the unanswered questions alone. A kind of escapism was advocated. They did not bother about he soul, Atma and god etc, but in the same breath they believed in hundreds of previous lives.

According to Charwaks, knowledge that is perceptible to the senses is true knowledge. Any item of knowledge should be verifiable. The debate regarding Moksha, Brahma etc are meaningless. We should refrain from indulging in imagination. In fact they added fifth element Akash to the basic four elements viz, earth, water, light and wind. Charwaks analysed the concept of God in detail and concluded its non-existence.

Charwaks had thought about the science of life. Life originates when the elements combine in specific proportions. There is no property of intoxication in the elements from which the alcohols are made but their chemical mixture produces an altogether a new substance called wine. The elements like water, earth do not possess any vitality; they are not alive.

Charwaks were not prepared to accept the existence of Atma – soul beyond the body with vitality of a living being. A few of them accepted the concept as a convenience during he arguments. That did not mean that the soul survives after death and enters into another body. They even questioned that had any body ever seen a departing being going to the other world. Their opinion about god, origin of the universe, nature of the universe and biology are indications of their scientific outlook. The Charwaks were in fact propounded the rational, scientific way of thinking.

Moksha is Freedom

The ancient Indian philosophers deliberated on human life and aim of life. There were heated debates and criticism. Finally they could arrive at four objects of life: Dharma – religious duty; Arth – earning to sustain the family and self; Kama – enjoying he life and produce heirs; and Moksha – liberation. Moksha was of paramount importance for all Vedic, Bouddha and Jain thinkers, philosophers, writers and even poets. Most of the interpretations about what is Moksha are incredible;   but all agree that it is the supreme goal of human life, it is noble and exalted thing to achieve, human beings should strive for nothing less than that and beyond that nothing remains to be achieved. The common burden of these philosophers is that man caught in the cycle of rebirths because of his ignorance. As such he should attain knowledge to escape from the chain of successive births and reach a blissful state.

In this regard Charwaks’ first step was to free themselves of the idea of virtually endless chain of births and deaths. There was no place for previous lives or rebirths in Charwak philosophy. According to them man should live in such a way that in the end he will get peace and happiness. Considering the whole human life, the Charwaks tell us that happiness is possible only through activity, being involved in productive work. Charwaks had extolled the importance of freedom in the same sense as in the West, albeit several centuries ahead of them.

Value of Life

The popularly known Indian philosophy advocates that life here is worthless but there is no escape from it. Though Bouddhas and the Jains rejected the god and Vedas they too believe that life is full of grief and ultimate goal of human life is getting rid of thirst and desire.

Against this background, the couplets attributed to Charwaks यावज्जीवेत् सुखं जीवेत् ऋणं कृत्वा घृतं पीबेत्| भस्मीभूतस्य देहस्य पुनरागमनं कुत: || (‘enjoy as long as you are alive. Incur debts if you must enjoy. How can this body once reduced to ashes be reborn?’) attracted severe criticism from all corners. In fact in the above couplet there is nothing objectionable except for the phrase incur debt if you must but enjoy. Asking to live happily appears to be acceptable; but incurring debts is dangerous. Would the Charwaks, who were quite sensible ever offer such advice to people? In fact these couplets were quoted out of context. The author gives full explanation about this and one must read it in original. As a matter of fact the original words – नास्ति मृत्यु: अगोचर: – were replaced by Madhavacharya during later period to denounce Charwaks.

Charwaks never accepted the supernatural origin of Vedas. Men wrote Vedas. The Charwaks advocated hedonism and propagated enthusiastically. They never seen to be telling people to steal, cheat, plunder, pilfer or amass wealth through corruption. On the contrary they attacked religious hypocrisy. Their advice to people was to earn living by fair means of agriculture, trade, service etc. and live happily; achieve the two goals of life Arth and Kama; do not believe in the deceptive ideas of other world and fall prey to the bluffs of the shrewd and cunning priests. Such down to earth advice was of tremendous importance in the social life of ancient India.

Failure of Charwak Philosophy

The Charwak philosophy was propagated from the pre-Buddha period up to 15th century AD. During this long period this philosophy was always despised; ridiculed; not a word in its favour or in favour of its followers was spoken or written by any one any where. They were always referred as Nastiks. Bouddha philosophers called them Vitandak – excessively argumentative. In fact Arth Shaastra and Kama Shaastra were in reality aspects of Charwak philosophy. Yet Vatsayana, author of Kama Shaastra  ridiculed Lokayatiks. However Indian philosophy advocating spiritualism in all walks of life, sometimes, acknowledged the arguments and redefined their concepts. They in fact used to study Lokayat Shaastra. Baring the mention of a few Charwak philosophers, not a single book written by any Charwak philosophers exist today. Everything which did not conform to spiritual philosophy just disappeared.

Though Charwakvaad is meant for the well being of the masses, but what has happened in reality? Charwaks have been telling for centuries not to remain enslaved to the Vedas. But even today great scholars seek support for their opinions in the Vedas. Charwaks shouted themselves hoarse that god does not exist; Yadnas are meaningless and rituals are fraud. But even today common man is enslaved to them. They dissected the notions of both Atma and Moksha. Yet the never ending ranting about them has become a permanent character of Indian history. In fact theist philosophy was successful in creating negative opinion that Charwaks were all whimsical and licentious individuals. As a matter of fact Charwaks must have been a small group of honest, responsible, brave and dedicated individuals. They were not in a position to effectively shape the thought and conduct of Indians.  And yet Charwakvaad deserves a place in the history of thought. Among all the philosophies that were enunciated in India Charwaks holds a singular place. Not only were they the most logical rationalist philosophers but also obliged others to become rational to some extent.

Prof Athavale had succeeded in bringing out the essence of this philosophy in this volume. His statements are often supported by the extensive references and he quotes Sanskrit shlokas in verbatim to support his interpretation. We must also be indebted to Ms Suman oak who translated and included the preface written by noted thinker Lakshmanshaastri Joshi who provides further evidences to support Prof Athavale’s explanations.

Prabhakar Nanawaty




Sadashiv Athavale,

translated by Suman Oak,

Published by Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti,

Price: Rs 100,  pp 135

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