Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Humanity’s Triumph

Lokayat – Barhaspatya – Charwak Mat 

All the above three are the names of the selfsame philosophy of life propounded by the Charwaks who refuted religion. What they denied were the Karmakand (rituals-rites- observances), Charturvarnya (division of society into four original castes-Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shoodra) and the predisposition towards the world beyond ignoring this world in which one lives. What was wrong in denying these idle activities, ideas and thinking? The Charwaks had their own explicit life values and were up against social injustice.

1. The philosophy of the Lokayat:  Lokayat means the thinking of the Lok- i.e. the common people. They might be the people of the Sindhu Culture that was prevalent here, before the Arians entered into Bharat (original name by which India was then known). Or as the Arians considered themselves to be born of the gods’, for them, the original residents of the Sindhu culture were the Lok – the common people, not Sur i.e. gods. The materialist Lokayats believed that the human body and the human soul are not separate. The body (consisting also the soul) is mortal and Nature has not provided human beings with any immortal soul. For a human being, everything is over with the death of his body. All the ideas of heaven and hell, the world beyond, the plethora of deities, the state of the soul after death and such other concepts are illusory. These thoughts that accept only perception through senses  as evidence are materialist and not spiritualist and contain the seed that develops into scientific thinking. Tarkateertha Lakshman Shastri says, ‘ when one studies the human thought in its entirety, it becomes evident that these   Lokayatics were the first to sow the seeds of scientific thinking not only in India but in the world.

This philosophy accepting the evidence of sense perception alone was prevalent since the ancient Upanishad period, much before the times of the Mahabharat war and had become a powerful popular philosophy of common people although not accepted by the intellectuals. However these thoughts were ignored, disrespected and ridiculed in this land because the Arians, who believed in the divinity of the Vedas and the efficacy of the Yadnyas, were the conquerors while these thoughts were atheist and opposed the Yadnyas and the Veds. It seems that the Vedanta (i.e. the Upanishads)-the philosophy of the immortal soul and the birth cycle was pieced together in order to refute this rationalist, this worldly philosophy of the common people- the Lokayat. It is interesting to see how Vedanta evolved. The so called Theory of the transmigration of the soul after death was explicitly stated first in the Brihadaranyak and the Katha Upanishads. Before enunciating this theory the composers of these Upanishads first mention the Lokayat thesis that refutes the existence of the soul after death and then state their own theory of ‘immortal soul’. But they do not take the trouble to prove their theory. In most of the Vedic philosophies Lokayat happens to be the thesis and in order to disprove it, they enunciate their own theories of the ‘Atindriya Dnyan’  knowledge that is imperceptible to the senses and undiscoverable by the mind and such other irrational ideas. The Lokayatiks who believed in the evidence of the senses alone refused to accept the obscure, supersensuous knowledge of the Vedics as ‘the true knowledge’.

‘Rationalism’, says the Kathopanishad, ‘can never solve this problem. Only with deep faith can one accept the existence of the soul that migrates into the other world after the death of the body.’ That says it all. The whole gamut of the separate existence of soul, its immortality and rebirth are mere assumptions, taken for granted. They do not formulate a proven theory. The Lokayat Mat opposed this stand of the Vedics and maintained that the quest of truth is possible only with the help of the intellect and not faith. It was prevalent in India since ancient times.

2. Barhaspatya Matmeans the thought of Brihaspati. It belongs to the same philosophy i.e. Lokayat. In the post Sindhu culture Vedic period, Lokayat Mat was alternatively called Barhaspatya Mat as mentioned in the Veds and the Vedanta literature. In fact, just as Indra was the king of gods, Brihaspati  their Guru. Later Brihaspati became the name of a Gotra- family or lineage like Kashyap, Vasishtha, Bharadwaj etc. Brihaspati and his descendants, it is quite likely, later formulated the Lokayat- the common man’s thought into a proper theory. That is why it is also called Barhaspatya. In the ancient days, individuals were recognized by their Gotra name generation after generation.

One wonders in this case, why Brihaspati, the Guru of the gods, who conducted their Yadnyas should pronounce that all the concepts -God the almighty, other gods and deities, the immortal soul, heaven and hell are nothing but a sham. How could he say that performing Yadnyas can bring no fruit? This is quite contradictory of the Aryas’ thoughts. Later Purans throw some light on this puzzle. One story, the original episode of which appears in the Rigved is narrated in the Puranas as below.

Once while Brihaspati and his wife Tara were conducting the rituals of a Yadnya, a god named Somadev arrived there. He was intoxicated with his power as the king of gods. He abducted Tara, the Guru’s wife. Brihaspati pleaded with Soma to return his wife. Soma did not listen to him nor were the other gods prepared to fight with Soma and help Brihaspati. Brihaspati then turned to Shankar who fought with Soma and returned Tara to Brihaspati. Ganeshwar, Yadnyeshwar, Vetal, Urag and Kinnar with their armies helped Shankar to defeat Soma. And here is the rub- the important part of the story. Shankar in those days was a daemon god of the non-aryas; he had no place in the club of the Aryan gods. Yet he helped Brihaspati because Shankar was a disciple of the sage Angiras, father of Brihaspati. Shankar,  therefore, must have been a friend of Brahspati. It was Shankar and the leaders of the Anarya races who fought with Somadev and helped Brihaspati to get his wife back. It was because of this and may be some other reasons too, Bruhaspati, the Guru of the Aryas, might have come to the conclusion that the Aryas were hypocrites and their Vedic thoughts were false. He then turned to the Lokayat thought of the Anaryas, studied them and was convinced of the authenticity of the Lokayat thought. He thereafter verbalized Lokayat as a well articulated philosophy and taught the same to others as Barhaspatya Mat.

Other Puran story writers, in order to prove that no such thing ever happened concocted an altogether different story. Its writer admits that Brihaspati taught Lokayat philosophy to the Anaryas for ten years. But by teaching Lokayat, he actually deceived the Anaryas; made fools of them. Quite understandable. For the Aryas, their own thoughts constituted the Vidya- the true knowledge all other knowledge was false and therefore Avidya. The Lokayat, therefore ought to be a false deceptive knowledge and the Guru of the gods cheated the daemons, pretending to thank them for their help. All the Puran Story writers being Aryas possessed true knowledge and so were the unbelievable stories they spun about the gods and their feats and triumphs true.

3. Charwak Tatwadnyan: This same Lokayat Mat was called Charwak Tatwadnyan in the later post-Vedic period. There had not been any philosopher named Charwak, in this or any other period. In Mahabharat there is a mention of a Charwak, but there he happens to be a deamon. After the war was over, Ydhishthir was preparing for a horse sacrifice- Ashvamedh Yadnya. There came a Charwak who started arguing with him, ‘your victory after killing your brothers cannot be called a true victory.’ At this the Brahmins who had gathered there, branding the Charwak ‘a friend of Duryodhan and a deamon’ killed him without listening to him.

Despite such spiteful treatment meted out to the Charwaks by the Brahmins, a few Charwak philosophers seem to have survived for several centuries after the Mahabharat war, during the Buddha period, i.e. 6th century B.C. Ajit keshkambali, for example, was a contemporary of the Buddha. This Charwak philosopher used to preach that the wily Brahmins ask you to perform several rituals for making money, for their own benefit.

Professor Sadashiv Athavale, a Charwak research scholar, has said, ‘the atheist thoughts of the Charwaks were most probably presented in the form of an organised Darshan (philosophy) in 14th/15th centuries of the Christian Era. Who formulated it, we do not know. Moreover none of their manuscripts are available today. But from the books of the later writers Madhavacharya, Gunaratna, and others it seems that the Charwaks rejected the Chaturvarnya and all the imaginary concepts of Atma (soul), Eeshwar (Almighty God), punarjanma (rebirth), Karmaphalasiddhanta (good and evil to be experienced as the consequences of merit and demerit in former stages of existence.), Yadnya, the other world, Dharma (religion), Moksha (the deliverance of the soul from the body), etc. invented by the Vedics; they also preached equality of all human beings and insisted that everyone should work for his own happiness. For all these atheist thoughts of the Charwaks, the Vedics hated them and distorted the Charwak thoughts spreading the untruth that the Charwaks tell people to attain Moksha by any means- fair or foul.’

As said earlier by refuting religion the Chrwaks refuted rituals, Chaturvarnya and thinking of the other world instead of the one where we live. Is there anything wrong in refuting this idle pursuit? They had their well defined values of life; they opposed all social injustice. This pure rationalist philosophy which is the foundation of scientific outlook was prevalent in ancient India long before the arrival of the present age of modern science. This certainly is a matter of pride for the Bharateeya people and especially for the Hindus.

The only rational and most logical philosophy of all the ancient Indian philosophies – the Charwak Darshan (philosophy) was derided by all the other philosophies of those days, including even the Bauddha and Jain ones, for none of them could counter the logical arguments of the Charwaks. So all they could do was to mock at the Charwaks as irresponsible pleasure seekers. In order to prove this charge they often quoted a stanza which reads as- ‘eat ghee even if you have to incur debt’.

The original stanza, ascribed to the Charwaks in the Sarvadarshan Sangraha, translated into English, reads as ‘live a happy life as long as you are alive; eat ghee even if you have to incur debt; for, how can the body return after being burnt to ashes?’

Some scholars believe that this stanza is extrapolated in the name of Charwaks by their antagonists. At least, they maintain, the part that suggests ‘even if you have to incur debt’ is not from the original stanza. Regarding this Prof. A.H. Salunkhye, in his book, ‘Astik Shiromani Charwak’ takes quite a different stand which ought to be considered here. He maintains that even if one concedes that this stanza is an original one, just a casual consideration reveals that one can interpret it in many ways conducive to Charwak Mat, as follows:–

1. The Charwaks tell us to incur debt; but they in no sense tell us not to pay it back. (They knew it well that nobody can be happy in life without repaying his debt.)

2. They tell us to incur debt but not at exorbitant interest rates as prescribed in the Manusmriti: the four Varnas (Social classes by birth) have to pay unwarranted discriminating rates of interests:- 2% for Brahmins, 3% for Kshatriyas, 3% for Vaishyas and 4% for the Shoodras!

3. They want us to incur debt to eat ghee; not to indulge in drinking Somaras, Madira or other intoxicating drinks.

4. Their advice was to eat the Ghee instead of burning it into the Yadnya fire.

5. Charwaks wanted us to borrow legitimately, in case we cannot afford buying Ghee. They never advised us to deceive or fleece others. (As against this our so called Religious tomes are replete with rules and injunctions that help the Brahmins exploit others.)

The Shlokas that are composed in a Sootra Format are not to be interpreted verbally; one has to reach to the deep meaning conveyed by the content. The above Shloka (stanza) of Charwaks thus interpreted means; ‘Don’t hesitate to incur debt if you must; but use it for cultivating your land, raising domestic animals, or for trade or industry. Work hard so that your industry helps you to be strong enough to enable you a good living (eating ghee). Repay all your debt that will bring you happiness of fulfilling your responsibility. Do not waste your energy in pursuing fantasies regarding the world beyond and stop burning ghee in the Yadnya fire hankering after a place in the heaven; use it for cultivating your body instead. Now isn’t this advice given by the Charwaks sane and extremely useful for the common people? What’s wrong in it?

Prof. Athavale in his small but beautyful book ‘Charwak – History and Philisophy (written in Marathi and published by ‘Pradnya Pathashala Mandal’,Wai), referred to earlier, has succinctly sketched what the Charwak Philosophy that had fully matured in the 14th-15th century, tried to tell us. This is what he says:

1.  Regarding the Atma (soul), the almighty god, Rebirth, Karmaphalasiddhanta (the theory of accumulating and experiencing the fruit of the sins and merits of the previous births), etc.:– The living body of a human being is his soul and there is no separate soul that existed before his birth and that lasts even after his death. This world and the life on it come into existence according to the laws of Nature. There is no god that can cause it and therefore, no need to pray him. No one can be reborn once the existing body is reduced to ashes. The theory that tells us that the soul of a human being is reborn and has to suffer or reap the consequences of the sins and merits accumulated in his earlier births is a bogus theory. The cause of your woes and joys is certainly not the accumulated sins and merits of your previous births. Discard this belief in providence, fate or destiny and believe in your own efforts. Women are equal to men in all respects; the excessive value attached to a woman’s devotion and fidelity towards her husband is a weapon in the hands of cruel men to subjugate women.

2. Regarding the elements of the universe, the Yadnya ritual, the other world, religion, Moksha -(the final emancipation of the soul), etc. – this universe and this (human) body  and their vitality are caused by the natural blending of the ‘Panchamahabhutas’. The Yadnya ritual is besieged with violence and lewdness. It is also unnecessary waste of precious food grains. So one should not indulge in performing Yadnyas. Since there is no heaven and hell or any other world, there is no fruit to be gained in the other world. Shrewd men, for their own benefit ask gullible people to perform rituals. Thus the Charwaks refuted the religion that calls upon people to perform Yadnyas and other rituals, as also the Mohsha- the concept of final emancipation of the human soul- as the most important object of Man’s existence. For them death was Moksha and the preeminent purpose and aspiration of a human being should be independence and freedom.

3. Validity, Rule of the King, Chaturvarnya etc.- ‘Seeing is believing.’ The Charwaks did not accept the authority of the ‘word’ or the ‘book’ including even the Vedas. Even though inference is not proof, the Charwaks accept inference that is established upon the evidence of the senses or on coherent reasoning for sake of convenience. They also accepted the King’s rule as it was evidently necessary then. They advocated human values-justice, morality etc. but refused to accept Chaturvarnya, caste discrimination, racial purity and all other unscientific notions of superiority or inferiority based on these concepts. They maintained that all human beings irrespective of skin colour, caste or religion are equal.

4. Hedonism: The Charwaks preached Hedonism of a kind. They maintained that man should earn his happiness through his own hard work as agriculture, trade, or other jobs or service and not seek pleasure through unrestricted self indulgence. One should always strive for the good of the people. In short one should adopt and practice the philosophy of the Charwaks. But this Charwak doctrine of seeking happiness was deliberately distorted and misinterpreted by their adversaries and branded the Charwaks as licentious pleasure seekers.

The Charwak philosophy is the most rational and logical of all the ancient Indian philosophies and occupies a unique place in the history of philosophy. Yet all the ancient philosophies including the Atheist (those that do not accept the divine nature or infallibility of the Vedas) Jain and Buddhist philosophies ridiculed and condemned them, because none of them were able to logically refute the arguments proffered by the Charwaks. Although the Jain and the Bauddha Religions rejected the divinity of the Vedas, the Yadnyas along with the concepts of Eeshvar (almighty god) and Brahma, they accepted the concept of the Atma (soul) and its rebirth in some different form. They displaced the concept of Moksha (exemption of the soul from further transmigration) with two other concepts viz. Kaivalya (oneness with the deity) and Nirvan (emancipation from matter). The Charwaks on the contrary, remained steadfast to their principles and rejected all these concepts invented by the Vedics without any compromise. With all said and done, the rational principles of Charwaks that were established on the evidence of the senses could not become popular for many possible reasons. One could be that the Charwaks were few in numbers. They might not have been able to offer good programmes to people to propagate their viewpoint and values. Or may be that those people who had vested interest in convincing people of the existence of the almighty god, his overwhelming power over the whole creation and the utter need of devotion and surrendering to him, naturally considered Charwaks as their  adversaries challenging all that they preached. They hated the Charwaks and were successful in destroying their philosophy. Whatever might have happened, the fact remains that the Charwaks were not popular. And the result was that we, the Indians of those days, changed our course in the direction opposite to that of the Charwaks; i.e., instead of discovering, exploring and investigating the cause and effect of natural phenomena and the laws of Nature that determine all that happens in the universe, we turned our back to scientific way of thinking and conducting our affairs and immersed ourselves into singing the Lord’s and the lesser deities’ praises, listening to unbelievable stories of their miracles, performing rituals to appease them and what not, thereby spending our whole lives in earning ‘Punya’ (merit) to secure a place in the heaven. For centuries we kept on collecting Punya even at the cost of defending of our country from intruders. For defending our country, our temples and our deities installed in them from the Muslim invaders, we depended solely on the God and were convinced that he will never let us down. The Muslim invaders easily conquered and ruled over us for 500 years from the 13th to 18th century.

After the Hindavi Swaraj inaugurated by the great king Shivaji and the Maratha rule, the Muslim rulers were replaced by the progressive British, who ruled over India for one and a half century. One advantage of the British rule was that we came into the main stream of the modern world. Today we can feel proud that ISRO has sent a spaceship to the planet Mars. We would have otherwise been engaged in performing Yadnyas, undertaking penance and fulfilling vows and observances, to appease the deities; while scientists, elsewhere advance faster and faster, enriching the world. Fortunately today we have become self sufficient and are capable of determining our own course of action.


Translated by Suman Oak

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