Thoughts on economics and liberty

The oppositional thinking of Charvaka and the Buddha

About 2,600 years ago, Charvaka is said to have founded what is called the Charvaka (or lokayata) school. Its entire literature of this school has since been lost, perhaps destroyed by those who found these ideas too hard to digest. All we have left are a few unflattering references to his alleged views in ancient Hindu and Buddhist literature. These references may have exaggerated the ‘case’ against him, but importantly for our purpose, they indicate robust philosophical discourse in ancient Indian. Without any parallel, India’s philosophical prowess (if that’s the right word for it) during this period was at least on par with, if not greater than the thought in ancient Greece. In Hiriyanna’s opinion, ‘[t]he chief importance of the [Charvaka] system for us lies in the evidence it affords of the many-sidedness of philosophic activity in India in ancient times and of the prevalence of a great deal of liberty of thought as well as of freedom of expression[1]

But there is more to Charvaka than liberty of thought. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts seem to suggest that Charvaka disbelieved in the analytical mind, i.e. reason, believing instead that we perceive reality only with our senses. It would appear to me, though, that such representation of Chavaka’s views is not just deficient, but probably inaccurate, for even to come to such a view, one would need some form of reason. Charvaka also apparently rejected supernatural or transcendental phenomenon, arguing that no evidence of such things reaches us through our senses. He denied the soul or atman, and hence life after death. These conclusions were in stark contrast to the dominant discourse of the day in which not only sense perception (pratyksha) but even inference (anumana) and verbal testimony (sabda) were considered valid methods to discover knowledge.[2] Apart from Charvaka, many others questioned the status quo. Ajit Kesakambala, Makkhali Gosala, Pakudha Kacchayana and Purana Kassapa were among the thinkers so mentioned in the Buddhist text Digha Niyaka.[3] The agnostics (Ajnanavada) formed another clearly rebellious branch of thought. India was therefore a bubbling cauldron of philosophical thought, the distinct leader in free thinking. In its various schools of philosophy were found the kinds of revolutionary thoughts that the world would next hear about only in 19th century.
I believe that Western writers have grossly under-reported on the direct influence of Indian philosophy on modern Western thought. For instance, W.T. Stace[4] wrote that Indian philosophy didn’t arise from ‘pure thought’ and was ‘poetic rather than scientific’. Mel Thompson notes that Heraclitus’s views were ‘radical … in the 6th century BCE, and … interestingly parallel to the metaphysics being developed by the Buddha in Northern India at about the same time.’[5] But Thompson did not pause to ask why the astonishing advances in India, which clearly precede Greek thought, presumably had no direct bearing on Greek thought despite extensive trade and communication. Basnagoda Rahula, in a recent American doctoral dissertation has extensively referenced ancient literature to establish that it was Indian scepticism that travelled to Greece through Persia, and led to the concept of asking questioning which, then, led to the emergence of Socrates.[6] Socrates is thus a progeny of Indian thought, and India must today learn to value the thought of one of its best students.
While most of these innovative Indian philosophers were unable to attract a mass following, they did set the scene for the world’s most revolutionary – indeed, atheistic – ‘religions’: Jainism (by Mahavira, 599-527 BC) and Buddhism (by Gautama Buddha, 563-483 BC). These are the world’s predominant non-theistic ‘religions’ even today.[7]Buddhism expanded rapidly to become a major intellectual (and spiritual) force in the world. These religions are revolutionary in many ways. For instance, both the Buddhists and Jains dispute many of the conclusions and recommendations of the Vedas. The Buddha asked people not to accept something merely because he (or anyone else) said so. He insisted that people think for themselves and internalise the truth. The guru – even the Vedas – must be fully questioned. The truth must be experienced and understood directly by each of us. A paean to individualism, a gong for human self-respect. Before forming this extremely modern view, the Buddha had been a student of many gurus, all of whom, he found, had not arrived at what they believed was the truth themselves, but were parroting what they had been told. And thus he gave perhaps the greatest sermon ever. To the people of Kalama he spoke:
Do not believe something just because it has been passed along and retold for many generations. Do not believe something merely because it has become a traditional practice. Do not believe something simply because it is well-known everywhere. Do not believe something just because it is cited in a text. Do not believe something solely on the grounds of logical reasoning. Do not believe something merely because it accords with your philosophy. Do not believe something because it appeals to ‘common sense’. Do not believe something just because you like the idea. Do not believe something because the speaker seems trustworthy. Do not believe something thinking, ‘This is what our teacher says’.[8]
Each time I read this I am startled at the modernity of his message. There is, in the Buddha, an extremely strong flavour of independent thinking and many elements of critical thinking. Buddhism asserts that ‘one may attain salvation and a high degree of enlightenment by one’s own efforts, without necessarily depending on the teachings of the Buddha himself.’[9] One can, however, argue that Buddha did not take his message to its logical conclusion, for he did end up teaching specific things such as the ‘eight fold path’. In other ways, as well, his teachings are often prescriptive. It can therefore be argued that the greatest teacher is he one who teaches us how to think – and then stops. In that sense Socrates was a greater teacher. As for me, I do tend to ‘teach’ the precise applications of the principles of freedom in relation to public policy, in addition to recommending the general principles of thinking. I do, however, always suggest that my views be considered only as one among many. What I say (or write) must be critically analysed and over-ruled where I am found to be wrong (on the basis of evidence), or where explanations exist.
India, much to its subsequent misfortune, rejected ‘the Buddhist substitution of reason in place of Vedic authority’[10], just as the Greeks rejected Socrates and went downhill. Indeed, the Buddhism that survives today does not display any independence and vigour, either, having become mired in mindless mysticism. The good thing is that by contesting these ideas (intellectually, not physically) Hinduism did learn to tolerate dissent, something rarely found in other religions. Hinduism not only became inclusive, it actively accepted alternate views.
[This is an extract from my draft manuscript, Discovery of Freedom. Please download the manuscript and send me your comments]

[1] Hiriyanna, M., Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Bombay:George Allen and Unwin (India) Ltd., 1932 [1976], p.188.

[2] Hiriyanna, M., Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Bombay:George Allen and Unwin (India) Ltd., 1932 [1976], p.177, 189.

[3] Mishra, Pankaj, An End to Suffering. London: Picador, 2004 [2005 paperback], p.107.

[4] In his book, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy by MacMillan,1965, p.15.

[5] Thompson, Mel, Teach Yourself Philosophy, 2003, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., p.24.

[6] Rahula, Basnagoda, The Untold Story about Greek Rational Thought: Buddhist and Other Indian Rationalist Influences on Sophist Rhetoric, PhD dissertation, December 2000, Texas Technical University.

[7] See Jayatilleke, K.N., The Message of the Buddha, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975, p.104-116 who shows that the Buddhist approach to God is not as simple as classifying it as an atheistic or theistic religion. I will not attempt to many complexities of Buddhist philosophy here.

[8] Kālāma Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, Vol 1, 188-193 – []

[9] Jayatilleke, K.N., The Message of the Buddha, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975, p.15.

[10] Sarma, D.S., Hinduism through the Ages, 1961        , Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, p.14.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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4 thoughts on “The oppositional thinking of Charvaka and the Buddha
  1. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Thanks Amit

    Much appreciated. Indeed, as I've noted, it the Buddha himself never understood the implications of what he had said (assuming he actually said this) and definitely not in the broad sense that we (could) interpret this today. Buddhists have not, as a general rule, been renowned for critical thinking. So clearly, Buddhists have allowed themselves to give in to faith (the entire opposite of reason) in the Buddha, and the article you point out shows such an Buddhist apologist for faith. That is their loss.

    Interestingly, 'satyameva jayate' also never was intended to be used in the sense it is used in the modern interpretation. 

    This is all very similar to the Declaration of Independence the "true" meaning of which was finally discovered only by Martin Luther King. 

    In reality the meanings of things change. And this is one of them.

    I do, however, believe that there was a massive amount of independent thinking in ancient India, with Buddhist thought being only one example. I suggest that India adopt that ancient vitality of thought and rediscover the world afresh.

    We are not obliged to wear the hand-me-downs of our ancestors. Let's review everything afresh and make this world our own. No one in the future is obliged to use our thinking, either. Let everyone use their own mind. That, at least, is what I suggest. I'm sure you are one with me on this basic independence of the human mind.



  2. Joginder Pal

    Excellent piece of article that made understanding of philosophies like Charvaka & Buddhism also a child play- Joginder Pal


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