There was a period in the development of religious civilization in India during which several religious and philosophical schools emerged to challenge the rigid Vedic standards, including animal sacrifice and the caste system that prevented social mobility and restricted association.
More or less 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism, where he abolished the animal sacrifices and the caste system, teaching a nonviolent humanist doctrine that seeks to abolish human suffering. At the same time Jainism emerged, also teaching non-violence and vegetarianism; and the bhakti-yoga movements focused on devotion and cast aside the obsession with ceremonies. All these movements gained much traction and respect within the culture, but one movement faced great difficulties, and would eventually be stamped out: the Lokayata school.
In Sanskrit, loka means “the world” and shares semantic roots with words like local, location, locality, etc. Lokayata means more or less “philosophical system which is concerned with this world.” They were also known as the Carvakas (meaning “sweet tongued”, because they were known for their powerful rhetoric). Some believe they took that name because the school’s founder was a sage named Carvaka, but others doubt that there was a single founder. They have also been called Brihaspatyas because their scripture is attributed to a philosopher named Brihaspathi.
They were atomistic and hedonists who believed that everything was made of material elements. To understand the world, the relied only on the senses. They did not compromise on their atheist doctrine and did not believe in karma or reincarnation.
For them, the body was the soul. Their philosophical materialism made them reject beliefs about the afterlife and their discourse was full of venom against the Vedic scriptures and brahmanas, the caste of priests who made a living from religion, enjoyed great privileges and kept other castes in their place.
It is believed that Lokayatas produced writings that were destroyed by future generations, and that a few surviving fragments were preserved by their opponents, which cited them in order to refute them. Below are some of the extant excerpts of atheistic scriptures of ancient India called Carvaka Dharma (which translates as “the Carvaka doctrine”):
“When the body dies both the foolish and the wise are cut off and die. No one survives after death.”
“While life is yours, live with joy; No one can escape the searching eye of death: Once this form of ours has been burnt in the pyre, ¿how will it ever return again?”
The following fragment concerns pleasure and enjoyment of life. It shows a rejection of Epicurean calculated hedonism: rather than the long-term calculation of the pleasures, it seems less mature and seeks instant gratification.
That the pleasure that comes to man
from contact with the objects of the senses
should be left aside because it comes with pain:
Such is the reasoning of fools.
Rice, rich with the best white grains–
What man in search of his real self-interest,
is going to throw it away
due to the shell and dust cover?
The following excerpts show an anti-clerical feeling:
“Fire is hot, water is cold, pleasantly fresh is the morning breeze. Whose is this variety? It was born of its own nature. This has also been said by Brihaspati: No heaven, no final liberation, no soul in another world; the actions of castes, orders, or priesthoods produce no real effect. If he who departs the body goes to another world, how come he does not come back again, restless for the love of his nation? Therefore it is only as a livelihood that Brahmins have established here all these ceremonies for the dead.”
“(These ceremonies) … they were made by nature as sources of income for those destitute of knowledge and courage.”
Notice that the last fragment has a somewhat Nietzschean tone and refers to how priests turned to religion for lack of real resources to survive. Nietzsche argued something comparable in his Genealogy of Morals. In other fragments, Lokayatas compared the authors of the Vedas with demons and buffoons, and criticized them saying meals offered to the dead should be offered to the hungry living.
Dharmakirti, a seventh century philosopher deeply influenced by the Carvakas, wrote in his Pramanvartik:
Believing that the Vedas are divine, believing in a Creator of the world, bathing in the holy waters for punya, taking pride in one’s caste, doing penance to absolve sins, are the five symptoms of losing one’s sanity.
The Carvakas were not perfect, and not all the elements that made them disappear came from outside. They have been criticized for not accepting evidence and inferences based on previously established truths, which largely prevents scientific and empirical progress. They also lacked the psychological depth and a useful ethical and social system, which helps a philosophical school to keep its supporters through appeal to human nature and practicality.
It has been theorized that, by debunking the Vedic religion without proposing concrete viable alternatives, what Carvakas did was open the way to Buddhism and Jainism, and this is largely what they are remembered for even today. In fact, the three schools together are considered heterodox traditions or nastika (non-Vedic) … but the other two remain, and Lokayata is seen as a relic.
Who knows what would have been the history of the Carvakas if their message had not been so anti-clerical, if it had been more flexible and adaptable, and produced more literature. It is possible that the defense of the religious traditions of the polis was something that helped the Epicureans to persist for seven centuries despite the officially anti-religious message they had.
The land of a thousand religions that gave us Rama, Krishna and Buddha, also produced a robust atheism in antiquity that was later muted. Surely the new atheism can and should learn from their own ancient history, particularlmente considering that a global decline in secularism is already being projected for future generations.