Religions and Religious Diversity in India
India's spiritual tradition is diverse in religious beliefs and practices. It is a birthplace of world’s major religions; Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. However, Islam and Christianity are, respectively, second and third largest religions in India after Hinduism. Hinduism is one of the oldest religion in the world, dated back to 5000 years and Rigveda has been its oldest written text, available for its Vedic period dating back to 1700–1100 BCE.
Despite, India is a place of theistic religion; Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta, it hosted atheistic schools of philosophies; Jainism, Buddhism, Charvaka, and Ajivika. Among them, Charvaka is the most prominent and popular school of philosophy, a contemporary of Jainism and Buddhism in the 6th century BC. This movement survived for seven centuries. However, no original text of Charvaka preserved, though the idea of its popularity and thoughts comes as a result of its criticisms mentioned, in the literature of other religious texts, such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Charvaka, an Atheist and Materialist Philosophy
The ‘Charvaka’ movement initiated by Brihaspati against the false propaganda and exploitation of people in the name of religion by monks. The Charvaka’s movement reflects in Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha’s Verse 8 as follows:
“There is no other world other than this;
There is no Heaven and no Hell;
The realm of Shiva and like regions,
They are invented by stupid imposters.
Charvaka movement became popular in ancient India and was known as Lokayata, means materialist. Materialism, as opposed to spiritualism, is a philosophy which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that all phenomena are its outcome. It rejects the existence of spirit.
Charvaka, an Alternative to Vedic Religion
Charvaka according to Eliott Deutsche (2000) holds that 'Perception was the one valid way to knowledge and other means of knowledges were either always conditional or invalid'.
Charvaka excluded space from fundamental elements and declared that Human body is a product of only four elements; earth, water, fire and air. They rejected a soul in the body as well as any existence of spirit, distinct to matter. For them, all bodily elements would be dissolved to their original forms after the death of a person.
Charvaka rejected all metaphysical concept of God, Karma, Soul, reincarnation, Hell, and Heaven and proclaimed that “Do not believe in any God. Because there is no God. All Gods created by men. Mankind created its God out of its fantasy.” (Ruzickaw, 2012).
To bring people out from religious oppression and worldly pain, Charvaka propagated its philosophy on a strong foundation of materialism. Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha writes Charaka’s view about this life as follows;
“The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping the company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste... while Moksha is death, whichceases life breath... the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha. A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings.” Verses 9-12
Charvaka's Contributions to the World
Charvaka not only holds truth, integrity, consistency, and freedom of thought in the highest esteem (M Banarasidas, Varanasi p.75) but developed the idea of atoms, contemporary to Leucippus and Democritus in the West in 5th century BC. Charvaka’s philosophical thoughts were modern and radical. Charvaka’s atomism further developed in ancient India as philosophy as well as theology, part of religious belief. For Charvaka, the purpose of materialism was to gain true knowledge for happy life, peace, and enjoyment, freedom from fear of God and reincarnation. For them, there is no pain of death or afterwards, because there is no life breath at cessation.
Charvaka's atheism further developed in Buddhism. However, no Charvaka's philosophical tradition is left in India. However, Charvaka's atomism further developed in Hinduism as Nyaya, for the systematic development of the theory of logic, and its treatises on epistemology. Materialism and atheism re-emerged elsewhere outside India, i.e., Epicurus (341-270 BC), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his followers across the world.