The New Horizon

A new world explored with a rational view

Atheism in Ancient India

with 13 comments

India is known for tolerance to difference in opinion and thoughts. There were multiple religions spawned off in India due to diversity among Indian people. Although, in modern days, most of the Indians remain religious and do believe in God, traces of Indian history shows the existence of Atheism in ancient Indian societies.

In Ancient Hinduism, there were a couple of schools who used to teach non-existence of God. The first one, Samkhya, used to believe in duality of existing things – as per the book, saamkhya kaarikaa. Prakriti (Nature) and Purusha (Consciousness) were thought to be the basic building blocks of everything. However, the school later incorporated Iswara as a third entity and became theist. The other Atheist school of thought was Mimamsha, which concentrated on Dharma rather than gods.

Other than Hinduism, most philosophies of Jainism and Budhhism denied involvement of God. Both of these religions did not deny the presence of God, but neither did they attribute any power of creation or judgement to God. The future of a living being was thought to be decided by the actions of the being – something that this more materialistic than the thoughts of core Hinduism. It suggests more of a ‘way of life’ than describing the ‘way to satisfy god’. However, later most of the Buddhists started worshipping Buddha as god.

The other interesting school of thought that taught atheism in materialistic sense, was Carvaka (or Charvaka), named after the its founder saint. The key features of the Carvaka philosophy, as described in Sarvadarshansamgraha by Madhavacarya, were purely materialistic and thereby rejecting the afterlife. Interestingly, it points out that soul and intelligence are parts of our body, something that I was trying to argue in a previous writing. It looks at rituals being sources of living and not a way to get to the heaven. It contained the strongest atheistic viewpoint where it refuses to accept any ‘creator’ for natural things – and argues that any phenomenon can be produced by the inherent nature of things. Here goes a famous verse :

“Fire is hot, water cold,
refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;
By whom came this variety?
They were born of their own nature.”

The Carvaka philosophy was deeply down to earth – close to secular humanism. It questioned the caste system as a process imposed by Brahmins. It is amazing to observe how close they were to the modern view of humanity, when a verse reads :

If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
why not make food offerings down below
to gratify those standing on housetops?
While life remains, let a man live happily,
let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?

Critics of the Carvaka school see this cleaving to only artha and kama, without regard of dharma (and ultimate moksha) as an extreme of self-centred hedonism. One can easily understand why modern day atheists are also classified as hedonists – the similar feelings were present in early India as well.

In medival ages, the presence of Atheism was missing – something that led to a stricter grip of caste-divided Hinduism. The lack of balancing force resulted in dogmatic religious beliefs, superstitions and the society headed towards darkness, till the modern day renaissance, with major influence of Vedanta philosophy.

Atheism, India, Carvaka, CharvakaHumanism.


Written by Diganta

May 18, 2007 at 10:43 pm

13 Responses

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  1. Well right up, thanks.
    I was looking for more material on this ( specially on charvaka)


    May 19, 2007 at 5:35 pm

  2. i liked this part of Brishapti commentary:
    The best-known verse attributed to Brihaspati enunciated a principle that is ironically used by the opponents as a handle to beat them with:

    Yavajjivet sukham jivet
    Rinam kritvaa ghritam pibet
    Bhasmibhutasya dehasya
    Punaraagamanam kutah
    (As long as you live, live happily, take a loan and drink ghee. After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?)


    May 20, 2007 at 5:24 am

  3. On Charvaka, you can follow the link given in the text. I don’t think there are more material existing, beause, the thise sect lacked popularity for many years.


    May 21, 2007 at 4:27 am

  4. Hi Horizon,
    Thanks for dropping in my scribbles and thanks for so wonderful comments. I liked you thoughts, I am subscribing you and keeping you in watch list.

    The next commenter “kaushik”, be careful with him. He usually presents very strong points in arguments 😉 (I know him very personally).

    I had been to wikipedia this before searching for charvaka. That information was not sufficient for me. If any more information if you come across please let me know, or just post it in your blog, I’ll pick it up.


    May 21, 2007 at 4:57 am

  5. […] a thought-provoking post, Diganta of The New Horizon provides evidence by telling us about the atheist philosophies of ancient India: In Ancient […]

  6. Here’s pretty much all that survives about this earliest form of atheism known to humanity:

    c.650 b.c.e.: Brhaspati – Thinker
    Sad-Darsana-Samuccaya (by Haribhadra Suri);
    Sarvasiddhantasamgraha (by Samkara);
    Sarvadarsanasangraha (by Madhavacarya); Tattvopaplavasimha (by Jayarasi Bhatta)

    There have undoubtedly been many atheists throughout human history — one might even speculate whether or not the earliest believers predated or postdated the earliest atheists — but humanity’s written paper trail yields the name of one figure who was earlier than any other (known) writer in setting down an unprecedented, pioneering atheistic construct: the Indian thinker, Brhaspati (not to be confused with a mythical Brhaspati who is a divine figure in the Hindu pantheon).

    The thinker Brhaspati tied his groundbreaking exposition of atheism to an equally pioneering set of socially prescriptive thoughts as well. (Prominent in some ancient sources is the popularizer of Brhaspati’s ideas, Carvaka.)

    A generation or so earlier than Buddha, Brhaspati contrasts with Buddha when Brhaspati asserts that there are no gods and no afterlife. In addition, the strong pragmatism in Brhaspati’s ethics resonates through later generations, not just the strong assertion by the Greek leader Critias in his Sisyphus that gods were merely invented to prevent people from thinking they could get away with wrongs done secretly, but also later assertions like those of Nietzsche and Rand.

    Brhaspati’s own Lokayata Sutra is now lost, but the reliability of the two earliest extant summaries of its contents, Sad-Darsana-Samuccaya, by a Haribhadra Suri early in the C.E., and Sarvasiddhantasamgraha, by the roughly contemporaneous Samkara, seem readily validated by an approving contemporary citation from these summaries in yet another tract, Tattvopaplavasimha, written by a fervent admirer of Brhaspati, one Jayarasi Bhatta. Unfortunately, Tattvopaplavasimha is not a summation of Brhaspati, but merely an original take by Bhatta on the essence of inference.

    The most detailed extant summary of the Lokayata Sutra, with purportedly direct quotes from Brhaspati himself, is Sarvadarsanasangraha, by Madhavacarya. But this dates from approximately half a millennium later than the other two summaries. Still, some scholars (not all) tend to favor it because of its more detailed presentation. I enclose the first two summaries in their entirety, together with the direct quotes from Brhaspati in Sarvadarsanasangraha.


    Sad-Darsana-Samuccaya (by Haribhadra Suri)

    There is neither god nor liberation. Merit and demerit also do not exist. Nor is there any fruit of virtue and vice.
    This world consists of only as much as is within the scope of the senses. What the vastly learned ones speak of is but similar to ‘Oh! Dear! Look at the footprints of the wolf!’
    Oh! The one who has become all the more beautiful! Drink and eat. Oh! The one with a charming body! That which is past does not belong to you. Oh! The timid one! The past never comes back. This body is only a collectivity.
    Moreover, earth, water, fire and air are the four forms of matter. The only valid form of knowledge is the one produced by the senses.
    When there is a collectivity of the forms of matter, the earth, etc., there is production of the body. Just as the power of intoxication from the ingredients of a spiritous drink, so also is determined the presence of the self’s consciousness.
    Therefore, on the part of the ordinary people, the activity for the obtainment of the unseen, leaving aside the seen, is only extreme foolishness.
    The pleasure that is produced in a person due to the obtainment of the desired and the avoidance of the undesired is useless.
    The implication of the conclusions is to be critically discussed by the intelligent.

    Sarvasiddhantasamgraha (by Samkara)

    The Lokayatikas do not admit the existence of anything but the four elements, earth, water, fire and air; there is none other.
    Only the perceived exists; the unperceivable does not exist, by reason of its never having been perceived; even the believers in the invisible never say tha the invisible has been perceived.
    If the rarely perceived be taken for the unperceived, how can they call it the unperceived? How can the ever-unperceived, like things such as the horns of a hare, be an existent?
    Others should not here postulate merit and demerit from happiness and misery. A person is happy or miserable through nature; there is no other cause.
    Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature.
    The soul is but the body characterized by the attributes signified in the expressions, I am stout, I am youthful, I am grown up, I am old, etc. It is not something other than that body.
    The consciousness that is found in the modifications of non-intelligent elements [i.e., in organisms formed out of matter] is produced in the manner of the red colour out of the combination of betel, areca-nut and lime.
    There is no world other than this; there is no heaven and no hell; the realm of Siva and like regions are invented by stupid impostors of other schools of thought.
    The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping the company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc.;
    The pain of hell lies in the troubles that arise from enemies, weapons, diseases; while liberation is death which is the cessation of life-breath.
    The wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of that; it is only the fool who wears himself out by penances, fasts, etc.
    “Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings; gifts of gold and land, the pleasure of invitations to dinner, are devised by indigent people with stomachs lean with hunger.
    “The building of temples, houses for water-supply, tanks, wells, resting places, and the like, please only travelers, not others.
    “The Agnihotra ritual, the three Vedas, the triple staff, the ash-smearing, are the ways of gaining a livelihood for those who are lacking in intellect and energy.” — so thinks Brhaspati.
    The wise should enjoy the pleasures of this world through the more appropriate available means of agriculture, tending cattle, trade, political administration, etc.

    Brhaspati citations in Sarvadarsanasangraha (by Madhavacarya )

    “While life is yours live joyously;
    No one can avoid Death’s searching eye:
    When this body of ours is burnt,
    How can it ever return again?”

    “That the pleasure arising to man
    from contact with sensible objects,
    is to be relinquished because accompanied by pain-
    such is the reasoning of fools.
    The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains,
    What man, seeking his own true interest,
    would fling them away
    because of a covering of husk and dust?”

    “The Sacrifices, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves,
    and smearing oneself with ashes-
    [T]hese are but means of livelihood
    for those who have no manliness nor sense.”

    “Fire is hot, water cold,
    refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;
    By whom came this variety?
    They were born of their own nature.”

    “There is no heaven, no final liberation,
    nor any soul in another world,
    Nor do the actions of the four castes,
    orders, or priesthoods produce any real effect.

    “If a beast slain as an offering to the dead
    will itself go to heaven,
    why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father?

    “If offerings to the dead produce gratification
    to those who have reached the land of the dead,
    why the need to set out provisions
    for travelers starting on this journey?
    If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
    why not make food offerings down below
    to gratify those standing on housetops?

    “While life remains, let a man live happily,
    let him feed on melted ghee though he runs in debt;
    When once the body becomes ashes,
    how can it ever return again?

    “If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
    why does he not come back again,
    restless for love of his kinfolk?
    It is only as a means of livelihood
    that brahmins have established here
    abundant ceremonies for the dead-
    there is no other fruit anywhere.”

    I’d be sincerely interested in any reflections from anyone on these ancient pioneering thoughts, both in their skeptical dimension and in their socially prescriptive dimension.




    October 12, 2007 at 1:22 am

  7. most of these are known to me. i like to guide you that
    most intelectuals of buddha mahavira period were candid
    in their scientific approach like patanjali, bodhayana that is
    the brahminic teacher who systematized dawn,noon, dusk,
    prayer system called sandhya vandane proclaiming that immovable mass, plants, moving birds,animals also responded to sun in their own way as brahmins pray. interpretations are mostly misread. for example yog does not seek to stop the mind but to leave it to handle the living individuals affairs in harmony with the environment. for example a dam does not stop water but guides it for irrigation, generate eletricity, irrigation again leads to photo synthesis in other words energy need to be applied. i am working in this area to clarify misinterpretation of yoga by godmen.-kulamarva balakrishna


    October 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm

  8. no need to publish ok?


    October 28, 2007 at 4:29 pm

  9. Nice article. Check Atmabodh for more on Agnihotra and Meditation.


    November 22, 2007 at 12:49 pm

  10. Meet yorself, understand your intinsic self. Live a happy, vibrant and stress free life. Nice articles on Pranayama, Meditation and much more at


    December 11, 2007 at 4:19 pm

  11. provides a wonderful forum to enhance our learnings, share our views, discuss constructively and address questions relating to various topics related to spirituality, self-realization, introspection, exercise and well-being.


    April 30, 2008 at 3:53 am

  12. atheism and theism!….there was no distinction between them in Hindu philosophy…as we take it in modern terms…like if one is true then other is false… we can tell ones mother as “my mother” or My father’s wife”….both are true but from different viewpoint one may be more true with respect to the persons view point….

    we can see both atheistic and theistic approach in same philosophy say for example in Advaytha school and Samkhya school

    in Advaytha school for an atheist it does not consider human/ godly attributes to “the universal consciousness” (Brahman)
    And for a theist he can imagine Parah-brahma to be splitting in to Jeeva and Atama with the help of Maaya…presenting itself as Eeswara
    in Samkhya school an atheist can see the Purusha (the self or the observer or foreground or the system) and Prakruthy (the rest or the observed or background or the surrounding)

    A theist can give personal attributes like Siva or Sakthi…

    Friends in Hinduism it is not “true or false” (there is no false at all). But it is” truth, better truth and universal truth”…like a concentric circle…like petals of onion finally form the onion itself”

    i am aware

    July 17, 2008 at 7:43 pm

  13. please update me…DRC

    D.Ravi Chandran

    February 13, 2012 at 5:44 am

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