The Hedonistic Ethics of Charvaka

by Nikhil Gavankar

The word Charvaka in Indian philosophy stands for a school of thought that is thoroughly materialist in nature. Its philosophy is a form of naïve empiricism, if one has to translate what it stands for in its modern understanding. The word materialism stands for a doctrine that holds that matter is the only reality and that mind and consciousness are derived out of matter. It represents a tendency to explain a higher phenomenon in terms of a lower phenomenon. Their philosophy can be compared to that of the Epicureans in ancient Greece.

Their ethics is a logical outcome of their epistemology, which is similar to that of the logical positivists, that perception is the only pramana or the valid source of cognition. Inference does not lead to reliable knowledge and neither does testimony of other people. The logical outcome of such an epistemology is that the external world is made of four elements such as, vayu or air, agni or fire, apa or water and kshiti or earth. Since these four elements can be perceived by our sense organs, we can vouch for their existence. The material world and all living and non-living beings are a product of these four elements.

The science of morality that seeks to ascertain what is the summum bonnum or the highest goals of human endeavor worth striving for can be called ethics. It aims to answer questions such as “What is that men should strive to achieve in their lives?” or “What is the criteria for a moral action?” or “What is the purpose of human life?” Different schools in Indian philosophy have given varying answers to this question. The school of Mimasaka would state that the highest goal of human life is to attain Swarga or heaven, which is a state of unalloyed bliss that can be achieved if one performs the Vedic rites correctly. The Charvaka School would vehemently deny these goals since they do not believe in the existence of the soul or in the belief in life after death. It is due to the fear created by self-seeking priests, whose professional interest lies in creating fictions such as heaven and hell so that the common man falls prey to such fictions and actually starts performing the Vedic rituals. A truly enlightened person that listens to the voice of reason would never believe such fairy tales.

The Jain school would say that the ultimate goal of human life is the salvation or liberation of the soul from the bodily attachments. Generally most Indian schools of philosophy agree that liberation from suffering is the ultimate goal of human life, which is generally attained when the soul liberates itself from the confines of the body. The Charvaka School again refutes all these goals as invalid. The liberation of the soul from the body is an absurdity since there is no soul as per the Charvakas. If liberation means the attainment of a state completely free from pain and sorrow in this life, then this is also not practical since the existence of the body is always caught up within the cycle of pleasure and pain, as per Charvaka. Human beings can only attempt to minimize pain but not eliminate it completely.  Only in death there can be a complete cessation of pain. Charvaka thinkers criticize the attempt made by certain saints to mortify the flesh and suppress natural desires and appetites through rigorous spiritual practices. Such behavior is considered very unnatural by the Charvaka School that considers the human being to be merely body and the pleasure of the body as the only goal worth pursuing in life. The goal of human life is to achieve maximum pleasure and to avoid pain as much as possible in this life. It is foolish people who throw away such a great opportunity of enjoying themselves in this life so that they can lead a life of pleasure in heaven or a future life.  Good actions lead to pleasure and bad actions to pain and human beings should strive for good actions. The ethics of Charvaka may be called Hedonism or that the goal of human life is the maximization of pleasure.

Indian Philosophy considers the four Purusartha or goals worthy of being pursued as being

      1. Dharma – Virtue or Morality
      2. Artha – Wealth
      3. Kama – Desire fulfillment
      4. Moksha – Liberation from the body

The Charvakas consider Artha and Kama as being worthy of being pursued but reject the other two. Virtue and vice are manmade distinctions and are born out of the Vedic scriptures, whose authority is not accepted by the Charvakas. Since there is no life after death, the concept of liberation is not worth pursuing. Life is present on earth and one has to make the most of it by enhancing pleasure and reducing pain. Charvakas mock many of the rituals mentioned in the Vedas such as the practice of Shraddha or making an offering to the dead in a funeral. They ask the question, if the food offered to a dead person during funeral for the journey of his soul to heaven can appease the hunger of the soul, then why not when the person is alive and travelling on earth, his family members can prepare food at home in his name and his hunger will be satisfied. Morality is equated with religion, which is used to instill fear in the minds of the gullible as per the Charvakas. The only morality worth pursuing is one’s pleasure and happiness through wealth and desire fulfillment; everything else is meaningless.

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