The Indian school of materialism, Charvaka, perhaps developed as a reaction against the excesses of Brahmin priests and an exploitative society. It dismissed ‘necessarily all belief in everything that constitutes the specific subject-matter of religion and philosophy.’ It had place for neither God who controls the universe nor conscience that guides man. The absence of the transcendent in Charvaka might be reason for its also being called as Lokayata-darsana, meaning philosophical school ‘restricted to the experienced world,’ or ‘secular.’ The Charvaka had no regard for the Shabda Pramana (Verbal Testimony, i.e., the Vedas). It had a purely empirical and rational concept of reality. However, the Charvaka could not gain political approval and so gradually declined – although its hedonism vented out through popular polytheism. Charvaka philosophy could not continue also because of the powerful dominance of Brahmanism over religion, culture, society, and politics. To Brahmanism, the Veda was supreme authority. The notion of a separation of faith and reason, therefore, was inadmissible. Reason (yukti) was subservient to the faith (in the revealed word, Shabda, Shruti) and not above it. In fact, true knowledge could not be rationally attained. Truth was mystical and available for only the privileged few, i.e., the Brahmins. The Charvaka, along with the Buddhists and the Jains were labelled nastiks or unbelievers and isolated from the mainstream. Brahmanism also sustained itself by preventing the other caste members from being educated. This it did by its restrictive use of the Sanskrit language and by its maintaining that higher knowledge was unattainable by the other castes. It also divided religion into two storeys: the upper was non-dualistic and attainable by the higher caste members alone; the lower was polytheistic and the popular form of Hindu religion. The higher was considered the Real and the lower the lesser real dominated by myths and phenomena. Brahmanism held both the storeys together by claiming Vedic authority. The Charvaka secular ideology was, in comparison, to Brahmanism, a lower world-view caught up with the present world and far-removed from the true Reality that the Upanishads declared. Thus, Charvaka gradually diminished before the mounting influence of Brahmanism. Nevertheless, it suffices to state that the secular outlook that cast off all religious restraints and considered the human reason capable enough to know truth was not new for the Indian context.
Vijaya Ghosh (ed.), Tirtha (New Delhi: CMC LTD., 1992)
M. Hiriyanna, Indian Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000)