Ancient atheism

“When life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e’er again return”

“There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world”

Sarva Darsana Samgraha by Vidyaranya [1]

When I’m fortunate enough to get out of the city, I like to take time to stare at the stars. Thanks to our scientific apparatus and educational system that explains certain scientific findings, I know that our sun is a star, same as all the stars seen in the night sky. I’ve long considered the sheer scale of the universe to be a powerful argument against a Creator. [2] Why should there be so much matter in the vast emptiness of space if humanity is the all-important center of the everything?

If I were a Scythian nomad, or an aristocratic medieval prince, or a pre-Colombian Amazonian hunter-gatherer I have little doubt I would accept whatever wisdom and knowledge I received from the culture I was born into in regards to the universe and humanity’s place in it. I would gaze at the stars and likely never conceive that they were made of the same stuff as our sun if it weren’t conventionally known. I would fully believe in the deities of the culture and that there was some form of life after death.

It’s with that in mind that I enjoy reading about the metaphysical beliefs of pre-modern peoples, especially those that are iconoclastic with regards to their time period and lay adjacent to the current scientific conception of reality. Roughly contemporary with the Pre-Socratics, a sect of philosophers in Vedic India espoused a view that is recognizably atheist from our modern perspective. [3] I’m referring to the ancient Indian school of Charvaka. I did a search on FtB and it appears no one has written about it. What follows is a brief and very broad synopsis, though every subject briefly described is deserving of far more explication. I should point out that I have a layperson’s understanding and am certainly open to those with more knowledge of Indian philosophy pointing out errors and misconceptions.

Charvaka is seen as heterodox in terms of arising from the philosophical/theological framework of the Rg Veda, Upanishads, and Mahabharata but neglects to provide justifications for the teachings from those traditions. Arising during the Vedic and Epic periods in Indian history (roughly 1500-500 BCE), Charvaka is grouped spatiotemporally with Buddhism and Jainism as standing opposed to the six orthodox Hindu philosophies: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Samkhya, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. Unfortunately, the primary Charvaka document, the Brhaspati Sutra, dated to roughly 600 BCE, is lost. The primary evidence for its tenets come from rival sects and are preserved in writings dated a thousand years after its founding. The seventh century CE Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarashi Bhatta is the earliest complete account, though there are arguments for and against its association with Charvaka. [4]

Samkhya and Mimamsa are both atheistic in terms of not positing a creator, but they adhere to the atman/prakrti (roughly equivalent to soul/matter) dualistic conception of the cosmos as the rest of the orthodox philosophies do, with the exception of the Advaita sub-discipline of Vedanta. Buddhism, while atheistic, has both dualistic and monist characteristics that vary by sect, but all reject the soul/atman. However, there is belief in supernatural elements like reincarnation, different dimensions inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts, etc. As far as I can tell, Charvaka is the only school of thought from that fertile philosophical time period to be both atheistic and nominally monist vis-à-vis the atman/prakrti dichotomy [5] while repudiating the fantastical elements contained in the other systems. There is no concern with breaking the karmic cycle of samsara that their contemporaries strive for, since death is final.

There is a sense of hedonic nihilism embedded within the doctrine:

“The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc.” – Sarva Siddhanta Sangraha, by Shankara

Given the obsession of Buddhism and the orthodox Hindu traditions with suffering and the best way to cope with it, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the impoverished masses didn’t gravitate towards a hedonistic lifestyle they didn’t have access to. Moreover, the ruling classes probably weren’t likely to exploit a “religion” that didn’t advocate piety and obedience, with the promise of a better subsequent life to make up for one’s present shitty life. These could be two of the reasons why Charvaka didn’t last.

It’s wild (to me anyways) to think that during the life of Thales of Miletus in ancient Greece there were dissident proto-atheists half a continent away. I’m humbled by the the thought of early humans being able to cast aside what current atheists regard as illogical beliefs, something that’s fairly easy to do nowadays given widespread access to scientific information. I’m pretty sure if I existed in an earlier era I wouldn’t be able to do the same.

1. Most of the following information comes from A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Charles Moore.

2. It turns out that our observation bubble is even larger than previously thought:

3. I’ll reductively classify atheism as the denial of a Creator coupled with a monist conception of reality (i.e. only physical reality is real).

4. The book referenced above definitively places it within the Charvaka paradigm, but the Wikipedia entry for Bhatta cites proponents of arguments against this.

5. I should note Charvaka describes the principle elements of matter as listed as air, fire, earth and water, so perhaps monist is not the best description. However, the existence of a soul/atman is explicitly denied. Consciousness is said to arise from a mixture of the aforementioned elements and ceases to exist upon the body’s dissolution. As yet another aside, Vaisheshika, while still dualistic in nature, has an atomist conception of matter/prakrti.



  1. Great American Satan says

    I’ve never been able to buy the metaphysical assertions of religion, and when asserting atheist notions at the age of five or so, my parents didn’t take it seriously. I think people with real faith – whatever that’s worth – are confident enough in the reality they perceive that they take for granted eventually their children will come to see the light on their own. Then they fall down on the brainwashing, and it never happens. Oops.

    Not to say anyone would be foolish for accepting as truth what their parents and culture teach them, it just wasn’t something that was natural for me. That’s why I’m confident that atheists have existed for as long as religion has. Some people will be constitutionally incapable of believing things that defy their understanding of reality, whatever form that takes. To all my forgotten atheist cavepeoples, props.

    With regards to your topic, I think it’s fully possible the quasi-atheists of the time arrived at their conclusions independently, but lately I’ve been reading people talking about interactions among ancient people being more cosmopolitan than usually imagined. Could one group have been inspired by the other? Fun to imagine.

    I feel like I’m writing too pretentiously these days. I really don’t think I’m that clever and don’t want to come off that way. 😛

    • forgiven says

      “Not to say anyone would be foolish for accepting as truth what their parents and culture teach them, it just wasn’t something that was natural for me.”

      I go back and forth in terms of whether or not I’d be the type to question everything if certain events in my life didn’t happen. Several things occurred in middle school (obviously a formative period), where if they were not to have happened, I don’t know if I would be the person I am today. Even the thought experiment of placing oneself in an earlier time period is fraught with absurdities – we are inextricably the products of our social environments and genetics, which is formed in part by our parents social environments and their genetics and so on.

      “I feel like I’m writing too pretentiously these days. I really don’t think I’m that clever and don’t want to come off that way. ”

      Nah. But I can empathize, I frequently worry about coming off as pretentious, but it is something I see in myself

      • Great American Satan says

        I agree. Though while it may be very difficult to imagine ourselves in another time, I think it’s possible. It’s similar to looking at other modern cultures. I look at one Japanese movie and much of it seems very relatable and human, I look at another and it seems wholly alien. I think there are some universals and some things that are purely cultural, and any given work of art, and any given person, may express one or the other more. Like, I could be a person that expresses everything I do in very cultural ways, making me seem especially alien to other peoples, or I could speak more to what we all have in common.

        It’s kind of off topic but I’m leading into this: In college I read some “primary sources” from history – Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. – and while some of it was culturally opaque, some of it was very universal – just like my experience of Japanese movies. The universal seemed modern just by merit of showing we’ve always been human, and we somehow don’t expect that of historical people. So I think it’s pretty safe to assume some people would always rebel against nonsense, in their hearts if not openly, and whether or not you & I would have been the kind of people to do so ourselves.

        • forgiven says

          Totally agree, I was reading Herodotus the other and had very similar feelings to that you described