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  • The Philosophy of Lokāyata: A Review and Reconsideration by Bijayananda Kar
  • Ethan Mills (bio)
The Philosophy of Lokāyata: A Review and Reconsideration. By Bijayananda Kar. Delhi: Motilal Banardsidass, 2013. Pp. 136. Rs. 295.

The paucity of classical sources concerning the Cārvāka/Lokāyata school is mirrored by a scarcity of contemporary scholarship. On that note, this book is a welcome contribution. The subtitle of this book promises “a review and reconstruction.” There is some review of classical and contemporary sources (although perhaps not quite enough); however, the bulk of the book is Kar’s reconstruction of what he thinks the Cārvākas might have or should have said. I will follow Kar in using “Cārvāka” and “Lokāyata” interchangeably to refer to the classical Indian school usually taken to endorse materialism, atheism, hedonism, and/or skepticism.

Kar’s book consists of an introduction and conclusion with six chapters on a variety of issues (knowledge, materialism, atheism, morality, the self, and socio-individual relationship). In the introduction, Kar explains the points where he thinks the Cārvākas ought to be reevaluated. After a brief review of classical sources including the Upaniṣads, Early Buddhist texts, and Cārvāka philosophers such as Bṛhaspati, Purandara, and Jayarāśi, Kar sets out to challenge many of the received views. His first controversial (if somewhat puzzling) point is that the Cārvākas engage in “no wholesale condemnation of the Vedic source,” but only of those parts that refer to trans-empirical phenomena (pp. 3–4). He also claims that the Cārvākas can’t endorse the type of dogmatic metaphysical materialism they are usually taken to endorse, a claim he supports in more detail in the chapter on materialism. This illustrates the main claim of the book that the Cārvāka school is not nearly as simplistic or dogmatic as it has been taken to be by both classical and contemporary scholars.

The key to this claim comes in Kar’s chapter on epistemology. While many sources present the Cārvākas as accepting perception as the single means of knowledge, which is then meant to support materialist metaphysics, Kar argues that the [End Page 1366] Cārvākas in fact had a more subtle view, such as the view of Purandara.1 According to this view, inference (anumāna) is a trustworthy means of knowledge as long it is limited to the empirical realm; it is only when inference is used to support the existence of things not subject to empirical verification that it is not trustworthy.

Given this epistemological framework, Kar argues that the Cārvākas cannot be the type of materialists they are commonly taken to be: “The materialistic stand that matter alone is real ultimately is not derived from empirical knowledge. It is a metaphysical presupposition and, as such, it is not at all acceptable to the logical foundation of the Cārvāka stand” (p. 37). In other words, materialism as a metaphysical view goes beyond empirically available data, and thus cannot be accepted. Kar draws a comparison with several types of positivism, especially that of A. J. Ayer.

Kar applies similar analyses to the issues of theism and the self, arguing that the Cārvākas cannot be dogmatic atheists and that they would accept a common-sense, empirical self without accepting a simplistic physicalism that equates the body with the self. Interestingly, Kar suggests that Cārvākas may not be dismissive of personal religious feelings based on emotion rather than trans-empirical inferences (pp. 55–56).

Concerning ethics, Kar thinks the typical view that the Cārvākas are selfish hedonists is entirely unfounded, since Cārvākas may well accept social ethics as a purely worldly phenomenon. They might even work to end discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, and race. Again, the problem comes in trying to base ethics on trans-empirical entities such as a transcendent self that can be reborn or go to heaven.

While I deeply appreciate Kar’s efforts to rethink the typical, unsophisticated depiction of the Cārvākas, I have a few...