Charvaka’s Philosophy – Charvaka’s Epistemology

Charvaka’s Epistemology

Charavaka is also known as Lokayat, Nastik or Rationalist school of thought, also Atheist.

It is more of a philosophy of life rather than a theory of Ultimate Reality. It is associated with men’s eternal urge for pleasure and there by established Hedonism.


Matter is the only reality.

Four types of MATTER : Earth, Fire, Air and Water. Hence, Pluralist : Having accepted above four realities as only and manifold realities. Consciousness and Body are byproducts of Matter.


Believe only in positive facts, or observable phenomena. Hence, empiricists.

The word Charvaka may mean : Materialist who believes only in eat, drink and making merry.

The philosophy itself begins with Epistemology, and its epistemology is the cornerstone of Charvaka Philosophy, based on which the entire philosophy can be built. Charvaka was an empiricist and hence he only considered Perception as being a valid source of knowledge (praman).

Out of the other four, he was vehemently against INFERENCE. According to him, inference is only a guesswork, sometimes true and sometimes false.

Positivist Epistemology

Believes only observable phenomena, hence perception or Pratyaksha is the only valid source of knowledge. All other Pramans are refuted on the basis of Pratyaksha alone. Perception is defined as power of perceiving through senses. When a sense organ comes into contact with any external object, perception takes place. Since there are five sense organs, namely eyes, nose, tongue, skin, ears, there are five types of perception based on each sense organ.

According to Charvaka, only perception gives us definite, non-erroneous, valid or undoubtable knowledge of reality. Charavaka doesn’t refute the other Pramanas, he rejects their validity.


By means of perception as well, erroneous knowledge is possible. For example : Knowledge of snake in a rope. Thus, if Pramana is valid only because it gives undoubtable knowledge as propounded by Charvaka, even perception fails to be a valid Pramana.


1. Refutation of Inference/Anuman

Inference is accepted as a valid source of knowledge by all major Indian Schools of thought except Charvaka. It is also the means of Inductive and deductive logic in Western Philosophy.

Vyapti is considered as logical ground of inference, but Charavaka rejects it as baseless and claims that Vyapti can never be established.

Etymologically, inference or Anuman means after (ANU) + Knowledge (MAN)

In inference, we proceed from the perceived Hetu, to get the knowledge of the unperceived Sadhya (major term). This requires the existence of a concomitant, unusual, invariable, and unconditional relationship between the HETU and SADHYA called VYAPTI.

Thus, VYAPTI is the nerve or logical ground of inference.

The Charvaka challenges the validity of this VYAPTI to reject inference as a valid source of knowledge. Charvaka argues that Inference would be valid if vyapti can be established between HETU and SADHYA beyond doubt. However, he argues that this cannot be established, and thus inference becomes invalid.

Arguments against Vyapti : An example of VYAPTI would be “where there is smoke there is fire”

By Inference

Hence, smoke becomes the HETU and fire becomes the SADHYA. According to Charvaka, this relation would be valid if for EVERY possible existence of smoke would be caused by a fire. But this invariable and concomitant vyapti cannot be established by inference, because doing so would result in the fallacy of petitio principi (Circular argument fallacy) and infinite regress, because the VYAPTI is need to prove the case in point would remain unproved. (To prove Vyapti, we need inference and vice versa)

Failure of Perception (Fallacy of illicit Generalization)

The sphere of perception is limited. We cannot perceive all the cases of smoke and fire even at any present moment to establish a VYAPTI. Moreover, perception is confined to particular time and space, and cannot be extrapolated to the past, or future in order to use VYAPTI at all times. Perception, thus cannot provide us with a universal generalization. If we do so, we are resorting to the fallacy of illicit generalization. In such a case, inference would only be an uncertain leap from a known to unknown.

Thus he rejects Nyaya’s view : Knowledge of VYAPTI is gained by means of SAMANYA LAKSHNA PRATYAKSHA.

Failure of Verbal Testimony/Shabdha

Charavaka first of all rejects VT itself from being a valid source of knowledge. Moroever, if vyapti would be proved on the basis of VT, then again it would lead to fallacy of petitio principiias VT’s validity too depends on Inference.

Thus, Charvaka concludes that since Vyapti cannot be proved by perception, inference and Verbal Testimony, inference cannot be valid. It remains mere guess work. It is based on psychological belief and not on logical laws. his is similar to Hume’s Laws of Association where he concludes that the cause-effect theory out of law of associations is not a rational necessity, rather a psychological one. It is only by accident that some events are validated by inference. Vyapti is contingent, not concomitant, universal or unconditional.

2. Rejection of VT by reliable person

VT of reliable person involves inference. We accept the VT of a reliable person because we consciously infer that his authority/knowledge is acceptable, or consciously generalize the validity of VT of reliable person based on his previous testimonies. Both involves inference which is unproved and would also lead to fallacy of petitio principi. Thus, a person’s authority cannot be proved or accepted.

Secondly, case in point, the Vedas, according to the Charvakas, are full of contradictions, meaningless and ambigious ideas. They are claimed to be written by a class of society for its own livelihood. However, this claim is self-contradictory, as the only manner it could be valid is if we accept validity of VT.

3. On the basis of uniformity of experience

(As proposed by Nyaya-Vaisesika)

This is too rejected by by Charvaka.

4. Cause and Effect Relation by N-V

Cause and Effect Relation by N-V also rejected. (Charavaka, a hardcore empiricists doesn’t except anything without experience. How can he accept something he hasn’t experienced. Inherent nature of everything around might change in the future.) Causation itself is an kind of inference. To generalize that an “effect is preceded by a certain cause” is a generalized statement used as Vyapti. Thus, to argue the validity of Vyapti by using the Vyapti of causation and again vice-versa would again lead to fallacy of petitio principi. Moreover, causation itself is a result of fallacy of illicit generalization.

5. Refutation of Comparison (Upaman)

Upaman is regarded as a valid source of knowledge by Nyaya, Mimansa, Vedanta. Comparison is the knowledge of similarity between two objects.

According to Charvaka, we get knowledge of similarity by perception itself, thus there is no need to accept Upaman.

In another sense, it involves inference, when similarity between two objects is inferred. Since inference itself is invalid, Upaman by the means also becomes invalid.


1. Jaina’s refutation of Charavaka’s rejection of Inference

  • If Charvaka has to prove that Perception is the only valid source of knowledge, he has two options :
    • Remain silent : This means there is no ground to accept argument
    • Argue/Reason : But for reasoning, he has to take the help of inference or VT and this is contradictory. If Charavaka doesn’t accept inference, he can never participate in a discussion, as discussion requires inferring of other’s view point.
    • If inference is invalid, by the reason that it may go wrong, then perception also cannot be a Pramana, as there is false perception (Snake in a rope) as well as hallucination.

2. Buddha’s refutation of Charvaka’s rejection of Inference

  • According to Sautrantika School of Buddhism, when an object is perceived by the senses, the mind recognizes the impression of the object already present in the consciousness, and through this impression the knowledge of the object is inferred (Same as Hume’s ideas and impressions). Thus, knowledge of external objects can be accepted only if inference is accepted.
  • Buddhists again ask how Charavaka knows that his opponents admit the validity of inference? He cannot know by sense-perception what is going on in the minds of others, he will have to infer from the verbal statements of his opponents. Therefore, Charavaka must admit the validity of inference.

3. Nyaya’s refutation of Charvaka’s rejection of Inference

  • There are several objects in this world which can’t be perceived but it is necessary to accept their existence like Ether, Manas, Space etc.
  • In practical life, if we cannot accept inference, practical life would become difficult.

4. Kantian Logic of Refutation

By perception, we get body/matter of knowledge alone. Mere sensation cannot give knowledge unless the sense data is organized and reasoned upon. Thus, it is only through reason that we get form of knowledge, and thus perception alone is not a valid source of knowledge.


The Vedantins and Shunya-Vadins also reject inference but only at transcendental level, and not empirical level, because they refute the validity of all means of knowledge at the transcendental level. However, Charvaka rejects inference at empirical level itself and this rejection is self contradictory as to accept perception as valid source and reject inference is self contradiction.

Charavaka’s free thinking has helped other philosophy’s refine their argument and enriched the content of Indian Philosophy.

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