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Ethics of Charvaka Philosophy: The Indian Philosophy

Ethics of Charvaka Philosophy: The Indian Philosophy

Ethics is the science of morality. It discusses problems like: what is the highest goal or summum bonum man can achieve? What should be the end of human conduct? What is the standard of moral judgment? The Charvakas discuss these ethical problems in conformity with their metaphysical theories.

Some Indian philosophers like the Mimansakas believe that the highest goal of human life is heaven (swarg) which is a state of unalloyed bliss that can be attained hereafter by performing here the Vedic rites. The Charvaka rejects this view, because it is based on the unproved existence of a life after death. ‘Heaven’ and ‘hell’ are the inventions of the priests whose professional interest lies in coaxing, threatening and making people perform the rituals. Enlightened men will always refuse to be duped by them.

Many other philosophers regard liberation as the highest goal of human life. Liberation, again, is conceived as the total destruction of all sufferings. Some think that it can be attained only after death, when the soul is free from the body; and others believe that it can be attained even in this life. But the Charvaka holds that none of these views stands to reason. If liberation is freedom of the soul from its bondage to physical existence, it is absurd because there is no soul. But if liberation means the attainment of a state free from all pain, in this very life, it is also an impossible ideal. Existence in this body is bound up with pleasure as well as pain. We can only try to minimize pain and enjoy as much pleasure as we can. Liberation in the sense of complete cessation of sufferings can only mean death. Those who try to attain in life a state free from pleasures and pains by rigorously suppressing the natural appetites, thinking that all pleasures arising out of their gratification are mixed with act like fools. For no wise man would ‘reject the kernel because of its husk,’ nor give up eating fish because there are bones, nor ‘cease to grow crops because there are animals to destroy them,’ nor ‘stop cooking his food because beggars might ask for a share.’ If we remember that our existence is confined to the existence of the body and to this life, we must regard the pleasure arising in the body as the only good thing we can obtain. We should not throw away the opportunities of enjoying this life, in the futile hope of enjoyment hereafter. “Rather a pigeon today a doubtful golden coin.’ ‘Who is that fool who would entrust the money in hand to the custody of others?’ The goal of human life is, therefore, to attain the maximum amount of pleasure in this life, avoiding pain as far as possible. A good life is a life of maximum enjoyment.

A good action is one which leads to a balance of pleasure and a bad action is one which brings about more pain than pleasure. This Charvaka ethics may be called, therefore, hedonism or the theory that pleasure is the highest goal.

Some Indian thinkers speak of the four ends of human activity, namely: wealth, enjoyment, virtue (dharma) and liberation (moksha). Of these four, the Charvaka rejects the last two. Liberation in the sense of destruction of all sufferings can be obtained only by death and no wise man would willingly work for that end. Virtue and vice are distinctions made by the scriptures, whose authority cannot be rationally accepted. Therefore neither liberation nor virtue should be our end. Wealth and enjoyment are the only rational ends that a wise man can toil to achieve. But enjoyment is the ultimate end; wealth is not an end in itself, it is good only as a means to enjoyment

Having rejected the authority of the scriptures, the notions of virtue and vice, and belief in life after death, the Charvakas are naturally opposed to the performance of religious ceremonies with the object of either attaining heaven or avoiding hell or propitiating departed souls. They raise cheap laughter at the customary rites. If the food offered during funeral ceremony (shraddha) for the departed soul can appease his hunger, what is the use of a travellers taking food with him? Why should not his people make some offerings in his name at home to satisfy his hunger? Similarly, food offered on the ground floor should satisfy a person living upstairs. If the priests really believe, as they say, that the animals killed at a sacrifice (yajna) are sure to reach heaven, why do they not rather sacrifice their old parents instead of animals and make heaven sure for them?

Religion is thus reduced to morality and morality to the search of pleasure. The ethics of the Charvaka is only the logical outcome of his materialistic metaphysics.

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