An important compendium of the ancient Indian philosophical schools - called Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha - was written in India in 14th century CE by Madhvacharya (a non-Buddhist Indian Philosopher) who gives an intriguing account of the debate between ancient Indian materialists (the Charvaka) and the extent Buddhist schools of thought in India at that time. He describes the Charvaka thus:

Chárváka, the crest-gem of the atheistical school, the follower of the doctrine of Bṛihaspati. The efforts of Chárváka are indeed hard to be eradicated, for the majority of living beings hold by the current refrain

While 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?

The mass of men, in accordance with the Śástras of policy and enjoyment, considering wealth and desire the only ends of man, and denying the existence of any object belonging to a future world, are found to follow only the doctrine of Chárváka. Hence another name for that school is Lokáyata,—a name well accordant with the thing signified.

This characterization would appear quite in accordance with descriptions in sutta of the Charvaka school and its tenets:

"When this was said, Ajita Kesakambalin said to me, 'Great king, there is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves. A person is a composite of four primary elements. At death, the earth (in the body) returns to and merges with the (external) earth-substance. The fire returns to and merges with the external fire-substance. The liquid returns to and merges with the external liquid-substance. The wind returns to and merges with the external wind-substance. The sense-faculties scatter into space. Four men, with the bier as the fifth, carry the corpse. Its eulogies are sounded only as far as the charnel ground. The bones turn pigeon-colored. The offerings end in ashes. Generosity is taught by idiots. The words of those who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.'

This compendium describes the Buddhist response to the Charvaka school as a direct attack on their understanding of causation vs correlation. Succinctly put, it would appear the Charvaka did not believe in causation, but rather only believed in correlation:

"Be it so," says the opponent; "your wish would be gained if inference, &c., had no force of proof; but then they have this force; else, if they had not, then how, on perceiving smoke, should the thoughts of the intelligent immediately proceed to fire; or why, on hearing another say, 'There are fruits on the bank of the river,' do those who desire fruit proceed at once to the shore?"

All this, however, is only the inflation of the world of fancy. ... Hence by the impossibility of knowing the universality of a proposition it becomes impossible to establish inference, &c.

The step which the mind takes from the knowledge of smoke, &c., to the knowledge of fire, &c., can be accounted for by its being based on a former perception or by its being an error; and that in some cases this step is justified by the result, is accidental just like the coincidence of effects observed in the employment of gems, charms, drugs, &c.

From this it follows that fate, &c., do not exist, since these can only be proved by inference. But an opponent will say, if you thus do not allow adṛishṭa, the various phenomena of the world become destitute of any cause.

But we cannot accept this objection as valid, since these phenomena can all be produced spontaneously from the inherent nature of things. Thus it has been said—

The fire is hot, the water cold, refreshing cool the breeze of morn; 
By whom came this variety? from their own nature was it born. 

The author of the work then gives the known Buddhist reply at the time in ancient India. This can be succinctly summarized as denial of causation leads to practical absurdities. NOTE: invariable concomitance is a term of art in ancient Indian debate that is described here.

At this point the Buddhists remark: As for what you (Chárvákas) laid down as to the difficulty of ascertaining invariable concomitance, your position is unacceptable, inasmuch as invariable concomitance is easily cognisable by means of identity and causality. It has accordingly been said—

"From the relation of cause and effect, or from identity as a
determinant, results a law of invariable concomitance—not through the
mere observation of the desired result in similar cases, nor through
the non-observation of it in dissimilar cases."

On the hypothesis (of the Naiyáyikas) that it is concomitance and non-concomitance (e.g., A is where B is, A is not where B is not) that determine an invariable connection, the unconditional attendance of the major or the middle term would be unascertainable, it being impossible to exclude all doubt with regard to instances past and future, and present but unperceived. If one (a Naiyáyika) rejoin that uncertainty in regard to such instances is equally inevitable on our system, we reply: Say not so, for such a supposition as that an effect may be produced without any cause would destroy itself by putting a stop to activity of any kind; for such doubts alone are to be entertained, the entertainment of which does not implicate us in practical absurdity and the like, as it has been said, "Doubt terminates where there is a practical absurdity."

Which seems in accordance with the ancient Indian Nagarjuna's opening verse of his famous treatise:

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Based on this my questions are:

  1. Does the non-Buddhist author of this work accurately describe Charvaka views and tenets at the time?
  2. Does the non-Buddhist author of this work accurately describe Buddhist replies at the time?
  3. Why was it deemed important to the ancient Indian schools (Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike) this debate over causation vs correlation?
  4. If you accept the Buddhist view in this debate as superior, then how does it undermine the views and tenets of the Charvaka?
  5. Is it true that the Charvaka school was the most popular in ancient India at the time this compendium was written?
  6. What do we know of how prevalent was the Charvaka school in the time of the Buddha?
  7. If the Charvaka school was very prevalent in the time of the Buddha and granting the supposition that some hold - that the Buddha only taught rebirth as a fictional contrivance to appeal to the people of his time and age - then why did the Buddha also teach rebirth to the people who steadfastly rejected it? (please only answer this if you actually believe this supposition as that's all I'm interested in...)

2 Answers 2

  1. This is out of scope for Buddhism SE. This is more like a history question. The Buddhist texts describe Charvaka as being materialist. Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha describes Charvaka as being both materialist and hedonist, but some scholars (especially Bhattacharya) say there's insufficient evidence to claim that Charvaka was hedonist.

  2. The explanation of the Buddhist position given in the Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha doesn't match what's in the Pali Canon, but rather appears to expand on it. So, I guess this may describe the position of Indian Buddhist scholars who lived long after the Buddha's time.

I will skip #3 and #4.

  1. From my understanding, Charvaka was not the most popular school at the time. Brahmanism (the Vedic religion) was the most popular orthodox religious view of the era. Charvaka was a minority heterodox school.

  2. We don't know.

And lastly question 7 will be answered below.

First mark of existence

Sabbe sankhara anicca - All conditioned things/phenomena are impermanent.

Apart from Nibbana, everything else is conditioned. Something conditioned depends on something else, is influenced by something else, and is caused by something else. And all such things are impermanent, changing, unreliable, unstable.

So, from this, you can see that causation is quite important.

Everything that exists and happens is caused by something else. Events that happen to us and our existence, may not all be caused by karma, but they are definitely caused by something, be it weather, the actions of others, bile, etc. according to the Sivaka Sutta.

Conditioned phenomena are essentially chains of dependent processes.

Second mark of existence

Sabbe sankhara dukkha - All conditioned things/phenomena are suffering.

Now, the term "conditioned things" is focused on mind-body phenomena. Wherever there's mind-body phenomena occurring, craving arises, and that's the cause of suffering (second noble truth).

Also, take note that it is suffering that is occurring due to craving. It's not your suffering or my suffering. It's not your craving or my craving. It's just suffering caused by craving.

Third mark of existence

Sabbe dhamma anatta - All things/phenomena are not self.

"All things" include Nibbana.

This is the teaching that truly differentiates what the Buddha taught from what everybody else taught, including Charvaka.

The view of Charvaka is that there is a self. It's associated with the physical body. When the physical body is destroyed, the self would be destroyed too.

The Buddhist view is that the self and being are just emergent phenomena. A being is a term applied conventionally when the five aggregates occur together and when there is the clinging of the mind to the idea of "I am".

The self is just the mental idea of "I am". The self idea arises from moment to moment, from the mind-body phenomena, depending on conditions. It's always changing, just as the five aggregates are always changing.

If you step into a flowing river then step out then later step in again, would you be stepping into the same river twice? It may appear so, but in reality, the molecules, flow speed, temperature, pressure etc. of the river would have changed. So, it's not the exact same river.

Similarly, the mental idea of the self keeps changing throughout one's life, and even throughout a single day. Also consciousness, the mind, the body, is also changing. The mind changes more rapidly than the body.

Thinking that there is a concrete self, a specific individual identity, a core entity, that is born, lives, grows old, dies, and then is reborn or perhaps not reborn, are all self-views. The Charvaka view is called annihilationism because they believed that there was a self (associated with the physical body) and then it will become destroyed (along with the physical body).

According to the Vina Sutta, when you break down the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations down to their constituent parts, you cannot find the self anywhere. This is explained using the analogy of the lute. When you break the lute down to its constituent parts, you cannot find music anywhere.

So, all phenomena is not self. All phenomena is empty of a self (Sunna Sutta).


The Charvaka view is that if you will become destroyed at death, why bother with good behavior and charity? This is typical of a self-view. If suffering will end at death, why bother trying to end suffering? Just endure it till it's gone.

The Buddhist view is that firstly there's causation, as described above. Karma is one of the causes of suffering but is not the only cause, according to Sivaka Sutta.

The Buddhist goal is to end suffering, not in the future, but in the here-and-now. If we talk about ending suffering in the future, then that future is described relative to the self. That's a self-view.

Here's an example of self-view related to the future. A person thinks he will probably live for another 50 years hopefully, if he has good health. And he thinks, "perhaps it's good if I can attain Nibbana within my natural life, before death comes, otherwise I may be reborn somewhere else and not fortunate enough to encounter the Dhamma in another life". That's self-view.

Ending of suffering in Buddhism is through the purification of the mind.

Hereafter and Rebirth

Charvaka says there's no rebirth and no hereafter. Everything ends at death. What ends? The self ends. This is a self-view. That there was a self, and it got destroyed at death with no continuity.

What does Buddhism say?

According to Buddhism, there is causation. Every event and every object is caused by something else. It is influenced by something else. It depends on something else.

According to Buddhism, there is continuity. Everywhere the mind-body phenomena occurs, you have individuality or the mental idea of the self reappearing, and with that, suffering also reappears. Individuality is (re)born. The self idea is (re)born. Suffering is (re)born.

But this causation, continuity, individuality, suffering, craving etc. are all not self. They represent chains of dependent processes.

And what is "not self"? It means there is no core entity, no concrete self, no specific individual identity that is born, lives, dies and is reborn or not reborn. That's just a temporary emergent phenomena that arises from the mind and body.

Also please see MN 38 (story of monk Sati), SN 22.85 (what happens to the Tathagata after death?), SN 12.20 (have I existed in the past? will I exist in future?), SN 12.17 (is suffering self-made or others-made, or both or neither?).

Fictional contrivance? Or skillful means?

The teaching given to people that they would be reborn depending on their karma, is skillful means (upaya) on the part of the Buddha, given in AN 5.57. In fact, there are multiple self-views given in that sutta like "I will grow old" etc. As explained in AN 5.57, the Buddha taught these reflections for a reason.

From AN 5.57:

“And for the sake of what benefit should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do’? People engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, such misconduct is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’

If people who have self-view reflect that their actions will result in their future condition, then misconduct will be completely abandoned or diminished.

This is not a fictional contrivance. It's skillful means (upaya). Perhaps you can call it a "mind trick".

Remember that everything conditioned are chains of dependent processes? The Buddha used this reflection to change the conduct of people with self-view in order to reduce suffering and lead towards the complete elimination of suffering.

Skillful means occurs elsewhere too like in AN 7.52. Giving in charity with expectation of future good results in return is the lesser purpose, while adorning the mind or purifying the mind is the highest purpose. For someone with self-view, charity with the lesser purpose is better than no charity at all, and is a step in the right direction.


Questions 1 thru 6 would take an historical scholar to answer. However, I want to contribute to an answer to both questions 6 and 7. First question 6, in my experience and understanding, cause and effect are important to understand because it leads one to the understanding of the four noble truths, and specifically, to the understanding of dukkha. I'm not trying to be cryptic here, only that to fully explain this would take a very long explanation. Now question 7, the Buddha taught rebirth because that is true whereas reincarnation is not true. There is nothing that continues into another incarnation. Rebirth is the re-entry by the deathless (that's what the Buddha called it in his first teaching of the five ascetics) into another living experience. So it's a fresh start, not a reincarnation. The karma brought into the new experience is simply the accompanying ignorance. As one awakens, karma vanishes, in exact accordance to the self-awareness (which, of course, is not a "self").

  • "Rebirth is the re-entry by the deathless (that's what the Buddha called it in his first teaching of the five ascetics) into another living experience." This sounds like "the deathless" is what continues and thus this sentence appears contradictory to, "There is nothing that continues..."
    – user13375
    Commented May 9, 2021 at 23:34
  • It's the difference between rebirth and reincarnation.
    – Dr. Robert
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:38
  • Correction: I meant #3 not #6 above.
    – Dr. Robert
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:42

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