Buddhist Texts · Cārvāka/Lokāyata · indica lingua

♦ The king as God: Cārvākas’ usage of a quite common expression

In the first chapter of Sāyaṇa-Mādhava’s Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha (on Cārvāka/Lokāyata) we meet with the following half-verse:

lokasiddho bhaved rājā pareśo nāparaḥ smṛtaḥ |1

That is:

The king (rājā), celebrated by the people (lokasiddho; also: powerful in the world, established in/by the world, etc.), is considered (bhaved smṛtaḥ; also: is declared, is admitted) [according to Cārvākas] the unsurpassed (nāparaḥ) highest lord (pareśo).

From the context in which they appear, we infer that the aim of these words is to denigrate the Materialistic perspective. Indeed, here what Sāyaṇa-Mādhava is trying to point out is a (disrespectful, according to him) equation which follows the (wrong) direction king=Supreme God (i.e., the king, not God, is the only one who has dominion in the world and the comparison with God is just metaphorical), rather than the (right) Supreme God=king (i.e., the Supreme God is the Supreme King, the King of the Universe, and similar ideas which make “our” kings a pale human reflection of the immense power of God). We have, in other words – at least according to the theistic Sāyaṇa-Mādhava’s interpretation of Cārvākas’ position –, a pauperization of the divine power. The Cārvākas, for whom nothing which is beyond the range of the senses is real, upheld indeed that God/s do/es not exist. But, we can in any case use this term, namely “God”, to refer to the person who has the highest power in the world, that is, the king. The king becomes thus representative of a power which can be only poetically compared to that of God as described by theists. It follows that the kṣatra («kingliness») must be something established conventionally by men and not a supernatural supremacy, typical of Varuṇa and/or Indra (as was interpreted by brāhmaṇical literature), to which human kings participate.

Now, are we sure that Cārvākas’ usage of this parallelism was exclusively for the sake of denigration? Did they compare – if they really did it! We are indeed analyzing what Sāyaṇa-Mādhava is saying about them and not what they have said – the king to God in a disparaging way? I think no, if they did. I think that here Sāyaṇa-Mādhava exaggerates the point, which must in any case be interpreted in another way. If, on the one hand, Materialists did not admit any existing God, on the other hand, we indeed have some textual clues allowing us to suppose that the equation king=God (not God=king) was quite common in Indian languages. To corroborate this idea I propose two examples from the Buddhist Pāli Canon:

(A) a full-length explanation in Cūḷaniddesa: devāti tayo devā sammutidevā, upapattidevā, visuddhidevā. katame sammutidevā? sammutidevā vuccanti rājāno ca rājakumārā ca deviyo ca. ime vuccanti sammutidevā. katame upapattidevā? upapattidevā vuccanti cātumahārājikā devā tāvatiṃsā devā yāmā devā tusitā devā nimmānaratī devā paranimmitavasavattī devā brahmakāyikā devā ye ca devā taduttari. ime vuccanti upapattidevā. katame visuddhidevā? visuddhidevā vuccanti (tathāgatā) tathāgatasāvakā arahanto khīṇāsavā ye ca paccekabuddhā. ime vuccanti visuddhidevā («[Now about] “Gods”. There are three Gods: Gods according to convention, Gods by birth and Gods in/by pureness. Who are the Gods according to convention? The kings, queens and princes are called Gods according to convention. These are called Gods according to convention. Who are the Gods by birth? The Gods belonging to the four Great Gods, the Gods of the thirty-three [abodes], the [so-called] Yāma Gods, the Gods [dwelling in the] tusitā heaven, Gods having pleasure in their fabrications, the Gods bringing into subjection the fabrications of others, Gods belonging to the company of Mahābrahma, and those Gods who are beyond that, [all these] are called Gods by birth. These are called Gods by birth. Who are the Gods in/by pureness? The (Tathāgata, the) disciples of the Tathāgata, the arahants, the ones in whome passion is extinct, and the ones awakened by a specific cause are called Gods in/by pureness. These are called Gods in/by pureness»).2

(B) a shorter treatment in Vibhaṅga, PTS ed. p. 422: devāti. tayo devā sammutidevā, upapattidevā, visuddhidevā. sammutidevā nāma rājāno, deviyo, kumārā. upapattidevā nāma cātumahārājike deve upādāya tadupari devā. visuddhidevā nāma arahanto vuccanti («Devas means three [types of] devas, [viz.,] conventional devas, devas by birth, devas by purification. Conventional devas means kings, queens [and their] children. Devas by birth means, commencing with Cātumahārājika Devas, [all] devas from there upwards. Devas by purification means Noble Ones»).3

That the term sammuti («convention»), in Pāli Buddhism, means nothing but vohāra, i.e., «common/wordly sense/speach», is well known. To sum up: sammutidevā are «Gods according to linguistic convention» (not actual Gods, but human beings commonly called “gods” because of their sovereignity), upapattidevā are «Gods by birth» (actually Gods; Buddhism does accord existence to Gods, as Sāyaṇa-Mādhava did, even if in a different philosophical context) and visuddhidevā are «Gods in/by pureness» (that is, those who have reached nibbāna). It is thus clear that the word “God” (deva), when commonly, conventionally (sammuti) used, refers to the king (and this is more evident when we consider that devī, in the sense of «queen», stands very frequently for rājñī, the feminine of rāja). Now, from a Cārvāka point of view, among the three meanings of deva collected in the Pāli Canon, both upapattideva and visuddhideva are to be considered inexistent, the first because our senses do not perceive any God (thus, God does not exist), the second because religious or meditational practices do not really liberate anyone. It rests only sammutideva, and probably Materialists made use of “deva” exactly in this sense, i.e., following an already attested common usage: their intention was not to reduce God to king or to expand king to God, simply because God is for them inexistent, and to compare a person to what does not exist sounds a bit mocking.

We can thus conclude with the consideration that, if Cārvāka, at least from a certain moment onwards, has been called also Lokāyata (from lokeṣu āyatam, «widespread among the people»), why should Cārvākas avoid common language?

Perhaps Sāyaṇa-Mādhava’s half-verse should be considered as exclusively due to his critical inclination towards Cārvākas, which sometimes appears to push him into inaccurate descriptions of their philosophy!


(1) Abhyankar (1978:7).

(2) This text recurs twice: for an on-line version see here and here. I have translated paccekabuddha with «awakened by a specific [i.e., non-Buddhist] cause», following here the illuminating indications of Norman (2006:134-135).

(3) PTS (Pali Text Society). Translation from Thittila (1988:540). For an on-line versione of this text: here.


– Abhyankar, V.S. (ed. by), Sarva-Darśana-Saṃgraha of Sāyaṇa-Mādhava, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Insitute, Poona 1978 (rep.)

Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭāka 4.0, Vipassana Research Institute, Dhammagiri. On-line downloadable edition: http://www.tipitaka.org/cst/cst4-2008-04-20-beta15.exe (accessed 12 March 2009).

– Norman, K.R., A Philological Approach to Buddhism, Pali Text Society, Lancaster 2006 (rep.)

– Rhys Davids, C.A.F. (ed. by), Vibhaṅga, Pali Text Society, Oxford 1978 (rep.)

– Thittila, U. (1988), The Book of Analysis, Pali Text Society, Oxford 1988 (rep.)

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