The name Lokâyata is most commonly applied to an ancient Darśana (doctrine) in India, traditionally attributed to Bṛhaspati or Cârvâka. Its content is unequivocally atheistic, due to which, it is seen as one of three heterodox Darśanas (Buddhism and Jainism being the other two). Synonymous with Cârvâka and Bârhaspatya, it has been associated with skepticism, atheism, materialism (not to be confused with materialistic), hedonism, depravity and moral turpitude. Writers like Tucci, et al., have speculated on its original form and have offered varying views, identifying it with politics, mundane beliefs, nature lore, the art of disputation, etc. Some modern scholars like H.P Shastri have identified Cârvâkas as Kâpâlikas and Tântriks. it is believed a lost text containing definitive sūtras (aphorisms) known as Cârvâka-sūtra or Bṛhaspati-sūtra lays out the tenets of Lokâyata. The general belief is Lokâyata had a position on epistemology and this position held perception to be the only valid source of knowledge (pratyakşam eva pramâņam). Though, in later times (after 10th Century CE) this doctrine was almost exclusively labeled Cârvâka, the name Lokâyata is much older (6th Century BCE or earlier).
The first notable modern writer on the topic was Henry Thomas Colebrooke (19th Century CE), whose sources were mostly confined to Vidyâraṇya's Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha (14th Century CE). Among other doctrines, Vidyâraṇya also describes the Cârvâka position (without references to people or texts) and his account formed the basis of Colebrooke's rendition of the Lokâyata position - which he categorized as Indian Materialism. Since then, a number of other sources have been identified, but writers have continued to retain Colebrooke's perspective with almost no changes. But on setting aside these "Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha based" views and examining the full set of available sources, it becomes clear that the modern understanding of Lokâyata is flawed, partly due to ignorance and partly due to bias. While the available material on the subject is frustratingly sparse - leaving significant gaps to be filled by assumptions - sufficient information exists to challenge the current understanding of Lokâyata.
As Rhys David rightly observes, we do not know of a single individual who claims affiliation with Lokâyata or any text that calls itself Lokâyata. This, along with the text Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarâśi Bhaṭṭa (8th Century CE) are significant factors controverting the mainstream perception of Lokâyata. There is absolutely no evidence proving the existence of a formal school by the name and therefore, there is no basis for a Cârvâkasūtra (the existence of which has been assumed to be a reality, by most scholars). This however, does not mean that the various philosophical views attributed to Lokâyata are all bogus. There certainly existed skeptics and materialists in India (and indeed, all around the world) from ancient times and it is possible that some of them authored their viewpoints, which have long been lost. Names like Bṛhaspati, Bhâguri, Cârvâka, Purandara, et al., have been associated with Lokâyata and there is no reason to doubt these people were skeptics. But as noted earlier, no texts composed by these people have come down to us and therefore there is no evidence that any of them called themselves Lokâyata/Cârvâka or belonged to such a school. In the absence of evidence, it is far more likely that they were independent skeptics who did not organize, but owing to similarities, were grouped under Lokâyata by writers of other schools. The Sarva-darśana-saṅ̇graha describes Lokâyata is materialism, which is inaccurate. On considering other sources such as the Tattvopaplavasimha, Nyâya Manjari, etc., Lokâyata was applied to atheism, skepticism and materialism. Jayarâśi, et al., were pure, unconditional skeptics - even more so than the acclaimed skeptic Nâgârjuna (5th Century CE) for he compromised his skeptical outlook to make allowance for his own Mâdhyamika doctrine.
Outside academia, interest in Darśanas and related matters is extremely low. However, the creation of this website is justified by the absence of websites dedicated to Lokâyata and the absence of sources undertaking a comprehensive analysis on the topic. The intent of this site is not to assail or defend Lokâyata but to provide a succinct account of its history, doctrine, epistemology and etymology with the goal of providing a neutral examination of available sources and drawing the most plausible picture of Lokâyata.