Atheism in Hinduism
By Navin Kumar
Article ID: 1217
Hinduism is among the most curious of religions that exist on the planet Earth. It’s over 3000 years old and still kicking. It’s never waged a Holy War. Its followers are some of the most deeply religious in existence and yet there are no widespread debates about its teachings. There are supposedly thirty million gods and goddesses in its pantheon, and though they themselves have rarely gotten along, their followers seem to be doing just fine.
Hinduism is also the only religion in the world that considers atheism legitimate.
The Philosophical Roots of Atheism in Hinduism
There are nine major Hindu schools of philosophy. These are broadly divided into ‘Astika’ schools and ‘Nastika’ schools. While the terms ‘Astika’ and ‘Nastika’ are loosely translated to mean ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’, they technically refer to belief in the Vedas (four of the ‘holy books’ of Hinduism) rather than belief in God. The six schools which fall under the title ‘Astika’ believe in the teachings of the Vedas, even if they do not subscribe a Creator-God.
Of the ‘Astika’ schools, the Samkhya and Karma-Mimasa thinkers can be described as atheists. Samkaya believed in the material world (Prakriti) and the existence of the spirit (Purusha) but not in God. The Karma-Mimasa school believes strongly in natural Karmic law (that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished) and has no need of an omnipotent being to enforce it.
The three Nastika schools – Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka – reject the doctrine of the Vedas. However, they are not necessarily atheist. Buddhism is, perhaps, the only agnostic religion in existence. Jainism rejects the idea of an omnipotent manager, believing instead that the universe has always existed, will always exist and is governed by natural laws.
Carvaka is the most strongly atheist of the three schools. Also called the Lokayata, it is named after its founder, Carvaka. It seems to have originated somewhere around 300 BC and died out around the 1400s AD. The original works of this school have been lost and our knowledge of it is based upon criticism of Carvaka philosophy written by Hindu and Buddhist opponents.
Carvaka strongly rejects the validity of the Vedas, calling them the “incoherent rhapsodies of rascals“. He quotes (what was then) a popular saying:
“The Sacrifices, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves / and smearing oneself with ashes / Brhaspati says these are but means of livelihood / for those who have no manliness nor sense”
The writings of Carvaka also show a strong dislike of priests, believing them to be swine who invent the various rituals of religion (another bugbear) to create a livelihood for themselves. He quotes the poet Madhava:
“If a beast slain in the Jyotishtoma rite will itself go to heaven / Why then does not the sacrificer, forthwith offer his own father?”
Carvaka also rejects the caste system, a radical stand in its time:
“What is this senseless humbug about the castes and the high and low among them when organs like the mouth, etc in the human are the same?”
Carvaka is a strongly materialistic and hedonistic philosophy which believes that the only mode of perception is one’s senses and all inferences derived from these senses (which explains the Nirvana / Reincarnation-believing Buddhist hostility towards it). Carvaka quotes:
“While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it ever again return?”
Modern Hinduism and Atheism
While the philosophical roots of atheism in Hinduism are sound, few practicing Hindus are aware of their religion’s atheist tradition. Indeed, many view Hinduism as a purely theist religion (with Jainism and Buddhism as separate religions). There is also a strong bias against irreligious people and a belief in their inherent immorality.
Just as an idea goes from the philosopher to the professor to the intellectual to the masses while being forgotten in its original form, the teachings of Carvaka et al create ripples of tolerance though the rest of the religion. It is far easier for a Hindu to “escape” a religious upbringing and declare himself an atheist than it is for a person belonging to any other religion, even if they come from equally religious communities.
Hinduism is an incredibly tolerant religion, not only to outsiders but also within itself. It can be divided into many denominations: Hindus may worship Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti (“power”, personified by the Mother Goddess). Worship of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, the monkey god, Hanuman and the Sun (called Surya) are also quite widespread. There are innumerable regional and local deities as well as dozens of minor gods and goddesses like Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (the goddess of learning).
Despite the large number of deities, there has never been any major violent conflict caused by internal religious divisions. Most Hindus talk in a monotheist manner, although they may worship in multiple temples. Cross-worship is commonplace. One’s denomination is not hereditary and it is considered unremarkable for a Hindu to switch denominations during his lifetime. Contrast this to the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis or Protestants and Catholics to grasp just how remarkable the internal peace within Hinduism is. The rich Hindu mythology consists of stories that contain all of these “characters” and their interactions, so all denominations are legitimate alternatives: this makes heresy a non-issue, easing transition into atheism.
Another reason for the ease of transition is Hunduism’s utter lack of any central leadership, authority or even guidelines. It is a decentralized system and a person’s morals and beliefs are far more likely to be molded by culture, observation or upbringing than a formal religious commandment. While the reading of religious texts such as the Gita is commonplace, no uniform “List of Dos and Don’ts” culled from the book is followed and interpretation is largely personal (if existent). There currently exists no country which has legal system based on Hindu philosophy. The only clear universal refrain in Hindu culture is the idea of sacred cows. However, beef is widely available and consumed, even in Hindu-majority countries, and it is well known that companies like GAP source their leather from India. While religious outfits denounce these practices, most Hindus choose to look the other way.
Of course, this ease has not translated into reality: a mere 2% of Indians are officially atheist, compared to 13% in a country like the US. Furthermore, 90% of Indians claim that religion plays a vital role in their private lives. Yet God plays a smaller role in a person’s public life than it does in the US. Politicians are not asked whether or not they fast every Tuesday. Mind you: this doesn’t mean that religion plays a small role. Inter-religious riots are fairly common, but this has more to do with power-play than difference in religious outlooks. Religious politics – like caste politics – have more to do with identity, pull-peddling and favor distribution over ideology.
India’s brand of Hindu fundamentalism, called ‘Hindutva’, is an identity-based rather than religion-based movement, unlike the religious right in the USA or the Taliban in Afghanistan, who derive their notions of right and wrong from their scriptures. Hindu fundamentalism grew early in the 1900s as a result of the “Divide and Rule” policy of the British, waned mid-century due to its implication in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and is again resurgent, largely as a backlash against the pro-Muslim policies of the Indian Congress Party. The fact that the word “Hinduism” refers to cultural practices rather than religious beliefs is clearly seen in the fact that Hindutva’s founder – Veer Savarkar – was an atheist.