Atheism & Theism in Indian thought

Courtesy and Copyright The Times of India

Mitras the Times of India published four very interesting articles on the subject. I liked them so much that I decided to share them through esamskriti. The four articles are –

1. Atheism is a Truly Divine Science by Kailash Vajpeyi.
2. The Atheistic Roots of Hindu Philosophy By Mahesh Daga
3. The Spiritual Atheism of Vedantic Thought by Darshnik Vyas.
4. Theism is the Basis of High-end Hinduism by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi.
5. My Comments.

Atheism is a Truly Divine Science by Kailash Vajpeyi
In “The Song Divine’, Krishna classifies nature as material nature and super-nature. He says that super-nature is incomprehensible to people who are not in tune with the subtlety of infinity. We think we choose to live, but the fact is we have no independent will to be born.

We only know how to defend or save this corporeal frame. But how many of us know that every second, a hundred million impulses assault our nervous system and that if we didn’t reject them, we would collapse? We think we’re special, but biology places humans alongside all other species. Beyond food, sex and territory, animals are not aware of any other reality; they also do not have any aspirations towards immortality. Since there is no fear or idea of death in their lives, they have no concept of God or codified system of philosophy. They live by instinct and die without seeking to prolong their lives. Humans, however, have woven a complicated web of ideas to order to understand the implications of our ordinary and extraordinary states of consciousness. The lives of animals are governed by an unquestioning acceptance of the inevitable.

If we go through all the systems of Indian philosophy, we find a grand purposeful design and an invincible quest or effort to define the phenomena of germination and termination of life. The range of phenomenology is so vast that it embraces every aspect of being and nothingness. India’s unique corpus of metaphysical doctrines has echoes of both theism and atheism. It is simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal and includes the purely spiritual, the purely materials as well as the material-spiritual.

These schools of Indian philosophy are divided into two groups-the heterodox and the orthodox. The heterodox schools like Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism do not believe in the existence of God. Their well-structured logic is atheistic. The orthodox schools-sankhya, nyaya, yoga, vaisheshik and vedant accept the authority of the Vedas and believe in God. There is another school of Jaimini, known as mimansa, which makes no mention of God.

Traditionally, atheism is a system of views rejecting faith in the spirits, gods, life beyond death, etc. Atheism criticizes religious dogmas from the standpoint of scientific study of the universe. It expresses the social role of religion and shows misery from time immemorial. The philosophic basis of atheism is materialism and to a certain extent material spirituality. In Greek philosophy, Heraclitus, Demectrius, Epicurus and Thales are considered to be staunch atheistic thinkers. Brihaspati is seen as the propounder of atheism in Indian philosophy and this school is known as Charvaka or Lakayata School. We also have annihilationist and naturalists, who did not believe in the existence of God.

Jainism is another school of thought that practices atheism and follows the teachings of Mahavira. The Jains consider the arguments about the existence of God as being fallacious. The universe has no beginning, so the question of a creator has no logical basis. Every one of us is a reservoir of positive energy. Divinity is not somewhere out there. So each one of us should strive for perfection and purity of consciousness.

Buddha’s argument is that if God is all pervading, why is there so much evil all around? Like Charvaka, the Buddha also rejected the concept of soul but he did argue in favor of continuity through life and successive lives. Atheism strengthens the divine in man and generates an inexplicable joy. Whoever denies God asserts his own divinity.
The Atheistic Roots of Hindu Philosophy b Mahesh Daga
The core of Hindus scriptural tradition, it is commonly thought, is all about theism or belief in God. But that is a huge misconception. Even disregarding the ‘heterodox’ streams like the charvaks, with their underlying message of materialist hedonism, or Buddhism, the philosophical canon-call it higher Hinduism-leaves plenty of room for dissent even on a question as central as the existence of God.

Indeed, the reason why some schools of darshana-Purva and Uttar Mimansa Samkhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisheshika-are regarded as ‘orthodox’ and others such as Jainism, Buddhism and Charvaks are not, as little or nothing to do with a belief in God. The real point of departure is whether or not a particular system of thought accepts the Vedas as the ultimate source of philosophical authority. The so-called orthodox schools do-even though it has been convincingly argued that this acceptance is more notional than real-while the other three don’t. Significantly, the original meanings of the terms astika and nastika, too, hinge on this vital difference. While the astikas believe in the veracity and infallibility of the Vedas, the nastikas clearly don’t.

Among the astikas, the two oldest schools-Sam khya and Purva Mimansa strongly refute the theory of God. Thus, the source book for Samkhya darshan, Ishwar Krishna’s Samkhya Karika, is full of subtle arguments which reject the possibility of there being an all-powerful creator and controller of the world. Vigyan Bhikshu’s Samkhya Pravachna Bhashya makes a case for why a belief in the divine principle is unwarranted. Even Kapila’s classic treatise on the subject, which is far less emphatic in its rejection of God, finds it unnecessary to accept any theistic assumptions.

Similarly Purva Mimansa has a strong element of disbelief at its core. Jaimini’s Mimansa Sutra, the founding text, is mostly preoccupied with proving the efficacy and power of Yagna (or sacrificial fire) but shies away from attributing it to any divinity. Instead, in common with latter Miman saints like Kumarila, Jaimini takes delight in rejecting the God hypothesis. In Yoga beginning with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-which is widely regarded as theistic in nature, the acceptance of God is, in part, purely verbal. In large areas of practical reasoning, God is happily over-looked, if not consciously ignored. In Nyaya, the quint-essential Indian tradition of formal logic, there is an attempt to prove, as in Jayanta Bhatta’s Nyaya Manjari, the existence of God, but such arguments are far from being universally accepted.

The only ‘God-fearing’ candidate among the orthodox schools is perhaps Uttar Mimansa of which Shankara’s advaita or vedantic philosophy is the best-known example. But, contrary to received wisdom; Shankara was never accepted, either by his contemporaries or latter-day thinkers, as the be all and end all of Indian thought. It was only in the 19th century, thanks to the need of the native intellectuals to create the image of an ‘essentially’ spiritual India as opposed to an equally materialist West, that Shankara’s advaita came to be regarded as the pinnacle of Indian philosophical achievement.

Interestingly, atheism in the Indian tradition is not necessarily premised on a prior acceptance of materialism either in the philosophical or everyday sense. All the atheistic schools mentioned above, even when they reject God, accept the existence of a permanent soul (atman), which is quite distinct from corporeal or physical reality. If anything, Indian atheism-except in the case of the charvaks-is strongly anti-materialistic in character.   

The Spiritual Atheism Of Vedantic Thought by Darshnik Vyas
The last verse of Chapter 8 in Gita perhaps contains the kernel of all vedantic thought.

The chapter, as is well known, begins with Arjun asking Krishna about the nature of Brahma, adhyatma and karma and how they might be inter-related. Having explained the first two albeit in the aphoristic way typical of the vedantic spiritual tradition – Krishna focuses on the third element of the triad Karma or action, he says, is the real life bridge that links the two. The ontological or transcendental realm of Brahm (or absolute), on the one hand, and atma, or individuated consciousness rooted in the here and now, on the other. Admittedly, it is not easy to see this link in a logical or material sense-how does one associate that which exists in time and space with that which is both beyond time (without beginning) the space (boundless)?

The true being of atma, which is attached to the corporeal body, is of course clouded by desire. In a paradigmatic sense, this desire is the desire for the rewards of action. The Gita makes no category distinction between different kinds of action. Depending on one’s worldly calling or svadharma, going to war is on the same footing as going to a temple or pursuing politics. The key then is not what you do but with what intent or motivation you do it. The true yogi, as the Gita declares, is one who goes beyond “whatever fruit or merit is declared to accrue from the Vedas, sacrifices, austerities, gifts”.

The path to moksha lies in overcoming desire and is typically described as liberation from the inexorable law of karma. But isn’t the search for moksha-the state where no desires are left-itself and act of desire? This tension or paradox is clear to Sankara-‘na dharmo, na artho, na moksha”. Even the desire for moksha, it seems, is a form of bondage. Not surprisingly, this question holds the key to an understanding of the Gita and is at the heart of its varying latter-day expositions.

While the Gita is by no means alone in advocating a renunciation of desire, it makes a departure in the context of orthodox Hindu philosophy, in specifying three different ways of reaching the ultimate state of nishkama karma, namely, action worship and knowledge or karmayoga, bhaktiyoga and gyanayoga. Particularly radical in this context is the Gita’s steadfast refusal to advocate a withdrawal from worldly action. Chapter 3, verse 4 says: “Man does not attain perfection merely by ceasing to act”. And, in the very next verse: “None can ever remain inactive even for a moment”. Superficially, Gita appears to be theistic in nature. Verse 29 of Chapter 9 is one of several where Krishna tells Arjun about bhaktiyoga or the path of devotion. But the full shloka makes it clear that this is no ordinary worship. “The same am I to all beings, to me there is none hateful or dear; but those who worship me with devotion are in me and I am also in them”. Moksha, in other words, is a state of oneness rather than duality.

This is fundamentally at odds with the traditional western notions of theism, where the belief in God is also a belief in His radical otherness. In common with large parts of Indian tradition, however, Gita’s theism is an assertion of “one’s own divinity” and is premised on ‘svaswaroopanusandhan’ or the discovery of true selfhood. That is also why, Srimad Bhagavat, can make the intriguing claim that the act of bhakti or worship is higher even then the object of worship (Isht).

But if such is the case, then isn’t the traditional opposition between atheism and theism overdrawn? Indeed, isn’t pure spiritual atheism a superior form of theism?
Theism is the Basis of High-end Hinduism by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi
Since we believe in the Paramatma or Supreme energy that is beginningless and endless. It is clear that Hinduism in its purest form is theistic. Theism is its basic premise.

Some people ask: “What came before the Paramatma? Who created the Supreme energy?” The answer is that it is something that is ever-present and everlasting; it has neither beginning nor end; it is infinite. When something is born, it has to die. This applies to planets, stars, humans, animals and all other things, which have a beginning. But the Supreme energy is all-pervasive.

How does one access or experience this divine energy? The Vedas show the way. The Vedas are like spiritual primers-they introduce you to the wonderful world of spirituality. Like all primers, the Vedas, too, only help you infer the divinity aspect, for the experience itself can only be yours. So the verses, the rituals are all designed to help you understand their import and then move on to a higher plane of consciousness. Here, you draw from the wisdom of Vedanta. Literally, the term ‘Vedanta’ means “ved ka anth” or “end of the Vedas”. You can call Vedas the Part One of the “Do-it-yourself” spirituality and Vedanta, the Part Two.
Every religion has three components: rituals, cultural and spiritual. There is scope for differences only in the first two. But the third, the spiritual element, helps us overcome conflicts arising from differences in the first two. Rituals including ceremonies relating to birth marriage and death are an important constituent of all faiths. Culture springs from the way of life, and its nature hinges a great deal on heritage and environment. The spiritual aspect is free of all differences and so is able to help us direct our mind towards the Paramatma.

Dharma, artha, kama refer to good deeds, material well-being and desire respectively. But the fourth, moksha, cannot be accurately described because it is an atma-anubhav – an intensely personal experience. So only the one who experiences moksha will know what it is like? Adi Sankara said that one should rise above the first three and get liberated from them via moksha. The moksha experience cannot be described. Try describing the sweet taste of misri (sugar crystals) to someone who has never tasted it-and you’ll find that the best way to make him understand its taste is to let him eat it. Moksha can be understood only with direct experience. An enlightened person who has experienced moksha can try and guide a seeker to the path that leads to moksha. Can one transcend even the desire for moksha? Once moksha has been achieved, can we seek “moksha from moksha”? No, because that would be a contradiction for it signals not merely the end of suffering.

In Hinduism moksha refers to the simultaneous end of suffering and the experience of anand or bliss-what we call sat-chit-anand. It is the experience of the eternal and unchanging truth, revealing the universal limitlessness and our nature as the source of infinite peace and joy. So there is nothing beyond this state. This is the ultimate. When the atma unites with the Paramatma, when the individual energy merges with the Supreme energy. Why should one seek release from such a state? Moksha is not something to be attained but that it is a state to be experienced, a natural state. Moksha is not a ritual like bathing or offering flowers. That is why the Bhaja Govindam says don’t look for moksha outside but search within.

(The 69th Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham spoke to Narayani Ganesh.)   

Friends I am not as learned as any of the men above. Nevertheless a few comments.

1. Theism or Atheism are Western concepts. We have taken them and tried to correlate them with Indian thought. Belief or disbelief in God was the main thrust of the argument. This whole concept of God is to my mind alien to Indian thought. Read excerpts from an article by Nandakumar Chandran titled, “Hinduism & Buddhism, Different Religions!” in section Issues and Insights.
2. “Some fundamental problems with regards defining "religion" in India - A religion in the modern sense is generally understood in the Semitic mould as a faith distinguished by its belief in a historical prophet and a holy book. Thus the combination of Jesus and the Bible or Mohammed and the Quran establish the distinct identity of Christianity and Islam. According to these religions salvation or access to God is possible only if you accept the authority of their prophet and holy book. So each of these religions hold that theirs is the only true path and the claims of all other religions are false and invalid. At a secondary level apart from theological distinctions the adherents of these religions also distinguish themselves by their distinct cultural traits - like naming themselves after the holy men of their religions, dressing in a distinct way or observing cultural practices particular to their own religion. So it is in these factors - primarily the exclusive belief in prophet and holy book and secondarily in theological beliefs and distinct cultural practices - that the individual identity of a religion and its adherents rests”.
3. The word ‘God’ symbolizes one Jesus/Bible or Allah/Koran. In Indian thought we believe that the Creator is one but manifestations are many. Sri Jayendra Saraswathi too said that we believe in the Parmatma or Supreme energy that is beginingless and endless.
4. We also say that there is a God within each one of us. When it is said so I presume that people are referring to the Atma or soul within. So how can your soul be equated with God?
5. “According to Jaina philosophical works, the definition of God is as follows: God is that soul who has completely removed all the karmas. Thus he is not in way different from the liberated soul above. The defining characteristic of Godhood is identical with that of liberation itself. To attain liberation is to attain Godhood. The meaning of the term ‘Isvara’ is powerful. So, the term Isvara can very well apply to the soul who has become powerful by attaining its perfectly pure state constituted of four characteristics i.e. infinite knowledge – vision – power & bliss.” Refer chapter 7 titled Characteristics of Jaina Philosophy in Jaina Darsana section, quoted from Jaina Darsana by Munisri Nyayavijayaji translated into English as Jaina Philosophy & Religion by Shri Nagin Shah.
6. Note that every school of Indian thought believes in the existence of the soul, rebirth and law of karma.

One of the basic problems faced by Indians is that in most paths of life, religion – words – management thought we take the Western view, compare it with Indian thought & philosophy, and justify/negate Indian thought based on such comparisons.

Not only that we create words even though there is no corresponding English word for e.g. Yagna is taken to mean sacrifice by most of us. Actually Yagna means to give aways one’s rights for the sake of others, willingly and happily. Conversely the word sacrifice is used in a distorted manner: killing of an animal to please God or because the West believes the ego to be the center of knowledge, the idea of sacrifice is frightening, for the ego is insecure and does not want

Also read -
1. Section Issues and Insights -Decolonizing the Indian Mind.

2. Section Philosophy – Vedic concept of God.

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