Atheism in Ancient Indian Thought

One wouldn’t find many takers of the argument that atheism could be an integral part of any religion. However, in case of Hinduism it is very much true. Atheism has been an established constituent of ancient Hindu thought. Unlike some other revealed religions Hinduism as we see today has evolved over the ages. During this continuous process of evolvement different schools of philosophy came to be associated with the Hindu thought which eventually developed as the Indian thought due to its diversity. Religions like Buddhism and Jainism are the byproducts of this Indian thought. Whereas in Christian and Islamic beliefs God is paramount and any idea questioning its existence is inconceivable and considered blasphemous, Hinduism gives full liberty to its followers to question and debate the existence of God. God therefore is not a logical premise for a debate on Hinduism.

The ancient Indian thought started with the Vedas. The oldest treatise, the Rigveda initially had nine main gods (some scholars of Hinduism put this figure at 33) and down the ages the number of the Hindu gods grew up to a whopping 330 million. One very much doubts if this number could be a reality since there appears to be no cataloguing in the Hindu pantheon of such a vast army of the gods and goddesses. However, polytheism of the Vedas is a known truth as the believers worshipped many gods or deities in order to seek favors, mainly material. While there are only four books under the collective name Vedas, the number of books, commentaries and collections that followed the Vedas is countless. In fact ancient Hindu philosophy can be stated to be what came up only after the age of the Vedas. Whereas the religion of the Vedas is considered elementary or very primitive, what followed was an attempt at giving philosophical meaning to the whole Vedic thought.

Schools of Thought and their Categorisation

Initially, the Vedic people indulged in worshipping their numerous gods by way of making offerings and singing praises to their glory. Since they considered the gods to be all powerful and capable of granting wishes, singing hymns and prayers was the only religious activity of the Vedic race of those times. Infact, the word deva, which later became devata, was used for the gods or the deities (deva, means one who can give). Incantations were chanted in order to get magical powers as also to ward off omens and diseases that inflicted them. All these incantations and prayers were simply words of praise repeated many times over for that particular god which the priest wanted pleased. Beyond chanting of mantras or singing paeans to obtain material benefits no other worthwhile philosophical or intellectual activity was said to have been carried out by the then Vedic people.

Opening up of the Vedic thought to debate and critical analysis led to a variety of interpretations and convictions, which ultimately consolidated into philosophical hypotheses of different kinds. Two types came to the fore; those accepting the Vedas as the ultimate authority (orthodox or the astikas) and those completely opposing the Vedic view (heterodox or the nastikas). The heterodox order included Jainism, Buddhism and the Lokayatas. The Lokayatas conforming to the Charvaka school of thought are said to be the first materialists in Hindu philosophy. Jainism and Buddhism ultimately went on to become independent religions. Both these religions not only denied veracity of the Vedic thought but also existence of god. The philosophy advanced by Charvaka is truly materialistic. According to the Charvaka school of thought the universe was made up of four elements; air, water, earth and fire and what we could perceive via our senses was in fact the reality. There was no soul, rebirth or existence of any other world and also, there was no repeated cycle of destruction and creation organised by some supernatural entity.

Apart from the heterodox there were the believers in the Vedas called orthodox. Among the orthodox there are said to be six schools of thought. They are:

- The Purva-Mimamsa
- The Vedanta or the Upanishads
- The Samkhya
- The Yoga
- The Nayaya
- The Vaisheshika

It is pertinent to mention that affiliation to a recognised school of thought was mandatory to initiate a debate on the Vedic philosophy. Therefore some scholars who associated themselves with the orthodox order had theories which were radical or completely out of sync with the established order. While the heterodox order very clearly and unequivocally rejected the idea of any intelligence behind the creation of the universe, the orthodox did so without going so much overtly against the Vedic authority. They recorded their dissent either by not mentioning the word ‘God’ in their theories or by hypothesizing other causes for beginning of the universe.

There is no denying the fact that all of the six aforementioned philosophies differ from one another in substance. The Upanishads or Vedanta are said to be the mainstay of Hinduism as we have it today. For, they brought monotheism to the Vedic thought. But the Upanishads, though completely theistic, too are said to have some atheistic content in them. One example is the all-important Shvetashvatara Upanishad. The scholars who place it in both the categories have differently interpreted the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. The same is the case with the Nayaya and the Vaisheshika philosophies.

The Yoga is mainly based on meditation cum physical discipline. Those who propounded the Yogic theory believed that human body has a source of abundant energy in the form of a serpentine coil called Kundalini, situated somewhere at the bottom end of our backbone. And that by concentration and controlled physical exercise that serpentine thing could be awakened and raised to a point in our brain and thus the energy is used to transform an ordinary mortal into a supernatural being. No god was there to assist you with miracles in this endeavor. You have to do it yourself.

Both the Purva-Mimamsa and The Samkhya philosophies are outspokenly atheist. The Mimamsa philosophers did not entertain any idea of God. To them this universe was a constant process of happening without any external cause. They denied the existence of god on the grounds that one who was non-material and completely devoid of any form or character couldn’t bring anything into being like this universe which was absolutely material in nature. They didn’t attach any significance to heaven or hell nor did they believe in the concept of moksha or liberation of the soul from the repeated cycle of births and deaths. Obviously soul was not an entity to the Mimamsa philosophers. They derided the Vedic deities as mere individuals or just names who were worshipped out of awe as they wielded considerable power within the society. God Indra is said to be a ruthless tribal chieftain with all the qualities of mortal humans. This god is said to be adept at stealing others’ wives and also possessing more vices than virtues.

The Samkhya thought is considered to be the ardent material philosophy amongst the orthodox. Though only a minuscule component of the original literature is available, yet it is convincing enough to make one believe very strongly that ancient Hindu thinking was more atheistic. The Samkhya view is that the universe originated from primeval matter and it has all the material attributes. Instead of the doctrine of god, Samkhya believes in the doctrine of nature. Every element has some basic characteristics reflected in the product which is a result of a transformation of the original element. While fire by nature produced heat, it was unnatural to theorise that it would directly produce something opposite of that (heat). That the product was only a changed form of the producer was a strong point on which Samkhya philosophy is based. And it is all material. For, nonmaterial can’t bring material into existence. If god is himself born then the basic premise of the theist that god is beyond birth and death cycle gets negated. The Samkhya answer to the theist who argued that the god created the universe to play his lila or the game, was that a being having no desires (another attribute of god) would need no games to play since that act itself denoted a desire.

The system of debating in Indian societal set up was an open one. Infact, the rulers or the elite of the era usually organised philosophical debates and the winners not only walked away with more followers but also got royal patronage. Their point of view gained official recognition as well as resources for its propagation. Spread of Buddhism is one such proven case in point.

Atheism of Gita

The Bhagavad-Gita (the song of the Lord) or simply Gita is considered the most sacred of the texts on Hinduism in the modern times. In comparison to the Vedas and the latter philosophical treatises the Gita is said to have a very late origin. This motivational discourse to a demoralised warrior in a battlefield encompasses the essence of all the philosophies Hinduism had till then. Antiquity of the Vedic thought, monotheism of the Upanishads, atheism of Samkhya and Yoga all find their due places in Gita. According to the scholars of Hinduism, Gita has clubbed the gist of all the philosophies into what is known as the law of the Karma.
It is essentially this stress on Karma that reflects a strong atheistic character of Gita. The Karma theory has the basic premise that every action (cause) carries a definitive result (effect) which is inevitable as well as indispensable and that no external agent can influence the outcome in any manner whatsoever. Further, the Gita does not differentiate the Karma into good or bad categories and urges the individuals to decide upon good or bad action as per wisdom of their intentions. Gita strongly despises relying on non-action in order to escape undesired results associated with a particular action. To a rational mind this statement of cause and effect presents strong evidence towards denial of the existence of a god.

Mythology: the bane of a rational mindset

Like any other religion Hinduism too has in abundance the three components of philosophy, rituals and myths. Rituals have continued since the Vedic times whereas the philosophical dispositions prevailed during the Vedanta period. Mythology got deeper roots in the Indian mind in the Puranic (post Vedanta) era and continues till date. By sustaining these myths and perpetuating the fear of the unknown the priestly class, in its own vested interest, has managed an overwhelming sway over the believers in Hinduism. The control is so complete that the mythology combined with the rituals has become synonymous with the Hindu religion. Ironically, the philosophy in which atheism had a clear edge today stands dumped and the followers mired in the morass of myths and dogma.