Nastika Vada or Atheism and Materialism in Hinduism and Related Religions


by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is about the influence of the Nastika Vada or the schools of materialism and atheism of ancient India in the development of India’s major religions, especially Hinduism.

The conception of a good God naturally goes with the moral government of the world. When suspicion of the nature of life on earth arises, the belief in God is weakened. When everybody thinks that life is suffering, at least a doubtful blessing, it is not easy to continue in the old faith. S. Radhakrishnan

Na + Asti in Sanskrit means “is not.” It is a reference to the popular, rather heretical, belief system that God is nonexistent, or God is not the cause or the source of existence or creation. It is the opposite of Asti, the belief system which upholds and believes in the existence of God as the creator and upholder. In a general sense, ‘na asti’ means nonexistence of an eternal reality or ultimate cause or cause of causes. Nastika (Nāstika or Nasthika) Vada is the assertion of the nonexistence of God or the Supreme Self. A Nastika is a nonbeliever who does not believe in the existence of God.

The unique nature of India’s Nastika vada

However, disbelief in the existence of God is not the only criteria to distinguish the Nastika Vada schools from their counterparts, the theistic, Astika Vada schools. There can be other criteria such as the authority of the Vedas, the existence of eternal souls or the possibility of afterlife, transmigration or rebirth. Nastika Vada prevailed in ancient India in many forms. Some Nastika philosophies were materialistic and some were nihilistic or atheistic. Hence, the Nastika belief systems of ancient India are not synonymous with the modern philosophies of materialism or atheism of the Western world. In the typical Indian cultural tradition, we may say that they are similar but dissimilar (bheda abheda).

Many Nastika schools of ancient India, who doubted or denied the existence of God, were spiritual, rather than materialistic. Their emphasis was upon the liberation of the souls through discriminative effort, rather than nihilism, emptiness, existentialism or pure hedonism. Although they did not believe in God or his role in creation, they believed in afterlife, the karma doctrine, the transmigration and rebirth of souls, the existence of heavens, hells and other worlds, moral laws, Dharma, gods and goddesses and other heavenly beings, the cyclical nature of time, the role of fate or fortuitous events, and so on.

Except for Buddhism, and a few others such as the Charvaka or the Lokayata Schools, they believed in the existence of individual souls and their bondage and liberation. Therefore, it is difficult to divide precisely the belief systems and religious traditions of ancient India into clear-cut theistic and atheistic categories in the western sense. The following is a brief summary of the various belief systems that originated India from the perspective of whether they belonged to the Nastika (Is not) Vada or Astika Vada (Is).

The religious traditions of India are exclusively Indian in origin, with little or no outside influence. Interaction with the outside world, which happened during wars and invasions only strengthened their roots and brought out their best as it led to introspection and reaffirmation of existing doctrines with renewed vigor. In the melting pot of India's religious and philosophical diversity, only a few survived while many perished or submerged by more dominant traditions. They can broadly be classified into the following three categories, the continuing traditions, the Darshana philosophies and the extinct traditions. They are discussed below.

The continuing traditions

As the name suggests, these traditions are still active and alive, each with a long history and a large following. Included in it are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Tantrism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Of them, the first four are now part of Hinduism and constitute its sectarian traditions. Their sectarian identities still continue, each with many subsects and teacher traditions, while some of their dominant features, practices and beliefs have become part of the popular Hinduism, which most Hindus practice in their daily lives.

1. Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Tantrism

They are essentially Astika (theistic) traditions, which believe in the existence of a universal, supreme God and Goddess as the lord and creator of all, with numerous names and forms. Both are regarded as the efficient and material cause of creation, bondage (Samsara) and liberation (Moksha). They not only create worlds and beings but also uphold them until they are finally dissolved at the end of each cycle of creation. These traditions recommend the practice of rituals and penances, devotion to God, karma yoga, jnana yoga, sanyasa yoga, etc., to achieve liberation or a better life in next birth.

2. Jainism

This is a Nastika tradition. However, unlike Buddhism, Jainism believes in the existence of eternal and indestructible souls, who are subject to death and rebirth, until they are purified and liberated. Jainism also has aspects of materialism in the sense that it believes that karma is an impure material and the world and things are made up of numerous atoms and their aggregates. Although, it is an atheistic tradition, followers of Jainism worship Thirthankaras or enlightened beings (Kevalins) to earn merit and overcome the impurity of karma. They also believe in the existence of heavens and hells, multiple planes of existence, and gods and goddesses.

3. Buddhism

This is a purely Nastika tradition, which believes in neither an absolute, unchanging God nor an eternal, indestructible soul. The Buddha believed that everything was subject to decay and impermanence. Therefore, he advised his followers to deal with the objective reality or the Not-Self reality (Anatta) through Right Living on the Eightfold Path and become free from suffering, karma and rebirth. The Buddha was rather indifferent to the subject of God. He believed that speculating upon his existence or nonexistence was irrelevant, since it would in no way contribute to the alleviation of suffering or the attainment of Nirvana. Accordingly, he discouraged any questions on that subject.

4. Sikhism

This is a purely monotheistic, Astika religion, which believes that God is one, with numerous names. All such names (namas) point to one supreme, ultimate reality. He is the sole creator, upholder and destroyer. One may achieve liberation through righteous conduct, allegiance and devotion to God and selfless service. By contemplating upon the name of God itself one can cleanse all sins. Sikhism believes in the existence of heaven and hell but does not believe in gods and goddesses, or the need to worship them. It is also decidedly against superstitious beliefs and ritual practices. However, followers of Sikhism revere the ten gurus, who were instrumental in the origin and development of Sikhism. They do so not ritually but by following their teachings.

Darshanas or Philosophies

The traditional schools of philosophy in Hinduism are known as Darshanas, meaning visions, viewpoints or perspectives. They refer to the richness and the diversity of thought that prevailed in ancient India regarding the nature of reality, existence, God and truth. Of the numerous philosophies that prevailed in ancient India, Hindu tradition recognizes six schools namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa and Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta. What brings them into the fold of Hinduism is their allegiance to the Vedas as the verbal testimony and as the undeniable authority on the truths of existence. Their respective positions regarding God and creation are stated below.

1. Nyaya

According to this school, God is the efficient cause, but not the material cause of the worlds and beings. He creates them with his knowledge and power to ensure the order and regularity of the world. We can see his hand in the intelligent design which is hidden in the natural phenomena. He is the first among the souls (jivatmas) which are numerous, and supreme (Paramatma). The souls may or may not possess consciousness, but God is always endowed with it. The world is real and so is creation.

2. Vaisheshika

This is essentially a materialistic, Nastika school, according to which the world and things, are made up of the permutations and combination of minutest atoms, which are indivisible. The early Vaisheshikas did not seem to believe in God. The founder of this school, Kanada, made no reference to God in his work and attributed creation to an unseen principle (adrasta). Even According to Shankaracharya, Vaisheshikas believed in the eternal and uncreated nature of souls and atoms and accounted for their varying states by the principle of adrsta.1

3. Samkhya

Strictly speaking, the classical Samkhya School, like Buddhism, is indifferent to the existence of God. It is not a Nastika school in the sense that it does not find any valid reason to prove or disprove the existence of God, since in its opinion God is immaterial to the bondage of individual souls, and the knowledge of him or devotion to him is not needed for their liberation. However, some believe that the existence of God is implied in the philosophy of Samkhya, since the union of Prakriti (Nature) with the Purushas (individual souls) and their resultant bondage cannot happen without an omniscient cause acting upon them.

4. Yoga

It is doubtful whether the Yoga system believes in a universal God or a creator God. If it does, Patanjali makes no effort to describe him, nor does he affirm that he is the creator and upholder of all. However, he did affirm the existence of a personal god (Isvara), the individual Self, who is omniscient, omnipresent, indestructible and eternal and has all the attributes of the Supreme Being. Patanjali also emphasized devotion to the inner Self (Isvara paridhana) as an important aspect of Yoga Practice to remove the afflictions and impurities of the mind. However, Yoga philosophy cannot be considered a full-fledged theistic system, since it leaves many matters concerning afterlife, gods, etc., to our imagination.

5. Purva Mimansa

The school is derived mainly from the first two parts of the Vedas namely the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. Hence, it is essentially a ritualistic philosophy, which believes that the ritual or the sacrifice, not God, as the source of all. According to the school the Vedas are the only means (pramana) to ascertain Dharma and work for liberation. Because of its emphasis upon sacrifices, the school mainly focuses upon gods and goddesses only and does not go beyond them. It does not deny the existence of God, or his role in creation, but simply ignores him. It also holds that parts of the universe may have a beginning and an end, but does not accept the periodical and simultaneous creation and dissolution of all things.

6. Vedanta or Uttara Mimansa

Of all the schools of Hinduism, the Vedanta school is the only unambiguous and purely theistic system which holds God as the efficient and material cause of all creation. He not only pervades and envelops his creation, but also upholds it as its preserver and protector. Occasionally, he also intervenes in the progression of the world to protect Dharma and restore balance. He is independent of all, while Nature and the individual souls are dependent upon him for their existence as well as liberation. There are many sub schools within this school. Hence, the ideas which are expressed here may have some exceptions. These schools differ mainly with regard to the nature of existence and reality, and the relationship between God and creation or God and souls.

The extinct schools

Ancient India was home to numerous religious systems and philosophical schools. Most of them became either extinct or integrated into existing ones. The Buddha himself noted some 60 or so religious doctrines of his time. Alexander too had an encounter with some Indian ascetics. India also had several educational centers such as Nalanda and Takshasila, where students and teachers alike participated in religious debates and discussions, and gave a free rein to their minds. As noted by S. Radhakrishnan, “It was an age full of strange anomalies and contrasts…It was the era of the Carvakas as well of the Buddhists. Sorcery and science, skepticism and faith, license and asceticism were found commingled…By its emphasis on the right of free enquiry the intellectual stir of the age weakened the power of traditional authority and promoted the cause of truth. Doubt was no longer looked upon as dangerous.”

The Buddhist texts mention ancient teachers who challenged prevailing traditions and proposed their own doctrines, some of which were essentially materialistic and atheistic in spirit. Prominent among them were the following.

  1. Sanjaya who doubted the existence of Self and focused upon the attainment of peace.
  2. Ajita Kesakambali, who rejected nonperceptual sources as the means of knowledge and focused upon the objective reality made up of only four elements rather than five.
  3. Purana Kasyapa, who rejected the traditional views on creation and considered creation a fortuitous event, and the souls merely passive agents.
  4. Kakuda Katyayana who believed that pleasure and pain were the agents of change and responsible for the bondage and liberation of souls.

Of the numerous traditions that prevailed in this complex age of free thought and enquiry, the following ones stand out. They are currently extinct, but they played an important role in the development of India’s philosophical and religious systems.

1. The Carvakas or the Lokayatas

The materialists of ancient India were extreme in their opposition to the theistic traditions of the Vedic world. They were known as Charvakas, after the teacher who represented the philosophy and became a symbol of it, or more commonly as the Lokayatas (people of worldly ways), which was the generic name used in the past to refer to all the materialists. Manu referred to them as Nastikas (atheists or nihilists) and Pasandas (heretics). The materialists rejected the Vedas, all religious scriptures, all notions of heaven and hell, and all means of knowledge, except direct perception. According to them, the body which was made up of only four elements, was the true self, and death was the salvation and the end of all, with no afterlife whatsoever. In their worldview, morality was an illusion, and enjoyment the only aim worth living for. Therefore, they advocated a hedonistic lifestyle, encouraging their followers to make the most out of their lives, maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, without disturbing or causing pain to others. Some of the ancient ideas of the materialistic schools found their way into Hinduism, which will be discussed later.

2. The Ajivikas or the Fatalists

The sect thrived during the time the Buddha and Mahavira lived, and Jainism and Buddhism rose to prominence. Maskarin Gosala was one of its well-known teachers whose name is mentioned in the Buddhist texts. We know little about this sect, except that it was a fatalistic school, which believed that human beings had no control over birth or death and were destined to live their lives as ordained by God or Fate (vidhi). The world was meant to run its course according to a preordained path (niyathi), and humans had better chances of enjoying their lives and achieve perfection and salvation if they let it run its course, without disturbing it or interfering with it. The Ajivikas also opposed the karma doctrine or the virtue of performing obligatory duties. Instead, they advocated passivity or inaction, encouraging people to live life as it happened, without actively involving themselves in worldly matters or in desire-ridden actions. Traces of Ajivaka doctrine can be found in the renunciant traditions of Hinduism or in the Sanyasashrama, where people are expected to renounce desire-ridden actions and live passively according to the will of God in the contemplation of Self to attain liberation.

Conclusion - God is both Is and Is Not

Hinduism is not a completely theistic tradition. It has aspects of both theism and materialism. It is as if the teachings and beliefs of the ancient materialists did not go in vain, but became integrated into essential Hinduism, as we understand it today. Aspects of materialism can be found in the Tantric ritual and spiritual practices as well as in the Vedic Varnashrama Dharma and the Purusharthas, or the four chief aims of human life. The Lokayatas aimed for Artha and Kama to maximize worldly enjoyment. The renunciants focused upon Dharma and Moksha. Hindusim recommends the pursuit of all the four aims for the welfare of the world. 

Thus, in Hinduism, you will find a fine blend of the moral, materialistic and spiritual aspirations of human beings. Neither sexual pleasure nor worldly enjoyment is condemned but considered an important function of life when kept within the bounds of Dharma, without which the orderly progression of the world and the continuity of life cannot be ensured. Morality is not a rigid code of conduct, but contextual, according to the circumstances and the duties and compulsions of each individual.

In prescribing different lifestyles, one for the householders and one for the renunciants, suggesting different obligatory duties at different times or phases in the life of an individual and prescribing four chief aims of human life (Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha), Hinduism finely balances the spiritual and material aspirations of humans, giving them the freedom to pursue liberation and divine worship according to their inclinations and essential nature.

Of the four chief aims of human life, Artha and Kama are materialistic aims, and Dharma and Moksha are spiritual ones. Human life is incomplete and error prone in the extremities of any pursuit or action, and it is against the divine law to do so. It is construed that one obeys God and his will, when one leads a balanced life and engages in the necessary pursuits of life to ensure the order and regularity of the world. A similar message is found in the Bhagavad-Gita. Liberation is not for the one who is a glutton, or for the one who starves himself to death. It is in the middle ground of life that worldly people find peace and happiness, and spiritual aspirants, peace and liberation.

Nastika Vada helps people in unraveling the truths of existence through independent enquiry and removing layers of delusion that surround their preconceived notions, learned beliefs and conditioned thinking so that faith is supported by resolve, and one is not shaken by doubt and fear. Brahman is both known and unknown. The Astikas (believers) focus upon the known aspects of Brahman, and the Nastikas, upon the unknown aspect. Since he is unknown, for them he becomes nonexistence, according to their projection and expectation.

God is everything. He becomes this or that according to your expectations, aspiration, desires and essential nature. He is god among gods and demon among demons, existent among the believers and nonexistent among the nonbelievers. Hence, he is indeterminate, known and unknown, and indescribable and indefinable. Nonexistence is a condition, state or aspect of existence only, and vice versa. They are the dualities of one reality. The yogi who arrives at this realization becomes the silent one (Muni). With a settled and stabilized mind, he progresses on the path of liberation, until the truth of God becomes self-evident.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Indian Philosophy, Volume 2, by S Radhakrishnan