Theism and Atheism in Hinduism
One of the best and the worst inventions of the human mind is the God that we imagine to be and speculate upon. Ever since the first theist was born, we have been struggling with the concept. Jayaram V
The human mind cannot understand an absolute concept like God or Brahman. Hence, for all practical purposes God does not exist in the realm of human consciousness except as an idea or concept. Jayaram V.
Even if He is, He is not. Jayaram V.
The division between theism and atheism arises mainly because we objectify the phenomenon of God, as if it is separate from our own. Such objectification arises from the externalization of the mind and leads to differences in perception and different points of view. We live in an infinite universe about which we know very little. We have no clue whether it has a mind of its own, and whether it has any connection with us at all. One may speculate upon it as a manifestation of God, but one cannot bring it into the middle of a congregation and let it speak for itself. The universe may be watching us and learning from our experience, but we cannot be sure about it.
The miracles that have been attributed to God are found either in literature or in the legends, and those that happen in the contemporary world are subject to controversy and disbelief. Hence, in the battle of wits between theists and atheists, the former suffers from lack of a firmer base to ground their beliefs or argue their case. Atheism will continue to haunt the corridors of theism because God or the universe has no need to prove their existence to us, while humans cannot be comfortable with anything that is uncertain and beyond proof.
Neither God nor the universe is dependent upon us, except conceptually or theoretically, whereas we are depending upon them. Therefore, it is in our interest to know the truth and overcome the ignorance and the confusion about them. For centuries in many parts of the world atheism has been banished, shackled, gagged, persecuted, discriminated against, humiliated, frightened, shamed and silenced. It was perceived as a threat to God, to the institutions of religion, to the moral sense of the humans and to the order and regularity of society. Every attempt has been made in dogmatic religions to protect the doctrine and the faith of the people from the doubting minds. They have been fortified with walls of institutional authority and fear of God to intimidate, oppress, and suppress any perceived opposition that is inimical to the idea of God.
Atheism and dogma
There is no problem with beliefs. It is humans to have beliefs because everything about our existence cannot be rationally explained. The problem we have today in the world about our religions is not about beliefs but about being dogmatic about them even when the proof is lacking or even when contrary proof is available. Dogmatic religions have a limitation, which they refuse to acknowledge. It is their unconditional submission to dogma and its recognition as the final authority in all matters concerning life and afterlife. If you practice them, you do not enjoy much freedom to adjust your beliefs according to the reality of your perceptions or your experience. You have to accept the dogma, without questions, however primitive it may be, and follow the doctrine, even if it does not satisfy your reason, answer your questions, clarify your doubts or satisfy your intellect.
Hence, in dogmatic religions you find the heavy hand of authority and institutionalized beliefs and practices which prompt the faithful to live in a state of denial, rationalizing their beliefs to uphold a lifestyle the dogma promotes. They do not tolerate any compromises or deviations by the followers and make examples out of those who dare to do so. As a follower of such belief systems you cannot question the faith, existence of God, or the sanctity and veracity of the beliefs culled from their scriptures without inviting trouble or threat to your life. They also draw a clear line between believers and nonbelievers so that no one suffers from the confusion of choice or the crisis of faith. In their world you are either with the faithful or against the faithful, and your intelligence and worth as an individual will be merited largely by your allegiance to the faith rather than by any other standard. If you want to pursue the faith for whatever material, personal or spiritual reasons, you have to accept the conditions the dogma imposes upon you. Only then, you earn the right, and the approval, to enjoy the influence, power, privileges and social opportunities which the community bestows upon you through the institutions it upholds and the members it serves.
Few centuries ago it was difficult for anyone in Europe or Middle-east to openly doubt the existence of God and get away with it. History is a witness that such people were ostracized, imprisoned, removed from positions of authority, persecuted or burnt on stake. Anyone who questioned even from academic perspective the assertions of the scriptures about creation, evolution, or the structure of the universe were subjected to severe condemnation, punishment and persecution. For 1500 years, scientific inquiry was suppressed in those parts of the world with great vehemence. Books that were inimical to the faith were burnt or destroyed. Entire libraries were wiped out, and intellectual pursuits were encouraged so long as they did not impinge upon the religious authority. The religions and cultures they conquered and destroyed were used as examples to assert the superiority of their dogma, and in that crude attempt fear rather than persuasion was used to continue the status quo. In many nations, ruled by autocrats and theocrats, punishments for heretics and heresy were unimaginably cruel. Even the Sufi saints who were devoutly spiritual in their love for God and the women who chose to offend the Papal authority by their methods of worship were not spared from the swords of institutional wrath and retribution. In such an environment atheists had little chance even to make a whisper of protest.
Today, in the information age where new scientific facts emerge every day challenging the edifice of primitive beliefs, the growing number of atheists and agnostics in their midst poses a serious challenge to the believers and followers of dogmatic religions. Since beliefs can no more be enforced among the people through coercive laws, capital punishment, or intimidating proclamations of religious institutions, in many nations that previously followed dogmatic beliefs there is a crisis of faith. The number of atheists and agnostics in such countries has steadily been on the increase. In some countries the atheists even form the majority.
In many nations that consider themselves theocratic, medieval laws that were considered to be draconian and barbaric are still in force. Hence, in them the voices of atheists and agnostics remain muted. We have to see how long they will manage to keep people bound to dogma and irrational beliefs that are contrary to the values of the humanity and against the progress of the civilization. History has proven that none can slowdown the forward movement of world and the growing awareness among people about the truth of things. Moving forward, for the dogmatic religions that try to enforce scriptural authority over human intellect and individuality, it is a going to be a major problem as more facts will emerge from scientific research and advances in science and technology, fundamentally changing our notions of history, nature of life, consciousness, the universe, and existence. Unless they attune themselves to the challenges of the modern times, they will cease to be relevant at least to a majority of the human population.
How Hinduism approaches atheism differently
Being an inclusive religion, Hinduism approaches the problems of atheism and agnosticism rather differently. Firstly, it regards them as view points, and secondly, it gives them an equal opportunity to present their case in its search for truth. It may be surprising for many to know that of the six schools of Hinduism, namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga and Purva Mimansa and Uttara Mimansa, the first five were originally atheistic or materialistic in their assertions about God or the cause of causes. They became theistic later under the growing influence of Brahmanism, Saivism and Vaishnavism. The ancient scholars of India condemned worldliness and materialism for their corrupting influence upon human character and spirituality, but accepted atheism and skepticism as valid arguments in the pursuit of truth. They acknowledged the existence of eternal, individual souls, but were ambivalent about the role of God in creation or causation.
Those early influences made Hinduism what it is today. While theism is its predominant theme and main driving force, it is more tolerant towards atheism, rationalism and materialism than the dogmatic religions. In its long historical growth that ran concurrent to the growth of human civilization and was facilitated mostly by human intellect, it has also broadened its philosophical base to include diverse views and multiple theories regarding the nature of existence and role of God. Currently, the theistic traditions of Hinduism hold the upper hand. Partly because of the influence exerted by centuries of Islamic rule and the British colonialism, many Hindus who follow the ritual practices and temple traditions show the same attitude as the believers of dogmatic religions towards atheists and agnostics and hold them in contempt as sinners and offenders of God. However for the intellectuals who possess the deeper knowledge of its philosophies and sectarian trends, atheism, materialism, and agnosticism represent at their best the stages in the spiritual evolution of embodied beings (jivas). Since human beings are prone to delusion and ignorance as intended by the law of creation, human beings cannot avoid making mistakes in their assertions and conclusions about metaphysical truths or the existence of transcendental reality.
Those who understand the deeper aspects of Hinduism, know that atheism and agnosticism are the natural states of human mind. At the time of birth, the soul knows the truth, but the human mind does not. It remains ignorant as intended by the principles of rebirth. Hence, everyone is born in this mortal world as an atheist or agnostic only, enveloped in ignorance and delusion which naturally predisposes them to atheism and agnosticism. Some carry it until the end, while some open their eyes during the journey and learn to see the truth. Hindu scriptures repeatedly affirm the illusory nature of our existence. People cannot perceive the truth of things, since they are enveloped in the impurities of Nature (Prakriti), which clog their minds and block their vision. They cease to be true seers, and fall into the trap of disbelief due to the impurities present in them and the influence of Maya. Under the influence of egoism (anava), attachments (bandha) and delusion (maya), they accept the real as unreal and the unreal as real.
Therefore, theoretically, in Hinduism nonbelievers are not held in contempt as evil or enemies of God. Atheism is the natural state of all. Everyone is born in a state of ignorance. Until people regain the knowledge of the Self and the idea of liberation through self-purification and inner awakening, they remain as animals (pasu), ignorant of their true selves (Pati) and their essential nature. When they become aware of their spiritual nature, and the spiritual nature of existence symbolized as God, it signals their second birth as the awakened humans with the potential to achieve liberation.
Thus, in Hinduism, the true faith of the sattvic kind, which arises in humans as part of their self-awakening, is the result of their second birth, which is considered their spiritual birth. This is the true meaning and significance of the concept of the twice born (dvija). The true believers are those who believe in their spiritual potential and the possibility of their union with God or their true Selves. They are the twice born (dvija), first in the body and next in the mind, not those who are simply born into a particular caste and may end up as materialists, secularists, or atheists to the core. Their first birth is the natural birth in the human body, and the second birth is the spiritual birth in the purity of their consciousness. According to scriptures, it is facilitated by past karma, circumstances related to birth, education, and family background.
Are atheists evil people ?
In Hinduism, faith is not a denominator of virtue and character. Our religious values do not regard atheism as evil per se, but a temporary distraction or aberration in the journey of the soul . As illustrated in the epics and several Puranas, devotion and evil can coexist in the same person. Asuras (demons) like Ravana, Bhasmasura, and Tripurasura were great devotees of God although they possessed evil and destructive temperament. They were wicked to the core, but worshipped their personal gods and made great sacrifices to please them. Besides, we learn from them that a person may turn to evil ways due to circumstances. Therefore, in Hinduism, unlike in dogmatic religions, you cannot draw a clear line between theists and atheists as good and evil.
According to the scriptures, faith is not the same in all beings. It is important to liberation, but varies in them according to their gunas and inner purity. There can be a hundred shades of faith ranging from the most sincere to the most wavering and insincere. In the Bhagavadgita (7.20) Lord Krishna states that in whatever form a devotee desires to worship any deity with faith, he will accordingly strengthen the faith of that person. What it means or implies is that if a person has faith in the nonexistence of God (asambhutam), he will increase his faith in the non-existence of God and vice versa.
In other words, God will not actively transform you because he does not perceive you as a separate entity while you may. He does not approve or disapprove whether you worship a demon, deity, or a secular, lofty ideological leader or dictator because they all are his forms only. Until you put the onus of your liberation on him and entirely live for him, obliterating all notions of separation and distinction between him and you, he will let you be yourself. This is the message you get from the Bhagavadgita and several other works of theism in Hinduism. In the same scripture (17.2) he also states that three kinds of faith manifests in beings according to their natural disposition (svabhava) and the predominance of the gunas. Faith that arises from sattva is pure, the one that arises from rajas is tainted by lust and passion, and the one that arises from tamas leads to demonic resolve.
Thus, having faith by itself does not make the beings good or virtuous because faith can lead to both virtue and vice depending upon the person. What make them good or evil are their desires, intentions, and actions, which in turn are shaped by the predominance of their natural modes (gunas). They are responsible for their behavior, disposition, beliefs and faith. Under the law of karma, each person is judged not by his beliefs but by the sum of his actions. They not only determine his destiny but also the nature of his faith. A person who was a great devotee in his previous life may become an atheist in the current life due to an ancient curse or the consequence of past karma. Alternatively, a person who was an atheist in his past life may become a serious devotee of God due to the exhaustion of his bad karma. Therefore, what you do in your current life is not a true reflection of your spirituality or your progress on the path of liberation.
The distinction between theists and an atheists
From the above discussion it is apparent that both theists and atheists find their place of acceptance in Hinduism, while the fanatics of the old theistic schools may scorn the idea. An atheist who is born in a Hindu family may not consider himself a Hindu, but the tradition does not abandon him as if he is a lost cause. For the spiritually awakened person, an atheist is not an enemy of God who is possessed by demons, but his own enemy under the spell of egoism (anava) caused by maya (delusion). He is spiritually blind or distracted, but does not qualify at all for eternal damnation on that mere score, unless he resorts to evil ways and indulges in grave sins.
This is in contrast to the approach which you find in the dogmatic religions. In this regard the following points are worth mentioning which makes Hinduism very tolerant towards atheists and agnostics.
1. The existence of an object can be established through perception and other means, but the same cannot be said about nonexistence. One may relatively establish the nonexistence of anything, but it is not possible to establish it absolutely.
2. According to the scripture, God is indifferent, detached, and unchangeable. It means he has the same attitude towards all, whether they believe in him or not, and enforces the laws of existence equally among all. In other words, God does not judge anyone purely on the basis of their faith or lack of faith. He may help those who approach him for help, but does not harm anyone simply because they ignore him or disbelieve in him.
3. The souls are eternally pure, immutable and incorruptible irrespective of the body they occupy or the deeds the beings perform. The soul undergoes rebirth, but remains pure and unchangeable through all births and deaths. In other words there is no distinction between the soul of an atheist and that of a devotee. Both are pure and divine and deserve to be treated alike.
4. The law of karma equally applies to all irrespective of their personal beliefs and relationship with God. A devout person who undertakes householder's duties pursues the four aims of human life, namely Dharma (religious duty), Artha (wealth). Kama (sensual pleasures), and Moksha (liberation). In contrast, an atheist or a materialist pursues only twin goals, namely Artha and Kama. Both suffer from the same consequences if they indulge in selfish actions and live for themselves.
Different approaches to theism and atheism in Hinduism
You will find two broad approaches to the idea of God in Hinduism. One is called "asti" meaning "He is," and the other is called "nasti" meaning, "He is not." However, unlike in dogmatic religions, Hinduism does not draw a clear line between atheism and theism. The subject becomes complicated as it takes four other criteria into consideration, apart from the existence of God, to distinguish the different schools of thought. They help us interpret nature of reality and existence. The four criteria are stated below.
1. The nature of individual souls.
2. Life after death.
3. The material and efficient cause of creation.
4. The authority of the Vedas in ascertaining truths.
They and other factors make the classification of theistic and atheistic schools of Hinduism rather complicated. Broadly speaking, different schools of Hinduism differently approach the existence of God and soul. For a quick understanding, I have summarized them below. However, readers should note that there can be many variations with in each of them since diversity of opinion is the common feature of not only Hinduism but its schools, sects and sub sects also.
1. God alone is true. Everything else is an illusion.
2. God and Soul both are true. All else is their projection or manifestation.
3. God, Soul, and existence, all are true and dependent or independent.
4. God does not exist. Only souls are eternal and true.
5. God and Nature are eternal and independent.
6. Nature is an aspect of God and executes his will.
7. The mind is the soul. There is no life after death.
8. God is both material and efficient cause of all creation.
9. God is only the efficient cause. Nature is the material cause.
10. God does not create anything. Creation is the work of mechanical Nature.
11. God may or may not exist because he is both existence and nonexistence.
The six schools of Hindu philosophy are essentially Brahmanical in origin but draw different conclusions about God, Nature, Self, and creation. The Samkhya and Yoga schools do not specifically acknowledge the Vedas or recognize the role of Brahman or Supreme Self. However, they believe in the existence of individual souls, their rebirth and liberation. They do not acknowledge the role of God in creation or existence, but hold the individual soul as supreme, eternal, infinite, indestructible, and omniscient. Nature is the material cause of creation, but do not possess independent will to deviate from what is already predesigned in its working. The numerous souls and Nature constitute the two eternal realities of existences. The souls are eternal and indivisible. Nature is eternal but divisible into parts. The souls represent pure consciousness, and Nature represents matter. Both are never the same. Although they are diametrically opposed to each other and different from each other, creation is possible only when they come together.
The Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools accept the Vedas to draw inferences, but fundamentally rely upon logic and experience to explore (anviksiki) the existential truths. Based upon their scriptures one may conclude that originally they were atheistic schools but later acknowledged God as the efficient cause of creation and a type of soul which is superior to the individual souls. Both are essentially rational schools which assert that individual souls have no consciousness of their own unless they are united with organic matter or bodies consisting of numerous atoms. According to them the world is real. It exists independent of thinking minds and cannot be changed by thought or perception. The knowledge of the soul is derived from the reality of the world when it is able to record it accurately in the mind through perception, inference or other methods. They also hold that knowledge and reality (or consciousness) exists only when the subject (soul) and the object (the objective world) are in a cognitive relation, and when either of them are missing, there is no knowledge (or consciousness). Thus in many respects the Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools of Hinduism are similar in many respects to the modern materialism and logical realism.
In the two fundamental religious philosophies directly derived from the Vedas also one can see a clear dichotomy. One school clearly believes in God, the other schools overlooks the issue or attaches no importance to him, and focuses mainly upon the value and significance of rituals in shaping human destiny upon earth. The first one is the Vedanta (Uttara Mimansa) school, which accepts Brahman as the sum and source of all based on the statements in the Vedas, especially the Upanishads. The other school is the Purva Mimansa, which does not concern itself with the existence or nonexistence of Brahman but focuses upon the meaning and importance of rituals in creation and in achieving liberation.
Mention many also be made of the schools of Jaina, Buddhist and Lokayata traditions which drew heavily from the Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, and Vaisheshika schools of Hinduism to formulate their own. They were essentially atheistic traditions. The Jainas discount the role of God, but acknowledge the existence of materialistic eternal souls having definitive shape and substance according to the bodies they occupy. The Buddhists discount the role of both God and eternal souls but believe in karma, rebirth and afterlife. After the Buddha, they continued to speculate upon the nature of existence and had at least 28 schools of philosophy in the heydays. The Lokayatas believed in neither God nor soul nor afterlife. They advised their followers to enjoy their lives without harming others since none could be truly happy by making others unhappy.
Methods used to validate God's existence: Direct Perception
Faith does not arise in a vacuum. It needs a basis or support. Hindu schools of philosophy recognize four methods or measures to ascertain or establish truth. They are called pramana, meaning that which leads to prama (truth). They are also used to ascertain the truths regarding the existence of God. The four pramanas are, direct experience or perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), verbal testimony (sabda), and analogy or example (upamana). The first three are common to most schools of Hinduism while the last one is accepted as a standard only is some schools such as the Nyaya and Vaiseshika.
Of the four standards, direct perception is considered the most important, and reliable, because of its directness and proximity to the source of perception. No one can deny that experience or cognition arising from direct perception strengthens your faith in the truth of things especially when it can be validated by other means such as inference or the verbal testimony of a scripture or an expert, whereas without such experiences you will be prone to doubt (samsaya), disbelief, and erroneous or perverted knowledge (viparyaya).
It is equally important to know whether the knowledge you acquire through the perception of an object is the truthful copy of the reality of the object you experience but not a creation of your mind or senses. At times, or perhaps mostly, direct experience can also be misleading since the human mind is prone to many illusions, fallacies and mental filters caused by the play of the gunas and such other impurities. They color your perceptions and prevent you from seeing the truth. Besides, perception is made possible by different parts of the internal organ (antahkarana), namely the senses, the mind, the ego, and intelligence. Even if one of them improperly functions, there will be fault perception. Hence, there is a lot of emphasis in Hinduism upon removing the impurities of the mind and the body to minimize the interference of the active mind and the senses and ascertain the truths of existence. It is also why classical yoga puts so much emphasis upon self-purification through the Yamas and Niyamas.
Nyaya, the logical approach to God and existence
It is pertinent to mention here the views of Dharmakriti of the Nyaya School regarding perception. According to him perception is of four kinds, sense perception, mental perception, self-awareness, and intuition. Mental perception is the cognitive awareness that directly or consequentially arises from sense perception after the perception has ceased. It is a reference to the cognitive ideas, notions, conclusions, and concepts one memorially forms from sensory experience at the end of such experience. Self-awareness is the conscious feeling (svasamvedana) or emotional awareness of different states of mind or existence such as pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, fear and courage.
The Nyaya School of Hinduism is known for its emphasis upon logic and reason in ascertaining truths. It establishes the existence of God based upon the following four logical arguments.
1. For every effect there is a cause. There must be an efficient cause for the world too. That cause must be large enough to possess enough knowledge and power to manifest the world. That must be God.
2. The world is not a chaotic place. There is order and regularity both in the world and Natural phenomena, which denote an intelligent design and the presence of a supreme controller. That power is God.
3. There is moral order and Natural justice in the world. There must be a power responsible for them. It must be God.
4. No one can effectively prove the nonexistence of God. It is impossible to prove the nonexistence of anything because what proof anyone can submit to prove that something does not exist? None of the standards we use to ascertain a truth can be used to prove its nonexistence. Hence, God's nonexistence is ruled out.
Yogic intuition is self-knowing or the instant realization of the truth of the things without mental activity. In other words, it is self-knowing without the involvement of the active mind. These four are the broad and rather crude generalizations about the subject of perception in the Hindu schools of philosophy. It would require a whole book to present the numerous variations and differences among the various scholars of ancient India regarding this one particular topic.
Many philosophical, existential and metaphysical truths, and mystic experiences, including the existence of God, nature of life and suffering arise from yogic intuition. Since not everyone can experience yogic intuition due to the differences in inner purity and prior preparation, such truths can be ascertained only subjectively. Besides, yogic intuition is a state of awareness, with a beginning and an end. It still belongs to the domain of the mind or the higher mind and thereby renders itself to vulnerable to disputes and discussion.
Much superior to yogic intuition and highest of all is the omniscience which arises from self-realization. It is the essential nature of the soul and the characteristic of a liberated soul. Unlike the yogic intuition, it is eternal, unchangeable and universal. Hence, it is verifiable by all self-realized beings in their subjective and self-absorbed state.
Inference is derivative knowledge arrived through inductive and deductive reasoning, based upon past experience and existing models of interpretation. There can be no inference without perception, however unlike in direct perception, the perception in case of inference remains inconclusive or indeterminate. For example, upon perceiving smoke coming from a distant hill you may infer that there is fire on the hill, but you are not sure since you have not directly seen the fire.
In inference we arrive at the unperceived from the perceived, and from the effect to the cause and from the known to the unknown. Secondly, the same perception can yield different inferences depending upon the state of mind, the context, and past experience. Inference is most useful with regard to things that are unknown or partially unknown.
Our knowledge of God comes mostly from inference. For example, if a person is healed by prayers, you may infer that it was the work of God. However, it is not completely reliable since the inference can be drawn in many ways. It may also produce different views and reactions in different people according to their nature. If you are predisposed to believe in it, it may strengthen your faith. However, if you are predisposed to disbelief, it may also weaken it.
Upamana or the use of models and examples
Upamana or comparison is the method by which you try to know an unknown object using a similarly known object. For example, you may use an image or a symbol to have an idea of an invisible and transcendental deity. However, you cannot entirely rely upon the comparison to ascertain truths. To know the unknown object from a known object, you must have an idea of not only the similarities between the two but also their dissimilarities. Mere resemblance between two objects may not be sufficient to draw valid conclusions about any truth concerning them because the dissimilarities between them may be even more than the similarities they may have.
Thus, in our previous example, you may draw some conclusions about the deity based upon the image, but you cannot equate the image with the deity. Firstly, the image is of this world, and the deity of another. Secondly, the image is manmade whereas the deity is eternal. Thirdly, the image is mutable and destructible, whereas the deity is indestructible and immutable. Hence, when using examples and drawing analogies, it is important to remember such limitations.
The same holds true for any spiritual experience. When you try to translate it using words you must be aware of the limitations and the ambiguity the words may create. Words and symbols may convey the experience, but they do not create the experience. To know the truth, you must directly experience it. Hence, it is rightly said that God cannot be experienced in duality. To know him, you must become him.
Sabda, the testimony of scriptures and expert knowledge
Sabda means verbal testimony. It plays an important role in our learning. We learn a lot about the world and reality from the words of parents, teachers, elders, peers, experts, books and presentations. In all this, faith plays an important role. If the source is not credible, the knowledge you gain from it will be defective and unreliable. Hence, before you depend upon any source for your knowledge, you must know whether it is valid or not. Words have meaning, but meaning can change with time and depending upon the arrangement of words and the context in which they are used. Hence, to make sense of the verbal meaning of the words that you find in scriptures, you need established conventions, rules of grammar, etymology and such other aids.
Language can be a major barrier in verbal testimony. For example, the testimony of the Vedas is considered final in many Hindu traditions. However, we cannot say the same with regard to the Vedas that have been translated into English or any other language from Sanskrit since the translated version cannot adequately convey the meaning of the original or the translator might have made mistakes in translating them. It is also possible that the intended hidden meaning of the hymns may be very different from the meaning perceived by the individuals. Hence, the law books suggest that when the meaning of a verse or a statement in a scripture is unclear or ambiguous, one should rely upon the opinions of several experts and go by the majority opinion.
It is important to remember that both theistic and atheistic schools in Hinduism use the same standards to draw their conclusions. None of them are useful to establish absolute truths. They cannot also be used to prove the non-existence of any truth. You can use them to ascertain relative truths only. It means you cannot ascertain transcendental truths through direct experience since your mind cannot perceive them. You may rely upon inference, examples, the authority of the scripture or the opinions of enlightened masters. While they may whet your intellectual curiosity, they cannot give you the conviction of a direct experience. Even direct experience has its own limitations. For example, absence of direct experience does not mean the object you did not experience does not exist. It only proves that you did not have that experience. Thus for all practical purposes the existence or nonexistence of God in human experience remains forever inconclusive and prone to varied and conflicting interpretations.
When conflicting opinions or conclusions can be drawn from the same experience due to the errors to which the human mind is vulnerable, you cannot be free from doubt (samsaya) or conjecture (uha). They also distort your discernment (pratyabhijna) or your ability to recognize things clearly. Hinduism acknowledges such limitations. Hence, each school of philosophy in Hinduism is called a Darshana, a point of view, or a perspective, rather than an absolute, eternal truth. Because of the same limitations the Madhyamika theory (centrism) goes to the extreme in ascertaining that nothing in the world is real because nothing can be truly and definitively ascertained. Indeterminism or skepticism about the nature of existence and the role of God as suggested by the school is justified from certain perspectives, although not to the extent the Madhyamikas like stretch it.
Atheism and the role of Karma
The Bhagavadgita identifies (7.16), four types of people who resort to God for different reasons, those who are unhappy due to difficulties, those who are curious about him, those who desire wealth and comforts, and those who want to know the Self or achieve liberation. It is not necessary that everyone is motivated to turn to God by the same factors. In this regard you cannot overlook the importance of karma, which plays an important role in your life as both cause and effect. What you have done in the past determines what you do now, and what you do now will determine what you may do in future. Therefore, to understand your present you must look into your past, and to predict your future you must know where your mind is focused and what thoughts and desires you entertain. Your nature and disposition, likes and dislikes, attitudes, desires, relationships, material and spiritual destiny, personality, beliefs, faith, and relationships are all determined by your actions and past life impressions. Besides, macrocosmic events such as the changing time cycles and changes in the order and regularity of the worlds may also influence the course of your life.
Just as people turn to God for various reasons, they may also turn away from God for various reasons. The nature of life is such that it does not instill much faith in our minds about the forces that control it. The extent of injustice, inequality, suffering, and hardship is sufficient to make anyone doubt the existence of God and the role of divine justice in ensuring level playing field for all. Besides, the scriptures are not completely factual as they are prone to corruption by human ingenuity and lapses in judgment and memory. Hence, they may also contain a lot of erroneous and distorted information about the events that happened in the past, or about the world, the universe and life in general. Theists cannot use that information as verbal testimony to ascertain their beliefs, while atheists may use it to validate their doubts and disbeliefs about the scriptural authority. Thus, interestingly the scriptures inspire both theists and atheists to perpetual their beliefs or disbeliefs and hold to their premises.
In perpetuating your beliefs, karma plays an important role. Since it predisposes people to think, act and believe in certain ways, neither the scriptures nor the words of God, nor any other valid proof, can convince the atheists or agnostics to change their ways unless they are predisposed to believe in the alternatives and prepared for the transformation. What can change them, if at all, is a genuine spiritual experience that can shake their doubts and disbelief and their ways of thinking and believing. Since such experiences are hard to come by, you cannot expect a major change to happen in the equation between theists and atheists anytime soon.
Atheism, materialism, and secularism
Atheism and materialism go by the generic name secular. For many people to be secular means to be tolerant, but its true meaning is to be this worldly. A secular person by definition is closer to atheists and materialists than to the believers. Their life styles promote the ideals of secularism only, while secular ideas do promote the beliefs of atheists and materialists. In worldly life, the three mutually complement and reinforce each other.
However, it is incorrect to assume that only atheists are materialists and vice versa, or only atheists and materialists are secular. A vast number of people in the world who consider themselves religious or theists are but materialists in their thinking and attitude. They may worship God or practice their faith, but inherently they remain this worldly and pursue materialistic goals.
Statistically, you may include them in the group of religious people, but in their beliefs and attitudes they may be closer to atheists and materialists. Hence, numerically atheists and agnostics may form a minority, but they may become a majority if you add all those who may outwardly practice their faith but inwardly live like atheists and materialists. They may visit the temples and worship God, but they do so mainly to purse the twins goals (Purusharthas) of wealth and pleasure, which also happen to be the main objectives of the materialists and atheists.
Atheism in the theistic traditions of Hinduism
We briefly touched upon this subject in the beginning of this discussion. The Astika (theistic) traditions of Hinduism with their emphasis upon personal God, the eternal Self, and liberation, do not show as much tolerance and acceptance of atheistic traditions as the main schools (darshanas) of Hinduism. Some of them even hold atheism and materialism in great contempt and draw a clear line to ensure that no one is left in doubt as to the evil nature of disbelief, insincerity and defiance of God. In the epics and Puranas, one can see a clear bias against atheism. They equate disbelief and deviation from the traditional forms of religious practice with ignorance, delusion, and evil. Through many anecdotes, legends and narratives they suggest that disbelief in God is a form of adversity, which individuals bring upon themselves through lapses of judgment or memory caused by bad karma. In doing so they imply that people become nonbelievers when bad times come or when their destruction is imminent. They also suggest that when God wants to restore dharma by destroying evil people, he spreads atheism and false beliefs among them by deputing misleading messengers and preachers upon earth. He does it because it is difficult for him to wage a war against those who are devoted to him even if they are evil. Hence, when the time of their destruction comes, he puts them to a great test through atheism and such other false beliefs and destroys all those who fail the test in the great sacrifice of dharma.
One can find many passages in the Bhagavadgita which warn people against doubt and disbelief. The scripture is essentially an attempt by Lord Krishna to dispel the doubts that arise in the mind of Arjuna about his role and the role of God in the battlefield. Arjuna had doubts (samsaya) about the war, which meant he temporarily lost faith in God and his own spirituality. He forgot or ignored that he was fighting the war for God in the battle between good and evil sides. Krishna reminded him repeatedly that the war was not about him, and the consequences about which he was worried were nothing since the war was predestined by God himself. In the drama enacted by God, his role was mainly to manifest the will of God through his dutiful actions.
The scripture is also very emphatic about the firmness of faith. Weak faith or doubting mind is the consequence of the impurities of the mind. The following verse (4.40) from the Bhagavadgita is very clear about the fate of those who do not believe in God."The one without knowledge, without the wealth of faith and with the doubting mind perishes. For the skeptic there is neither this world nor the next world nor happiness."
In a subsequent verse, he declares that doubt (samsayam) arises from ignorance and should be dispelled by knowledge only. In another verse that follows, he equates atheism as the way of the asuras (demons)."The evil doers and the deluded do not take refuge in me, who are the most deprived of the human beings, whose knowledge is stolen by my Maya, who abide in demonic nature."
According to the scripture even worshipping other gods instead of the Supreme Self is a form of delusion, which happens when people are carried away by desires that arise from their essential nature. They are men of small intelligence and go to the worlds of those gods (7.23) instead of achieving liberation, which is possible only for those who take refuge in Brahman and strive for deliverance from decay and death (7.29). We also learn from the scripture that lack of faith leads to rebirth (9.3), and fools disregard not only the existence of God but also the divine hidden in the living forms (9.11).
Hinduism encompasses a broad range of beliefs from one extreme to another. Its philosophical base is a product of free inquiry, aided by human intelligence and awakened spirituality. Such freedom of thought, however, did not prevail without disapproval and condemnation from rival groups. Since the earliest times, Hinduism has had its own army of moral police who acted as the guardians of dharma. However, their role and influence have been limited since they belonged to different religious backgrounds and had to deal with not one but many faiths, beliefs, traditions and movements. Hence, free thought and scholarly inquiry into the nature of reality and existence prevailed despite the presence of powerful orthodoxy and rigid social structure.
The various schools of philosophy in Hinduism reflect the difficulty as well as the confusion the human mind experiences in establishing transcendental truths which cannot be validated through empirical means. It is debatable whether the various schools of Hinduism accepted atheism as the ground reality. They were mostly undecided or inconclusive about the nature of absolute reality, afterlife, rebirth, karma, or the active and direct role of God in the causation of natural phenomena, but it is doubtful whether they ever affirmed the nonexistence of God as an established truth.
The Buddha was silent about God for the same reason. He did not emphatically deny the existence of God, but was silent about the subject. It is said that he did so because he did not consider the existence or nonexistence of God had any relevance to human life and served any purpose in reducing the suffering of the people. He felt that suffering could be mitigated only by understanding the Four Noble Truths and practicing the Eightfold Path through righteous effort. Hence, he viewed any discussion or speculation about the existence or nonexistence of God was a mere distraction from the immediate problem of resolving human suffering and achieving liberation.
Some theistic schools of Hinduism believe that God does not take active part in creation and remains a silent witness in the background. He is the ultimate enjoyer, and his enjoyment is made possible by the association of the realities and modes of existence of Nature. In the field of Nature, God remains immutable amidst impermanence. In other words, you cannot objectify a silent and hidden God. You may subjectively experience him as the witness in the field of your own consciousness, but you cannot objectively prove his existence to others. Thus, the debate, about the existence and nonexistence of God will continue. Individual beings may eventually find God through their good karma but for society as a whole he will remain a speculative subject, and a familiar but incomprehensible deity.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- History of Atheism in Ancient India
- Yin and Yang, and the Hindu Connection
- Purusha, The Universal Cosmic Male and Prakriti, The Mother Nature
- Manifestations of Brahman, Iswara, Hiranya Garbha, Viraj
- What is faith?
- Reasons For Idol Worship in Hinduism
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- What is Advaita or Advaita Vedanta?
- Ajivikas - Their History and Philosophy
- Anatta or Anatma in Buddhism
- The Buddha on God
- The Meaning of Nirvana
- God and Self in Hinduism
- Moksha or Liberation in Hinduism
- Fate, Freewill and Fatalism in Hinduism
- Good and Evil in Hinduism
- Hinduism and polytheism
- God and Soul, Atma and Paramatma, in Hinduism
- Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, the Highest Gods of Hinduism
- Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Advaita For Practical People
- Are You Stuck Between Being and Becoming?
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Shedding Light on Atman, the True Self
- Om, Aum, Pranava or Nada in Mantra and Yoga Traditions
- Brahmacharya or Celibacy in Hinduism
- Brahman According to Advaita and Dvaita in Hinduism
- Brahman As The Priest of the Creation Sacrifice
- Atheism and Materialism in Ancient India
- How To Choose Your Spiritual Guru?
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary process
- Devotion and Meditation in Hinduism
- Fate And Free Will In Hinduism
- Worship of one God, Monotheism in Hinduism
- Kaivalya, the State of Aloneness
- The Symbolism of Time or Kala and Death in Hinduism
- Lessons from the Dance of Kali, the Mother Nature
- Letting your God live in You - The True Essence of the Hindu Way of Life
- Prajnanam brahma - Brahman is Intelligence
- Who am I? Aham Brahmasmi
- Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs And Purusharthas of Hinduism
- The Definition and Concept of Maya in Hinduism
- The Eternal and Temporal Aspects of Hinduism
- Self-knowledge, Difficulties in Knowing Yourself
- What is Vedanta?
- What is Your Notion of God?
- Hinduism and Its Intellectual Appeal
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