Hinduism and Rationalism, Is There a Middle Ground?

Hindu Seer

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the correlation between Hinduism and Rationalism, and how rationalist thinking has historically been recognized as an integral part of Hindu spiritual practice, philosophical inquiry and self-realization.


The western philosophy of rationalism is based upon the assertion that reason serves both as the source of knowledge and test of proof, and that the intellect can grasp truths that are inherent in existence without the need for sensory experience. They differ from the empiricists or the realists who hold that all knowledge arises from experience and needs to be validated by it.

Modern rationalists believe that certain logical or rational concepts or principles are inherent in logic, mathematics, ethics and metaphysics, which are undeniable. They cannot be denied without contradicting oneself or falling into confusion. Therefore, one can totally depend upon reason to ascertain existential truths, without any further need for empirical or experiential evidence.

Both rationalism and empiricism have a long history, dating back to the ancient civilizations of India and Greece. However, they became popular in the West in the last few centuries as one of the direct consequences of renaissance and industrial revolution. The last few centuries witnessed the emergence of classical or modern rationalism due to the pioneering work of René Descartes (1596–1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Rationalist thinkers played an important role in shaping the progress of modern civilization and freeing the world from the shackles of superstition and irrational thinking. Despite intense opposition from religious groups and ecclesial orthodoxy, they contributed to the flowering of many progressive ideas and ideologies and the emergence of many political, social and economic movements.

By shifting their focus from dogma and belief to reason and reality, and from the study of scriptures to the study of humanities, arts and science, they also influenced the modern education system and contributed to its reform. However, it is wrong to assume that rationalism has all the answers to our problems and questions or somehow superior to religion or other forms of philosophical inquiry.

Rationalism cannot satisfactorily explain many questions regarding our origin, or the justification for the logical or intelligent structures that are hidden in the universe. To some extent it may answer the how of anything, but not the why of it. For example, it may explain how life might have evolved upon earth, but not why it evolved, nor can it explain the indeterminism of existence itself, nor the quantum reality.

Rationalism in India

Rationalism as a distinct school of philosophy never existed in India, until the arrival of the classical rationalism of the West. However, the idea of using pure reason (tarka) or discerning intelligence (buddhi) to ascertain the truths of existence was not new to Indians. Many ancient Indian philosophers underscored the importance of reason in validating physical and metaphysical truths. In many sects of Hinduism, you will find a fine balance between faith and reason (or logic) and between reason and experience.

Classical Rationalism of the West entered India in the last two centuries along with many western ideas. Indian rationalists focus mainly upon encouraging scientific inquiry and debunking superstition, miracles and supernatural claims by some spiritual masters. In this regard, we have to appreciate their service, since they are helping people not to fall for fraudulent gurus, tricksters and bogus claims.

However, unlike in the West, rationalism as personal or guiding philosophy did not gain much ground in India. Compared to their counterparts in the West, they also have a much tougher challenge, since Hinduism is a complex religion which accommodates reason, along with faith and experience, as an important source of knowledge and wisdom.

Indian rationalists often go overboard in attacking Hinduism, its gods, beliefs and practices, or its very identity. They also scoff at the very idea of the atheism of the Hindu kind. Those who engage in this kind of criticism are no different from religious fanatics to whom facts do not matter. It is not true that only religious people can succumb to irrational thinking or rationalization or logical fallacies. Even well trained rational people succumb to temptations, and in unguarded moments lose their balance and reason. Compared to worldly people who are driven by passions and desires, spiritual people who have controlled their minds and bodies and achieved equanimity and sameness have a better chance of using pure reason and discernment to discern truths or examine any issue with objectivity and selflessness. The rationalists do not give due credit to this fact, even thought they are familiar with the problem of cognitive errors and logical fallacies.

Some rationalists claim themselves to be humanists, having some higher social or moral purpose in promoting and professing their brand of truth or their methods of analysis. In most cases, the people who claim themselves to be humanists are worldly people. Their humanism is mostly driven by their own egoism, selfish desires and personal agendas. They often use reason for selfish and egoistic purposes to promote themselves as the sole guardians of truth or to rationalize their irrational actions or belittle others who question them. In this regard, they are not much different from the fraudulent gurus who use religion to promote themselves.

Atheism and materialism in ancient India

India has a long history of materialistic philosophies. The ancient materialists, who were commonly referred to as the Lokayatas, vehemently criticized the Vedic faith and disregarded the importance of the Vedas and other scriptures. They believed in neither God nor afterlife nor the divinities, and castigated those who believed in them or worshipped them. They strictly relied upon reason, perception and direct experience, and advised people to enjoy their lives without hurting and harming others. The Lokayatas asserted their individuality and used similar tactics as those of present day rationalists and atheists to question the validly of religious beliefs and practices of their times.

That these schools failed to make a dent upon Hinduism should serve as a reminder to the present-day rationalists that to undermine Hinduism with rationalistic and materialistic arguments have already been tested for centuries on the Indian soil and proved to be a failure. They should also remember that Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion as the Abrahamic religions. It is not founded by a Prophet or based upon a single scripture. It assimilated a plethora of ideas in the past to emerge as a complex and diverse religious system, which cannot be considered a religion per se but a mixture of several, ancient streams of religious and spiritual thought, brought together under a universal label as an expediency. Therefore, instead of simply imitating their western counterparts and trying to discredit every aspect of it, they should use a broader and broad-minded approach to make their case against the weaker aspects of Hinduism.

Reason and skepticism in Hindu philosophical inquiry

Those who are familiar with the origin and development of religious thought in India know that Hinduism is not averse to rational skepticism or atheism. Both are an integral part of its philosophical inquiry and belief system. Traditionally, five out of the six schools of Hinduism (darshanas) were atheistic or agnostic in origin. They did not originally acknowledge the existence of Creator God, although they believed in the existence of souls and the possibility of salvation and rebirth. In ascertaining the validity of knowledge, they rather relied upon direct knowledge (pratyaksha) and expert testimony (shabda) than blind faith and dogma.

The ancient Indian scholars acknowledged the use of reason in the pursuit of knowledge (jnana) and the study of scriptures. In debates and discussions, they used reason and logical arguments to refute their opponents or establish their premises. Its importance in philosophical inquiry can be gauzed from the fact that it is the basis for the three of the four pramans (measures of truth), which are traditionally accepted by the schools of Hinduism as valid means to knowledge namely perception, inference, comparison and verbal testimony. They also recognized its importance not only in intellectual pursuits, art and literature but also in spiritual practice and liberation.

The Vedas on the thinking mind (buddhi)

When you read Hindu scriptures, it becomes clear that they do not advocate sole dependence upon blind faith to achieve liberation. They suggest various means, including reliance upon intelligence and rational inquiry. Their importance is more pronounced in the pursuit of higher knowledge or spiritual knowledge (vidya) than the ritual knowledge (avidya), and in the pursuit of the highest goal, namely liberation (Moksha).

The Vedas broadly identify two distinct functions of the human mind, thinking and perception. They recognize the thinking mind as the higher mind (buddhi), and the perceiving mind as the lower mind (manas). The higher mind is responsible for logic, reason, discernment, comprehension and cognition. The lower mind or the perceptual mind acts as the repository of memories, desires, past life impressions and other accumulated knowledge.

From the lower mind, we gain the knowledge of the world. From the higher mind, we develop the discernment to know the real from the unreal, delusion from reality, right actions from wrong actions and right knowledge from wrong knowledge. Almost all religious and ascetic traditions of ancient India, including the atheistic ones, accept this basic model of the human mind. They acknowledge the importance of both minds in the development of our knowledge, awareness and consciousness, in our bondage to the cycle of births and deaths and in our liberation from it.

The thinking mind (buddhi) is responsible for discerning truths. From discernment arises right thinking, and with right thinking one arrives at truths. By making sense of their perceptions, distinguishing what is good and useful to them in the diversity of creation, and pursuing the right goals with right means with the help of the higher mind or buddhi one crosses the ocean of suffering.

Therefore, the Vedas declare the higher mind or intelligence as the key to the emancipation of the embodied souls (jivatmas) from suffering. Accordingly, they declare it to be the highest in the hierarchy of creation, representing Brahman himself. In Nature, they identify it as the highest or the great one (mahat), and in the body of a living being as the highest reality (tattva). Since it was the key to self-realization, beings who possessed it are potentially qualified to achieve liberation.

These ideas can be found in almost all scriptures of Hinduism including the Vedas. For example, the Aitareya Upanishad proclaims intelligence as Brahman himself (prajnanam brahma). It states, “All this is moved by intelligence, is established in intelligence. The world is moved by intelligence. The support is intelligence. Brahman is intelligence.”

It then goes on to list different types of intelligence in this manner, “That is consciousness, perception, discrimination, intelligence, mental brilliance, vision, resolve, cognition, mental discipline, impulse, memory, intention, goal, life, desire, and control. All these are the names of intelligence only.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad declares the Self as intelligence and the inner controller of intelligence. It states thus, “He who is seated in the intelligence and is inside the intelligence, whom the intelligence does not know, whose body is the intelligence and who controls the intelligence from within, is your Self, inner controller and immortal."

The Bhagavadgita on the importance of discernment

You will find a similar approach even in the theistic traditions of Hinduism. For example, the Bhagavadgita defines yoga as intelligence or skillfulness (buddhi kausalam) in actions. When the mind and body are pure, a yogi becomes stable minded (dheera). Overcoming desires and attachments through purificatory practices, he becomes a sthita prajna or the one whose intelligence (prajna) is firmly established in equanimity and sameness. Delusion arises when the higher mind becomes clouded due to the presence of impurities in the mind and body such as desires, attachments, attraction and aversion, egoism, pride, vanity, envy, anger, lust, etc. They prevent us from knowing things as they are without mental filters, or discerning the right from the wrong. As a result, we engage in wrong actions and suffer from their consequences.

The Bhagavadgita lays great emphasis upon the discriminating intelligence of the higher mind, which arises from the predominance of purity (sattva), and which is essential to make right judgments, avoid sinful actions and stabilize the consciousness (citta). It defines yoga itself as skillfulness or intelligence (kausalam) in action. In the second chapter it states that intelligence is one pointed in those whose minds are firm and resolute, and scattered in those who are weak-minded. Those who do not have it speak flowery words, or take delight in empty discussions as if it is an end in itself. Because of the desire for enjoyment and wealth, they lose their minds and their intelligence. By the intelligence of the thinking mind only one can overcome delusion and confusion and attain the yoga of equanimity and sameness.

Classical yoga on purity and discernment

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras also recognizes the importance of intelligence in the liberation of the mind and soul from desires and delusion. In the second part of the scripture, it declares that the means to liberation is discriminative discernment (viveka khyati), which should be cultivated through the practice of yoga. The discerning awareness or the insight (prajna) of a yogi has seven stages. Some of them are meant to become free from karma, and some from the mind itself so that one can go beyond the intelligence itself and become stabilized in the pure intelligence of the Self. Discriminative discernment arises and the lamp of knowledge shines (jnana dipti) upon the destruction of impurities by the Eightfold practice of yoga.

In the third part, it further states that the all-knowing awareness, which is borne out of discernment and which has everything as its object simultaneously, is the liberator. In the fourth part, it concludes that in the state of discriminating awareness, one slowly gravitates towards aloneness (kaivalya) and enters the states of meditative self-absorption (dharma megha samadhi), whereby the mind becomes completely free from all afflictions, impurities and past life impressions.

Thus, we can see that Hinduism is not opposed to the use of the higher faculties of the mind (buddhi), including reason and discernment, in the quest for truth or in knowing the truths of existence. It is the key to attain the higher knowledge, from which arises discretion, which in turn helps one purify the mind and body, avoid sinful actions and attain meditative self-absorption, resulting in liberation. Even today, in Hinduism you will find a great emphasis upon the purification of the mind and body, upon cultivating the higher faculties of the mind through meditative practices and let intelligence shine in the purity of consciousness.

Buddhism on intelligence

The founder of Buddhism solely relied upon intelligence or thinking mind (buddhi). He used reason, flawless objectivity and pure intelligence to arrive at the Four Noble Truths and formulate the Eightfold Path, to overcome human suffering. His teaching was solely focused upon freeing the mind from its obscurities and impurities, so that it could clearly discern truths and overcome delusion and sinful behavior. The Buddha did not believe in God or metaphysical means to overcome the problem of suffering. His was a practical and down to earth philosophy, which tried to find solutions in the objective reality, within the realm of human possibility.

Because of his sole reliance upon the higher faculties of the mind (Buddhi) to reach the advanced states of consciousness (jhanas) through the mindful observation of the objective reality and attain Nirvana, he became known as the Buddha, and his teachings as Buddhism. Buddha means the one in whom the Buddhi is fully awakened. Buddhism is the path to pure intelligence and pure discernment through virtuous living, mindfulness practices and meditative absorption (Dhyana). Anyone who develops that higher mind (buddhi), with its full potential, by that Path becomes a Buddha.

The limitations of reason

Reason by itself does not reveal truth, unless the person who practices it is free from cognitive errors and logical fallacies. Reason in the hands of an untrained person is as bad as religion in the hands of an impure person. Just as science can be misused for evil or wrong purposes, reason can be misused or manipulated to justify the most heinous crimes or conceal truths. Reason also depends upon various factors that govern our perception and cognition.

There are also certain natural limitations and mental shortcuts (heuristics) to which the mind is susceptible. Therefore, rationalists cannot claim inculpability or infallibility in the exercise of reason or intelligence. Modern psychology recognizes this problem. Cognitive distortions, which are traditionally considered to be the impurities and afflictions of the mind, make people believe in what they believe to be true rather than what is true. For example, in 1980 David Burns published in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a list of common cognitive distortions such as the following.

  1. Selectively using information (filtering)
  2. Thinking in terms of rigid categories of this and that (polarized thinking)
  3. Exaggerating or minimizing a problem (catastrophizing)
  4. Taking personal responsibility without a cause (personalization).

They act like mental filters, and interfere with our perceptions as well as reason, resulting in selective perception, biases, assumptions and erroneous thinking.

The importance of purity and mental stability in the use of reason

Be it religion or rationalism, what elevates them or degrades them is the mental or moral purity of the people who use them. If they have their own agendas, both will be misused and their importance in our search for truth will be compromised. Rationalists may have a case against superstition, obscurantism and fraudulent gurus and religious personalities. They may even question the religious beliefs and practices that cannot be rationally explained. However, they cannot question the importance of mental purity or the need for right living as prescribed by Buddhism and several schools of Hinduism for the order and regularity of society.

A stable mind, which is free from the influence of egoism, attachments and delusion, facilitates perfection in one’s thinking, perception and understanding. One can attain it through transformative practices such as jnana yoga, karma yoga, sanyasa yoga, buddhi yoga, atma samyama yoga, kriya yoga, hatha yoga, raja yoga and so on. They suppress the modifications of the mind and stabilize it in peace and equanimity. When the logical and thinking mind (buddhi) becomes free from afflictions and impurities, discerning wisdom (vivekam) arises, with which one can clearly discern things, make right decision and free themselves from the problem of sin and suffering.

Whether they are religious people or rationalists, those who are driven by egoism, pride, ignorance, desires, likes and dislikes, prejudice, etc., cannot perceive truth. Only they can think clearly or use the faculties of their minds to arrive at right knowledge, who possess discerning wisdom, whose minds and hearts are pure and whose intelligence is freed from the impurities of desires, delusion and attachments. Due to historical and traditional reasons as explained before, Indian rationalists are an integral part of Hindu religious tradition, especially the Nastika tradition. They have a role to serve in cleansing the world of its evils and inculcating the discipline of the higher mind.

Hence, they do not have to blindly follow the rationalism of the western kind, or their methods of validation and refutation. They originated in the sociocultural milieu of dogmatic religions, which prohibited free thinking and castigated anyone who doubted the existence of God as a heretic and any skepticism as blasphemous. Instead, Indian rationalists can take inspiration from the traditional schools of Hinduism (Darshanas) as representative of Nastikavada and teach people to cultivate pure reason and discernment to overcome the impurities of egoism, attachments, likes and dislikes, etc., and cultivate equanimity, peace and happiness. While they may not believe in spiritual liberation, they can still teach in the mental liberation of people from ignorance and delusion.

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