The Atheistic Roots of Hindu Philosophy
By Mr. Mahesh Daga
The core of Hindu scriptural tradition, it is commonly thought, is all about theism or belief in God. But that is a huge misconception. Even disregarding the ‘heterodox’ streams like the charvaks, with their underlying message of materialist hedonism, or Buddhism, the philosophical canon - call it higher Hinduism - leaves plenty of room for dissent even on a question as central as the existence of God.
Indeed, the reason why some schools of darshana - Purva and Uttar Mimansa, Sankhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisheshika - are regarded as ‘orthodox’ and others such as Jainism, Buddhism and Charvaks are not, has little or nothing to do with a belief in God. The real point of departure is whether or not a particular system of thought accepts the Vedas as the ultimate source of philosophical authority. The so-called orthodox schools do - even though it has been convincingly argued that this acceptance is more notional than real — while the other three don’t. Significantly, the original meanings of the terms astika and nastika, too, hinge on this vital difference. While the astikas believe in the veracity and infallibility of the Vedas, the nastikas clearly don’t.
Among the astikas, the two oldest schools - Sankhya and Purva Mimansa - strongly refute the theory of God. Thus, the source book for Sankhya Darshan, Ishwar Krishan’s Sankhya Karika, is full of subtle arguments which reject the possibility of there being an all-powerful creator and controller of the world. Vigyan Bhikshu’s Sankhya Pravachna Bhashya makes a case for why a belief in the divine principle is unwarranted. Even Kapila’s classic treatise on the subject, which is far less emphatic in its rejection of God, finds it unnecessary to accept any theistic assumptions.
Similarly, Purva Mimansa has a strong element of disbelief at its core. Jaimini’s Mimansa Sutra, the founding text, is mostly preoccupied with proving the efficacy and power of Yagna (or sacrificial fire) but shies away from attributing it to any divinity. Instead, in common with latter Mimansaks like Kumarila, Jaimini takes delight in rejecting the God hypothesis. In Yoga - beginning with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra - which is widely regarded as theistic in nature, the acceptance of God is, in part, purely verbal. In large areas of practical reasoning, God is happily overlooked, if not consciously ignored. In Nyaya, the quint-essential Indian tradition of formal logic, there is an attempt to prove, as in Jayanta Bhatt’s Nyaya Manjari, the existence of God, but such arguments are far from being universally accepted.
The only ‘God-fearing’ candidate among the orthodox schools is perhaps Uttar Mimansa, of which Shankara’s advaita or vedantic philosophy is the best-known example. But, contrary to received wisdom, Shankara was never accepted, either by his contemporaries or latter-day thinkers, as the be all and end all of Indian thought. It was only in the 19th century, thanks to the need of the native intellectuals to create the image of an ‘essentially’ spiritual India as opposed to an equally materialist West, that Shankara’s advaita came to be regarded as the pinnacle of Indian philosophical achievement.
Interestingly, atheism in the Indian tradition is not necessarily premised on a prior acceptance of materialism, either in the philosophical or everyday sense. All the atheistic schools mentioned above, even when they reject God, accept the existence of a permanent soul (atman), which is quite distinct from corporeal or physical reality. If anything, Indian atheism — except in the case of the charvaks - is strongly anti-materialistic in character.
Source - Mr. Sulekh Jain, E-Mail : firstname.lastname@example.org