Atheism in Ancient India
India is known for tolerance to difference in opinion and thoughts. There were multiple religions spawned off in India due to diversity among Indian people. Although, in modern days, most of the Indians remain religious and do believe in God, traces of Indian history shows the existence of Atheism in ancient Indian societies.
In Ancient Hinduism, there were a couple of schools who used to teach non-existence of God. The first one, Samkhya, used to believe in duality of existing things – as per the book, saamkhya kaarikaa. Prakriti (Nature) and Purusha (Consciousness) were thought to be the basic building blocks of everything. However, the school later incorporated Iswara as a third entity and became theist. The other Atheist school of thought was Mimamsha, which concentrated on Dharma rather than gods.
Other than Hinduism, most philosophies of Jainism and Budhhism denied involvement of God. Both of these religions did not deny the presence of God, but neither did they attribute any power of creation or judgement to God. The future of a living being was thought to be decided by the actions of the being – something that this more materialistic than the thoughts of core Hinduism. It suggests more of a ‘way of life’ than describing the ‘way to satisfy god’. However, later most of the Buddhists started worshipping Buddha as god.
The other interesting school of thought that taught atheism in materialistic sense, was Carvaka (or Charvaka), named after the its founder saint. The key features of the Carvaka philosophy, as described in Sarvadarshansamgraha by Madhavacarya, were purely materialistic and thereby rejecting the afterlife. Interestingly, it points out that soul and intelligence are parts of our body, something that I was trying to argue in a previous writing. It looks at rituals being sources of living and not a way to get to the heaven. It contained the strongest atheistic viewpoint where it refuses to accept any ‘creator’ for natural things – and argues that any phenomenon can be produced by the inherent nature of things. Here goes a famous verse :
“Fire is hot, water cold,
refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;
By whom came this variety?
They were born of their own nature.”
The Carvaka philosophy was deeply down to earth – close to secular humanism. It questioned the caste system as a process imposed by Brahmins. It is amazing to observe how close they were to the modern view of humanity, when a verse reads :
If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
why not make food offerings down below
to gratify those standing on housetops?
While life remains, let a man live happily,
let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?
Critics of the Carvaka school see this cleaving to only artha and kama, without regard of dharma (and ultimate moksha) as an extreme of self-centred hedonism. One can easily understand why modern day atheists are also classified as hedonists – the similar feelings were present in early India as well.
In medival ages, the presence of Atheism was missing – something that led to a stricter grip of caste-divided Hinduism. The lack of balancing force resulted in dogmatic religious beliefs, superstitions and the society headed towards darkness, till the modern day renaissance, with major influence of Vedanta philosophy.