Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
Progress of Atheism in India
A Historical Perspective
Umesh Patri, Ph.D.
Prativa Devi, M.A., M.Ed., PGDTE.
The atheistic heritage of India is extremely rich and Lavanam's atheism grows from this rich tradition. Compared to the western atheism India is the oldest country in atheistic thought and ideas. To our surprise Atheist Centre at Vijayawada of which Lavanam is the director, is the first known Atheist Centre of the world, established by his father Gora.
From the time of the Vedas till Lavanam there is an unbroken chain of atheistic tradition in the Indian soil. It is an astonishing fact that the Rigvedic sages at times were skeptic and agnostic. Max-Muller asserted Rigveda to be the oldest record in the library of the world and even in this oldest record of mankind atheistic idea was present in the form of skepticism and agnosticism. To establish the cause and effect relation in nature Vedic Rishis were asking a number of questions like: "Why does the sun not fall although it is not supported by anything or fixed to anything?" Where is the sun by night?" "Were go the stars by day?" "Whence comes the wind, and whither goes it?" "Why does it raise no dust on celestial roads?" A superimposition of God in nature like light, heat, fire, sound expressed through sun, thunder and air subsequently took the human form. The entire Rig Vedic hymn on creation can be quoted for its quest for Truth. Its beauty lies With skeptic attitude expressed by the ancient sages of India such as:
|Non-being then existed not being:
There was no air, nor sky that is beyond it.
What was concealed? Where in? In whose protection?
And was there deep unfathomable water?
Death then existed not nor life immortal;
Darkness there was at first by darkness hidden;
Desire entered the one in the beginning:
Their way extended light across the darkness:
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
None knoweth whence creation has arisen:
(Rg Ved 10:129 :1-7)
In another verse the priests doubt the existence of India: "Indra (God) does not exist, who has seen him (hence) whom shall we praise?" (8:100.3)
The Satapatha Brahmana brings out Materialistic Pihlosophy by telling "the beginning of all beginnings was water". The waters bore a golden embryo and out of the egg came the ancestor of all living beings.
In the Upanishadic period sages seem to have a dialectical process of solving many intellectual problems. Nachiketa's doubts and questions to Yama prove his agnostic attitude. The Prasna Upanishad which consists of six sections containing six fundamental questions relating to the nature of the original cause, sufficiently prove the existence of atheistic trend in it.
The disciple quests from his teacher which one is primary, the body or the mind? The teacher Uddalaka explained to him through a practical example by making the disciple fast for a week. The fasting made the disciple lose his power of memory. Then the teacher offered a cup of buttermilk to regain his memory. The teacher wanted to tell the disciple that "Food is God."
Out of six orthodox Philosophies of India four are atheistic in nature. The Sankhya Philosophy of Kapila explains the evolution of matter into 24 categories. For it, the number or Sankhya is very important to understand the process of evolution. In Sankhya two principles of the universe are explained as Prakrti or "nature" which includes matter to mind and Purusha or "man" means the pure consciousness, Without the help of nature, pure consciousness is helpless and vice-versa. God has nothing to do with the system. Prakrti is like a blind man and Purusha a lame. One can walk and the other can see. If a lame sits on the shoulders of the blind, the former can guide the latter and both can walk and live. Allegorically it illustrates the intellectual aspect of atheism, which has nothing to do with God.
In Sankhya matter is eternal. So said in Gita too that "It postulates that nothing comes out of nothing and things are not totally destroyed, they only change forms.".... That which does not exist, cannot come into existence." The negation of qualitative and quantitive changes, the matter is always evolving in the process of development. So matter first lay in inactive and passive and inert form, with its 3 qualities of Sat, Raj and Tamas lying dormant. That these 3 properties were inherent in matter and were inseparably interconnected, that matter is finally totally indestructible, but its various forms are changing and perishable. The law of matter as described in Sankhya can be compared with the Law of conservation of matter. This is based on cause and effect theory. When a property is formed from another property, the equalities of the former are retained in the latter. This is called the law of negation of negation. It is applicable both in organic and inorganic field. The four dimensional space time continuum theory was not unknown to the Vedic rishies. In the vedas the concept is that time does not exist without the existence of matter, nor can space exist without motion. They exist in relation to each other.
Sankhya's materialistic theory of knowledge in its latter form became highly rational and encourage for social duty. "Bhagavadgita is the highest form of Sankhya, the man must perform his social duty. One should not run away from it. Arjuna, the warrior is the personification of sthitha prajna, who does his duty not with any personal motive but as a matter of duty". (The Atheist, March 1981, 36)
Like Sankhya, Nyaya speaks of "right" or "just" which is a science of right or just reasoning. If truth is not verifiable it is out right rejected. God can be rejected or proved through logic, not through faith is the Philosophy of Nyaya.
Vaisesika another orthodox philosophy, a system propounded by Kanada is a Philosophical treat of physics and metaphysics. It speaks of matter, in the form of atom or Pilu the world that exists. Kanada was so deeply involved in atomic theory that on his death bed few of his friends insisted him to utter the word god at least once. He smiled and before his death he uttered "pilu, pilu, atom." Kanada explains matter with its five elements, i.e., earth, water, fire, air and ether. In the beginning the primordial matter was subtle, invisible, eternal and infinite which existed in the form of atoms. This atomic theory was not properly developed during the period of Democritus of Greece. It is Einstein who as late as 20th Century could properly explore while splitting the atom. In the philosophy of India God is simply one among the many categories. He holds no power and prestige. Though yoga is called the "Samkhya with God," God has practically nothing to do with the universe. To please the theists God idea might have been added to the system.
In the Ramayana there is a reference to sage Jabali who was connected with the court of king Dasaratha. Jabali was a teacher to Rama and his brothers. Jabali informs his pupils about atheism also. This clearly shows atheism was very much prevalent in those days as something to be taken note of and Jabali as a teacher did not want his pupils to be ignorant of it. Vana Parva of Mahabhrata clearly indicates that Draupadi, her father and brother were once guided by a brahmin who was an atheist.
Jayanta Bhatta enlisted some of the typical arguments of non-believers including the Buddhists and Jains: "Since God is not perceived, his existence cannot be inferred. The works of a God are not produced like pots which are made; if God were like a potter, he would have to have a body. But if he has no body, who created him? Every body has a beginning. Does he act in accordance with some law or does he act capriciously? If the former, he is not free; if the latter he is human. If he guides and controls merits and demerits, he becomes dependent on them."
(The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, P.317)
'The philosophical skepticism, logical fatalism and religious indifferentism' rightly developed in the Bruhaspati Sutra are supposed to be burnt in the great fire of the Nalanda library. The doctrine of the Sutra is called Charvaka Lokayata. Lokayata means world. Only this world exists. Nothing beyond and nothing after. They preached evolution not creation. Life originates from matter as the red colour is produced from the combination of betel, arecanut, and lime. They draw their conclusion that the only source of knowledge is our sense perception, where internal perceptions speak of our rational attitude and external perceptions confine to the activity of the five sense organs. To them when a man dies, the earthly element returns and relapses in to the earth, the watery element returns into the water, the fiery element returns into the fire, the airy element returns into the air, the senses pass into space. Their atheism is known from one of their famous lines:
|While life is yours, live joyously:
None can escape Death's searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn
How shall it e'er again return?
It is said that most of the Charvaka thinkers were born slave. They were the slaves run away from their master's houses and became saints. So they criticised everything religious and rituals. They argued that world is beginningless so endless, it is neither created nor can it be destroyed. There is no ground to believe that Charvakas were escaped slaves in saint disguised. It was a school of thought like other schools of philosophy in India. They were remaining in four sects according to their mental gradations. They were Dhurta (Clever), Vitandavadin (Scoffers), Tottvaopaplva Vadin (debators of categories) and Sushkishita (Learned and wise).
It is the orthodoxy, ritualism and the abuse of the caste system that attracted the attention of the Jain Tirthankers, about 2600 years ago. Jainism is heretic in nature. They believe matter or Pudgala is primary, which is never created by god. But every man can attain godhood or Arhathood through right action.
It is well known that Buddhism is a religion without God. Buddhism is atheistic because it denies the creator (God). The word creator itself is meaningless because God cannot be considered the creator of a created world. Buddha was very much skeptical about God-centered religious beliefs.
Atheism in India has nothing to do with God. It stands alone. According to the great grammarian Panini a nastika is he who does not believe in the other world. (Astadhy ie 4:4:60). Manu the first and the foremost law-giver of the world declared a person atheist who vilifies the Vedas or the knowledge. In India the god-idea is found only in folk tradition, but not in the system of truth-seeking and knowledge. It may be only to satisfy the gullible people god idea is superimposed later in truth-seeking and knowledge. Thus philosophy in India is not god related. "Neti, Neti" or "Not this, Not that" was the first principle in seeking the truth. The ancient truth-seekers proposed a hypothesis and did not accept it as Truth without questioning it. Through questions one may disprove anything and everything. So any Truth cannot be taken for granted. This way they proposed no idea is final or there is no last word for Truth seeking.
From the time of Vedas until Buddha, Gandhi and Gora freethought took a long way in different routes. The tradition of freethought is as old as India itself. It is a part of Indian Culture. Without atheism Indian philosophy is incomplete. So it has been considered as one of the postulates to seek the truth and. the ultimate. As the ways of life depend upon the philosophy of life, atheistic approach to seek truth has prompted a positive way of life in India. In India the thread of atheism can be seen in Quest for truth and social reform.
Contemporary religious institutions have always supported the traditionalism and there were revolutions in religions to oppose social evils of the contemporary society which was sanctioned by religion. These revolutions in religion were branded as heresy by the contemporary religious people because any change in society was opposed by religious vested interest and the priestly class. Likewise in the western society all sciences were opposed by the religious vested interest. Inspire of these harassments social reform and science progressed and they refined and reformed religion. Thus heresy made religion more human and humane. But because of the inherent weakness of religious approach the very revolution in religion which was considered to be heretic, in course of time got degenerated into tradition and again that was to be opposed. Thus revolutions in religion have been a continuity to promote liberalism and humane values within religion. To promote peace in the midst of hatred and violence between religions, an inter religious approach was needed. Thus came the World Parliament of Religions. Every leader of the revolution in religion exerted the people to defy the dictates of the contemporary religious authority. In the flowing stream of history came Raja Ram Moban Roy, Swamy Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekananda, Jori Rao Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Maharshi Karve, Paranjype and Mahatma Gandhi who questioned the orthodox beliefs. They opposed casteism, untouchability and animal sacrifice. Because of their insistence on reason and interest in truth-seeking they indirectly helped atheism to assert itself. Then came a powerful flow of self-respect movement of PERIYER, Radical Humanism of M.N. Roy, challenge to miracle mind and superstitious beliefs of Abraham Kovoor and Atheist movement of Gora. They were the four pillars of the modern secular movement.
Gora has put atheism in the context of human free-will, that is freedom to think, freedom to act and freedom to correct oneself. These triple freedoms were another name for positive Atheism. Positive Atheism moves "god-centred" universe to "human-centred" universe. It moves "god-centred" knowledge and society to human-centred knowledge and society. It removes the institution of God and promotes "peace without god." God remains an institution of hypothesis and myth. religion a fraud and prayer simply a delusion. We believe in god for four reasons, such as: to understand phenomena, sustaining morality, obtaining solace, and for the promotion of fine arts. These four can be promoted without god-belief or religion and that is what the atheists are showing to the world. That's why Gora called his atheism Positive Atheism. One cannot enjoy the fruits of positive atheism as long as he is not free from the steel box of religion. Upon that very rock stands Lavanam.
Lavanam left his formal education because he disagreed with the educational system that enslaved our society, politics and economic systems. Lavanam, like his father, Gora, declared himself an Atheist because he is not an agnostic, realist, deist, rationalist, secularist, humanist, heretic, iconoclast, infidel, objectivist, ethical culturist, unitarian. He does not want to hide himself in any other disguise. He is an open atheist. Through his deep study of different religions he asserted, in the present situation, Christianity as the religion of trade and imperialism. Islam as the religion of violence and intolerance, Hinduism as the religion of inaction and caste system, and Buddhism as the religion of non-entity. He found how man is outgrowing religion and leaving behind the religious society. That made him feel the emergence of a "Post-Religious Society." He finds some elements of atheism in every man whether he is a priest or pope.
Gora presented Atheism through every activity whereas Lavanam presents every activity through atheism. If Gora's concept of Positive Atheism is pure science Lavanam's concept of Post-Religious Society can be called applied science. Lavanam explains atheism as a psychological evolution of the physical man.
The positive expression about atheism and the universality of atheism as proposed by Lavanam compels everyone whether one agrees with him or not to give a serious thought to his views. On the threshold of 21st Century humankind is experiencing a terrible uneasiness about old institutions and old ideas. The situation demands a bold new thinking. Technology has stepped in to produce new gadgets for the emerging new man but we have not yet produced a new philosophy and a new social structure for the emerging new man. New gadgets of technological advancement in the hands of the old philosophy and the old structure may create havoc which may lead to intellectual and social suicide. Hence new ideas should be welcomed and new thinking promoted. The concepts of Positive Atheism and Post-Religious Society compel us to take note of them for this new challenging situation.
challenges people progressively to be more human, more self-confident
and more self-reliant. Thus Atheism develops better individuals, and
in turn with their interaction, they build better institutions. If the
individual is changed and the institutions are not changed, it is bad.
If the institutions are changed and still the individual is not changed
it is worse. Today we are facing both these situations at the same time.
So, Atheism as a positive force aims at changing both individuals and the