Are there atheists in India

Out: MIZ 4/80

Some who have read the call for the Second Atheist World Conference in the Indian city of Vijayawada in MIZ 3/80 may have wondered what significance atheism in India can have for us here in Europe. In the consciousness of most atheists in the West, the subliminal idea is that the conscious rejection and overcoming of belief in God is closely related to the development of western-rational thought, as it has emerged in the course of European social development. However, there is absolutely no reason for such a Eurocentric attitude. The history of Indian thought in particular can teach us that insights, to which we credit ourselves a lot, were already gained by people of other peoples when our ancestors were still lazy to think about their bear falls. This is not intended to deny the importance of European cultural traditions for the present. But if viewed fairly, it will certainly be necessary to put their weight into perspective by first of all taking factual note of the achievements of other cultures (whereby we always have to start from the fundamental limitation of our knowledge, since we only know a few parts of written traditions, while the oral tradition is not directly tangible to us at all). Unfortunately, it can hardly be doubted that with such a simple knowledge of foreign cultures - not to mention an understanding - everything is still not going well. But ignorance is an essential prerequisite for devaluation; especially atheists who, by overcoming religious restrictions, have favorable prerequisites for the practice of international humanism, should keep a clear distance from any kind of cultural imperialism. Social forms that are similar to the Christian mission, in which one person already has the finished truth at his disposal, while the other only needs to accept it, must in any case be overcome, if one does not follow the policy that Europe has so far towards the countries of the Third World has operated, intends to continue with other means.

Apart from the interest of the Indians in an objective appreciation of their culture, there are also good reasons on our side for an occupation with Indian atheism. The representatives of religion in the West never tire of emphasizing the universal character of their ideology: anima naturaliter christiana, the soul is by nature Christian, or if not Christian, then at least religious in some other way. However, Indian history in particular shows how little the belief in God, once established in a certain historical epoch, has remained unchallenged among thinking people. In addition, the perception of Indian atheism would also be able to clearly correct the thoroughly spiritualistic image of India that prevails in this country. And India deserves a correction of this picture, in which various sects with an Indian touch are still heavily involved.

Ultimately, there are not only theoretical but also very practical arguments in favor of our concern with Indian atheism. Christian churches operate today just like other religious communities worldwide using all communication technologies that were created by human hands. Atheists and free thinkers are in the minority in every single country; if they do not succeed in finding forms of international cooperation in which they can use their forces optimally, their scope for action will remain very limited. Not unimportant is the experience that people who grew up in very different cultures, independently of one another, can come to quite similar conclusions about the world and life and about the uselessness of religions - a circumstance that can certainly only contribute to the consolidation of atheist positions.

Indian atheism in ancient times

In order to get to know the Indian atheism of the past, it is necessary to fall back on the old texts, almost exclusively in Sanskrit, which have come down to us from India. In the context of a short article it is impossible to give even an approximate overview of the positions that have been taken in Indian history against belief in God. But I would like to try to give at least some references to traditions that can support the claim of the existence of a very old Indian atheism.

In his comprehensive study of Indian atheism of the past, the Indian historian of philosophy Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (1) writes:

"A study of Indian atheism is important for several reasons. One of them is quite simple and obvious. Without an accurate picture of Indian atheism, our knowledge of traditional Indian knowledge is inevitably incomplete. The reason for this is not difficult to see. Atheism posed that Area in which there was the greatest degree of clear correspondence between the leading exponents of traditional Indian science.

I assume, of course, that among the leading representatives of traditional Indian science are to be understood above all the recognized advocates of the great Indian philosophical views. What I am trying to emphasize is that the overwhelming majority of them were professed atheists. This means that they were not simply indifferent to the question of God, as perhaps some of the early Greek philosophers were. Rather, the Indian philosophers approached the problem of God with all the seriousness they were capable of, and they came to the well-founded conviction that His existence can only be allowed at the expense of clear logic. Such a situation is really unique. It has hardly any parallel in the world history of philosophy.

I am well aware that these claims will probably appear strange, even fantastic, to many readers. But the real reason for this is fiction, not fact - a popular myth about Indian philosophy, not the Indian philosophical texts themselves.

The fiction is that of spiritualism. The claim is made again and again that the characteristic peculiarity of Indian philosophy is its spiritualism. This spiritualism is said to have given our philosophical heritage real greatness and glory. What does that mean exactly?

The philosophers themselves cannot agree on any definition of spiritualism. Nevertheless, the most important proponents of Indian spiritualism claim that belief in God as the great basic fact of life is the most important part of it. Apparently there is some truth in this, as godless spiritualism sounds somewhat unusual. It is precisely this, however, that clearly contradicts the general description of Indian philosophy as 'spiritualistic' with the facts. Rather, the fact is that the Indian philosophers, with the exception of a small minority, felt no need for God. "

It certainly stands to reason that Chattopadhyaya, as a Marxist and avowed atheist, will tend to emphasize the importance of atheism in Indian traditions. However, there is no doubt even among other researchers about the atheistic character of various ancient Indian schools of thought. This applies both to individual philosophical schools within the framework of Hinduism and to Buddhism and its related Jainism, both of which, although they are referred to as religions, teach a clear atheism from the beginning (their origin is around 500 B.C.E.). In this context one problem must at least be pointed out: the equation of religion and theism, which is unquestionable for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that is, belief in God, obviously does not apply to all societies, but only under very specific historical conditions. For a generally valid, non-Eurocentric determination of the nature of religion, it would be necessary to include the atheistic religions Buddhism and Jainism in the considerations - a work that has yet to be done. What is certain, however, is that those who - like the Christian churches - make belief in God the core of their teaching must accept the arguments of the Buddhists and Jainas against them even if these two communities are to be understood as religions under other aspects. For what occurs to the Jainas about the concept of God, for example, should be difficult for Christians to cope with. For example, the Jain philosopher Gunaratna (around 1400 CE) (2) declared all the high-pitched attributes that theists ascribed to God - omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, etc. - as nonsensical: it was just as useless to give such sonorous attributes to a nonexistent god to bestow like offering a young girl to an impotent man. From the fact that ancient Indian atheism was by no means identical with the complete absence of religious elements, a theistic religion will therefore hardly be able to benefit. In view of the still low level of knowledge of nature, a thoroughly rationalistic view of the world was not to be expected in the past. Today we have all the more reason to admire the spiritual achievements of people who already anticipated the futility of the conception of God at a time when the means for a coherent, rational understanding of the world were not yet available to them.

Not only logically, but presumably also historically, the emergence of atheistic views presupposes the existence of a developed theism. This has been attested in India for over 2500 years. Probably the earliest clearly theistic text is the Shvetâshvatara-Upanishad (around 500 BCE?), Which is of particular importance for the history of Indian atheism because it starts with no fewer than seven philosophical positions that begin with the explanation of the World through God as the ultimate cause and against which the author then polemicizes in the following (are named as ultimate causes: time, inner nature, fate, chance, the elements, primordial matter or a male being - the latter probably an allusion to an ancient Indian myth) . Already here one sees the variety of attempts at a non-theistic explanation of the world, and this variety persists in the centuries that followed, so that one can certainly agree with Chattopadhyaya's above assertion that the majority of the ancient Indian philosophical schools were atheistic.

and new atheist movements

Just as indisputable as the existence and widespread use of atheistic thought in ancient India is its decline in later times. An indication of this is given by the fact that we are only informed about many atheistic views from texts by philosophical opponents, while the corresponding works themselves are presumably lost forever. To this end, one has to think of the external conditions of the text transmission in India: only that which has been copied as manuscripts over the centuries is preserved today, because the material used (palm leaf, etc.) was transient. So wherever the living tradition broke off from one generation to the next, the written tradition was also broken off at some point. In addition, one must reckon with the possibility that representatives of opposing positions deliberately destroyed manuscripts. At least one such case, in which Brahmanas in southern India tracked down and removed manuscripts of texts they did not like, has come down to us from the second half of the last century (3).

How the decline of atheism in India came about remains to be explored in detail. Probably not a single cause, but rather a bundle of factors will have to be blamed for this. Political and social conditions, in which the bulk of the Indian people were powerless and oppressed, are likely to have favored the belief in God. Conversely, religion was certainly consciously used by those in power for legitimation and stabilization purposes. Researching all these relationships is difficult not least because the literature in the various Indian regional languages ​​from the last few centuries would have to be consulted. In addition, there is the problem of oral tradition already mentioned (not to be underestimated if the majority of people cannot read and write!), Which can at best be explored in parts.

The beginnings of a new atheism, which at least not directly fall back on ancient Indian traditions, can already be found in the 19th century. It cannot be denied that this atheism drew strong stimuli from Western countries (freethinking, later also Marxism). But the question is whether such suggestions could not be so effective because in India the folk tradition of atheistic ideas was never completely demolished. Already about 100 years ago Christian missionaries complained bitterly about the widespread use of free-thinking and unbelieving writings, especially in the cities of Madras and Calcutta; the editors of such literature, they found, did not come from the most educated classes "(4).

An overview of the various modern atheistic movements in India, which are often concentrated in their effectiveness on one region, is not possible at present. We have to admit that we know very little about this in the West; at least the information available about different groupings is markedly imbalanced.

A modern Indian atheist organization whose work is of great interest not least because of the social endeavors pursued here is the aforementioned Atheist Center in Vijayawada (state of Andhra Pradesh), where the Second Atheist World Conference took place from December 25th to 28th, 1980 takes place. MIZ will report on this congress and also deal with the development and work of the Atheist Center.

Martin Pfeiffer, Berlin