There’s no shortage of philosophy or religious thought that has come out of India. And, thanks to an extensive exoticization and mystification of India, religion and philosophy almost defines it. Perhaps this is not surprising, since four major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhisim, Sikhism and Jainism) originated in India, and even today religion is visibly everywhere there. However, there has also been a strong tradition of heterodox thought in India. Amartya Sen, in his extremely engaging book The argumentative Indian, lucidly describes a tradition of heterodox beliefs and debate in Indian thought, including in religious philosophy. His goal, in his book, is to outline the long history of vigorous debate and argument India, with a rich tradition of heterodox beliefs. In those writings, Sen briefly describes (without delving into) a rich Indian tradition of skepticism, agnostic and atheistic belief within the various Indian religious traditions.
However, India today is arguably religious in a more traditional sense, which includes a narrower definition of being theist, and believing in a god or a creator across the various religious denominations. While different religious beliefs are thriving in India, the strong traditions of skeptic, agnostic or atheistic beliefs that once co-existed in India are barely visible. In this post, I wanted to describe the strong tradition of skepticism that existed in Indian religious thought, the demise of such thought, and the roles they may have had on early Indian thought, and the development of science.
Hinduism has had an extremely wide range of beliefs (unsurprising, since it is not a “codified” religion defined by a single book or belief), ranging from polytheism to monotheism, to prominent elements of monism (particularly in Vedantic thought), to outright skepticism, agnosticism and committed atheism. For example, Sen points towards the Rig veda, which goes back to the second millennium BCE, and allows doubt even in a creator and creation. The Nasadiya sukta ends by asking if creation itself has arisen, or formed itself, or perhaps it did not, and only the one in the highest heaven knows, or perhaps he does not know. The Indian epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) have doubters and skeptics who constantly raise their questions (though, in these cases, they are eventually overruled). The most prominent atheist voices in Hinduism were from the followers of the Lokayata and Carvaka schools of thought, who denied any existence of a god, and said there was nothing after death, soundly rejecting an afterlife. You are born, you live, and you die, that’s it. This school of thought suggested direct perception as a method to prove truth, and not speculative reasoning.
Buddism, the second major religion of India, is doggedly agnostic. The questions of creation or a creator are left firmly in the realm of the unknown, among the fourteen unanswerable questions. The Buddha remained silent on any questions on god or creation. It was not important to him or for anyone who had been “liberated” to shackle themselves with those questions, as such questions would only lead to dogma. It was important (especially in early Buddhist tradition) to question and reject orthodox dogma, and debate and questioning played (and still play) central roles in Buddhism. Buddhism also played a very important role in India (and in China and the East where Buddhism spread) in spreading education, as Buddhist texts were widely translated and printed, and made available to all who wanted to read it (without restrictions of specific classes). Widespread education is an important starting point for the emergence of diverse ideas including heterodox thought, and skepticism is but one aspect of heterodox thought.
Jainism is perhaps unique amongst Indian religions in that it is clearly and strongly atheistic. It denies the existence of any creator or god, and states that the universe is timeless, and it functions according to natural laws. Alexander the great is believed to have met and been suitably impressed by the thoughts of the Indian gymnosophists (Samana/Sramana or Jain ascetics of the digambara (“sky clad”) sects), though of course, he probably went back to his godly ways and built temples to Zeus or suchlike after being impressed.
Collectively, there was plenty of space within Indian traditions for agnostics, skeptics and atheists. While this is not necessarily causal for heterodox ideas, the prevalence of such thought will encourage heterodox thoughts and ideas. There is a strong coincidence of the strongest prevalence of such thought in India with the time of the most substantial output of Indian science, astronomy and mathematics. For example, during the so-called Greek and Arab periods of mathematics (from the 6th century BCE to the 14th century) there were a substantial contributions by Indian mathematicians and astronomers. This was approximately a time when heterodox beliefs were prominent in India, where there were strong Buddhist (and Jain) traditions till up to at least the 11th century, and followers of the Carvaka thought are known to have existed till at least the 14th century (when they are known to have attended the moghul emperor Akbar’s interfaith gatherings). The importance of skeptic, unorthodox thought in the progression of science and discovery cannot be understated. For example, the 5th century astronomer, Aryabhata had numerous discoveries in mathematics and algebra (which were not against any dogma), but his theories in astronomy were revolutionary. He suggested that the earth moved and the heavens were still (consistent with a heliocentric model of the planets) which was quite radical, contradicting the orthodox belief that the sun god in his chariot went around the earth every day. But, given the prevalence of non-orthodox belief, Aryabhata was not thrown into some dungeon, but remained a celebrated court philosopher, as did his disciples and future followers of his thought, like the celebrated Bhaskara and Varahamihira, who continued to use and refine Aryabhata’s methods to estimate eclipses, and propose theories contradicting orthodox religious thought.
Buddhism’s pragmatic, “middle-road” approach as well as a visible skeptic school of thought in Hinduism appear to have played important roles in the acceptance of such thought. Jainism preached a path of extreme austerity and renunciation, which would not have encouraged more material quests for knowledge of the world, but the strong tradition of atheism undoubtedly played an important role in combating belief in the supernatural and superstition. However, by around the 14th century, most atheistic thought in Hinduism (and followers of the nastika schools of thought) had demised. In fact, there are few records of the Carvaka and Lokayata schools of thought, and most of the existing records come from other (still prevalent and better preserved) orthodox Hindu philosophies (including from commentaries of various vedantic scholars including Madhva), all of which have biased or incomplete records of atheistic faiths, as the goal is to prove the atheist faiths wrong. Atheist schools of Hinduism are markedly absent in modern Hinduism, and Hinduism itself is being viewed through narrower, less diverse prisms. Buddhism is no longer a major religion in India, and anyway, current forms of Buddhism is (for all practical purposes) apparently more theist (with worship of the Buddha having a very central role), with less room for questioning faith. Similarly, Jainism, while still very alive, is a more minor faith, and superficially relatively indistinguishable from Hinduism (with ritualized worship of the Jain tirthankaras, and significant ritualized dogma).
So, numerous questions arise. Why did this tradition of skepticism die out? How can a visible space for skeptics, agnostics or atheists be recreated in Indian society, particularly in the public sphere (particularly outside of the communists, who in India at least, are ironically entwined with religious groups for electoral reasons)? Why isn’t this rich history of skeptical thought taught as a part of social studies in schools in India?
Food for thought, that.