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Atheism in Hinduism
March 2, 2006 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Elements of Atheism in Hindu Thought
posted by Gyan (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
hmm, interesting FPP, my cup of chai. Thanks Gyan. According to Advaita Vedantic thought, to the best of my knowledge: "The manifold universe and the individual self, which considers itself bound, are both superimposed upon that Transcendental Reality which is brahman. Once the superimposition is understood for what it is, the individual is no more an individual, the universe is no more the universe - all is brahman."

Advaita Vedanta Hinduism could be said to be meta-theistic.

Buddhists are non-theists. The concept of God doesn't come into the philosophical picture at all.

I like the Agora archive, some interesting papers there. I enjoyed Storytelling in the Digital Age.
posted by nickyskye at 7:01 PM on March 2, 2006


Interesting article. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 7:14 PM on March 2, 2006


Interesting read. On a related note, The Buddhist attitude to God is worth reading. I remember reading some of the early Buddhist discourses for the first time, half-expecting cryptic, esoteric mysticism, but instead finding pretty straight-forward debate, more reminiscent of the dialogues of classical philosophy than what I had learned to expect from many of the Western adherents of Buddhism I had encountered.

Thanks for the post, makes me more determined to tackle A History of Indian Philosophy now ...
posted by bcveen at 7:18 PM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


On the Origin and Development of Epistemology in Indian Philosophy
posted by homunculus at 7:21 PM on March 2, 2006


I'm not sure what can be gained from such an etic analysis. Clearly Hindus had no notion of "god" in our sense when they created their own religion (which happened thousands of years prior to the greek word "theos"), so how can we say whether they are theistic or atheistic. Does this seem backwards and revisionist to anybody else? If this paper was about "elements of Shintoism in Christianity" I think we would all be a bit less awed.
posted by njgo at 8:10 PM on March 2, 2006


njgo, etic is a cool word, I didn't know it before! :)
There are Hindu traditions that are theistic, God believing.
Did "God" pop into existence when the Greeks cooked the theos word up?

"In a discourse between Socrates and Hermogenes in "Cratylus" (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/cratylus.html) Plato suggests a very elegant etymology for "theos":

"Socrates: My notion would be something of this sort:- I suspect that the sun, moon, earth, stars, and heaven, which are still the Gods of many barbarians, were the only Gods known to the aboriginal Hellenes. Seeing that they were always moving and running, from their running nature they were called Gods (Theous) or runners (Theontas); and when men became acquainted with the other Gods, they proceeded to apply the same name to them all. Do you think that likely?
Hermogenes: I think it very likely indeed."

In brief, "theoi" (gods) is ultimately derived from the verb "theo", meaning to run, and designating motion."

homunculus, that site you linked to succinctly encapsulates much of what Surendranath DasGupta details at great length.

bcveen, I'm pleased you checked out DasGupta's work. What fun you're interested in this. :) This site examines Buddhist views concisely, thought you might like it.

It's interesting what draws people towards different belief systems. Most of the time people go with the flow of whatever the cultural norm is. I think people who go against their cultural norm often look for something 'special' and end up being seduced by exotic trappings, rather than the pith of that belief system.

Traditionally in India, scholars debated their various belief systems publicly for all to see. This socratic style questioning and answering in debate form is carried on in the Dalai Lama's school of dialectics, Namgyal Tratsang and in the Gelugpa Tibetan monasteries.

Frankly, I think cultic Buddhist teachers, and they abound, play up the esoteric or exotic aspects of Tibetan or Japanese Buddhism to cull devotees.

I'd like to recommend Herbert V Guenther's Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice.

There are a number of thinkers who have come up with different ideas about God belief systems such as Jaynes. A more recent book is Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg M.D, Eugene G. D'Aquili and Vince Rause.
posted by nickyskye at 8:48 PM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the link gyan -- but I find it so hard to really define what a Hindu is -- in America at least. The ones I know can range from tee-totallers to your most amoral and they still declare to be Hindus. The religion, while historical and beautiful, just does not require a lot, which might explain it's equivocating on the nature of god in the first place.
posted by skepticallypleased at 10:26 PM on March 2, 2006


skepticallypleased and Gyan, in contemporary terms could this be termed a Neo-Tech Hindu, i.e. a cultural, as opposed to a religious, Hindu who is philosophically a neo-objectivist?
posted by nickyskye at 6:20 AM on March 3, 2006


I don't know about many different Hinduisms, but the Vedanta is about as far from any kind of Objectivism as you can get.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:14 AM on March 3, 2006


I’ve always found it hard to broach the subject of metaphysics and epistemology with some athiests.
It’s as though the topics themselves are invalid.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:52 AM on March 3, 2006


I’ve always found it hard to broach the subject of metaphysics and epistemology with some athiests.
It’s as though the topics themselves are invalid.


Positivism, a literal cult of science that prayed to St. Newton, was the origin of the bizarre modern idea that some true set of axioms can be found that provide a solid ground for a universal logic to proceed.

It is a intentional limitation of the universe of discourse to an arbitrary set of criteria, mainly consistency, as though "muddled thinking" is the only possible flaw in any philosophy. Objectivism is a particular case of postivist thinking. Straussian thought is also descended from the positivists.

One Dimensional Man, despite a little (forgivable, imo) Marxism, is an excellent critique of positivism.
The Positivists
By Edward James Mortimer Collins

Life and the Universe show Spontaneity;
Down with ridiculous notions of Deity!
Churches and creeds are all lost in the mists;
Truth must be sought with the Positivists.

Wise are their teachers beyond all comparison,
Comte, Huxley, Tyndall, Mill, Morley, and Harrison;
Who will adventure to enter the lists,
With such a squadron of Positivists?

Social arrangements are awful miscarriages;
Cause of all crime is our system of marriages;
Poets with sonnets, and lovers with trysts,
Kindle the ire of the Positivists.

Husbands and wives should be all one community,
Exquisite freedom with absolute unity;
Wedding rings worse are then manacled wrists,
Then he was a MAN - and a Positivist.

If you are pious, (mild form of insanity,)
Bow down and worship the mass of humanity,
Other religions are buried in mists;
We're our own gods, say the Positivists.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:08 AM on March 3, 2006


Thanks for the link gyan -- but I find it so hard to really define what a Hindu Christian is -- in America at least. The ones I know can range from tee-totallers to your most amoral and they still declare to be Hindus Christians. The religion, while historical and beautiful, just does not require a lot, which might explain it's equivocating on the nature of god in the first place.

Just wanted to see how it looked.

Clearly Hindus had no notion of "god" in our sense when they created their own religion (which happened thousands of years prior to the greek word "theos"), so how can we say whether they are theistic or atheistic.

While I take some issue with the linguistic underpinning of your argument, I must admit that the theological conversations between myself and my Christian friends are interesting in part because we all have the sense that we're not saying the same thing when we say "god". If I'm reading you correctly, you're saying that the exclusionary relationship between theism and atheism is a Western construct and we shouldn't be surprised that another culture does not draw such a firm line between them. Is that accurate?
posted by Errant at 11:17 AM on March 3, 2006


Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. The author starts with a set of words that have deep associations within our own discussions of religion, and applies them almost freely to another culture. My point is that if we want to engage in a healthy discussion of Hinduism, it is necessary to start from a less semantically charged vocabulary in order to avoid misconstruing beliefs. I understand that this is an obnoxiously linguistic argument, but this is a cultural discussion (i.e. there is nothing natural or universal about it), so the language one chooses is absolutely paramount to the direction things will head.

And what's comically absurd about this paper is the lame choice of a vocabulary that only came into existence thousands of years after Hindu beliefs were solidified. That is to say: no such meaningful dichotomy could possibly exist for Hindus, unless we can draw a link from their religion to our own. Now that would be a paper worth reading!
posted by njgo at 2:24 PM on March 4, 2006


njgo : "The author starts with a set of words that have deep associations within our own discussions of religion, and applies them almost freely to another culture. "

FWIW, the author is an Indian, and I think he is quite competent to recognize isomorphisms and the lack thereof when using English vocabulary.

njgo : "And what's comically absurd about this paper is the lame choice of a vocabulary that only came into existence thousands of years after Hindu beliefs were solidified. "

In philosophical terms, Hinduism is not a monolithic belief set that "solidified" "thousands of years" ago. Ascriptions of such dates are held by Hindu nationalist groups, seeking to evoke "Hindu pride". The various orthodox schools and heterodox schools (like Carvaka), atleast their scriptures, generally emerged starting 600 BC and have been evolving till late in the first millenium in the common era. Advaita Vedanta, considered the acme of Hindu thought, was developed by Shankara in the 8/9th century CE. Philosophical discourse roughly continued till the Mughal invasions (1400 AD). Vaisnavism and Shivaism, the popular faces of Hinduism, also originated in the Common Era.

Coming to the main point about cross-applicability, as you progress through the hymns of the Rg Veda, you notice a change of focus from naturalistic polytheism to henotheism to monotheism. Is the notion of divinity in Hinduism the same as in Christianity? Depends. If you compare the popular conceptions among the lay, Yes, similar enough. But among more sophisticated understanding, hard to say.
posted by Gyan at 12:13 AM on March 5, 2006


Njgo: As an Indian (oh how I seem to come out of the woodwork only when there are India-oriented topics :|), I actually found it interesting reading the paper the other way, that is, in relating the aastika/ naastika distinction to western notions of theism and atheism. Seems to me the author is using his construct of a "strong" and a "weak" atheism as the missing link.

Additionally, it was interesting to see that common Indian terms such as "Nyaya", "mimamsa" and "samkhya" apparently have scientifically rigorous definitions; I've always thought "nyaya', for example, referred to any law, and not a particular school of theological thought.

Interesting link nevertheless, thanks for sharing, Gyan.
posted by the cydonian at 4:48 AM on March 5, 2006


the cydonian and Gyan, thanks for prompting me to look up terms I had long forgotten, like nyaya or samkya.

Been thinking about your replies for days now, keep coming back to tham and wanted to thank you both for your clarity and concision. I liked this site to learn more about the aastika/naastika differences. It would seem to me an understandable progression to go from naturalistic polytheism to henotheism to monotheism, then to atheism and/or nontheism.
posted by nickyskye at 9:47 AM on March 7, 2006


ps. the cydonian, talk about being prompted to come out of the woodwork, njgo hasn't posted to MetaFilter in the year he's been a member, except twice to this thread.
posted by nickyskye at 9:53 AM on March 7, 2006


Haha -- I figured I'd be called out on that. I've been a bit shy to post and decided it was time to jump in.

Cydonian and Gyan, thank you for your replies. I did not mean to imply that Indians would be offended by the applications of the word "god", or that there might not be isomorphisms between Western and Indian ideas. My point was that "god" is not a well defined term, and its free application throughout the article without reference to the attached concept in Hinduism (in most cases) will lead to confusion. The passage about the Carvaka and Samkhya was fascinating though, and I wonder whether "materialism in Hinduism" might not be clearer and less contrived thesis.

I'm often frustrated by attempts to pigion-hole Eastern philosophy and religions into simple dichotomies. I spent some time last year in Kyoto studying Buddhism and returned to a sea of unanswerable questions about the Japanese approach to spirituality. Also since reading Said's "Orientalism", I have come to be wary of what Said calls "coming to terms with the Orient...based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience." Particulary, he claims that often the East is often studied to act as a contrasting image of the West. While you could say that the author of this article is doing the opposite (showing the parallel to Western atheism), anti-orientalism seems just as flawed to me.
posted by njgo at 10:19 PM on March 7, 2006


njgo : "its free application throughout the article without reference to the attached concept in Hinduism"

With respect to popular conceptions of God, they are pretty similar.
posted by Gyan at 10:29 PM on March 7, 2006


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