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This is a paper on atheism In Indian Philosophy presented at an atheist conference in Ireland
by Doctor Koenraad Elst
(In Cork, Ireland, on 20-22 September 2013, the British Friedrich Nietzsche Society organized its regular conference, featuring the book Also Sprach Zarathustra and the relevance of Nietzsche in the Asian philosophies. I was due to read this paper there, was prevented from doing so by other pressing duties, but this is my text in hand-out form. A fully referenced paper with bibliography will appear shortly.)
Friedrich Nietzsche was not familiar with Indian philosophy (much less even with Chinese philosophy), though he was in a position to be fairly well-informed about Indian thought. This was a cornerstone of the Indo-European philology then animating German intellectuals and progressing fast under the hands of the Orientalists. G.W.F. Hegel already wrote a philosophical discussion of the Bhagavad Gītā in 1829. Even earlier, J.W. Goethe and Franz Schubert praised Kālidās’s play Śakuntalā. Arthur Schopenhauer practically built his philosophy on the precedent of the Upaniṣads, the “confidential teachings” of the Veda (“knowledge”) collections of hymns, and on Buddhism. So, through his knowledge of German philosophy, Nietzsche must have been exposed to some conclusions of Indian thought. But for his direct knowledge about it, he learned little from the discipline of Orientalism, then very much flourishing in the German speech community and certainly accessible to a professor of Classical Philology. Instead he relied on the theories of colourful amateurs like Louis Jacolliot. Nietzsche therefore didn’t know, or at any rate didn’t let on, that the godless philosophy which he tried to found, already existed in India. He also didn’t know that, centuries ago, this Indian atheism had ended up largely losing the battle against a revitalized theism. His Christian critics must take heart from this development, showing how history proves that religion is anchored in man’s nature: if you chase it away, it returns with a vengeance. This paper deals with what he missed, and how the Indian atheist schools of thought reflect several typical Nietzschean themes.
A practical matter: since this is a survey covering a lot of ground and addressing a non-Indologist audience, a few background facts have to be explained at the outset. Writing appeared in India ca. 300 BCE, after which a flood of writings come to our attention. It is a common mistake to date the ideas expressed therein to the last centuries BC. Some of them may be far older, but have appeared in writing only when that medium became available. A fact of Indian intellectual life is the towering position of the Veda (“knowledge”), four collections of hymns dating to beyond 1000 BC, and their ancillary literature. According to a now-common opinion, gradually developed as the memory of their composition receded, the Veda-s were divinely revealed at the beginning of time. In reality, the names of their composers are known, elements of their genealogy, historical facts such as battles and celestial configurations, and geographical data such as the names of mountains and rivers. They take the form of man addressing the gods – the reverse of the Ten Commandments or the Quran, where God addresses man. Either way, the Vedas dominate the intellectual landscape. The orally transmitted stories about human and divine history are collected in the Purāna-s (“antiquities”), a very large body of literature written down in the 1st millennium CE or even later. Though lip-service is paid to the Veda’s, the Purāṇa stories have far more influence on the life of the masses, together with the two epics, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, written down around the time of Christ but their core narratives much older. However, these stories have little relevance for our history of philosophical atheism.
A lot of Hindus boast that one can call oneself a Hindu and be other things besides, “even” an atheist. Thus, Vināyak Dāmodar Sāvarkar in his epoch-making book Hindutva (“Hinduness”, 1923), the manifesto of Hindu nationalism, writes that even an agnostic or an atheist can be a Hindu. And the current internet paper Centre Right India argues: “The Vedas in Hinduism are not absolute, and have been criticized by people who did not subscribe to their view, since time immemorial. This did not make the critics any less Hindu. Indeed, Hinduism is not alien to atheism, or agnostic schools of thought.” (Pulakesh Upadhyaya: “Atheism and Hindutva – Carvaka to Savarkar”, 3 July 2012) However, this view of matters only covers exceptions. The typical modern Hindu, of Nietzsche’s day as well as of our own, will use “atheist” as a swearword. His main religious practice consists in offering worship through a devotional ritual (pūjā) to a “chosen deity” (iṣṭa devatā).
A theme pioneeringly dealt with in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is “free death”, taking one’s own life. Sāvarkar himself was an atheist, he refused religious funeral rites, but in 1966 he chose to die by sallekhānā, i.e. fasting unto death, as is fairly common since time immemorial among Jain and other monks. Nietzsche probably didn’t realize that the “free death” he advocated was common not just among the pre-Christian Romans (advocated by Seneca) but was still alive as an ideal among Hindus, or at least among their religious personnel. Another committer of fasting unto death was Gandhian activist Vinobā Bhāve. On his deathbed in 1982, under popular applause, he received a visit from the Prime Minister Indīrā Gāndhī. But at the same time, secularists in the media were fulminating that he should be imprisoned and force-fed as he was “trespassing against the law of the land”. Strictly speaking this was true, as the British colonizers had enacted a law against suicide and euthanasia in the 19th century, which was still on the statute books. This law was inspired by the purely Christian principle that man is not the master of his own life and death, only God is. But the positive reaction of the people to Bhāve’s self-choice of his death showed the native sensibilities accurately: they were convinced that if certain conditions are met (for this should of course not be done lightly, e.g. out of youthful lovesickness), a free death is acceptable and even the best course of action.
Meanwhile, “Hindu atheism” is mostly bygone glory. Today’s Hindus use “atheist” as a swearword to designate the enemy or to make the difference between themselves and “godless Buddhism”. Yet, Hinduism has a powerful premodern tradition of atheism. It has been superseded by theist philosophies at least from the 9th century CE, and by 1500 it was not even a memory, as we shall explain.
On the one hand we have a number of schools deemed heterodox, i.e. not in awe of the Veda-s. Buddhism, famous for its doctrine that all is suffering caused by desire, and that the way out of this vale of tears is meditation upto the point of liberation, doesn’t altogether deny the existence of the Vedic gods. These are narratively used in the Buddhist canon to ask the Buddha, who has just reached Liberation, to teach his way to others. The Buddha advised both his monks and lay politicians that a community functions best if its religious traditions are upheld, e.g. its festivals and pilgrimages associated with the Vedic gods. His monks would later take the Vedic gods all the way to Japan and build temples for them there. However, the gods play no role whatsoever in the Buddha’s analysis of the human condition and method of remedy, neither in its moral nor in its meditative aspects. You as an individual have earned your merits and demerits and you yourself have to work them off and earn your liberation; no god or other being can do it in your stead. In 2005 there was a textbook controversy in Thailand, where the Buddhist clergy objected to the mentioning of God in schoolbooks, as this “illusion” had no place in Buddhism and had allegedly been smuggled in by the Christian missionaries.
However, from its early centuries there developed a devotional Buddhism in which prayers are said to the Buddha or a related entity in order to take away your demerits and your sorrows. Indian Buddhism was finished off ca. 1194 by the Islamic invaders, so it could not degenerate all the way, but in East Asia, varieties of the devotional “Pure Land Buddhism” attract the loyalty of most lay Buddhists.
Lokāyata, ”worldliness”, a sceptical yet ascetic sect, is popular among modern Marxists but despised by rivalling contemporaneous philosophers. This school was radically anti-religious and rejected the concepts of supernatural beings, eternal soul, life after death and reincarnation. Makkhali Gośāla, who preached contemporaneously with the Buddha, compared life, considered a source of endless suffering by the Buddhists, to a fish: alas, it has fishbones, but these can be discarded, and then we can enjoy the fish’s flesh. Similarly, life contains suffering, but this can be minimized and reasonably dealt with, and the rest can be a great source of joy. This outlook can be likened to Epicureanism.
Jainism is an ascetic tradition that upholds the “extremism” in ascetic practices which the Buddha as a moderate ended up rejecting. It has remained confined to India until the modern age, and to a few million adherents in the business class. The lay Jains chose this line of work because it does not entail any form of violence, the gravest sin in Jainism. This is a fully atheistic religion. It doesn’t believe in God (singular or plural) in any form. However, they do practice religion and worship in temples, but these are dedicated to human beings who have achieved the state of liberation.
On the other hand we have several philosophies deemed orthodox, which once were atheist in outlook. Later they disappeared or conformed to the rising wave of theism. The Vedic school of philosophy par excellence, the Mīmānsā, “hermeneutics”, focused on the interpretation of Vedic ritual. Though working in a context which was religious par excellence, it said that the gods invoked are but labels of components of the ritual, existing only by the mental effort of their worshippers. This school is regularly credited with being the first articulately atheist school in the world, certainly the first one which takes the human fact of religion into account but gives it a non-theistic explanation. After a high tide, it was eclipsed in the early second millennium.
The Sāmkhya (“enumeration”, viz. of the 25 substances which make up the cosmos) school ended up classified as “orthodox” but is in fact non-Vedic. The well-known philosopher Śaṅkara, really more of a Veda theologian than an autonomous thinker, criticized it for never referring to the Vedas. It must have been in existence for a long time, and Vedic literature also borrows from it. Well-known is the Sāṁkhya simile from the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (300 BCE?) that an unborn and three-coloured (black, red and white) woman waves goodbye to an unborn man who has had his pleasure with her but has had enough, and receives another unborn man who has his pleasure with her. The woman represents nature, wherein three qualities can be discerned, represented by the colours (more on these below). The men represent the different units of consciousness, or persons. Some persons have enjoyed nature long enough, lose their interest and seek liberation; other persons are still busy enjoying all that nature has to offer. The one nature and the many consciousness units form the two poles that make up the universe. The liberation of consciousness amounts to its separation from nature. Note that God plays no role whatsoever in this system. However, it lost its steam in the first millennium CE, and after a blip of revival in ca. 1400, it ceased being a living school.
Vaiśeṣika (“distinction-making”, “focused on particulars”) taught that the universe consists of a finite and unchangeable number of smallest particles, and these are eternal. The universe has never been created: either it is eternal or it has been created, but if so, it was created by an eternal uncreated being, which only shifts the burden of eternality to a purely supposed rather than an actual being. So we might as well assume the eternality of the universe. However, later this school united with the theistic Nyāya (“judgment”, logic) school and became theistic.
Uttara-Mīmāṁsā (“later hermeneutics”), better known as Vedānta (“final part of the Veda”), forms a deliberate continuation of the Upaniṣad-s (“confidential teaching”), the philosophical closing texts of the Veda-s. Unlike the Vedic hymns and the ancillary Brāhmaṇa-s (“priestly books”), concerned with ritual, the Upaniṣad-s deal with knowledge, i.e. knowledge of the Self (ātman), i.e. pure, unconditioned, impersonal consciousness. Their central doctrine is that the Self is fully the same as the Absolute (Brahman), like the drop is made of the same substance as the ocean. It follows that the unchanging and undying Absolute is nothing but consciousness. The different subschools of Vedānta will try to define the exact relationship between the Self and the Absolute. The best-known worldwide, and the most popular in the modern West, is Advaitā Vedānta (“non-dualistic Vedānta”), thought up by Śaṅkara in ca. 800 CE. This teaches the uncompromising unity of the Self and the Absolute. For Westerners tired of Christian dualism, this is welcomed as a relief. However, in real life, Śaṅkara also worshipped the gods, just as the Stoic philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius religiously observed his daily sacrifice routine after his philosophical meditations. Śaṅkara is venerated in India for his debating skills and for the institutions he founded, but his non-dualistic viewpoint has largely been forgotten. It is at any rate much less representative for Indian thought than his Western fans assume.
His simple and radical scheme was soon sidelined by the far more important dualistic (or nominally “qualified non-dualistic” and “difference-yet-no-difference”) schools of Vedānta. These schools, which elbowed out the remaining non-Vedānta viewpoints, effectively became the framework of the religious wave at the mass level, Bhakti (devotion). Among the gods of Hinduism, one was chosen, extolled and worshipped. In most Hindu temples, five gods are worshipped of whom one is central: Viṣṇu (“the all-pervader”), Śiva (“the benefactor”, actually an apotropaic euphemism for the storm-god Rudra, “the red/furious one”), Devī (“the goddess”), Gaṇeśa (“lord of groups”) and Sūrya (“the sun”). By contrast, Brahma (“increase”) as the personification of the Absolute is practically not worshipped. In devotional Hinduism, as theorized by the dualistic Vedānta philosophers, the situation is like in Christian mysticism: the supreme being is mostly conceived as a person and one can ascend to God but never unite with Him. One can contemplate Him but never be His equal.
This way, we have gotten modern Hinduism: a landscape studded with temples and idols, a shrine or separate room in the houses for devotional rituals (pūjā), and but very rarely an odd intellectual who stands aloof from the belief in a supernatural being. Atheism has been in the ascendant for some centuries, but that was two thousand years ago.
Buddhism describes Sāṁkhya as its own source, founded by the sage Kapila who gave the Buddha’s wandering ancestors a domain where they could build the settlement Kapilavastu (“Kapila’s habitation”), in which the future Buddha was to grow up. Patañjali’s Yoga (“discipline, control”), now reckoned as a separate philosophy, was anciently (and rightly) considered an application-oriented subschool of Sāṁkhya. Like Buddhism, it vaguely recognizes the existence of the gods (unless our understanding of the Sanskrit words is anachronistic) but gives them no place whatsoever in its analysis of the human problem nor in its proposed way out. Only in the modern age have theistic Hindus magnified the religious element in it and renamed it as Seśvara Sāṁkhya, i.e. Sāṁkhya-with-God. Even then, the relative absence of God contrasts conspicuously with the really theistic systems.
The monistic Vedānta philosophy, which won the day in Hinduism and is espoused by most sects in its theistic form (Bhakti, “devotion”), criticizes Sāṁkhya for not basing itself on the Veda-s, i.e. for being a real philosophy rather than a scripture-quoting theology. However, Vedic texts refer to some typical concepts of Sāṁkhya, which has its sources much earlier. Its dualism of consciousness vs. nature (reminiscent of thinking vs. extension, res cogitans vs. res extensa) is in fact an elaboration of the common-sense view, contrasting with the mystical attractiveness of the heady Vedānta view. In the latter, everything is the Absolute, so all is one -- gee, that’s cosmic! In Sāṁkhya, by contrast, the irreducible separateness of the different “persons” or units of consciousness is taken for granted. Your memories make you unique and separate from me with my memories, we are distinct persons, and there is no reason to remedy this condition.
Had Nietzsche known it sufficiently, he could have approved of Sāṁkhya’s atheism. It is reminiscent of his beloved pre-Socratic philosophies. The great Sāṁkhya classic, the Sāṁkhya-Kārikā (2nd century?) does not even mention a supreme being. In Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (“aphorisms on control”), some concessions are made to believers, but Yoga is defined purely technically as the silencing of the mind, not as a “union with God”. The late Sāṁkhya-Sutra (14th century), operating in a religious landscape that had become completely theistic, argues elaborately against the existence of God, and in favour of the eternality of the universe. But perhaps its relative pessimism about the world’s inherent suffering, radicalized in Buddhism (“all is suffering”), can be reckoned as un-Nietzschean.
Karma: beyond good and evil
A very prominent doctrine in Indian thought is that of reincarnation and karma. In the Vedic hymns (pre-1000 BC), the word karma still had its etymological meaning "do, make", whence "action, ritual". Therefrom, it came to connote “action at a distance”, viz. between the ritual and its intended fruits, e.g. restoration of health, victory on the battlefield, a woman saying yes etc. Even the Mīmāṁsā philosophers, sceptical of the involvement of any divine persons in the ritual, believed in the magical “action at a distance” of the Vedic rituals.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā (200 BC?), the word karma-mārga, “the way of ritual action”, still has this meaning (and not “doing your duty”, “ethical living” “the yoga of action in the daily life”, as is often said since Swami Vivekananda gave it this meaning in ca. 1895): it refers to Vedic ritual. There, it contrast with jñāna-mārga, “the way of knowledge”, developed in the Upaniṣads after and in reaction against the emphasis on ritual action in the Vedic period; and with bhakti-mārga, “the way of devotion”, chiefly devotion to the deified hero Kṛṣṇa, the proper and innovative message of the book, hugely influential in popular Hinduism. The way of knowledge is chiefly concerned with meditation, as the path to knowledge of the Self, i.e. pure consciousness, the object of most philosophies and the goal of most Hindu monks. The way of devotion means the religious practice maintained by the vast majority of Hindus, viz. worship of the gods, mainly one’s own “chosen deity”.
Meanwhile, without letting it give a new meaning to the term karma, the Gītā introduces the notion of reincarnation. It attaches no moral sense to rebirth yet, just like the reincarnation beliefs attested elsewhere, e.g. among the Levantine Druze and many Amerindians, but affirms that dying is like undressing before going to sleep and getting dressed again tomorrow. It is part of Kṛṣṇa’s exhortation to the hesitant hero Arjuna, that it is alright to do battle: you need not be afraid to die, nor have scruples to kill, because if you die or if your enemy dies, it is only a temporary phase while moving on to a next life. No specific link, moral or otherwise, between this life and the next is posited here. It is the naked theory of reincarnation that we find here, without the moralistic interpretative apparatus which later Hinduism and Buddhism have attached to it.
We should be careful not to amalgamate this doctrine too easily with Nietzsche’s “eternal return”. The reason for this eternal return is that the number of possible causes is finite while time is infinite, so that the chain of causes effecting the present state of affairs will necessarily repeat itself. Reincarnation is distantly akin, it may stem from a similar intuition, but any non-superficial comparison will find them different.
Then, “action at a distance” is reinterpreted and applied to the successive incarnations. The moralistic version, popular among the masses east of the Indus, including the East-Asian countries where Buddhism has spread it, views the contents of the next life as a reward or punishment for one’s acts in a previous life. Good and evil get a very prominent place here. Unlike Immanuel Kant’s notion of doing the good for its own sake, and virtue being its own reward, good and evil acts here get the power to determine one’s apparent “fate” in the next life. A secular view of life posits no link between one’s fate and the moral quality of one’s acts: even a saint can get robbed or killed. Here, by contrast, morality controls the universe, which is inherently moral.
However, there exists a more subtle version of the karma doctrine. When we die, the motive force that spurs us on to return to this world in a new body is desire. Our deeds and experiences have shaped a pattern of non-satisfaction due to preference and aversion, and this leads to seeking new chances to satisfy these. Therefore, if the desire is quelled, and neutrality takes the place of preferences and aversion, there is no motive force anymore that drives you to a new birth. That is how desire leads to rebirth, while the cessation of desire leads to liberation or nirvāṇa (“blowing out”). But outside the circle of ascetics, this more subtle version of the karma doctrine is little known. Note that this version is “beyond good and evil”.
Few people realize (and many Hindus will be startled if not angry to hear us assert it) that the karma doctrine is inherently linked with atheism, even in its vulgar moralistic version. Because the world is deemed inherently just, with a certain type of deeds automatically leading to a certain type of experiences, there is no need for a Father in heaven to dispense justice. In history, the most atheistic schools, especially Jainism, have had the most radical and uncompromising conception of karma. You are deemed stuck with your own karmic record, you have to work it off yourself and bear all the consequences yourself for any karma you incur further. No other being, whether human or divine, can relieve you of even the smallest quantity of karma. By contrast, in theistic Hinduism, lip-service is paid to the notion of karma, but in fact it is very watered down. People pray to a divine being for the diminution of karma, somewhat like Catholics can buy indulgences to be freed from so many years of purgatory.
The parable of the three stages
A detail worth analyzing is how the age-old Sāṁkhya cosmological scheme of triguṇa, “three qualities”, authentically fits the famous parable of Camel-Lion-Child. Like we have a yin/yang bipolarity in Chinese thought, we have a tripolarity in Indian thought. Every society of gods or men was deemed to be divided in three parts, having to do with order, action and sustenance: (1) sattva, “beingness, truth, goodness”, the pole of calm, clarity and order, symbolized by the daylight, the white colour and the majestic heavens; (2) rajas, “turbulence”, the pole of dynamism and passion, symbolized by the twilight, the red colour and the stormy atmosphere; (3) tamas, “darkness”, the pole of inertia, materiality, quantity and sustenance, symbolized by the night, the dark colours and the all-bearing earth. (To complicate matters and take the equivocity of symbolism into account, the twilight with its moderate temperature and sacral mood can also count as sattva, the daytime with its heat can also count as rajas.)
In society, the three poles correspond to three social functions and the classes performing them: (1) order and legitimacy are the province of judges, poets, priests and of the king in his sacral role as embodiment of a nation’s sovereignty; (2) action is the province of administrators and soldiers, and of the king in his role as commander-in-chief; (3) sustenance is the province of the farmers, craftsmen and other producing classes, of healthcare providers and entertainers, and of all members of society in so far as they partake in the process of fertility and multiplication. The scheme corresponds as follows with the Puranic divine trinity (trimūrti): the creator Brahma corresponds to the dawn, or rajas; the sustainer and solar deity Viṣṇu to the daylight, or sattva; the leveller and moon-god Śiva to the night, tamas.
In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, in the protagonist’s first sermon, he discusses the three transformations, the three phases of growth. Firstly, the human mind becomes a camel, slow and eager for heavy loads, obedient but strong, labouring and blindly following. This is evidently the pole tamas. Secondly, it becomes a lion, full of fury and passion, not obeying the “you should” commandment, but asserting his “I will” volition and his freedom. This is visibly the pole rajas. Finally, it becomes a child, light and innocent. This is the stage of transparency, of the third pole, sattva. This way, Nietzsche’s newfound simile actually corresponds to an age-old thought model, best articulated in Sāṁkhya.