Irreligion in India

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Atheism and agnosticism have a long history in India. Indian religions, like Buddhism, Jainism and some schools of Hinduism, consider atheism to be acceptable.[1][2] India has produced some notable atheist politicians and social reformers.[3]

According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism report, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were not religious, 3% were convinced atheists, and 3% were unsure or did not respond.[4]

History[edit]

Ancient India[edit]

Schools of Philosophy[edit]

In Hinduism, the religion of majority of Indians, atheism is considered to be a valid path to spirituality, as it can be argued that God can manifest in several forms with "no form" being one of them. But, the path is considered difficult to follow.[1] The belief in a personal creator God is not required in Jainism and Buddhism, both of which also originated in the Indian subcontinent. Atheistic schools are also found in Hinduism.[2]

Hindu philosophy is divided into schools (darśanam). These schools can be categorized as āstika (orthodox), schools which conforms to the Vedas, and nāstika (heterodox), schools reject the Vedas. The six schools, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Mimāṃsā, and Vedānta, are considered āstika schools. But, Cārvāka, Jainism and Buddhism are considered nāstika.[5]

Cārvāka[edit]
Main article: Cārvāka
There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world, Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce any real effect.

—from the Sarvadarśanasaṅ̇graha, attributed to Brhaspati[6][7]

The Cārvāka school originated in India around the 6th century BCE. It is classified as a nāstika school. It is noteworthy as evidence of a materialistic movement in ancient India.[8] Followers of this school only accepted pratyakşa (perception) as a valid pramāna (evidence). They considered other pramāna like sabda (testinomy), upamāna (analogy), and anumāna (inference) as unreliable.[9] Thus, existence of soul (ātman) and God were rejected, because they could not be proved by perception. They also considered everything to be made of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Cārvāka pursued elimination of physical pain and enjoyment of life. So, they can be considered hedonistic.[10] All of the original Cārvāka texts are considered lost.[11] A much quoted sūtra (Barhaspatya sutras) by Brhaspati, who is considered the founder of the school, is thought to be lost.[6] The Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa (8th century CE) and the Sarvadarśanasaṅ̇graha by Madhavacarya (14th century) are considered important secondary Cārvāka texts.[10]

Sāṃkhya[edit]
Main article: Sāṃkhya

Sāṃkhya is an āstika school, but has some atheistic elements. Sāṃkhya is a radically dualist philosophy.[12] They believed that the two ontological principles, puruṣa (consciousness) and prakriti (matter), to be the underlying foundation of the universe.[12][13] The objective of life is considered the achievement of separation of pure consciousness from matter (kaivalya).[12] The reasoning within this system led to Nir-isvara Sāṃkhya (Sāṃkhya without God) philosophy, which deemed the existence of God unnecessary.[14] There is the opposing reasoning which accepts God, it is called Sesvara Sankhya (Sāṃkhya with God).[15] Samkhya Karika (c. 350 BCE) is the earliest known systematic text of this philosophy.[12]

Mīmāṃsā[edit]
Main article: Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsā (meaning exegesis)[12] is also an astika school. They believed the Vedas to be author-less and self-authenticating. They didn't accept the Vedas to be composed by any ṛṣi (saint), they considered it to be not authored by anyone (apauruṣeya). They accepted the minor deities of the Vedas but resisted any notion of a Supreme Creator. They only concentrated on upholding the ṛta (order) by following the duties of the Vedas. The foundational text of this school is the Mīmāṃsā Sutra by Jaimini (c. 200 BCE - 200 CE).[12]

Buddhism and Jainism[edit]

Buddhism can be argued to be agnostic as there is no mention of God in it and neither Buddha ever met God. But, godhood can be attained by achieving Nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists may worship several of these Boddhisattvas along with the Buddha.[16] Jainism is based on the completely on the concept of karma. Jains believe that every soul in its purest form is equal to god, and they can be elevated to godhood.[17]

Philosophers and ancient texts[edit]

Ajita Kesakambali was a materialist philosopher. He is mentioned in the Samaññaphala Sutta. He rejected gods, afterlife and karma.[18] Payasi is a character, referred to as a prince, who appears in the Buddhist text Digha Nikaya in the Payasi Sutta. He didn't believe in rebirth or karma. He debated Kassapa, a disciple of Buddha and lost, and then converted to Buddhism.[19][20]

Jabali's speech from the Ramayana[edit]
See also: Jabali

In the Hindu epic Ramayana (Ayodhya Khanda), when Bharata goes to the forest to convince Rama to return home, he was accompanied by a sophist[21] called Jabali ("जाबालिः"). Jabali uses nihilistic[22] reasoning to convince Rama. He also said that rituals are a waste of food and scriptures were written by smart men so that people would give alms. But, Rama calls him a deviant from the path of dharma ("धर्मपथात्"), refuses to accept his "nastika" views and blame his own father for taking Jabali into service.[23] He also equates the Buddha to a thief.[23] On hearing Rama's retort, Jabali retracts his statements, saying that he was merely arguing like a nihilist.[22] However, these verses referring to the Buddha[24] are considered a later interpolation, as those verses use a different metre.[24][25]

The Carvaka incident in the Mahabharata[edit]

A character described as a Carvaka briefly appears in the Mahabharata (in the Shanti Parva). As Yudhisthira enters the city of Hastinapur, a brahmin, referred to as Carvaka, accuses him of killing his own kinsmen and says that he would suffer for it. The accuser is revealed to a rakshasa in disguise, who was a friend of Duryodhana. He had existed since the Krita Yuga virtue of a boon from the god Brahma, that he could only be killed when he is showing contempt towards brahmins. He was promptly killed by other brahmins by the chanting of sacred hymns and Yudhisthira was assured that his actions were the within the kshatriya code.[26] This event may be a possible denigration of the Carvaka philosophy.[27]

Medieval India[edit]

In the 9th century CE, Jain philosopher Jinasena wrote the Mahapurana. The book contains the following often quoted words,[28]

Some foolish men declare that a creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If god created the world, where was he before creation? If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?

This quote was also featured later in Carl Sagan's book, Cosmos.[29] In the 14th century, philosopher Madhavacarya wrote the Sarvadarśanasaṅ̇graha which is a compilation of all Indian philosophies, including Carvaka which is described in the first chapter.[7]

Modern India[edit]

19th century[edit]

Between 1882 and 1888, the Madras Secular Society published a magazine called The Thinker (Tattuvavivesini in Tamil) from Madras. The magazine carried articles written by anonymous writers and republished articles from the journal of the London Secular Society, which the Madras Secular Society considered itself affiliated to.[30]

20th century[edit]

Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (1879–1973) started his Self-respect movement in 1929. He was an atheist and criticised the caste system, religious rituals and superstitions.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), India's first Prime Minister was agnostic.[31] His wrote in his autobiography, Toward Freedom (1936), about his views on religion and superstition.[32]

Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (1902-1975), better known by his nickname "Gora", was a social reformer, anti-caste activist and atheist. He and his wife, Saraswathi Gora (1912-2007) who was also an atheist and social reformer, founded the Atheist Centre in 1940.[33] The Atheist Centre is an institute working for social change.[34] Gora expounded his philosophy of positive atheism as a way of life.[33] He later wrote more about positive atheism in his 1972 book, "Positive Atheism".[35] Gora also organized the first World Atheist Conference in 1972. Subsequently, the Atheist Centre has organised several World Atheist Conferences in Vijayawada and other locations.[34]

In 1997, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations was founded.[36]

21st century[edit]

In 2008, a group of young Indian atheists to set up Nirmukta, an organization dedicated to promoting science, free thought and secular humanism in India. Nirmukta means "freed" or "liberated" in Sanskrit.[37] It was founded as a website, but later became a national organization with regional groups in 8 major Indian cities as of 2012.[38]

In 2009, historian Meera Nanda published a book entitled the "The God Market". It examines how Hindu religiosity is gaining more popularity in the rising middle class, as India is liberalizing the economy and adopting globalization.[39]

In March 2009, in Kerala, a pastoral letter addressing the laity was issued by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council urging the members to not vote for political parties who advocate atheism.[40][41] In July 2010, another similar letter was issued.[42]

On 10 March 2012, Sanal Edamaruku investigated a so-called miracle in Vile Parle, where a Jesus statue had started weeping and concluded that the problem was caused by faulty drainage. Later that day, during a TV discussion with some church members, Edamaruku accused the Catholic Church of miracle-mongering. On 10 April, Angelo Fernandes, President of the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum, filed a police complaint against Edamaruku under the Indian Penal Code Section 295A.[43] In July while on a tour in Finland, Edamaruku was informed by a friend that his house was visited by the police. Since, the offence is not bailable, Edamaruku stayed in Finland.[44]

On Friday 7 July 2013, the first "Hug an Atheist Day" was organized in India by Nirmukta. The event aimed to spread awareness and reduce the stigma associated with being an atheist.[45][46]

On 20 August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, was shot dead by two unknown assailants, while he was out on a morning walk.[47]

On 29 October 2013, the Bombay High Court judged in favour of an atheist school teacher from Nashik.[48] Sanjay Salve had been employed by the state-funded Savitribai Phule Secondary School since 1996. In June 2007, during a prayer session, Salve didn't fold his hands during the pledge or prayer. The school management called this indiscipline and refused him a higher pay grade in 2008 when Salve became eligible for it. Salve sought legal recourse citing the Section 28 (a) of the Constitution which states "no person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution".[49][50] The court ruled in Salve's favour and directed the school to release his dues by 31 January 2013.[51]

Legal status, rights and laws[edit]

Atheism and irreligion are not officially recognized in India. Apostasy is allowed under the right to freedom of religion in the Constitution, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954 allows the marriage of people with no religious beliefs, as well as non-religious and non-ritualistic marriages. However, there are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are considered as belonging to the religion of their birth for administrative purposes.[38]

Hate speech laws and irreligion[edit]

Persecution and attacks[edit]

Narendra Nayak has claimed to have been attacked thrice and twice his scooter has been damaged, one of the attack left him with head injuries. This compelled him to take self-defence lessons and carry a nunchaku.[52] Megh Raj Mitter's house was surrounded a mob, after he debunked the Hindu milk miracle, forcing him to call the police.[53]

On 2 July 2011, the house of U. Kalanathan, secretary of the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham, was attacked in Vallikunnu after he suggested on television that the temple treasures of Padmanabhaswamy Temple should be used for public welfare.[54] On 20 August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, was assassinated.[47]

Demographics[edit]

Census[edit]

The Indian census does not explicitly count atheists.[3] The Indian census form has a question that asks respondents to disclose their religion and if it fell in the list of six major religions, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain, and then write a corresponding code. The Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation had asked enumerators to record "no religion" for the respondents who said so. Yet technically, only the coded answers in the Indian census form were tabulated as classifiable data. As a result, minor or tribal religions as well as atheists and agnostics were placed together in an unclassifiable category of "Others". In the 2001 Census, 0.1% (727,588 people) were reported as "Religion not stated" and 0.6% as "Others", with neither category logically accommodating atheists.[38]

Surveys[edit]

World Values Survey (2006)

According to the 2006 World Values Survey, conducted by the Dentsu Communication Institute Inc, Japan Research Center (2006), 6.6% of Indians stated that they had no religion.[55]

WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism

According to the 2005 Global Index of Religion and Atheism report from WIN-Gallup, 87% of Indians were religious and 4% called themselves atheists.[56] According to the 2012 report by the same organization, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were not religious, 3% were convinced atheists and 3% were unsure or did not respond.[4]

Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India (2007)

In 2007, a survey was conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture of the Trinity College with the help of Center for Inquiry (India) called Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India. 1100 scientists surveyed from 130 institutes. Most of them identified themselves as secular (59%) or somewhat secular (16%) but refused to be labelled irreligious. 83% defined secularism, as it appears in the Indian constitutions, as the separation of state and religion. But, 93% also defined it as tolerance of other religious philosophies. 20% equated secularism to atheism. Only 11% called themselves completely not spiritual. However, only 8% reportedly said they would refuse to do stem cell research based on religious or moral convictions.[57] Y. S. Rajan commented on this saying that most Indians don't feel there is a conflict between science and religion.[58] Other the hand, Innaiah Narisetti, chairman of Center for Inquiry (India) and Pushpa Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, pointed out the lack of scientific temper among Indian scientists.[59]

Rationalism and atheism by region[edit]

The Yukthivadi was the first atheist/rationalist magazine published in Malayalam.

Kerala[edit]

There is a sub-group of atheists in Kerala who are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There are others who support atheism because of rationalist ideals: these include supporters of the Indian Rationalist Association. The Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham is an organization that supports atheism and rationalism in the Malayali community throughout Kerala. The Yukthivadi was the first atheist/rationalist magazine published in Malayalam.

Some notable atheists from Kerala include Sahodaran Ayyappan, V. S. Achuthanandan, A.K. Antony, Sreeni Pattathanam, Abu Abraham, A. K. Gopalan, Mookencheril Cherian Joseph, Joseph Edamaruku, Sanal Edamaruku and others. Sanal Edamaruku is the founder-president of Rationalist International and the president of the Indian Rationalist Association.

Notable Indian rationalists, atheists and agnostics[edit]

Name Dates About References
A. K. Antony 1940- Former Defence Minister and former Chief Minister of Kerala [60]
John Abraham 1972- Actor "I consider myself a spiritual person but I don’t follow any particular religion. From the age of four, my father always told me that 'to be a good man, you don't need to go to a temple, church or a mosque. You just need to do good'. This is very true. So, while I believe in the presence of a supreme being, I am agnostic."[61]
Anurag Kashyap 1972- Director, Producer and Screenwriter "I am an atheist. Cinema is the only religion I believe in."[62]
Amartya Sen 1933- Economist and Nobel laureate "If you ask me whether I believe in god, my answer is No. But that does not compromise the profundity of my respect for the self-sacrifice of those who do so for the people as a result of their faith like Mother Teresa."[63]
Amol Palekar 1944- Bollywood and Marathi film actor "Personally, I am an atheist and have no faith or belief in supernatural forces."[64]
Ajita Kesakambali 6th century BCE Ancient Indian materialist philosopher "Fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are off, annihilated, and after death they are not."[65]
Ashok Vajpeyi 1941- Hindi poet and recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award "I am a non-believer; I don’t have the gift of belief. But I read the two epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) as great literary epics. I am not concerned with the divinity of it, and there are many others who aren’t either."[66]
Baba Amte 1914-2008 Social activist [67]
Baichung Bhutia 1976- Football player "I am neither religious nor spiritual. But my being an atheist is more a matter of chance. I have been away from my family ever since I was a child and never really got a chance to imbibe the religious values of my parents. Usually, it is the family that teaches a child about religion."[68]
Bhagat Singh 1907-1931 A well-known figure in the Indian independence movement "As regard the origin of God, my thought is that man created God in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings."[69]
C. P. Joshi 1950- Former minister of Road Transport and Highways and former Railway Minister [60]
E. M. S. Namboodiripad 1909-1998 First Chief Minister of Kerala [60]
E. K. Nayanar 1918-2004 Former Chief Minister of Kerala [60]
Goparaju Ramachandra Rao 1902-1975 Atheist activist, participant in the Indian independence movement and founder of Atheist Centre "Religious belief prevented the growth of a sense of realism. But atheism at once makes man realistic and alive to the needs of morality."[70]
Har Dayal 1884-1939 Indian nationalist revolutionary, polymath and founder of the Ghadar Party "If God loves virtue, why has he not made Man wholly virtuous?"[71]
Innaiah Narisetti 1937- Journalist, translator, president of Center for Inquiry, India and author of the book "Forced into Faith" "Scientific temper demands proof and evidence. The god proposition came from religious persons. The burden of proof lies with the proposer."[72]
Irfan Habib 1931- Marxist historian "No. I have not found any reasonable argument for the existence of any supernatural power. I came to this conscious realisation in my student days in the late 1940s, through the influence of Marxist literature."[73]
J. B. S. Haldane 1892-1964 British born biologist who took Indian citizenship "My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world."[74]
Jagadish Shettar 1955- Bharatiya Janata Party politician, 21st Chief Minister of Karnataka [75]
James Michael Lyngdoh 1939- Former Chief Election Commissioner of India "I have no religion, I am an atheist.”[76]
Javed Akhtar 1945- Poet, lyricist and scriptwriter "Religion is based on faith - you aren't allowed to question or discuss it, and there is no logic or reason behind it. What is the difference between faith and stupidity?"[77]
Jawaharlal Nehru 1889-1964 First Prime Minister of India "What the mysterious is I do not know. I do not call it God because God has come to mean much that I do not believe in."[31]
Jyoti Basu 1914-2010 Former Chief Minister of West Bengal [78]
K. Siddaramaiah 1948- Current Chief Minister of Karnataka [60]
K. Shivaram Karanth 1902-1997 Jnanpith awardee Kannada novelist, considered himself a nontheist [79]
Kamal Haasan 1954- Filmmaker and actor, known for making films having themes of both atheism and Brahminical Hinduism. "Every religion has a podium, atheists do not have one. My films are my podium."[80]
Khushwant Singh 1915- Journalist and author of books such as Train to Pakistan, considers himself an agnostic "I gave up religion nearly 40 years ago. I studied religion and realised it is all trash."[81]
Lavanam Gora 1930- Social reformer "To be good and to do good, God is not necessary."[82]
M. Karunanidhi 1924- Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu [83][84][85]
M. N. Roy 1887-1954 Indian nationalist revolutionary, radical activist and political theorist [86]
Mani Shankar Aiyar 1941- Diplomat and politician "I am an atheist. A somewhat reluctant one because I have seen the comfort that religious conviction brings to many."[87]
Meera Nanda 19??- Writer and historian [88]
Meghnad Saha 1893-1956 Astrophysicist [89]
Motilal Nehru 1861-1931 an activist of the Indian National Movement, father of Jawaharlal Nehru [90]
Narendra Dabholkar 1945-2013 Rationalist, anti-superstition activist, founder and president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti [47]
Narendra Nayak 1951- President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations [91]
P. Chidambaram 1945- Politician and current Finance Minister [60]
Dr. P. M. Bhargava 19??- Biotechnologist and founder of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology "A scientist can say without any feeling of guilt or shame, "I don’t know." Religious leaders would not be leaders if they did not claim to know everything and have answers to every question."[92]
Payasi c. 4th century BCE Materialist philosopher "Neither is there any other world, nor are there beings reborn otherwise than from parents, nor is there fruit or results of deeds, well done or ill done."[20]
Periyar E. V. Ramasamy 1879-1973 Businessman, politician, Indian independence and social activist, started the Self respect movement and founder of the socio-cultural organisation, Dravidar Kazhagam. "There is no god, there is no god, there is no god at all. He who invented god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian."[93]
Prabir Ghosh 1946- President of Science and Rationalists' Association Of India [36][94]
R. P. Paranjpe 1876-1966 Founding president of Indian Rationalist Association, and later High Commissioner of India in Australia and vice-chancellor of Bombay University [95][96]
Rajat Kapoor 1961- Actor, writer and director "I think God is a totally man-made concept that has been more harmful than beneficial to mankind. Man has waged war and hurt and killed each other for thousands of years in the name of a God he created. I believe there is no God, no heaven and no hell."[97]
Rajeev Khandelwal 1975- Actor "I love to call myself an atheist. By atheist, I don't mean i would stand up and start delivering speeches on the non-existence of God. I am the kind of person who doesn't like wasting time on visiting religious places or performing rituals."[98]
Rahul Bose 1967- Actor "I am an atheist, but being so doesn't stop me from respecting those who believe in religion."[99]
Ram Gopal Varma 1962- Film director "I have always been an atheist ever since I can remember. Being an atheist, I believe there is a rational and scientific explanation to everything."[100]
Ram Manohar Lohia 1910-1967 participant in the Indian independence movement [60]
S. Nijalingappa 1902- Former Chief Minister of Karnataka [60]
Sadanand Dhume Journalist and writer [101]
Salman Rushdie 1947- Indian-born British Booker prize-winning novelist and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II "I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in."[102]
Sathyaraj 1954- Actor [103]
Satish Gujral 1925 Painter, writer and recipient of Padma Vibhushan award [104]
Satyajit Ray 1921-1991 Filmmaker and author [105]
Sreeni Pattathanam 19??- Rationalist and atheist activist [3]
Shriram Lagoo 1927- Actor and rationalist activist "Believing existence of the God is itself a kind of superstition. Young people should not waste power of reasoning and thinking under such belief."[106]
Siddaramaiah 1948- Chief Minister of Karnataka (elected in 2013) "I have not totally rejected God, I do visit temples but I have not made it a habit. My conscience is God to me. I believe in truth. I believe in the power of people. I don’t believe in superstition."[107]
Sitaram Yechury 1952- Member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [108]
Subhash Kapoor 19??- Film director, producer and screenwriter [109]
Subhashini Ali 19??- Politician, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and President of the All India Democratic Women's Association "I have always been an atheist. My parents were atheists. It doesn't bother me if somebody is religious. My problem is when religion is used to institutionalise other things."[110]
Subramanyan Chandrasekhar 1910-1995 Indian-American astrophysicist who, with William A. Fowler, won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics [111]
Suhasini Maniratnam 1961- Actress "I don't believe in God, in prayer, in going to temples begging God to give me and my family happiness. I am not asking everyone to be an atheist, but good thoughts are not spent in a temple."[112]
Sushilkumar Shinde 1941- Former Union Home Minister [60]
Teesta Setalvad 1962- Civil rights activist and journalist "I'm agnostic. You can insult a man's wife, his mother, and get away with it. But you can't insult his God without repercussions."[113]
Thilakan 1935-2012 Malayalam film actor “As an atheist, I feel I am better off than the believers. At least I act and speak according to my conscience.”[114][115]
V. S. Achuthanandan 1923- Former Chief Minister of Kerala [60]
Verghese Kurien 1921-2012 Father of the White Revolution [116]
Vijay Tendulkar 1928-2008 Marathi writer and dramatist [117]
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar 1883-1966 President of Hindu Mahasabha and the founder of the Hindutva movement, was also a Hindu atheist. [118][119]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]