Hindu atheism

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Hindu atheism or non-theism, which is known as Nirīśvaravāda (Sanskrit: निरीश्वरवाद, nir-īśvara-vāda, lit. "Disbelief in Ishvara") has been a historically propounded viewpoint in many of the Astika (Orthodox) streams of Hindu philosophy.[1] Hindu spiritual atheists or Non-theists who affirm Vedas and Brahman, as well as those who follow astika (orthodox) philosophies but reject personal god(s), are also called Dharmic atheist, Vedic Atheist or Sanatani atheist.[2] In current Indian languages, such as Hindi or Bengali, āstika and its derivatives usually mean 'theist', and nāstika and its derivatives denote an 'atheist'; however, the two terms in ancient- and medieval-era Sanskrit literature do not refer to 'theism' or 'atheism'.[3] In ancient India Astika means those who affirms vedas, atman and brahman while nastika by contrast, are those who deny all the respective definitions of āstika; they do not believe in the existence of Self or Ishvara (God) and rejects Vedas.[4] Sometimes nastika philosophies are also considered as a part of Hindu philosophy because the word 'Hindu' is actually an exonym and historically, the term has also been used as a geographical, cultural, and later religious identifier for people living in the Indian subcontinent.[5] Many Scholars consider the Nāstika philosophies (Indian 'Heterodox' Philosophies) like Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka as distinct schools of philosophies[6] while some others consider them as part of Hindu Philosophy.[7]

There are six major orthodox (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy — Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta. Among them, Samkhya, Yoga and Mimamsa, while not rejecting either the Vedas or Brahman,[8] typically reject a personal God, creator God, or a God with attributes.

Some schools of thought view the path of atheism as a valid one but difficult to follow in matters of spirituality.[9]


The Sanskrit term Āstika ("pious, believer") refers to the systems of thought which admit the validity of the Vedas.[10] Sanskrit asti means "there is", and Āstika (per Pāṇini 4.2.60) derives from the verb, meaning "one who says 'asti'". Technically, in Hindu philosophy the term Āstika refers only to acceptance of authority of Vedas, not belief in the existence of God.[11]

However, even when philosophers professed allegiance to the Vedas, their allegiance did little to fetter the freedom of their speculative ventures.[12] On the contrary, the acceptance of the authority of the Vedas was a convenient way for a philosopher's views to become acceptable to the orthodox, even if a thinker introduced a wholly new idea.[12] Thus, the Vedas could be cited to corroborate a wide diversity of views; they were used by the Vaisheshika thinkers (i.e., those who believe in ultimate particulars, both individual souls and atoms) as much as by the Advaita Vedanta philosophers.[12]

Historical development[edit]

The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, deals with significant skepticism around the fundamental question of a creator God and the creation of the universe. It does not, at many instances, categorically accept the existence of a creator God. Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) in the tenth chapter of the Rig Veda states:[13][14]

Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.

The Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Mundaka (in which Brahman is everything and "no-thing") and especially the Chandogya Upanishads have also been interpreted as atheistic because of their stress on the subjective self.[15]

Mimamsa was a realistic, pluralistic school of philosophy which was concerned with the exegesis of the Vedas.[16] The core text of the school was the Purva Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini (c. 200 BCE–200 CE). Mimamsa philosophers believed that the revelation of the Vedas was sacred, authorless (apaurusheyatva) and infallible, and that it was essential to preserve the sanctity of the Vedic ritual to maintain dharma (cosmic order).[17][18]: 52–53  As a consequence of the belief in sanctity of the ritual, Mimamsas rejected the notion of God in any form.[16] Later commentators of the Mimamsa sutras such as Prabhākara (c. 7th century CE) advanced arguments against the existence of God.[19][20] The early Mimamsa not only did not accept God but said that human action itself was enough to create the necessary circumstances for the enjoyment of its fruits.[21]

Samkhya is not fully atheistic[22] and strongly dualistic[23][24] orthodox (Astika) school of Indian Hindu philosophy. The earliest surviving authoritative text on classical Samkhya philosophy is the Samkhyakarika (c. 350–450 CE) of Iśvarakṛṣṇa.[18]: 63  The Samkhyakarika is silent on the issue of Isvara's existence or nonexistence, although first millennium commentators such as Gaudapada understand the text as compatible with some concept of God. However, the Samkhya Sutra (14th c. CE) and its commentaries explicitly attempt to disprove God's existence through reasoned argument.[25]

Arguments supporting Atheism in Hindu philosophy[edit]

Mimamsas argued that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a God to validate the rituals.[26] They further thought that the Gods named in the Vedas had no physical existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. In this regard, the power of the mantras was what was seen as the power of Gods.[27] Mimamsas reasoned that an incorporeal God could not author the Vedas, for he would not have the organs of speech to utter words. An embodied God could not author the Vedas either because such a God would be subject to the natural limitations of sensory knowledge and therefore, would not be able to produce supernatural revelations like the Vedas.[28]

Samkhya gave the following arguments against the idea of an eternal, self-caused, creator God:[25]

  • If the existence of karma is assumed, the proposition of God as a moral governor of the universe is unnecessary. For, if God enforces the consequences of actions then he can do so without karma. If however, he is assumed to be within the law of karma, then karma itself would be the giver of consequences and there would be no need of a God.
  • Even if karma is denied, God still cannot be the enforcer of consequences. Because the motives of an enforcer God would be either egoistic or altruistic. Now, God's motives cannot be assumed to be altruistic because an altruistic God would not create a world so full of suffering. If his motives are assumed to be egoistic, then God must be thought to have desire, as agency or authority cannot be established in the absence of desire. However, assuming that God has desire would contradict God's eternal freedom which necessitates no compulsion in actions. Moreover, desire, according to Samkhya, is an attribute of prakriti and cannot be thought to grow in God. The testimony of the Vedas, according to Samkhya, also confirms this notion.
  • Despite arguments to the contrary, if God is still assumed to contain unfulfilled desires, this would cause him to suffer pain and other similar human experiences. Such a worldly God would be no better than Samkhya's notion of higher self.
  • Furthermore, there is no proof of the existence of God. He is not the object of perception, there exists no general proposition that can prove him by inference and the testimony of the Vedas speak of prakriti as the origin of the world, not God.

Therefore, Samkhya maintained not only that the various cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments could not prove God, but that God as normally understood—an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator who is free from suffering—cannot exist.

The Indian Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen, in an interview with Pranab Bardhan for the California Magazine published in the July–August 2006 edition by the University of California, Berkeley states:[29]

In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religion-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than what exists in any other classical language. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philosopher, wrote this rather great book called Sarvadarshansamgraha, which discussed all the religious schools of thought within the Indian structure. The first chapter is "Atheism" – a very strong presentation of the argument in favor of atheism and materialism.

Arguments against Atheism in Hindu philosophy[edit]

Some Hindu scriptures condemn atheism, often outright stating that it is sin, and that people of good morals should not associate with or allow such people in their nations. They also often associating atheists with negative traits, such as uncleanliness, poisonous, and cruel.

The Ramayan associates atheists with imperfection and states that in the holy city of Ayodhya none could be found:

कामी वा न कदर्यो वा नृशंसः पुरुषः क्वचित्
द्रष्टुं शक्यमयोध्यायां नाविद्वान्न च नास्तिकः (वाल्मीकि रामायण, १-६-८)
None can see a lustful person, or a miser or a cruel one anywhere in that Ayodhya, along with nondescripts or non-believers, for there are no such persons
-Valmiki Ramayan (1.6.8)[30]

Lord Vishnu proclaims in the Vishnu Purāna that atheists will perish at his hand:

This deceptive vision shall wholly beguile the Daityas, so that, being led astray from the path of the Vedas, they may be put to death; for all gods, demons, or others, who shall be opposed to the authority of the Veda, shall perish by my might
—Vishnu Purana (3.17)[31]

The Brahmavaivarta Purana states that Hindus should not take the company of atheists:

The company of the non-believer should be left in the same way, as a person runs away in panic at the sight of a terrible snake
— Brahmavaivarta Purana (111.10)[32]

Notable Hindu atheists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daga, Mahesh (22 May 2004). "The Speaking Tree – The Atheistic Roots of Hindu Philosophy". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 11 February 2012.
  2. ^ "Hindu Atheist and their Arguments". Aminoapps.com. 9 February 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ Nicholson, Andrew J. (2013). Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. pp. Ch.9. ISBN 978-0231149877.
  4. ^ Nicholson, Andrew J. (2013). Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231149877.
  5. ^ Pennington, Brian K. (2005). Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion. ISBN 978-0-19-803729-3.
  6. ^ "Atheism in India". Quartz.com. 3 April 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. ^ "Heterodox Hinduism: Supreme Court does well to uphold plural, eclectic character of the faith". Times of India Blog. 21 December 2015. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  8. ^ Hari Ravikumar (27 August 2015). "Why Indian philosophy is incomplete without atheism". Daily O.
  9. ^ Chakravarti, Sitansu (1991). Hinduism, a way of life. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 71. ISBN 978-81-208-0899-7. According to Hinduism, the path of the atheist is a very difficult one to follow in matters of spirituality, though it is a valid one.
  10. ^ Pruthi (2004). Vedic civilization – Culture and civilization series. Discovery Publishing House. p. 214. ISBN 978-81-7141-875-6.
  11. ^ Kapoor, Subodh (December 2004). The Systems of Indian Philosophy. Genesis Publishing Pvt Ltd. p. 6. ISBN 978-81-7755-887-6.
  12. ^ a b c "Indian philosophy". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
  13. ^ Kramer, Kenneth (1986). World scriptures: an introduction to comparative religions. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8091-2781-8.
  14. ^ Subodh Varma (6 May 2011). "The gods came afterwards". The Times of India. Retrieved 9 June 2011.[dead link]
  15. ^ Bhatt, Chetan (1997). Liberation and purity: race, new religious movements and the ethics of postmodernity. Routledge. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-85728-424-9.
  16. ^ a b Vitsaxis, Vassilis (2009), Thought and Faith: The concept of divinity, Somerset Hall Press, pp. 517–518, ISBN 978-1-935244-05-9
  17. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (2007)
  18. ^ a b King, Richard (1999), Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-0954-3
  19. ^ Bales, Eugene F. (1987), A Ready Reference to Philosophy East and West, University Press of America, p. 198, ISBN 978-0-8191-6640-1
  20. ^ Warder, Anthony Kennedy (1998), A Course In Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, p. 187, ISBN 978-81-208-1244-4
  21. ^ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan; Poolla Tirupati Raju (1960). The concept of man: a study in comparative philosophy. Allen & Unwin. p. 305.
  22. ^ Dasgupta, Surendranath (1992). A history of Indian philosophy, Volume 1. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 258. ISBN 978-81-208-0412-8.
  23. ^ Michaels, Axel (2004), Hinduism: Past and Present, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 264, ISBN 0-691-08953-1
  24. ^ Sen Gupta, Anima (1986), The Evolution of the Samkhya School of Thought, New Delhi: South Asia Books, p. 6, ISBN 81-215-0019-2
  25. ^ a b Nicholson, Andrew J. (2016). "Hindu Disproofs of God: Refuting Vedāntic Theism in the Sāṃkhya Sūtra". In Ganeri, Jonardon (ed.). Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199314621.013.29. ISBN 978-0-19-931462-1.
  26. ^ Neville, Robert (January 2001). Religious truth. p. 51. ISBN 9780791447789.
  27. ^ Coward, Harold (7 February 2008). The perfectibility of human nature in eastern and western thought. p. 114. ISBN 9780791473368.
  28. ^ Cowell, E. B.; Gough, A. E. (2001), The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy: Trubner's Oriental Series, Taylor & Francis, pp. 189–191, ISBN 978-0-415-24517-3
  29. ^ "The Arguing Indian" California Magazine
  30. ^ "Valmiki Ramayan".
  31. ^ "Vishnu Purana".
  32. ^ "Brahmavaivarta Purana".
  33. ^ "Journal of Indian History". Journal of Indian History. Department of Modern Indian History: 270. 1996.
  34. ^ Kumar, Pramod (1992). Towards Understanding Communalism. Chandigarh: Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development. p. 348. ISBN 978-81-85835-17-4. OCLC 27810012. VD Savarkar was publicly an atheist. Even when he was the Hindu Mahasabha leader he used to publicly announce and advertise lectures on atheism, on why god is not there and why all religions are false. That is why when defining Hindutva, he said, Hindutva is not defined by religion and tried to define it in a non-religious term: Punyabhoomi.
  35. ^ Nandy, Ashis (2003). Time Warps: The Insistent Politics of Silent and Evasive Pasts. Delhi: Orient Longman. p. 71. ISBN 978-81-7824-071-8. OCLC 49616949.
  36. ^ Quack, Johannes (2011), Disenchanting India:Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, Oxford University Press, p. 263, ISBN 978-0-19-981260-8
  37. ^ BBC News
  38. ^ "Baroness Flather accused of 'bigotry' over her views on marriages in Pakistani community". 7 July 2015.
  39. ^ Collins, Lauren (29 November 2010). "Are you the Messiah?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 29 July 2012. Patel grew up a "God-fearing Hindu," but now calls himself an "atheist Hindu."

External links[edit]