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Atheism and Hinduism

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by Jayaram V

"Atheism is a necessary protest against the wickedness of the churches and the narrowness of the creeds. God uses it as stone to smash these soiled card-houses." - Sri Aurobindo

Of the numerous schools of thought that gained prominence during the epic period as a reaction against the excessive ritualism and empty dogmatism of vedic religion or perhaps the increasing rigidity of caste system, one school of thought attracts the attention of present day scholars not only for its radical approach to the problems of blind belief but also for its similarities with the modern day rationalism and materialism of the west. It was the lokayata school of thought, believed to have been founded by Charvaka, whose history is shrouded in great mystery and myth.

The world lokayata was used to refer to the person who believed in the reality of this world and the physical existence of man and of other beings on earth and nothing else. 'Loka' means the world and 'lokayata' means he who is centered around or relies upon this world only. The lokayatas believed in the existence of this world only, neither in heaven nor in hell, neither in vice nor virtue. They accepted only that reality which they could subjectively perceive and interact with, not in any imaginary world or some kind of ideal world. Practical and down to the earth, they believed in the existence of four elements only, namely the earth, water, fire, and air instead of the five elements of the vedic scriptures of which space or ether was the fifth element.

The Charvaka system of thought believed neither in God nor in the after life of man. Their doctrines are traced to an ancient scripture called the Charvaka Dharma probably written by an author of the name of Charvaka. Reference to the Charvakas or the Lokayatas was found in some ancient Hindu and Buddhist Scriptures such as the Prabhodha Chandrodaya, an allegorical play in which a character sums up the beliefs of this school, and also the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

One of the chief protagonists of this school existed during the time of the Buddha and his name was Ajita Kesakamabali. He recognized only four elements and declared that a combination of these four elements produced certain vitality called life, which is very much in tune with the modern theories of creation of life on earth. At the time of death these four elements would return to their respective sources, earth to earth, air to air and so on. There was no mystery of life beyond this. " When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death."

According to the Charvakas there was no soul. Death was the end of all existence. The body itself was Atman and enjoyment of this life in the bodily form should be the chief purpose of life. Whatever was within the field of perception was true and it alone existed. Anything beyond the senses was false, a mere illusion or self induced delusion. Inference by itself could not be the basis of truth and therefore it was invalid. We should not depend upon the experience of others to know the truth. We should not base our belief upon the teachings of others as long as they were not confirmed by our own personal experience. Subjective experience was therefore the basis of all truth and of ones conduct in this world.

The Charvakas did not accept the Vedas, nor the vedic rites prescribed by the Vedas. They contended that one should not practice these religious rites, whose results no one could verify with certainty. They did not believe in karma or the concept of sacrifice. What was the use of sacrificing something today, in the hope of getting some future benefit whose arrival was never certain? Earthly enjoyment was the highest ideal and it should not be sacrificed in the hope of some better after life.

Since matter was the only thing that was perceivable by the senses, matter alone was real. Intelligence was also a form of matter, like the body, because it was produced by the modification of the four elements and was destroyed the way the body was destroyed when these elements were dissolved. The physical self alone was real and the mind and the body were part of this physical self.

Two interpretations are given for the word Charvaka. According to one interpretation, the word 'char' means 'charming and alluring and the word 'vak' means speech. Probably the Charvakas were good orators and their words were instantly appealing to the audience as they appealed to the senses directly and required no blind faith to sustain themselves. According to another interpretation, the word 'charva' means grinding and chewing and the world 'Charvaka' means he who grinds both vice and virtue. The Charvakas are also known as Brihaspatayas because it is believed that Brihaspathi was the author of this doctrine. Another sect which was close to the lokayatas in their thinking was the sect of the kapalikas, who believed in the practice of sex and gory rituals to gain siddhis or spiritual powers. Probably the Charvaka school must have provided some background from which the later schools of Tantricism emerged both in Hinduism and Buddhism as a way of compromise between materialism and spiritualism.

The disbelief and atheism of ancient India is summed up in the following lines from the Savradarshana Samgraha.

"There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world,

Nor do the actions of the four castes, etc., produce any real effect.

The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing one's self with ashes,

Were made by Nature as the livelihood or those destitute of knowledge and manliness."

The Charvaka school of thinking had many draw backs. Its chief weakness was its excessive reliance upon subjective experience and upon sensory perceptions, as the basis of truth. These two are not perfect and reliable instruments of truth and they would not always guarantee complete wisdom. The Charvakas ignore the fundamental fact that our perceptions can be very misleading and that they are colored by our own prejudices, fears, anxieties, expectations, desires, thoughts and most important of all by our own ignorance. They also fail to explain the role of Nature, the rationale for good social conduct or the need for social harmony. The Charvakas provide very simplistic solutions to the complex problems of pain and suffering, and fall short of providing lasting solutions to the real problems of human life and society. In short they fail to explain such human needs and aspirations that are not purely physical or mental but spiritual, and the importance of such morals and social values in human life that distinguishes us from the world of the animals.

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