Ethnographic Evidence for Unbelief in Non-Western Cultures

Ibn Warraq

Unbelief in Indian Civilization

Ever since Alexander the Great and his men came into contact with her, India has figured in the Western imagination as a land of spirituality, gurus, mystics, and a thousand gods that adorn an even greater number of temples and shrines. Modern Indian thinkers have perpetuated the myth of Indian spirituality; for instance, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), an Indian philosopher and statesman who was the first vice president of India (1952–1962) and the second president of India (1962–1967), wrote, “Philosophy in India is essentially spiritual. … The spiritual motive dominates life in India. … While the dominant feature of Eastern thought is its insistence on creative intuition, the Western systems are generally characterized by a greater adherence to critical intelligence.” But there is a naturalistic and materialistic tradition that dates back to the beginnings of philosophy in India. And as Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya points out in his important work Indian Atheism, “The majority of the Indian philosophers, far from feeling happy with the idea of God as being the one great fact of life, were convinced that there was no such thing as God at all. As an important part of their philosophical activity, therefore, they were keen on proving this. That is, in their atheistic enterprise they actually relied on ‘critical intelligence’ instead of any ‘creative intuition.’” In fact, Indian philosophers produced what Chattopadhyaya calls “by far the richest of atheistic literature of the ancient and medieval world.”

The great Indologist A. L. Basham characterizes both Jainism and Buddhism as fundamentally atheistic. For the Jaina, the world is not created, maintained, or destroyed by a personal deity but functions only according to universal law. The universe is eternal and uncreated. While Buddhism in its later Mahāyanā form developed theistic and supernaturalistic tendencies, Jainism never compromised its atheism. Both religions arose in the sixth century BCE, with roots in even earlier traditions. Jainism, however, rejects the authority of the Vedas and the idea of a transcendent creator-god.

James Thrower, in his lucid summary of Indian atheism, describes the role of the great Jain teachers:

Whilst Jainism is fundamentally atheistic, the great Jain teachers, who are known as Tīrthaṃkara … and who are twenty-four in number … early became the focus, as the religion developed, of a temple cult. It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Tīrthaṃkara as gods analogous to the gods of the Hindu pantheon—despite the superficial resemblances between Jain and Hindu worship—for it follows from the Jain belief in the motionlessness of the liberated soul that the Tīrthaṃkara are beyond any kind of transaction with the rest of the universe. They are not, therefore, beings who exercise any sort of creative activity or who have the capacity or ability to intervene in answer to prayers.

Thrower ends by quoting the scholar Ninian Smart, who summed up the nature of Jainism thus: “The cult of Jainism still leaves its essential character unaffected—namely an atheistic system which allows the Indian gods place in the hierarchy of intra-cosmic heavens. Both Buddhism and Jainism transcend polytheism, by exalting above the gods the idea of liberation which has nothing to do with God or gods. Both can therefore be dubbed ‘transpolytheistic atheism.’”

Here is one example of Jain literature that criticizes the theistic teachings of the philosophy of Nyāya, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. It comes from a long poem in Sanskrit, the Great Legend (Mahāpurāṇa), composed by the Jain teacher Jinasena in the ninth century CE:

Some foolish men declare that 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?

No single being had the skill to make this world—

For how can an immaterial god create that which is material?

How could God have made this world without any raw material?

If you say that he made this first, and then the world

You are faced with an endless regression.

If you declare that this raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy,

For the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have arisen

quite naturally.

If God created the world by an act of his own will, without any raw material,

Then it is just his will and nothing else—and who will believe this silly nonsense.

The great collection of over a thousand hymns that is known as the Ṛg Veda is the most sacred of the numerous sacred texts of the Hindus. Its core text was probably composed between 1500–1200 BCE. These hymns show that even at this early period, doubt, questioning, and agnosticism were not unknown in India. In the latest phase of the Ṛg Veda, as Basham says, “poets began to wonder about creation. … This wonderful ‘Hymn of Creation,’ one of the oldest surviving records of philosophic doubt in the history of the world, marks the development of a high stage of abstract thinking, and it is the work of a very great poet, whose vision of the mysterious chaos before creation, and of mighty ineffable forces working in the depths of the primeval void, is portrayed with impressive economy of language:”

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.

There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.

What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?

Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

Then there was neither death nor immortality,

Nor was there then the torch of night and day.

The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.

There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness

All this was only unillumined water.

That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,

Arose at last, born of the power of heat.

In the beginning desire descended on it—

That was the primal seed, born of the mind.

The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom

Know that which is in kin to that which is not.

And they have stretched their cord across the void,

And know what was above, and what was below.

Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.

Below was strength, and over it was impulse.

But, after all who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,

He, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

He knows—or maybe even he does not know.

As Basham argues:

Other more heterodox teachers put forward naturalistic and atheistic cosmogonic theories. Some believed that the world began as water; others postulated fire, wind, or ether (ākāśa) as the ultimate basis of the universe. For some the universe was based neither on a deity nor even an impersonal entity but on a principle—fate (niyati), time (kāla), nature (svabhāva), or chance (saṃgati). It was suggested that the world developed not by the intervention of god or forces external to it, but by a process of internal evolution or “ripening” (pariṇāma). Some teachers, like the Buddha, taught that speculation on first causes was a futile waste of time. There were out-and-out pyrrhonists, denying the possibility of any certain knowledge at all, and materialists, who rejected the existence of the soul and all other immaterial entities, while some teachers proclaimed the world was made of eternal atoms. The intellectual life of India in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. was as vigorous and pullulating as the jungle after the rains.

Ajita Keśakambali was a contemporary of the Buddha and is considered the earliest known teacher of complete materialism. He said:

Man is formed of the four elements. When he dies earth returns to the aggregate of earth, water, fire to fire, and air to air, while his senses vanish into space. Four men with bier take up the corpse; they gossip [about the dead man] as far as the burning-ground, where his bones turn the colour of a dove’s wing and his sacrifices end in ashes. They are fools who preach almsgiving, and those who maintain the existence [of immaterial categories] speak vain and lying nonsense. When the body dies both the fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death.

Henceforth an element of materialism is to be found in Indian thought. Much of Hindu religious literature and philosophy is devoted to refuting the “evil tenets” of the Cārvākas or Lokāyatas, as the materialist schools were called. But as Basham reminds us, “materialist and irreligious undercurrents are traceable in some secular literature, such as the Arthaśāstra and the Kāmasūtra.”

The materialists, according to their opponents, taught that “all religious observance and morality were futile. A man should make the most of life and get what happiness he could out of it. The frugal virtues of Buddhism and Jainism were rejected.”

As long as he lives a man should live happily

And drink ghee, though he run into debt,

for when the body is turned to ashes

how can there be any return to life?

The Lokāyāta or Cārvāka school articulated a naturalistic tradition that challenged the dominant religious interpretation of life for a thousand years.

Professor Giuseppe Tucci (1894–1984), an Italian Orientalist, Indologist, and scholar of East Asian studies, made an extensive examination of all surviving references to this school and reconstructed its tenets as follows:

  1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
  2. There is no deity or supernatural.
  3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.
  4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.
  5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.
  6. Material elements have an immanent force.
  7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.
  8. Only direct perception gives true knowledge.
  9. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless.
  10. The aim of life is to get the maximum amount of pleasure.

Thus, this philosophy is evidently atheistic and naturalistic in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. The Lokāyāta or Cārvāka school is cited in the Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha, a fourteenth-century text from South India. As the translator, E. B. Cowell says, “The author successively passes in review the sixteen philosophical systems current in the fourteenth century in the South of India, and gives what appeared to him to be their most important tenets, and the principal arguments by which their followers endeavoured to maintain them.” The text attributes several quotes to Bṛhaspati, the legendary sage who first appears in the Vedic period. There is no heaven; all priests are mistaken and, in fact, are frauds:

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

Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, &c., 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 of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.

If a beast slain in the Jyotishṭoma rite will itself go to heaven,

Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?

If the Śráddha produces gratification to beings who are dead,

Then here, too, in the case of travellers when they start, it is needless to give provisions for the journey.

If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Śráddha here,

Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?

While life remains let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt;

When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?

If he who departs from the body goes to another world,

How is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?

Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here

All these ceremonies for the dead,—there is no other fruit anywhere.

The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.

All the well-known formulæ of the pandits, jarpharí, turpharí, &c.

And all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Aśwamedha,

These were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,

While the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.


Unbelief in Indian Civilization Ever since Alexander the Great and his men came into contact with her, India has figured in the Western imagination as a land of spirituality, gurus, mystics, and a thousand gods that adorn an even greater number of temples and shrines. Modern Indian thinkers have perpetuated the myth of Indian spirituality; …

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