Beginnings of Indian Atheism

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Beginnings of Indian Atheism

Post  Guest on Thu Dec 13, 2012 8:05 pm

Of all the Upanisads, the Svetasvatara is the most theistic. All the requirements of theism, says M. Hiriyanna, in his 'Outlines of Indian Philosophy' (pg 83) are fulfilled in it. (Hiriyanna's book, incidentially, used to be a primer on Indian philosophy for those studying the subject formally.) Radhakrishnan (Principal Upanisads, pg 707) writes:"It is theistic in character and identifies the Supreme Brahman with Rudra, who is conceived as the material and efficient cause of the world, not only the author of the world but its protector and guide.

The elements associated with theism, personal God and devotion to HIM, which are to be met with undoubtedly in other Upanisads, become prominent in Svetasvatara Upanisad. The emphasis is not on Brahman, the Absolute, whose complete perfection does not admit of any change or evolution, but on the personal Isvara, omniscient and omnipotent, who is the manifested Brahman.

In order to satisfy the requirements of theism, Svetasvatara (the author of the text, who incidentially refers to himself in the text as svetasvataro'tha vidvan i.e. the wise sage Svetasvatara) finds it necessary to to reject a number of alernative suggestions which were evidently in circulation in his own time and which sought to undermine the theistic position by way of suggesting some material or non-material first cause of the world.From this point of view, the Svetasvatara Upanisad (Sv. Up.) shows that the struggle between theism and atheism in India is to be traced back at least to the pre-Budhist period in which this text is usually placed.The Sv. Up. opens with the question (i.1):

"What is the cause? [Is it] Brahman? Whence are we born? Whereby do we live? And on what are we established?"

For the author himself, there is of course one answer to all these, namely God or Isvara.

At the same time he was evidently aware that other thinkers of his time--or perhaps even before him--had other answers to suggest and at least some of these went flatly against theistic assumptions. Therefore, immediately after raising the questions (given above in bold), he passes on to enumerate the rival (anti-theistic or atheistic) views so as to discard them.

In following this procedure, Svetasvatara leaves an interesting picture of the intellectual atmosphere of his time--an atmosphere in which the atheistic or anti-theistic position is sought to be defended on a number of grounds. In Hume's translation of the Sv. Up., the alternatives given by Svetasvatara to theism are (Sv. Up. i.2):

"Time(kala), or inherent nature (svabhava), or necessity( niyati), or chance (yadrccha), or the elements (bhuta), or a [female] womb (yoni), or a [male] person (purusa) are to be considered [as the cause]."

Of the seven alternatives to theism given by Svetasvatara, what does he mean by yoni or female womb as the ultimate cause? Radhakrishnan (Principal Upanisads, pg 709) suggests that this is a reference to the ancient Sankhya view according to which prakriti or primieval matter, like the mother, gave birth to the universe. As he writes:"Yoni:the womb. Prakriti, which is the mother of all possibilities in the world."Sankhya philosophy is in fact enumerated in the Svetasvatara Upanisad, but a close reading of the relevant passages make it clear that Svetasvatara is in fact trying to refute the Sankhya in defence of his own theism. Hence, it is natural for Svetasvatara to mention the Sankhya in his list of rival positions on the issue of theism versus its anti-thesis.


Thus, in the Svetasvatara Upanisad, we come across seven ancient views that contest theism. These views conceive the first cause as:

1. Time
2. Nature
3. Fate
4. Chance
5. The Material Elements
6. Primieval Matter
7. Purusha or Male person

The grounds on which Svetasvatara wishes to refute all these is: (Sv. Up. i.2):"Not a combination of these, because of the existence of the soul. The soul certainly is powerless in respect of the cause of pleasure and pain."Radhakrishnan (Principal Upanisads, pgs 709-710) explains Svetasvatara's argument as follows: the unconscious cannot be the cause of the conscious. Hence the unconscioius principles like time, nature, fate, etc. cannot explain the existence of the conscious human being or the soul. Again, the conscious human being cannot be the ultimate cause, for he is not the determiner of his own destiny.In concluding his argument, Svetasvatar writes (Sv. Up. i.3):"Those who followed after meditation (dhyana) and abstraction (yoga) saw the self-power of God hidden in His own qualities. He is the One who rules over all these causes--from 'time' to the 'soul'.

This is how an early theist like Svesvatara argues. In discussing the beginnings of Indian atheism, what is of most interest is not the intrinsic worth of Svetasvatara's argument but the nature of the alternatives to atheism which he seeks to demolish. All the alternatives obviously did not have the same future in the history of Indian philosophy, but it is interesting to note that roughly in the 4th century A.D.--separated from the Svetasvatra Upanisad by about a thousand years--we have the medical treatise Susruta Samhita in which we have a similar list of the views concerning the ultimate cause, only one of hich is isvara-vada or the doctrine of God, and the rest clearly challenging it. From Susruta Samhita (sarirasthana i.11):

"The far-sighted ones consider [the first cause to be either of the following]: nature (svabhava), God (isvara), time (kala), chance (yadrccha), fate (niyati), and the modification of primieval matter (parinama of prakriti)."

In this list, two views occurring in Svetasvatara Upanisad are dropped by Susruta while instead of the archaic expression yoni Susruta refers to the Sankhya view by the characteretic terminology of later times, namely parinama of prakriti or modification of primieval matter.Of the views dropped by Susruta, the one considering purusa as first cause had perhaps lost importance during his time.

But what about bhutavada--the view of the material elements as the first cause? This is the view with which Charvaka materialists are identified with ,and yet Susruta is silent on this view, even though the view must have been in vogue during Susruta's time.The natural explaination is that while formulating the Sankhya view in its proper philosophical form, namely that the world came into being as a result of the transformation of the primieval matter, Susruta had found it embracing the doctrine of the bhutas (material elements) as well, and that he saw no substantial difference between the doctrine of the material elements and the doctrine of the prakriti or primieval matter. It seems that in medieval India, there was a definite tendency to look at the difference between the Charvaka and Sankhya views as negligible.

In his History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 3, pg 527, S.N. Dasgupta refers particularly to the Jaina philosopher Silanka as claiming that "there is but little difference between the Lokayata and the Sankhya." It must be remembered that Lokayata is the alternative name for the Charvaka philosophy. Further, Adi Sankar, in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra (also known as Vedanta Sutra) ii.9.2, makes the Sankhyas quote the authority of the Lokayata.


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