Hindu Atheism: Sankhya

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Hindu Atheism: Sankhya

Post  Guest on Sat Dec 15, 2012 1:04 am

There is a general misinterpretation as regards Hindu philosophy, (and for that matter Indian philosophy) to the effect that piety and belief in God are characterestic features of it; nothing could be further from the truth. The six major schools of Hindu philosophy are : Vedanta, Mimansa, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, and Yoga. Of these, the Mimansa, the Sankhya, and early Nyaya-Vaisesika are atheistic. [For the purpose of the present discussion, we are not taking into account the Budhist, Jain, and Lokayata/Charvaka schools of Indian philosophy which are all atheistic. With respect to Budhism, both the Mahayana and Hinayana schools are atheistic. With reference to the Budha himself, it is said that he maintained "The Noble Silence" when asked whether he believed in God's existence. Never the less, one of the earliest known biographies of the Budha--that of the Budhist Asvaghosa--ascribes atheistic arguments to the Budha. At any rate the philosophy of the Budha does not take into account the presence/existence of God at all.]

For the present discussion, let us focus on the Sankhya. According to several scholars (like Dandekar), it belongs to the pre-Vedic, pre-Aryan thought complex. It is certainly the oldest hindu philosophy that exists, and both the epics as well as the Puranas are fairly saturated with Sankhya terminology. The earliest book of the Sankhya was apparently the "Sasti Tantra". There are several references to this book in the later philosophical literature; unfortunately, this book has become extinct so far as we know. The earliest Sankhya book we know is the Sankhya Karika by Ishwarkrishna ascribed to around the 2nd century A.D. The other Sankhya book is the Sankhya Sutra(circa 15th or 16th century A.D.). Other good sources as regards the Sankhya is the Mahabharata, and also the Charaka Samhita.

The fundamental concepts in Sankhya are the two tenets of prakriti(also referred to as pradhana) by which is meant primeval/primordial matter and purusha by which is meant consciousness. In the Charaka Samhita version of Sankhya purusha is incorporated within prakriti; this makes the philosophy frankly materialistic. Ishwar Krishna's version in the Sankhya Karika assumes purusha and prakriti to be two distinct entities. There is a slight tendency in Ishwarkrishna to fill the idea of purusha with the Brahman of the Advaita Vedanta (According to Takakusu, Tibetan source texts inform us that Ishwarkrishna had distorted Sankhya to suit his personal views.); this tendency becomes more pronounced in the Sankhya Sutra so that a frankly materialistic philosophy now comes across as an idealistic/spiritualistic philosophy.

In the Mahabharat, three versions of the Sankhya are described. The version put into the mouth of Panchashikha is the materialistic version of the Sankhya (where the purusha is incorporated within the prakriti and springs from it). Now, Panchashikha--it is unanimously agreed--was a direct disciple of Asuri who was a direct disciple of Kapila; Kapila is regarded to be the founder of the Sankhya philosophy.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Sankhya is materialistic or idealistic, we must be clear about one point: even the Sankhya Karika and the Sankhya Sutra (which do not represent original Sankhya according to several scholars) are uncompromising with respect to their position on atheism. All the traditional commentaries on the Sankhya Sutra are by non-Sankhya adherents. The situation is a little better in the case of the Sankhya Karika because of the two commentaries available on it, one is by the renowned traditional scholar Vachaspati Mishra (circa 9th century A.D.) Both these two commentaries btw (the other one being by Gaudapada) describe the Sankhya as being an atheistic philosophy.

Vachaspati Mishra is perhaps the most versatile scholar of philosophy India has produced having written standard commentaries on every major system of hindu philosophy and having made insightful comments also (while discussing the hindu philosophies) on Budhist philosophy. The amazing and unique thing about Vachaspati Mishra is that he writes with something approaching total perspective; when writing on the Vedanta, he writes like a Vedantin and when writing on the Nyaya he writes like a Nyayika and so on. For this reason, he has been called "sarva tantra swatantra" (i.e. free from any bookish dogma). The following is Vachaspati Mishra's comments to verse 57 of the Sankhya Karika where he deals with Sankhya atheism. According to the verse, the evolution of the world takes place wihout the guidance of any conscious principle, just as milk moved within the cow for the nourishment of a calf without being guided by a conscious principle. Vachaspati's commentary to this, in his own words, (Vachaspati on Sankhya Karika 57) follows:

Even something unconscious is observed to act for serving some purpose. E.g., the unconscious milk flows for the nourishment of the calf... [The theist] may argue: "Even the flow of milk is due to the superintendence of God and thus our general principle [viz. everything is being guided by God] is not contradicted. But that is untenable.

Because [the concept of God is unacceptable for the following reasons]:Every conscious action is, without exception, determined either by an egoistic purpose or by kindness. Since these two motives are excluded in the case of the creation of the world, it becomes impossible to assume that the creation of the world was due to conscious action. For a God, whose wishes are all fulfilled, can have no personal interest whatever in the creation of the world. The possibility of any egoistic purpose consequently disappears. But neither can God have undertaken the creation from kindness; since before the act of creation the souls suffered no pain--the senses, bodies and objects not having come into existence yet--from what could the kindness of God wish to have the souls released?

If, on the other hand, we suppose that the kindness of God was shown later, when after the act of creation, He saw His creatures full of pain, we can hardly escape the argument in a circle: creation was the result of kindness and kindness the result of creation. Further, a God who is actuated by kindness would create only joyful creatures, but not creatures in different conditions. If to this someone objects that the difference results from the difference in that work for which individuals receive a reward from God, we reply that in that case the direction of the work on the part of the conscious, highest Being is entirely superfuous, for the effectiveness of the work performed by individuals [that is to say, the consequences of merit and guilt] fully explains itself without any supreme direction on the part of that God...On the contrary, that operation of unintelligent matter which we assume has no egoistic purpose behind it, nor is kindness its motive; consequently it cannot be substantiated as against our theory that the stated grounds of refutation apply to it as well.


Hence, two points which Vachaspati Mishra makes in articulating Sankhya atheism is:
1. The assumption of God is ontologically irrevelant.
2. It is also logically repulsive.

It should be noted that a few centuries after Vachaspati Mishra, Madhava in his famous Sarvadarsansangraha gives pretty much the same description of Sankhya atheism. Another point to note is that Sankhya atheism, as explained by Vachaspati Mishra, seems to follow from the Sankhya's acceptance of svabhava-vada. (See my blog http://sulekha.forumotion.com/t289-atheism-in-indian-philosophy for more on svabhava-vada).


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