The ancient links between atheism, Buddhism and Hinduism – Quartz India

A group of atheists and laity recently met in Southern California to talk about social and political issues. It was the first of three summits planned by the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington DC-based rights group.

To many, atheism – the lack of belief in one or more personal gods – may appear to be an entirely modern concept. After all, it would appear that these are the religious traditions that have dominated the world since the beginning of recorded history.

As a scholar of Asian religions, however, I am often struck by the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism – the idea that it is impossible to know if a god exists – in ancient Asian texts. Atheistic traditions have played an important role in Asian cultures for millennia.

Atheism in Buddhism, Jainism

While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion.

The Buddha himself rejected the idea of ​​a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.

Although Buddhism does not claim that gods do not exist, gods are considered totally irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.

A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence against all living things, non-attachment to material goods, and ascetic practice. While the Jains believe in an eternal soul, or jiva, who can be reborn, they do not believe in a divine creator.

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and although gods may exist, they must also be reborn, just like humans. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.

Other atheist philosophies

Around the same time that Buddhism and Jainism emerged in the 6th century BC, there was also an explicitly atheistic school of thought in India called the Carvaka School. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu writers describe the Carvakas as steadfast atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.

For the Carvakas, there was no afterlife, no soul outside the body, no gods, and no world other than this.

Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, also argued that gods did not exist, although its followers believed in a soul and rebirth.

The Ajivikas claimed that the fate of the soul was determined by fate alone, and not by a god, not even by free will. The Ajivikas taught that everything is made up of atoms, but these atoms move and combine with each other in predestined ways.

Like the Carvaka school, the Ajivika school is only known today through texts composed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly what the Ajivikas themselves thought.

According to Buddhist texts, the Ajivikas held that there was no distinction between good and evil and that there was no sin. The school may have existed around the same time as early Buddhism, in the 5th century BC.

Atheism in Hinduism

While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic schools of thought in Hinduism.

Unisa Religious Studies, CC BY-SA

There are many gods in Hinduism, but there are also atheistic beliefs.

The Samkhya School of Hindu Philosophy is an example. He believes that humans can achieve liberation of themselves by freeing their own minds from the realm of matter.

Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of ​​a creator God. Philosopher Mimamsa Kumarila once said that if a god created the world on his own in the beginning, how could anyone else confirm it? Kumarila further argued that if a merciful god had created the world, he could not have been as full of suffering as he is.

According to the 2011 census, there were approximately 2.9 million atheists in India. Atheism is still an important cultural force in India, as well as in other Asian countries influenced by Indian religions.

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