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India: Atheism is as much a right as the right to religion

Thursday 15 December 2016, by siawi3


by Harbans Mukhia,

8 December 2016

In major philosophical systems, there was incessant argument whether the world had an eternal existence or had been created at one time or another.

The recent event in Mathura, where an old swami-turned-atheist, Balendu Swami, wished to organise a private conclave for discussion of his (un)belief was manhandled because he had hurt the religious sentiments of the believers, both Hindu and Muslim, is, apart from being a violation of one’s constitutional rights, also brings to the fore the very long history and persistence of atheism in human civilisation. Chinese civilisation has done without god for much of its durable life, although it has evolved the notion of Heaven. Indeed, the Catholic missionaries who arrived in China from Europe had to translate god as the Lord of Heaven. Several Greek philosophers from the sixth century BCE were self-proclaimed atheists. In the world of Islam, if the existence of god was not denied, some prominent philosophers like al-Razi questioned the legitimacy of prophethood in general, including that of Muhammad and even the divinity of the Quranic verses. In the Hindu realm, only the Vedanta, especially the later version of Nyaya-Vaisesika, were theistic; by contrast Buddhism, Jainism, Purva-Mimansa, Samkhya, Lokayata and the original Nyaya-Vaisesika were philosophies of committed atheism, to cite from late Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s book Indian Atheism.

In major philosophical systems, there was incessant argument whether the world had an eternal existence or had been created at one time or another. In the first case, nature had so evolved through its own internal dynamism as to form the planets, the earth, the stars, the universe with no intervention from an extraneous source. In the second, a Creator was envisaged who created the universe of his (sic!) own will and gave it a functional, regulatory order. The need for a Creator stands on the weakest ground, for if the universe could not come into existence without the helping hand of a Creator, then logically the Creator would also have been created. The materialists in the Hindu pantheon of philosophy like the Charvakas argued that it is the interaction of various matters which resulted in the creation of a phenomenon which is different from all its individual constituents. The examples they gave were two, among several: no individual ingredient of pan (betel) is capable of yielding the red colour on one’s lips; the colour emerges from the mixture of all elements of the pan. Similarly, no ingredient of liquor can produce intoxication by itself; it is the process of mixture of all the elements that creates the effect. The universe was similarly formed as various gases interacted and consolidated over hundreds of millennia and it became self-regulating. Did we hear the early echoes of the Big Bang here?

Even as the issues were widely disputed and discussed among theists and atheists and within each group, a major social transformation had occurred around two millennia ago. While the ancient societies everywhere were marked by multiplicity of beliefs as well as unbeliefs, hosting polytheistic, pantheistic, animist, anthropomorphic, naturalist forms of deities and beliefs as well as denial of beliefs, thus creating a wide spectrum with ample space for all, the assertion of a single truth in the monotheistic representation of god completely changed the scenario. The intervention of a monotheistic god with Christianity altered the very terms of debate as it were. Judaism too is monotheistic, for sure, but unlike Christianity, it is not a proselytising religion even as voluntary conversion to it by individuals under some strict conditions is permissible. As a proselytising religion, Christianity laid claims to monopoly of the singularity of truth revealed to humanity through Jesus, son of god. Implicit in it was also the falsity of all other faiths, an inevitable and irreconcilable conflict with them and its own ultimate universal triumph. This premise was later inherited by Islam with the same characteristics. Interestingly, these are also integral to the inveterate adversary of all religions, i.e. Marxism. Conflict with others and victory over them is inescapable in the claims over the monopoly of the single truth. It is thus that the whole of humanity must turn Christian, Muslim or socialist, depending on one’s partiality. A major agency in the enforcement of the singularity of truth has been State power. However, history has led humanity even within the respective spheres in different directions. Diversity and plurality have asserted themselves incessantly through the established and enforced prisms. Today, acceptance of plurality in lieu of singularity of vision is the norm.

It is therefore imperative that we in India all the more cherish and celebrate plurality, whether of faiths or cultures or assertion of absence of faith in god or religion. That is the essence of true Indian-ness, which has for ages upheld the right of freedom of thought without postulating the triumph of one opinion over another, one single truth over all others. This is also the premise of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of civil rights. Denial of this freedom is the very anti-thesis of the great legacy of Indian civilisation. But then, this denial is being premised on the assertion of one truth as the single Truth, which is backed by the political dispensation that ironically seeks legitimacy in upholding ancient values!

Harbans Mukhia is former professor of history, JNU