US COURT SAYS ATHEISM IS A RELIGION, HINDU SANATANISTS SAY HINDUISM IS NOT A RELIGION
(I-DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, USA, OCTOBER 2013)
Atheism can be defined as a religion thus: "A cause, principle or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith" or "scrupulous conformity; conscientiousness". To the followers of established Religions, religion means "a personal set of institutionalized system in the service and worship of God or the Supernatural".
I was attracted to a news column in The Tennessean titled “Atheism is considered as a Religion”. In a filing in federal court US Attorney John W. Vaudreuil says atheism is a Religion. His findings are: "Non-theistic beliefs, including atheism, may qualify as 'religious' beliefs; because they come under the definition of religion and fulfill a similar role in a personal life". Annie Laurel Gaylor of Freedom from Religion Foundation wants atheists to tell "We are not ministers. We have to tell the government the obvious--we are not church". Evidently she only wants no interference from the government in her thinking on established religion. Department of Justice says Buddhism and Taoism don't include a belief in God and are considered religions; the government's lawyers argue, so why not atheism? Buddhism does not believe in Supernatural power as we all know. Probably West does not know much about Jainism? The argument goes on for the First Amendment does give religious groups special privileges. Atheists do not want any interference by the secular government and want special privileges to be withdrawn. The arguments will continue till all tax-exemptions are removed.
If an English-educated youth belonging to Hinduism is asked what his religion is, he would reply that he belongs to Hindu Religion tutored by the Western historians. Go to a village and ask a farmer what his religion is. He will not be able to give a name to his following. He will simply say he is a follower of Siva or Vishnu or any of his chosen deity or say he does not believe in anything. The name “Hinduism” which is used now to denote our religion was unknown to our ancestors and is also unknown to the common man among us even today who is not influenced by English education or illiterate. In fact there is no equivalent word to religion with the definition above in Sanskrit or any other language. Translation varies from person to person. Bhargava dictionary struggles hard to translate the word Religion to Hindi. It goes to explain: a prevalent system of faith and worship; practice of sacred rites; recognition of God and duty towards Him; Eaaswarabhakti; Dharma; “Easwar ke prati manushyaka kartavy”. There is no native name to the religion followed by the people who are designated as belonging to Hinduism by others. We have been told by the British that we belong to Hindu Religion, a term used conveniently to divide and rule, rousing the sentiments. Only Dharma existed in the world ministering to the spiritual needs of mankind when we started our lives. There was no second religion from which it was required to be distinguished. We gave the concept of unknown as Tadekam from Rigveda, That One which Vedas later designated as Brahman.
Does Hinduism fall under the concept of religion today, it is hard to say! Hinduism has accepted Buddha as an Avatar. India has adopted Wheel of Dharma of Eight fold Path of duty of Buddhism as its national symbol, though Sankara severely attacked Buddhism for its Nehalism. India has its motto Satyameva jayate where Satya implies Parabrahman or Supreme principle, promoting Universal Oneness of Sanatana Dharma. Politically this is translated as Truth alone Triumphs. Though Indian Secular Government assures religious freedom like USA, it often interferes with Hindu religion particularly regulating Hindu temple administration through the missionary of Hindu Religious Endowment Boards interfering with religious freedom like the Tenth Amendment provisions. All said and done Western culture dominated Americans love religion, love Christianity. It's part of the fabric of life. So they allow freely missionaries abroad for spread of Christianity and conversion under freedom of religion and are not opposed to such missionary movements.
Sri Rama in Ramayan aAyodhykaanda CIX has to say the following on Atheism:
Nindaamyaham karma kritam pitustad yastvaamagrihnaad vishamasthabuddhim|
Buddhyaanayaivam-vidhayaa charantam d sunaastikam dharmapataadapetam || 33 ||
I denounce the action mentioned below, of my father, who picked up you as his councilor-priest, a staunch unbeliever, who has not only stayed away from the path of dharma but whose mind is set on a wrong path opposed to the Vedic path, nay who is moving about in this world with such an ideology conforming to the doctrine of Chaarvaaka, who believes only in the world of senses as has been set forth in your (Jaabaali’s) foregoing speech.
Yathaa hi choerah sa tathaa hi buddhas-tathaagatam naastikamatra viddhi |
Tasmaaddhi yah sakyatamah prajaanaam sa naastike naabhimukhoe Budhah syaat || 34 ||
It is well-known fact that follower of Buddha (condemning Vedas) deserves to be punished in the same way as a thief (inasmuch as a heretic robs people of their faith); and know an unbeliever, a follower of the Chaarvaaka or materialistic school of philosophy to be on a par with Buddha. Therefore who is most tame-able should undoubtedly be so punished in the interest of the people; in no other case should a wise man even stand face to face with an unbeliever but should shun him.
We are now said to be living in the dispensation of Bauddhaavataara mentioned in Ramayana, and we will do so, until the appearance of the Kalki incarnation. But the Vaishnava description of this Buddha is at variance with the historical accounts. In Bhagavata, we read this Buddha was born in Keekata country, as the son of Anjanaa, and that the purpose of his appearance was to delude and confound the enemies of gods. He is said to have been born at the commencement of the Kali age. Later texts have shown him as nude (digambara) and in an obscene posture as he is said to have taught the philosophy of lust and satisfaction to lure the Rakshasas (demons) into self-destruction. If this is true how Rama could have quoted him. What and whom to believe—Rama, Jayadeva, Vedanta Desika, Bhagavata or Indian Government and Hindus of present days?
There could be two different explanations for the Ramayana quote from Sri Rama. The four Yugas are cyclic in nature. Therefore Rama could be talking Kaiiyuga of the previous cycle. This again may not be right as Ramayana talks about Andhra, Pandiya Chola and Kerala Kingdoms. These are of recent origin and known to us. We do not find in Puraanas any other reference to kingdoms of modern days. Other possibility is Puraanas have been constantly meddled by authors of vested interest and changes have been made to suit their line of argument. Such discrepancies and explanations are available even on Vedas and Upanishads.
Atheism often interpreted as materialism often enjoys its freedom from time immemorial within the fold of Sanatana Dhrama and the later versions of Hinduism designated as a religion by Westerners. Hinduism is a more recent nomenclature given to a conglomeration of heterogeneous traditions and plurality of beliefs and worship with a long history of development from the sacrificial religion of Vedas through the worship of epic and Puraanic heroes and personal deities, cults and sects, as well as philosophical systems rather than to a monolithic structure or tradition or a structure based on a single system of beliefs and worship or a single text or scripture. So it neither comes under spiritual following of Sanatana Dharma or the definition of conventional religion. Some even call it as pagan and confused. Some in Kerala and Arya Samajists claim they are Sanatana Dharma followers within Hindu-fold.
Bhagavadgeeta draws its spiritual support from Sankhya philosophy which does not believe in Supreme Principle or Brahman and even venerates it as coming from the voice of Bhagawaan, Lord Krishna. Krishna was not opposed to Atheism if it did not violate Laws of Dharma. Rama strongly opposed and targets atheists as seen in Ayodhya Kanda of Ramayana which reads "atheists (nastikavadins) are fools who think they to be wise and who are experts in leading people to doom and ruin". Dasaratha’s council of priest-ministers headed by a religious authority, sage Vasishtha, included sage Jaabaaai, a materialist and atheist. Chaarvaaka philosophy of Atheism and Materialism was widely discussed within the folds of Hinduism. Buddhism teachings of non-violence and dharma and Ahimsa (non-violence) of Jainism are highly glorified in Hinduism. Buddha is accepted as an avatar knowingly or unknowingly by many though Hinduism has not gone out of the way to accommodate Buddha idols in Hindu Temples. It is strange it has not granted that status to Adinaatha ( Rishabha) who is also mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu in Bhagavatam and born with that name! Atheists do not claim as Christians in Western Culture. But atheists claim and enjoy the status of Hindus within Hinduism and are pampered in political circles. EVR, a registered Hindu and an atheist political leader of 20th century was the founder member of Dravida Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. He openly declared; "He is a fool who believes in God". He did not change his name on finding his atheist organization which later became a powerful political party, like Buddha the Enlightened, though christened with the Lord Rama’s name; so also many others. His statue proudly stands with this motto in the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.
Brihaspati, a heretical teacher, is regarded as the traditional founder of this school of thought. Unfortunately, his Sutras have perished. Charvaaaka was his direct disciple. Sometimes, Brihaspati is equated with the teacher of Gods (Devas) who cunningly propagated among the Asuras Materialism so that they may be ruined. Such a role was played by Vishnu also as Mohini favoring Devas keeping Amrita (divine nectar) from Asuras. Asuras are identified as Tamasic (ignorant, stubborn and dark side of society) in nature by Vedas while Devas are Saartvic (pure and noble).
Some of the important Sutras (aphorisms) of Brihaspati which are quoted in various philosophical writings may be gleaned as follows:
1) Earth, water, fire and air are the four elements. Ether is not an element because it is not perceived but inferred.
2) Bodies, senses and objects are the results of the different combinations of elements.
3) Consciousness arises from matter like the intoxicating quality of wine arising from fermented yeast. It is a particular combination of the elements which obtains only in the human body that produces consciousness and that therefore only living human body and consciousness are always associated together and nobody has seen consciousness apart from the human body.
4) The soul is nothing but the conscious body.
5) Matter secretes mind as lever secretes bile.
6) God is not necessary for the World and the values are a foolish aberration.
7) Enjoyment is the only end of human life.
8) Death alone is Liberation.
The Sarva-darsana Sangraha of Madhvacharya (Chapter 1) gives the following summary of the Chaarvaaka Philosophy:
“There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world; nor do the actions of four castes, orders etc. produce any real effect. The Agnihotra, three Vedas, the ascetics, three staves and smearing oneself with ashes, were made by Nature as the livelihood of these destitute of knowledge and manliness. If a beast is slain in Jyotishtoma rite, will it go to heaven? why then does not the performer of sacrifice forthwith offer his own father?...If beings in heaven are glorified by our offering the shraaddha (oblation to deceased parents) here, then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the house top? While life remains, let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs on debt; when once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return here?....all the ceremonies are a means of livelihood for Brahmins. The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves and demons”
Charvaaaka’s Materialism must have arisen as a protest against the excessive authority of the Brahmin priests striking at the very root of religion. The external ritualism which ignored the substance and emphasized the shadow, the idealism of the Upanishads unsuited to the commoners, the political and the social crisis rampant in that age, the exploitation of the masses by petty rulers, monks and wealthy class, the lust and greed and petty dissensions in an unstable society paved the way for Materialism in India in the post-Upanishad and Pre- Buddhist periods.
In this context Buddhism which is silent on God gained phenomenal growth threatening Hinduism to be extinct. Sankara then came strongly with his philosophy and missionary zeal of Advaita and averted the situation. Hinduism made Buddha as ninth avatar for image worship almost resembling historic Buddha icon thus confusing bot Hindus and Buddhists, Buddhism does not accept Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu but have copied Hinduism later and brought out their own series of Buddha avatars of 24 or 54 Buddhas in their Mahayana form of worship.
But the Materialism in Hindu philosophy has never been a force. Born in discontent it soon became almost extinct in serious thoughts though continued to prevail among the materially affluent. Though the materialistic way of life, the way of enjoying the pleasures of the senses and the flesh is as old as humanity itself and will surely last as long as humanity lasts, yet Materialism as metaphysics has never found favor with Indian Philosophers. Jainism and Buddhism arose immediately and supplied the ethical and spiritual background which ejected Materialism. They presented a middle path compared to religion on one hand and materialism on the other. We do not have with us the original Sutras of Brihaspati and therefore we have to be content with the comments of the critics of this philosophy which presents a very negative picture.
Siddharta later known as Gautama Buddha was born to Maayadevi and Shuddhodhana, the queen and king of Saankhya Dynasty of Kapilavastu. The philosophy based on his teachings is popularly known as Soonyavaada by Hindu philosophers. Gautama Buddha was accommodated as an Avatar of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism. The teachings of Buddha were oral and were recorded much later. His philosophy reflected Sankhya philosophy found in Bhagavadgeetaa and so it was easy for Hinduism to include him as an Avatar of Vishnu to kill the rapid growth of Buddhism which was converting Hindus in India. Westerners too feel the popular Buddhism Taoism and little known Jainism did not believe in Heavenly God and so atheistic in outlook but consider highly philosophical.
There is nothing in Hinduism as complex as the caste system. Caste system was based on division of labor in Hindu society to create harmonious and well balanced Hindu society. This has been adequately discussed in my earlier discourse on the subject. Some say that a fifth division of people emerged in Hindu Society over time and these people were known as outcastes. Outcastes, for obvious reasons, did not enjoy the same status as those belonging to the caste system. There is no evidence to prove that they were ill-treated or hated to start with. Much later during the decadent stage of the caste system, outcastes were treated as inferior and given the name untouchables. Outcastes continue to exist within the folds of Hindu Religion like the Atheists. Orthodoxy section of Hindu Religion equates them with Atheists as they violate established standards of Hindu Dharma. Mahatma Gandhi called them affectionately as Harijans, Folks of the Lord (Hari). Government of India abolished the practice of untouchability in 1949 and today they are well taken care of in government circles, but Hindu Society as such treats them as atheists. Seeing the encouragement given to this group of caste and benefits reaped Atheists may soon establish a sixth group of caste system with their sub-castes as has happened among outcastes.
Every caste man is expected to observe accurately the rules of his own group and to refrain from causing violence to the feelings of other groups concerning the rules. The essential duty of the member of the caste is to follow the custom of his group, of which diet and marriage occupy important considerations. Violation of the rule on those subjects, if detected, usually involves unpleasant and costly social expiation and may result in expulsion from the caste, which means social ruin and grave inconvenience.
It is almost impossible for a Hindu to regard himself otherwise than a member of some particular caste species of mankind. Everybody else who disregards Hindu Dharma is ‘Mlechcha’ no matter how exalted his worldly rank or how vast his wealth may be. The closest Sanskrit and vernacular term for a caste is ‘Jaati’ ‘species’ although the members of a Jaati are not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, as a matter of fact, they are rarely, if ever, so descended. Their special rules make their community in effect distinct species, whoever their ancestors may have been.
The untouchables or outcastes were originally those who had broken certain caste rules. For example, ‘Nayadis’, who were considered outcastes of the lowest order, were originally Brahmins who were ex-communicated by the society for some reason. Those who ate beef or the meat of certain proscribed animals came to be considered as outcastes or untouchables. The cow had come to be regarded akin to mother, the people being largely rural, having to depend on the cow’s products for sustenance. (That is why cow is given the reverence due to a mother in Hindu society to this day even by the meat eaters). The cow is a symbol of divine love and grace. With no thought of itself, but only love, like the Divine Mother, it produces milk which nourishes other creatures. Respect for the cow is meant to instill the virtue of gentleness and respect into the human mind. Hindus do not worship cows. The cow is a great symbol of cosmic beneficence. Any disrespect to cow is not tolerated by Hindu s Society, much worse the beef eating. It is rather intriguing that Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: “He who wishes a son……should have rice cooked with the meat of a young bull or the bull advanced in years and he and his wife should eat with clarified butter” (Maamsaudanam paachayitvaa ……aukshena vaarshabhena vaa). Here mention is made of a bull and not a cow. Probably Vedas had objection to the killing of cow, female species but not bull as killing of cow would mean ending the progeny, BAU 6—4—18). In Hindu shraaddha ceremony only Bull is branded and let loose.
There is no religious sanction whatsoever in Sanatana Dharma to the concept of untouchability, although later additions on the subject were inserted into the earlier scriptures to justify its existence. It was purely a social practice introduced by the upper castes to provide themselves with menial labor to perform certain tasks repulsive to themselves such as those of cemetery keepers, scavengers and cleaners.
As said earlier, asprisyata or untouchability was unknown during the Vedic days. It might have gradually started during the 8th century B.C. Certain vocations considered as unclean and a health hazard, committing of heinous crimes, people of certain countries whose ways of life radically differed from those of the people here, certain cults considered as heretical and hence dangerous—these seem to be the various reasons for the origin of untouchability over centuries. But even they were given enough scope for moral and spiritual development by exhorting them to follow the Saamaanya (general) Dharma as also the worship of forms of god like Vishnu or Bhairava. Work for their emancipation and spiritual uplift came from even the spiritual teachers of devotional schools, like Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Narayana Guru, Basaveswara, Saibaba and others. This has gone on for centuries, though the results achieved are not commensurate with the efforts put in. Even National leaders had limited success.
Hindu Society has much to answer for the inhuman treatment of a whole section of its own people, but the Sanatana Dharma or the so called Hindu Religion has nothing to do with it. Untouchability stands against all Hindus ideals and principles. It only helped conversions from Hinduism to other religions. In fact India is facing more problems from its own converted lot than outsiders. Hindu Migrants though have come out of the caste-inhibitions, leaving India still face color problems. The color of human skin is still dividing nations and communities throughout this world. One may wonder whether anybody who does not adopt the major religion of the Western society can ever rule the country though born and brought up amidst them and enjoys all privileges as a citizen! Thus caste system cannot be said as something unique to Hinduism, but is part and parcel of the human race.
The disciples of the great scholar, Adi Sankara, once asked a Chandala (outcaste) to move away from his path. ‘Who are you and who am I? Is the Self within me different from yours?’ questioned the Chandala (believed to be Siva in disguise). Sankara realizing the wisdom of Vedanta contained in these words, prostrated before the Chandala, saying, “One who is established in the Brahman, be he a low born Chandala or twice born Brahmin, verily I declare him my Guru”. We all know Sanyasis (recluses) are beyond caste considerations. Manu had no hesitation to accept knowledge even if it comes from a Chandaala as elaborated in his aphorisms. At present only way to escape caste prejudices is to rise to that spiritual heights. We have the examples of Narayana Guru of Kerala, Azhwars and Nayanmars of Tamil Nadu.
The fact remains, untouchability was in practice in low key even at the time of Sankara. It is also a fact even they were respected and venerated for their knowledge of Brahman, like some of the Azhwars. Thiruppaanaazhwar was an outcaste by birth. It is interesting to note that throughout India’s long history a large number of Hindu saints have come from castes other than the so called Brahmin designated castes of present days, including some from the so called untouchables.
The geographical isolation of interior India favored the evolution of distinct and peculiar social system. It can be reasonably presumed that Indus basin where Sanatana Dharma has its origin became the Holy land of Hinduism (Punyabhoomi). This is evident from the never tired singing of the praise of mighty Indus and its tributaries by rishis (sages). But Brahmins of interior India, at an early date, came to regard the basin of Indus beyond Sutlej as impure land. Orthodox Hindus are still unwilling to cross the Indus and the whole Punjab between the Indus River and Sutlej as unholy ground unfit for the residence of strict votaries of Hindu Religion. Those born outside the Holy land were known as “Mlecchas”. After Independence of India many Hindus have migrated and settled overseas and they and their families have foreign nationalities. So the word “mleccha” has lost its meaning and significance today except in protracted orthodox circles. Mlecchas are also equated with atheists by caste Hindus. Westerners also have a name equivalent to it—heathens.
Hinduism is Spiritual in thinking when it follows Sanatana Dharma but practices it as religion in its day-to-day life often resorting to materialistic approach in its temple and home worships. When convenient, uses it for political gains and popularity. USA and India being democratic say they are secular but have their hands in the activities of churches and temples. Atheism is tolerated within the religious fold and even encouraged at political level in India which claims to be secular and presumably guarantees religious freedom officially. At the same time it is encouraging caste system for political gains and there are more than sixty scheduled castes and tribes today who enjoy special privileges irrespective of their economic status. It is rather paradox that even among Harijans sub-caste system exists, being their-own creation. Recently a number of them have converted to Budhism and call themselves as Neo-Buddhists. May be USA and India both consider Atheism as a sort of religion and so feel it needs tolerance at National level and also provide concessions granted similar to religious institutions. Atheists are a powerful lobby in India and politically strong. Therefore they will equate themselves with religious groups for all privileges and as a minority community.
The controversy whether atheism is a religion or not will continue forever. Similarly whether Hinduism is a religion or not will continue till Hindus, with their politically ever expanding complex caste system, with political lip sympathy for outcastes and Harijans and with tolerance and even appreciation to religions with atheist thinking (Buddhism and Jainism) revert back to Universal Oneness preached and promoted by Vedas and Upanishads in the Vedic period popularly known as Sanatana Dharma. Nobody claimed caste status or earned out-caste status by birth then! Charvaaaka, Buddha and Jina were not shunned by society then, in fact patiently heard even by Vedic Scholars adopting whatever was good. To-day everything is measured by birth in a particular caste. Some Hindus today say they are followers of Saibaba but pride with their caste names and religious practices and orthodoxy! Instead of converting themselves to his philosophy they are converting him to a religious symbol and divinity and have even built temples. The outcaste group came into existence because of the discipline and respect religious heads enjoyed, when they could not give up their habits against established conduct of Dharma approach and liked to remain as separatists. Later it became a matter of birth considerations and dominance of the fittest to dictate the society what it feels as proper. While they are politically favored today in India within the Hindu fold indufold Hindufold there is no religious leader of vision today to elevate them spiritually to enjoy equal social status in the Hindu society. There had been periodic house cleaning in the authoritative Christian Society but they will never accept Atheism within their religious fold though this may be possible at secular political and judicial considerations. That way they are more conservative than Hindus.
Rama strongly condemns atheism but Dasaratha’s council of ministers included Jaabaali who is a proclaimed Naastik and also Bauddhavatara was accepted during the period. Hence followers of atheism enjoyed the same privileges as the religious followers. Indian Government recognizes Buddhism considered as Nastic by Hindu Orthodoxy and enjoys the privileges secularism and religious tolerance provisions under the law. Atheistic State governments are in power. Periyar started his political party with the slogan “Kadavulai nambuvavan madayan”—He is a fool who believes in god. Indian States are often ruled by Communist Party who do not believe in God. Only thing is it has not become an issue in court to say whether atheism is religion or not. In America it has come to court and declared as religion. Whether it is openly declared or not, it is a religion for all practical purposes enjoying all privileges as religion in secular states. Hinduism whether Sanatanists like it or not is declared as religion officially which everyone is forced to indicate in all official records as religion and many of the beliefs are recognized within the folds of Hinduism. As it stands today it can be called a confused religion without proper direction and a leader unless serious thoughts are given to go back to our Eternal Tradition and Universal Oneness which could solve many of our present day conflicts in the name of religion.
1. Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore Chennai, India
2. Ed, Viswanathan, Am I a Hindu? Rupa & Co., New Delhi, India.
3. Srinivasan, N.R., Complex Caste System of Hindus, Hindu Reflections, <nrsrini.blogspot.com>
4. Champaka Lakshmi & Usha Kris, The Hindu Temple, Roli Books, New Delhi, India
5. Sri Chandrasekharananda Saraswati, Aspects of our Religion. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.