Saturday, June 04, 2005

Being a Hindu and an atheist

As a post script to a post on Advani and the Babri Masjid demolition, Amit Varma had this to say about himself:

    By "Hindu", I mean Hindu by birth. I am an atheist by practice. Actually, um, how does one practise atheism?
It's natural to ask a related question: how does one practise Hinduism? One easily sees that there are no rules at all. There's no holy book. Different Hindus may believe in different gods, some Hindus may not believe in any god. There are no uniform rituals. If you go by the Hindu tradition, atheism is as much a part of Hinduism as theism is. Prominent Hindu philosophical systems cover a wide spectrum, from Vedanta with a mystic and ritualistic base to Lokayata (or Carvakism) which is rationalistic and somewhat hedonistic in nature. Live merrily as long as you can(*), the Carvakas say. Carvakas were anti-ritualistic to the extreme. One quote says:

    If a beast slain in the Jyothishtoma rite will itself go to heaven,
    Why then does not the sacrificer (yajamana) forthwith offer his own father?
See this post on Kamat's Potpourri, and this Wiki entry for more details on Indian materialism.

Hinduism is very loosely defined, or perhaps it's something that cannot be defined. I guess one is a Hindu as long as one says that one is not! I can be a Hindu today, a non-Hindu tomorrow, and a Hindu again the day after, eating beef today, being a vegetarian tomorrow, and indulging in blasphemy the day after.

Update (June 6): Vishnu has an excellent post on similar issues: Am I a Hindu?

(*) Here's the actual shloka:

    Live merrily as long as you can. Drink ghee and even a debtor be! When this body is reduced to ashes, where is rebirth?.


At 8:46 AM, Blogger Rajagopal said...

"I guess one is a Hindu as long as one says that one is not!".

I guess that is the answer to Mani Shankar Aiyar(Best Indian Ever - BIE) when he criticises Advani for saying (I don't if Advani said this, but BIE claims he did) "In India Muslims are Hindu-Muslims, Christians are Hindu-Christians.." or something to that effect.

I've had a few Americans ask me about Hinduism (as they probably did to many Indian grad students over there). I gave answers pretty much like yours, without going into Vedanta. Carvakasism sounds like the most fun kind of theology ever and the one libertarians are most likely to follow.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Mr.Columnist said...

Nice write-up.
Hinduism is not a religion,its a way of life...
>>> "I guess one is a Hindu as long as one says that one is not!".
Simple Answer.I say I am not a Hindu and now please see what my religion is...(I think that was the essence of Anand's article)

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Rajagopal -- Many Muslims and Christians would be willing to say that they are not Hindus, and therefore by my definition they are not Hindus. If Advani indeed has said that, they would be Hindu Muslims and Hindu Christians according to him. So, I think, there's a lot of difference between what I say and what Advani is believed to have said.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Rajagopal said...

Anand, my point was a tongue-in-cheek response to Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Best Indian Ever. Let religions be what they want to be, as long as they don't infringe on people of other religions or atheists/agnostics. Knowing that religion is a sensitive issue in India (or even otherwise) there is no need to say all Christians and Muslims are also Hindus. However BIE is a big bloviator and hope somebody puts him in place.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Sunil said...

wonderful piece. So short, and saying so much.

Btw....there's this really smart grad student in sanskrit here at UW, and he's written a really nice primer on the different schools of vedanta. You might enjoy reading it. This is the link to the article (PDF).

At 10:48 PM, Blogger Sunil said...

Also...his article on the six darsanas. Just good simple reading...

At 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Rajagopal -- I broadly agree (except for putting BIE in place!!)

Sunil -- Many thanks for the links. I just had a look at those. Will read those more seriously soon.

I think Sunil's links aren't alright. Here are the articles referred.

1. Different Varieties of Vedānta

2. On six darśanas

At 1:00 AM, Blogger phucker said...

Hey, I guess you're right because when you really think about it - "Hinduism" is just an amalgamation of a lot of local stuff (along with the Vedic stuff). I mean people of different regiosn have very different ways of parctising the same "religion". And then there is Arya Samaj which basically tries to cut down on the "idolatry"...okay, I can't believe I'm siding with Advani on this but I'd just like to say, that since one of the essences of Hinduism is that we believe different forms of the same Divine Being, from a Hindu's point of view, everybody short of an Atheist IS a Hindu, whether they say they are or not. Because as far as Hindus are concerned: Jesus, Allah, Buddha are all just more forms of that same being (ok - I know this is blasphemous for the other religions, but bear with me here....)

At 8:37 AM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Actually Anand, I've always wondered about the statement "I was born a Hindu" (or, equivalently, "I was born a Christian" etc). How is one born anything but merely human?

At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

You are right, Dilip, but, in an absolutist sense. Such statements have acquired a meaning by usage, which I presume is sort of self-explanatory?

Such usages are sometimes helpful too, though the goal should be to have a time when these usages are meaningless. For instance, I'm for the strict implementation of the various affirmative action policies that the govt has for those who belong to the Dalit communities. Now a Dalit is one "who is born a Dalit", right? When there are no equal opportunities, equality in theory would do more harm than good?

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Vishnu said...

A nice article. The beast-and-father thing is great! Seems like there is much more to Hinduism than what I was taught as a child. Unfortunately, my knowledge in Sanskrit is very limited. I can't understand most of the shlokas without translation.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Vishnu said...

I believe that the most striking characteristic of Hinduism is religious tolerance, which would now render many of the present-day "Hindus" non-Hindus.

At 2:38 AM, Blogger Refractor said...

If you are a born Hindu .
If you celebrate Hindu festivals to the exclusion of other religion festivals.
Then you are Hindu.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger shaun said...

I call myself a "non-practising Hindu atheist". How about that?

Someone told me that Hindu philosophy even incorporates atheism, so even an atheist can be a Hindu!

At 11:11 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Shivam -- My point was that there's no "practising Hindu" because no one knows how to practise Hinduism! No rules at all. Get any rule from an old Hindu text, one can get a rule contradicting that from the same or another Hindu text. So you are a Hindu if you call yourself one, you are not if you decide not to be one. As simple as that. You don't need to do anything to be a Hindu!

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may be of interest:

At 8:57 PM, Blogger artboxone said...

worth your attention:

"Geopolitics and Sanskrit phobia" :

"In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that the ancient past of India belonged to all of the Indian people, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others, because their forefathers had helped to build it. Subsequent conversion to another religion could not deprive them of this heritage; any more than the Greeks, after their conversion to Christianity, could have ceased to feel proud of their achievements of their ancestors (Nehru 1946: 343). Considered the pioneer of Indian secularism, Nehru wrote:

" 'If I was asked what was the greatest treasure that India possesses and what is her finest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly - it is the Sanskrit language. This is a magnificent inheritance, and so
long as it endures and influences the life of our people, so long the basic genius of the people of India will continue...India built up a magnificent language, Sanskrit, and through this language, and its art and architecture, it sent its vibrant message to far away countries.'
" ...

Overview of essay:
This paper discusses the historical and contemporary relationship between geopolitics and Sanskrit, and consists of the following sections:

I. Sanskrit is more than a language. Like all languages, its structures and categories contain a built-in framework for representing specific worldviews. Sanskriti is the name of the culture and
civilization that embodies this framework. One may say that Sanskriti is the term for what has recently become known as Indic Civilization, a civilization that goes well beyond the borders of modern India to encompass South Asia and much of Southeast Asia. At one time, it included much of Asia.

II. Interactions among different regions of Asia helped to develop and exchange this pan-Asian Sanskriti. Numerous examples involving India, Southeast Asia and China are given.

III. Sanskrit started to decline after the West Asian invasions of the Indian subcontinent. This had a devastating impact on Sanskriti, as many world-famous centers of learning were destroyed, and no single major university was built for many centuries by the conquerors.

IV. Besides Asia, Sanskrit and Sanskriti influenced Europe's modernity, and Sanskrit Studies became a large-scale formal activity in most European universities. These influences shaped many intellectual disciplines that are (falsely) classified as "Western". But the "discovery" of Sanskrit by Europe also had the negative influence of fueling European racism since the 19th century.

V. Meanwhile, in colonial India, the education system was de-Sanskritized and replaced by an English based education. This served to train clerks and low level employees to administer the Empire, and to start the process of self-denigration among Indians, a trend that continues today. Many prominent Indians achieved fame and success as middlemen serving the Empire, and Gandhi's famous 1908 monograph, "Hind Swaraj," discusses this phenomenon.

VI. After India's independence, there was a broad based Nehruvian love affair with Sanskrit as an important nation-building vehicle. However, successive generations of Indian intellectuals have replaced this with what this paper terms "Sanskrit Phobia," i.e. a body of beliefs now widely disseminated according to which Sanskrit and Sanskriti are blamed for all sorts of social, economic and political problems facing India's underprivileged classes. This section illustrates such phobia among prominent Western Indologists and among trendy Indians involved in South Asian Studies who learn about Sanskrit and Sanskriti according to Western frameworks and biases.

VII. The clash of civilizations among the West, China and Islam is used as a lens to discuss the future of Sanskriti across South and Southeast Asia.

VIII. Some concrete suggestions are made for further consideration to revitalize Sanskrit as a living language that has potential for future knowledge development and empowerment of humanity.

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Danny said...

Hey Anand! Good posting.

I dont consider myself as an athiest hindu, more of an agnostic hindu. Like you, I was born into the religion (dont let the name fool you). Since my family was in South America (Guyana) for some generations, our version of Sanatan Dharma have changed from India's.... as how has India's has changed since the time my ancestors left.

Were you born in India Anand?

At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks everybody.

Danny -- Thanks. Yes, I was born and brought up in India.

At 2:02 AM, Anonymous SG said...

An A.K. ramanujan's poem:

THE HINDOO: he reads his GITA and is calm at all events

At this party heads have no noses, teeth close
upon my heart: yet I come unstuck and stand apart. I do not marvel
when I see good and evil: I just walk

over the iridescence
of horsepiss after rain. Knives, bombs, scandal,
and cowdung fall on women in wedding lace:
I say nothing, I take care not to gloat...

Yet when I meet on a little boy's face
the prehistoric yellow eyes of a goat
I choke, for ancient hands are at my throat.

At 2:03 AM, Anonymous SG said...

(from Relations(1971), A.K. Ramanujan)

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Krupa said...

I'd just like to say that your article's pretty interesting! I agree with a lot of what you said!

At 3:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a bit of confusion in the term hindu. Older generations refer to hindu as from hindustan (old name for india,or translated:country of hindus)
Of course, we know not everyone in india is hindu and so, the correct term would be Indian. So, you can be Indian and an atheist, while you cannot be hindu (faith based belief system) and atheist.

At 6:11 AM, Anonymous AM I A HINDU? Best Seller said...

What you wrote is true. "Absolute FREEDOM OF THOUGHTS & ACTIONS" is the cardinal principle of Hinduism.

Hinduism has the strange capability to ABSORB AND GROW FROM ALL QUARTERS and that is the reason why it is very difficult to define Hinduism.

One can condemn Hinduism and still proudly proclaim he or she is Hindu.

Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote:

I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.

Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous AM I A HINDU? Best Seller said...

What you wrote is true. "Absolute FREEDOM OF THOUGHTS & ACTIONS" is the cardinal principle of Hinduism.

Hinduism has the strange capability to ABSORB AND GROW FROM ALL QUARTERS and that is the reason why it is very difficult to define Hinduism.

One can condemn Hinduism and still proudly proclaim he or she is a Hindu.

Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote:

I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.

Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Sabya said...

I am an Hindu atheist too. Atheism is very much a part of Hinduism. I quote from Amartya Sen :

"In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religion-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Even within the Hindu tradition, there are many people who were atheist. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philosopher, wrote this rather great book called Sarvadarshansamgraha, which discussed all the religious schools of thought within the Hindu structure. The first chapter is "Atheism" - a very strong presentation of the argument in favor of atheism and materialism."

Hinduism does not hold any person to a particular God. You can choose any God as your idol. Also you can choose no God as your idol. It doesn't ever say that you have to choose some god definitely. You may take anything as god or nothing as God. But in other religions you do not have any choice. You have to follow a particular God to belong to that religion.

At 1:30 AM, Blogger the said...

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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous elliott said...

I'm curious about the translations you have on there. I've recently been reading about Carvaka and have seen the "Liver merrily as long as you can" phrase but worded a bit differently in english, and the sanskrit is similar but not the same. I was just wondering if you made the translation yourself or found it somewhere. Thanks.


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