In the last 20 years or so we have personally seen a healthy rise of skepticism or atheism in India. If we were to look at the absolute numbers from the 2001 census to the 2011 census, the number of people who are in the category of “religion not stated” has risen from 7 lakhs to 29 lakhs. According to the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, the number of non-religious people in India has risen by 6% from the year 2005 to 2012.
Now someone might look at these numbers and say that atheism has hardly made a dent in India. But, atheism/skepticism in India has never been about the rejection of the Hindu identity. If the surveyors were to add another category which stated “Hindu Atheist/Skeptic” I could say with a relative sense of certainty that we will see a drastic increase in the percentages.
To understand this phenomenon, even more, we will have to categorise Indian Skeptics intro three broad categories:
- Marxist Atheists: These are the people who will probably be the single largest chunk out of the 29 lakhs mentioned in the “religion not stated” category from the 2011 census. They claim to be “rationalists”, although their claim to rationality is up for debate.
- Wannabe Atheists: These are the 2nd largest group in the “religion not stated” category. They are wannabes, which means, they have basically taken up the label of an atheist because they think it is “cool” or maybe because they saw some videos of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett etc. on YouTube. The probabilities of them ever reading a Hindu text are in the very low percentile. Many wannabe atheists also call themselves Hindus and that is why government surveys will never reflect the true picture of skepticism in India.
- Dharmic Skeptics: These are the individuals that firmly associate with the larger Hindu identity. They follow the Carvaka/Lokayata Darshana. They have a distinctly Indian way of looking at the world. They critique Eastern Philosophies using modern science as well as the pramanas that they think are valid.
One might ask a question as to why have I bothered to classify Indian Skepticism in such broad categories? The reason is very simple – we live in a very Euro-centric world today. All our conversations, our terminologies, the verbal tools we apply to understand our place in the world today, stems from a template that is essentially European/Western/American. A person who is born and raised in India usually tries to make sense of their own culture/”religion” using categories that stem from a language that was built on a specific Judeo Christian template.
You could be a believer or a skeptic, but the language used while discussing Eastern Faiths remains Euro-centric.
I could use my own case as an example. My own personal journey was a steady progression from being a wannabe atheist to a Dharmic Skeptic. By the time I had turned 18 I had started questioning the claims made by my fellow “co-religionists”. The conversation would always be around “how do you know there is a God?”. But the words we were using while debating each other were God, Soul, Rebirth, Idol Worshipping etc. Fun fact, the 1st religious books I ever read were the Bible and the Quran. In my own case, I had rejected my religion i.e. “Hinduism” without reading a word or any text of that “religion”. I had assumed that all religions preach the same things and the horror that I had faced post reading the Quran and The Bible was sufficient proof for my 20-year-old brain to reject the entire Pantheon of Eastern thought that included 1000’s of texts. It would be a fair assumption to say that I was a skeptic who suffered from “the sameness disease”.
So this article is my attempt to explain how Dharmic Skepticism does not overlap with the Western Neo Atheistic movement at multiple levels. I will try to put forward how the challenge presented to Beliefs/Philosophies/”Religions” that originate in India in the current intellectual climate is based out of an inaccurate or in some cases a completely wrong, or an utter lack of understanding of the same philosophies.
Post-September 11th the West saw a sudden surge in books written under the “Neo Atheism” category. It started with Sam Harris’ 2004 book titled “The End of Faith“. Then came Richard Dawkins book, “The God Delusion“ and Daniel Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell“ followed by Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great.” in 2007. These books were a direct assault on religions. This was the probably the 1st time that a large number of authors were extremely vocal about their lack of belief in mythical supernatural deities.
But all these books had one common factor. They did attack religions, but which ones were they attacking? If one was to do a careful reading of all the authors you will find that the core focus of their assault was on the three big monotheistic religions i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There was no analysis of any eastern philosophy. The “exception” was Christopher Hitchens who tries to reject the Eastern philosophies in a very ham-handed way in his book via Chapter 14 titled “There is no Eastern Solution” where he writes a total of 10 pages which are basically about his experience in the Osho Ashram in Pune to the Zen Buddhists in Japan and the LTTE in Sri Lanka. In all those 10 pages one cannot find a single quotation of a verse from any of the 1000′ of books in the Indian Pantheon. One has to ask a question then that if Christopher Hitchens can cite the Bible and Quran to reject those religions why did he not do the same with Eastern philosophies?
But the tsunami that was “Neo-atheism” was not going to leave India unaffected. The authors and their works did make their way into India and the arguments that they presented in their books were cut, copy and pasted by Indian skeptics to reject Eastern Darshanas. And this is the crux of my problem. I want to clarify one point before we go any further. This article is not an attack on Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris at all. This is an attempt to explain a very basic point i.e. If you want to reject an idea study that idea in detail first. Just because the atheists in the West have rejected Eastern philosophies we don’t need to reject them. What if their reasons are flawed? We need to use our own brains, do our homework and then accept or reject any idea. We should not copy anyone blindly. It can lead to potentially bad results. This article is not about bashing the “Neo Atheism authors”. In fact, I like all those authors and they helped me a lot in understanding their cultures/religions. But, their understanding did not help me in understanding my culture/religions.
The level of information about Eastern philosophy, epistemology, dialectics among the Neo Atheism movement is insufficient. One can make a slight exception for Sam Harris who has studied some forms of Buddhism and the teachings of Ramana Maharishi. But, even post that if we were to read all the works of Sam Harris you will not see Sam Harris citing one verse from a single text of Buddhism or Sri Ramana’s teachings. In his book “Waking Up” Sam uses the same method applied by Christopher Hitchens where his rejection of certain aspects of the East are on the basis of the behaviour of some of the gurus like Osho (So much for differentiating ideas from individuals) or an argument where Harris states ” We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world’s largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule. Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery. Nevertheless, there is something to the notion of uniquely Eastern wisdom, and most of it has been concentrated in or derived from the tradition of Buddhism”.
An honest assessment of Harris’ understanding of the East can be summed by a quote from Dennis Waite from his review of his book Waking Up. He states ” He excuses his failure to cover any teaching in any depth by claiming that he is looking for the ‘diamond’ amongst the presumed detritus that forms the bulk of most ‘religions’. To be able to “focus on the most promising lines of spiritual enquiry”, one requires an in-depth understanding, to begin with. Harris’ statements purporting to present ideas from Advaita demonstrate that he does not have such in-depth knowledge. This is scarcely surprising, given that his principal source is Sri Poonja. He refers to Poonja as “one of the greatest living exponents of Advaita Vedanta”! This is so far wide of the mark that it very clearly highlights Harris’ ignorance of the subject to anyone who is genuinely familiar with the teaching.”
The standard mistakes made by “Neo-Atheists” as well as Marxist and Wannabe Atheists in India while critiquing Eastern Darshanas are:
- They are called religions in the sense of how they are in the West.
- They are presented as top-down ideologies.
- The Eastern Ishwar is mistaken to be the Abrahamic God
- The Abrahamic soul is imposed on the Eastern Atman.
- Not even a single primary text is cited while the Eastern Darshanas are being rejected.
The Neo-Atheist ideology cannot wrap its head around the reality of being Hindu and being a materialist/skeptic/atheist. This is the reason that I have consciously stayed away from the Neo-Atheist movement. As a Dharmic Skeptic, I cannot relate to that line of thinking. My debate with individual Darshanas within the larger Hindu Samaj is at the level of their individual beliefs, and it varies from Darshana to Darshana.
We cannot debate a Samkhya Darshana expert the same way we would debate an Advaita Vedanta follower. They use different pramanas. The debate with them will be based on specific beliefs of that individual Darshana. Samkhya has no Eshwar. In such a scenario how can we use the Neo Atheistic paradigm that automatically assumes religions have a belief in a supernatural deity?
We can find out what type of an atheist one is by a simple exercise. Just ask them how many Darshanas does Hinduism have? Do they even know what a Darshana means? And what do pramanas mean? And which Darshana uses which pramanas?
When I started my quest to understand Abrahamic religions I spent a lot of time and energy in reading primary religious texts of those religions. And even today I would say that my understanding of Islam & Christianity is not scholarly. But, it is far better than what the Neo-atheists and their imitations in India know about Eastern philosophies. I did not share my views on Islam or Christianity until I read the Bible and the Quran along with other supporting material.
So my request to every single person who is from India and calls him/herself a skeptic/atheist please try to understand what you are rejecting. There are various claims within the Hindu pantheon that should be questioned. But, as skeptics, we should raise the standard of our questioning. If we use alien templates provided by the Neo-Atheists and try to reject Indian Darshanas the results could be extremely bad. Let us not end up like the entire Ex Muslim movement where we might have a growing population of Indians who have no community to fall back on. Just because Islam has a problem with blasphemy, it does not mean Eastern Philosophies are the same. The issue is not whether we should question the claims within Hinduism, the issue is what should we question.
So if you are someone who calls him/herself a skeptic/atheist and happens to be from an Indian background I request you to start understanding Hindu Darshanas on their terms. And then question them, criticise them and challenge them. But do it with the right understanding or be a skeptic and just say “I don’t know”.