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Atheism and agnosticism have a long history in India and flourished within the Śramaṇa movement. Indian religions like Jainism and Buddhism consider atheism to be acceptable. India has produced some notable atheist politicians and social reformers. According to the 2011 Census of India, 99.76% of Indians identified with a religion while 0.24% did not state their religious identity. According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism report, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were non-religious, 3% were convinced atheists, and 3% were unsure or did not respond.
See also: Śramaṇa
Several śramaṇa movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE (pre-Buddha, pre-Mahavira), and these influenced both the āstika and nāstika traditions of Indian philosophy. Martin Wiltshire states that the Śramaṇa tradition evolved in India over two phases, namely Paccekabuddha and Savaka phases, the former being the tradition of individual ascetic and latter of disciples, and that Buddhism and Jainism ultimately emerged from these as sectarian manifestations. These traditions drew upon already established Brahmanical concepts, states Wiltshire, to formulate their own doctrines. Reginald Ray concurs that Śramaṇa movements already existed and were established traditions in pre-6th century BCE India, but disagrees with Wiltshire that they were nonsectarian before the arrival of Buddha.
See also: Indian philosophy
In Indian philosophy, there are six major orthodox (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy—Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta, and five major heterodox (nāstika) schools of Śramaṇa —Jain, Buddhist, Ajivika, Ajñana, and Cārvāka. The four most studied Nāstika schools, those rejecting the doctrine of Vedas, are: Jainism, Buddhism, Cārvāka, and Ājīvika.
Main article: Cārvāka
There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world, Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce any real effect.
The Cārvāka school originated in India around the 6th century BCE. It is classified as a nāstika school. It is noteworthy as evidence of a materialistic movement in ancient India. Followers of this school only accepted pratyakşa (perception) as a valid pramāna (evidence). They considered other pramāna like sabda (testimony), upamāna (analogy), and anumāna (inference) as unreliable. Thus, the existence of a soul (ātman) and God were rejected, because they could not be proved by perception. They also considered everything to be made of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The Cārvāka pursued enjoyment of life and elimination of physical pain. So, they can be considered hedonistic. All of the original Cārvāka texts are considered lost. A much quoted sūtra (Barhaspatya sutras) by Brhaspati, who is considered the founder of the school, is thought to be lost. The Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa (8th century CE) and the Sarvadarśanasaṅ̇graha by Madhavacarya (13th century) are considered important secondary Cārvāka texts.
Main article: Sāṃkhya
Sāṃkhya is an āstika school, but has some atheistic elements. Sāṃkhya is a radically dualist philosophy. They believed that the two ontological principles, puruṣa (consciousness) and prakriti (matter), to be the underlying foundation of the universe. The objective of life is considered the achievement of separation of pure consciousness from matter (kaivalya). The reasoning within this system led to the Nir-isvara Sāṃkhya (Sāṃkhya without God) philosophy, which deemed the existence of God as unnecessary. There is the opposing reasoning which accepts God, called Sesvara Sankhya (Sāṃkhya with God). Samkhya Karika (c. 350 CE) is the earliest known systematic text of this philosophy.
Main article: Mīmāṃsā
Mīmāṃsā (meaning exegesis) is also an astika school. They believed the Vedas to be author-less and self-authenticating. They did not accept the Vedas as being composed by any ṛishi (saint), they considered them to not be authored by anyone (apauruṣeya). They accepted the minor deities of the Vedas but resisted any notion of a Supreme Creator. They only concentrated on upholding the ṛta (order) by following the duties of the Vedas. The foundational text of this school is the Mīmāṃsā Sutra by Jaimini (c. 200 BCE - 200 CE).
Main article: Ājīvika
Ājīvika is yet another nastika school with an atheistic outlook. None of their scriptures survive and there is some question as to whether or not the accounts of them in secondary sources (often hostile) are accurate. They believed in a naturalistic atomic theory and held that the consequence of natural laws led to a deterministic universe. They denied karma, but upheld the atman. They lived in ascetic communities and existed in southern India until at least the 14th century.
Jainism rejects the idea of a creator deity responsible for the manifestation, creation, or maintenance of this universe. According to Jain doctrine, the universe and its constituents (soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion) have always existed. All the constituents and actions are governed by universal natural laws and an immaterial entity like God cannot create a material entity like the universe. Jainism offers an elaborate cosmology, including heavenly beings (devas), but these beings are not viewed as creators; they are subject to suffering and change like all other living beings, and must eventually die. Jains define godliness as the inherent quality of any soul characterising infinite bliss, infinite power, Kevala Jnana (pure infinite knowledge) and Perfect peace. However, these qualities of a soul are subdued due to karmas of the soul. One who achieves this state of soul through right belief, right knowledge and right conduct can be termed a god. This perfection of soul is called kevalin. A soul thus becomes a liberated soul – liberated of miseries, cycles of rebirth, world, karmas and finally liberated of body as well. This is called moksha.
Gautama Buddha rejected the existence of a creator deity, refused to endorse many views on creation and stated that questions on the origin of the world are not ultimately useful for ending suffering. Buddhism instead emphasises the system of causal relationships underlying the universe, pratītyasamutpāda, which constitute the dharma and source of enlightenment. No dependence of phenomena on a supernatural reality is asserted in order to explain the behaviour of matter.
Ajita Kesakambali was a materialist philosopher. He is mentioned in the Samaññaphala Sutta. He rejected gods, an afterlife and karma. Payasi is a character, referred to as a prince, who appears in the Buddhist text Digha Nikaya in the Payasi Sutta. He didn't believe in rebirth or karma. He debated Kassapa, a disciple of Buddha, and lost according to Buddhist sources.
See also: Jabali
In the Hindu epic Ramayana (Ayodhya Khanda), when Bharata goes to the forest to convince Rama to return home, he was accompanied by a sophist called Jabali ("जाबालिः"). Jabali uses nihilistic reasoning to convince Rama. He also says that rituals are a waste of food and scriptures were written by smart men so that people will give alms. But Rama calls him a deviant from the path of dharma ("धर्मपथात्"), refuses to accept his "nastika" views and blame his own father for taking Jabali into service. He also equates the Buddha to a thief. On hearing Rama's retort, Jabali retracts his statements, saying that he was merely arguing like a nihilist. However, these verses referring to the Buddha are considered a later interpolation, as those verses use a different metre.
A character described as a Carvaka briefly appears in the Mahabharata (in the Shanti Parva). As Yudhishthira enters the city of Hastinapur, a brahmin, referred to as Carvaka, accuses him of killing his own kinsmen and says that he would suffer for it. The accuser is revealed to a rakshasa in disguise, who was a friend of Duryodhana. He had existed since the Satya Yuga by virtue of a boon from the god Brahma, that he could only be killed when he is showing contempt towards brahmins. He was killed by other brahmins by the chanting of sacred hymns and Yudhishthira was assured that his actions were within the kshatriya code. This event may be a possible denigration of the Carvaka philosophy.
In the 9th century CE, Jain philosopher Jinasena wrote the Mahapurana. The book contains the following often quoted words,
Some foolish men declare that a creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before creation? If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?
This quote was also featured later in Carl Sagan's book, Cosmos. In the 14th century, philosopher Madhavacarya wrote the Sarvadarśanasaṅ̇graha, which is a compilation of all Indian philosophies, including Carvaka, which is described in the first chapter.
Between 1882 and 1888, the Madras Secular Society published a magazine called The Thinker (Tattuvavivesini in Tamil) from Madras. The magazine carried articles written by anonymous writers and republished articles from the journal of the London Secular Society, which the Madras Secular Society considered itself affiliated to.
Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (1879 - 1973) was an atheist and rationalist leader of Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam. His views on the irreligion are based on the eradication of the caste system, religion must be denied to achieve the obliteration of caste system.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883 –1966) was an eminent Hindu nationalist leader of the Indian independence movement. He was also an atheist and a staunch rationalist who disapproved of orthodox Hindu belief, dismissing cow worship as superstitious. Being Hindu, for him, was a cultural and political identity.
Meghnad Saha (1893 – 1956) was an atheist astrophysicist best known for his development of the Saha equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), India's first Prime Minister was a self-described scientific humanist. He wrote in his autobiography, Toward Freedom (1936), about his views on religion and superstition.
Bhagat Singh (1907-1931), an Indian revolutionary and socialist nationalist who was hanged for using violence against British government officials. He laid out his view in the essay Why I Am an Atheist, written in jail shortly before his death.
Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (1902-1975), better known by his nickname "Gora", was a social reformer, anti-caste activist and atheist. He and his wife, Saraswathi Gora (1912-2007) who was also an atheist and social reformer, founded the Atheist Centre in 1940. The Atheist Centre is an institute working for social change. Gora expounded his philosophy of positive atheism as a way of life. He later wrote more about positive atheism in his 1972 book, Positive Atheism. Gora also organised the first World Atheist Conference in 1972. Subsequently, the Atheist Centre has organised several World Atheist Conferences in Vijayawada and other locations.
Khushwant Singh (1915-2014), a prominent and prolific writer, of Sikh extraction, was avowedly non-religious.
In 1997, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations was founded.
Amartya Sen (1933-), an Indian economist, philosopher and Nobel laureate, is an atheist and he holds that this can be associated with one of the atheist schools in Hinduism, the Lokayata.
Mumbai Rationalist Association, the successor of Maharashtra Rationalist Association, is actively involved in developing scientific temper and eradicating superstition.
In 2008, the website Nirmukta was founded. It later became an organisation aiming to promote free thought and secular humanism in India.
In 2009, historian Meera Nanda published a book entitled "The God Market". It examines how Hindu religiosity is gaining more popularity in the rising middle class, as India is liberalising the economy and adopting globalisation.
In March 2009, in Kerala, a pastoral letter addressing the laity was issued by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council urging the members to not vote for political parties which advocate atheism. In July 2010, another similar letter was issued.
On 10 March 2012, Sanal Edamaruku investigated a so-called miracle in Vile Parle, where a Jesus statue had started weeping and concluded that the problem was caused by faulty drainage. Later that day, during a TV discussion with some church members, Edamaruku accused the Catholic Church of miracle-mongering. On 10 April, Angelo Fernandes, President of the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum, filed a police complaint against Edamaruku under the Indian Penal Code Section 295A. In July while on a tour in Finland, Edamaruku was informed by a friend that his house was visited by the police. Since the offence is not bailable, Edamaruku stayed in Finland.
On Friday 7 July 2013, the first "Hug an Atheist Day" was organised in India by Nirmukta. The event aimed to spread awareness and reduce the stigma associated with being an atheist.
On 20 August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, was shot dead by two unknown assailants, while he was out on a morning walk.
Atheism and irreligion are not officially recognised in India. Apostasy is allowed under the right to freedom of religion in the Constitution, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954 allows the marriage of people with no religious beliefs, as well as non-religious and non-ritualistic marriages. However, there are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are considered as belonging to the religion of their birth for administrative purposes.
Main article: Hate speech laws in India
On 29 October 2013, the Bombay High Court judged in favour of an atheist school teacher from Nashik. Sanjay Salve had been employed by the state-funded Savitribai Phule Secondary School since 1996. In June 2007, during a prayer session, Salve didn't fold his hands during the pledge or prayer. The school management called this indiscipline and refused him a higher pay grade in 2008 when Salve became eligible for it. Salve sought legal recourse citing the Section 28 (a) of the Constitution which states "no person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution". The court ruled in Salve's favour and directed the school to release his dues by 31 January 2014.
On 23 September 2014, the Bombay High Court declared that the government cannot force a person to state a religion on any document or form. The court also stated any citizen has the right to declare that he/she doesn't belong to any religion. The decision came in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Ranjit Mohite, Kishore Nazare and Subhash Ranware, representing an organisation called Full Gospel Church of God, after the Maharashtra state printing press refused to issue them a gazette notification stating that they belonged to no religion. The petitioners stated that the organisation had 4000 members, and that they believe in Jesus Christ but they do not follow Christianity or any religion. Responding to the petition, the Maharashtra and the central governments had stated that "no religion" cannot be treated as a religion on official forms. The court cited the Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees right to freedom of conscience, while passing the verdict.
See also: Persecution of atheists
Narendra Nayak, an advocate of atheism, has claimed to have been attacked three times and had his scooter damaged twice, with one of the attacks leaving him with head injuries. This compelled him to take self-defence lessons and carry a nunchaku. Megh Raj Mitter's house was surrounded by a mob after he debunked the Hindu milk miracle, forcing him to call the police.
On 15 March 2007, a bounty of ₹700,000 (equivalent to ₹1.7 million or US$24,000 in 2019) was announced on atheist Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, while living in India, by a Muslim cleric named Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan for allegedly writing derogatory statements about Prophet Mohammad in her work. In December 2013, an FIR was filed against Nasrin in Bareilly by a cleric named Hasan Raza Khan, for hurting religious sentiments. Nasrin had allegedly tweeted on Twitter that "In India, criminals who issue fatwas against women don't get punished." Raza Khan said that by accusing clerics of being criminals, Nasrin had hurt religious sentiments.
On 2 July 2011, the house of U. Kalanathan, secretary of the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham, was attacked in Vallikunnu after he suggested on television that the temple treasures of Padmanabhaswamy Temple should be used for public welfare. On 20 August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, was assassinated.
On 16 February 2015, rationalist Govind Pansare and his wife were attacked by unknown gunmen. He later died from the wounds on 20 February. On 30 August 2015, M. M. Kalburgi, a scholar and rationalist, was shot dead at his home. He was known for his criticism of superstition and idol worship. Soon afterwards, another rationalist and author, K. S. Bhagwan, received a threatening letter. He had offended religious groups by criticizing the Gita.
In March 2017, an Indian Muslim youth from Coimbatore, 31-year-old A Farooq, who became rationalist and atheist, was killed by members of a Muslim radical group.
The Indian census does not explicitly count atheists. In the 2011 Census of India, the response form required the respondent to choose from six options under religion. The "Others" option was meant for minor or tribal religions as well as atheists and agnostics.
The religion data from 2011 Census of India was released in August 2015. It revealed that about 2,870,000 people had stated no religion in their response, about 0.27% of the nation's population. However, the number included atheists, rationalists and also those who believed in a higher power. K. Veeramani, a Dravidar Kazhagam leader, said that it was the first time the number of non-religious people was recorded in the census. However, he added that he believed that the number of atheists in India was actually higher as many people don't reveal their atheism out of fear.
According to the 2006 World Values Survey, conducted by the Dentsu Communication Institute Inc, Japan Research Center (2006), 6.6% of Indians stated that they had no religion.
According to the 2005 Global Index of Religion and Atheism report from WIN-Gallup, 87% of Indians were religious and 4% called themselves atheists. According to the 2012 report by the same organisation, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were not religious, 3% were convinced atheists and 3% were unsure or did not respond.
In 2007, a survey was conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture of the Trinity College with the help of Center for Inquiry (India) called Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India. 1100 scientists surveyed from 130 institutes. Most of them identified themselves as secular (59%) or somewhat secular (16%) but refused to be labelled irreligious. 83% defined secularism, as it appears in the Indian constitutions, as the separation of state and religion. But, 93% also defined it as tolerance of other religious philosophies. 20% equated secularism to atheism. Only 11% called themselves completely not spiritual. However, 8% reportedly said they would refuse to do stem cell research based on religious or moral convictions. Y. S. Rajan commented on this saying that most Indians don't feel there is a conflict between science and religion. Other the hand, Innaiah Narisetti, chairman of Centre for Inquiry (India) and Pushpa Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, pointed out the lack of scientific temper among Indian scientists.
In a survey conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, it was found that:
|Scientists who identified as nonreligious||6%||65%|
|Scientists who attend religious services on a regular basis (once a month or more)||32%||12%|
|Scientists who never attend religious services||19%||68%|
|Scientists who believe that there are basic truths in many religions||73%||49%|
|Scientists who believe in God||27%||11%|
|Scientists who believe in a higher power of some kind||38%||8%|
The ongoing study has surveyed 1,581 scientists from UK and 1,763 from India.
In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world; as, for instance, world-soul, time, nature, etc. God-belief, however, is placed in the same category as those morally destructive wrong views which deny the kammic results of action, assume a fortuitous origin of man and nature, or teach absolute determinism. These views are said to be altogether pernicious, having definite bad results due to their effect on ethical conduct.
Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.
It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.