Lokayata: Hinduism’s Brand of Atheism

Lokayata, a brand of Hindu atheism, emphasizes that it was the evolution of mankind’s intellect that had given rise to religion and other schools of philosophical thought rather than supernatural forces.

Too often, people who have at best a perfunctory understanding of Hinduism and India, equate it with spirituality. Self-styled Indologists do not help things by portraying Hinduism as a stuffy and antiquated set of rules laced with an overdose of ornate rituals. But what many fail to realize is that the multitude of schools of philosophical thought also stemmed from Hinduism, and represent an inseparable part. These philosophies were not spurred by superficial and unyielding practices, but were born out of lengthy argumentations and counter-argumentations. Whether it was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or the universal teachings of the Vedanta philosophy, polemicists theorized and then endeavored through debates to prove the validity of their assertion. One such philosophy that was birthed by such lively debates was Lokayata or Hinduism’s brand of atheism.

What is Lokayata?

Lok – world, and ayata – prevalent, believed that there four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. A world where things had to be felt by the human senses in order to be considered true was one of the defining tenets of Lokayata. The doctrine did not believe in a soul, let alone its transmigration. Similarly, Karma, Moksha (liberation), and reincarnation were also repudiated. Lokayata emphasized that it was the evolution of mankind’s intellect that had given rise to religion and other schools of philosophical thought rather than supernatural forces.

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There is some dispute as to the founder of this brand of Hindu atheism. Some believe that Brihaspati, who is quoted in the text Sarvasiddhantasamgraha, was the earliest proponent of Lokayata. This text advised the sagacious ones to enjoy the pleasures of life, and engage in real world pursuits such as political administration, trade, and agriculture. Moreover, the wise were exhorted to shun rituals, and concepts that could not be verified by scientific inquiry.

Agita Kesakambali, another atheist philosopher, was a senior contemporary of Buddha. Texts by Kesakambali have not survived. But modern interpretations of Kesakambali state that deeds of altruism and beneficence lead to nothing. In other words, everyone, according to Kesakambali dies without distinction between the good or wicked. This is not to say that people should cease being charitable, only that whether a person treads a path of goodness or evil, death does not discriminate.

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Adity Sharma is a student at St. John’s University in New York. Her writings have appeared in Vijayvaani, Chakranews, and HVK.
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Related Topics: Faith, Hinduism, Hindu, Atheism

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