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.
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.
Moreover, the Lokayata doctrine unabashedly rejected inference as a means of building a case for metaphysical truth. This was the case because, according to Lokayata inference is derived from an inference, and that inference is further derived from another inference. It was believed the hierarchical order of inferences could lead to an ad infinitum regression.
Early proponents of the philosophy steadfastly believed in the limits of human knowledge, and faith did not play a part in accepting or rejecting a premise. Only the perceivable was real, and anything beyond that was moot. Another aspect to the perceivable was pleasure. Pleasure was something the Lokayata philosophy embraced whole heartedly.
Lokayata’s Divergence with Traditional Hindu Philosophy
A major distinction between traditional schools of thought in Hinduism and Lokayata is the notion of elemental forces such as thunder, lightening, or gravitation as being active. While both traditional Hinduism and the Lokayata doctrine agree on these elements being an active force in the universe, they were at odds over whether these elements are alive. Lokayata’s proponents asserted that these elements were not conscious, and hence did not move about to accomplish a fixed purpose. The firmament displayed apathy towards human whims and actions and hence played no role in determining their destiny.
Another difference between Lokayata and mainstream philosophies in Hinduism is the notion of internal perception, namely the mind as having an independent role. In traditional Hindu philosophy, the mind is given a powerful role in perception of achieving spiritual heights.
Essentially, an existence with reason, and without God, without good or evil, and without heaven or hell, was the primary ingredients in the Lokayata doctrine.
Balance vs. ImbalanceThe atheism that took roots in Europe in response to zealous religiosity had its own rigidities and dictated a complete denunciation of Christianity and the Church. These contrary ideas began to emerge during the enlightenment era, and sped up during the latter part of the 20th century. This disillusionment with faith became so pronounced that currently, many people in Western Europe identify as atheists.