In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Atheism and Rationalism in Hinduism

  • Introduction

Hinduism Atheism and Rationalism in Hinduism
Johannes Quack, Stefan Binder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0196


The Indian subcontinent is commonly depicted as a hallmark of religion and spirituality in public discourse. A selective inattention to positions and perspectives that counter this stereotype also runs through academic scholarship. This article focuses on exceptions to this observation by introducing studies that represent and analyze atheistic and rationalistic individuals, groups, and arguments associated with and in opposition to Hindu traditions. However, any general assessment of atheism and rationalism within “Hinduism” is confronted with manifold limitations, given the historical depth, geographic range, linguistic plurality, cultural diversity, and (therefore) fuzzy borders of various Hindu traditions. Above all, there is a lacuna of comprehensive publications interrelating the impact and entanglements of diverse philosophical and religious traditions—above all Hindu and Muslim traditions—on the subcontinent. Against this background, this article centers, first, on studies of classical schools of thought within Sanskrit-Hindi philosophical traditions. The first section, General Overview: Classical Schools of Thought, comprises three subsections, focusing on Lokāyata and Cārvāka in particular, and more generally on Atheism in Classical Schools of Thought and Rationalism in Classical Schools of Thought. It also addresses the relation between atheism and rationalism and discourses of heterodoxy/heresy, and touches briefly on the mutual influence of Buddhist and Jain religious traditions on the subcontinent. The second section, General Overview: 19th and 20th Centuries, introduces studies of contemporary secularist, atheist, or rationalist groups, concentrating in particular on forms of secular activism rather than general or implicit forms of unbelief or irreligiosity. Consequently, the article moves toward a discussion of Influential Atheists and Rationalists, as well as Organized Atheism and Rationalism. In contrast to the aforementioned paucity of academic research on the topic, atheist and rationalist activists have produced a large body of writings, a small and selective portion of which is introduced in the subsection on Literature by Activists. Without going into much detail, the final subsection, Atheism and Rationalism in a Broader Context of Social Critique, indicates related movements or topics that are not necessarily atheist or rationalist in any explicit or predominant way. All three terms—atheism, rationalism, and Hinduism—have to be taken with a grain of salt here to reduce the implicit presentism (anachronistically reading into the past concerns and perspectives that emerged in the present) and Eurocentrism (given the Christo-Occidental genealogies of the notions “atheism” and “rationalism”) inherent in such terms.

General Overview: Classical Schools of Thought

Very early on in ancient India, there must have been people questioning the authority of ritual experts, beliefs, and practices concerning, among other things, the existence of god(s), an otherworld or afterlife, and recompense for deeds (and the resulting moral demands) in this life. While some of the more established scholars address this only in passing, some have dedicated full texts to this, such as Chattopadhyaya 1969 and Ruben 1979. Dasgupta 1922 describes larger changes in the religious and philosophical landscape that occurred around the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, when the new and “heterodox” (nāstika) Buddhist, Jain, Lokāyata, or Cārvāka (further discussed under Lokāyata and Cārvāka) philosophies, or “thought systems” (darśana), challenged established or “orthodox” (āstika) philosophical and religious traditions. In many modern Indian languages, the English word “atheist” is translated through derivatives from the Sanskrit nāstika. Translations and commentaries of original texts from the Vedic period onward—including orthodox heterodox thought systems—are provided in Radhakrishnan and Moore 1957. Nicholson 2010 describes late medieval developments in Sanskrit doxographic literature, which consolidated a proto-Hindu identiy based on the orthodox Hindu philosophies of mīmāṃsā, nyāya, vaiśeṣika, sāṁkhya, yoga, and vedānta, which defended the revelation of the Veda and the existence of a transcendent reality beyond the contingencies of the human condition. As a corollary, nāstika schools were not considered “heterodox” for a disbelief in god per se, as the etymology of atheism would suggest, but for their rejection of Vedic-Upanishadic and later Brahmanic beliefs and practices, as well as the social status and power of Brahmins within the caste system. Going back further in history, Heesterman 1968 contrasts this notion of a nāstika identity with its ancient and early medieval usages as a relational term within Vedic ritualism and Sophistic debate. Thapar 1981 challenges the dominant perspective, which tends to reconstruct Indian intellectual history from an āstika perspective and thus misrepresents dissenting, heterodox voices as marginal, insignificant, or even nonexistent in Indian history. Unlike Chattopadhyaya 1969, however, Thapar argues against an intrinsic connection between materialism and socio-religious dissent, which she also retraces within the supposedly idealist mainstream of Indian culture.

  • Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Indian Atheism. Calcutta: Manisha, 1969.

    In his seminal rereading of the history of Indian philosophy from a Marxist perspective, Chattopadhyaya posits a popular materialist, proto-atheist culture (“proto” as in preceding theism) as the original cultural substratum of South Asian civilization. Newer editions are published by the People’s Publishing House in New Delhi.

  • Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

    A five-volume systematic compendium and standard reference work for the history of Indian philosophy, considered one of the main proponents of an idealist or spiritual reading of Indian intellectual history. There are various reprints.

  • Heesterman, J. C. “On the Origin of the Nāstika.” In Beiträge Zur Geistesgeschichte Indiens. Edited by Erich Frauwallner and Gerhard Oberhammer, 171–185. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1968.

    Retraces the etymological origin of the term nāstika to the context of early Vedic ritualism and, later Sophistic, dialectical debate. Also published by Kommissionsverlag Gerold (Vienna).

  • Nicholson, Andrew J. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7312/nich14986

    In his dense intellectual history of the doxographic genre in late medieval Sanskrit philosophy, Nicholson describes the discursive production of an “orthodox” (āstika), Proto-Hindu identity along Brahmanic lines that entailed the consolidation of the classical list of “heterodox” (nāstika) schools of Buddhists, Jains, and Cārvāka. Also available online with a subscription.

  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princetion, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400865062

    Although in some respects outdated, this classic volume is still one of the most comprehensive translations of some of the most influential texts associated with orthodox as well as heterodox schools of thought in India. Reprinted numerous times. Available online by subscription.

  • Ruben, Walter. Wissen gegen Glauben: Der Beginn des Kampfes des Wissens gegen den/das Glauben im alten Indien und Griechenland. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1979.

    The Indologist Walter Ruben’s account is based on strong knowledge of the available sources and an openly declared Marxist worldview. Its focus is on the emergence of Indian philosophy via the stages of magic, mythology, hylozoism, and, finally, forms of idealism and materialism. The source is written in German. Limited availability.

  • Thapar, Romila. “Dissent and Protest in the Early Indian Tradition.” Diogenes 29.113–114 (1981): 31–54.

    DOI: 10.1177/039219218102911302

    Thapar draws on early philosophical and epic sources to identify streams of social and political dissent in early Indian traditions in order to counter homogenized accounts of Indian cultural history.

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