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I have recently read somewhere that atheism is the pillar of Hinduism.

  • If Hindus don't believe in God then why do they worship Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Kali etc.?

  • Is atheism followed by all Hindus or only a particular caste (e.g., Brahmin)?

  • Can you also cite the Vedas or Upanishads which talk about atheism in Hindu religion?

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    The idea of "Atheism" itself is NON-Hindu, NON-Indian. Prior to the extensive "tagging" (and corruption, as well) of Indian belief system by some white-fools, there was nothing like it on this land. When we say... || Aham Brahmasmi || we can never actually be atheist. One may not perceive the "concepts of" hierarchy in Sansaar, but a Hindu would always feels responsible for that. He may be of ANY sect, he may even reject ANY "authority" over him, BUT he would ALWAYS BELIEVE... in Self, in Brahmm, in OM! He would ALWAYS be a Believer, a...theist! – Hindu Dec 18 '14 at 17:15
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    Please note, Brahman and a Supreme Being are two different things. A supreme being is the personal God with attributes about existence of whom many schools of thought are skeptic. They do not deny the existence of Brahman, a supreme entity which is formless and without any attributes. A creator God is what some schools of thought deny to accept, not the existence of a supreme unseen entity. – Be Happy Dec 19 '14 at 12:23
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    The relationship is this according to a wise man and I paraphrase: "Religious inquiry starts with charvakism and ends in advaita" – user1195 Feb 8 '15 at 19:17
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Atheism is not the pillar of Hinduism, but only a part of Hinduism. Moreover, the term nastika (atheist) means different in Hinduism than its usual meaning. Generally atheist means a person who doesn't believe in God, afterlife, etc. But in Hinduism atheist means a person who doesn't accept the authority of the Vedas (veda neendako nastika), that is, a person who doesn't accept words of the Vedas as the infallible truth. After that it is only optional whether he believes in the existence of God or not. So in Hinduism one may not believe God but still be called as a theist as long as he believes the Vedas.

Now you may wonder how it is possible for someone to believe the Vedas but not believe in God? Well, this is because the Vedas don not maintain a consistent theory about who or what the God is and even statements that are skeptic of existence of a Supreme Being are present in the Vedas. So how can be the truth ascertained? That's where logic and philosophy comes in. Sages have tried to reconcile the different message of the Vedas accepting different kinds of proofs and given their own conclusion regarding the existence of God. So out of the six primary schools of thought in Hinduism, three say God, the supreme being, doesn't exist and three say God exists.

Nyāya School of Thought - God exists
Sage Gautam was the founder of this school of thought and it says in favour of God's existence. It laid out foundations of logic and arguments basing upon which the truthfulness of a certain thing can be ascertained.

Mimasa School of Thought (purva mīmāṃsā) - God doesn't exist
Sage Jaimini was the founder of this school of thought. They accepted Vedas as the personal experiences of the ultimate reality by various sages in the form of sound patterns. Hence, Vedas not being the creation of any person are called as apauruṣeya. Just like there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas, they argue, there was no need for a God to create the universe.

Mimansakas hold the belief that the gods named in the Vedas have no independent or separate existence other than the mantras that mention their names. It is only the power of these mantras which is considered as the power of the God.

Vaishesika School of Thought - God doesn't exist
Sage Kaṇāda was the founder of this school of thought. Just like the modern scientist, they speculated the existence of an unseen force that binds the atoms together but never gave it any human like attributes. So from the perspective of their area of research, Vaiśeṣika School didn’t accept the existence of any personal God or God with attributes. But it can’t be said for sure that they rejected the possibility of His existence.

Sāṃkhya School of Thought - God doesn't exist
Sage Kapila’s sāṃkhya school of thought did not accept the doctrine of a creator God. It contributed many useful concepts to Indian philosophy but argued against the presence of a creator being. It holds primordial nature (pradhāna) as the root from which everything originates.

Yoga School of Thought - God exists
Sage Patanjali was the proponent of this school of thought. They believe in the existence of God along with all the other twenty five elements of existence postulated by the system of sāṃkhya.

Vedanta School of Thought (uttara mīmāṃsā) - God exists
Sage Badarāyana was the founder of this school of thought. This school of thought is widely known and it argues in favor of the existence of God.

So as you can see, believing God is only but optional depending upon the school of thought one follows and it is not limited to any varna or cast like Brahmins etc. Although it is another thing that each school of thought argues and tries to refute the tenets of the other and the Vedanta school of thought is the most popular one. It is however another thing that the Vedanta schools of thought also have varying philosophies.

Please Note: I only tried to answer in brief due to shortage of time as this is a very long concept. I'll add and update this answer with verses and quotations as soon as I get time (possibly tomorrow). I hope this post provides some insight in the mean time regarding atheism in Hinduism


Update

Atheist is generally translated as nastika in Sanskrit or Hindi language. People have different idea regarding what nastika means the most common one being one who doesn't believe in God. Well, that's ok, but in Hinduism due to existence of different schools of thought (some of which don't even accept the existence of a creator God), the definition of nastika is one who rejects the authority of the Vedas. Some people (like Hindu who has commented below) out of love and admiration deny this definition to be of Hindu thought. But that's only their love speaking, the scriptures do speak of this:

nāstiko vedanindakaḥ [Manu Smrt. - 2.11]
sarvataḥ pāpadarśī ca nāstiko vedanindakaḥ [Mahabharat - 12.162.8]
vedavādāpaviddhāṃs tu tān viddhi bhṛśanāstikān [MB - 12.12.4]
- Know them for downright atheists that reject the declaration of the Vedas

There are many other instances where the nastikas have been mentioned and often their characteristics are given as ignorant people and who are sinful. But it is true that, this kind of people were not always there everywhere and their number has increased in the course of time . For example, during the time of Lord Rama there were no atheists in Ayodhya as the Ramayana describes:

kāmī vā na kadaryo vā nṛśaṃsaḥ puruṣaḥ kvacit
draṣṭum śakyam ayodhyāyām na avidvān na ca nāstikaḥ
[VR- 1.6.8]

Meaning
The lustful persons, the miserly, the unscholarly and the atheists were not seen in that city of Ayodhya anywhere.

Reagrding the philosophical systems rejecting God, it should be known as the Supreme Being. That is, the God with attributes. In Hinduism God is defined both with and without attributes. And philosophical schools like Samkhya deny the existence of any such creator God with attributes. They either don't deny or keep silent or describe it differently regarding the existence of the supreme entity. For example, the Vaisesika school calls the unknown force as adrishta rather than giving it God like attributes. Please see this wikipedia article for some more information as I am struggling with time to update this post.

  • ALL the "ninda" of Vedas, you mentioned, ONLY started AFTER they were written on paper. There are Buddhist accounts of altered philosophy in early Vedic culture. At the start of Kaliyuga, Brahmans who were ONLY supposed to seek Brahmm, were the first to get deviated from their spiritual path. ...An Avalanche always starts form the top...So veda neendako nastika is NOT a Hindu thought at all, may it be from anywhere. One who sees God in everything, always BELIEVES in Brahmm, and Him, irrespective of whether he believes in "Authority" of anything (e.g a pile of paper) over him, or NOT. – Hindu Dec 18 '14 at 17:50
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    @Hindu I understand your love for Hinduism, so I won't try to bring up arguable points in your comment. I am a worthless fellow my friend, why anyone intelligent would listen what I have to say or what I believe? So I only say that what's in the scriptures or unless I am pretty sure and can provide some kind of proof. I have my own philosophy that explains many things, including why the atheists exist in the first place if there is a God, but not even once I have stated my view or philosophy on this site. – Be Happy Dec 19 '14 at 11:59
  • @BeHappy So you really understand my "love for Hinduism", but I don't think that you really have understood Hinduism itself ever :D...and congratulations there are more people like you...who keep misinterpreting scriptures. – Hindu Jun 21 '15 at 6:30
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    @Hindu Maybe you are the one who does not understand Hinduism and trying to inflict your views on others. “Veda neendako nâstikaha" which translates to "who do not accept the teachings of the Vedas, who are critical of the Vedas, are nastiks "- said by Bhagawan Badarayan(The Preceptor of the Vedas) also known as Ved Vyasa. Source. Also feel free to research and try to write in simple font without caps.Caps DO NOT add value to your points. – user3708 Apr 3 '17 at 9:19
  • @BeHappy Does God Exist or Not Exist? – user9392 Jun 25 '17 at 12:16
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Although the Purva Mimamsa school is sometimes identified as being athiest, it is not. It is just silent on the existence of God.

There was also an old school of nihilists that believed in only the material world. They did not worship the gods or God.

Gaudapada's Karika of the Mandukya Upanishad has specific arguments against nihilists and materialists. The Karika's second, third, and fourth chapters prove by means of reason and argument the reality of Turiya and gives opposing arguments of nihilists. The first chapter uses scripture as authority, the second, third, and fourth, do not, they use only reason as authority.

  • Mimamsa do reject the notion of God in any form. Later commentators of the Mimamsa sutras such as Prabhākara (c. 7th century CE) advanced arguments against the existence of God. You are confusing Mimamsa with Samkhya. The earliest surviving authoritative text on classical Samkhya philosophy is the Samkhyakarika. The Samkhyakarika is silent on the issue of Isvara's(Isvara=Deity ) existence or nonexistence. – user3708 Apr 3 '17 at 8:53
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There is doctrinal freedom in Hinduism. Gita 18.63, for example, says.

'...Reflecting on this entire teaching do as you think fit.'

Atheism arises naturally from this freedom. Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam do not allow its followers such freedom. A Christian or a Muslim must believe in the doctrines and dogmas of their religion. Islamic Hadith recommends the death penalty to a Muslim who ceases to believe. Thus atheism is not an option for Christians or Muslims.

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Yes, Hinduism provides a broad spectrum of belief positions: from atheism to agnosticism and all the way to theism. In the latter category, there are individuals who posit the existence of an impersonal, attribute-less Brahman versus the ultimate existence of a personal Ishvar (with its dualistic implications). This array of permutations and combinations has enriched the Indian philosophical tradition. Just look at the various perspectives of the Vedantins.

The responses posted above regarding the Shad Darshan System (Six Classical Philosophical Schools) and its divergent views of a personal Creator have nicely described the versatility and heterogeneity of the beautiful Indian psyche.

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    while posting the answer on Hinduism.SE you should always try to support your post with references from scriptures – AADHinduism Jul 4 '16 at 5:16
  • @WhisperingMonk: Thank you for the guidance regarding these postings. I shall try to interweave passages from primary scriptural texts as well as secondary sources in the future. – Nehal Patel Jul 4 '16 at 14:04
  • yes, and in the current thread itself, you can see how a top-ranked answer is well written. Post with proper sources and brief but relevant explanations in your own words to explain the point is recommended here in Hinduism.SE – AADHinduism Jul 4 '16 at 17:36

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