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While there is a history of atheist/agnostic thought within the Hindu philosophical tradition, have there ever been actual communities of atheist/agnostic Hindus?

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Yes. There is a system of philosophy known as Lokayata which supports atheism. The followers of this system are known as Charvakas. Bruhaspati founded this branch of philosophy. Charvakas do not believe in Heaven, Hell, Soul and Karma

  • Do you have any details about the Charvakas — who they were, where they lived, how they interfaced with others around them, etc.? – Anirvan Jun 18 '14 at 23:25
  • Other than Charvakas, Mimamsa & Sankhya are non-theistic. I.e they do not prescribe a creator & sustainer God, but derive their ethics(karma, dharma) from the Vedas. In other words their interpret Vedas non-theistically. – Bharat Jun 18 '14 at 23:28
  • @Anirvan, Charvakas were a sect who became extinct. But that does not mean they were persecuted as Marxist historians would like to portray but their samparshaya couldn't sustain itself in a country which was deeply spiritual. They were materialistic non-theists while Sankhya & Mimamsa were spiritual non-theists(like Buddhists & Jains). – Bharat Jun 18 '14 at 23:31
  • @RBK, your comment naming the Mimamsa and Sankhya are helpful, and should probably be a standalone answer. Thanks! – Anirvan Jun 18 '14 at 23:33
  • Sure, will make it a standalone answer. – Bharat Jun 18 '14 at 23:34
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There have been 4 main non-theistic(nirīśvara-vāda) schools in Hinduism:

  1. Sāṃkhya
  2. Yoga
  3. Purva Mīmāṃsā
  4. Cārvāka

Cārvāka was a materialistic non-theistic school. I.e they believed in only pratyakṣa(perception) pramāna(valid means to knowledge). This puts them in the material realm. A simplified view of their philosophy would be : "If you can see something which exists, it must be true or else it is false. I cannot see Brahman, so Brahman does not exist. I can see this tree, so this tree exists."

The first 3 are spiritual non-theistic schools. I.e they believe in more than just perception and extend valid means of knowing to meta-physical realms. These are similar to Buddhism & Jainism in rejecting a creator God but not rejecting the meta-physical realms which are beyond human perception(similar only in this aspect).

Cārvāka is not usually grouped along with Sāṃkhya, Purva Mīmāṃsā & Yoga despite all the 4 being non-theistic is because Cārvāka doesn't consider śabda pramāna(Śruti or Vedas) to be valid means of knowledge, while the others do. They(the former 3) interpret Vedas non-theistically, mainly as a source of ethics(Karma, Dharma) only and don't believe in creator & sustainer God.

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    Yoga is a theistic school. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra I.24 says 'Ishwara is a special kind of Being, untouched by ignorance and the products of ignorance, not subject to karmas or samskaras or the results of action'. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jan 24 '16 at 5:33
  • Only charvaka is Nastika for list you mentioned. – Paṇḍyā Jun 8 '17 at 13:41
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    @Pandya Nastika does not mean atheistic. It refers to those who reject Vedic authority. They may or may not be atheist. – user13107 Oct 12 '17 at 5:39
  • Theism & atheism are concepts alien to Indic thought. Unfortunately we have to use them while using English. Nāstika just means those who don't confirm to a philosophical view point. For example, the Buddhists considered Cārvāka, Ājīvikas and Jains as 'Nāstika'. None of these schools mentioned are 'theistic'. – Bharat Oct 12 '17 at 17:03

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