ATHEISM is a non issue in Sanatana Dharma

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • April 10, 2024
  • The article explains the principle of the excluded middle and the Christian concept of God based on which premises, the author makes a case that atheism as a category is irrelevant to Sanatana Dharma.

Atheism is the opposite of theism. Opposite is used here in the sense that Aristotle used the term in his Physics --- the opposite of something, for example, is nothing. The opposite of one, according to Aristotelian logic, is zero or null. Putting it differently, something is there or not there. According to Aristotelian logic, something cannot both be there and not be there at the same time. There can be no two simultaneous outcomes of a single proposition. This is known as the principle of the excluded middle. 

What we call Western philosophy is based on the principle of the ‘excluded middle’. 

According to this principle, either there is God or there is nothing. In short, Western philosophy is grounded on dualities. This is not the case with Dharmic philosophies, it is not a case of either/or as is found in Aristotelian and subsequent Western logic.

We, unlike Aristotle, accept the so-called ‘excluded middle’. That is, the opposite of something is not nothing, but maybe some other thing. This insight of not excluding the middle is a direct result of how we see, or not see, God. The existence of God poses insurmountable problems from a philosophical standpoint. This problem was acknowledged by Acharyas Gaudapada and later by Adi Shankaracharya. 

They reasoned thus: if God exists how is it that evil, primarily natural evil, exists? Their readings of the Upanishads revealed that such a category called ‘God’ is inapplicable to our Dharma and irrelevant. The Problem of Evil negates the existence of God in the sense that the Abrahamic religions posit the existence of both God and Satan/Shaitan.

William Rowe's (1931-2015) fawn (The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism 1979) is a well-known example of the Problem of Evil. Rowe argues that the suffering of a baby deer in a forest fire in no way serves any purpose for an omnipotent and omniscient God. It is impossible that God can derive any comfort from a baby deer suffering so horribly to pay for its non-existent sins. Taking the hint from Rowe, someone can argue, oh, the fawn is paying for its past karma. 

But then, the problem arises that if there is a God in the Abrahamic sense of an all-knowing and all-powerful entity/monad who creates beings ex nihilo, or, from nothing, then how and why did this God allow the first form of the fawn to do wrong in the ontic/original state?

The theory of infinite regression (regressus ad infinitum) too forbids the presence of ontic or original sin since a benevolent Creator God cannot allow any first being to do any wrong. Thus, the idea of a watchmaker God, an immovable mover is unacceptable to us. The watchmaker God of William Paley or the immoveable mover God of Aristotle both cannot explain the reason for God’s existence through regressus ad infinitum; since not being able to see beyond a point does not mean that there is nothing beyond that point. If anything, it goes against the principle of the impassibility of God. That is, God is impassible or not entirely knowable. This leaves room for regressus ad infinitum. This renders the possibility of theism void. Yet in no way do we call ourselves atheists.

Conversely, that does not automatically mean we are theists. As had been emphasized earlier, we do not agree with the Aristotelian notion of opposites. We find the term atheist problematic since it does not do justice to a more nuanced middle position. Also, what Western thinkers have called the excluded middle presupposes a middle in relation to two antipodes: or two opposite extremes. We do not accept such extremes.

Returning to God and suffering; if God permits suffering or needs suffering to help a created being, then God is not God according to Western definitions of God. The opposite of God is not, no-God. It is the Self illumined. We can further approach this problem of God through the Madhyamika philosophy of Bhagvan Buddha.

There is no ‘nothing’. There exists a Middle path between philosophical idealism and (Jain) pragmatism. This is the Middle Path. Jains approach this problem through their theory of ‘anekāntavāda’. Since Indic thought systems are non-dual and do not admit of pure theism; atheism as a category is irrelevant for us.

Carvaka’s philosophy is not atheism; it is at the same time pure hedonism and pure materialism. Indian Marxist thinkers have imputed to Carvaka their European ontologies and thus keep returning to the existence of God as the objection to the foundation of religious discourses. God is indeed essential for religious discourses, but unnecessary within the economy of the evolutionary nature of our Dharma. We are monists and not monotheists or polytheists. Even Acharya Ramanuj does not agree with Lord Krishna being akin to God --- Sri Ramanujacharya’s philosophy is vishishtadvaita or, qualified non-dualism.

Atheism within our Dharma means a belief in the Vedas or lack thereof. This, with the caveat: by the Vedas we do not mean every word of the Vedas are to be taken literally since like all texts, the Vedas too are fluid and ruptured with extrapolations. 

Robin Le Poidevin writes in Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1996): “A religion, then, on this account, is a way of life based on a metaphysical conception of the world. Religious doctrine contains, therefore, what are essentially explanatory hypotheses…In contrast to this view is the non-metaphysical conception of religion” (Introduction to Le Poidevin’s book, xx, italics is Le Poidevin’s). 

Herein lies the fundamental difference between our Dharma and other ways of extant religious practices.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was unfortunately swayed by this ‘way of life’ theory of religion which derives from the anthropology of religions in the West. Further, our Dharma does not consist of ‘explanatory hypotheses’. Our Dharma is based on experiential ratiocination, or reasoning which leads to certain conclusions which are not hypothetical but found to be true irrespective of time, place, and practitioner. This absolute nature of certain truths and not, truth-claims, have been definitively pointed out in the Yoga Sutras. Our seers have over eons and millennia discovered the archeology of this and other universes. Thus, we do not hold with hypotheses, neither with pure idealism or a purely phenomenological understanding of the world. Thus, we hold untrue some of the contentions of the German Idealists and many postulates of both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. 

For instance, we do not subscribe to the construction of the ‘dasein’ as found in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Dasein indicates the human person in all its limitations in the here and the now --- the dasein is imagined by Heidegger to be death-oriented and marked by its total helplessness or abjection. The Heideggerian dasein is reoriented to life by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner through its belief in the risen Christ. We reject both the Heideggerian death-oriented ‘dasein’ and of course, Karl Rahner’s life-oriented dasein since these ‘dasein’ or the persons/beings in the here and the now are existentially authentic or factive, that is, the ‘dasein’ finds its facticity, or reality, in a Christian understanding of God who is the essence, or ontological and archetypal esse of the existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre who rejects this arch-dasein in his Being and Nothingness.

We end this brief critique of the category of ‘atheism’ by referring to this well-known and popular work by Sartre. 

We return to our contention that we do not agree with the opposite of Being as Nothing. Such an Aristotelian proposition is meaningless within our discourse. Just since we do not hold true the explanatory hypotheses of either Heidegger or Jean Paul Sartre on the one hand and, Rahner’s misplaced theological optimism on the other hand, we do not become atheists. 

To reiterate at the cost of being cliched, we are Vedantins and followers of Samkhya and Yoga and Tantra and thus we are all monists of one sort or another. The various manifestations of the Holy Mother as found in Kashmiri Shaivism and in the Anuttara Trika are not outside deities --- they are within us. In Chan Buddhism, to give another example, it is deity visualization akin to Hindu Tantra and Vajrayana which leads to Nirvana. 

These deities are not external deities in the Abrahamic sense where angels exist eternally outside space and time. Within the Hindu understanding of time, time is not a function of God. Time and everything that is corporeal is Brahman as the Upanishadic Mahavakyas declare.

And yet, following our tradition we do not hold that there is an external God for such a God gives rise to the problem of evil. That does not make us atheists since we hold that Brahman is the foundation of everything, nay, Brahman is all that is.

Sanskrit scholars testify that there is no word which is cognate to God in that language. That discussion is for another day.

Aham Brahmasmi. 

Author Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay    is a comparative theologian with formal qualifications in Hinduism and Biblical Theology. He has a First Masters in English from the University of Calcutta from where he completed his Ph.D. in Patristics, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. 

To read all articles by author

Also read

1. Atheism and Theism in India Thought

2. What is the concept of God in Christianity and Sanatana Dharma

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