Atheism in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism

Religion without God in Indian philosophy
by Shlomo Biderman

Speaking of the religious activity of the believer, Wittgenstein described him as "using a picture." If we adopt Wittgenstein's metaphor we shall probably have no difficulty in identifying, in most cases, the main subject of such pictures. By this I mean, of course, the concept of God. The existence of God in monotheistic western religions is regarded as inseparable from the very existence of those religions. It should, therefore, be of no surprise that common definitions of religion -- treading in the wake of the monotheistic trend, emphasize right from the beginning the belief in the existence of God as a necessary ingredient of religion.

There is no doubt that the monotheistic picture indeed represents a large number of religions. But one should not jump to the conclusion that the religious museum solely represents pictures of the monotheistic trend. On the contrary, one can find in the museum a great variety of religious pictures, in part of which God figures in the center of the picture, in others He figures only in the margins, and in some He does not figure at all.

The most prominent religious picture in which God does not figure at all is, of course, the Buddhist religion. This religion can be characterized not only as non-theistic but more so as atheistic; that is to say, not only does the Buddhist religion discard the notion of God as a religious term, but it vehemently rejects any use of this notion as meaningless. Buddhism is, therefore, a religion without God.

Monotheistic religions very often describe God as revealing himself in the world. God's revelation usually takes place in the succession of historical events that began at the moment of the creation of the world and continued throughout history. God's subsequent revelations in history have sometimes been direct, and sometimes by means of intermediaries, the prophets, sages and saints. In the context of God's revelation Scriptures play an especially important role. In the first place they give out invaluable information concerning God's revelation in history. Furthermore, they describe the exact nature of those revelations. The Scriptures are therefore conceived as directly springing from God who bestows upon them authority as well as infallibility.

It is thus plausible to assume that any atheistic religion which denies the existence of God would therefore try to the best of its ability to undermine the authority of Scriptures as well. And indeed Buddhist and Jainist philosophies in India have both attacked the intelligibility of the concept of God as well as the notion of s'abda - the World of Scriptures through which God is revealed. It is, therefore, strange to find out a religion which is totally in accord with the Buddhist religion in its refutation of God's existence but which,--at the same time, revers the Scriptures fullheartedly. This religion is represented by--the Mimamsa school of Hinduism. In what follows I shall dwell upon some interesting points of that religion.

First, a few words concerning the historical background of Mimamsa. The Mimamsa school is considered to be one of the most ancient of Hindu philosophical schools. The oldest text of it known to us today is the mimamsa sutra which, according to Indian tradition, was written by the somewhat mysterious Jaimini. It was in all probability composed in the third or second centuries B.C. However, there is room to suppose that the actual beginnings of the Mimamsa school can be dated even earlier; the mimamsa sutra is thus a systematic summary of some religious conceptions that existed in India up to the time of Ja'imini. Several commentaries were written on the mimamsa sutra, and the most important one known to us today is that of Sabara. According to most scholars this commentary was written in the first or second centuries A.D., that is, about five hundred years after Jaimini's lifetime.

As its name, 'Inquiry,' indicates, Mimamsa considers the interpretation of Scriptures to be its primary function. The Scriptures are the only source for knowing religious duties (dharma). They present religious duties within a set of laws, injunctions and prohibitions, to which the believer must strictly adhere to. Thus, the religious verses that can be found in the Scriptures have a single objective: to instruct man in the permitted paths of action and to block off those paths that are forbidden him. It follows that religious duty is not dependent either on some abstract articles of faith or on the existence of some mental state. In other words, religion obliges the believer only as a set of commands, that is, only insofar as religion impinges on his actions. Religion is not therefore intended to provide man with historical, cosmological, psychological or moral precepts; it certainly does not claim to preach a spiritual method of release by which man can attain the absolute Being. The sole legitimate aim of religion is to oblige man to perform certain activities and to refrain from others.

Dharma, then is expressed by the set of laws and injunctions which are presented to the believer in the Scriptures. Obviously, the infallibility of these Scriptures, is a necessary condition for accepting the religious imperatives as authoritative and binding. In other words, in order that the religious commands would be regarded as obligatory, the validity of Scriptures should be acknowledged beyond any reasonable doubt. In fact, the validity of Scriptures is accepted by the Mimamsa as axiomatic. Scriptures are authoritative, that is, everlasting, unchangeable and infallible; they do not stem from any external source, either divine or human.

- L. Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Belief,"
in: Lecture and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (ed. by C. Barrett), Oxford, 1970.

2 For a summary of Buddhist attitude towards God, revelation and Scriptures see K. N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, London, 1963, Chapter IV. See also K. N. Jayatilleke, The Message of the Buddha, London, 1975, Chapter IV.

- in Religious atheism? Apostel, Pinxten, et al.

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