What does religion mean to you?
The founding genius of Samkhya Yoga can be attributed to Rishi Kapila, and its form and rigour to the efforts of the philosopher Ishvarakrishna who lived in the third century of our era.
Also providing the theoretical foundation for the philosophy, science and practice of yoga, it is considered to be one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy that accepted the empirical authority of the Vedas, the existence of the soul, and the existence of a supreme being.
The Samkhya school of thought follows the logic of three “proofs” as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge, these being perception, inference, and written testimony. The proponents of this “rationalist” philosophy declared that the universe consists of two independent realities, consciousness and matter, both existing in parallel with neither having been created by the other.
The origins of atheism
At the same time theistic, nontheistic, and even atheistic, it is however the approach of atheism that had become most closely associated with Samkhya which espoused the application of reason as the prime engine and, crucially, considered irrelevant the existence of God or a supreme being in the quest for the final truth.
Therefore, let us consider a short four-syllable word that can mean so many things to so many people. This is because the application of “atheism” is as nuanced and varied as the experiences and conditions that attach to it, notwithstanding that in contemporary mythology an “atheist” is popularly defined as “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods.”
Originating from the ancient Greek work “aethos,” which meant simply “without god(s),” in the age of organized religion it was reduced to a slur, a pejorative, for those who had the temerity to reject the gods accepted and worshipped by society at large and were, therefore, considered as forsaken by the gods.
The “religious” and “cerebral” pariahs of mainstream society, these “radical” thinkers were gradually rehabilitated by the dissemination of free thought, skeptical and empirical enquiry, and the inevitable rise of a systematic critique of religion and its basis.
The supremacy of human reason would eventually prevail in our relatively modern times in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Programmed for conformity
If we are creatures programmed for conformity, then where is the need to step out of the safe confines of organized religion? That’s easy to answer -- it is necessary because the outer limits of our ability to conform are inevitably tested, and an evolutionary condition manifest in the logic of human existence becomes impossible to sustain against the reality of inquisitiveness, that is the outcome of the fearsome intellect and cognitive facilities that we possess.
So, therefore, where is the evidence of the existence of divinity? The bifurcation between good and evil appears to be the epistemological equivalent of playing a game of “heads I win and tails you lose,” because “good” were those who, while striving to uphold the notion of their church and its supremacy, were not averse to committing every atrocity devised by man against those who were designated as “evil,” the victims of the fury and sadism unleashed and who may well have been innocent of any wrongdoing.
Tragically, the representatives of the “good” have in the march of history provided little evidence of the existence of the divine perfection whose cause they have so completely and brutally championed.
How can you deny the divinity that every human is born with? Again, easy to answer. We are born, mewling and puking and, like screaming chicks in a nest, with mouths perpetually ajar for nourishment.
Divinity, as with all other conditionings, is inculcated through the formative years. The result of adulthood is a combination of values and social mores instilled at home as well as the culture absorbed.
And one must also wonder that the Ramayana and Mahabharata, anchored by the Bhagavad Gita, that ultimate observation and record of human nature and its frailties, are the formal texts that bind and create a certain cohesion across the vast breadth of something called
Hinduism, but do not dwell at any length on the concept of, much less the necessity for, the existence of a supreme being.
A local and localized experience
And if Hinduism is indeed a complete way of life in which religion may or may not play a part, what is then the role of formal religion in the life of the average citizen? Permit me to demonstrate how religion is a purely local and localized experience.
Consider for a moment our energetic maid who tackles and subdues one item of furniture after another in her determined quest for perfect cleanliness. Imagine the figures of Lord Jagannath, his sister Subhadra, and elder brother Balabhadra, perched on the revolving bookshelf stationed in one corner of the dining area, occupying pride of place on the only novelty I possess. And then, in the aftermath of the dusting frenzy, imagine my consternation at discovering not infrequently my deities standing on their heads, to be hurriedly placed again right side up by yours truly?
Because, astonishingly, despite what I presumed to be patently obvious to any South Asian that these are images of divinity and, therefore, to be treated with at least a sliver of affection, it is apparently not so.
For this young woman, mother of four steeped in the traditions of semi-rural Uttar Pradesh and its mesh of faith and belief and conduct and superstition, the incarnations or variations of gods and goddesses of the personal and familiar pantheon,
Krishna, Subhadra, and Balaram, as glorified by the Oriya nation are as alien to her as the tenets of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Religion is intensely local, if it even takes into account the role of a personal deity, rarely going beyond the personal universe of the immediate neighbourhood.
Thus it would appear that a form of theism is not indispensable to the momentum of our personal lives. I wonder what would be the outcome of a global referendum based on the solitary question of what religion means to a person.
Religion, personal belief, conduct, a way of life, a denial of a supreme being, a denial of godhead, the trenchant advocacy of atheism as it manifested itself so variously and uniquely in the entire gamut from the Dravida movement of the great Periyar to the scientific modern-day crusade of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Yes, there appears to be space for all in this enormous world.
Finding God everyday, everywhere
And, yet, how do you explain the tears that accumulate at the corner of the eyes when the national anthem plays to the accompaniment of the flag being hoisted? Why does the heart hurt at the distressed cry of an injured animal? How did that tune overtake and capture the consciousness?
While dancing alone in a pool of light, overwhelmed, submerged, in the moment created by the rhythm of melody and beat, were you lifted out of the frame of your physical form?
How do you explain the happiness which suspends you in the crackling air of a bright winter morning?
Perhaps God does indeed reside in the trees and rocks, in the gyrating figure, and perhaps also in the swiftly flowing river as it winds its way through the mountains and the brilliant blue sky which smiles down at your upturned face.
Perhaps there is a subtle difference in saying that one does not believe in God and declaring that one is an atheist. Beware of espousing the path of the trenchant non-believer, lest a citizen ask you to explain who created the darkness before the infinite darkness in which we remain suspended for all eternity.
Don’t believe. Nevertheless, do look, for you may discover God in the small things in life.
Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India and is a freelance contributor.