Asking an Indian whether he believes in God seems to be an unnecessary question considering the deep rooted religious and spiritual outlook that the society here is accustomed to. And you could be pardoned to dismiss Atheism in India as “Im the smartass” conversations among a few disillusioned youth outside the intimidating presence of hundreds of temples, churches and mosques. Though its acceptance is debatable, of the several thousand ideologies that evolved in the Indian society, Atheism should be the most unlikely that you would figure to be 1800 years old
It was in the year 600 BC (or 600 BCE to be politically correct) that the first atheist school of thought, Lokyāta (or Carvaka) came into existence. Brihaspati, an ancient philosopher founded and preached the Lokayata thought and is considered the father of Atheist movement in India. His views were anything but conservative even in the current context.
“As long as you live, live happily, take a loan and drink ghee. After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?”
It spoke of a self-centred hedonistic approach to Atheism which never quelled the element of fear, the foundation of religion as per philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell.
Very little is documented about Lokyāta and its demise in 1400 AD though it doesn’t come as a surprise considering the fate of several scientists and thinkers in the West who faced torture and persecution from religious bodies like the Catholic Church because of their refusal to acknowledge the existence of God.
Hinduism’s tryst with Atheism is rather intriguing when you take into account ‘Nastika’, a school of thought that advocated the rejection of belief in the Vedas(Astika) but later came to be associated with atheism itself. Though several schools of thought like the Nyay Sutras, Samkhya and Vaisheshika evolved with varying degrees of dependence on logical, scientific and sometimes spiritual methodologies, almost all of them failed to acknowledge the importance of social contribution and address the real world problems in the Indian society.
Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (aka Gora) vowed to change that when he started the Atheist Centre in 1940 and established a headquarters in Vijayawada on the eve of India’s independence in 1947. Combining humanism and his passion for enabling social change, Gora along with his wife worked tirelessly towards uplifting the poor and the lower caste. His atheism was positive, not an instrument of exhibiting intellectual superiority over conservationists in cocktail parties. He did share a good rapport with Mahatma Gandhi though when he was conferred with the G D Birla International Award for Humanism, The Hindu called him ‘a Gandhian and freedom fighter’ while his association with atheism was more or less ignored. Maybe an atheist contributing to the society in India is still unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Gora’s Atheist Centre silently continues to promote of atheism, humanism and social change.