Diwali greetings from a Hindu atheist

Dear Unknown Reader, I’d like to wish you a very Happy Diwali!

Just the other day, I returned from the local drugstore with a box of electric Christmas tree lights and red cinnamon-scented tea-light candles.The store had them stocked up for early Christmas shoppers, but I bought them to put up as Diwali lights in front of the foggy window of my apartment. When you live outside India, you quickly learn to trade what you used to be able to get easily for what is readily available to you.

I am a Hindu atheist. I grew up in a flexible atmosphere of spirituality shaped by Kant, Einstein, and  Tagore. Now, I am at a stage in my life when I do not believe that deities actually exist in any form.

Then why the “Hindu” qualifier to “atheist”? Growing up most of my neighbors were Muslim. I went to a Catholic school. But even to this day, I culturally identify as a Hindu. My involvement isn’t dispassionately secular either.While I don’t take the concept that a goddess Durga actually lives on frosty Mount Kailash and comes down to defeat the demon Mahisasur seriously, that does not prevent me from enjoying the four days of Durga Puja. And I enjoy Diwali and Holi and Saraswati Puja too!

One of the strongest memories I have of my paternal grandfather from my childhood is of him performing the first sandhya of the day sometime before dawn. Every day, I’d be half-asleep in my bed and he would he would recite the guru strotram in his rich baritone – agyana timirandhasya gyananjana salakaya. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough to arouse my gyananjana from deep slumber!

I remember my grandfather as an intensely devout man who lived his life as ethically as anyone I’ve known. I’ve heard the story that he once hid the truth in a court of law when he was called up as a witness in order to save the life of a man who he thought had been unjustly convicted. Shortly after this episode, he contracted typhoid fever from which he nearly died. Until his last days, many decades later, he fervently believed that his near-death experience was divine punishment for his transgression.

Science happened to me. I brush it off as microbiology.  As the inimitable Tom Paine remarked, “infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.”  My beliefs are different from that of my ancestors. I don’t ever deny that or that I’m an atheist.

Yet, to deny my link to the religion of my ancestors would be to deny my heritage (for better and for worse). And that would be an equal infidelity on my part.

Sometimes, in their honor, I quietly recite the guru strotram.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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19 thoughts on “Diwali greetings from a Hindu atheist

  1. oh, please. there’s nothing odd about being a Hindu Atheist. Hindu just means Indian. if you worship Durga, your religion is probably Shaktism. or if you follow the Brahmanical rituals, then Brahmanism (from metaphysical Brahman or idolatry Brahma, not the priests of that religion, namely Brahmins).

    but most Hindus (Indians) are non-denominational theists or multi-religious while some are monotheist (muslims, christians, veera vaishnavas). and several of the Hindu (Indian) religions are religiously atheist (jainism, ajivika or even advaita in some sense) meaning they reject the notion of a supernatural God.

    in anycase Deepavali is a Festival of lights which is much older than the epic period and didn’t originate from Rama, Krishna stories or Mahavira’s death.

    a festival of lights at the onset of winter (Deepavali) and a later one welcoming the Sun northwards (Makar Sankranthi) seem common-sensical good natured indulgence.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      “Hinduism just means being Indian”

      I disagree with this comment. The latter has a very specific geopolitical definition which doesn’t tightly overlap with the former. As an analogy, being Jewish isn’t the same as being Israeli and even then that is a poor analogy. India was not created under the same conditions.

      You may have noticed that I am not making a theological point in my post. I do not “worship” any deity. I offer no prayers, accept no aarti, and bow to no gods. I do not believe in any non-denominational Higher Power either.

  2. Good article. I think it is interesting that if you actually get to the heart of Hinduism, the ultimate goal is oneness with the universe. In my mind, the Gods are simply there to make it easier to visualize a holy presence. Hiding beneath it all is the idea that enlightenment and oneness with the universe is the ultimate goal. If you read any of the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita etc you will see that this is the case.

    So to me, Hinduism is actually a remarkably sophisticated religion with many facets which all ultimately lead to the same conclusion.

  3. In that case I think you are agnostic? Like those who are not sure if they are believer or non believer…because you know you really can’t be a Hindu if you are an atheist. And as much as I along with many such bong atheists enjoy the Pujo we cannot say Puju is necessarily a religions activity. You know how the barobari pujo started, right? Not as religious but very much as a social activity.

    If one would ask me, I would say, as an atheist so far as my pursuit of life is concerned religion has no role to play. Culture has some limited role and those parts of the culture which can be strictly segregated from religion I am happy to embrace.

    I wrote a really long post on this with all the laws related to Hindu marriages et all, you & your readers might want to read it. So there, pimping my blog but for good trust me… http://sanjukta.wordpress.com/2007/10/09/atheism-law-and-marriage-hindu-marriage-act-special-marriage-act/

    First time on your blog, would return for more.
    Sanjukta

    • Hi Sanjukta,

      Thanks for your long comment. Really enjoyed reading it.

      I am not an agnostic, but rather an atheist.A few years ago the same argument came up when administrators on Wikipedia had tagged “atheism in Hinduism” for deletion. They said, “how can you be an atheist and a Hindu?”

      Well, there is the philosophical angle which Amartya Sen expounds in “Argumentative Indian” on atheist schools within the Hindu philosophical framework. My point is simpler.

      I identify culturally as a Hindu and for me that is a social tag not strictly a religious one.

      🙂

      Suppose a Jewish person becomes an atheist. In terms of religion, he or she is no longer Jewish, but ethnically and culturally he or she can identify as “Jewish”.

      Thanks for the blog link. I’ll read for sure.

      Best wishes to you,
      Anirban

  4. And that’s how religion lingers on… people who don’t subscribe to religious ideologies but have affinities towards their ancestor’s tradition (religion) – and as a result they end up affiliating/associating themselves with it. I used to think that this is a rational and harmless position to take (as opposed to a complete withdrawal) but then I read Sam Harris. Here’s an excerpt from The End of Faith:

    “While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything critical to be said about the religious literalism. We can not say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we can not even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scriptures is generally unrivaled. […]

    Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question – i.e. that we know there’s a God, and that we know what he wants from us – religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of wilderness.”

    I was born as a Hindu, and I am an atheist.

  5. Thanks, Vishal for your comment and for providing the Sam Harris quote.

    While I generally agree with Messrs. Harris and Dawkins, I think that by equating a moderate person with one who is passive, they’re passing up on a nuanced argument. I understand the need to draw up battle lines from a rhetoric perspective especially against the dogmas of religions, but a one-size fits all approach only alienates those who have genuine doubts about their faith (and more importantly the lack, thereof). It is an either you’re with us, or you’re against us monochromatic prism.

    I argue that holding on to the vestiges of religion is not hypocritical for someone who comes from a region where for millennia religion was synonymous with culture (good, bad, and ugly). My point is that even if you consider religion to be a cancer, it may not be possible for everyone to remove the tumor without cutting out what is part of individual legacy. I do not derive pleasure from the knowledge that religion shaped the lives of my ancestors, but I cannot disavow it: the evils committed in the name of religion are an albatross around my neck for the rest of my days.

  6. True. It’s not easy to shake off a system of belief that was held close to the chest for centuries by generations. I can see that.

    The logical evolution of religious belief is from tribalism, to paganism, to polytheism, to monotheism, and ultimately to nontheism/atheism. Only until recently, the world was moving in this direction, perhaps ever so rapidly. But last couple of decades have experienced a reversal of trend. Religious fundamentalism and intolerance has been growing roots in many underdeveloped as well as developed nations (such as the United States). Whether we like it or nor, the lines have already been drawn between belief and non-belief. And I think the religious moderates are in a very crucial position. They seem to think that by inhabiting the middle space between atheists and religious fundamentalists they have taken a rational middle way. But in reality, from the believer’s POV, the moderates are in the same camp; they just have a different (read “flawed”) interpretations of the religious literature/beliefs.

    I think your “I choose to believe X because my ancestors believed in it” is a plausible explanation. But I think this *explanation* should not be interpreted as a rational *justification*.

  7. True. It’s not easy to shake off a system of belief that was held close to the chest for centuries by generations. I can see that.

    The logical evolution of religious belief is from tribalism, to paganism, to polytheism, to monotheism, and ultimately to nontheism/atheism. Only until recently, the world was moving in this direction, perhaps ever so rapidly. But last couple of decades have experienced a reversal of trend. Religious fundamentalism and intolerance has been growing roots in many underdeveloped as well as developed nations (such as the United States). Whether we like it or nor, the lines have already been drawn between belief and non-belief. And I think the religious moderates are in a very crucial position. They seem to think that by inhabiting the middle space between atheists and religious fundamentalists they have taken a rational middle way. But in reality, from the believer’s POV, the moderates are in the same camp; they just have a different (read “flawed”) interpretations of the religious literature/beliefs.

    Anyways, back to your comment, I think your “I choose to believe X because my ancestors believed in it” is a plausible explanation. But I think this *explanation* should not be interpreted as a rational *justification*.

  8. Hindu atheist is no neologism. As in Greece, so in Iran and India, the Indo-Europeans had given birth to several free-thinkers in the early years of the first millennium BCE. In India they were known as Śramaņas. Most of them were atheists, including three upstarts known to the world as Siddhārtha, Mahāvīra and Ājīvika who founded three independent godless dhammas which refused to remain so soon after their death. Cārvāka, the original, was perhaps an earlier atheist, irreligious to boot. There have been several atheists of that ilk till the middle of the first millennium BCE, all of them bearing the Cārvāka label. It is not very clear but erudite speculations suggest that all atheists “without” a dhamma were Cārvākas.

    • I’ve had many discussions with one of my uncles, who was a philosopher by trade and temperament, along those lines. Equally difficult to define some of the early Hindu theists too who placed a magnifying glass on all that was wondrous in nature and created a pantheon to praise.

      Many thanks for your illuminating comments. 🙂

  9. Your predicament is very akin to mine, but I do not understand why we cannot take our mythology to be, just that, mythology- and not assign it the status of History. I like the Greek model, you enjoy the stories and the culture and not worry about what one does or does not believe…and the celebratory aspects of religion? That’s what I like, it is true Bengali trait from dol jatra to Christmas pujo, it is all there on Calcutta streets! I am just back from a round of garba during the navratri celebrations in Baroda and its rejunvenating! How can such a wonderful thing be wrong?? No one asked me whether I believed that Ram and Ravan existed- we were too busy dancing and having fun!!

  10. You actually make it seem so easy along with your presentation however I
    to find this topic to be actually something which I believe I’d
    never understand. It kind of feels too complex and extremely broad for
    me. I am having a look forward in your next post, I will try to get the hold
    of it!

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