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Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion

February 03, 2012

How atheism and existentialism led me to Hinduism's purest, most nonreligious message.

When I was younger, I would, as some sort of a recurring joke, facetiously ask my mother, what she would do if I were an atheist (although I see nothing funny about this question now.) She would reassure me, quite sincerely it seemed, that she would always respect whatever faith, or non-faith for that matter, I chose to follow. Nevertheless, my mother would quickly follow up with a smug grin: “But you’re not having any ideas, are you?”

Well, I am having ideas right now. I don’t believe that I am an atheist but I find certain tenets of Hinduism much less appealing to reason than certain aspects of atheism.

So how did this transformation occur? How did the girl who once scoffed at atheism as the hallmark of callous, joyless weirdoes learn to celebrate its virtues?

This year, amidst college applications, I’ve been doing some reading. In my English class, we explored existentialism and after learning about it, I revealed to my mother what I knew about the philosophy. I explained that existentialists believe that the world is absurd because (1) human beings have a proclivity to impose order upon the universe and (2) this despite the fact that the inherently chaotic universe resists any such preordained meaning.

This notion might sound grim, however, existentialists believe that the best way to wrestle this absurdity is by living authentically – that is, faithfully to one’s own spirit despite external pressures such as social mores. While I found the existentialist ethos liberating, my mother found it, as a whole, too edgy.

Apart from reading existentialist works, I also read those of noted atheists, namely Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They made the case against organized religion and all the atrocities it has and continues to foster by indoctrinating its followers. In April of last year, when The NRI published an article about India’s shameful regard for the late Sathya Sai Baba, I found myself especially irritated. The notion of criticizing a prolific philanthropist just seemed irreverent. Sure, I thought, Sathya Sai Baba promoted religious complacency, but so what? He gifted his docile followers with modern necessities and they innocuously followed his teachings.

It wasn’t until I read the writings of the aforementioned atheists that I saw the urgent danger of grandiose divine claims such as those of Sathya Sai Baba. They encourage a lack of inquiry and deference in the place of spiritual inquiry. This same ignorance, while meek and fawning one moment, turns manically proselytistic and violently intolerant the next.

At this point, I began looking at Hinduism critically. If seeking truth and reason is the noblest endeavor, then the superstitions (vastu shastra, for instance) that Hinduism entails become void. So too do the ideas of reincarnation and vasanas – some sort of karmic remnants of a past life that contour the present – deem themselves false.

My mother is, to put it lightly, upset about these recent changes. But why wouldn’t she be? Wasn’t this transformation something my ancestors would never have been able to imagine? Haven’t I just lost my religion?

The answer is maybe. The Gita, at its crux, makes one claim that it is not religious but rather entirely spiritual. It asserts that the concept “God” is, quite simply, the life source within every living being. Here, it doesn’t claim to know the beginnings of the universe or try to impose some moral order. It doesn’t encourage deference. It holds none of the trappings of religion. Rather it uses the concept of “God” to encourage a respect for the life – the oneness – shared by all living things. In this vein, this version of Hindu spirituality encourages that we conscientiously make the most of our life and our intellectual capacity.

Hinduism – not as a religion, but as spirituality – promotes that which atheism – the inherent celebration of reason and intellect – and existentialism also uphold. It is here where I currently find myself.

But what is the evidence for my position? What is the evidence that the very life inside every living thing is godly? There is none. I know this one detail sounds contradictory to what I have been seeking the entire time. However, what my position is backed by, more importantly, is reason: If the concept of “God” suggests the noblest being, what use is it to endow this stature to some unworldly force? Why not dedicate our time to living righteously for the sake of the life that every creature shares instead of paying paeans to an outside deity? Call this line of reasoning opportunistic. I call it worthy of our effort.

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  • Partha
    28.03.13 11:21 PM
    i love the philosophy held in Sabarimala, if one lead the life of righteousness, truth, non-violence ..... you are GOD. You are called GOD, " swami" you are dealt with as a GOD, one tends to realize ones own divinity. the deity and you are the same. - "Tatvamasi" which uphold the idea that " you are GOD' .
  • Ambrosial
    15.07.12 10:09 AM
    The biggest teacher is terminal disease/death, any atheist or scientist or any human...when they want to live and cannot, thats when most remember then its too late...anyhow...I love believing that I am God I just need to unfold myself to that core...
  • Rajpriya
    04.02.12 01:40 PM
    I was born to Hindu parents and have gone with my parents to temples. I found that I became God-fearing person and thought many times before I did any thing wrong. I grew up with this idea that God was watching my actions and that he was everywhere.

    Not bad at least I had a reason to grow up a reasonably good human being. In my adulthood I went abroad for my education and the only relationship I had with God was my mothers letters reminding me that he would bless me to achieve all what I wanted in life.

    Being far away from any great motivation to be religious I started to treat God like my Doctor. If I had some chronic illness I would go to my Doctor and get some medication and when cured I never thought it was necessary to think of him or thank him, But treated God slightly different I said “Oh! God help me” when I had some difficulty in life and when the difficulty went away I said “Thank God”. I never could lose my religion because I needed it to keep my inner self-satisfied for good living.

    Everything I did to live a good life meant I had to work hard for money and other comforts that never ever came easy even if I secretly prayed to God. Then one day I learned a different way of thinking of God, Faith and Religion.

    Religion, Faith, Beliefs or whatever other ways one needs to follow for a righteous living is to compare the human body to being a Hardware that needs an inner Software that one may call by any name: God, Religion, Faith etc.

    Following God, Religion or Faith is to activate the human Hardware with the inner Software as a supreme force driving us human beings to accomplish extraordinary feats and to focus on superordinate goals. If whatever one achieves was only for the satisfaction of the external human needs then the missing link is the character and integrity that relates to the internal of a human being, sacrifice and dedication.

    Building good human relations is vital to righteous living. Lasting human relations go a way further than greeting and good manners. It is the spirit of whatever you believe in, that adds value to your environment or even the world not the form. Righteous living is based more on giving than taking, a sprit of sacrifice. The more we give the more richly we are rewarded.
  • Bharat
    04.02.12 06:54 AM
    30% of Hinduism believes in atheism (nastika). Of the asthikas, 50% believes you can be god (advaita) and the only the other 50% (35% overall) believes that God is different from you (Dvaita).

    Oxford Center for Hindu Studies may be a good resource.

    They even have a online course on Hindu Identity.

    Sankaracharya was not a savior of Hinduism, but initiated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

    If Religion is God - Hinduism isn't one. If its spirituality - it will be hard to think of something that hasn't already been incorporated in it:

    Samkhya · Yoga · Nyaya · Vaisheshika · Mim??s? · Vedanta (Advaita · Vishishtadvaita · Dvaitadvaita · Dvaita · Achintya Bheda Abheda) Tantra ·
    04.02.12 12:21 AM
    @ beinghindu
    Nice philosophy.

    I am Indeed that eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva, Love and Pure Consciousness.

    If above holds true than it's nothing but also everything. I think it's from Shiv Puran.
    03.02.12 11:52 PM
    Hi PRIYA

    First, Hinduism is NOT a religion. It is described by some as different schools of philosophy, but it's not even that. It's a TAG or a label that was given to us, by the foreigher especially old Persians/others. Anybody who lived on the other side of the river Indus near Hindukush mountain, they were known as or called Hindus. This is where the word Hundu comes from, and anybody who practiced the faith of some kind, were called hundus.

    In modern day Hinduism is collective of different kinds faiths all in one.

    My mother passed away at age of 66 on 14-jan-2012 after fighting a battle with her illness. We went to see her at the end of November. My daughter sat next to her and started crying looking at her, that's when she said, don't worry, AATMHA (soul) never dies. My daughter same age as you, was told the power of soul by her that for 65 years she was carried by it, which cannot be seen or felt or described but it is there, and it has so much energy that it carries you, and after the soul is gone it takes 4 people to carry the same body. I only realised what she said, when we were taking her to crematorium and what she meant.

    This energy (soul) does unite with the others in the universe, when it's function with the body is finished. This is the only reason I beleive in GOD, not in religion.

    One thing I will say to you is this, if you feel, that you are a simple product of biology, then I feel sorry for you.

  • mangesh
    03.02.12 06:46 PM
    see its being happening with many people over long time but we have to preserve our religion because its the world's oldest religion and no one know the founder of our religion that itself is significant than any other religions in the world
  • beinghindu
    03.02.12 05:58 PM
    @jaai - :) it doesn't mean that "I"don't exist....its mean lot more than that....if you got that out of it ("I")ok go for that ...ya both way the extream end will meet the same " I ".....thats the beauty of that I"
  • Jaai
    03.02.12 05:38 PM
    ^That basically means I don't exist.
  • beinghindu
    03.02.12 05:26 PM

    The person who fought and won against -"samyaka, mimamsa, charvakas" and all other irrelevant believe already prove and show us what is the truth ….its our mistake that we don't understand it until now…and the person who travelled across India to protect Hinduism explain …..

    "I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, 
        nor the reflections of inner self (chitta).
    I am not the five senses.
    I am beyond that.
    I am not the ether, nor the earth, 
        nor the fire, nor the wind (the five elements). 
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness.

    Neither can I be termed as energy (prana), 
        nor five types of breath (vayus), 
        nor the seven material essences, 
        nor the five coverings (pancha-kosha).
    Neither am I the five instruments of elimination, 
        procreation, motion, grasping, or speaking.
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness.

    I have no hatred or dislike, 
        nor affiliation or liking, 
        nor greed, 
        nor delusion, 
        nor pride or haughtiness, 
        nor feelings of envy or jealousy. 
    I have no duty (dharma), 
        nor any money,
        nor any desire (kama), 
        nor even liberation (moksha). 
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness.

    I have neither merit (virtue), 
        nor demerit (vice). 
    I do not commit sins or good deeds,
        nor have happiness or sorrow, 
        pain or pleasure. 
    I do not need mantras, holy places, 
        scriptures (Vedas), rituals or sacrifices (yagnas). 
    I am none of the triad of
        the observer or one who experiences,
        the process of observing or experiencing,
        or any object being observed or experienced. 
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness.

    I do not have fear of death,
        as I do not have death.
    I have no separation from my true self, 
        no doubt about my existence, 
        nor have I discrimination on the basis of birth.
    I have no father or mother,
        nor did I have a birth. 
    I am not the relative, 
        nor the friend, 
        nor the guru, 
        nor the disciple. 
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness.

    I am all pervasive. 
    I am without any attributes, 
        and without any form. 
    I have neither attachment to the world, 
        nor to liberation (mukti). 
    I have no wishes for anything 
        because I am everything, 
        every time,
        always in equilibrium. 
    I am indeed, 
        That eternal knowing and bliss, Shiva,
        love and pure consciousness."

  • Jaai
    03.02.12 03:53 PM
    I used to believe in some sort of personal god, just to not feel lost. But right now I'm on the way to atheism. And what I like about Hinduism is that you can choose what you want to believe and there are no rules set in concrete. This is a really good post, by the way. :)
  • shirish patwa
    shirish patwa
    03.02.12 03:05 PM
    Generations after generations have been groping in dark to understand the nature of GOD or questioning the existence of GOD.Intellectuals as well as ordinary human-beings have come out with their answers to which we briefly call faith.All of them may be correct or incorrect.I am not atheist.I see GOD in the smile of a child,blossoming of a flower,dew on a grass and so many other things.You may call it a weird thinking,but why should I care what you think about me?If I experience a soothing feeling and it does not prod me to do some violent things harmful to the society in general,I don't feel ashamed to be a firm believer in GOD.The idea of GOD is just like futile effort to hold mercury.All the existing religion are nothing but an effort to hold mercury in a sort of vessel. The shape of the vessel is their religion.The content is the same.Profoundly fool try to convince others that their vessel is in fact the correct one.For this they organize their religion.Now they are not fully correct nor fully wrong.The liberty lies with an individual which shape he likes!
  • Kirklops
    03.02.12 12:20 PM
    It's great that you are thinking about all this. The bottom line is that whatever knowledge has been passed over generations, through multiple re-telling, has to stand the test of reason and current scientific understanding.

    If it does not and we do not subscribe to that belief anymore, it is in no way a sign of disrespect to our forefathers. We just have to remember that that was the way our forefathers understood the world around them. This understanding may easily become outdated, which is what many of the religious beliefs around the world are - an outdated version of how our forefathers understood the universe.

    The way I have understood it, Hinduism is unlike other (mono-theistic) religions in the world in the sense that it is a collection of vastly different philosophies and schools of thought. Even way back in 200BC there were Hindu schools of thought that denied the existence of God and had many aspects that are similar to modern atheists' adherence to reason.

    For an initial reading, check these wiki entries: (In particular Amartya Sen's quote),

    So, in many ways by saying "Hinduism – not as a religion, but as spirituality – ", you are essentially saying 'I am a Hindu; and an atheist'. That, contrary to how most people interpret religion, is perfectly reasonable.

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