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.
Photo credit: humanistlife.org.uk