Theism and Atheism in Classical Indian Philosophy

Introduction

The unit provides an overview of some of the debates between theists and atheists in classical India.

Texts and Courses

Courses

  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Introductory or intermediate courses that include a unit on theism/atheism

Assigned Texts

  • Arindam Chakrabarti, “From the Fabric to the Weaver”
  • Richard Hayes, “Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition”

Additional/Optional Reading

  • Parimal Patil, Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India
  • Purushottama Bilimoria, “On the Idea of Authorless Revelation”

Recommended Schedule

This short unit is nice to include after covering traditional Western arguments for the existence of God such as ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments.  It would be good to cover after the problem of evil as well.

Cover the Chakrabarti article first and then the Hayes article, one per class period or in two halves of a longer class period.

Background Information

Although Indian philosophy is commonly thought of as predominantly religious, there are few schools that defend theism in the sense of the Abrahamic religions.  One school that does defend a similar conception of God is the Nyāya school, which is mainly known for its focus on logic, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Arindam Chakrabarti’s article “From the Fabric to the Weaver” gives an overview of the Nyāya arguments for the existence of a creator using the classical Indian inference scheme (anumāna).  He raises the issue of whether these arguments are properly thought of as cosmological or teleological arguments, which makes for interesting discussions about the taxonomy of theistic arguments and whether the traditional Western arguments exhaust the conceptual space in this area.  He also discusses several differing conceptions of a creator deity in classical India and how they differ from typical Abrahamic conceptions.

Richard Hayes’s “Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition” covers some classical Indian Buddhist arguments against the type of creator advocated by Nyāya philosophers.  Arguments from early Buddhism tend to focus on how belief in a creator will detract from Buddhist practice. Arguments from later in the tradition tend to focus on metaphysical issues such as whether it is coherent to posit a single cause for the manifold universe.  There are also arguments discussed that prompt comparisons with the problem of evil and Hume’s critiques of teleological arguments in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Hayes argues that Buddhist philosophers in India advocated for atheism because they felt that belief in a creator deity is incompatible with core Buddhist commitments such as nominalism and impermanence.

These articles work well together to demonstrate the dialogical nature of the classical Indian tradition and ways in which this tradition can add to and challenge Western philosophy of religion.  This unit raises questions such as: What can we learn from the classical Indian tradition about conceptions of the divine and arguments concerning the existence of a creator?  Can there be such thing as an atheist religion?  Do these classical Indian discussions challenge typical Western conceptions of religion, theism, and atheism?

Author Information

Ethan Mills (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)
Ethan-Mills@utc.edu