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Can you be an atheist and a TamBrahm?

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Has anyone here read any of Oxford Zooologist Richard Dawkins' books? He contrasts Eienstenian religon, which is wonder at the true nature of the Universe as understood scientifically, to Supernatural religon ( all world faiths) which ask you to believe in God without evidence. I often felt my scepticism about God ( due to various random tragedies I saw in the lives around me) was a product of Western style scientific rationalism ( Most astro-physicists are atheists, for example ) but I was told by a learned Bengali friend that doubting God has always been a minor, but present current in Indian thought for 3000 years and some Indian religons like jainism and buddhism are actually atheistic. Anyhow, I found Dawkins views on the non-supernatural and scientific creation and purpose of the Universe and mankind resonating with my own beliefs and I wondered if there were others like me on this site.
Atheist & A Brahmin

Atheism existed as an undercurrent of Hinduism atleast since 600 B.C. from the time Charvaka (or Charvaka-I, as some would like to name him to distinguish him from the later Charvakas) coined his philosophy. Charvaka's philosophy did not accept the existence of either God or Brahman, and so was clubbed with Buddhism and Jainism (which too rejected the concept of God / Brahman) as Sunyavada.

It appears that the society was more open to divergent thought in the Vedic period. So, though amounting to heresy, Charvaka's School as well as its guide-text, the Brihaspathi Sutra, were allowed free currency. Philosophers belonging to the Charvaka line were invited to the scholarly gatherings, where fierce debates would take place on the existence or the absence of God / Brahman. While treatises were being written against each other's arguments, apparently no restriction on freedom of expression was in vogue (a view expressed by Dr. S.Radhakrishnan).

While Brihaspati Sutra itself got lost, Sri Madhvacharya quoted verbatim from the said text in 14th Century A.D. (in the process of refuting Charvaka's tenets in his Sarva Dashana Samgraha), which today gives us a glimpse of what exactly the philosophy of Charvaka was:

While life is yours live joyously;
No one can avoid Death's searching eye:
When this body of ours is burnt,
How can it ever return again?

That the pleasure arising to man
from contact with sensible objects
is to be relinquished because it is accompanied by pain,
is the reasoning of fools.

Here the Charvaka School differs from Jainism & Buddhism that advocate relinquishing wordly pleasures.

The kernels of the paddy are rich with finest white grains,
What man, seeking his own true interest, would fling them away
because of a covering of husk and dust?

The Sacrifices, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves,
and smearing oneself with ashes,
according to Brihaspati are but means of livelihood for those who
have no manliness nor sense.

(very strong statement indeed!)

Charvaka School accepted only four elements - earth, fire, water and air - and refuted the fifth one - Akasha or aether - as nonsense. It said that knowledge is a product of these four elements, and gets destroyed when these elements in the body are destroyed, i.e., consciousness perishes with the body, or there is nothing after the body perishes.

Springing forth from these elements itself,
solid knowledge is destroyed when they are destroyed.
After death no intelligence remains, thus spake Brihaspati.

There is no heaven, no final liberation,nor any soul in another
world, Nor do the actions of the four castes,orders,
or priesthoods produce any real effect.

The following verses are Charvaka's pun on sacrificial offerings:

If a beast slain as an offering to the dead will itself go to heaven,
why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father?

If offerings to the dead produce gratification
to those who have reached the land of the dead,
why the need to set out provisions
for travellers starting on their journey?

(=Why not send them directly?)

If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
why not make food offerings down below
to gratify those standing on house-tops?

While life remains, let a man live happily,
let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?

In Telugu, the above verse can be summarized as "Appu Chesi Pappu Koodu". I am sure there will be an equivalent in Tamil.

If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
why does he not come back again,
restless for love of his kin-folk?

It is only as a means of livelihood
that brahmins have established here
abundant ceremonies for the dead -
there is no other fruit anywhere.
Hence for kindness to the mass of living beings
we must fly for refuge in the doctrine of Charvaka.

While reading the above verses, we must not forget that Charvaka himself was a Brahmin. He must have got thoroughly disillusioned with the ritualism in vogue during those days to say these things.

Charvaka picked on certain grotesque rituals that accompanied Yagas such as Ashwamedha (please do your own research to know what these were), and very strongly rebelled against them. He said:

The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits such as jarphari and
turphari, and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in
Aswamedha,were invented by buffoons, and so were the various
kinds of presents to the priests,while the eating of flesh was
similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.

It appears that while he advocated balanced enjoyment of earthly pleasures, Charvaka was against the animal sacrifices and eating of animal flesh. He wanted some kind of reform in the religion as it was practised then. Since the name Charvaka means, "the one who speaks sweetly," Charvaka must have been a soft-spoken man who possessed good oratory skills, and must have been popular with the masses who were experiencing some kind of revulsion towards ritualistic religion. I do not know though, what Jarphari and Turphari (to which he was referring to in the above verse) were.

A few Hindus / Brahmins apparently have not seen any contradiction between being an atheist and being Hindu. Vinayaka Damodar Savarkar, or Veer Savarkar as he is referred to, was an atheist (not withstanding the fact that he was a Chitpavan Brahmin and one of the founders of Hindu Mahasabha, and was also named in the "Right Wing Hindu Plot" to assassinate M.K.Gandhi). Those who consider Hinduism as a way of life rather than a religion sometimes extend strong arguments to be an Atheist and a Hindu. When these people call themselves Hindu / Brahmin, the word rather refers to the cultural aspects of Hinduism / Brahminism.

Those who have read Valmiki Ramayana would remember a sage, Jabali, who comes to Rama in the forest after he abdicates the throne in favour of Bharatha (Ayodhya Kanda : Sarga 108, 109 & 110). Jabali urgen upon Rama to default and go back on the promise made to his father Dasharatha, giving several atheistic arguments, as to why Rama should not bother about the promise made to his father or the "other world", and why he should think only about this world. Rama gets taken aback by this preaching by a sage, and questions Jabali as to how a sage could advice him this way? Vasistha does a timely step in, and saves the situation. "Brahmin atheists" or "atheist Brahmins" have been around since those times.
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Small Addition

There are also Schools of Indian Philosophy which can not be strictly categorized as Theist or Atheist.

The Samkhya Philosopy of Sage Kapila accepted the existence of only Purusha (that pure consciousness which is absolute, ever independent, above all experience and knowledge, and non reproducible & non destroyable), and Prakrithi (Material matter, which is inert, unconscious, reproducible and destroyable). The Samkhya Philosophy in its purest form, as proposed by Kapila, did not accept the existence of a personified God or impersonal Brahman. But it does have a causation theory.

For the sake of cursory comparision, Purusha of early Samkhya Philosophy is something like 'Tao' of Taoism. The concept of Ishwara was later added to the Samkhya Philosophy due to its interaction with the Yoga Philosophy of Sage Patanjali.

Another Philosophical School, the Purva Mimamsa School of Sage Jaimini (who had also reportedly produced the Jaimini System of Astrology, as opposed to the commonly followed Parashara System of Astrology), too did not recognize the existence of God or Salvation.

I guess to many, the mental picture of a Rishi or a Muni would be like a character straight out of Ramanand Sagar's TV serials - a fellow with long white hair & white flowing beard, meditating under a forest tree or within an ant-hill, before whom different Gods and Goddesses of Hindu Panthenon (and sometimes celestial nymphets) appear in varying orders. But in reality, these were thinkers with diverse opinions.
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My two cents ...

Yes, I have read Dawkins. Belief (and faith, and trust) are not founded on proof/evidence. I have written about scepticism elsewhere, and I subscribe to Santayana's views on the subject (see quote in earlier post).
In Advaitic philosophy - God is not constructed in the image of man, nor held responsible for random tragedies/justice. Your position appears to be: God cannot be good or worthy of worship unless he/she obeys the precepts of human morality.
Here, I wonder alongwith Omar Khayyam whether "... It (God/Brahman/Providence) moves as impotently, as you, or I!"
I find Dawkins' philosophy consistent with rational, reductionist thinking. It is one mode of apprehending the universe. I personally find that mode of thinking dry, mechanistic and inadequate because it fails to admit/ acknowledge the emotional, social and aesthetic landscape of our lives (which are genuine aspects of our being).
As Santayana says "There is no dilemma in the choice between animal faith and reason, because reason is only a form of animal faith, and utterly unintelligible dialectically, although full of a pleasant alacrity and confidence, like the chirping of birds." Santayana, like the Advaitin believes that we never know facts, we only know those features of facts, which we perceive. In an earlier post, I wrote "all knowledge is subjective" - that our reality is our interpretation of our limited and finite perceptions of this universe, based upon our personal experience. We are blind men, in a dark room, searching for a black cat that may not be there. And that is okay, because that is all we have - as long as we are willing to grant the next person that same latitude.
I personally think that Advaita is not incompatible with an atheistic world-view, since Brahman is 'nirguna' (See: 'Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction', by Eliot Deustch). However, I am aware that Sankaracharya did not preach atheism or advocate such a stance.

Has anyone here read any of Oxford Zooologist Richard Dawkins' books? He contrasts Eienstenian religon, which is wonder at the true nature of the Universe as understood scientifically, to Supernatural religon ( all world faiths) which ask you to believe in God without evidence. I often felt my scepticism about God ( due to various random tragedies I saw in the lives around me) was a product of Western style scientific rationalism ( Most astro-physicists are atheists, for example ) but I was told by a learned Bengali friend that doubting God has always been a minor, but present current in Indian thought for 3000 years and some Indian religons like jainism and buddhism are actually atheistic. Anyhow, I found Dawkins views on the non-supernatural and scientific creation and purpose of the Universe and mankind resonating with my own beliefs and I wondered if there were others like me on this site.
sirs- atheism means not believing in god. an atheist cannot also believe in rituals too . so automatically, an atheist is disqualified from being a bramin. there was a time many centuries before , when persons of other varnas got converted to braminism. it were persons among these who indulged in 'atheistic braminism'! since the good name of bramins was getting damaged,it was decided by bramins not to allow conversions henceforth from other varnas. so it is centuries since the doors have been closed! so there is no scope, recognition or respect for 'atheist' bramins since then.

but a 'bramin' who is an atheist can call himself a hindu, if he is a vegetarian.
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High Voltage Stuff

Kspv, Baam & CIK,

Great posts. As of now most of it are flying past me as lamposts seen from a moving train. I will re, re & re-read it & hopefully understand.

Anychance you have the Dawkins book in softcopy ?
Dear Srimathi 'Baam' Ji and Kspv Ji,

Great posting. One thing the reductionist rationalism of atheism misses is the fact that when one is part of a closed system, one can not 'perceive' stuff outside of such a system. We all know from certain animals that we can perceive only a fraction of the whole spectrum through our senses. So, as human beings we need to operate in 'phase space' anyways to enlarge our knowledge. And this is the limit of science (and by inference our senses and mind).

It is quite astonishing that all the so called 'mystics' in each and every religion has drawn the picture of the 'God' akin to our own have. This says that there is a different kind of perception out there ('subtle' as Chintana Ji puts it), that is accessible to us through looking inwards.

There is another 'minus' to believe in atheism. If one believes in God's existence and that proves to be not true, no harm is done. But there is a problem if it happens to be the other way around! And just for this purpose, I believe in a Jewish God!

Baami & kspv,

Thank you for such informed and well-written responses. I shall certainly explore Santayana's writings and see if I can get my hands on translations of surviving fragments of Charvak's works. The only point I have to make, and it's a half-thought not articulated particularly well, is that if we have only a limited and finite perspective with which to understand the Universe, that imposed by our physical and intellectual human powers, then that understanding ( based on evidence ) still sounds more true than one believed in through blind faith or an "intuitive" understanding that discards logic. I am still an advaitinist (!) at heart because it appeals to a universal morality my Nehruvian parents instilled in me. But is it true? Or is it a fiction my mind invented to make me feel good?To some, only the end delivery matters, but to any mind that is a slave of logic, it does I think leave serious areas of doubt.
Available in softcover on Amazon. My advaitist principles forbid me from pushing Bit-Torent versions. :) Hari
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Rani & Ghoda

incidentally, kspv, on a lighter note, the lurid imagery of our ancients of the queen lying with a decapitated horse behind a curtain to symbollicaly take his seed ( as prescribed in the Ashvamedha)is still preferable to me( except for the decapitation) to our modern-day Talibanist VHP Hindus who waste energy protesting about Valentine's day
hi iyer, cool!

ofcourse where u have shouting brigade of VHP which is quite outspoken and blaber out whatever they wish, u would find thinktanks too who really speak logically. especially look out when there is dialogue between vishnu hari dalmia and syed shahabuddin


Regarding your posts:

kspv & CIK: What is the grotesque ritual associated with the Ashwmedha sacrifice? I know that king Dasaratha performed the Ashwmedha Yagna so he might have sons - but am unaware of the attendant rituals ...

CIK: with regard to 'intuition' versus 'understanding based on evidence' - this is where Santayana diverges from Descartes.
The Cartesian system seeks indubitable knowledge, and proceeds on the assumption that this can be achieved. But knowledge can only be tested by skepticism. But if certainty (=indubitable knowledge) is the goal, then you have a paradox - because certainty can only be achieved at the cost of knowledge itself.
This is why Santayana argues for 'animal faith' (i.e. the acceptance of material reality as the source of knowledge, understanding and common sense) - because there is nothing else! (this is why I wrote 'because that is all we have')
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The following Wikipedia site gives quite a good account of the ritual, quoting authentic sources.


Rituals accompanying Ashwmedha Yaga have been the favourite beating-stick used for beating Hinduism and Brahminism. I am sure, even in this forum, 99% of the members would find the rituals very repulsive.
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Ashwamedha and our other gross rituals


The following Wikipedia site gives quite a good account of the ritual, quoting authentic sources.


Rituals accompanying Ashwmedha Yaga have been the favourite beating-stick used for beating Hinduism and Brahminism. I am sure, even in this forum, 99% of the members would find the rituals very repulsive.

I find no need to apologize for the ashvamedha - the ancient Hindus were no more kinky than any other ancient people. In fact, the Chinese carried on foot-binding to the modern age , as we did sati and the Whites slavery- and Hindu morality in the more civilized post-later vedic period after the "second urbanisation" of India in the sixth century ensured that Ashwamedha's more repulsive portions fell out of use. But Sita would have been expected to lie with the horse when the first Ramayanam was penned by Valmiki- and we dont have to apologise to anyone for it. In his Ramayana,( 2nd-1st cent bc?) ravan grabs Sita and flies off, In Kamban's Ramayana, ( 9th cent.)Sita is abducted but never touched, Tulsi's ramcharit manas ( 16 th cent.)goes a step further into purdah, only a maayavi Sita is abducted. So values never remain stable, they change. In the subjective judgement of the martial Vedic aryans the horse represented all things manly ( they also ate steak) and just because our subjective values are different today we dont have to go on the backfoot. History ke hamam mein saare cultures nange hain
sirs- ashba medha yaga has been voluntarily stopped by hindus many centuries before. in any case, it is not a central or main ritual for hinduism. moreover, original bramins never performed ashameda yaga. perhaps converted bramins could have.
hi naras & iyer ka chora

an interesting information. yes traditionally it was possible to be a brahmin and still a non believer and do rituals. people who believed in these principles were known as purvamimamsi. at the time of shankaracharya, they were very strong and shankaracharya opposed their philosophy. they completely believed in vedas performed all the rituals prescribed; but did not believed in the concept of IswarA.

and VHP - ya you have a shouting brigade; but they have their think tanks too. have you watched the dialogue between vishnu hari dalmia and syed shadabuddin?

Hamam means a public bath. Typically, they are found in in mughal-origin cities like Bhopal, Lucknow , old Delhi etc. where public could take bath in heated water pool for a small fee.

The rough equivalent of "Hamam mein sab nangen hain" in english would be "All hens are grey in dark".

hi cik

hamam ka matlab kya hai?
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Extremely rich stuff. I pray to all of you to contribute regularly to enlighten lesser mortals like me.

It is quite interesting to see that in this forum, on one hand we are still debating whether to allow non-hindus entry into temples, how to follow the various rituals and more and more of of the traditionalism and on the other hand open discussion on atheism and alternate philosophies of samkhya etc.

Though as brahmins, we are expected to be great thinkers and be able to see much beyond our nose in the interest of humanity, many of us are still struggling to free ourselves of ritualism and are unable to step away from caste based superiority complex.
sirs - the contention of bramins has always been that they are DISTINCT from others. this emphasis on distinctness, has been wrongly understood by many, including some bramins to be superiority. there is nothing wrong in emphasising distinctness in any way, but claiming superiortity over othersjust on the basis of birth cannot be accepted.
I have come across Tam Brahms who confess to being atheist. I myself have entertained atheism when I considered it reasonable and also read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and his treatises on evolution. I find that his reductionist rationalism refutes explanations for prevalent philosophical problems but is not instructive in creating a philosophy of life, however trivial, which is based on certain scientific notions which make peaceful, harmonious, atheistic life possible.

There is a very fundamental tendency of all beings which leads to belief - fear. When fear is eliminated from us, we can stop believing in things. However, something of an axiom in nature is the existence of fear in all creatures which have an ability to comprehend any situation with their senses. Naturally, since our senses are finite, our understanding is finite. We can imagine the concept of infinity through a finite symbol or through an understanding of the finite, but we cannot realize the infinite in our minds. This is but one demonstration of the fact that our comprehension of our respective situation is finite.

Because of the finiteness of our comprehension, it is possible to imagine that in order to justify a desire which we have, we have to believe. It is this belief that becomes the basis for religion, for faith and eventually for the concept of a God.

It is possible to imagine primordial cultures where a religion existed, where rituals existed, but where a first cause did not. The reasoning in such religions could have been rational or pseudo-rational - where a limited understanding of a phenomenon could have led to a prevalent social practice.

Then there are the well developed cases where a society shows signs of developing a law of causality for the observations made by its seers and these eventually conspire in forming a system of causality that point at one cause - such a cause being called a first cause. The creators of the idea get it to survive through propagation of the idea across society with their agents. What started as a concept of causation (reason, in some form) ends up as a social tool and influences people to realize similar observations or see similar reasons for the things they observe.

It is not in the mentality of all people to not question the things they are given. A large proportion of them accept what is provided to them under the condition that these ideologies are practical, and a small portion are followers who get sucked in and give momentum to the revolution. Some see emancipation in such ideology, some see reason, some see peace. Different people in a society see the practices of the religion differently. Ultimately, very few actually grasp the original observation made by the "seers".

It was very interesting to read about the schools of Indian philosophy like Samkhya and about the atheist schools. Indeed, the more one thinks about the concept of God, without blindly accepting it, the more one questions the concept and questions the persona that we ascribe to the Saguna brahman or to the Nirguna brahman of the Vishishtadvaitic and Advaitic faiths, the more we understand about our own culture, the seers in our culture and the gainsays of how religion is brought to the masses.

Ultimately, even though the concept of a God is always a point of debate, there is no denial that much high culture is dependent on religion for fostering creativity and that much has been accomplished in the fields of literature, poetry, music and drama on the pretext of religion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I don't mind describing myself as religious, while I find the term "spiritual" a bit too unsubstantiated for my liking. I probably wouldn't ascribe the latter term to myself.

A fine result of all these opinions and all this complexity is internal confusion and a lack of confidence. The solution is not blind submission or denial, it is education.
On Ashwamedha Yaga and the offerings of living beings in the Yaga:

I for one believe that the brahmins had not made any offering of living beings in the Yagas during the immediate past at least 2000 years . The Kshatriyas had made such offers. The practice of only the Brahmins performing the Homagni is also of relatively later origin. In the ancient times when the Yagas like Ashwamedha were being performed all the dwijas were allowed to perform Yagas. (Dwijas are those who wear sacred thread - this need not necessarily be brahmins - The Kshatriyas and Vysyas also wore sacred thread in those days. This practice is prevelent among North Indians even now) A good number of Rishis were not brahmins either.

Thus to attribute to the Brahmins the practice of offering of living beings in the Yagas is based on the wrong presumption that only the brahmins performed the yagas. The yagas performed by the brahmins were without animal sacrifice. The yagas with animal sacrifice were performed by the others.

The support for my view that the Brahims had not made the yagams with the offer of animals comes from ThirukkuraL. (Thiruvalluvar's age as around 2000 years plus has been accepted by "those who normally doubt Indian heritage and age" and therefore I see no controversy on this aspect!)

The Kural is

"anthaNan enbOn aRavOn maRRellA uyirkkum
senthaNmai pooNdozhugalAl"

"A brahmin is a good soul because he lives on the path of causing good to every other living being"

The Brahimns traditionally had been the praying (not 'preying' !) for the welfare of the whole universe. They never used to earn more than what was required for that day, they never prayed for their own welfare. The Almighty answered a Brahmin's prayers because he practised selflessness while praying for the welfare of all the living beings.

We need to carry this message across so that the mistake of blaming the brahmins for the wrongs of society would cease.

In fact, it would be wise to carry this KuraL everwhere as publicity material to highlight the goodness of Brahmins for well over 2000 years.

It would be more wise to live our life as Brahmins by observing this KuraL - Never praying for ourselves. Pray only for the welfare of others, the whole universe - without any hatred in our minds.

Please bear with me if I sound asking for too much.

I will get back on Atheism and Brahmins in due course.
A Tamil Brahmin is one who is born of Brahmin parents who trace their origin to Tamil Nadu. You are born a Tamil Brahmin and die as one. This classification has no relation to the belief of anyone when they grow up. This is how the other communities view you.

Any amount of atheism, anti-Brahminism or membership of any party can make you a non-Brahmin. People have tried all these to give up their Brahminism. But are only fooling themselves because the other communities will never accept them as non-Brahmin. In the present state of things in India you have to belong to one community. So you are stuck with your community.

The Brahmins who try to classify the people who do not conform as Non Brahmins should realise that no one has the authority to decide who is a Brahmin and who is not. In the medieval ages we did have some jathi Brashta business. But not among Tamil Brahmins.

Then again if you are going to classify Brahmins because of their beliefs and observances, would you accept a person who has read the Veda, sports a juddu and observes all the so called Brahmanic rituals as Brahmins irrespective of their Birth? The day all the brahmins accept this Anti_brahminism will disappear.

It might come as a surprise to some of you that there are some Brahmin Christians in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, who have not overcome their brahmin tag in spite of being Christians for three generations. In Kottayam district of Kerala they are proud of it and boast about it.

In Bengal they even retain the Brahmin surname like Victor Banerjee.

Right now in this forum you are a Tamil Brahmin if you are born of Brahmin parents who trace their origin to Tamil Nadu. Your religious beliefs, dress, manners, place of residence, citizenship, or even the language you speak are of no consequence.
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Very clear and crisp !

On the lighter side, are you referring to present day TN or undivided Madras Presidency ?

PS:- Hi CIK, being the originator of this thread, we haven't heard from you for quite some time. Are you still around ?

Right now in this forum you are a Tamil Brahmin if you are born of Brahmin parents who trace their origin to Tamil Nadu.
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Read recently, dont remember the source :

I tried to be an atheist once, but they dont have holidays in their calendar !

And to Sri Nacchinarkiniyan,

Thank you sir for a lucid explanation.
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