Is ‘Hindu Atheism’ Valid? A Rationalist Critique Of The ‘Hindu’ Identity’s Usurpation Of Indian Culture

Written by November 28, 2009 7:47 am 241 comments


Many Indians intellectuals who don’t believe in supernatural gods or powers fail to separate their non-belief from the ‘Hindu’ identity. The desire to belong to a dominant cultural group is so strong in us that these so-called ‘Hindu Atheists’ invent the most convoluted justifications for their acceptance of the Hindu label. But does it really make sense to call oneself a Hindu Atheist? What does one truly mean by the word Hindu in this context? The object of this article is to get rationalists and atheists from India who identify themselves as ‘Culturally Hindu’ to question this label with which they are associating themselves.

To make my position clear at the outset, I will state my fundamental claim below.

Fundamental Claim

Hinduism is a meaningless religious label. It is not an ancient philosophy that originated in India. In fact, the word Hindu is not even an Indian word. It is a superficial group identity that was concocted relatively late in the history of India. Rather than being the unified philosophy or way of thought that it masquerades to be, Hinduism is a semantic impediment to the natural evolution of cultural knowledge in India.


The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.”

Georgia Harkness

Religions have always benefited when the facts are ambiguous. One such religion-driven ambiguity is in the definition of the notion of religion itself. This is the first place to start any such discussion on religion.

From a scientific point of view, we can define religion as a sub-group within a culture, possessing certain specific traits. The most fundamental of these traits is the strong group identity that religion strives to instill in its followers. In this sense, religion can be observed as a set of memes. The evolution of a religion can be studied through the memetic evolution of individual religious ideas, including the central meme that holds the religion together- the group label. The most successful religions are those that have managed to extend the label of the religion over the entire cultural spectrum of a population. The religions that manage to do this have achieved a stranglehold over the cultural evolution of that group of people. This is the most powerful strategy that religious memes have at their disposal. The way a culture gets out from under the burden of repressive religious labels is by denying religious memes their hunger for co-opting the knowledge attained by rational discourse. That is, religion is designated a limited status, separate from factual aspects of the culture in which it exists. In most Western countries, the role of religion has been mostly designated to non-rational affairs. This removal of the repressive influence of religion from fact-based aspects of human culture has been the greatest achievement of reason. Unfortunately, In India the ‘Hindu’ meme has successfully prevented many rationalists from differentiating between the religious memes of the group label ‘Hinduism’ and the rest of Indian culture.

In my article Hinduism: Religion, Culture or Way of Life, I identify three qualities possessed by religions that define them: group identity, authoritarian organization, and the tendency to increase the ability for belief in conflicting ideas (followed by cherry-picking). In that article, I demonstrated how Hinduism is similar to Islam and Christianity in these respects- not surprising since Islam and Christianity provided the conditions for the development of institutionalized Hinduism. In the same article, I also point to how Hinduism is a religion in the same sense that all of Greek philosophy and mythology is one self-contained religion. That is to say that this idea of Hinduism is not really a religion. It is simply the cultural history of a group of people, Indians. Considering a rational standardized view of what does and what does not comprise a religion, there are two distinct faces that wear the mask of ‘Hinduism’. One is religious, and the other is a lie. I intend on exposing the lie.

In this article we will see how what we label today as Hinduism was developed as a reaction to the threat of cultural irrelevance posed first by Islam and later by Christianity, and how this label has been packaged as a cultural competitor to these two ‘super-religions’. Further, we will see how this meaningless and concocted label ‘Hindu’ may have served India well over the past centuries by keeping dangerous ideologies at bay, but may well have outlived its useful phase. Finally, we will see why it is necessary for us Indian rationalists to take a step back and evaluate the usefulness of the term ‘Hindu’ itself.

  • Note: I do not intend on discussing any actual theology here. If that is your area of interest, there are perhaps other venues more suitable for you. This article is concerned with the cultural and sociobiological impulses behind the development and evolution of the label ‘Hinduism’. It is written as a work of critical examination of certain specific ideas from an academic perspective. No malice is directed towards any particular group of people. Similarly, commenters are encouraged to treat ideas with irreverent skepticism and people with respect and kindness.

The Usurpation of a National Identity by a Meaningless Label.

India has seen numerous belief systems come and go. The nature of cultural evolution in a relatively ‘free-society’ (the definition of this phrase can be debated) is that ideas challenge each other and compete for belief space when they are in natural conflict. The result is a progressive and self-correcting cultural framework within which civil society flourishes. Ancient India was no stranger to this cultural mechanism of innovation, introspection, elimination and growth. Thousands of ideologies, philosophies and schools of thought have been built up and torn down over the centuries. All of this co-existed with the thousands of deeply-rooted superstitions and mindless rituals that pervaded the land.

Origins of HinduismDespite this diversity of opinion and the competition for cultural success between different belief systems within India, the people who inhabited the sub-continent had much in common with each other. This is only natural. Many of the local cultures shared common ancestry. Even iron-age people traveled a bit, and eventually there was a continuous distribution of cultural traditions throughout India. The natural barriers that cut off the subcontinent from its neighbors also helped the societies that evolved in India to develop a distinct cultural flavor. Any visitor to the land would have been struck by how different the set of beliefs were from their own. This is exactly what happened when the travelers from the West and from the East laid their weary eyes on the people and cultures of ancient India. These visitors needed a word to describe the people who lived in this part of the world- to set them apart from themselves, and consequently from everyone else. The many words they came up with were lost in memetic dead-ends. Until one stuck.

The origins of the word ‘Hindu’ lie in the Persian word for the river Indus. The people who lived east of the Indus river (Sindu in Sanskrit) were called Hindus by the Persians. This is also similar to the Arabic term for Indians. Some sources credit Alexander, the Greek invader, as the source of the word Hindu, but there is little evidence for this claim. The term ‘Hindu’ entered India with the arrival of the Mughals. It was not in common use within the subcontinent until the 14th century, long after many of the major texts of what is known today as Hinduism were composed. Islam, the religion of the Mughal invaders, poised itself as a sufficiently separate belief-system from the collective Paganism that the Mughals perceived in the local population. To the Muslims, all the local beliefs and practices of the inhabitants of the subcontinent comprised a primitive out-group. To the Indians, Islam was an alien ideology which was capable of replacing all local knowledge and culture with it’s own self-contained narrative. Their response was the formation of a reactionary element against Islam from within the Indian community (this happened by cultural evolution over many generations, as well as by concerted efforts of individuals and groups). This part-organic, part-organized movement adopted the label conferred on it by this enemy. Hinduism was born.

In the more recent past the Christian colonialists continued to use the label ‘Hindu’ to denote the people of India. Often, they used this label on any Indian who was not White. The Hindu revival movement was born in the 19th century, as a nationalistic response to British rule. This is the real origin of the modern phenomenon that we call Hinduism. Tapio Tamminen writes

Hindu revivalists argued that the national identity could be recovered only by seeking the fundamental religious and cultural truths again. They idealized the past, and demanded a return to the older and purer forms of Hindu culture that had degenerated under foreign rule….

According to many leading revivalists, Hindu society had degenerated, because Hindus no longer followed ‘dharma’. They claimed that India could not regenerate itself unless dharma was properly observed. For example Aurobindo Ghose emphasized that ‘all great awakenings in India, all her periods of mightiest and most varied vigour have drawn their vitality from the fountainhead of some deep religious awakening’ (Purani 1964: 81). Aurobindo Ghose and other revivalists shared the view that a good society can exist only when it is based on the correct principles of dharma.

The ‘Dharma-karma’ concept was adjusted for political purposes mainly by three persons: Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). They all legitimated their religious and political ideas by the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. According to Aurobindo Ghose, the nation was a divine expression of God. That is why he could emphasize that ‘nationalism is a religion that has come from God’. (Andersen and Damle 1987: 13-16).

According to Girilal Jain (1994: 45), there are three notable points in Swami Vivekananda’s ‘religion of patriotism': firstly his identification of Mother India with the supreme God, secondly his attempt to reintroduce the Kshatriya element in the Hindu psyche, and thirdly his conviction that India was destined to be a teacher of the human race in the spiritual reality.”

Thus the entire early history of India had become synonymous with a religious ideology by the time India gained independence from Britain.

This etymology of the word ‘Hindu’ is the currently accepted version among scholars, but there have been attempts to present a more ancient indigenous origin for the term. Many such attempts have involved verses alleged to be Vedic that refer to Indians as Hindu, but none of these verses have been verified. These attempts show the extent to which people will go to defend a meaningless label, even to the point of manufacturing evidence to cover up the irrelevance of that label.

The Biology of Groups:

The biological reasons that drove the evolution of the label Hinduism can be studied using sociobiology. Briefly, the field of sociobiology is concerned with how human behavior (of individuals) evolved due to environmental pressures over the ages. In the case of group identity, the primary environmental pressure is the group- the society of humans. As people developed complex cultures, cultural group labels came to replace older forms of group identity such as kinship and tribe identity. In this context, group labels become an important determinant in the evolution of human behavior. This behavior is shaped by the interaction between primitive human instincts and the evolving language of identity.

Robin Allott writes:

National, international, local and social history is largely the record of the consequences of groupism, a biologically necessary (no doubt) product of the evolution of the species. If groups are formed, group interests are bound to diverge and can result in Crusades, concentration camps, football hooliganism, Waco, city riots – or even sociology v evolutionary psychology. Groupism is a central aspect of human evolutionary psychology. Nations, societies, or states are ingroups on the largest scale, formed of multiple subsidiary ingroups and regarding other nations, societies or states as outgroups. Consideration of smaller groups can throw light on the cohesion of the largest groups. The obverse of the unity of the group is the potential for intergroup conflict. Social identity plays an important role in ingroup-outgroup relations, the distribution of resources, self-categorization, and expectations for behavior. It is an automatic redefinition of “self” in terms of shared group membership.”

This tendency for group identity is the main reason why Hinduism came to be accepted as an all inclusive tradition in India. I have written about this here:

The Hindu identity is in part a reaction to the collective out-group status assigned to the practices that were different from Islam and Christianity.”

The sociobiological perspective is an objective scientific way of studying the evolution of complex cultural and behavioral trends, although its reach may be limited. In the case in question, this perspective offers unique insight into the development and perpetuation of the ‘Hindu’ label.

The Benefits of the Label:

The ‘Hindu’ identity has had a strong positive influence on Indian culture in one major respect. It has kept Islam and Christianity from spreading more than they already have on the subcontinent. An analysis of other cultures with animistic beliefs that were later invaded by Islamic or Christian cultures demonstrates how easily the ‘super-religions’ were established in these new pastures. The development of the ‘Hindu’ label has Saplingpreserved, at least in part, many of the ancient philosophical treatises and art relics of our great culture. The so-called ‘Pagan’ cultures of Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East were often decimated by Christianity and Islam.

However, the benefits conferred to Indian culture by adopting the label ‘Hinduism’ faded away with the end of British rule and the development of a secular constitution.

Think of a sapling that is planted in the ground. A tough wire mesh placed surrounding the young plant can protect it from grazing animals and bad weather. After the sapling grows into a young tree with a hardy constitution, it does not need the wire anymore. The same wire mesh can now choke the tree’s growth and be its downfall. Hinduism is the wire mesh that is closing in around our growing Indian culture. The mesh is not necessary anymore for support and protection and is only a danger to the health of the tree. But the steel wire is embedded deep in the soft growing wood and needs to be cut out with care and determination.

The Two Faces of Hinduism:

From the very beginning Hinduism has maintained two completely different portfolios. On the one hand, it is an organized religion, like Islam and Christianity (again, I have explained why here ). On the other, the label of Hinduism deceptively and falsely encompasses all of Indian culture, except for the beliefs and practices of distinct major religions (and even among these, Buddhism and Jainism are considered branches of Hinduism by some). On one hand, ancient philosophical schools such as the atheistic Carvaka school which predates the label ‘Hindu’ by centuries, are falsely appropriated by Hinduism. On the other, you have Hindus insisting that there are certain core beliefs in Hinduism, beliefs that no atheist would associate with. The two faces of Hinduism are a reflection of the fact that the notion of Hinduism is a cobbled together nationalistic ideology that incorporates aspects of older religious traditions as well as non-religious cultural elements within it.

It is the interplay between these two-faces of Hinduism that is responsible for much of India’s troubles. There is a semantic deception played by Hinduism that maintains a seemingly cohesive and self-contained image, one that disingenuously encompasses the two faces of the label ‘Hindu’. This is a lie that is perpetuated to dissuade criticism and foster ignorance. It is this lie that we must expose if we wish to restore rational discourse to Indian thought. I propose a conscious restricting of the label ‘Hindu’ to only those aspects of Indian culture that are actually religious in nature. The rest must be embraced by rationalists as part of greater Indian culture.

Hinduism the Religion:

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath is writing a series of articles here on Nirmukta about the history of Hinduism. He begins with the ancient religion of Brahmanism and traces the evolution of the religious power structure over the centuries. His article Obsessive Compulsive Religion contains a brief description of part of the power struggle between ancient religious memes in India (edited here):

“The doctrine of the Gunas and Karma were literally the two gods of Brahmanism…. Over the next thousand years, Brahmanism became decadent due to its obsession with corrupted Yajnas known as Kamya Karma. The Dharma, which had been invented to bring stability to the ancient society itself, became the problem…Decadence of Brahmanism created tremendous turmoil in the society. A large section of Brahmanic society abandoned it and started various rationalist Dharmas such as Buddhism and Lokayata. During this time, Upanishadic rationalists, with the intent of overthrowing decadent Brahmanism, declared both the Gunas and Karma as evil, which one should transcend (BG: 2:45) or even slay (BG: 3:41, 43). They created a Super Man (Purushotthama, Brahman) to counter the force of the Gunas. They created a Super Weapon (Buddhiyoga, Yoga of Reason) to break the shackles of Karma. They said one could conquer these evil doctrines by taking refuge in Brahman, and by using Buddhiyoga as a weapon (BG: 2:39-53; 15:1-5). Brahmanism launched a counterrevolution and did everything within their powers to counter the Upanishadic revolution. They neutralized Brahman and Buddhiyoga by adding pro-Brahmanism shlokas in the Upanishads as well as the Bhagavad Gita. This necessitated creation of an even greater force to combat Brahmanism. This is how the real god of Hindus, Parameshwara, was invented. Parameshwara, the Great Lord, of the Bhagavathas, took the place of Brahman, and Bhakthiyoga became the weapon against the doctrines of the Gunas and Karma.”

HindusDr Kamath places these events in context and provides more detail in his later articles (1,2). His focus in these articles is on the dominant religion of ancient India, Brahmanism. According to Dr. Kamath, it is the core principles of Brahmanism that evolved into the grander ideology of Hinduism. He says of Hinduism:

…its practices are rooted in the antiquated belief system of Brahmanism, the prevalent religion of India three thousand years ago”

If you are interested in learning about the origin and evolutionary history of what is today considered the religion of Hinduism, Dr. Kamath’s articles are an excellent resource.

The events involving the evolution of Brahmanism occurred BEFORE modern Hinduism was born. Today, it is impossible to separate ancient Indian religious sects from what is labeled as Hinduism. All sects, including those which predate the ‘Hindu’ label by thousands of years, are brought under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’. As discussed above, the impetus behind this amalgam was the relative in-group status that these local beliefs systems had in relation to Islam and Christianity. This tendency continues today, with Hindus at pains to distinguish Hinduism from the Semitic faiths. Meera Nanda in her book ‘The God Market’ writes about the ‘theology of hatred’ that factions of the Hindutva movement have constructed to target Islam and Christianity. She writes:

To convert the diffused cultural majoritarianism of Hindus into a unified political majoritarianism which openly reduced non-Hindus to the status of second-class citizens has been the fond dream of the Hindu right. Towards that end, there are voices within the Hindutva camp that are openly fermenting hatred of Islam and Christianity”

In putting religion in it’s place, we can yet concede that the co-opting of all the ancient Indian religious sects under the banner ‘Hindu’ is ‘acceptable. After all, this is how religions evolve. However, since the meme ‘Hinduism’ is defined only in relation to the Semitic faiths, we rationalists must extricate ourselves from under this label. This is the only way we can objectively observe the inevitable clash of religious ideologies while being active participants in mitigating the harm done by them.

The Looting of Indian Philosophy (and art, science and everything else):

The successful marketing of Indian philosophy as ‘Hindu Philosophy’ is one of the most disgraceful accomplishments of modern Hinduism. In recent years the history of Indian philosophy has almost always been presented through the lens of Hinduism, to the extent that wikipedia lists the schools of Indian philosophy as ‘Hindu Philosophy‘. Interestingly, wikipedia also has a page on Indian philosophy, where it distinguishes between orthodox and non-orthodox schools.

It does not seem to matter that these schools labeled as ‘Hindu philosophy’ comprise the entire spectrum of the intellectual history of ancient India. They include the ideas of fervent atheists who were staunchly against superstition. Many of these atheists would have undoubtedly been aghast at the thought of being represented under the same banner as the true believers. At a time when their world was often limited to the cultures of ancient India, they stood as far apart as they could from the religious beliefs around them. It is certainly logical that were these scholars alive today they would reject the oppressive and meaningless label of Hinduism. Many of them were diametrically opposed to the idea of organized religion. Yet, their ideas are collectively delegated to the status of ‘religion’, only due to effective propaganda by those who subscribe to the ‘Hindu’ label. This idea that Indian philosophy is Hindu philosophy has become so entrenched in the modern language that the very beginning of naturalistic thought in India is attributed to Hinduism!

However, rejecting the idea that the Nastika schools are part of Hinduism is simple enough. After all, these schools reject the authority of the Vedas. Moreover, Buddhism and Jainism are sufficiently separate out-groups and so it is easy for Hindus to reject them as lying outside the ‘Hindu’ label. What about the Astika schools? Three of the six Astika schools do not deal with traditional religious questions at all.

From wikipedia:

Nyaya, the school of logic

Vaisheshika, the atomist school

Samkhya, the enumeration school

The truth is that the Vedas, like all philosophical works, were originally not created as part of one dogmatic religious group identity. They were developed by many people as part of the general cultural and philosophical thought at a time  in history when religion was indistinguishable from the greater culture. The Vedic schools of thought have been wholly co-opted into the ‘Hindu’ label although they predate the label by thousands of years along with the Nastika schools and various other philosophical aspects of Indian culture.

In modern times, the term ‘Hindu’ has gained notoriety for stamping itself on any Indian tradition or accomplishment that has been influenced byAmartya Sen Indian philosophy. Even some famous Indian atheists have adopted the label ‘Hindu’, for example Amartya Sen. One of the founders of the modern Hindutva movement, V. Savarkar, was an atheist. Even some European thinkers have adopted the ‘Hindu Atheist’ label to express their affinity for Indian philosophy, without giving thought to the legitimacy of the label they are endorsing.

India today is (unfairly) not generally hailed as a country with a magnificent philosophical tradition. If you bring up ancient atheistic philosophy, most people think of Greek philosophy. In fact, few atheists are aware that the early Indian materialists almost certainly predated the Greek materialist philosophers by a century or two (India’s enlightenment period was ahead of Greece’s golden age of philosophy). Western philosophical traditions have consistently ignored Indian philosophy. Considering the present day domination by the West in the field of philosophy, it is understandable that most people are unaware of India’s early contributions in the area. Most Westerners are accustomed to thinking of Indian philosophy as Hindu philosophy. This allows them to continue to present their biased Eurocentric timeline for a global history of philosophy, relegating the Indian achievements in this department to religion and not to Indian philosophy itself.

Hindus are content in having India’s philosophical tradition being labeled internationally as ‘Hindu Philosophy’. This is an outrage that we rationalists must be up-in-arms about. Other such major aspects of Indian culture that have been stolen by the Hindu label include ‘The Hindu Calendar‘, which is a takeover of a product of ancient Indian astronomy that has been modified multiple times over many different historic periods, and ‘Hindu Mathematics’, which appropriates a field of ancient Indian knowledge that is responsible for giving the world the zero. Indian mathematics also gave the world what are mistakenly referred to as ‘Arabic Numerals’. Today, instead of thinking of these achievements as the results of free expression and a spirit of exploration that prevailed in ancient India, we are taught to repeat the Hindu lies.

What’s wrong with the ‘Hindu’ label?

The most general criticism of the ‘Hindu’ label applies to all religions. It is a critique of the nature of religious belief itself. We will forgo this discussion here and instead focus only on those aspects of the ‘Hindu’ label that are harmful to the culture and people of India.

The Hindu label provides cover to all those things that we rationalists are concerned with. It would take many pages to simply list all the regressive aspects of Indian culture for which the ‘Hindu’ label provides protection against criticism. The lack of criticism that results from this protection allows malignant beliefs to fester and erode Indian culture from within.

It is a commonly known fact that India is a land of superstition. The tackling of these superstitions is our number one agenda here on Nirmukta. 87906707Despite the long rationalist philosophical tradition in India, these superstitions continue to persist, and even flourish. New superstitions are invented every day and old ones rehashed in new contexts. A well-known social ill that plagues the country is the religious caste system. Primitive medical systems such as Ayurveda and Siddha are guarded from scientific analysis, and mass delusions such as astrology and numerology pervade every aspect of Indian culture. In effect, Indian culture is heavily polluted by these superstitious beliefs and practices. It continues to harbor these leeches that drain away humanity’s brightest achievements in reason, thanks to the protection provided to these superstitions by the meaningless group-identity of ‘Hinduism’.

Another important criticism of the ‘Hindu’ label is the propensity of this label to selectively reject ideas that it perceives as foreign, often when the foreign idea may actually be beneficial to the people. All religions are hypocritical in this regard. A religious label will tend to accept a foreign idea if it benefits from it. If, however, the idea is harmful to the religious label, it will be rejected as alien even if it benefits the culture and people that the religion preys upon. This is the duplicitous behavior that allows religious memes to survive in the age of reason. In the context of Hinduism, we see this behavior when it comes to the advances of science. Hinduism’s war on science is more nuanced than that of the Semitic religions. It involves strategies that attempt to co-opt science into the religious texts, while disregarding scientific implications regarding the supernatural beliefs that form the core of its belief structure. Meera Nanda writes:

The presumed scientificity of Hinduism is a source of much pride for modern Hindus as it sets their faith apart from that of the religions of the book which appear more dogmatic.”

Of course, those who make such claims about the Hindu texts have no clue as to what science actually is. They mistake the knowledge gained from the scientific method as being science itself, and completely misrepresent the essence of this knowledge in order to co-opt it into their brand of mysticism.

On a national level, the most dangerous aspect of the ‘Hindu’ label is the politicization and commercialization of religion. This subject is covered in depth in Meera Nanda’s latest book ‘The God Market’. Dr. Nanda devotes an entire chapter to what she calls the ‘State-Temple-Corporate Complex’. She writes:

“What may seem like a paradox, the resurgence of popular Hindusim is happening not against the grain of Indian secularism, but because of it. The Indian brand of secularism has allowed the state to maintain an intimate and nurturing relationship with the majority religion. As the neo-liberal state has entered into a partnership with the private sector, a cozy triangular relationship has emerged between the state, the corporate sector, and the Hindu establishment.”

Dr. Nanda goes on to provide details in specific areas such as education and tourism where this relationship between religion, government and private enterprise has grown in recent years. This unwelcome influence of the ‘Hindu’ label must invoke strong reactions in all rational people. The soft brand of Indian secularism that Meera Nanda talks about must stop providing its tacit approval of the ‘Hindu’ label. This is the challenge that we have ahead of us.

The Irony of Hindu Rationalism

A common defense heard from apologists of Hinduism is that you can be an atheist/rationalist and yet culturally and philosophically be Hindu. All Hindus use this argument to deflect criticism of Hinduism coming from those rationalists who do not subscribe to the label. In fact, this sort of lumping together of atheism, reason and religion under the banner of ‘Hinduism’ has prompted many Hindus to attack any criticism of Hinduism as Christian or Islamic, without understanding the objective scientific perspective that lies outside of their myopic little world-view.

The ‘Hinduism-is-not-just-a-religion’ argument is also a common defense used by ‘Hindu’ intellectuals and even ‘Hindu atheists’. It is this self-identification of Indian intellectuals with a meaningless religious label that inspires these folk to ignore or even defend the barbarism and superstition that exists within Indian culture. The most depressing thing for a rationalist is to live in a society where there is little cultural significance associated with her/his core beliefs- where everything of social value is tied to a repressive ideological label. It is even more depressing to see a rationalist actively choose to be represented by that label, simply because mimicking the sheep offers some temporary respite from the tribulations of living in such a culture.

Why do we see so many atheists and rationalists subscribing to the ‘Hindu’ label? The main reason is that the marketing of the label has been so complete that it often does not strike most folk  to question the reach of the label. However, there may be other reasons. For one, many atheists and rationalists in India may feel an in-group affinity with the other proponents of the ‘Hindu’ label (as opposed to competing religious identities), even if these other proponents are utilizing the label for exactly the opposite purpose from the one that the rationalists endorse. Some Indian thinkers refer to themselves as Hindus because they have not really given much thought to the label. Others have given it thought and have decided that the personal benefits of identifying with the ‘Hindu’ label outweigh the satisfaction of opposing irrational ideologies of the kind perpetuated by religious memes. Most however, emerge into reason from their religious stupor and choose not to cut the umbilical cord that ties them with their families and friends. They accept the deceptive narrative Hinduism has pushed on them and think not to differentiate between such a label and the larger cultural context that enriches India.

An Alternative Narrative

An alternative cultural identity is essential if we are to move away from the religious labels that have dictated so much of Indian culture in recent years.

If we create awareness of the fact that all those ancient atheistic/rationalist philosophers that modern Hindus gather under their banner would probably have shuddered at the thought of sharing stage with those who form the core of the Hindu religion (or any religion for that matter), that few of them had probably even heard the word Hindu, that without the external pressure of Islam and Christianity Hindu revivalism would not have essentially invented a religion from the multiple sects, cultures, beliefs and philosophies that were found in India, then perhaps we can persuade some of the rational elements who have refrained from questioning the label ‘Hindu’ to start doing so. We can show how this sort of religious label restricts the natural process by which bad ideas are eliminated in culture- through discussion and social damnation. More importantly, we can provide rational ‘Hindus’ with an alternative narrative that is more real, in place of the meaningless in-group label by which they identify themselves.

Alternative NarrativeThe alternative to religion is reason. At first glance it is obvious that this rational alternative is more representative of the great cultural traditions and philosophical works of India than a meaningless label. Indian rationalists must reject such silly memes as ‘Western medicine’ and ‘Western science’ and embrace Nehru’s vision of a country that embodies the spirit of inquiry. We must focus our ire on such primitive means of cultural domination as religious identities and strive to make India relevant in the international science community. After all, even those rationalists who have not shrugged off the ‘Hindu’ label will agree that the future of our country depends on the scientific education of its people. We must not hesitate to point out how the label of ‘Hinduism’ is a barrier to the advancement of India in the modern world.

We can still appreciate and gain immense pleasure from the practices and philosophies that are part of India’s glorious past. These ideas may lie today within the grasp of institutionalized Hinduism, but we cannot allow this tyrannical label to deny us our heritage. Appreciation of Indian art and culture is our right just as much as it is to those who label themselves ‘Hindus’. The rational inclusion of these aspects of our history into our lives can be a fulfilling experience. The fact that we reject the label ‘Hindu’ does not mean that we cannot participate in certain festivals and social rituals that are part of our culture. Ancient myths are fun from a cultural perspective. We can learn to enjoy them for what they are without assigning any factual significance to them. The art, architecture and culture inspired by the ancient Greek and Egyptian myths are just as powerful reminders of human achievement today as they were when those myths were believed as fact.

In abandoning the ‘Hindu’ label, we are keeping India from descending into a cultural black-hole. We are liberating Indian culture from the still sickness of ideology by embracing the freedom of thought that creates a dynamic and progressive society.

In a way, this is an issue of patriotism (of the rational and thoughtful kind). Indian culture is being hijacked by a label- an idea that is itself a reaction to Islam and Christianity. It is a label that keeps us from absorbing beneficial things from other cultures and ridding our culture of harmful ideas from within it. In essence, Hinduism retards healthy cultural growth. Hinduism is unpatriotic. This is the new paradigm that rationalists must endorse to break the spell of ‘Hinduism’ that is slowly choking India.

This post was written by:

- who has written 62 posts on Nirmukta.


  • The term ‘Hindu’ is irrelevant as an adjective to any worldview. It’s likely more dangerous than anything else because it will conflate religiosity with non-religiosity.

    Anyway, having gone through the article and all of the posts, one thing is clear: this is just an echo of Dawkins-style atheism. You guys are just trading atheism of the Subcontinent for an Anglo-led atheism so that you, too, can claim to be relevant voices in a rising worldview under the greatest superpower the world has ever seen, USA. As you put it, ‘Hindus’ wanted to remain relevant to Islam and Christianity. Now, it’s your turn as West-led and -style atheism rises.

    Go ahead, then. See where this Newtonian, materialistic, mechanistic worldview takes you. (My best guess is that you’ll remain stuck at the hard problem of consciousness.)

    Let’s work with what all people have in common: a desire to raise awareness of the degrading biosphere and act to change the imbalance for the better.

  • Two things this article assumes is a very specific definition of ‘Hinduism’ and an assumption, based on mostly whims, as to what is ‘Brahminism.’

    1. Hinduism is a recent term that assumes a unified religious system. But the reality is that there were many philosophies and beliefs that were compiled and reflected on. Some of them assume no creator or nothing other than an underlying physical law of nature. It is up to the individual to take what she pleases.

    2. Even the term ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is totally misleading to the ancient culture by assuming a single eternal belief system. We accept the Greeks, Celts and Nords had different beliefs coexisting and mixing and matching, why not India too? It was just the way things were at one time among human races.

    3. Hindu really was a designation for all things east of the Sindh river. Even India is called Hindustan in some languages. So it is more a geographical designation.

    4. Brahmin as a terminology is seen on the Ashoka pillars where it meant learned people. This was in the days when not many were literate. Early Buddhist doctrine use the term Brahmin to mean student of Buddha. The Dashakumaracharita uses the word Brahmina for student. In that book the Brahminas are students of varied subjects from archery to drawing. These are all the earliest meanings of the word Brahmin.

    4. The Rig Veda is abstract poetry written in ‘Twilight Language’ which means the meanings are not literal. For this reason a lot of muck has been written as to what they really mean. But the truth is, no one really knows, especially those who are looking to write their thesis.

    • Satish Chandra

      I don’t think you understood the article at all. It very clearly says that there is Hinduism the religion, and then there is Hinduism the blanket term for everything Indian that isn’t influenced by Islam and Christianity. The author says he is talking about the latter and goes on to explain why it is a meaningless label.

      Also, Brahmanism has a meaning which isn’t whimsical at all.

      • No, I got it.
        It was just that the article had a pedestrian and emotional argument rather than one made with rigorous thought, so I wanted to call it out.

        By the way, I don’t identify myself with any religion (I am sure you assumed otherwise based on the simplistic black and white tone of most of the articles here ignoring the beauty of human complexity). Also, I have no problems getting rid of the Hinduism word at all. I do have problems with the article though. It is not at the level of what we would see at RDIF or other rational sites.

        Though I do read Sanskrit and much of these articles are based on assumptions which do not tie in with the original sources. So that is why I bring up ‘Brahminism.’

        It is easy to make ‘Brahminism’ the reason for all of India’s problems, mostly because most of us are not Brahmins. But that is because of cognitive limitations of human identity. To have an identity requires for many, an enemy. And in Indian this ‘enemy’ is the mythical ‘Brahmin.’

        But in literature the Brahmins are not the big wealthy law makers in high chairs with whips and slaves. Actually the Brahmin characters are described in the actual stories as:
        1. A Brahmin living simply in the forest with his family
        2. A Brahmin as an adviser to a King
        3. A Brahmin begging for food from door to door
        4. A Brahmin as a teacher of archery
        5. A Brahmin composing a poem

        You can say, this is because the Brahmins were the literary ones who composed these stories so they will write of themselves in a different light from the reality. But for the most part, any educated person who devotes their life to learning is a Brahmin. But in those days literacy was not so common. You needed to learn from another literate person.

        It is actually an interesting and admirable idea that a learned person (and poet) was considered superior to one who was capable of great violence. This is a distinct feature of Indian civilization. How this got turned into the evil caste system (similar to the feudal and caste systems of Europe) is a mystery though.

        If we were to use the kind of ‘argument’ used on this site to say something that seems to be more telling, it’s that the reason why India was not a country where creativity was admired for so long is because we made our poets into the villains.

        • Satish Chandra

          It was just that the article had a pedestrian and emotional argument rather than one made with rigorous thought, so I wanted to call it out.

          Calling out an argument usually involves a lot more than flamebait one liners. Like showing which premises are false, or why a conclusion does not follow from the given premises and so on.

          And for someone who fancies himself as the arbiter of what is rigorous and what is not, you sure wasted no time in adopting the strawman argument that Brahmanism == Brahmins are teh eevil. So if this is how you argue, I suggest you stick to sites that only critique Islam and Christianity and so play to your confirmation bias.

        • It is actually an interesting and admirable idea that a learned person (and poet) was considered superior to one who was capable of great violence. This is a distinct feature of Indian civilization. How this got turned into the evil caste system (similar to the feudal and caste systems of Europe) is a mystery though.

          No, this is actually not an admirable idea at all. Educated people and people who fight for the country are equal. Both are people with necessary occupations.

          Your history is also questionable. I can just pick one thing:

          Brahmin as a terminology is seen on the Ashoka pillars where it meant learned people.

          No, actually, “Brahmin” in the Ashokan edicts very specifically meant Vedic holy men. We know this because it is always used in conjunction with “Bhikkus.”

          Satish, he does criticize particular premises. These ones are not that bad:

          1. Hinduism is a recent term that assumes a unified religious system. But the reality is that there were many philosophies and beliefs that were compiled and reflected on. Some of them assume no creator or nothing other than an underlying physical law of nature. It is up to the individual to take what she pleases.

          2. Even the term ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is totally misleading to the ancient culture by assuming a single eternal belief system. We accept the Greeks, Celts and Nords had different beliefs coexisting and mixing and matching, why not India too? It was just the way things were at one time among human races.

          3. Hindu really was a designation for all things east of the Sindh river. Even India is called Hindustan in some languages. So it is more a geographical designation

          • Satish Chandra

            Satish, he does criticize particular premises. These ones are not that bad:

            The author already knows that Hinduism is a recent term, that a multitude of philosophical systems are clubbed under it and that Hindu nationalists term everything in India that isn’t Islam or Christianity as Hindu. It is that usage of the label “Hinduism”, to denote all those things that is being critiqued in the article. So what premises have been criticized? Kit merely restated what has been said in the article.

          • You people are funny, it seems you don’t know what you believe!!

            First you say Hinduism is a recent term and criticize those who use it.

            Then when someone says that Hinduism is a new term and does not apply to tribals and others, you say they are Hindu apologists!!

            It seems that you only use facts to attack others, not arrive at truth!!

  • ok
    1. yes hindu and hinduism was a term given to every religious practice in ancient india when muhammad bin qasam came through the sindh.. so it ends up encompassing half a dozen different things.

    2. vedic hinduism basically says that God (ultiamte Reality) is the source, the destination, the way… as far as vedic hinduism goes – everyone is a hindu because all souls end up with God (in Ulitmate relaity)

    add 1 and 2 and you can see why the whole thing is so confusing today

    3. the mimamsa school of hinduism is considered atheistic.

    the problem is simple: abrahamics consider god to be a personal god.. so when they asked buddhists/various hindus – hey do you believe in a creator god adn we were like ummm nooo they were like OH SO YOURE ATHEISTS.

    they never thought that a) there are concepts of god other than a personal god (parabrahman or brahman saguna), and b) never bothered to ask if we held a non-personal god….

  • Amazing and insightful article! I am a practicing “Hindu” (to use that controversial term), yet I am in full agreement. However I do not understand, is this against the non-atheistic/Astika philosophies of India? The ones that would become Hinduism today? Or is it against the religion of today or the religious philosophies of yesterday?

  • Hello,

    I thought thss was a good piece of history (I already knew HIndu was a label but it was actually first given by bin qasam when he came through the sindh, sindh = hind, hindustan)

    Howver I have some points of contention. There is Hinduism the religion, and Hinduism the label that encompasses philosophy and perhaps as a respect to our ancestors we should separate the two by giving the philosophy the name of “Ancient Indian Philosophy”. From now on let me refer to “Ancient Indian Philosophy” and “Ancient Indian Religion (ignoring that this too atm is an encompassing label). I wll only name ONE point of contention right now.

    2. What in Hinduism is Religion, vs. Philosophy. Is it SO easy to delineate? The vedas are they philosophical works or religious works? Or not mutually exclusive (ie both)

    If religios works, then there is indeed atheism in ancient indian religion, just read the nasadiya sukta.

    If philosophical works, then what is Ancient Indian Religion texts if not the vedas?

    If both, doesnt that prove that the line between the two is difficult to make out, and thus ancient indian religion does accept atheism?

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated. Please see our commenting guidelines