Listing entries tagged with India

Continuities vs. Differences

posted on 12.14.2006 at 8:41 PM

Here are two paragraphs I have drafted for an early chapter of my book. The first uses a fascinating sect of ancient nonbelievers -- "Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature" -- to make a (sweeping) point about continuities in human disbelief:

The CÄrvÄkas are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a product of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution. They are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a phenomenon limited to the West. The CÄrvÄkas are the best answer to the argument that other, earlier societies did not have the conception of belief necessary to open the possibility of disbelief, that they didn't have the requisite understanding of the natural to dismiss the supernatural or that their societies were insufficiently liberal or pluralistic to tolerate disbelief. For the CÄrvÄkas are thought to have begun in India before the time of the Buddha and are known to have survived in some form if not as long as Buddhism, at least a couple of thousand years. And the CÄrvÄkas were as dismissive of supernatural beliefs as were eighteenth-century Parisian philosophes. They stand - in one form or another - as by far the longest lasting group of nonbelievers in human history. They are a crucial part of this story. Which is not to say that we know an awful lot about their history....

The second paragraph, which would appear after a couple of pages outlining what we know about the CÄrvÄka and their philosophy, attempts to clarify the point by acknowledging there might be some differences between India at the time of the Buddha and Paris during the Enlightenment:

In fairness, the point being made here - that the disbelief subscribed to by this ancient movement sounds remarkably thorough and modern - depends on English translations of an unfriendly ninth-century report. Undoubtedly it would be possible to go over the documents here, look closely at the language and the cultural context and find numerous ways in which the CÄrvÄka saw the world very differently than, say, Charles Bradlaugh [a nineteenth century atheist who will be a major character in the book]. It would be useful to know more about those differences. A study of what allowed such a group of nonbelievers to survive in this place at these times would also be valuable. Nothing said here is meant to obscure that which might have been unique about these peoples and their situations. My goal is simply to point out what has not often been pointed out: that despite all the inevitable and significant cultural differences that flavor our conceptions of disbelief there have been some important similarities in such conceptions, too; that scientifically inclined Western societies have hardly been the first societies in which, for example, the notion that death is the end of us has arisen. On the subject of the afterlife the CÄrvÄkas could not have been clearer: "After death no intelligence remains"....

Yo, literary theorists, anthropologists, partisans of Foucault! Am I off base -- too imbued by the Enlightenment (and all it tramples in the name of universal reason) in this attempt to debunk the significance of the Enlightenment?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:41 PM | Comments (5)

Author Needs Advice

posted on 07.29.2006 at 9:40 PM

It is hard, upon occasion, to figure out what works. To write is, of course, to struggle with such occasions: to rewrite, polish and, often enough, toss out. But it strikes me that this blog might make it possible to improve the process by inviting others to weigh in. So, herewith, my first attempt to seek advice on a potential passage in the book.

The subject is the effect of the advent of writing on disbelief. Obviously, writing did much to strengthen, harden and spread beliefs. But I'm arguing that writing's propensity for encouraging analysis (through its ability to record facts and make words objects of study) may also have made possible new ways of questioning beliefs.

My struggle has been trying to determine whether this passage from the oldest Indian religious text, the Rg Veda, qualifies as a (very early) example of the application of critical analysis to religion:

This world-creation, whence it has arisen,
Or whether it has been produced or has not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or ev'n he does not know it.

I love the passage, but is this analysis or just wondering? Does it succeed in demonstrating my point?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:40 PM | Comments (5)

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha -- 2

posted on 06.22.2006 at 5:49 PM

Was my dispute with the Buddha based on a misunderstanding?

That quote I attributed to the Buddha, to which I took exception -- that the question of the existence of the gods "does not edify" -- I found in Jennifer Michael Hecht's comprehensive book, Doubt: A History. Been working to get closer to the quote's origins and, so far, have not found another reference to it.

The parable of the fire is mentioned: In it the Buddha, on being pressed to support one or another possibility for where the soul does or does not go after death, finally explains that this would be like asking whether the fire goes east or west when extinguished. And my researcher, Kaylan Connally, has found this answer/nonanswer, presumably by the Buddha, to the question of whether the gods -- devas -- exist: "It is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist." But "Buddha," "gods" and "edify" don't seem to spend much time in the same sentences.

Guess this supports Jay Saul's point about the difficulty of confirming anything that the Buddha or Jesus said. Though I sure would like to find at least some sort of vaguely legit source for this quote.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:49 PM | Comments (4)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Buddhism and Atheism, Another Look

posted on 06.03.2006 at 10:16 PM

Here is an intriguing version of Buddhism, which seems remarkably devoid of the supernatural, from Yew Han Hee:


Q: Is there a God in Buddhism as in Christianity?
A: It is very difficult to compare Buddhism with Christianity. One would have to say, however, there is no God in Buddhism in the way that God in Christianity is commonly understood.

Q: What do Buddhists believe?
A: Different Buddhists believe different things, but the nature of belief is itself an important issue in Buddhism. Belief is to be seen as belief, not as fact. When we see our beliefs as facts, then we are deluding ourselves. When we see our beliefs as beliefs, then we are not. Seeing things in their true light is the most important thing in Buddhism. Deluding ourselves is the cause of much suffering. So Buddhists try to see beliefs as beliefs. They may still believe in certain things - that is their prerogative - but they do not cling to those beliefs; they do not mind or worry about whether their beliefs are true or not, nor do they try to prove that which they know cannot be proved. Ideally though, a Buddhist does not indulge in any kind of belief.

Q: Does Buddhism teach reincarnation?
A: Reincarnation is not a teaching of the Buddha. In Buddhism the teaching is of rebirth, not of reincarnation.

Q: What is the difference between reincarnation and rebirth?
A: The reincarnation idea is to believe in a soul or a being, separate from the body. At the death of the physical body, this soul is said to move into another state and then enter a womb to be born again.

Rebirth is different and can be explained in this way. Take away the notion of a soul or a being living inside the body; take away all ideas of self existing either inside or outside the body. Also take away notions of past, present and future; in fact take away all notions of time. Now, without reference to time and self, there can be no before or after, no beginning or ending, no birth or death, no coming or going. Yet there is life! Rebirth is the experience of life in the moment, without birth, without death; it is the experience of life which is neither eternal nor subject to annihilation.

Though things do get a little mystical:

Q: Does that mean there is no such thing as birth and death? A: That which is born, dies. Forms come and go. All that comes into existence is impermanent; it is born and it dies. But the very essence of what "I" am -- the Buddha-nature -- is unborn and undying....
Q: But how can getting rid of ideas enables us to see deathlessness? A: The deathless is here all the while, but ideas block it out. It is like the sun because of the clouds. But as soon as the clouds are cleared away, there is the sun. Likewise, as soon as ideas are cleared away from the mind, there is the true state of birthlessness and deathlessness.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (9)

Da Vinci Code Banned...

posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:54 PM the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as part of a "ban on movies that `hurt' the religious sentiments of people."

Almost makes you want to go see the damn thing.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 PM | Comments (1)


posted on 05.27.2006 at 1:37 AM

Is living well the alternative to religious conviction? Here's James Thrower, a historian of early atheism:

"The earliest recorded critical response to a religious interpretation of life is the cry carpe diem."

The following ancient refrain is attributed to a long-lived Indian group of nonbelievers:

While life is yours live joyously,
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er return?

A poem inscribed on a tomb in Egypt about five thousand years ago puts it this way:

...since it is impossible to tell how the dead fare in the other world,
What is left for us here? Nothing except to snatch at
the sensual pleasures of the day.

Does this qualify as a positive view of atheism? Or would many atheists reject such a hedonistic, ammoral perspective on the world? Does this mean Ivan Karamazov was right about the consequences of the death of God?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 AM | Comments (1)

What Nonbelievers Might Believe In

posted on 05.16.2006 at 1:21 AM

Leonard_Cohen.jpgHow about this quote from Leonard Cohen?

"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?

Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?

What light?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:21 AM | Comments (8)

Desperate Believers?

posted on 05.14.2006 at 11:21 PM

Do the religious sound a little desperate? Have they always? This example of defensive name-calling is from the Bhagavad-Gita -- written perhaps 2,500 years ago:

Two orders of contingent beings in this world there are: The godly and the devilish... The devilish folk know nothing.... 'The world's devoid of truth' they say, 'It has no ground, no ruling Lord, It has not come to be by mutual causal law; Random and without any cause.' Fast holding to these views, Lost souls with feeble minds, They embark on cruel and violent deeds, --malignant [In their lust] for the destruction of the world. (Cited, Thrower, The Alternative Tradition)

One form this desperation perhaps takes nowadays is a need to use globalization and technology in order to fend off globalization and technology . No one was better at pointing out such (inevitable) contradictions (on the part of nonbelievers, too) than the late Jacques Derrida. It is worth wading through the jargon here. (This was written ten years ago.)

Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization: it produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of tele-mediatization; neither the trips and global spectacularizing and knowledge of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the "Rushdie affair," nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm -- and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, from the taking place of its truth. (From "Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion)

Religion "dislodged" from its sacred places, from its sacred truths, forced to conspire with that which does the dislodging. Bin Laden on videotape, broadcast by satellite. You'd be desperate, too.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:21 PM | Comments (1)

The "A" Word -- 3

posted on 05.11.2006 at 11:00 PM

My hesitation over using the word "atheist" in the book's title has come from its apparent starkness. But, in researching the remarkably energetic disbelief scene in ancient India, I've begun to fear it isn't stark enough.

buddha.jpgIf atheist refers to a denier of the existence of gods, then early Jainists and Buddhists might qualify, as might devotees of what may be the oldest of the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, Samkhya, which also makes do without gods. However, all these faiths do, as I understand them, share a belief in the soul, rebirth and karma. Is the term "atheist," therefore, too broad? Do we need another designation in order to restrict the club to those, including plenty in ancient India, who reject gods and also reject the notion that we live on after death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:00 PM | Comments (7)

Religious Art

posted on 02.03.2006 at 11:45 AM

indian gods contrast.JPG

The demon with a water-buffalo head, on the right in this frieze cut out of rock at Mahishasuramardini Cave in southern India, is Mahisha -- a fellow with a bent for disturbing the balance of life. Durga, the mother of the universe, is fending him off -- riding a lion, wielding a bow and arrow.

This sort of thing certainly has its attractions, especially on rainy days sitting under a laptop, when the balance of life can seem a touch off. Metaphor. Analogy. Poetry. Beauty. With these religion has certainly been well endowed. And let us not forget meaning -- some way of getting a handle on the balances and imbalances of life.

We can gape. We can smile. But to believe? In Durga?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

First Person?

posted on 01.21.2006 at 8:13 PM

My first person is currently typing into his Palm, sitting in a dark-wood chair, surrounded by white-washed walls, about 20 meters from a huge lake just a bit northwest of the southern tip of India. (The tsunami had to hang a quick right to get near here, but still managed to kill about 160 people.)

A couple of hours ago his pre-dawn tossin' and turnin' -- as the overhead-fan mixed the thick air -- produced an idea, one that feels large by the standards of his circumscribed world. This idea enabled him to sketch out -- for the first time -- the somewhat more ambitious structure he had been contemplating for the book.

A bit on that idea in another post. The question I'm dealing with now is whether a few small slots in that new scheme should be reserved for that first person -- aka "me."

Do readers -- potentially "you," if you haven't had your fill of this stuff -- want to know, for example, whether their author had his own irreligious epiphany and from what religion he might conceivably be "ir"?

Should there be personal anecdotes?

** "The first time I realized how uncomfortable discussions of atheism could become was when I...."

** Our intrepid book writer manages to locate the site of Bonner's Field -- the outdoor meeting area in London, where, in the mid-19th-century, religious and irreligious freely held forth.

My first person -- who, mind you, wrote a whole book once without ever using the word "I" -- is now watching a cloud-muted dawn attempt to return greens and pinks to the lush landscape. And he ("I") is ("am") currently feeling awfully self-satisfied, on account of this new organizational idea.

Yo, second persons! Do you ("you") care?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:13 PM | Comments (3)


posted on 01.17.2006 at 5:21 PM

OK, here I am typing notes about how atheism was and was not punished in Athens while a yoga master is singing a rather lovely relaxation song in my hotel room. (The song is interrupted for a moment by a call on his cell phone, but that's not the point we're after.) My wife has hired this fellow and apparently there was no other place in the hotel where he could check her form on "the sun salutation" and try to get her breathing right.

In Athens impiety or disrespect toward the gods -- asebeia -- was a crime, occasionally punished, occasionally by death. I feel guilty of asebeia in general and guilty of impiety specifically, at this moment, toward yoga, yogis, masters, gurus, etc. Here in India, as he sings, she breathes and I type, it is not a particularly happy feeling.

Atheists insist, persuasively, that the absence of a belief in god does not lead to any absence of wonder at the universe. Awe and humility also seem quite acheivable. But how about reverence? And is it possible to be an atheist and still respond with piety to lovely songs, to a world that brings yogis into your hotel room?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:21 PM | Comments (0)

India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience

posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM

This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.

The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.

Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.

And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.

This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.

Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?

I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).

That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.

On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:38 AM | Comments (0)

How to Write Your Book

posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:00 AM

1. Do not turn on the BBC World News in the hotel to see if there's been any further change in Sharon's condition.

2. When you venture out into the challenging streets here in Chennai, focus on the shrines not the street people.

3. Do not go back to the college again to check your email.

4. Look upon the array of pastel gods that surround one shine not as kind of lovely but as representative of polytheism and then try to recall some theories on whether gods are easier to disbelieve than God.

5. When you do go back to the college again, do not click on 'check mail' a third time, even though you have one or two acquaintances in New York who occasionally are up at 3:10 am.

6. Consider whether that woman cooking on the half-dirt, half-concrete sidewalk finds consolation in religion. Don't consider why you have the right to assume she requires consolation.

7. Put your energy into polishing chapters not blog entries.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:00 AM | Comments (1)

One Holy Man

posted on 01.05.2006 at 6:01 AM

The first time I visited India, almost five years ago, I saw a holy man sitting on a rug on a sidewalk in downtown Delhi. A small crowd had gathered. I stood off to the side.

The grey-haired man began performing some impressive gymnastic stunts on a branch of an overhanging tree. I surreptitiously took out my video camera. He was alert. He saw. And he more or less demanded that…I come onto his rug to get a better shot. Then he announced that he was going to do "penis tricks."

And this holy man proceeded to wrap his flattened penis around a broomstick, which he then slowly twirled.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that this is any way representative of modern India. Still, it is there. And maybe I do mean to imply that it is, in some tenuous way, representative of an element that survives in modern religion….. Can't say I've ever replayed that videotape, though.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:01 AM | Comments (3)

A Journey to the East

posted on 01.01.2006 at 4:22 PM

The post below -- on atheism and agnosticism -- will be my last before I head off for the land of the Carvaka: India.

I'll try to keep up a flow of posts, after I arrive, and to keep you posted on any encounters with holy men or meditations on the Buddha.

This brief interregnum might also be a time to ask if anyone has thoughts on what this blog -- not just a work in progress but an experiment -- should or should not be doing.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:22 PM | Comments (0)