I hope to write this series once a month and I have chosen to call it dharma, artha, kāma, mokṣa. Those aren’t terms I will talk about in this first piece. They will come later. I often meet people who say they are atheists or agnostics. I feel uncomfortable with those terms, because I don’t know what they mean. Take the word “atheism”. It comes from a Greek word “atheos” meaning without “theos”. “Theos” is god. Therefore, atheism or atheist is a negative word. I don’t understand what atheism/atheist means unless people who use it tell me which god this is with reference to. Whose existence is being negated?
As those terms I have given for atheism indicate, it was more about not believing in the Vedas. Let me leave aside Buddhism and Jainism. I don’t have sufficient knowledge about either. In addition to those six schools, we also had the ājīvika and lokāyata schools, the latter associated with cārvāka. These are described as नास्तिक (nāstika) and again the reference is essentially to non-belief in the Vedas. We will return to these issues later. For the moment, when I am asked “Do you believe in god?”, I don’t know what to answer. And my problem is not that such a question is asked by Westerners. That I can accept. My problem is that I am also asked such questions by Hindus who have accepted a Western discourse. Let’s stick to our discourse and stop asking and answering such questions.
When confronted with questions about religion, there is another English word I have a lot of discomfort with and that is “proof”. The best Sanskrit word for proof is प्रमाण (pramāṇa). The nyāya school had quite a bit about logic. Don’t worry. I have no intention of getting into details about what each of these schools proposed. For the moment, in the process of getting proof or प्रमाण, the nyāya texts talked about four different methods –प्रत्यक्ष (perception), अनुमान (inference), उपमान (comparison) and शब्द (testimony from those you can trust). Perhaps one should say a little bit more about प्रत्यक्ष. Those nyāya texts divided perception into two types, the first being लौकिक (laukika) or साधारण (sādhāraṇa). This is essentially what we perceive through the senses. The second type is अलौकिक (alaukika) or असाधारण (asādhāraṇa). We look at everything through the lens of science now.