I recently read your post, “A Vedanta Atheist?.” I’ve never heard anyone express the point of view that Vedanta can work for atheists. Does that really conform to the teachings of Vedanta? Do you advocate atheism?
I’m not surprised. I’d only ever heard the idea that atheism and Vedanta are compatible expressed privately in discussions with fellow Vedantins. That’s exactly why I wanted to go on record and say it. The idea of atheism is certainly not new but I think its prevalence today—coupled with an increasing number of spiritual people who do not believe in religion—requires a proper response from Vedanta. I believe it’s fully in line with the tradition of Vedanta to progressively extend eligibility to groups previously excluded from studying the teachings. There was a time when someone like myself, a caste-less foreigner from outside the religious tradition, would most likely have been denied the teaching. There was also a time, not so long ago, when it was controversial to teach Vedanta to the general public. It was even more controversial when it was taught in English! I am very thankful those times have passed and grateful to the pioneering teachers that ended them. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to a teaching that has dramatically changed my life for the better. So it’s no surprise that continuing to make the teaching available and more accessible to an even broader audience is near to my heart. I think Vedanta can—and should—be progressive while staunchly holding on to its fundamental principles, namely the pursuit of freedom through self-knowledge.
Perhaps even the most progressive Vedantins would balk at the idea of a Vedantic atheist. But I would have to politely disagree because I actually know a few. It can and does work. I would also say that Vedanta is such a vast and beautiful tradition. If one teacher or their views don’t appeal to you, there are so many other good teachers to learn from. I’m not trying to upset anyone or claim that my view is the only right one. I’m just a link in the chain, albeit one that’s a little funny shaped. If you think what I say makes sense, great. I think my point of view is reasonable. If you disagree with me, well, you probably won’t attain enlightenment 🙂 I’m kidding. You’ll be just fine. That’s my point. Vedanta can accommodate a wide variety of people and opinions.
All the same, I’d like to clarify what I mean by atheism. Atheism, as I understand it, is a lack of belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God. In other words you don’t believe in the whole “man-in-the-sky” idea of God. Perhaps you don’t believe in anything supernatural at all. Now, are the ideas of a personal, anthropomorphic God and supernatural occurrences present in Vedanta? Absolutely! Just read the Upanishads.
But…are those things presented as absolute truths in Vedanta? No. They are only true from a relative point of view. This means they are not essential, and therefore don’t preclude someone who doesn’t believe in those things from studying Vedanta. Does that mean someone can have success in Vedanta while being an atheist in the sense that they think the universe is merely a blind mechanical process consisting of matter alone? I doubt it. Why? Because Vedanta is unyielding when it declares that the universe is ultimately nothing but brahman, pure consciousness, not matter or anything beholden to it. And precisely because brahman is pure consciousness, Vedanta contends that the universe is a deliberate and orderly ‘creation’ not a blind, mechanical chaos.
Still, is being open-minded to these contentions incompatible with a rational mind that doesn’t believe in a personal God or the supernatural? No, because brahman is consciousness and consciousness isn’t something we have to believe in. Consciousness obviously exists because we are obviously conscious. Granted, the exact nature of consciousness and how it can be the entire universe requires much investigation to understand but the jumping off point of our everyday conscious experience is rooted in fact, not belief. Something else rooted in fact is the existence of the universe. We all know it’s there because we experience it. Since “I only believe in what I see” is often the criteria for belief according to an atheist I contend that Vedanta’s concept of God works fine with atheism, at least in the way I’ve defined it above.
How? Vedanta says that God (Isvara) is simply the world around you as well as the laws that govern the world. So if someone is an atheist in regards to a supernatural personal God but they accept that the world exists and runs on natural laws, then they essentially accept Isvara. Again, the part that Isvara is actually pure consciousness (and hence not really a God at all) requires a lot of investigation to understand but as in the case of consciousness, the starting point is rooted in fact, not belief. And since Vedanta says that brahman is ultimately none other than yourself, no belief is required there either because no one needs to believe in themselves. That we can even contemplate our own existence proves that we exist because a non-existent entity can’t contemplate anything. For all of these reasons, I see atheism—at least a certain kind of atheism—as compatible with Vedanta.
I certainly don’t mean to be dismissive but whether or not this view conforms to so-called traditional Vedanta doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve already seen it work for people so the question of conformity serves no purpose. I’m extremely practical, and considering that freedom is the point of Vedanta, whatever helps get someone get free is fine with me. Besides, there is no definitive consensus among Vedantins as to what the ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ Vedanta even is. A brief examination of the history of the teaching shows that some groups within Vedanta strongly disagree while others outright contradict each other. The umbrella of Vedanta accommodates many viewpoints, any of which you are free to disregard if you so choose, so I don’t see why allowing atheism in Vedanta should cause a problem for anyone.
As for the last part of your question, asking if I advocate atheism, I don’t really advocate anything in regards to belief or lack of belief in a personal, supernatural God because that is a purely personal decision. Since I want to be able to decide for myself what I believe or don’t believe in that matter I extend that same courtesy to others. And because I want Vedanta to be available to whoever is interested in it I try to remain open to other points of view and teaching methods, even ones I may not necessarily share or agree with.
What I do advocate is an open-minded, progressive Vedanta with the hope that everyone’s pursuit of freedom will be successful, whether the pursuit is traditional, non-traditional or something else entirely.
All my best – Vishnudeva