One of the main advantages of dealing with worldviews other than the one you grew up in is the fact that you are exposed to doubts and alternatives. One of such cases regards the nebulous category of religion (to which Amod dedicated some illuminating posts on his blog), which in Europe and America is often confused with just “belief in (a) god(s)”. Part of the definition of religion is its being other than philosophy, so much that philosophy is looked upon with suspicion when it is mixed with “religious” purposes, like in the case of soteriology.
However, as soon as one encounters Buddhism, one is faced with the alternative: Either Buddhism is a religion (in which case, one would need to update one’s definition of religion) or it is a philososophy (in which case, one would need to update one’s definition of philosophy).
A similar case regards categories such as “Atheism”. Atheism as it is common nowadays is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Euro-American world, so much that one risks to postulate that it is a result of the Enlightenment, of Positivism, of the success of Science etc. A glance at South Asia shows that this is not the only way atheism can find its place in the history of philosophy. As shown by Larry McCrea, atheism might have been the rule rather than the exception in South Asian philosophy until the end of the first millennium. This also means that the later shift towards theism has a completely different flavour, insofar as it comes out of a different background.
I am especially intrigued by the moment in which this turn took place, with thinkers composing theistic texts and/or reinterpreting their texts and traditions in a theistic way. A typical example is the adoption and adaptation of Mīmāṃsā (originally an atheist philosophy) within theist Vedānta in the first centuries of the second millennium CE. I have already discussed about the various steps of this incorporation by Rāmānuja and Veṅkaṭanātha. What remains fascinating is
- how Mīmāṃsā was rebuilt through this encounter, with its atheism reconfigurated as negation of a given form of theos, but not of any form whatsoever.
- how Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta was challenged to produce a sustainable version of theism.
To elaborate: Theism in South Asia needed to grow in an environment in which atheist objections where the norm. It had, therefore, to inoculate itself with possible answers to these objections and to rethink an idea of the divine which could resist these attacks.
How could this phenomenon be studied? As usual with South Asian philosophy, many of the fundamental texts have never been edited and remain in manuscript form. Of the ones which have been edited, only a tiny minority has been translated. Of these translations, only a minority can be understood on its own right and independently of the Sanskrit (or Maṇipravāḷa) original. Still less common are works elaborating on the theology entailed in these texts (among the exceptions let me name Carman, Clooney, Mumme and Oberhammer; Ram-Prasad’s Divine Self especially focuses on Rāmānuja’s different concept of God). In short, texts need to be edited, translated, studied, compared with each other and read keeping in sight the goal of understanding the phenomenon of the convergence of theism and atheism.
Why at all should it be studied? The Mīmāṃsā author Kumārila Bhaṭṭa writes that without a purpose, even a foolish does not act, and in fact Sanskrit authors regularly announce at the beginning of their treatises the proximate and remote purpose of their works. In the present case, the proximate cause is the desire to understand the interactions between atheism and theism by looking at them from an unexpected perspective and to throw light on a fundamental chapter in the history of South Asian philosophy.