The Mīmāṃsā school of Indian philosophy started as an atheist school since its first extant text, Jaimini’s Mīmāṃsā Sūtra. At a certain point in its history, however, it reinterpreted its atheist arguments as aiming only at a certain conception of god(s). In other words, it reinterpreted its atheism as being not a global atheism, but a form of local atheism, denying a certain specific form of god(s) and not any form whatsoever.
This transformation occurred in parallel within the Mīmāṃsā school itself and within the theist Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school, which since its beginnings with Rāmānuja (11th c) came gradually closer to Mīmāṃsā until, in the 14th c., its great proponent Veṅkaṭanātha declared Viśişṭādvaita Vedānta and Mīmāṃsā to be a single school (aikaśāstrya).
Who are the key authors of this transition from global to local atheism and towards a reconceptualised theism? The answer is not completely clear, especially because it requires a close examination of both schools. Within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, one witnesses a gradual, though not linear, progression towards Mīmāṃsā and towards a more bhagavat-like conception of God from Rāmānuja to Ātreya Rāmānuja and culminating in Veṅkaṭanātha. Within Mīmāṃsā, there might be an important distinction between the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara subschool. Within the first, Pārthasārathi (11–12th c. CE) appears to have been a global atheist, for instance when he comments upon the opening of Kumārila’s Ślokavārttika. The Prābhākara school might have been more inclined to move towards theism. The main figure here could have been the Prābhākara author Bhavanātha, whose Nayaviveka has been repeatedly commented upon in South India and seems to have been extremely influential at the beginning of the second millennium CE. It is in fact quoted and discussed by Veṅkaṭanātha and by later authors (like Rāmānujācārya) who recognise him as a theist. Moreover, Bhavanātha’s theistic move could be part of the reasons for the great significance of Prābhākara philosophy in (South) India at the beginning of the second millennium, as attested by Gaṅgeśa’s Tattvacintāmaṇi, a game-changing work of the Nyāya school, composed in the 13th c. CE. The Nayaviveka is a commentary on the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra. While discussing the inference to the existence of a Lord (īśvara), Bhavanātha concludes:
evam īśvare paroktam eva anumānaṃ nirastam, na tv īśvaro ‘pi.
In this way I have refuted the inference to the existence of the Lord said by other scholars, but I have not refuted the Lord Himself. (NV, tarkapāda, end of sambandhākṣepaparihāra)
Do readers know other theistic passages in the Nayaviveka?
I just stumbled upon a blog discussing this post (and adding much more interesting stuff): https://www.danielharper.org/yauu/2018/09/global-vs-local-atheisms/