Shiva, Buddha And Eastern Atheism

Aadhi Yogi - Shiva

Over the past week, I got in to debates with my friends over religions. Since the debates extended in several forums, I had to re-type my understanding of religions several times. The majority of the Western world do not understand the Eastern spiritual practices, and even the people following Abrahamic religions within India pass judgments on Eastern religions without even understanding the philosophy behind it.

In this brief post I try to debunk some of the myths about Eastern religions. For over 10 years now I am learning Adi Saivam, Ajivika, Samkhya Yoga (A part of Saiva Siddhantha), Buddhism and Jainism. There is a stark similarity in all these religions. If atheism is the absence of belief in Gods, then all the Buddhists, Jains and certain sects of Shaivaites are atheists in a sense. While I also study about other Abrahamic religions, except for the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find anything more profound to explore in spiritual terms.

Now I am making my stand pretty clear to all my friends, I am a follower of Shaiva siddhanta.

In yogic tradition Shiva is not a God, he is called as the Aadhi Yogi, Aadhi Bagawan (in tamil), Aadi Devudu (in telugu), Batara Guru (in Indonesia and Java). He is the first guru, and created the first spiritual path several millenium before any organized religion was formed. He attained realization in Mount Kailash, and facing south on a full moon day (Guru Pournami) he transferred his knowledge and taught 7 people about the ways to realization and yoga. That is the reason, he is addressed as Dhakshinamoorthy. One of the seven rishis was Agasthya who brought Shiva’s teaching to South India. Worshiping a God has no relevance in Shaivam, and every one can feel the universe and creation within through yogic life. He gave the tools for realization and one of those is Yoga (and meditation). When his followers found it hard to follow him and meditate, he created the concept of Lingam. An energized ellipsoid, to focus the thoughts on to. It is called as அருஉருவம் as it can be seen but does not denote anything definite (both form and formless). According to Shiva the creator and the creation are not different, and every human has the ability to feel the entire creation within. To do that you don’t need to worship a God. According to Jain tradition the first tirthankara is Aadinath, also called as Rishabanath or Aadeshwara. The seal of Aadhinath is Rishabha (A bull, just like Shiva’s) and according to Jainism he attained nirvana (realization) in Mount Kailash (the same as Shaivam). So many researchers consider Shiva as the First thirthankara of Jainism as well. It doesn’t matter if that is true or not, because what matters is the paths taught in these philosophies are quite similar. Like Shiva, Buddha taught his first 5 disciples on the day of Guru Pournami, and Mahaveer taught his first disciple (Indrabuthi Gautham) on Guru Pournami.

Devotion in Shaivam and Buddhism:

Shiva who gave yoga to the world classifies yoga in to four types: Karma Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Bhakthi Yoga, Gnana Yoga (Performing duties with extreme sincerity, Physical yogic practices, Devotion and Knowledge respectively). One can attain realization by traveling in any of these four paths. There are no Gods, no belief systems, yet Shaivam promoted Bhakthi (Devotion). How can that be?

According to Shaivam the biggest barrier to realization is the notion of “I” (ahamkara), and the belief of people that they are a permanent, and an autonomous entity. This ego is the root of ignorance, and devotion is the basic tool to break the bonds of ego. It doesn’t matter to which you are devoted to, devotion means putting someone, something or an abstract entity above the ‘self’. That is the first step in killing the ego. For this reason, most of the sects among Shaivaites cultivated the habit of devotion. However even till date 99.9% of all Shiva temples around the world will not have his idol, there will just be an energized Linga to focus the thoughts on to.

Buddhism and Jainism are also nontheistic religions. They don’t believe in God, but they too promote devotion for the same reason. Buddha has said that he is not a God, but just a realized soul and no one should worship him. According to Buddha believing in gods is not useful for spiritual seekers. In layman terms, God is absolutely unnecessary in Buddhism. This is his primary teaching. He too encouraged devotion as a tool to destroy the ego. However Buddhists realized that devotion requires and object. They did not understand to what they should be devoted to. Buddha and several guru’s in his lineage answer this question in different ways. Devotion to guru and construction of monasteries and certain shapes, forms, statues and icons was advised.

If Buddha was not a god, then why bow to Buddha statue in a monastery? It is not only to show gratitude for the Buddha’s life and practice, but also to acknowledge the enlightenment itself.

Despite all these you can find people praying to the Buddha or to other mythical figures that populate Buddhist iconography. Some schools of Buddhism are deeply devotional, in Sri Lanka, people flock to the stupas, some relics like Buddha’s tooth are revered. Even in other branches that are non-devotional like Theravada or Zen, there are certain rituals to show their gratitude to Buddha. In India you can see people thronging to Shiva temples.

When I was doing Post Graduation in Bangalore, I happened to visit ‘Namdroling Monastery’ in Karnataka, also called as the Golden Temple. I happened to talk to one of the Tibetian practitioners there, he was pretty well versed in English. I asked him about the beautiful Buddha statue and why I should bow to him, when Buddha has explicitly told people that he is not a God and people should not to worship him. For that he answered “When you bow, you are bowing to yourself. That is you sitting up there.” When people bow, they aspire to be a Buddha.

So, devotion in these paths is not “corruption” of the original thought, but one particular expression of them.

Buddhism is not about either believing or not believing in God or gods.  The same is true in Jainism, so instead of calling these spiritual paths as atheistic, one can call it as nontheistic.

Don’t Believe in Beliefs:

If I told a Child (who has never touched fire), that fire would be very cold, she would believe it. However, the moment she touches the fire she will feel what it is like. To explain it with the context of God, let us just assume that your parents taught you right from your childhood that a buffalo in the street corner is the God, you would have believed it. You would have sincerely worshiped it until someone convinced you with another theory. You would have then started to believe in the new theory and the new God. Later when someone else convinced you that there is no God, then you would believe it, and reject the concept of God. These kind of belief systems has a lot to do with our surroundings and the powers of persuasion of the people who influence us. So your belief is of no consequence, it is irrelevant, what matters is experiencing and knowing the truth.

These spiritual paths that I talk about don’t believe in ‘Beliefs’. Even believing in ‘realization’ is pointless, it should be experienced and understood. These spiritual paths just provide people with ways to get enlightened. The Jain’s path is very tough, while Buddhists used ‘Upaya’ literally means ‘skillful means’. Shaivaites used Yoga, Sadhana and other tools.

There are lot of things literal as well as allegorical in Buddhism, but eventually it is quite similar Shaivam, in looking at the nature of existence as delusional. According to Buddhism the world is full of delusions, and the quest is to realize, or perceive, delusions as delusions. All these paths explain karma and how karma works. All these paths teach us to be a seeker and not a believer.

Samkhya Yoga – A More Rigourous Nontheistic Path of Shaiva Siddhantha:

Samkhya Yoga is a more rigorous sub-sect of Shaiva Siddhantha. It accepts the duality as explained in Shaiva Siddhanta, Prusha (supreme consciousness) and Prakriti (all that is manifested in the universe, including our mind). According to this philosophy the effect is pre-existent in the cause. There is only an illusory change in the makeup of the cause and not a material one, when it becomes effect. This being a Part of Shaiva Siddhanta, it takes one of the four paths Gnana Yoga – the Path of Knowledge, to attain realization and mukthi (liberation). According to this there is no Good or Evil, there is only Knowledge (truth) and Ignorance. It considers ignorance as the root cause of all suffering and bondage.

Patanjali the first yogi to document yoga, explains Samkhya in a deeper way. The following arguments in Samkhya yoga, beautifully highlights why it is one of the best nontheistic paths.

  • If the existence of karma is assumed, then the proposition of God as a moral governor of the universe is unnecessary. For, if God enforces the consequences of actions then he can do so without karma. If however, he is assumed to be within the law of karma, then karma itself would be the giver of consequences and there would be no need of a God.
  • Even if karma is denied, God still cannot be the enforcer of consequences. Because the motives of an enforcer God would be either egoistic or altruistic. Now, God’s motives cannot be assumed to be altruistic because an altruistic God would not create a world so full of suffering. If his motives are assumed to be egoistic, then God must be thought to have desire, as agency or authority cannot be established in the absence of desire. However, assuming that God has desire would contradict God’s eternal freedom which necessitates no compulsion in actions. Moreover, desire, according to Samkhya, is an attribute of prakriti (the physical manifest) and cannot be thought to grow in God.
  • Despite arguments to the contrary, if God is still assumed to contain unfulfilled desires, this would cause him to suffer pain and other similar human experiences. Such a worldly God would be no better than Samkhya’s notion of a higher self.
  • Furthermore, there is no proof of the existence of God. He is not the object of perception, there exists no general proposition that can prove him by inference.

It doesn’t matter to which religion you belong to, if you understand the above points, you will find no reason to worship God. However Samkhya is not against devotion or showing gratitude. Being thankful and showing gratitude to every being that helps us is the true nature of human self. I follow Samkhya yoga, I don’t worship a God and ask for favors, but I am thankful to everything around me. I display my gratitude to a Neem tree which enriches and protects us, I display my gratitude to a cow which feeds us, I display my gratitude to the Sun which provides us everything, I display immense gratitude and devotion to Shiva the first yogi, for giving me and the world the supreme knowledge.

Am I an atheist or theist? You can call me anything, I don’t care. I am a spiritual seeker and I know my path.