I am an atheist. Let me say it again. I am an atheist. There's a reason why I say this, why I repeat this declaration with pleasure and pride. For there are societies where you cannot say this. Pakistan is one among seven countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Maldives, where a confession to atheism can attract capital punishment. In neighbouring Bangladesh, atheist bloggers are hacked to death in full public view, and with alarming regularity. Death threats are issued and carried out. The message is unambiguous. If you are a declared atheist, then leave Bangladesh, apply for asylum to Norway, but don't think of staying "here". We will get you.
Not so in secular India. You have a right to follow a religion, you also have a right to not follow any, and do so openly. In fact, the 2011 census, the details of which were made public recently, was the first to include a "non-faith category". 2.87 million Indians ticked that box. The actual numbers are probably much higher.
It's not that atheists haven't been murdered in India. Two years ago, on August 6, 2013, activist and rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar, an avowed atheist, was murdered. But he was not murdered for being an atheist. He was murdered because he ran a campaign against fraudulent and exploitative religious practices. He helped draft the Anti-Jaadu Tona Bill (Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordnance), which targeted godmen and gurus.
In the early 20th century atheism took firm root in Tamil Nadu, primarily because of the efforts of EV Ramaswamy or Periyar, as he was popularly known.
The legacy continues to this day. Dravidian parties like the DMK boast of thousands of members who eschew religious belief.
The history of atheism in India goes back 2,000 years. We have had a glorious tradition of atheism stretching back to ancient times, to the 2nd century BC. Many schools of Indian philosophy were explicitly non-theistic: Carvaka (also known as Lokayata), Mimamsa, Samkhya (the atomists) and Buddhism. Still, even though figures like Buddha and Mahavira ignored the gods, they were not thoroughgoing atheists; they admitted to the existence of "supernatural beings of strictly limited powers" (AL Basham), and subscribed to the theory of transmigration of souls.
The first true-blue atheists were the Carvakas. They were the first to say that there is no god, period, (that is, no external agent or efficient cause); that we don't need god to explain how the world came to be, how we came to be here, and what happens in the after-life. They were the first to stick their necks out and say that the goal of human existence, if there was one, was to be sought out and achieved in this world (loka). And no, these 'heretics' were not burnt at the stake. They were invited to important philosophical debates, where they were free to propose and defend their doctrine of pure materialism - the material world is all there is. Man consists of four elements- earth, water, fire and air, and returns to them death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The self or soul or consciousness is a byproduct or epiphenomenon of the human body (and not an independent entity floating around), and perishes when the body ceases to function as a living organism.
Much of what we know about the Carvaka worldview comes to us from Madhavacharya's 14th century compendium of Indian philosophy, Sarva-darsana-samgraha. These pithy and provocative aphorisms and maxims are self-explanatory. Vedic rituals and beliefs are relentlessly and ruthlessly lampooned and criticised. "The Agnihotra (fire sacrifice), the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes, were made by nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness."
There is no afterlife: "If a beast slain in the Jyotistoma rite will itself go to heaven, why then does the sacrificer not offer his own father immediately?" "If a sacrificer would reap the reward of heaven after the sacrificer himself, the sacrificial act and the implements of sacrifice are long gone, the trees that were consumed by a forest conflagration would as well bear fruit." "There is no other hell than the mundane pain, produced by purely mundane causes such as thorns."
Instead of renouncing worldly pleasures we should actively seek them out, because the here and now is what we have. The Kamasutra attributes a series of statements to the Carvakas: "A pigeon today is better than a peacock tomorrow." "A certain silver is better than a doubtful gold." (Modern translation: "A Tinder date today, is better than the promise of 72 virgins in Paradise."). Those who deny themselves these pleasures are held in great contempt: "How blissful the maidens with long eyelashes, how blissful their full breasts crushed in a tight embrace; how painful is begging, fasting, and exposure to the burning heat of the sun, which only emaciates the body of these fools."
The Carvakas were the first Indian atheists, skeptics, hedonists and rationalists. Unfortunately, nowadays, they fall between stools. The Hindu right has its own notion of a glorious past, which consists of flying chariots, plastic surgeries performed in forests and invisible/mythical rivers like the Saraswati. Many westerners are deeply attached to the romantic conception of Indian philosophy as essentially spiritual in nature. The Carvakas are not seen as being interesting enough to warrant more attention, either scholarly or popular. Therein lies the tragedy of ancient Indian atheism in contemporary times.
Still, as Richard King writes in Indian Philosophy: "Indian materialism has clear resonances with contemporary cultural and philosophical trends in modern, urban, western culture. In that context, one might expect to see a renaissance of interest in Carvaka philosophy."
One hopes that this happens.