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Jun 29 2013

Is Atheism Accepted In Hinduism?

There is a trope that we ex-Hindus come across very frequently when we tell people that we are atheists – “Atheism is accepted in Hinduism”. The implication is that us atheists should just shut up about tolerant Hinduism already and concentrate on the intolerant Abrahamic religions. However trope is only partially true. Atheism is accepted but in the sense that you aren’t going to be socially ostracized for professing a non-belief in god. But that is all. Try to go beyond dictionary atheism and practice the values that are derived from your atheism, and you’ll see why.

If you say that you don’t want to accompany your family on the trip to that temple, you’ll be asked why you’re being such a spoilsport. You’ll be asked “what’s the big deal”?

You want to marry out of caste, especially from a lower caste? “You are going to bring disgrace upon this family”. Cue the sulking and refusal to talk for weeks, months or even years.

Say that you don’t care about the myriad rituals that go with a marriage. You’ll be told to shut up and put up. The elders know what they’re doing.

If you have a kid and don’t want to take them to Tirupathi and get their head shaved, you’ll get a “What is wrong with you? Why all the fuss? It’s important that you do this now. It’s not like you are being asked to do it every year”. Cue the questions on why you have to be such a pain to deal with. Don’t want to do annaprashana? Namakarana? Cue the same.

If you are constructing a house and don’t want anything to with the nonsense of Vaastu, you’ll get a “You don’t understand how these things work. If the house has bad vaastu, you will suffer hardships later on. So and so in our family did that and look what happened to them! Anyway vaastu has been proven to be scientific yadda yadda..”.

The hardest part comes if a loved one dies and you don’t want to do any rituals to propitiate their soul. You’re already feeling like shit and a simple request that you be allowed to practice your value system will be met with any number of dire warnings of how the loved one will suffer in limbo if you don’t perform those rituals. Your love towards the deceased person will be questioned.

And all that is from the perspective of a man. Women have it even much worse. Like if you don’t want to do all those useless pujas and vratas you’ll be emotionally blackmailed. “It’s fine if you don’t believe in a god. But these pujas must be performed. Don’t you care about the well being of your family?. Are you going to bring evil upon this family?”

To sum up, atheism is accepted in Hinduism as long as you keep it to yourself and follow along all the irrational nonsense of Hinduism.

38 comments

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  1. 1
    gokul sb

    Couldn’t agree more. Going to share this in facebook.

  2. 2
    Sagar Keer

    Being a Hindu atheist myself, I find this article poorly connected & inarticulate. The title is “Is Atheism accepted in Hinduism”. I would have assumed a fair bit of time would be spent in delving into the philosophical aspects of Hinduism which deal with the existence of a divine being/ creator. The title to what is being discussed here should be “Is Atheism accepted by certain religious Hindu families of today”. I’m sure a lot of atheists face difficulties because of their overzealous religious family members, but its an easy way out to just plaster it all over your post to make a vague point.

  3. 3
    manjunath

    perfectly summed up….

  4. 4
    Anil

    The thing with Vaastu is that nobody is going to buy the house if it isn’t according Vaastu. I know of a muslim family who are building a house consulting a Vaastu guy. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.

  5. 5
    satish

    @Sagar,

    What do you think “acceptance” means? That there is some tome which talks about atheism? Is that your idea of acceptance? What good is pondering over philosophical points when you can’t even put them into practice? Anyway, the post was meant to be thinking out aloud kind of thing. Here are some past posts that will be to your taste:

    http://nirmukta.com/2009/05/11/hinduism-religion-culture-or-way-of-life/
    http://nirmukta.com/2009/11/28/is-hindu-atheism-valid-a-rationalist-critique-of-the-hindu-identitys-usurpation-of-indian-culture/
    http://nirmukta.com/2011/01/07/a-critical-look-at-neo-hindu-religious-and-spiritual-fads/
    http://nirmukta.com/2012/02/16/deconstructing-the-inanity-of-brahman-and-the-vedantic-worldview/

  6. 6
    Paarijaat singh

    I agree with comment no. 2. This can be taken as an individual opinion of a hindu atheist ….. But it was vague in totality . There was not a single point to show exclusively the hardships of a hindu atheist . As a hindu atheist myself , i believe this is the story of every religion . It depends more on the class hierarchy and less on religious preference . And just for the record , Vaastu Shastra HAS BEEN proven to be scientific .

  7. 7
    machintelligence

    Vaastu Shastra appears to be another iteration of Feng shui. It may be “scientific” but I suspect it is true to the same extent that palmistry, hand writing analysis, astrology, and acupuncture are true. The more stringent the experimental conditions and the better the controls, the less effect is evident. Well designed experiments show there is nothing there but placebo effect.

  8. 8
    Sumeet Singh

    My this message is for those blind faith persons who are the gardener of Vastu Shastra, According to vastu you will suffer if you are not following it. Then Go to the residences of the narrow streets of every metro in India they are not according to your Vastu. In real means Vastu is the source of earning money from those who are God fearing persons. Ask a Defence person about Vastu His/Her answer will be same as per me. If you have to follow Vastu follow it in a proper manner & wait only for 1 year Bharat will be in the list of occupied countries. Occupied by those who don’t believe in Vastu. Tibet is the live example.

  9. 9
    Ram

    I agree with Sagar….
    The author is confusing the Sanatan Dharma with the rituals and customs…
    Besides Hindu is the name given to the dwellers who lived on the Eastern side of the Indus(Hind) River…….At that time,almost all of the Hindus followed Sanatan Dharma…..Its a race like Arab,Chinese,Scandinavian

    Besides,if you notice that the customs followed by Indian Muslims is different from the Arabic Muslims and the customs followed by Arabic Muslims are similar to Arabic Christians and Jews…..
    Indian Muslims and christians too have castes like Indian Hindus….

    Vaastu is actually a new concept of earning money..My grandfather said that during his time,there was no Vaastu Shaastra,the only thing they did was to construct a house facing east ……Also he didnt hear about the Stones he need to wear for his constellations….

    My final word..
    Atheism is accepted in Hinduism.,but many Hindus are reluctant to accept that fact that Atheism is written in Vedas…

    Just my 2 paises from an Atheist Hindu

  10. 10
    Ashwin

    Problem is if you don’t buy a Vastu house and want to sell it, you’ve already restricted your market.

  11. 11
    Ashwin

    Hinduism doesn’t seem to have a mechanism to check orthodoxy, but it compensates by checking orthopraxy.

  12. 12
    Sagar Keer

    @satish Thanks for the links

    Now when you say “Acceptance in Hinduism”, it does seem like you should spend some time on the philosophical aspect of it. It is important to highlight this, if we had such a discourse in our history. I feel people would be more open to these ideas, if they came from our own culture. Even otherwise, doesn’t it make sense to leverage these traditions of critical thinking and use them to help people absorb new ideas from the West? Rather than trying to tear everything down and coming off as simply trying to ape those cultures?

  13. 13
    satish

    @Sagar,

    I already said that a non-belief in god is accepted in Hinduism. But that is not enough, is it? Am I going to find present day values that the secular community holds dear in Hinduism? No. You can make a point that colonialism robbed us of the chance to have our own enlightenment period. I would fully agree. We will have to work with that fact. There’s no use searching for present day values in older philosophical traditions in the hopes of avoiding to look like we’re aping “western” culture. That path was already taken up by people like Vivekananda. Though it did reform Hinduism to an extent, it wasn’t enough as the reformers did not get rid of ideas like karma, gunas or Brahman. When you attack those central ideas you will be using science, a “western” construct. The best course of action then is to avoid the whole east vs west false dichotomy.

  14. 14
    Sagar Keer

    @satish

    I am totally with you on attacking any unscientific ideas. But I don’t see using old philosophical traditions as avoiding to “look like” we’re aping the west. I’m saying we don’t have to ape the west. I think the best way for progress in Indian society will be by following its own path. Certainly, we need to absorb all of western science to catch up, but we should do it like they absorbed Eastern science all those years ago. The point is, the west is not a perfectly secular, atheist society. There are dangerous, hidden religious elements there too. Here in India, we have these self-styled Hindu fundamentalists who know next to nothing about Hinduism, and have a reactionary form of religiosity to oppose the inroads made by Abrahamic faiths. I fear if Indians lose their cultural identity completely, the vacuum may be filled up by something undesirable.

  15. 15
    iainr

    “us atheists should just shut up about tolerant Hinduism already and concentrate on the intolerant Abrahamic religions”

    As an atheist brought up in an Abrahamic tradition – but not in a family prepared to ostracise me for rejecting it – the attempts to coerce people into going along with the ritual to keep the family happy are very familiar indeed.

  16. 16
    Brian Lynchehaun

    “Acceptance” is about what people do, not philosophy.

    This is an excellent article, with a completely appropriate title. I appreciate you writing this, Satish. I know virtually nothing about the cultural practices of Hinduism.

    As for the people who (incorrectly) think your title means “Is atheism compatible with the core beliefs of Hinduism?”: they’re here to criticise, and little else. I would humbly suggest that you ignore the people who criticise you for not writing the article that they want to read: this is your blog, not theirs.

  17. 17
    SallyStrange

    If there’s a philosophical place for atheism within the framework of Hinduism, but this philosophical openness does not translate to ordinary people who are Hindu making actual physical and mental space for the atheists in their lives, then of what worth is this alleged philosophical acceptance of atheism?

    What does it mean to have a philosophical acceptance of atheism within the framework of a deity-oriented religion?

  18. 18
    Avicenna

    I would suggest that Hinduism is probably one of the best major faiths for treating atheism. A lot of what people believe in Hinduism isn’t forced on me.

    I figure it’s due to the notion that the actions of a person rather than blind faith make a person good or bad and that you “can” do good irrespective of what you believe. So atheism is just a position of faith rather than a moral or indeed a personal failing that will damn you to Naraka (Hell).

    Hinduism’s philosophy does accept a Hindu viewpoint, however the problem with Hinduism is that like Catholicism, the structure of the religion is unknown to the majority. So while religious scholars will accept our atheism, most people simply don’t know how too react.

    I feel that Hinduism’s reform would be the change from Sanskrit to modern spoken languages as a mode of instruction (or in the case of the South? Update in the tradition to more understandable modern language) so that all may access the “information” within rather than the philosophy of Hinduism being as exclusive as it is.

    I fear the actions of Hindus are less out of malice and more out of ignorance off what atheism means.

  19. 19
    Deepak Gupta

    The article touches these points at a very high level. More research and effort is required to make a compelling case. Very ordinary output guys.

  20. 20
    The Rose

    What Brian said.

  21. 21
    sqlrob

    And just for the record , Vaastu Shastra HAS BEEN proven to be scientific

    OK, so what on this page is even REMOTELY scientific? This looks like the usual woo baloney to me.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vastu_shastra

  22. 22
    satish

    @Avicenna,

    I feel that Hinduism’s reform would be the change from Sanskrit to modern spoken languages as a mode of instruction (or in the case of the South? Update in the tradition to more understandable modern language) so that all may access the “information” within rather than the philosophy of Hinduism being as exclusive as it is.

    I don’t think the problem of reform is one of texts being in Sanskrit and hence inaccessible. Even during its hey days, Sanskrit was a language of the elites. Sort of like Latin. The ideas in Sanskrit have always been interpreted and passed on to the common folk by gurus. Also, during and after the colonial period, many people have brought those ideas out in modern languages (ex: Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Sarvepalli Radhaksrishna). Gurus today continue doing the same.

    Another way of seeing it is what one thinks Hinduism ought to be, and how Hinduism turned out to be. The ought-to-be camp may want to include some very distinct schools of thought under Hinduism – like Brahmanism with its heavy emphasis on reverence of Vedas and ritual, and Buddhism which wants little to do with Vedas and ritual. But Hinduism that which turned out to be is a lot closer to Brahmanism than anything else. Vedas and ritual are held in high esteem. Gurus who can quote the Vedas and interpret them for the modern day are in high demand. It is that aspect of Hinduism which has the intolerance of atheism and its values.

  23. 23
    Sohail

    You missed out the classic middle-class double standard. “It’s okay to do whatever you want in the house but it’s not the same when you’re outside. what will the neighbours/relatives say?”

  24. 24
    Ankit Gupta

    Although, I do not agree with Hinduism on any level – scientific or moral, I agree with Sagar. While I have no problem with the content, I find the title to inaccurate.

    Some of you mentioned that “acceptance” has to do with what is being practiced and not the philosophy. I completely disagree. It has to do with both. Consider an analogy: Suppose you get a build-yourself kit for some furniture. The instructions are complete but you just did it wrong. Now saying that “acceptance” has nothing to do with philosophy or more precisely rules is like saying that the instructions were wrong and vice-versa.

  25. 25
    satish

    @Ankit,

    Your analogy doesn’t work because you are assuming that there is a philosophical instruction set that was proven to work. What evidence do you have to assert that such an instruction set exists at all? The only option you have is to run through an instruction set and see if works. If it doesn’t, try a different set. That is why you can’t separate practice and philosophy. The only way to show that the philosophy works is to practice it.

  26. 26
    Ankit Gupta

    @Satish

    Thanks & point well taken; an obvious flaw in my logic.

    Just an aside on logic (as I am a new atheist), what kind of evidence would be required to say that a philosophy worked in general. In this specific case, for example, what would be sufficient evidence to say that hinduism accepted ‘atheism’ at par as a way of life compared to a theistic view.

  27. 27
    satish

    what would be sufficient evidence to say that hinduism accepted ‘atheism’ at par as a way of life compared to a theistic view.

    If the things I listed in the post become complete non-issues, I’d consider that as evidence. Another test is whether you are considered as a believing Hindu by default.

  28. 28
    Amit

    With no disrespect, I feel that you have misunderstood the basic point.

    The question in your title is “Is atheism accepted in Hinduism”. The answer to this question is YES.

    But your post was about the question:

    “Will a Hindu atheist, find it easy to live with Hindus who are not atheists”. The answer to THIS question is NO.

    But they are 2 different questions.

    Is a non-veg eating Punjabi, an Indian? YES.

    Will he find it easy to live with a veg eating TamBram? NO.

  29. 29
    balaji

    the primary thing you have to see here is that they have to emotionally blackmail you into doing this to make “them” feel ok. so what happens in the next generation ? when you are the one making the rules ? you’re not being threatened with eternal damnation or death because of heresy , shouldn’t you be open minded enough to accept that all people cannot be pushed into the rational school of thought or if they can, not as quickly ?

    if that were the case , lectures from EVR Periyar must have had more effect than it has today. most of hinduism is a social construct of the day and age ask anyone who is a Hindu what he bases his actions/morality on? no one is following the Gita or the Vedas verbatim, its just a bunch of random ideas that one generation accidentally foisted on to the next one, without a central propogating force Hinduism based on caste and rituals is losing its steam as a scoial construct, it was propogated for centuries by Brahmins who made a living off the vedas and the rituals. you can definitely see a slow but steady decline in the reduction of blind beliefs since the Bhramins were removed from the top tier of the society along with the expulsion of the British. In india you follow the Western education system and science is already given the respect it needs.

    there is no demon called hinduism that you have to kill, it is something that evolves. not an ironclad rule book based religion. which hindu god asks you to tonsure ur head ? or do one of these annaprashana? Namakarana? i don’t think any god asks you anything. these are rules foisted by you on yourselves . does any hindu scripture ask you to do that? if not then how can you blame hinduism instead of blaming the society and the people?

    path of devotion – path of knowledge – path of duty , all paths exist. so isn’t path of knowledge the science that you purport and investing in science is hinduism isn’t it ? when an ideology is so open , why do you want to criticize that instead of trying to reason with close minded people who want to foist their insecurities on others? these are the kinds of people who would one day turn Science into a religion.

    maybe a scenario of Judean People’s Front / People’s front of Judea. or south park’s United Atheist Alliance, Unified Atheist League.

  30. 30
    satish

    no one is following the Gita or the Vedas verbatim, its just a bunch of random ideas that one generation accidentally foisted on to the next one

    That’s a very uncharitable view that ignores a lot of history. Those books aren’t a bunch of random ideas, but represent, to their best, ideas that flow from certain assumptions. Karma is one such assumption. That there are rules and deeds that give you good karma is another assumption. You made it seem like none of those assumptions exist.

    without a central propogating force Hinduism based on caste and rituals is losing its steam as a scoial construct, it was propogated for centuries by Brahmins who made a living off the vedas and the rituals.

    So how was it possible that without a central authority Hinduism based on caste and rituals was able to propagate for centuries in the first place? Ideas don’t always need a central authority to propagate. If enough people believe it, ideas can have a very strong staying power. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t rely on the central authority argument while at the same time ignoring the historical fact that Hinduism did survive without a central authority for a very long time. And which central authority ordered this man to be killed? So please, stop pretending that Hinduism today is some nebulous entity that is losing steam. Do some reading and let go off the “central authority” red herring.

    which hindu god asks you to tonsure ur head ? or do one of these annaprashana? Namakarana? i don’t think any god asks you anything. these are rules foisted by you on yourselves . does any hindu scripture ask you to do that? if not then how can you blame hinduism instead of blaming the society and the people?

    As I said above, social pressure is real. The very same thing that allowed Hinduism to propagate for centuries. No use denying that reality.

    when an ideology is so open , why do you want to criticize that instead of trying to reason with close minded people who want to foist their insecurities on others? these are the kinds of people who would one day turn Science into a religion.

    It is you who thinks the ideology is “so open”, but there obviously are millions who don’t. In arguing that only what you say is real and others’ experiences don’t matter, you are being pretty darn close minded.

  31. 31
    balaji

    “So how was it possible that without a central authority Hinduism based on caste and rituals was able to propagate for centuries in the first place?”

    the central authority for hinduism were the people propogating the rituals . the brahmins. they had a tight control on the recital and interpretation of vedas, anyone else was prohibited from reading from them. this is how they implemented a caste system and rose to the top of the society as a authoritative figures. comparitively how many do you think today are involved in vedas for their livlihood. most I know have even betrayed their core principles and have started drinking and eating meat.

    “As I said above, social pressure is real. The very same thing that allowed Hinduism to propagate for centuries. No use denying that reality.”

    as i’ve said before it was propogated by bhramins and is even today but on a very small level. there is little social pressure today. your argument on social pressure being the propogating factor is irrelevant as it is not based on religious dogma.

    Narendra Dabholkar attacked con-men and superstiition , and he was killed by them. you are implying that hinduism asks you to kill people or is it good karma if you kill people who are against your beliefs ? it was a bunch of cowards who were butthurt by his criticism and feared being exposed.

    i’m talking about ideas in the religion, you’re talking about how a section of people are rigid in their beliefs.
    tolerance is requried in any philosophy, going after everyone who doesn’t subscribe to your own line of thought and sterotyping them is not the way forward. all i’m saying is that hinduism has room for all kinds of thought, isn’t that more tolerant then you one dimensional portrayal here. you are so critical of older people that you aren’t willing to accomodate their idiosyncracies in the least. if you cannot accomodate atleast try to educate them with the other edge of the hinduism sword, wouldn’t that be more considerate than going all guns blazing with no god nothing nihilism? it is human nature to identify with fellow beings and look down upon everything thats different. there is no guarantee that atheism would be the cure for all evils of religion. open mindedness and tolerance is the need of the day. just look at Atheism and Atheism+, how long has this modern atheist movement been going on? a few decades and we already have a splinter group.

    think of this the other way, aren’t you the one who’s denying the open nature of hinduism, when today there are millions who are perfectly happy living with people of other faith (shiridi sai baba??). in my view, there is no one actively fighting for hinduism or its irrational rituals or caste based systems and is clearly on path to self destruct (atleast in my state TN). btw i’m an athesit/agnostic who’s against organized religion in every way.

  32. 32
    satish

    the central authority for hinduism were the people propogating the rituals . the brahmins. they had a tight control on the recital and interpretation of vedas, anyone else was prohibited from reading from them. this is how they implemented a caste system and rose to the top of the society as a authoritative figures.

    Your lack of historical knowledge shows. By focusing on Brahmins you have a convenient excuse for the modern day – since Brahmins aren’t powerful, Hinduism is waning. I call bullshit. The Brahmin might have said “the vedas say this”, but it was the Kshatriya you enforced it and they had enough freedom to not listen to the Brahmin (history bears this out). That is why I never single out Brahmins as the culprit for the caste system. I put the blame entirely on the moral and political system that arose from the astika schools of thought (I’ll define that as Hinduism for the purpose of the rest of this comment). You conveniently chose to ignore that and painted all of that as “random ideas” as it suits your argument that Hinduism is dying. Random ideas don’t have the kind of power needed to win philosophical debates and assert their supremacy.

    as i’ve said before it was propogated by bhramins and is even today but on a very small level. there is little social pressure today. your argument on social pressure being the propogating factor is irrelevant as it is not based on religious dogma.

    As explained above, once you set aside the strawman argument of everything resting on Brahmins, you’ll see that Hinduism is still thriving. A good indicator is majority of Indians still don’t marry out of caste. An endogamic caste system is the foundation of Hinduism. If you keep denying this reality, I see no point in entertaining your arguments any further.

    And atheists can be communists, libertarians, socialists, leftists, maoists, feminists, humanists and so on. There’s no need to pretend like there ever was a single coherent atheist movement just so that you can deflect criticism of Hinduism.

    Btw, I’m not arguing that Hinduism isn’t changing. It is and I’m happy for that. But that change is because of people who questioned Hinduism and not because of people like you who can’t stand any criticism of Hinduism and see the need to make not so clever references to Monty Python. The likes of Ambedkar, who openly questioned Hinduism, did a lot more to alleviate caste injustices than Gandhi, who wanted to stick by Brahmanism.

  33. 33
    balaji

    where does it look like i can’t stand the criticism of hinduism ? you make good assumptions.

    the lack of inter caste marriage is more a product of the arranged marriage construct and one of the motions present in that construct.

    ” but it was the Kshatriya you enforced it and they had enough freedom to not listen to the Brahmin”-
    so if under the orders of the pope a bunch of templar knights go on crusades, then its not entirely the fault of the pope or their authority on religion? ook.

    random ideas – i was talking about today’s hinduism. please do check what percentage of the population really know about hinduism. for them its just a bunch of beliefs passed down by their parents. and once that person starts to think rationally even that is easily dismissed. i really don’t see how hiduism or the caste system can be thriving. as far as i’ve seen most hindus are as areligious as possible. as long as they don’t go about actively recruiting new converts or force me to change my beliefs, i wouldn’t mind most of what they are doing.

    my beef with the arguments in this blog post is that you claim to be emotionally blackmailed into religion or ostacrized. find a better punching bag , this is totally not worth the discussion. when there are so many ideas out there to be criticized like the use of hinduism by political parties to build up religious nationalistic sentiments, you choose to complain about the emotional blackmail at your home and say that is the reason for atheism being unacceptable in hindusim. problems i see would be god-men, politicising religion, promoting religio-nationalistic sentiments (hindus-tan) , and communalism, extremism, all these are not really in the realm of emotional blackmail. one cannot be emotionally black mailed into extremism or politics, it is personal.

  34. 34
    satish

    where does it look like i can’t stand the criticism of hinduism ?

    This is one small blog post which took me a few minutes to write. And yet that was enough to get you worked up and start lecturing about “so many ideas out there”. Guess what? Those “so many ideas out there” get their share of criticism. So don’t mistake your utter ignorance of the rationalist movement in India with there being nothing on “so many ideas out there”.

  35. 35
    satish

    find a better punching bag , this is totally not worth the discussion.

    Finally, if being an atheist caused no problems for you, good. But don’t you dare dictate that other atheists can’t possibly be facing any issues at all just because you are a self-entitled-prick who can’t see beyond what happens in your life.

  36. 36
    Aditya

    Generally, atheism is valid in Hinduism, but some schools view the path of an atheist to be difficult to follow in matters of spirituality. “Among the various schools of Hindu philosophy, Mimamsa, and Samkhya while not rejecting Brahman, typically rejects a personal God, creator God, or a God with attributes. While Samkhya rejected the idea of an eternal, self-caused, creator God, Mimamsa argued that the Vedas could not have been authored by a deity.

    Hindu atheists accept Hinduism more as a “way of life” than a religion. They are unlike other Hindus in their religious outlook, but they share the same cultural and moral values.”

  37. 37
    satish

    @Aditya,

    In the article I said “Try to go beyond dictionary atheism and practice the values that are derived from your atheism, and you’ll see why”. So if an atheist only disavows the existence of god and still keeps following Hindu moral values, then that is not the atheism I’m talking about. I’m talking about an atheism that follows, to speak broadly, something like secular humanism. It is the acceptance of that kind of atheism I’m talking about.

  38. 38
    satish

    This video where Prof.Kalpana Karunakaran recounts how she had to justify her atheism even as a child is another illustration of how open Hinduism is to atheism.

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