Signe Cohen argues that Asian countries have long had various forms of atheism and agnosticism that while not explicitly denying the existence of any gods, treats them as largely irrelevant.
The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.
While Buddhism does not argue that gods don’t exist, gods are seen as completely irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.
According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and while gods may exist, they too must be reborn, just like humans are. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.
Around the same time when Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C., there was also an explicitly atheist school of thought in India called the Carvaka school. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu authors describe the Carvakas as firm atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.
To the Carvakas, there was no life after death, no soul apart from the body, no gods and no world other than this one.
Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, similarly argued that gods didn’t exist, although its followers did believe in a soul and in rebirth.
While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism.
The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter.
Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God.
Asian religions and cultures have generally been more accommodating of diversity of beliefs within each religious tradition than the Abrahamic ones of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, maybe because they are less bound to specific texts.