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What the Buddha Saw, 600 BCE–1 CE

Ancient Doubt in Asia

Our subject is the history of those who have doubted the existence of God. Asia does not have a history of much discussion of this subject, because for the East the existence of God was rarely the central question. Nonetheless, it is central to our story that a world of individuals, across half the earth and several millennia, did not live under the gaze and regulation of God or gods. We need to find out how they managed that. A great many of them believed in other unprovable, world-correcting contentions, such as karma. Although that fact helps to answer our first question about how they lived without God, it raises others: Did anyone doubt karma? And if so, was doubting karma similar to the experience of doubting God? We will see that there were those who doubted karma, and in many ways it was marvelously similar to doubting God in the West. The Carvaka of the late seventh century BCE in India were the earliest example of radical doubt in the human record. Remarkably, here in its cradle, doubt was already as joyous, mournful, sly, and calm as it would ever be, and as brash.

We begin our story with a quick study of Hinduism, both for what it will tell us about religions that do not understand the world as remedied by gods, and because the features of the Hindu world are precisely what the Carvaka would attack, along with the idea of gods. Soon after the Carvaka first issued their dismissal of the tenets of Hinduism, two extraordinary god-denying religions also came into being. These were Jainism and Buddhism, and although they were likely inspired by the Carvaka, these two religions take the idea of a world without gods in brave new directions. We will look at each in turn.


Hinduism is the earliest of the major religions on the planet. It has no founding figure or central institution, but it coheres around a collection of ideas and texts. These texts stretch far back in human history: the most ancient, the Vedas, was already put into a final form by 1200 BCE. They were brought together under the name Hinduism when British scholars in the nineteenth century turned their attention to the religions of the subcontinent.1 The word Hindu is just a reference to the Indus River, as is the word India. In a post-Enlightenment classifying mood, they drew borders around concepts that had always flowed rather freely. The Hindus then told their own story—a defense was often called for—but they had accepted the notion of having a single religion, as such.

The Vedas were long understood by modern historians to have been written by Aryas, nomadic pastoralists whose language forms the basis of Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Persian, Sanskrit, and most of the languages of northern India (they never got to the south). It was said that they moved into India between 2000 and 1200 BCE and wrote the Vedas. The battles recorded in the Vedas would then be the battles waged by the Aryas in conquering northern India. Further, this would suggest that the caste system in India originated from the light-complexioned Aryas’ desire to keep the darker, indigenous population in check. Historians now contest this interpretation, arguing that the idea of Aryan origins was invented by nineteenth-century Europeans seeking a more Caucasian source for the great Vedic works. Instead, the Arya language is said to have diffused into India without conquest. The Vedas were then written by a more native population detailing its own struggles and its own concern with controlling a less privileged population. Either way, the Brahmans were the highest class, and the Shudras were the laborers.

In this early period, the religion of the Vedas was crowded with personalities, godly and human, but it was relatively simple in practice. The Brahmans were not merely the rich, they were the priests. The culture supported them, and in a style far above that of laborers, because they officiated over rituals and sacrifices as well as taught religion, and because they were increasingly honored as superior beings. The religion they oversaw was mostly about soma and sacrifice. Soma was the name of a plant that one crushed to make an intoxicating drink. The drink was also called soma, as was the god who personified the effects of the drug. Sacrifice was important because the Rig Veda told of gods who won battles and they had to receive sacrifice in order to do this.

The gods in the early Vedic period were a family of humanlike characters, and the problems they mediated were generally worldly problems such as hunger and power. These gods were seen as being above us in the way pets may be seen as below us, and human beings tried to charm the gods for favors. It was a utilitarian bargain with almost entirely material aims. Yet the great philosophical quests that would emerge out of the Vedic tradition were hinted at, here and there, even in this ancient text. The Vedas make reference to the oneness of the real world, and that this real world is not immediately apparent to human beings. The idea was already emerging that worldly existence goes through almost unfathomably long cycles of generation, destruction, and regeneration. People, things, worlds, and the whole universe would disappear, but existence would not. It would just keep cycling. Indeed, as time went on, the gods that were identified with these world-changing processes became central and edged other gods out of favor: Vishnu was the preserver, Shiva was the destroyer, and Brahma was the creator. They became the Trimurti, the Vedic trinity. From there things seem to have been heading toward worship of Brahma alone, either as the one god of a monotheism or as a naturalist version of the mechanics of the universe.

And then came the Upanishads. Between 900 and 600 BCE a number of texts were written that came to be seen as supplementary to the Vedas. The Upanishads were among them and are generally considered the culmination of the Vedas. They introduce a way of understanding life and the universe that has stood as an alternative to belief in God for millions of people across thousands of years. It is here that we first see the notion of transmigration, the idea that people are born and die, and are born again and die again, over and over. The process is called samsara. It is in keeping with the Vedas’ sense of natural, cyclical change, but it is something new, in part because of karma. According to the idea of karma, when people die they are reborn into an embryo and start again—and everything about the new infant’s life, from its caste to its daily luck, is appropriate to how the reincarnated soul had behaved in past lives.

The evidence for this is interesting. First of all, the continuity of life suggests more continuity. The general reported experience is that every time we wake up, we find ourselves the same—we cannot remember everything we have done, but we feel it has always been us, ourselves, acting. The fact of our own continued presence so far, rationally suggests more of the same. Many people say that they cannot believe they are going to disappear entirely from this world. Second, sometimes people seem to have firsthand knowledge of things that they have never experienced. For millennia, the West casually believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics: we believed that a carpenter’s son would be born more apt for carpentry than he would have been if the father had taken up dentistry instead. In fact, a half-century before Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested this as a mode of evolution: animals who stretched their necks to reach the highest leaves would have offspring with slightly longer necks until, at last, the process produced the giraffe. By the early twentieth century it had been generally accepted that genetic information is not influenced by behavior, but we can see why the feeling persisted so long. It speaks to the mystery of personality, and even more to the mystery of the way human culture perpetuates itself. Its transmission can be so subtle and ubiquitous that each generation seems oddly possessed of a wealth of untaught knowledge and habits. Karma has that going for it, too: it explains and supports the continuity of the community, and it legitimizes all sorts of untutored authority.

The third great suggestion of karma is the unfairness of things. The idea of karma is not just that we are endlessly reborn, but that we keep getting born into situations that we earned in a past life: we climb up and down the philological ladder of animals, human beings, and gods. Animals move up the rungs, life by life, rather automatically, but once an atman, a soul, reaches the human stage, its progress responds to its behavior. The idea is generally phrased in terms of good karma: one tries to store it up in order to move forward rather than stay the same. But if you are very bad in one life, you will die and become a less enlightened, more miserable creature with an even shorter life span—the beetle is a favorite horrid fate for a human being. It is all very gradual, over almost endless human lifetimes, but if you are good, your incarnations are ever more sophisticated, happier, and longer-lived. As a social doctrine karma justified the differences between the social strata as innate and deserved. You are who you are because you deserve it. One moves to a higher station in the next life by loyally fulfilling the obligations of one’s present incarnation.

Gods in this schema are beings that live about a thousand years in extraordinary states of peace and bliss. But even so, gods are subject to rebirth and if they behave very badly over the course of their long lives, they can be demoted down to human beings again—sometimes they can even be brought down to beasts of burden. It is good to note that a culture concluded that endless life on earth was the true reality of the human condition, and furthermore that the prospect of these endless lives was awful. Apparently, the idea of eons of repetitive effort, strain, suffering, and death gets unpleasant. Each of these lives ends in a variety of decay, disease, mutilation, and death. Over and over. People wanted out. Their primary spiritual desire was to attain release, moksa, from the ridiculous treadmill of samsara.

For along with the notions of samsara and karma, the Upanishads also introduce the idea that every once in a while, individuals can be released from the endless cycling. How did the Upanishads suggest you get yourself out of the world? The answer was renunciation: you leave the world by separating yourself from the world as much as you can, by turning inward. The Upanishads suggested that the adept leave home, enter the forest, and live a very pared-down life: sleeping on the ground, eating little, practicing controlled breathing, and meditating. By living this way over long periods, one seeks to change one’s very being, to become increasingly and profoundly disengaged from the human. Other people, outside the Vedic tradition, were involved in similar psychophysical practices at this time, but the logic of renunciation and asceticism was first articulated in Upanishad texts.

What is all this renunciation about? Here it may suffice to say that certain rigorous practices of solitude, stillness, and silence seem to bring human beings to a different kind of reality—a different basic idea about themselves and the universe. By myriad attestations, the people who practice these techniques do seem wiser, calmer, and even happier. Even before we start talking about what a rigorous program of meditation can do for a person’s mind, we can simply note that a little quiet can markedly change our thoughts. The concerns of daily life do not mean much in the grand scheme of things, and yet most of us spend all our waking time thinking about them; solitude, stillness, and silence get us thinking differently. But it is not easy. The classic Hindu metaphor for the restlessness of the human mind is a monkey, but one drunk on wine and stung by a hornet. Even five minutes of meditation—of keeping one’s mind focused on a word or an image, for example—is as difficult as calming down that monkey for a similar spate. It takes a great deal of practice. Even just a bit of quiet, let alone specific concentration, can be difficult without training. Many people manage to hear music or talk almost all the time. The mind leaps about. All this suggests that rigorous silent concentration would entail a different way of being, and this could have a considerable effect on the mind. It seems to affect the chemical balance of the body and the function of the brain. In extreme stillness, one enters a third state, something different from sleep or wakefulness, where a different part of the mind is available. In other terms, the lack of industry or fidgeting lets one feel like a rock among the breakers.

The Hindu notion of meditation is essentially that when we can manage silence and stillness, we get a glimpse of our real self, our atman, the “I” that directs all the rest of the sensation. If we meditate longer, this true self emerges more fully. To be at peace, one must clear away everything that is not the true inner self. This “everything” includes one’s own body in particular, because it is the source of so much useless, distracting, and redundant desire. This is not just an idea to be believed; one does not become wise, tolerant, and quiet by force of will. It is a transformative process: the meditation and renunciation have an effect on the adherent such that he or she really becomes a different sort of person. This quieter, wiser, more tolerant self seems to the adherent to be a truer self. At last, one would slip out of the cycle of birth and rebirth in an exquisite and final release.

What we have seen so far is the general background of various Eastern religions: The gods are usually an assumed part of the universe, but they did not create or maintain the world. Rather, the universe works according to almost mechanical principles of organization and maintenance, and life within it cycles along on its own logic of appropriate rebirth. Justice is automatic, death is an illusion. This principle takes care of a lot of the same needs as does the idea of God. Responding to the problem that we are human and the universe is not, samsara, karma, and moksa breach the gap by adding justice to the universe but insisting on deep patience from humanity. Implementing the idea involves training oneself out of humanness while at the same time coming to know, and thereby dissolving into, the wide unhuman universe. Over much of history in the East many people, perhaps most, were practicing members of several religions. There were religious tensions and oppositional relationships in the East, but often the situation was analogous to trying to get into good physical shape—you can do a variety of exercises toward the same goal. Even when the idea of an absolute God would begin to dominate one of these religions, that God was presented as an exit, moksa, release. The rest of the time, the way out of these traps was dominated by practices: ways of thinking, acting, and being that help you find release.

Hinduism does not suggest that everyone drop his or her work and go live in the forest. In this period, only male Brahmans were invited, for one thing. But more fundamentally, no one is supposed to proceed toward enlightenment until he or she wants to. The idea is that people will want to on their own because, eventually, nothing else will satisfy. First of all, the desire for physical pleasure, once indulged, does not really bring happiness. To refuse one’s desire may be more repression than transcendence, but many who do indulge get bored. When this happens, people often move on to seek achievement. As a goal, achievement is a step up from hedonism, because it is communally directed—to be successful is to be valued and lauded by at least some part of the community—but the project is still rather ego-oriented. Still, Hinduism suggests that we indulge this desire so long as it satisfies. Once we grow weary of physical pleasures and tired by accolades and honors, Hinduism recommends that the next stage of life is to leave all this behind and seek internal happiness and, eventually, release.

To obtain that happiness, four major techniques, four yogas, were devised. One of the most fascinating aspects of the yogas is that they reflect the belief that people come in great varieties, and thus need various paths, yet are all capable of reaching the same truth. The jnana yoga is the path through knowledge. For people who live through the intellect, the best path to truth is to think about the real nature of one’s self, to learn that a more real self lies somehow behind the noisy surface-self, and to spend time coming to know this deeply. There are thinking exercises to help achieve this. Westerners can recognize this notion in the very Latin roots of the word personality, for here, too, the daily self was seen as a kind of fake: actors take on persona when they put on a mask and sound, sonare, their parts through, per, them. This suggests a conviction that there is something behind the personality. What is more, by the logic of modern biology, all of our body’s cells are replaced in any seven-year cycle, which brings up the very serious question of what part of us is actually consistent over time. It is also open to all of us to notice that every person sees the universe through his or her own eyes and must therefore be seeing a very skewed view. Hindu philosophy suggests that if we want to know reality better, we need to practice seeing outside ourselves, perhaps starting by thinking of ourselves in the third person, from a bird’s-eye view. The effect of seeing oneself in this way can be quite jarring, and that is the point. This jnana yoga is supposed to be the shortest path to truth, but also the steepest. It’s best for people whose minds tend in that direction anyway.

Then there is bhakti yoga, the yoga for those more invested in emotion than thought. Bhakti yoga is about love. Becoming one with everything might be seen as a journey in two directions: forgetting the self and embracing the whole. The bhakti concentrates on the embracing. It is a common Hindu idea that those on the bhakti path do not want to become one with all truth and reality, because then there would be nothing outside themselves to love! In the words of a Hindu classic: they want to taste sugar, they don’t want to be sugar. Bhakti explicitly advises the novice to choose a god image to worship. The novice chooses this god image based on what kind of love he or she wants to express in worship: love for a child, for a parent, for a friend, or for a lover. Parent and friend may seem most usual to those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and at Christmastime Christians worship God as an infant. They dote on his tender vulnerability. As for the lover, the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible and much mystical literature of the Middle Ages has an unabashedly erotic component. Bhakti is easily the most theistic of the yogas, but it would be wrong to see it as being fundamentally different in its path or its goal. The point is still release from the false self.

The first two yogas may be thought of as primarily renunciatory: one leaves the world, enters the forest, stops doing mundane labor, and distances oneself from mundane relationships. The third, karma yoga, is the path to truth through work—through staying in the world—and karma yoga can be performed through either of the first two yogas: jnana or bhakti, knowledge or devoted love. The secret of getting to enlightenment while working is to do the work for its own sake, with no thought of its results or benefit. One can work for the sake of the work and thereby move one’s attention away from the planning, greedy, false self or one can work for the sake of a god image, offering up one’s labor in adoration, and therefore move one’s attention away from the planning, greedy, false self. Either way, it takes years of intense concentration, but one eventually learns to let go, and see other people, and the world, in a stunningly new way.

The final yoga is the “royal road to reintegration,” raja (royal) yoga, and it is understood as the most empirical of the four. Practitioners of raja yoga essentially experiment on themselves, trying to induce the state that will help them to come to truth, to see reality. Solitude and subsistence living were common approaches toward enlightenment; this was more. Raja is a varied, curious, and intense approach to finding altered states and shaking free the true self. The basic rules are to abstain from lying, injury, stealing, sensuality, and greed, and to aim for cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation—but that is just to get the most common difficulties of life out of the way. From here, one can begin the training of postures, fasting, and controlled breathing that have helped others in their quests. Some of these techniques are purposefully excruciating. Raja is an aggressive approach to pulling the mind out of its ordinary, repetitive somersaults of thought. Buddhism was to borrow a great deal from this yoga, although with a dramatic new twist.

All the yogas offered time-tested instructions for creating a permanent rupture in our illusions and obtaining fantastic states of well-being. Is it true? Many cultures and a vast number of people have practiced and acclaimed it. With the human arts, the working proof is the clatter of recognition and release that the person reports. Apparently, these astonishing discoveries can go on and on, over years of effort and discovery. Some people seem to reach a state of being that is noticeably different and massively impressive to others. To contemplate how much a behavior may transform a person’s perceptions, over time, we may consider feral children, hypnotism, psychotherapy, cures for autism, advertising, and the effects of wearing eyeglasses with lenses that invert the scene. A regular program of practices can change something, such that one thinks and sees in a different way.

Most people of the early Vedic period might feed a “forest dweller” and think of it as a karma-enhancing experience, but they did not generally go off into the forest themselves. After all, progress toward moksa was imagined as taking thousands upon thousands of lifetimes, and for one who had reached the Brahma level the fast track was a collection of extremely difficult practices: some simply very hard to do and some terribly painful, involving isolation as well as physical strain. For average people, the early religion of the Vedas was about Brahman priests making sacrifice and performing rites that helped to hold the cosmos together, feeding the mechanism of the world.


In the distant past, before even the Carvaka, we have evidence of some serious doubting minds. When the ancient king Agatasatru asked a wandering ascetic, Purana Kassapa, what were the benefits of the life of a recluse, Purana Kassapa’s answer denied that there were any. There was no justice, the guilty were not punished, and no good behavior helps: “In generosity, in self-mastery, in control of the senses, in speaking truth, there is neither merit, nor increase of merit.”2 Another figure from that shadowy time, Ajita Kesakambali, wrote that “There is neither fruit nor result of good and evil deeds.… It is a doctrine of fools this talk of gifts.… Fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated and after death they are not.” These early doubters may have paved the road for what came next.

An extraordinary materialist doctrine came into bloom in India in the seventh century BCE. It was called Lokâyata and its adherents were the Carvaka.3 We do not know very much about them, as no copy has survived of their central text, the Brihaspati Sûtra, which dates from 600 BCE. In fact, the Lokâyata texts would appear to have been systematically destroyed by the Brahman class, defending their dogma. In a pleasing twist, much of what has been preserved of the Carvaka was also arranged by their enemies: Lokâyata texts are embedded in works that argue against them. Commentaries and arguments against the Carvaka appeared until the sixteenth century CE, and one gets the sense that even then they were arguing against a living doctrine with devotees among the current population. Many of these works contained extended quotations because authors cherished Lokâyata as the best materialist to quote with disdain. Materialism is intuitive when you first start thinking about it, but it becomes extremely counterintuitive when you take it a long way in certain directions, and the Carvaka did.

The Carvaka believed that there is no afterlife whatsoever, and they thought it was pretty funny that anyone believed otherwise. The idea was that we are our bodies, these bodies think and feel, and after a while they wear out and die. Since the thinking and feeling part of us was always just an effect of the body itself, there can be nothing to live on after death. In the ancient play The Rise of the Moon Intellect, a personified Passion gave a little speech describing and promoting the Carvaka position. Smiling, he began by attacking the Brahma, and he was pretty aggressive right out of the gate: “Uncivilized ignorant fools, who imagine that spirit is something different from body, and reaps the reward of actions in a future state; we might as well expect to find excellent fruit drip from trees growing in the air.”4 The Brahma, he says, are uncivilized fools for pretending that there is such a thing as spirit, separate from the body, that can go off after the death of the body, benefiting from the things that spirit and body did when they were together. There is no separation, insists Passion; spirit cannot hang from nowhere any more than a ripe mango can hang in the air.

The Carvaka found claims of an independent spirit—one that could exist without a body—to be more than just wrong, they were dishonest. Not surprisingly, the Carvaka resented the righteousness of believers and their scolding of unbelievers, especially because according to Lokâyata, the truth is so plainly evident. That position could be summed up as such: the truth is what is evident. In the words of one text, “Only the perceived exists; the unperceivable does not exist by reason of its never having been perceived.… How can the ever-unperceived, like things such as the horns of a hare, be an existent?”5 Passion says of the Brahma, “Assuming the existence of what is the mere creature of their own imaginations, they deceive the people. They falsely affirm the existence of that which does not exist and by their frequent disputations endeavor to bring reproach upon the unbelievers who maintain the word of truth. Who has seen the soul existing in a state separate from the body? Does not life result from the ultimate configuration of matter?”6 Excellent questions. The Carvaka believed that the sense perceptions were the only source of knowledge. The world was what it purported to be.

The whole universe, they posited, was constructed of earth, water, fire, and air. There was no spirit or life force; consciousness was only a modification of the four elements in the body. The Carvaka themselves admitted it was strange that consciousness and life could come out of earth, water, energy, and air, but it seemed to be the truth. The description of the Carvaka in Madhava Acarya’s Sarvadarsanasamgraha says that “In this school the four elements are the original principles; from these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced, just as the inebriating power is developed from the mixing of certain ingredients; and when these are destroyed, intelligence at once perishes also.”7 They were very explicit in their claim that, weird as it is, matter sometimes simply has intelligence, as in the case of a human being; and no intelligence can exist without matter, just hovering around somewhere. For them, the reality was that we simply are our bodies, and they loved pointing out that when someone says I am fat or I am tall they are being utterly literal; there is no I distinct from its body.8 Consciousness does not imply an in-dwelling spirit.

The Carvaka thought that the ascetic’s approach to life was a waste. This, after all, is the only life we have, so we ought to enjoy it as much as possible. To stick with The Rise of the Moon Intellect for a moment, after Passion introduced the idea of the Carvaka, he explained that it had been taught by materialists ever since the teacher of the Brihaspati Sûtra. Then he introduced two new characters, Materialist and Pupil, who took the stage as Passion receded. Materialist began by attempting to explain the world to his student. The key was this: the chief realities of existence are pleasure and pain, and the point to life is to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. Upon being told of the behavior of the ascetics, Pupil incredulously asks why anyone would renounce sensual pleasures and submit to physical pain? His teacher replies that it is ridiculous to do so, for how can fasting and exposure compare with “the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with one’s arms?”9 Another good question. Pupil asked, “Do these pilgrims indeed torture themselves in order to remove the happiness which is mingled with this miserable existence?” And Materialist said it was true, they don’t want pleasure because it is mixed with pain, and again lamented, “But what prudent man will throw away unpeeled rice which encloses excellent grain because it is covered with the husk?”10 From the sidelines, Passion applauded this answer.

Materialist also explained that the only reason people behave properly is because they fear punishment. “The three Vedas are a cheat,” he claimed, because they pretend there is a higher system of justice in the world. They are also a cheat because they prescribe all sorts of inefficacious ritual. Materialist insists that even those who perform these rites do not believe them: after all, animals slain in sacrifices were said to ascend to heaven, but if people really believed that, surely they would sacrifice their parents and thus give them an express ride to paradise! But no one does, so they must not really believe it. Neither was Materialist impressed with the idea that funeral oblations actually served to feed the deceased. He wanted to know just how that worked, since the flame of an extinguished lamp is never revived by pouring on more oil. The scene closes with Passion offering “Materialist, you are my beloved friend!” to which Materialist replies, “May thou be victorious. Materialist salutes thee.”11 It’s a nice alliance.

The Carvaka proclaimed that there were no gods, and that there was no heaven; the only hell there is, they insisted somewhat gleefully, is here below, caused by normal pain and frustration. But these were all side issues. It was samsara, karma, and moksa that they most devotedly denied. Lokâyata did not offer any replacement for these things, that is, its adherents did not dedicate themselves to human society or some particular vision of a purposeful existence. For them, no gods, no karma, and no supernatural world of any kind meant that there was no justice in the universe, and therefore no strict reason to maintain justice in our little human existence. No morality could have any meaning because the whole system had no purpose; virtue and vice, the Carvaka explained, were merely social conventions. We ought to keep up a degree of kindness because it generally functions to our own advantage—it works—and that simple functional issue should be our guide in life. Again, the only goal for a human life was pleasure; we should seek sustenance and love and sensual delight of all variety. We should not worry about the meaningless whole.

And what of the wonder of the world? How did we get the snakes and the sky, the flowers, the earth, and ourselves? According to the Carvaka, the answer, again, is evident: it just came to pass—the same way things come to pass every day. The world followed its nature and thus became itself and no one had to help it. They knew that some would find this hard to believe but were themselves convinced. In the Sarva-darsana-samgraha, a fourteenth-century description of the Lokâyata—which rejected the doctrine but quoted it at length—the point was put succinctly: “An opponent will say, if you thus do not allow any unseen force, the various phenomena of the world become destitute of any cause. But we cannot accept this objection as valid since these phenomena can all be produced spontaneously from the inherent nature of things.”12 They were not minimizing the majesty of the natural world, they just thought it began and developed by its own internal logic. “Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature.”13

The Carvaka saw themselves as debunking Hinduism by arguing against the idea of gods, karma, and rebirth. In their words, “Others should not here postulate [the existence] of merit and demerit from happiness and misery. A person is happy or miserable through [the laws] of nature; there is no other cause.” For them, “there is no world other than this,” and all sorts of religious promises to the contrary “are invented by stupid impostors of other schools of thought.”

Two materialist philosophical schools were founded in the same early Classical period that saw the origins of Lokâyata. These were the schools of Logic (Nyaya) and Atomism (Vaisesika), and both specialized in questions of epistemology, studying the method and grounds of knowledge, especially having to do with its limits and validity. These schools were analytical and secular: they called for limiting claims about humanity and the universe to those things that could be logically demonstrated. Logic and Atomism both claimed that all we could know was what our senses told us, plus the inferences that we could make from that sensory information: we can know that a fire is hot by sticking our hand into it, and after a bit of similar research we can conclude that all fire is hot. We cannot go ahead and draw conclusions about who made the fire hot, or if there has always been fire.

The Carvaka outdid even the doubt of Logic and Atomism. The Carvaka did not believe in the validity of inference. This is mentioned in most surviving discussions of them, because it helped make their position seem particularly untenable. It is also the central concern of the Tattvopaplavasimha, a seventh-century text that is the only extant treatise considered an authentic text of the Carvaka. No inference means that no dependent ideas are real knowledge. The problem is that we think by using dependent ideas: we know water is wet because all the water we have ever encountered has been wet. According to the Carvaka, all these experiences with individual cases only serve to prove that in those cases, water was wet. We do not know anything about water or, in fact, about any generality. It is a sophisticated skeptical notion. Even after seeing ten thousand swans and all of them white, we must not assume that swans are white. Along the same lines, the Carvaka did not believe in cause and effect. Events that are linked in a before-and-after way are simply that: events that human beings have often perceived as following one another in time. No more conclusions should be drawn because no link can be proved. So when the Carvaka said that nothing can be known except the information of the senses, they really meant nothing. This was tricky stuff, and most polemics merely describe the basic ideas of the Carvaka epistemology before returning to discuss their more obvious attacks on religious doctrine.

The Sarva-darsana-samgraha cited the Carvaka as saying that the rituals of the Brahma are useless, and the Vedas are “tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology”—a sharp critique. This text also contains a long section of verse detailing the Carvaka position. A fraction of it reads:

The fire is hot, the water cold, refreshing cool the breeze of morn; By who came this variety? from their own nature was it born.

And this has been also said by Brhaspati—

There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce any real effect

The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes,

Were made by Nature as the livelihood of those lacking knowledge and manliness.

If a beast slain in the Jyotistoma rite will itself go to heaven,

Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?

While life remains let a man live happily, let him feed on ghee even though he runs in debt;

When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?

If he who departs from the body goes to another world,

How is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?

Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmins have established here all these ceremonies for the dead—there is no other fruit anywhere.14

These were the main points of the Carvaka position, a dynamic and early episode in the history of doubt.

The same period that saw the birth of the Carvaka saw the origins of Samkhya, the oldest of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Samkhya upheld an interpretation of karma, but it was otherwise naturalistic and atheistic: the world was made of stuff and of souls that cycle through life until they finally end up free. In the words of the scholar Ninian Smart, eventually “The emergence of the cosmos out of chaos at the beginning of each cycle [of the universe] is explained through an evolutionary theory.… The whole process is explained without reference to a personal Creator.”15 Samkhya understood the world to have come to be of its own accord; just as milk flows for the young animal and is not sentient, the primordial substance of the world goes along, following its nature. Although the Samkhya texts usually simply ignore theism, they argue against God at times, holding, for example, that if God were free he would have no desires to make him create and if he were not free he would be unequal to the creation he is purported to have made—therefore he cannot exist.16

The sixth century BCE was a period of innovation in Hinduism. It saw the birth of the Samkhya philosophy as well as a great range of religious movements, the most prominent of which were Buddhism and Jainism. Lokâyata began just at the start of this tumultuous and productive century. Although Buddhism and Jainism took Hindu philosophy in a different direction, modern scholars suggest that Lokâyata may have influenced them. If all the Carvaka had done was reject karma, harsh ascetics, and sacrifices, its effect would have been enormous—but, of course, they put even larger matters into question. Jainism and Buddhism were not devoted to the material world as was Lokâyata, but they had learned to question the fanciful metaphysics of the Vedic priests.


The great leaders of Jainism and Buddhism both lived in the sixth century BCE. Both movements began, in a sense, as Hindu reforms that explicitly rejected much of the Vedas—especially their supernaturalism. Both seem to have been influenced by the materialism of the Carvaka, and the dates would fit such a hypothesis, although we are not really sure.

Jainism supposedly existed deep into prehistory. Mahavira, the great founding figure who created the Jainism that we know, was, it seems, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, or Jain leader. Jains had apparently been a small sect of ascetic monks before Mahavira. It is said that during his periods of extreme isolation he pulled out his hair at the root and went about naked at all times, whatever the weather. He had an experience of enlightenment and soon became the leader of a small group of monks who followed his example of nakedness, hairlessness, and other aggressive acts of physical asceticism. Mahavira taught that the gods and goddesses, sacrifices and rituals of Hinduism were all nonexistent and/or irrelevant. What the religion of the Vedas had right was samsara and moksa—and that was about it. Jains understand the universe to have no end; it merely cycles in and out of existence over the course of eons. According to them, we happen to be living at the end of a cycle, in a period of decay, and that explains our troubles. Through most of the cycle of millions of years, jiva, spirit, and ajiva, worldly stuff, are pristinely separate and the universe is a paragon of harmony and peace, but in periods of decay jiva and ajiva start collapsing into each other and that is the reason for struggle and pain.

Jains believe in karma, but as an actual substance—they spoke of vapor and in modern times often speak of a fine dust of atoms—that gets on your jiva in the course of living in the world. Any interaction might cause a bit of this karma to adhere to your spirit, but when you do harm to any other living thing, the karmic burden is very high. And it is karma that keeps the wheel turning, causes the endless births and deaths to keep repeating. If you want release, the thing to do is to minimize the amount of this stuff that you accrue over a lifetime. Jain monks and nuns—and men and women are both seen as capable of spiritual release—thus live very carefully in all their actions. They are vegetarian, first of all, and also known to place a cloth over their water as they drink in order to be sure they do not accidentally ingest a living creature. Some Jain monks and nuns sweep the path before them as they walk so as to minimize the chance of crushing a bug. The most popular image in Jainism is of a monk who has stood still so long that vines are twining up his legs.

Jainism is generally understood as an atheist religion. The Hindu gods were rejected and were not replaced by any supernatural force. Its great leaders, especially Mahavira, were adored, and their images adorn the Jain temples, but for the most part these great leaders have been remembered as such, and not transformed into supernatural saints or gods. In fact, the temples were and are more for the laity than for the monks and nuns. Lay Jains keep up a number of rules and prohibitions—they embrace vegetarianism, for instance—but are on a less rigorous program than the monks and nuns, whom they hope to emulate in future lives. The most important Jain prayer, to be said once a day, is a statement of respect for those who have made headway in their travel down the path of release. Jainism did not spread worldwide like Buddhism did, but it did manage to remain a living religion in its own birthplace, India, across these many centuries. There are about two million Jains in India today. The big godless religion to begin in India at this time, however, was Buddhism.

The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, about 566 BCE. He was a prince at a time and place in which princes were plentiful, and therefore more like what we would understand to be a nobleman, but still, he was a prince. When he was born, the story goes, his father brought in soothsayers to report on his newborn son. They said that the boy would have one of two extraordinary futures: if he stayed in the world, he would unify India and become her universal king; if he forsook the world, he would become a world redeemer. The father preferred that his son meet the kingly destiny, and he spared no effort in keeping Siddhartha attached to this world. As some versions have it, the young man had forty thousand dancing girls and three palaces. More crucially, his father kept Siddhartha in the confines of royal palaces, hiding pain, poverty, illness, and even old age from the prince so that he would not question the beauty of the world. Some say that each night the dead leaves were cleared from the garden so that the young man would have no melancholy. He was trained in all the fine arts of living, involved himself in their high standards, and enjoyed them to the fullest. Soon he had a beloved and beautiful wife and an infant son. He was happy.

Alas, one day Siddhartha slipped away from the palace and met up with all the difficult realities of life—death, sickness, sorrow, and decay—and he was horrified. He also saw a forest dweller and was surprised to find that this skeletal, unkempt, silent creature was not most pitied among men but was rather considered to have achieved freedom and true happiness. Nothing was ever the same for the prince. Once Siddhartha knew that all bodies will age and suffer, and that suffering is everywhere, the things of the world and the pleasures of the flesh appeared empty to him. Meanwhile, he kept thinking about the reputed freedom of the forest dweller. When he was twenty-nine he left his family and went off into the wilderness to seek enlightenment.

The first thing he did was to find two of the foremost Hindu masters and study raja yoga and Hindu philosophy with them. When he felt he had learned all they had to offer (we don’t know how long this took), he found a group of ascetics and joined their practices of physical trials. He fasted and strained himself; did exercises like clenching his teeth so intensely, for so long, that he dripped with sweat. At one point he lived on a grain of rice a day. He was respected among his fellow ascetics as the most intensely devoted and the most advanced. It all worked rather well, too: he reported going through epiphany upon epiphany, knowing ever more refined states of consciousness, experiencing ecstasies and states of blissful clarity. But he still felt that he had not come to his true self. One day someone offered him a beautiful meal—one story speaks of an array of delicacies, another says it was a woman with a bowl of milk—and Siddhartha, to his own surprise, takes it and gulps it down. Once the good food is inside him, he is struck by one of his great revelations: starving oneself is no better than feasting. Neither one nor the other—and note that he had taken each to its most refined excess—would lead to enlightenment and happiness. He did not know what to do, so he went off on his own to meditate. One evening, sensing he was ready, he sat down under a Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he had reached enlightenment.

Buddha means awakened one, and apparently, that is how the Buddha came into being. Under the Bodhi tree Siddhartha woke up and now he could see the truth. The first formulation of that truth was that “all is dukkha,” suffering. Pleasure always entails some sorrow when it ends, pales, or has ill effects, but more than that, “all is dukkha” means that all is out-of-joint: human existence is dislocated. There is a rupture between our feelings and desires and the vast, unresponsive universe. We don’t fit. Yet in his awakening, the Buddha found a way to solve this rift and thereby generate unspeakable bliss, all by what amounted to a shift in perspective. He was thirty-five. He spent the next forty odd years teaching, wandering, and ministering. Apparently, people responded to him as if he were another sort of being. Historian Huston Smith has observed that in the human record only Jesus and the Buddha seem to have constantly evoked the question “What are you?” rather than “Who?”17 He founded an order of monks. Texts of his teachings—carefully memorized by his disciples and later recorded—would fill a small room. From the second to the seventh centuries, Buddhism was probably the predominant religious community in the world. There are now more than 300 million Buddhists worldwide.

The Buddha denied a central Hindu notion, that of the atman. The religion of the Vedas held that human beings who had reached the stage of the Brahman could come to know their true self, their atman, and thereby reach bliss and release. The Buddha said, Look all you want, you are never going to find your atman. Why? Because there is no atman. There is no such thing as a self. Meditation had brought the Buddha to enlightenment, so he was obviously still very keen on it, but in a revolutionary way. Instead of using its techniques to find our atman, our truest self, we are to use these techniques, the Buddha instructed, to come to understand Anatman, the doctrine of no-self—the Sanskrit negation “an-” attached to the great Hindu ideal, “atman.”

Making yourself less important is a common religious goal. There is a logic to this, in that we know ourselves to be infinitesimal specks in the universe, and yet each of us feels extremely important to ourselves. This experience of feeling important but not being treated as important by the universe is the source of much woe. Religions thus advise their followers to feel what they logically know to be true: that our self is not the center of the universe. It is something else again to argue that the self does not exist. As we have seen, materialism is obvious at first and then starts to get counterintuitive when taken in certain directions (you can say you will believe only what you can prove, but you cannot really prove any cause and effect). Buddhism seems to go in an opposite progression: we think we have a self, we assume it, it’s the thing reading this right now, mulling it all over. But spend some time seriously looking for that self and one’s internal experience starts to fragment into disparate flickers of thought and sensation. All that noise had been seen as the stuff blocking you from getting to your atman. The Buddha said all that noise and all the more subtle sensations deep inside, all that is all there is to you, and the reason you could not find a central, coordinating self in there is because there is none. The idea that the self does not exist becomes increasingly intuitive. We are each a composite of sensations and actions.

There are feelings and doings, but there is no distinct feeler or doer. Modern psychotherapy offers another take on the Buddha’s claim that the self does not exist. As psychiatrist and theorist Wilhelm Reich explained it, the personality is created around moments of pain so uncomfortable that they are blocked off.18 A person’s character or persona is thus a chronicle of where he or she has been alienated from his or her self. Ways of coping with psychic pains, which are themselves assiduously avoided, create our individuality—that’s the real reason why the ways of coping are so (boldly) defended. We hang on to our cocooned pain because the thought of looking directly at it seems unimaginably worse than what we suffer living around these cocoons.

For the Buddha, once you see that you have no self, there is no self to defend and therefore no reason to avoid one’s pain. Now there may be embarrassment, but no one to be embarrassed. Clinging to our personalities is thus our undoing. The Buddha’s program is complete concentration on the particulate sensations that one gathers from the world and feels inside oneself, and the point is to see that none of this is really tied up into the narratives and conceptual structures that we usually assume. Take a bad feeling, for example, and concentrate on every aspect of its physical sensation: it reveals itself to be a constantly shifting physical phenomenon. It exists, but is a sensation, a curiosity, not a package of meaning or a spur to action. Do this exercise often enough, combined with other practices of intense concentration, and when you are confronted with formerly painful sensations, the curious-yet-calm response will replace the response of anger or sorrow. That’s just a small part of the transformation the Buddha promised, for if you can really come to believe that there is no self, how could your ego get bruised in the first place? The Buddha said that happiness was available to us if only we could simply set down our unfounded conviction that the self exists and must be protected. It does not exist, there is nothing to protect, and we are living in a very different world than we had ever dreamed.

Having come to truly understand Anatman, the Buddha had been freed—from everything. He had managed this transformative realization through entirely experimental means. No one had to wait to be reborn as a Brahman in order to achieve moksa. All the ideas of the religion of the Vedas—castes, samsara, karma—were, for the Buddha, beside the point. I’ll discuss what he thought of those things, but for now it is enough to note that he gave delightful and nuanced answers about being agnostic toward all that. He advised accepting that such things are immune to investigation and essentially forgetting about them. The real excitement was in this actual, natural, real world. The Buddha said that we are tiny creatures, convinced of a sense of me-against-the-world, and possessed of a comically small vantage point from which to see the social world of human beings and the universe as a whole. He suggested that we go through a mind-training program to realize that we are at one with the universe and can therefore partake in its eternity, peaceful mindlessness, and grandeur— rather than envying it. He liked to quip that what he was arguing was obvious; the problem was only in taking it in. We know we are fists of nerve amid a placid field; the Buddha said just let go and all will be well. The only proof was in the doing.

When the Buddha came to believe that neither self-indulgence nor self-abnegation could work, he championed the idea of The Middle Way, between the two. This may sound easy, but the Buddha said it was as narrow as a razor’s edge—one had to be vigilant against the seductions of either tendency. Yet the Buddha said that once you do manage to get rid of your sense of self, the truth of the universe is yours. You are no longer living from a single vantage point. Since you are not a separate self, your compassion is limitless; you are all compassion, all empathy, because not being you entails being everything else: since we are not at all separate, we must be all. A related and equally important concept is that everything in the world we know is constantly coming into being or disappearing, and it is all basically made of the same stuff. There are no true nouns, then, only verbs. As a billion various ocean waves are all in fact water, wave-ing, so the water is just the universe ocean-ing—holding in the form of water. The part of the universe that is you, is really just “you-ing” right now. There is no reason to fear anything, or to take pride only in those things particular to you, because there is no you, there is just a momentarily you-ing universe from which you could not be separated any more than an ocean wave can be separated from the water. The terrible separation of death and the alienation of individuals within communities and within the vast universe—these ruptures don’t exist in reality. We are tricked by the default time frame of our minds, so we do not see the flow of a oneness. With a lot of work, we can reconfigure our default settings so that we see things as they really are: flowing, timeless, interconnected. It leaves one bemused, gentle, and unflappable.

The Buddha had a wonderful talent for metaphors and kept them lively and undogmatic. He described in detail how a goldsmith purifies gold and how afterward, he can stop purifying it and form it into whatever he wants. It was the same for monks. First they get rid of “gross impurities” like “bad conduct of body, speech, and mind.” Then they get rid of sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and violent thoughts. “When he has abandoned these, there are still some subtle impurities that cling to him, namely, thoughts about his relatives, his home country and his reputation,” and an earnest monk has to eliminate these, too. “When he has abandoned these, there still remain thoughts about higher mental states experienced in meditation.” At this stage the monk is still working hard to remain pure and is not yet truly calm and at peace. “But there comes a time when his mind becomes inwardly steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated. That concentration is then calm and refined; it has attained to full tranquility and achieved mental unification; it is not maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements.” Then the Buddha said that in this state, like the gold that can be anything, the monk so trained can realize any given mental state “by direct knowledge.” The person who has reached this level of reality can achieve anything, even with such wild wishes as these:

May I wield the various kinds of spiritual power: having been one, may I become many; having been many, may I become one; may I appear and vanish… dive in and out of the earth as if it were water; walk on water without sinking as if it were earth; travel through the sky like a bird while seated cross-legged; touch and stroke with my hand the moon and sun, so powerful and mighty.…

May I understand the minds of other beings, of other persons, having encompassed them with my own mind. May I understand a mind with lust as a mind with lust; a mind without lust as a mind without lust; a mind with hatred as a mind with hatred … a mind with delusion as a mind with delusion … a distracted mind as distracted … an exalted mind as exalted…19

The Buddha insisted that the way to enlightenment was not at all supernatural, or even spiritual, but he could be very fanciful about the world as it was experienced by one who is enlightened. Yet the goal of all this is not really to do with flying, but with having a mind that will allow us to partake of the flight in the world, and even more, to be able clearly to see and hear the human beings around us.

This situation of ours is bliss, said the Buddha, and we are already there. If you can root out the sense of self entirely (and the best way to do that is to go looking for the self), you find you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted with that surprising truth, and with the whole range of experience, without preference, without hurry, without dread. Every moment is a marvel of being. One gets to this state by practicing it. One extracts the self by acting the way one would act if one had already extracted the self. Pay alert attention to every moment; so that washing out your rice bowl is as good a moment for wonder as setting foot in a foreign land. The world is in constant flux—it all changes all the time, mountains melt, universes collapse—all we have to do is learn to accept it.

The Buddha promised that he had held nothing back, that he had offered everything he knew about reaching enlightenment. He emphasized again and again that this was not a revealed doctrine—it had no magical component, there was no one to whom one should pray—he had figured it out through experimentation and concentration. Knowledge about the human condition and practice of yoga meditation were the routes. The body should be made reasonably comfortable and not overindulged. An eightfold path should be followed: right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All these together mean that you should saturate your deepest assumptions with the truth about the self and about impermanence; get it into your very marrow. With the right ideas logically clear in your mind, dedicate yourself to them, and do nothing that betrays them. If you choose to be a butcher, you are working against convincing yourself that you are one with everything and the embodiment of empathy. You should try not to kill in general: monks are often vegetarians, and sometimes even try to eat only foods that fall off plants naturally. If you lie, you are scared of revealing the truth of your nature to yourself and to others, and you thus fortify the very wall around your ego that you have been trying to tear down. You should associate with the wise, work according to the principles described, and put this labor of seeking truth above all else. Devote every moment to it.

As for the great metaphysical questions, the Buddha would not answer them one way or another. He explicitly refused to say whether the world is eternal or not or both or neither; whether the world is finite in space or infinite (or both or neither); whether an enlightened being exists after death (or not, or both, or neither); and whether the soul is identical with the body or different from it. He said that worrying about these things would be like a man pierced by an arrow asking questions about the family origins of the man that made the weapon. It was not just the waste of precious time that he was trying to highlight, but the wrongness of the question in this context. He said that to ask where the soul goes after death is like extinguishing a campfire and then asking whether the fire went east or west when it left. “The question is not put rightly.” Was there a God? Were there gods? The Buddha said these are questions “which do not edify.”

So what about karma, the great nontheistic religious belief of the East? The Buddha suggested that we imagine a line of candles, and using the first to light the second, and the second to light the third, we progress down the line illuminating each one. He then asked if the flame on the last candle is the same flame as the first. Of course, in some sense it is, and in some sense it isn’t. It is to this degree, the Buddha suggested, that we are reborn: it is a matter of causality, of considerable influence, but not the passing along of any kind of enduring substance. But he gave different versions of his doubt to different seekers, explaining that each needed something different in order to come to understand. Sometimes as he advised people in right behavior, he spoke at length about some after-death experience (he was vague) corresponding to one’s behavior here and now. Confronted with such contradictions, he explained, people learned in different ways and there was no way to say anything on the matter that was decidedly and specifically true. It was the same with nirvana. Etymologically, the word nirvana breaks down to mean to extinguish or to blow out—to extinguish the boundaries of the separate self. The result was pure bliss, but the Buddha would not say much more. Was it eternal life or true annihilation? Nirvana, he said, was “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable.” We cannot speak of what we will know once we have rid ourselves of every aspect of the only consciousness we have ever experienced.

The Buddha created no priest class. Although this was based in his notion that all “should be lamps unto themselves,” it also fit nicely into the Indian religious world at the time because it did not directly threaten the livelihood of the Brahman. Still, the Buddha was a threat. He made it clear that sacrifices and rituals couldn’t be of any interest to someone seeking enlightenment. He also encouraged a shift in the use of people’s resources such that what had once gone to Brahman sacrifice now went to support the monks: they would walk through town with their bowls once a day and the peasants would come out to fill the bowls with food, and would feel honored in so doing. This behavior has persisted through the ages. In all such things the Buddha gave careful and nuanced guidance. When asked if people should give alms to only his own followers, the Buddha replied that he would never caution against any gesture of generosity, for the sake of both the givers and the receivers: “Even,” he said, “if one throws away the rinsings from a pot or cup into a village pool or pond, wishing that the living beings there may feed on them—even this would be a source of merit, not to speak of giving a gift to human beings. However, I do declare that offerings made to the virtuous bring rich fruit and not so much those made to the immoral.”20

We have already seen that the Buddha rejected the caste system. In his forty years of preaching, he ignored social status, giving everyone his teaching equally as suited each one’s need, and encouraging everyone to seek nirvana. The path he proposed was that each person seek truth individually, but that they become part of the sangha, the Buddhist community, and that they make use of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. The dharma was a relatively solitary road to follow, but the sangha was designed as a cooperative society in which all helped all, in whatever ways they could, to reach moksa. But again, this began as a training program for individuals, a therapy, and one that could work only as the result of one’s own discipline and labor. When the Buddha lay dying, after a long life, a beloved disciple is supposed to have asked him about a successor and the Buddha replied, “You should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, seeking no other refuge, with the Dharma as an island, with the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.” No God, no karma, no dependence on community for meaning—the only focus for one seeking enlightenment was this strict yet joyful internal exercise.

At the heart of it, as with so many practices of self-mastery and secular happiness, was the injunction to remember death. The Buddha loved to regale his listeners with various brief things and announce that such is the brevity of the human life. At one point he mapped out a life in numbers so that it would appear as limited as it is. He said that one who lives a long time lives a hundred years, and a hundred years is three hundred seasons, a hundred winters, a hundred summers, and a hundred rains. He broke that down into months, then how many winter, summer, and rain months, how many fortnights, how many fortnights of each season; 36,000 days or 12,000 days of each season; 72,000 meals—including times of “taking mother’s milk” and times of fasting:

Thus, O monks, I have reckoned the life of a centenarian: the limit of his lifespan, the number of seasons, of years, months and fortnights, of days and nights, of his meals and foodless times. Whatever should be done by a compassionate teacher who, out of compassion, seeks the welfare of his disciples, that I have done for you. These are the roots of trees, O monks, these are the empty huts. Meditate, monks, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later. This is our instruction to you.21

His gift was a message that seemed harsh but was, he assured his followers, the simplest road to the greatest happiness. The dharma, he said, was made for most people: most people could not reach enlightenment on their own but could indeed manage to do it with the dharma.22

Scholars and practitioners widely agree that the Buddha taught the existence of no personal god, and that only by the vaguest interpretation of the idea of the godhead as the bliss of the true and the real, can we suggest that nirvana was something like a Buddhist godhead. He specifically said it was a sin against right living for anyone to claim to have supernatural powers.23 Once Buddhism was out of the Buddha’s hands, the ideas of prayer and worship, a universal mind, magic, gods, and, of course, karma began to creep into many of the Buddhist sects that arose across the centuries. But not all. In his teachings and in certain groups of his vast following, Siddhartha Gautama created a way of living that actively addressed the seeming rupture between the human world and the nonhuman universe, and he did so while profoundly doubting God or gods, karma, or any other universal justice. One gives up many aspects of what we have been defining as humanness in following him, but it is not like the Cynics who emulated dogs, i.e., who became a part of nature. The Buddha invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. It was a transcendent secularism, an empirical guide out of the limitations of the human mind as it is generally configured. The Carvaka stand as champions of wry materialist skepticism about knowledge. Buddhism is a nontheistic graceful-life philosophy and a nontheistic transcendent program. Through them both, countless people across the millennia lived by doubt.



Early in its history, Buddhism split into two branches: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is sometimes thought of as the orthodoxy and Mahayana as the reform, but that is not accurate, since both emerged from the original Buddhist teaching. It can seem like Theravada is older because it was dominant early on but has since been quite overtaken by Mahayana, which itself split into several major and myriad minor subsets. Thus Mahayana reminds us of Protestant Christianity, but the metaphor should not be taken too far. Theravada Buddhists see practice of the Buddha’s dharma as the way to reach enlightenment—there is no supernatural help. They believe that reality, the truth, is the bliss they are seeking, so they value nothing above wisdom. Nirvana is understood as the result of penetrating contemplation of the nature of the universe. They see the Buddha as a historical figure, a man who made important discoveries and who has since served as the supreme teacher and inspirer. Over the centuries, many other people following the Buddha’s program had also “awakened,” and they, too, were called Buddha, so that the Buddha who had been Siddhartha had to be designated as such, and in Theravada these other Buddhas are also thought of as great teachers.

The main idea of Mahayana is that anyone enlightened enough to enter nirvana would refuse to do so, out of compassion for his or her fellow human beings. The classic story tells of three men, dying of thirst in the desert, who come upon a high wall. The first makes the effort, reaches the top, shouts out Oasis!, and jumps over. So does the second. The third reaches the top, sees the oasis, and stays put in order to direct other thirsty people toward the water. Someone who was about to step into nirvana, but who could not bear to go in without all of us, is called a bodhisattva—after the Bodhi tree underneath which the Buddha had come to enlightenment. Eventually, and in various places, the bodhisattvas were worshiped for this generosity: the best loved of all bodhisattvas is the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin. She is often pictured carrying tears of compassion or pearls of illumination in a little vase. Like all bodhisattvas, Kwan Yin is praised for having refused Buddhahood until she knew that everyone had finished their painful cycles of death and rebirth, but Kwan Yin is understood as the most compassionate of all. She is so merciful that she will not rebuke someone even if he or she well deserves a lesson, and even people so corrupt that they would meet only penance in any other Buddhist system are renewed through her kindness if they call out to her in sincerity. Not all bodhisattvas made it that easy, but a central point of Mahayana was the claim that seeking enlightenment did not require leaving one’s life and joining a monastery. One could stay in one’s life, work toward enlightenment through some degree of stillness and silence meditation, and seek to commune with a bodhisattva through whose grace alone one might be saved.

Both Buddhisms saw themselves as rafts intended to ferry people over to enlightenment, and the Mahayana saw themselves as the big raft—that’s what Mahayana means. They tend to call their rival the little raft, the Hinayana, but the term is mildly derogatory. Theravada, the way of the elders, is what they call themselves. That term, raft, is important because the Buddha said the dharma was like a raft: once you get to the shore of enlightenment you can ditch the raft; there’s no reason to fetishize the thing if you don’t need it anymore. As I have said, the Mahayana split into many subgroups, but what they tend to have in common is an openness to a wide range of interpretation. Some of these have been accused of fetishizing the raft a bit, that is, of making the rituals and images of Buddhist practice an end unto themselves. There is something both looser and more egalitarian here. In contrast to Theravada, the Mahayana sects give later texts more importance, and the spiritual abilities of women are treated with considerably more respect. In many of the Mahayana sects, human efforts to reach nirvana are supported by divine powers, but not necessarily. Mahayana Buddhism is supposed to be for everyone, so it can be interpreted at whatever level works for each person.

The chief philosophical idea that allowed the great variation of Mahayana Buddhism is generally called shunyata, and its philosopher was Nagarjuna, a Brahman priest living from 150 to 250 CE. Nagarjuna wanted to know how the Buddha’s system really worked, how awakening really came to pass. He didn’t actually say anything brand-new, but drawing on the sutras, especially the Prajnaparamita, he argued that everything our human minds come up with is equally wrong. Anything that can be framed as a duality is equally wrong on either side of the duality: so truth is neither being nor nonbeing. Nagarjuna concluded that there was ordinary knowledge and then there was transcendent, intuitive knowledge, or prajna. Just as the Buddha had suggested: really knowing that ordinary knowledge is useless for seeing the truth is the condition that can allow the rising of prajna. The mind naturally understands everything in divisive categories, defining night by differentiating it from day. The objective is to free the mind from its attachment to concepts. One has to somehow jostle the grip of the thinking mind until it lets go and you can begin to see the boundary-less, unified being. It is in this state that an awakening can happen. Alan Watts has described Nagarjuna’s doctrine:

There comes a moment when this consciousness of the inescapable trap in which we are at once the trapper and the trapped reaches a breaking point. One might almost say that it “matures” or “ripens,” and suddenly there is what the Lankavatara Sutra calls a “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness.” In this moment all sense of constraint drops away, and the cocoon which the silkworm spun around himself opens to let him go forth winged as a moth. The peculiar anxiety which Kierkegaard has rightly seen to lie at the very roots of the ordinary man’s soul is no longer there.24

Nagarjuna’s vision is compelling because it spells out the transformative aspect of the experience: you are not going to realize something, you’re going to be knocked out of this whole “realizing” realm and into the total reality. We can’t even believe that there is no self because that is just a dyad with the belief that there is a self, and the thing about reality is that it isn’t the opposite of anything of which we can conceive. The world isn’t one, and it isn’t not-one either; it isn’t this and it isn’t that. Apparently, if you press your mind against this for a long while, some difficult thing pops. The Buddha’s notion of right thinking meant getting the ideas logically straight in your mind, but this new doctrine is not very respectful of right ideas because the content of the doctrines is no longer crucial—they just have to work to rattle you out of normality of concepts. That does seem to contradict the Buddha’s very clear instruction, but on another level, it is in perfect alignment with his message. One result of Nagarjuna’s doctrine was to allow the development of spectacularly diverse cosmologies and a lot of Buddha worshiping where there had once been a program of personal inner training.

It is not uncommon to see the atheist versions of Buddhism described as truer to the original Buddha’s message and considered more sophisticated than the others. Yet the more popular, metaphysically fanciful versions are also regarded as true in their own way. Since there is no philosophically justifiable conception of reality, the more fanciful is at least in the right spirit of things—it’s at least different from the everyday rational mind. Of course, some people who think of the Buddha as a savior are not doing so to jostle their rational mind’s hold on reality; they are believing in a savior. In Mahayana there is ritual and petitionary prayer. Also, in most Mahayana sects, karma and samsara are back: in fact, the whole concept of becoming a Buddha is seen as possible only within the superstructure of karma—it takes a lot of lives for a person to reach this level of enlightenment. Mahayana also teaches that there are thousands of Buddhas, each presiding over a distinct Buddha-realm or Buddha-verse. Again, all of this appears to have moved away from the original teaching, but the Mahayana say that Buddha’s compassion was his chief message and that these doctrines are true to that compassion in a way that makes Theravada seem self-centered and cold. Mahayana values compassion above wisdom.

The most popular Buddhism today is the Pure Land sect of Mahayana, which is also the most metaphysically whimsical of the religion’s incarnations. Pure Land centers its attention on one of the Buddha-verses—specifically, the western paradise of “Pure Land,” located at an inconceivably great distance from the earth and presided over by Buddha Amitabha. What makes it so special is a surprising vow Buddha Amitabha once made: that anyone who trusted in him purely would be given enlightenment and welcomed into Pure Land! That makes it a lot like the bhakti yoga of Hinduism: intense love and selflessness can bring one to enlightenment. Obviously, this is exactly what the Buddha who had been Siddhartha said could not happen, but for the masses this promise of devotion and reward was attractive. Add to it the idea that one could spend eternity with one’s loved ones in the bliss of Pure Land, and the attraction becomes even stronger. Yet Pure Land also appeals to many people who do not take its promises literally—who see Pure Land as a state of being, not a real place—but who are more inclined to the romantic, emotional, artistic, and fantastic aspects of life than to the strictly philosophical. They enjoy the descriptions detailing world structures and systems: Buddha-verses of every imaginable kind where, for example, all sustenance including enlightenment itself is in the very perfume of the flowers, and one sniffs to bliss. The great mass of Buddhist temple art in the world is Mahayana, not Theravada, and the huge portion of it that depicts Buddha-verses is essentially all Pure Land.

Hinduism underwent a profound change as a result of its absorption of Buddhism, becoming much more inward-looking. And at about the time that the Mahayana sect arose in Buddhism, Hinduism also came into a kind of theistic version of itself. The Mahabharata is one of the classics of post-Buddhist Hindu epics (we think it was written somewhere between 200 BCE and 200 CE). It was one of the major sites of this revival of theism, especially the much beloved section called the Bhagavad-Gita. In it, a noble young warrior, Prince Arjuna, is about to go into a terrible battle where both sides are peopled with friends and family members, and he freezes. He gets out of the chariot and declares that he cannot do his worldly duty and fight this battle because he is one with these people, and to kill them is against everything he believes and wants to believe about the nature of the universe. But Lord Krishna, a prince and a counselor to princes, persuades Arjuna that since all is one, and this reality is illusory, he best serves truth if he goes through the motion of his role, knowing that it is all unreal and trusting reality to powers beyond himself. Krishna then majestically transforms into the god Vishnu. Arjuna pledges himself to Vishnu and then goes out into the fray.

Robert Thurman has quipped that, after the Buddha, it took eight hundred years to get Arjuna back in the chariot—meaning that Buddhist-influenced Hinduism survived for almost a millennium in a basically non-magical form wherein one’s behavior determines one’s inner life in the same way it influences one’s physical fitness. There must have always been forces who wanted to attend to worldly goals and still find inner peace. Eventually a device emerged, but Thurman’s joke is funny because of its suggestion that the power of Buddhism had so prolonged the process. It is a useful insight because it reminds us that when people are responsible for their own salvation, a great deal of their time and effort is required—time and effort that might otherwise be devoted to the wealth and defense of the state. Also, absenting oneself from the battle of life is very difficult for some people, and meditation and yoga are very difficult for everyone, so there are a lot of reasons that people might have wanted Arjuna to exalt in his worldly duty without betraying any basic principle.

The sangha that Buddha had devised contained a large element of political theory, setting monks at the center of a community whose aim was bliss for everyone. Monasteries spread throughout India, especially after King Asoka (ca. 272–232 BCE) championed the religion with zeal and secured the practice of Buddhism among a great portion of humanity. Over the course of several centuries, however, Hinduism reabsorbed so much of Buddhism that there was little explicitly Buddhist practice outside the great monasteries.

Around the time that Buddhism was born in India, a period of political warfare and philosophical speculation in China produced both Taoism and Confucianism. Although the first was interested in metaphysical questions and a kind of transcendence and the other was much more mundane in its concerns, both had atheist origins. The doctrine of Confucius had its own statecraft. In a way Confucianism was all statecraft: it was about strict attention to a chivalry of social details, such that the state would click along like a perfect machine. As was true for chivalry, the ornate social ritual of Confucianism was a revival of behaviors that had once been the unselfconscious way of life of a great power: now the golden age was long over, and Confucius wanted to reinstate the behaviors and self-consciously recommit society to its principles. Just as Buddha had redirected sacrifice to the gods into support for the monks, Confucius redirected sacrifice to ancestors into sacrifice to living family members. Both are better for the state in that they take resources that would have been burned and feed them instead into the living community. In the Confucian system, each familial relationship had a clear higher and lower partner, based on age and gender—the higher was supposed to look after the lower, in exchange for deference and respect. At the core of the system was the notion of ren, “human-heartedness”: generosity and compassion must animate the chivalry and the submission. Is Confucianism a religion? It is generally considered so. There is nothing supernatural about it, but it is concerned with morality, has revered texts, and is deeply based in practices as well as theory. But Confucius left God out of it. When asked direct questions on spiritual matters, he tended to be agnostic and dismissive. When asked about humanity’s supposed duty to ancestors, he said, “We don’t know yet how to serve men, how can we know about serving the spirits?” When asked about death, he offered another pragmatic question: “We don’t know yet about life, how can we know about death?”

The Confucianism that was eventually established as the official state religion of China, in the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), was a theistic, later version. Nevertheless, some important thinkers were championed for their naturalist and even ardently secular vision of the universe. Hsun Tzu (third century BCE) was a celebrated voice of doubt in God and spirits in the Han period, and is understood as having founded naturalistic Confucianism in purposeful contradistinction to the idealist Confucianism of the period. Hsun Tzu wrote such delightful claims of naturalism as: “When people pray for rain, it rains. Why? I say: There is no need to ask why. It is the same when it rains when no one prays for it.” We do not influence the natural world through supernatural powers. Neither, he argued, does the world send us supernatural messages:

When stars fall or a sacred tree groans, the people of the whole state are afraid. We ask “Why is it?” I answer: there is no [special] reason.… These are rare events. We may marvel at them but we should not fear them. For there is no age which has not experienced eclipses of the sun and moon, unseasonable rain or wind, or strange stars seen in groups… but when human ominous signs come, then we should really be afraid. Using poor ploughs… spoiling a crop by inadequate hoeing and weeding… these are what I mean by ominous human signs.25

There were other doubters in this same period: Huan T:’an wrote that “Life is like the flame of a lamp, going out when the fuel is exhausted,” and Han Fei Tzu wrote, “If the ruler believes in date-selecting, worships gods and demons, puts faith in divination, and likes luxurious feasts, then ruin is probable.” Clearly, Confucianism had developed a theism and a trend of divination. Yet historians generally understand the entrance of Buddhism into China as a phenomenon linked significantly to the fundamentally secular nature of Confucianism, to its interest in the world as we commonly know it. Because China already had a unifying political ideal in Confucianism, when Buddhism entered China its political dimension was left to the side.

China’s two great—and essentially opposing—native doctrines were Confucianism and Taoism. As Buddhism changed when confronted with Confucianism, Buddhism was also much influenced through its encounter with Taoism. Whereas Confucius prescribed the revival of defunct codes of behavior, the Taoists advised a rejection of all codes of behavior. They were a lot like the Buddhists in the sense that they were seeking happiness, they believed in the oneness of true reality, and they worked with psychophysical practices. Taoists found Mahayana Buddhism particularly harmonious with their worldview. Kumarajiva, the great translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese (born in 344 CE), translated the Mahayana text known as the Prajnaparamita. It became a favorite among the Chinese in part because its ideals resonate beautifully with Taoism. Indeed, it has been said that the Chinese preference for Mahayana owes fundamentally to their love of the Prajnaparamita sutras and their relationship to Taoism.

Still, there were significant differences between Taoism and Buddhism. For one thing, although meditation was already important to Taoism before Buddhism arrived in China, the meditative practices and techniques of Buddhism were much more fully defined. Also, the Taoists had a more ornate theory: they believed in a life force coursing through everything, and to obtain more of it—or in some versions, to expend less of it—they experimented with all sorts of foods, yogas, and sexual practices. Whereas most psychophysical programs tried to forget the body, the Taoists proposed that we use the body to help us achieve the internal states we are after. Therefore, the Taoist inner arts have a great deal of precisely choreographed motion, such as Tai Chi. Buddhism in China was very much influenced by Taoist ideas. In the Middle Ages, this influence would come to its most momentous fruition in the development of Zen Buddhism, one of the greatest doctrines of doubt ever imagined.

Early Taoists argued that there was nothing about the world that demanded a creator God for explanation. Our internal organs do not need to be controlled by some central figure; rather, they follow their nature as they function alone and as they interact. Taoism was as atheistic a system as was Buddhism or Confucianism when they were all in their beginnings, but it did not stay that way. Like Buddhism and Confucianism, Taoism was born under the notion that human beings can transcend human misery through practices, but all three religious programs were very demanding, perhaps too demanding for the majority of people who had been excited by their doctrines and promises. Into that space was born a “religious” Taoism, which allowed people to benefit by association with practitioners, or by the grace of a distant enlightened person. This was a bit of magic. It would not be wrong to see this as social magic, or rather the real effect that human beings can feel from their community and its emblematic leaders, but for some the result was the growth of a kind of saint worship. In general, the beginning of the new millennium in Asia was marked by increasing superstition and magical thinking. The ancient age of fierce secularism and widespread interest in nontheist doctrines was over.

In such a moment it is particularly delightful to find the great naturalist thinker Wang Ch’ung. He lived from 27 CE to 97 CE and was an extraordinarily independent thinker. Legend has it that he was so poor in his youth that he could not buy books and so, thanks to his prodigious memory, he educated himself while standing in bookstores. By his time, both Taoism and Confucianism had grown ornate with spirits and superstitions. Wang Ch’ung was not attached to either of those schools, or any other, but learned from the best they had to offer and brazenly critiqued what he saw as their excesses. His great work, Discourses Weighed in the Balance (Lun-Hêng), was a compendium of arguments against magical thinking.26 His arguments were often loose and meandering; he did not have a system, but rather met each idea under critique armed with his canny sense of the unlikely. Consider, for example, his insistence that the heavens above are a place of spontaneous rather than intentional motion.

Why must we assume that heaven acts spontaneously? Because it has neither mouth nor eyes. Intentional activity is associated with a mouth and with eyes: the mouth wishes to eat, and the eyes to see. These desires manifested outside come from inside. That the mouth and the eyes are craving for something which is considered an advantage, it is due to those desires. Now, when the mouth and the eye are not activated by desire, there is nothing for them to seek. Why should there be activity then?…

When the heavens are changing, they do not desire to produce things thereby; things are produced of their own accord. That is spontaneity. Releasing matter and energy, the heavens do not desire to create things, but things are created of themselves. That is spontaneous action without intention or desire.27

Wang Ch’ung dedicated the book’s eighty-five chapters to questions on the nature of the world and to more specific legends or practices. In all, the point was to champion a profound naturalism. In a chapter entitled “The Indifferent Heavens,” he addresses the famous story that Po Ch’i had been made to commit suicide by the heavens. As the story goes, Po Ch’i was being punished because when the Chao army of several hundred thousand men had recently surrendered to him, explained Po Ch’i himself, “I deceived them, and caused them to be buried alive. Therefore I deserve to die.” Wang Ch’ung insisted this had nothing to do with the heavens and used the story to argue the absurdity of such ideas of justice:

Po Ch’i was well aware of his former crime, and acquiesced in the punishment consequent upon it.… If heaven really had punished the guilty, what offence against heaven had the soldiers of Chao committed—those who surrendered? If, instead, there had been wounding and killing on the battlefield by the random blows of weapons, many of the four hundred thousand would certainly have survived. Why were these also buried in spite of their goodness and innocence?… We see from this that Po Ch’i was mistaken in what he concluded.28

It was not just the question of justice that bothered Wang Ch’ung, but the whole sense of this world as intentionally created. As he put it, “If the heavens had produced creatures on purpose, they ought to have taught them to love each other, and not to prey upon and destroy one another.” He recognized that people had arguments for why the heavens had arranged things this way, but he insisted that if things had been arranged, they would have been arranged better. He mused that some believe that a clay dragon will help bring rain—derived, he tells us, from an idea in the I Ching that dragons and clouds attract each other. To counter the notion, Wang Ch’ung wrote that the Duke of She in Ch’u was very partial to dragons and had them painted on his walls, panels, plates, and dishes. Wang Ch’ung thus winkingly concluded that there must have been a continual rainfall in the state of the Duke of She.29

He tells us that when we see a god in dreams, that does not prove the gods are real; after all, other things seen in dreams are often patently unreal. He admits that we also have “direct dreams” in which “we dream of so-and-so, and on the next day see him.” But these direct dreams, he insists, “are semblances.” When we question the dreamed-of person, he will reply that he has not appeared to us in our dreams. Since the persons we saw in our dreams know they did not appear, what we saw was merely their likenesses. “Since so-and-so [was a] likeness, we know that God, as perceived by Chien Tse, was solely [Chien Tse’s] representation of God.”30

Confronted with the new spiritualist forms of Confucianism, Wang Ch’ung quoted Confucius on the belief that milfoil (an herb) and tortoises could be read for predictions.

“That is not correct,” said Confucius, “for their names are essential. The milfoil’s name means old, and the tortoise’s, aged. In order to elucidate doubtful things, one must ask the old and the aged.” According to this reply, milfoil is not spiritual, and the tortoise is not divine. From the fact that importance is attached to their names, it does not follow that they really possess such qualities.31

As Wang Ch’ung quoted Confucius to demonstrate the great thinker’s naturalism, he also tried to rein in the magical thinking growing within Taoism. He relates a story of a congregation of Taoists who vied with one another “exhibiting strange tricks and all kinds of magic.” The prince among them then “attained to Tao and rose to heaven with his whole household.… All who have a fad for Taoism and would learn the art of immortality believe in this story, but it is not true.”32 Man is a creature, Wang Ch’ung insisted, and even when man’s status is princely or royal, his nature cannot be different from that of other creatures. “There is no creature but dies. How could man become an immortal?” Further, how could man fly? Some creatures are equipped to run, some to fly. Their bodies are differently organized according to the nature with which they are endowed. “Now man is a swift runner by nature, therefore he does not grow feathers or plumes. From the time he is full-grown up till his old age he never gets them by any miracle. If amongst the believers in Taoism and the students of the art of immortality some became feathered and winged, then we might see them eventually fly and rise up.” Wang Ch’ung did not have a systematic set of beliefs; he did not replace one positive philosophy with another. Rather, he put all contentions to the test of his own sense of how the world works and of what is likely. The functioning of the workaday world was his model for the world in general. Winged things fly. If a man tells you he can fly, check him for wings.

Consider his claims about eternal life:

There is a belief that by the doctrine of Lao Tsu one can transcend into another existence. Through quietism and absence of desire one nourishes the vital force, and cherishes the spirit. The length of life is based on the animal spirits. As long as they are unimpaired, life goes on, and there is no death. Lao Tsu acted upon this principle. Having done so for more than a hundred years, he is said to have passed into another existence and became a true Taoist sage.

Who can be more quiet and have less desires than birds and animals? But birds and animals likewise age and die. However, we will not speak of birds and animals, the passions of which are similar to the human. But what are the passions of plants and shrubs, that cause them to die in the autumn after being born in spring? They are dispassionate, yet their lives do not extend further than one year. Men are full of passions and desires, yet they can become a hundred years old. Thus the dispassionate die prematurely, and the passionate live long. Hence Lao Tsu’s theory to prolong life and enter a new existence by means of quietism and absence of desires is wrong.33

This is a beautiful reminder of the cunning of doubt. Wang Ch’ung was one of the great minds of evidentiary rationalism.

When men and women take on a quest for inner transformation, they become engaged in grappling with doubt. That is true whether they struggle against doubt or strive for complete doubt; in both cases the spiritual quest is conceived as an aggressive confrontation with one’s ambivalence. These Eastern religions all assert that our deepest assumptions about life, even about ourselves and the way we think, are misleading in the extreme. What’s more, these erroneous assumptions are held to be the cause of our suffering. Thus, adherents of these religions are entranced by the act of doubting, for the sake of shaking themselves free. The Buddha suggested we doubt a great many things; later followers went further, doubting even the conviction that we doubt the supernatural. Many of these have swung all the way over into belief on this very basis. It’s a curious state of affairs, but one can see their point.

No matter how we define it, doubt was vibrantly alive in the ancient East. The Eastern religions have not been concerned with God, and often not even with gods. And yet they have been engaged in the same paradox, the same struggles against distress, that we see in the Western fixation on the idea of God. It seems worth considering the religious struggle to free oneself from samsara as a flipped image of the religious struggle over the truth about God. We are human and the universe is not. We are out of joint here and will, at times, go to supreme lengths to close that gap, to make sense of meaning and death, creation and destruction; the living worlds of beauty, love, passion, sadness, fear, and horror and the seemingly unthinking and unfeeling expanse of galaxies, of sand on the beach, of swarming atoms and their field of empty space. Without God, there was still a language to discuss the awful weirdness of being carnivorous and hungry creatures capable of intense compassion. In spite of the development of much accompanying theism in the last two millennia, many of the Eastern religions solved the rift by advising that we change ourselves, inwardly, such that the noisy human experience is progressively silenced and we come to fit better in this universe. Of course, with the ideas of karma, samsara, and moksa, many of these religions were dealing with a universe that had some mechanistic relationship to us—we were not utterly accidental and unregulated creatures.

Within this general paradigm, the Carvaka, the Jains, and some traditions of Buddhism came to doubt the supernaturalism of such solutions. They did not base the weight of their attack on the belief in God, because that was not the major point with which they were confronted. Instead they laughed at or respectfully dismissed a whole range of ideas that seemed designed to make people feel better but that actually made them miss the true and real aspects of the beauty of life. For the Carvaka, that meant feasting on ghee and other treats and spending time with delightful and attractive people. For the Buddha, that meant following a testable enlightenment program that would lead to true happiness, based on reality: we need only learn to notice that we are in paradise. Here again we see struggle, a struggle to believe the reading of reality that the Buddha reported (which seems intellectually self-apparent but feels all wrong). The Buddha made it clear that it would take a lot of work to learn to respond to the world through these insights.

We now turn our eyes to the West to have a look at the marvelous pagan doubters of ancient Rome. In the chapter after that, we’ll start to see that the traditions of doubt in the ancient world—Greek, Hebrew, Eastern, and Roman—will all begin to come together and coalesce, and doubt will mature in a variety of incarnations as we plunge into the Middle Ages and beyond.

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