Book Review: Kushal Mehra's Book Provides Clear-Cut, No-Nonsense Answers

Aravindan Neelakandan

Jun 16, 2024, 07:12 PM | Updated 07:12 PM IST

'Nastik: Why I Am Not an Atheist' is Kushal Mehra's latest book.
'Nastik: Why I Am Not an Atheist' is Kushal Mehra's latest book.
  • The book does not remain a dry discussion of concepts but conveys a passionate, ethical purpose behind being a 'nastik'.
  • Nastik: Why I Am Not an Atheist. Kushal Mehra. BluOne, 2024. Pages: 318. Rs 390.

    Who is a Nastika?

    What is the place of a Nastika in Hindu Dharmic ecosystem?

    Is the term Nastik same as the term atheist?

    Kushal Mehra, an author well known for his informative and engaging podcasts, throws light on each of these questions in his book, Nastik: Why I am not an atheist (BluOne, 2024).

    The book has all the components to become a cult classic for the perplexed Hindu youths. It provides clear-cut and no-nonsense answers to the questions that plague the minds of the present generation.

    From the autobiographical introduction to the last chapter where the disbeliever in an extra-cosmic supernatural creator God, explains fiercely why he is a Hindu, the book grips the reader.

    It does not preach. It shows. It shows the different worldviews, the mindscapes of those worldviews.

    So, the reader does not feel like submissively hearing a great wise oracle. Rather the book is more like an intelligent friend sharing his experience and views with which you can differ and debate and use the book to form your own worldview, check where you to stand with respect to the author and most important of all, chart your own odyssey into that sacred, lonely path called original thinking.

    The book could as well have been sub-titled as ‘critical thinking in philosophy and spirituality for the perplexed and intelligent Hindu youths.’

    Of course that is what the subtitle of the book does – it challenges the fossilised categories of the mind by stating why the 'nastik', a term often used as translation of 'atheist', is not an atheist.

    In the introduction, Mehra makes it clear that he has long understood the essential difference between what he calls the ‘Abrahamic’ and Hindu family of religions:

    Hinduism, with its vast pantheon of gods (devatas) and goddesses (devis) and its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things, presented a far more inclusive and tolerant worldview than I encountered in the Bible and the Quran.

    The book delves into the terminology related to categorisation, explaining in a clear and detailed manner how 'Nir-Iswaravada' in Hindu philosophical schools resonates with Western atheism and where they differ.

    Of particular interest is the way the author shows how the concept of ninda in Hindu universe is quite different from blasphemy in the ‘Abrahamic’ universe:

    In the Hindu scriptures, there is the concept of devanindā (which more accurately fits the category of heresy than blasphemy). The neologism īśanindā is a term that has recently become popular. Sanskrit scriptures contain words like vedanindā or vedanindaka, possibly connected to the English words blasphemy and blasphemer. But even when it comes to just one particular truth, there are various points of view.

    Here one could also explore the concept of ninda-stuti. Hinduism allows the devotee to scold or denigrate the Deity and takes it as a form of worship. From traditional devotional literature to oral anecdotes across the varied linguistic regions, ninda-stuti is quite popular in Hindu culture.

    Mehra also analyses the world-views of the famous so-called four horsemen of Neo-Atheism namely Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

    When discussing the works of Dawkins, one should remember that he has recently identified himself as a cultural Christian. This term is further illustrated in shows like Young Sheldon, where the protagonist, a declared atheist, undergoes baptism just to please his mother, without altering his atheism.

    Dawkins himself had given signs of his ‘Anglican atheism’ previously though. In 2004, he and then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, wrote a joint article which ended with the following line:

    Nowadays there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a fact and, from a Christian perspective, one of the greatest of God’s works.

    Though Dawkins later revealed that the last line was written by Harries and was unacceptable to him, the rest of the article had little to complain about. However, the crucial point is that Dawkins allowed the retention of the line, which was contrary to his own core worldview.

    A table in the book also shows the percentage of people holding on to one or more of ‘New Age’ (read of origination from Eastern tradition) beliefs in almost all Christian denominations of the US. Again this points to what could be called a deep Hinduizing of Christianity which would definitely make Christianity more receptive to science and humanitarianism.

    The phenomenon of a ‘horseman’ of atheism declaring himself a ‘cultural Christian’ would have been unheard of before. The churning with science, enlightenment values and challenges from other expansionist monopolistic religions have made made the West move more towards a Hindutvaized version of Christianity – that allows atheism to be part of the Christian matrix.

    This and not the rightwing reactionary politics should be considered as important for Hindutvaites back at home.

    In this connection another useful resource is the intense dialogue between Sam Harris and Islamic scholar Maajid Nawaz, published under the title, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue (Harvard University Press, 2015).

    The Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras include a significant non-dualist contribution to atheism. Thanks to Einstein, this tradition became well known in the West.

    That is the legacy of Spinoza.

    Spinoza inspired non-dualist atheism has been a strong, very strong influence on the deep humanistic atheist movement in the West. One can see it not only in Einstein but also right down to Carl Sagan.

    This is nowhere better illustrated than in the foreword Carl Sagan wrote for the famous book of Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time:

    This is also a book about God... or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein’s famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.

    The word "God" in this passage embodies various notions: the Christian extra-cosmic creator, the Spinozan God of Substance like Brahman, and ultimately, in the phrase "nothing for a Creator to do," it echoes the Nasadiya Sukta's "perhaps He does not know."

    Actually if one looks at the ‘atheist’ movement in the West, from Einstein to Carl Sagan (not to mention that doctor of science fiction, Isaac Asimov), a gentle but firm Spinozan atheism has definitely made itself an unescapable part of Western religious landscape.

    In a way, the neo-atheism of the ‘four horsemen’ was comparatively a devolution from the more humanistic and spiritually atheistic stand of the Sagan school.

    The book can be a good start for Hindus to study this aspect of the Western atheist movement as they seem to have a framework to understand this.

    Nastik has no hesitation in exposing the social stagnation in the Hindu society when it analyses caste system and misogyny that are rampant with the sanction of religious tradition in India. The author should be congratulated for that.

    He emphatically writes with an intense humanistic spirit, negating the stands of the traditional religious authorities of India. Thankfully he does not mince his words:

    Religious figures like Karpatri Maharaj and H.H. Puri Shankaracharya Nishchalanand Saraswati have often defended the caste system as a divinely ordained social order. They argue that the caste system is part of the dharma or cosmic law and that each caste has its role and function in society. However, such justifications overlook the system’s inherent inequality and the immense suffering it causes for those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.... To call the caste system what it is—an inhuman system— is to acknowledge its devastating impact on millions of lives. It is a system that perpetuates inequality and discrimination, hampers economic development, and results in adverse health outcomes due to practices like endogamy. Therefore, annihilating the caste system is not just a matter of social justice—it’s a prerequisite for India’s overall progress and development.

    Hindus in general and thinking youths in particular should internalise these words almost like a mantra, particularly those of the so-called upper castes who love to pass on anti-reservation memes in public.

    Dr Ambedkar was another great personality who was spiritual, political, rebellious, humanistic and intensely patriotic. He blended atheism with a spiritual fight for social rights and even in his intense attack on Hinduism, he did not lose sight of the invaluable spiritual strength of the Mahavakyas of the Upanishads.

    Unlike Ambedkar, E. V. Ramaswamy of Tamil Nadu promoted a superficial atheist movement that resembled a proto-monotheism more than a genuine atheism.

    Then we also have Gandhian ‘atheists’ like G. Ramachandra Rao and Gandhian humanists who fought against godmen and went close to ‘atheism’ Dr H. Narasimhaiah. It should be remembered that Dr. H. Narasimhaiah, who carried on a relentless battle against the ‘miracles’ of Satya Sai Baba was also the person who arranged the seminal lecture series ‘Science and Religion’ by Swami Ranganathananda in his university.

    These lectures are a milestone in the dialogue of science and Hindu religious traditions. In the next edition perhaps the author may want to delve into these aspects of Indian ‘atheism’ and enlarge the book.

    In conclusion, the book is a must read for every thinking and inquisitive youth who is in the phase of righteous rebellion. It does not water down the rebel in the youth but catalyses the spirit rebellious with creativity, depth and purpose.

    The author has not kept the book a dry discussion of concepts but has naturally delivered a passionate ethical purpose behind one being a nastik. He has clarified the categorical confusions and has provided a good concise roadmap for the seeker in your teenage son and daughter and also confused grown-ups.

    A wonderful book for this generation to grow up with.

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