Searching For Truth in The Battle Between Atheism And Religion 

​Chapter 8

What Are the Problems With Hinduism?


There are an estimated one billion Hindus following thousands of sects, almost all in India. While they use the same sacred texts, interpretation varies widely. Naturally, intellectual liberals downplay the differences, but cannot betray their own prejudices.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism by Linda Johnsen provides one example, in her defense of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of the teacher Shankara, who lived somewhere between 600 and 800 A.D. (lest anyone think she is merely providing objective commentary, she adds that he was “one of those staggering geniuses the world too rarely sees— not just a brilliant intellectual, but a highly advanced yogi with a living experience of the unity of all reality”).

“It’s not true that Hindus believe the world is ‘just an illusion.’ Shankaracharya, the famous master who is supposed to have taught this, in fact admitted that the world is fully real to those of us living in it,” she wrote. “It appears like an illusion only from the point of view of enlightened awareness and finally disappears. The consciousness from which the universe was projected is the real reality, he said, not the ever-changing world.”

In other words, he did not teach the world is an illusion, just a temporary fantasy. But let us cite a more scholarly source to confirm Shankara’s teachings on this point, Readings in Vedic Literature: The Tradition Speaks for Itself by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami. Concerning Shankara’s view that the only reality is Absolute Truth or Brahman, the transcendent consciousness: “Maintaining that the material world has no reality, Shankara stated, ‘Brahman is real; the universe is false. He denied that the Absolute Truth is responsible for the material cosmos. He said that if the Absolute Truth extended into the universes and all-pervading souls, his original nature would change. Since the Absolute Truth must be changeless, he cannot expand.”

Contrary to those who try to minimize differences in ideology, Shankara said that “a person not belonging to this tradition has to be denounced like a fool,” according to Wiki’s “List of Teachers of Advaita Vedanta.”

The Shankara version of Hinduism became the best-known form in the West because the early popularizers of the religion came from that tradition. The first was Swami Vivekananda, who spoke at a religion conference in Chicago in 1893, and Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who settled in the U.S. in 1920.

The Shankara version of Hinduism became the best-known form in the West because the early popularizers of the religion came from that tradition. The first was Swami Vivekananda, who spoke at a religion conference in Chicago in 1893, and Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who settled in the U.S. in 1920.

While most Western-born Hindus embrace Shankara’s school, this is not the philosophy of the majority in India. Based on the debate in the West, one would not even know that Shankara was only one of the three major Advaita philosophers, who strongly disagreed with each other.

Nor are these matters of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”— these cut right to the core of the debate over how we can know what is real, the nature of God, and our responsibilities to achieve spiritual advancement.

Is Everything Actually Just One Thing?

Other Advaita philosophers argued that individual spirits (jivas) were not merely dreams of the Absolute, but had a separate existence.

Ramanuja, around 1000 A.D., asserted that while individual souls can experience a sense of union with Brahman through mystical experience, they do not actually merge with the Absolute when they achieve enlightenment. Jivas share the same substance with Brahman and the material world is an extension of Brahman, but jivas have own real existence.

Madhva, who taught about 1200 A.D., firmly argued that jivas were created by Brahman to eternally retain their separate existence, even after enlightenment. Once they not longer needed to incarnate on earth, they would live in another transcendent world in blissful relationship with the Absolute.

How did Ramanuja and Madhva respond to Shankara’s claim that his view was based on mystical experience? Other yogis had felt that sense of union, but had gone beyond it. These unification experiences were only passing phenomena because afterwards, they pointed out, Shankara and his followers returned to their earthly identities.\

Furthermore, Goswami cites the Vaishnava theists, from the largest sect in India, that Brahman “could never fall into the illusion of material identity because ‘if I am Brahman, the greatest, why am I covered in ignorance?’ In denying the plurality of all jivas, Shankara differed from all orthodox Vedic schools.”

Goswami notes that Shankara accepted only the impersonal nature of Brahman as a Supreme Being, what the Vedas speak of as “the all-pervasive aspect of the Absolute, the multifarious manifestations of the cosmos,” with no attributes even a mystic can describe. But other early Hindu thinkers identified two other aspects of Brahman.

One was Paramatma, the Supersoul seated in the hearts of all jivas, who guides the actions of the created beings and can be perceived in yogic trance. “Paramatma manifests the knowledge aspects of the Absolute,” wrote Goswami.

The other was Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Brahman. “Bhagavan is the full embodiment and Impersonal Brahman is to Bhagavan as sunshine is to the sun,” wrote Goswami. “Real liberation is for the jiva to attain his original spiritual identity, for in his eternal form, the jiva can associate with Bhagavan. By rejecting Bhagavan, the Shankarites have created a subtle form of atheism garbed as Vedic knowledge.”

The other was Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Brahman. “Bhagavan is the full embodiment and Impersonal Brahman is to Bhagavan as sunshine is to the sun,” wrote Goswami. “Real liberation is for the jiva to attain his original spiritual identity, for in his eternal form, the jiva can associate with Bhagavan. By rejecting Bhagavan, the Shankarites have created a subtle form of atheism garbed as Vedic knowledge.”

Of course, if God is a person, he carries the moral problem of having created massive suffering in this world.

Physics and Eastern Philosophy

Despite most Hindus rejecting the most radical Advaita interpretation of the Vedas that insists that the material world is an illusion and that there is no individual spirit existence, some Western thinkers have embraced these ideas.

Michael Talbot, in The Holographic Universe, cites physicist David Bohm’s theory of the implicate order of the universe to support the Buddhist and Advaita idea of all things being one: “It is as meaningless to view the universe as composed of parts as it is to view the different geysers in a fountain as separate from the water out of which they flow. Despite the apparent separateness of things… everything is a seamless extension of everything else… Look at the dog resting at your feet. You are the same thing… One enormous something which has extended uncountable arms… into all objects.”

Talbot then summarizes recent brain research and the work of physicist Karl Pribram this way: “The objective world does not exist, at least not the way we are accustomed to believing. What is ‘out there’ is a vast ocean of waves and frequencies and reality only looks concrete to us because our brains are able to take this holographic blur and convert it into… sticks and stones.” He cites physicist Nick Herbert, who wonders whether the material world is just “a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup” which freezes into “reality” when we look.

Amit Goswami, in The Self-Aware Universe, responds to critics who ask how cosmic reality could have existed for 15 billion years prior to conscious observers: “The cosmos never appeared in concrete form and never stays fixed in form. Past universes cannot be seen like paintings on canvases from which present events unravel with time. The universe exists as formless potential in myriad possible branches in the transcendent domain and becomes manifest only when observed by conscious beings.”

The radical theorists seem to have forgotten that machines have taken photographs of the ancient universe.

All of this speculation is based on several famous experiments. One shows that atoms that are distant from each other are in some way connected. Another indicates that light is both particle and wave, which defies common sense.

The third shows that at the quantum level we are unable to measure position and movement; it appears that observation affects what we are seeing. Canadian astrophysicist Hugh Ross, in The Creator and the Cosmos, responded that the “uncertainty principle” involved is due to our inability to understand quantum mechanics fully. But uncertainty about position and movement approaches zero when applied to macro objects, the visible world, he wrote.

Perhaps experimental patience and humility is called for, rather than a rush to embrace philosophies that fly in the face of the evidence that there really is a universe out there (which is still largely a mystery, so we ought to be prudent in speculating).

We could also test out the radicals’ theories by staying in bed and just imagining our work is being done and that we will still get paid.

And what about the person who knows nothing of viruses, yet gets killed by them?


The idea of reincarnation— that one can repeatedly reembody until the soul gradually becomes more spiritual— is very appealing. Why should our ability to improve our lot be limited to the vagaries of one mortal existence?

But closer analysis reveals significant problems with this. To start with, what is the evidence that reincarnation is actually in operation? To hear believers tell it, many people can recall their past lives, whether consciously or under hypnosis.

Johnsen admits that most people actually do not remember prior lives, but has an explanation: “At the moment of rebirth, the infant takes its gulp of air and becomes a breathing being. This jolts the brain and subtle body, causing a force called vaishnava shakti to act. In most people, it cuts off detailed memories of the past life. It also cuts off detailed memories of this life, which is why most people don’t remember much of current life either. The soul is still completing its ‘hook up’ to the new physical brain, and not all the data from the previous life is downloaded.”

But lack of evidence is not evidence. But what about all those people who, one way or another, claim to remember their prior incarnations? Proponents say that the kind of detailed recall with their background stories could not simply be the result of their imagination.

Yet everyone has dreams each night, in which a wild fictional tale is cooked up out of bits of facts by the subconscious.

Proponents also point to “past lives” remembered under hypnotic regression, often cited in magazines and books about reincarnation?

Even the late pro-reincarnation researcher Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Va., admitted: “A hypnotized person resembles that of a person dreaming. The subconscious parts of the mind are released from ordinary inhibitions and they may then present in dramatic form a new ‘personality’… In fact, however, nearly all such hypnotically evoked ‘previous personalities’ are entirely imaginary, just as are the contents of most dreams.”

In Secondary Identity Enactments During Hypnotic Past Life Regression, researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, described their controlled experiments with 175 subjects. These responded to whatever they thought was wanted of them by the hypnotists (regression hypnotists attract customers who want to know about their past lives and are suspected of encouraging such recall).

But when details of their “past lives” were later checked, they turned out to have been gleaned from media exposure or travel or were actually inaccurate. In most such stories, the details simply cannot be checked.

The spate of bogus charges of “repressed memories” of widespread child molestation and satanic cults in recent decades underscore the unreliability of using hypnosis for recall of actual events, as discussed in Making Monsters: Psychotherapy, False Memories and Sexual Hysteria by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters.

Rogo Raises Questions

Scott Rogo, in The Search for Yesterday: A Critical Examination of the Evidence for Reincarnation, did a systematic and objective analysis of reincarnation anecdotes and found virtually all of them to have critical weaknesses. For example:

• People claim to remember a past life, when the individual they claim to be is still alive.

• They recall details of the lives of two deceased people as if they were one.

• Accurate memories are often mixed with incorrect ones.

• Cryptomnesia or unconscious learning is often the source of information to build the story. One subject under hypnosis was able to sing in Old English, but it was later learned that he had studied a book of ancient songs at a library. The mind absorbs everything it is exposed to and can place bits of this into tales that seem like memories.

Researchers have come up with theories to explain the occasional case involving largely accurate memories:

• Since most cases claim to be of people in the immediate area, memories are released at death as an energy that could be absorbed by a fetus of a local mother.

• A shared genetic pool could pass on some memories from the same culture.

• A “psi-informational complex residue” left behind at the time of death could be telepathically accessed by anyone.

• Jung’s “collective unconscious” could allow information to be accessed that was not gained from an individual’s own life.

• Mormons claim to have experiences interacting with ancestors and angels who inform them that the sense of a prior life is not based on an earthly one, but “the preexistence,” a time in heaven before God sent each spirit into a mortal body. Some who follow the Jewish Kabbalah also believe in a prior spiritual existence.

• There are numerous examples of spirits claiming to be the Virgin Mary, Angel Gabriel, or Uncle Joe. so some may be motivated to project their own earthly experiences or made-up details into the minds of mortals. In extreme cases, this could involve possession. Hindu swami Sri Sri Somasundara Desika Paramachariya, a believer in reincarnation, wrote Dr. Stevenson to say, “All the 300-odd cases reported by you do not in fact support the theory of reincarnation… They are all spirit possessions, ignored by the learned in south India.”

What about birthmarks that allegedly show how the person was killed, such as someone who “remembers” being hanged, then reincarnated with a red mark on the neck? Loyd Auerbach, in Reincarnation, Channeling and Possession argues that these are normal birthmarks being put into a story context. They could also appear in response to the above-mentioned imprinting of the fetus. But what would be their point and why do most people not show physical evidence of their prior death?

Living Out Karma

Assuming reincarnation is a fact, where could all of the current spirits have come from? The total number of births in human history is assessed by experts to have been about 70 billion, with 7.1 billion alive now. That would be an average of 10 past lives per person.

Yet supporters of the concept recall many more than that, with an average of 20 (almost all in recent history), according pro-reincarnation researcher Dr. Joel Whitton, cited in Life After Death by Tom Harpur. Stevenson found an average in his cases of 12. Auerbach says estimates are from three to several thousand. Since world population did not reach one billion until 1804, that would mean that most spirits were refusing to reincarnate for hundreds of years.

This is odd, given supporters’ claim that, as Johnsen says, “to be reborn into human bodies is a great blessing, since they are far more capable than animal and plant bodies of devoting themselves to spiritual life.” This raises several questions:

• Why did it take hundreds of millions of years for evolution to get to the point of the first humans, who could show evidence of religion?

• What good deeds did lice do to get them up to the point where they could be reborn as humans? And did the Absolute start them as microbes and they improved themselves or did they commit misdeeds as dogs, getting them moved back down the chain?

• If almost all the vast number of living things are microbes, insects, or plants, can reincarnation be said to be viable when only the tiniest sliver of these become human?

• What happened to all those innumerable animal and plant spirits that became extinct? Some would respond that these came and went between other worlds or dimensions, which only pushes back the issue of origins and widens the chain of reincarnation, rather than solving the math problem.

• Did all the dinosaurs killed in the mass extinction 66 million years ago suffer from the identical karma?

• If reincarnation is a fact, why do advocates disagree on whether people were once animals or plants or whether everything is just a dream of Brahman?

Even the medium George Anderson, who believes in reincarnation, wrote in We Are Not Forgotten that when he asked the spirits about reincarnation, they said they had only heard it was true. If the dead are unsure, perhaps the truth is being withheld for some reason.

It should also be noted that given the high historic infant mortality rate, most of these incarnations would have failed to impart any particularly helpful lessons.

If you go back to Chapter One, we documented that most human beings have lived short lives under miserable conditions. Although few reincarnationists recall past lives in the Third World, population growth suggests that this would have to have been the destination for most rebirths.

It is fair to ask whether the theory could be said to work well when very few people could do more than spend all their time just trying to survive, suffering famine, natural disasters, and diseases.

Even now, the odds are that a rebirth would mean the individual would simply be taking on a new set of mental, physical, environmental, educational, and even religious disadvantages, depending on one’s viewpoint. A Hindu family recognizes the need for a vegetarian diet, yogic meditation, and worship of deities; it would regard someone born as a Christian having disadvantages. Rebirth is karmic Russian roulette, likely to result in a setback, rather than a new opportunity to pull oneself up by spiritual bootstraps that American reincarnationists imagine.

Yet the challenge is even greater than the individual bad karma to be worked off in the current life, as Johnsen explains:

Most human souls have an immense amount of karma built up from many previous existences. Due to the constraints of time and space, only a small portion of it can manifest in any one lifetime… But a lot of karma playing out through our lives is not personal, it’s group karma.

Companies may feel free to pollute the environment. A child who developed in utero in a toxic neighborhood may be born handicapped. It’s not necessarily that the child deserved this, it’s that a culture has karmically invited the birth of genetically damaged children.

Yet if karma is supposed to impose justice, the interpretation Johnsen provides thwarts that.

Hinduism’s ritual also raises another awkward question: why should bad karma— say, murdering someone— be alleviated by chanting or making offerings to deities?

Cosmic Complications Reincarnation and karma also complicate an already impossible process of how to engineer one individual’s life so that the appropriate karmic results play out, in this or any life.

As we discussed in Chapter Six, it is easy to think vaguely about someone’s fate in the incredibly complicated real world: “He killed someone and escaped being executed, so he’ll need to be murdered in the next life.”

But if God, karma, or a universal computer program can project what will happen with 100% accuracy, that means there is no possible alternative outcome, no free will that can actually make a difference.

Yet if there is not absolute certainty, then a wild card has been introduced that can lead to unexpected outcomes for each situation, thwarting karma. Kicking it to the backlog is not a serious answer.

But establishing the inevitability of an event requires everything around it to be in sync. An individual who is supposed to become a great inventor cannot die in childhood of poor sanitation or in car accident before he achieves his goals. That person needs a leader who recognizes his or her talent and gets the inventor hired and promoted. Everyone else’s fate would have to revolve around that individual for that one bit of karmic destiny.

Meanwhile, all the other seven billion people need their karma fulfilled. Each time one piece of this vast jigsaw puzzle is moved, it affects every other one. It is an impossible game for even a God to play.

But if it were true, then the karmic process carries with it the same ethical burden as the all-powerful God of the Old Testament. Americans living in the comfortable 21st century should not facilely say that all those mass deaths from disease were just necessary steps in spiritual growth.

We pose the same question we asked about Buddhism: if reincarnation and karma worked as they are supposed to, why are advocates unable to point to more than a handful of people now living now who could be said to be so enlightened that they no longer need to reincarnate? When I was in India, no one I spoke to could provide an answer.

Next, we will consider how well Western monotheists— adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— can stand up under a fair scrutiny that does not immediately dismiss their supernatural claims.