“I am Atheist, I don’t believe in God, so I am not really a Hindu”, said my friend. The point she missed is that, believing in God has been always optional in Hinduism.
As surprise to many, Bhakti Marg, is the only one out of the four major paths of self realization, that is based on presence of external supernatural power or God. For other paths, while one can still believe in God, but it is not mandatory to do so.
For example, Karma Marg, needs the follower to believe in “Do good, as doing good is good, but without expecting anything in return”, and you can do this with or without believing in God. Same is true for Raj and Jnana Marg too, as the core concepts of these paths can be followed without a need to believe in the concept of god.
Having said that, some preparatory paths like “Pouranik Path” actually expect people to believe in god and follow various Vratas/stories in puranik literature, as this help them to not to lose hope, maintain courage, and stay focused, during various ups and down in life. But requirement is only until one reaches to a state where they can choose from one of the major paths of self realization.
Due to large number of people following Pouranik path, and large following to Bhakti Marg, we always get a feeling that Hinduism is all about worshiping Idol and believing in supernatural power. While there is nothing wrong in doing that, there is equally nothing wrong in not believing in God, and following other paths of self realization. All the paths are considered equal and take follower to same destination. It’s personal choice of what suite someone.
Now, someone may ask, what about the concept of “Nastik“? Is it not same as Atheist? Actually not, Nastik is not same as Atheist. The term Nastik is used for people who don’t believe in teaching of Vedas/Shrutis. So, what is teaching of Vedas/Shrutis? In simple terms, Vedas/Shrutis believe that there are multiple paths to self realization, each being equal, reaching same destination. Any philosophy that does not believe this, and consider itself the “only” path for self realization, is considered Nastik. Nastik has nothing to do with believing or non believing in God.
In summary, Atheism is an recognized way of living in Hinduism and is not considered any less or more than, one which believe in God. It’s purely a personal choice, and Hinduism allows followers to choose the path best suited to them.