In September 2009, the famous rationalist Basava Premananda of Kerala fell severely ill. He had stomach cancer and many of his major organs were close to collapse. He was admitted to a hospital in Coimbatore where he would eventually die a few weeks later. During this period, a rumour began to circulate that the fearless atheist Premananda, who had survived innumerable assassination attempts, exposed and challenged many godmen and even taken Satya Sai Baba to court, had turned to God in his last days. When Premananda’s long-time confidant and protégé Narendra Nayak visited him, the 80-year-old was drowsy and unresponsive. But when Nayak informed him of the rumour, he opened his eyes to ask, “Who says that?”
On Nayak’s suggestion, Premananda issued a declaration that he was still a rationalist and believed that his death would leave nothing other than his body—which was to be donated to a medical college—with no soul or spirit to trouble anyone. Recalling the rumour campaign now, Nayak says, “This is just one of the many ways [in which religious fanatics] have been trying to break our spirit. All of them unsuccessful.”
On 20 August this year, that spirit was thought to have suffered a blow when Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a well-known rationalist and friend of Nayak, was gunned down while out on a walk in Pune, Maharashtra. A tireless campaigner against superstition, Dabholkar was an overarching figure in India’s rationalist movement. He had transformed the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS)—a group founded by him in 1989 to fight superstition—from a handful of individuals to a mass movement that boasts over 2,000 volunteers across 200 branches in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.
The assassination was a shock. But it has taken just a few days for the gloom to be replaced by a redoubled dedication to Dabholkar’s cause. One of the late leader’s closest associates, Deepak Girme, a rationalist based in Pune, is busy readying a couple of science vans for a roadshow. “We’ll soon affix two inflatable domes for the projection of visuals,” he says, “Imagine… won’t children love it?”
Girme and Dabholkar had set these Vidya Bodh Vahinis rolling in 2003, each van stacked with books, posters and DVDs on science and environmental issues, aimed at reaching school children in rural Maharashtra. The mobile project was so popular that the vans’ itinerary would be chalked out a year in advance. Three years ago, sadly, both vehicles broke down. The two rationalists had planned to have them up and running—refurbished with projectors and domes—later this year.
“It would have been easy to feel helpless after his murder,” says Girme, “However, [Dabholkar] wouldn’t have wanted us to get dissuaded by what happened. He would have wanted us to carry on.”
No matter what appearances suggest, the rationalist movement in India is actually expanding, with groups emerging not just in Kerala and Maharashtra, which have long had such campaigns, but also in various other states. The Tarksheel Society, a group with its origin in Punjab, now has branches in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary in Canada, which the group claims came up to challenge the superstitious practices of many Sikhs in those cities.
At the core of the rationalist ideal is the primacy of science and logic. The argument is that in order to lead a content life, one needs no religious or spiritual guidance derived from the unproven assertions of fellow humans, fallible as they are, much less the diktats of godmen and gurus. The power of reason and a scientific temperament are enough.
Rationalists are thus atheists, but they do not push people to abandon religion altogether, focusing their efforts on attacking superstitions instead. According to them, Indians have for far too long been held under the sway of mystics claiming divine powers. “We need to disenchant people,” Girme says, “We need to show that everything in the world can be explained by logic and science without any reference to supernatural entities. This is our mission.”
Rationalism in India is not entirely an idea adopted from the West, as is often believed. India has always had strands of rationalist thought. The ancient Lokayata school of philosophy, with Charvaka as its exponent, was based on principles of atheism (or agnosticism in some interpretations). Many latter-day reformers like Kabir, Tukaram and Raja Rammohun Roy questioned religious superstition.
According to the book Disenchanting India: Organised Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, written by Canadian researcher Johannes Quack, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahatma Phule and Periyar EV Ramasamy were among India’s torchbearers of rationalist thought in the latter half of the 19th century. However, according to the book, rationalism in its strictest sense appeared during the colonial period once Indians educated in English were acquainted with the ideas of Western philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Robert G Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh.
In 1930, Bombay saw the formation of the Rationalists Association of India, the country’s first such group. It’s members were a few of the educated elite, and its activities were mostly restricted to writings and public debates. It was Kerala-born Abraham Thomas Kovoor, and later Premananda, who embarked on a mass movement.
At a conference in Bangalore three years ago, a former professor of biochemistry performed a set of unusual feats. Televised by News 24, he dipped his hand in boiling oil, pierced his tongue with a metallic trishul, and consumed a burning ball of fire. Many in the audience flinched, but the bespectacled professor, Narendra Nayak, smiled as he subjected himself to such ghastly acts of self-mortification. He later revealed the tricks behind them all: his hand was pre-soaked in oil as insulation against being scathed, the trishul was bent to conjure an illusion of its piercing the tongue, and his tongue was too wet for burning camphor to harm it. After the applause, he explained that these were all common tricks used by godmen to dupe people.
It was from his mentor Premananda that Nayak learnt how best to expose fraudulent claims of superhuman power. This routine, of showing the tricks up for what they are, was first conceived by Kovoor. Back then, a magician named Swaminathan would perform the tricks and Kovoor would hold the discussion. However, after threats by religious fanatics kept Swaminathan away, Kovoor learnt and started performing them himself. Premananda followed the same routine. Today, it is standard operating procedure for almost all rationalist associations in India. Kovoor also came up with an open challenge, promising Rs 1 lakh to anyone who could perform a supernatural act for him. Rationalist groups continue to put out such offers.
Kovoor and Premananda were both especially inclined to expose Satya Sai Baba’s claims. Like Sai Baba, Kovoor too could seemingly materialise vibuthi (holy ash) from thin air. He would frequently write to Sai Baba challenging him to a contest. After Kovoor’s death, it was Premananda who would trouble Sai Baba, once filing a snarky lawsuit against him for violating India’s Gold Control Act by creating gold ‘from air’. Later, he published a book—Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom—about the killing of six inmates of Sai Baba’s ashram in 1993.
In Kolkata, another rationalist, Prabir Ghosh, sought to explain Mother Teresa’s supposed miracle of curing a woman named Monica Besra of an ovarian tumour. On hearing of this ‘miracle’, Ghosh, who heads the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, tracked down the woman and her husband, and learnt from them that Besra had also undergone medical treatment for her tumour. “Mother Teresa perhaps deserves sainthood for her work,” he says, “But what is objectionable is the concept of miracles. In this case, it is certain that she was cured by medicine, not miracle.”
Those were high-profile cases. Ridding India of superstition, however, requires rationalists to reach far into the hinterland where there is no media scrutiny of occult observances. Perhaps the most active in rural India is MANS, which has volunteers touring not just towns and cities but also villages to investigate and expose obscurantist beliefs and babas who claim special status.
Three months ago, MANS volunteers in Vidarbha learnt of a 10-year-old girl who was sacrificed by ten villagers, including her grandmother and the village sarpanch. “Seven months ago, the grandmother had dreamt of a devi demanding blood. So they plotted to kidnap and kill the child to offer this devi,” Girme says. Two electricians tripped the power supply of the village for a period long enough for the child to be kidnapped. She was taken to a forest for a macabre ritual in which the child’s throat was slit and all ten participants drank her blood. The parents, unaware of the horror, filed a missing person’s complaint.
Three months ago, the child’s body was discovered in the forest. It was while interrogating the electricians that the police stumbled upon the motive. “When something like this happens you realise how important it is to educate people,” says Girme, “You realise how incomplete your work is.”
That Indian rationalists live in danger is not in doubt. Dr Dabholkar’s death was so dramatic that it hit headlines across India, but others have been under pressure too. Ghosh says that two gunmen once tried to confront him on a train but fled after they saw he had policemen accompanying him.
Sanal Edamaruku, a Delhi-based rationalist, was recently forced to flee the country in fear of arrest and seek refuge in Finland. He had shown that water dripping off a statue of Christ in Mumbai was not the result of a miracle but bad plumbing, and a case under Section 295A (India’s so-called ‘blasphemy law’) was filed against him by various Catholic groups. Cases under the same law were also filed against three rationalists in Barnala, Punjab, for publishing Kovoor’s book Begone Godmen. The three were put behind bars for two weeks before being granted bail.
Nayak, who has been assaulted on several occasions, says that his scooter’s brakes cable was found to have been cut on two occasions. In 1995, after reports of Ganesh idols ‘drinking’ milk surfaced across India, Nayak was explaining the science of the phenomenon to a gathering outside his home in Mangalore when a group of men began pelting him with stones. Now he does not address a crowd without the safety of his own supporters around.
The attacks and threats, however, have failed to cow India’s rationalists. The movement has been gaining adherents in various parts of India. In Punjab, the Tarksheel Society came up in 1984 after Kovoor’s Begone Godmen was translated into Punjabi.
According to Hemraj Steno, a Tarksheel member from Barnala, the movement gained instant popularity because of the socio-political strife in the state in the 1980s: “Everyone was under great stress then. The Khalistan movement was in full swing, and so was State repression to quash it. Tarksheel members would go from house to house and listen to people’s woes. They were like amateur shrinks. Their message of not believing in the supernatural but going by scientific reasoning became very popular.”
In fostering a scientific temperament, the group focuses on the irrationality of gender discrimination. It holds an annual fair, Tarksheel Mela, to propagate its reformist views through skits, plays and other cultural media, and also leads a Tarksheel Kafla (caravan) of two-wheelers, jeeps and tractor-trolleys with mikes and loudspeakers to ferry the message around rural Punjab. Apart from that, the group publishes books and magazines on rationalist thought. In 2010 and then last year, it put together a multiple-episode TV show on the busting of myths that was telecast by several Punjabi channels.
Harinder Lally, a 48-year old advocate and Tarksheel member based in Sunam, speaks of various supernatural cases the group has solved. Once, a report emerged from a village close to Manimajra that every few days cattle would be found dead; the villagers believed that they had offended some god. “But what we learnt, after following up on the case, was that a woman—along with a leather-worker—was poisoning the cattle so that they could make money off the hides,” says Lally.
A few years ago, Lally was part of a team that investigated claims of a rebirth in a village close to Chandigarh. According to the news, a 12-year-old boy had started recalling episodes of his ‘previous life’. He was apparently able to identify the house and family he had last been born to. The team asked the child a number of questions and when it verified his answers with the family of his supposed earlier incarnation, he was found to be lying. The child later admitted that his parents had coaxed him into putting up a show.
Mugdha Karnik, A rationalist who heads the University of Mumbai’s Extra-Mural Studies Department, says that it remains an elitist movement to an extent, and that’s a drawback. Only a few rationalists become activists. “That’s why Dabholkar was different. He believed in reaching out to others,” she says. “In comparison, various religious fundamentalist groups and godmen are gaining influence. Only a rationalist movement can keep them in check.”
Nayar is keen that the movement sheds its personality-centric character and fans out beyond the limitations of that. “Before me, it was Premananda. And before him, Kovoor. We need more leaders in the movement if we are to carry on and not just rely on one individual,” he says. “We use magic tricks to attract people to our talks. But sometimes, there is a nagging doubt: do people see us simply as a bunch of street performers who expose miracles and nothing else?”
According to Nayar, non-believers are taken much too lightly by India’s system of governance. He points out that in Karnataka courts, witnesses have to take an oath saying, “I swear in the name of God that what I say is the truth and nothing but the truth.” This, he says, is the Judiciary’s idea of a secular oath. On his website, he relates how he got married to his wife in 1980 under the country’s Special Marriages Act. At the marriage registrar’s office, he was asked to swear that he was taking the woman as his wife in the name of God. ‘I refused to take the oath of marriage in the name of a non-existent god,’ he writes. The registrar looked upset. “Okay,” he said irritably, “omit the god.”