UNBELIEF IN INDIA
Unbelief in religion has never been strong in India. In ancient times (approx. third century B.C.E.) materialist thought prevailed for a brief period under the name of CARVAKA. The movement was also known as Lokayata. Religious fundamentalists destroyed most of the Carvaka movement, including its writings. There were periods when Buddhist philosophies held sway (see BUDDHISM, UNBELIEF WITHIN), but these lasted only as long as they enjoyed the favour of local rulers. Eventually Buddhism became nearly extinct in India, even as it metamorphosed into a religion which spread to other parts of Asia.
Centuries would pass before further attempts could be made to re-launch organized unbelief. When the opportunity arose, it would be in consequence of Great Britain’s occupation and subsequent rule of India. A small number of Indians who travelled abroad brought back Western ideas about the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the scientific world view.
Throughout the nineteenth century, India underwent nearly continual religious reform, but most of these efforts were unsuccessful in bringing about radical or deep-rooted social change. Harmful institutions, including India’s strong caste system, untouchability, the practice of Sati (burning the widow alive on her husband’s pyre), and a demoralizing belief in Karma or fate, were based directly on ancient Hindu scriptures. While some nineteenth century reform movements— including Arya Samaj, Brahma Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, and even THEOSOPHY in its reformist aspects—brought about some social change, their impact was short lived because none of them questioned the prevailing belief system in a fundamental way. So long as no reform movement dared to confront messages of India’s so-called holy scriptures, the social evils opposed by reformers would always endure in some form, enjoying popular support on the false grounds that they embodied India’s tradition and heritage.
INDIAN UNBELIEF IN THE EARLY TO MID 20TH
Only with the beginning of the twentieth century did a more resilient and dynamic form of unbelief emerges. It began in southern India, not surprisingly as this region was then at the forefront of efforts to force drastic changes in India’s social structure.
E.V. Ramasami, better known as PERIYAR (18791973), launched an anti-Brahmin movement in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. Tripuraneni Ramaswami (died 1942) in Andhra Pradesh simultaneously started anti-Brahmin movements, publishing literature in Tamil and Telugu to spread iconoclastic ideas against oppression of upper caste Brahmins. They also questioned the unchallenged supremacy of Sanskrit language, which was used as yet another tool to promote social differentiation, and suggested the replacement of Brahmin priests with non-Brahmins.
Both Periyar and Ramaswami did not mince their words, using strong language to express atheistic ideas and questioning the prevailing rituals, customs, such as child marriages, and taboos of Hindus. Ramasami organized nursing homes, charitable institutions to help the downtrodden people. Both of them challenged the holy scripts of Hindus and organized training camps to educate a small number of middle class people with rational outlook. They officiated inter-caste marriages, which raised eyebrows in early 20th century. Ramasami organized sensational processions against the Hindu God Rama while hitting the Rama photo with shoes! Ramasami moved the masses with his speeches and rallied large number of people.
S. Ramanathan, a prominent politician who was a minister in the state government, showing the deep influence of the movement in the state’s intelligentsia, carried Periyar’s mantle until the early 1980s. While Periyar’s Dravida Khazagam movement would attract charismatic leaders such as Annadurai and Karunanidhi, both of whom were later to become chief ministers of the state, they ended up taking the organization into politics, pretty much ending the movement started by Ramaswami
Some followers, such ask. Veeramani tried to continue the “self-respect” movement of Dravidar Kazhagam and would later join India’s humanist movement. Others, such as Ravipudi Venkatadri, meanwhile carried the rationalist flame in Andhra.
One of the shining lights of southern India’s unbelief movement was Gora (died 1975), or Goparaju Ramachandrarao. He was a Brahmin who stood against the supremacy of Brahmins and hence excommunicated from the caste. He hailed from Andhra Pradesh and was closely associated with M.K. Gandhi in the freedom fight against the British.
Gora never compromised on the principle of atheism and established a hermit in Mudunur village where untouchables were living. His wife Saraswati, who also came from orthodox Brahmin family, was an active participant and together they led the atheist movement. In 1940, Gora established an atheist centre in Vijayawada, a coastal town in Andhra Pradesh and spread the ideas through magazines, literature and meetings. Gora toured many countries of the world and contacted world atheist leaders such as Madalya O’Hair. He make a point, Gora organized beef and pork dinners, targeting both Hindus and Muslims who considered both products as sacred or unclean. He wanted party less democracy, simple living and the spread of positive atheism, which asserts ethical life. His entire family is still promoting his ideas: his sons Lavanam, Vijayam and Samaram, his daughter Chennupati Vidya, his daughter-in-law, Hemalatha, and even his grandson, Vikas Gora.
Gora also officiated several inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and both his son and daughter married spouses who came from the untouchable castes, showing by example what their father preached.
The international atheist centre established by Gora and managed by his family is well known throughout India as well in rationalist circles around the world for its path breaking activity.
Andhra Pradesh’s atheist movements spawned several splinter groups, often with their own magazines and literature. Jayagopal, Katti Padmarao, B. Sambasivarao, Ramakrishna, Gutta Radhakrishna Murthy, Saraiah, M. Subbarao, I. Muralidhar, C.L.N. Gandhi, Siddarth Baksh, M. Basavapunnarao, M. Sharif, Pasala Bhimanna, Vikram and others continue to fly the flag of atheism, however small or localized their efforts might be.
Other Southern and Western Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra also saw a splurge in rationalist activity in the early 20th century with skeptical and agnostic ideas. Abraham Kovoor electrified the skeptics movement with his speeches and demonstrations, touring several states in India as well as Sri Lanka to spread the movement. His books—debunking astrologers, godmen—were popular. Another active member of the rationalist movement in Kerala is Govindan, who edits the magazine, Sameeksha. The duo of Joseph and Sanal Edamaruku were also instrumental in challenging god men and exposing fraudulent “miracles,” touring intensively to demonstrate the falsehood of miracles.
Sanal Edamaruku would later shift to Delhi where he started international rationalist organization with a web site, journals, books and an active campaign.
In Maharashtra, a big campaign was organized to convert the Hindus into Buddhists so that they get rid of inequality, untouchability and attain human rights with dignity. B.R. Ambedkar led the movement though without much success.
Meanwhile, skeptics groups began working in states such as West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. B. Premanand arranged for a Federation of all the groups and conducted several meetings at the national level, personally training several people in magic so that faith healers and god men and women could be easily exposed. State level federation in Andhra Pradesh (FARA) actively fought against fraudulent claims of god men, alternative medicines and supernatural claims under the coordinator N. Innaiah.
The Rationalist Association, which started in Bombay during 1930s slowly, picked up the momentum. Abraham Solomon, Lokkiandawala, M.N. Roy, M. Ramamurhty, R. Venkatadri, Avula Gopalakrishna Murthy, Innaiah Narisetti were all active participants and advocates of the movement.
M.N. Roy gave philosophical and scientific outlook to unbelief movements at India level. He organized reorientation study camps where scientific orientation was promoted for renaissance, scientific study of history and asserting sovereignty of the individual in political field. Roy also established Radical Humanist, Renaissance and Rationalist organizations and elevated them at international level, often questioning the prevailing Gandhian spiritual ideology.
UNBELIEF IN INDEPENDENT INDIA
As the first prime minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru established a secular framework for the country but too had to compromise on several occasions due to political pressures, including giving up on the idea of a uniform civil code applicable to all Indians. The Congress Party, which is by far the most liberal and secular in its stated outlook, continues to compromise with all religions even as the BJP, a Hindu fundamentalist party that was in power recently, strongly reversed the rationalist trends in public life and educational fields.
Meanwhile, Communist parties won power in three states—West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura—raising hopes that rational and scientific thought will take root. But in all the states, the Communists compromised with the religious sentiments of people and never encouraged the efforts of rationalists, humanists and skeptics.
Communist leaders encourage popular religious festivals such as Durga Puja in West Bengal, Ayyappa festival in Kerala so that they get pilgrims and tourist revenue, not counting votes in elections. The fundamental Marxian principle that “Religion is opium to the people” was not implemented during Communist rule in India.
After the death of M.N. Roy in 1955, several intellectuals carried the spirit of inquiry through study camps, training classes, publications, seminars, and magazines. They diversified the activities into the fields of Human Rights (V.M. Tarkunde), equality of women (Indumati Parikh, Malladi Subbamma, Gauri Malik), publications (Shib Narayan Ray, Prem Nath Bazaz, Philip Sprat, Ram Singh, R.M. Pal, R.L. Nigam, C.R.M. Rao, Balraj Puri, Professor Niranjan Dhar (Vedanta and Bengal Renaissance), civil liberties (N.D. Pancholi, C.T. Daru, Jayant Patel), international organizations (G.R.R. Babu), secular activity (Avula Gopalakrishna Murthy).
V.B. Karnik and Maniben Kara concentrated their efforts among labour and humanist movement. Prof. A.B. Shah (died 1982) founded the Indian Secular Society and tried to educate Muslims with the help of Hamid Dalwai. He also established Satya Shodak Mandal for bringing the Muslim youth into mainstream of secular society. His book “Muslim Politics” provoked much discussion.
A.B. Shah faced the wrath of many Hindus by questioning the ban on killing cows but he vigorously propagated the scientific method as a solution to several problems facing obscurantist India. His book Scientific Method made a rare breakthrough in Indian academia when it was prescribed as a textbook in Bangalore University when H. Narasimhaiah was the vice chancellor. Shah started several publications, magazines (Humanist Review, New Quest, The Secularist) and educational reform campaigns for humanism and secularism.
UNBELIEF IN THE LATE 20TH CENTURY
Much of the effort to promote unbelief in India has become a regional effort with pockets of resistance to the continued lack of scientific thinking and fundamentalism within the country.
In West Bengal, for instance, Prafulla Kumar Naik under local humanists and rationalists has questioned the claims of miracles by Mother Theresa. Over in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, focus has been against god men and women who claim to provide miracle cures. Andhra rationalists opposed unscientific alternative medicines (Homeopathy), exposing the bogus claims of Alex Orbito (psychic surgery), the swallowing of live fish for asthma cures, the hugging of Matha Amrithananda Mayi in order to obtain prosperity, Geomancy (Vaastu).
Several books have been published with documentation about fraudulent god men such as Satya Sai Baba (Murders in Sai Baba Ashram by Premanand), Jilh’llamcidi Ainnin (by M.V. Ramamurthy), The Truth about Bible (N.V. Brahmam), The Falsehood of Geomancy (R. Venkatadri), Lie Hunting.(N. Innaiah), The Unscientific Nature of Astrology (Dr. Narasimhaiah), Why I am Not a Hindu (Ramendra), Be Gone Godmen (Abraham Kovoor). Books exposing the holy scriptures (Critique of Hinduism by Laxman Sastri Joshi, The Truth about the Gita by V.R. Narla, Gita by Premnath Bazaz, Critique on Ramayana by P.H. Gupta, Ochre Robe by Agehananda Bharati, writings of Khushwant Singh also helped spread of skeptical thinking.
Basava Premanand, Sanal Edamaruku, Innaiah Narisetti, and G.R.R. Babu continue to question the authenticity of holy persons and have taken their message to an international level, drawing considerable media attention to what is going on inside India. Charvaka, Telugu magazine edited by Mr. Thotakura Venkateswarlu from Vijayawada had great impact on youth in early 1970s.
Increasingly, the movement is also getting help from Indians who are now living abroad, people such as Aramalla Purnachandra, Nirmal Mishra, Jyothi Sankar (died in 1998) in USA who are providing key intellectual backing to India’s small number of humanists, skeptics and rationalists.
Despite their efforts, these miracle cures continue to draw thousands of believers, many of whom are conned into making financial donations in the hope of curing their ills.
UNBELIEF IN THE 21ST CENTURY
India entered the 21st century without much success in achieving a basic scientific society. While groups of people in various states continuously fight traditional and fundamentalist –mostly religious—groups, skeptic, rational, secular, atheist, humanist groups face an uphill task of modernizing Indian society into one that has a scientific outlook. Indian Secular society (V.K. Sinha editor The Secularist), Radical Humanist association (Managing Editor, Saraswati Rekha) Indian Humanist Union (leader Prakash Narain), Bihar Buddhiwadi Samaj (leader Dr. Ramendra), Satya Shodhak Sabha in Surat, and Babubhai Desai in Gujarat state, Anti superstition organization (Maharashtra under the leadership of Dhabolkar), Muhonat (leader in Rajasthan humanist group), Rationalist groups (leaders Srini Pattathanam, Oomen), Manavatavadi Viswa Samstha (leader Manavatavadi in Haryana state), Narendra Naik in Mangalore for Indian Sceptic Society (FIRA), Subhankar, Manoj Datta, Ajit Bhattacharjee, humanist group in West Bengal, Civil liberties group and Renaissance association Mr. N.D. Pancholi, Mahipal Singh, Mr. R.B. Rawat, Gauri Malik, B.D. Sarma, Vinod Jain are functioning in their regions.
All these movements have little membership and remain an almost insignificant minority among India’s millions. But they continue to express their views and raise their voices, often using local media to try and push back the onslaught of religions and dogmatic thinking.
Centre for Inquiry India started in 2006 with Dr. N. Innaiah and Mr. I. Muralidhar from Hyderabad as directors. Other organisations like Jana Vignana Vedika, Manava, Vikasam, Bharat Nastika Samajam cooperate in agreeable areas.
Over time, the humanist, rationalist, atheist, and skeptic movements in India established many contacts and connections with international, like-minded organizations, organizing international conferences in India and inviting foreign experts and thinkers to share their experiences.
Rob Tielman, Jim Harrick, Paul Kurtz, Larry Jones, Roy Brown, Madalya O’Hair, Fred Edwords, Matt Cherry, Fenneth Hiogarth, Levi Fragil, Barbara Smoker and Herman Bondi, among others, participated, enriching Indian associations in many ways. At the same time, key Indian leaders began actively participating in overseas conferences and conventions.
Another avenue of helping spread unbelief in India has been the translation of key books and articles into India’s myriad languages. Books by Paul Kurtz, M.N. Roy, A.B. Shah, R.G. Ingersol, V.R. Narla, Agehanand Bharati, Laxman Sastri Joshi, Premnath Bazaz including titles such as Living without Religion and Courage to Become, Why I am Not a Muslim, The Truth about the Gita, Memoirs of a Cat, Scientific Method are popular in southern Indian languages- such as Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam. Skeptics in India have also benefited greatly from the populist writings of James Randi and have taken advantage of his $ 1 million challenge to go after India god men, none of whom are yet to come forward.
International organizations such as the International humanist and Ethical Union, Centre for Scientific Study of Paranormal Claims, Centre for Inquiry, as well as Humanist and Rationalist associations of various Western countries continue to provide help in this important fight,
Periyar movement in Tamilnadu played unique role in India which susvtained the atheist, rationalist and humanist movements. It is sustained with the efforts of Mr K. Veeramani and his followers. They honored Paul Kurtz, the leader from USA as well published Richard Dawkins God Delusion which is unique translation .