Disenchanting India: An Overview of Rationalism

Prabhakar Nanawaty

India is not only a land of religion, superstition and blind beliefs, but also atheism, rationalism, humanism, skepticism and agnostics. It is a land of enlightenment, philosophical quest for truth and practical application of (rationalistic) principles for common good…..

Dr. G. Vijayam

While reading above quotation, one will wonder whether it is really true, since we all the while see only the degradation of humanism and glorification of irrationalism all around us. However Johannes Quack, who is academically qualified in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Anthropology and is currently a research fellow at McGillUniversity, Montréal, had painstakingly documented various aspects of rationalism as practiced in India by traveling length and breadth in India. During his travel he met many contemporary rationalists and recorded their views about rationalism. In fact he was in search of an organization which has practical approach towards rationalism. By chance he attended a seminar of Federation of Rationalist Associations in India hosted by Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, ANS (Author however, addresses ANS as ANiS throughout the book) and chose ANS as his field work for his research thesis. While interviewing the rationalists in various part of India and describing their views on rationalism in general, he spent more time with ANS activists to record their views  in particular. The book, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, is the result of his studies, observations and experiences. During the ethnographic fieldwork on the aims and activities of ANS, he accompanied teams at actual sites, and observed critically the activities like miracle bursting, poster exhibitions, lectures and debates, street plays etc during public performances conducted in the villages, schools and colleges.

This book is not like any other promotional material with gorgeous titles like Incredible India, Emerging India, Fascinating India Shining India etc . The essential content of this book is about the Indian rationalist, atheist, humanist, and freethinkers’ movement. The prevailing rationalist movements in India are explicitly intent to challenge belief in supernatural powers of irrational efficacy as practiced by charismatic gurus even in this age of advanced science and technology. All these rationalist movements have aimed to show a way out of their enchanted – imaginative world towards a rational and this worldly way of life in spite of most of them are preoccupied with religion, spirituality, magic and miracles. In this connection the rationalists stress upon that there has always been rationalism and criticism of religion through out the historical period of India. The main advocates were Charvakas, Lokayatas, Basaveshwar, Sant Kabir, Sant Tukaram, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Mahatma Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Agarkar, Maharshi Karve,  Raghunath Karve, Periyar E.V. Ramasami, M.N. Roy, Gora, Dr. Ambedkar , Abraham Kovoor etc.

In fact the content of this book is a published Doctorate thesis of author’s research work. Author calls his research as ‘multisited’ ethnography. In classical research researchers generally limit their efforts to interviews, attending seminars, studying related documents, collecting the inputs by circulating the questionnaire, visiting the places and videotaping etc. But this researcher in addition to these methodologies of research gets involved with the organization by critically studying and spending as much time as possible with the activists to get feel and insight of the organization under study. He critically assesses the aims and goals, actions and thinking, structure and set up, profile and agenda, interpretation of rationalism and ideas about way of life by field activists and intellectuals of the organization to corroborate his findings. His critical assessment of ANS can be summed up as a ‘Social Audit’.

The first part of this book is about the Indian Rationalists of the past era which has been based upon sparse literature available on this topic. The author tries to explain the notion of ‘mode of disbelief’ and its relationship to the notion of ‘mode of religiosity’. In this regard, author elaborates the concepts of ‘rationality’, ‘irrationalism’ and ‘rationalization’ as employed by various Western philosophers and compares these concepts in Indian context. For some, rationalism means to fight for justice and equality, to avoid violence and to try to find the truth. For a few, rationalism is that philosophy of life which is based upon the reasoning faculty of a person. That may be the one of the reasons why Indian rationalists call themselves as buddhivaadi, vivekvaadi, tarkikvaadi, yuktivaadi, etc even manavataavaadi too. This difference appears to be related to the stand that has been taken by the individual in terms of religion, existence/non-existence of God, etc. For example, humanists are simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives.  As such rationalists want to link humanism, rationalism, atheism, science and technology, the scientific temper and power of reason in order to live a contented life, emotionally and physically. While concluding theoretical aspects of rationalism, author quotes Max Weber and Charles Taylor extensively.

In the next part, he traces the roots of organized rationalism in India by quoting Charvaka and vedic materialism. He also describes Bhakti movement spread by saints like Basaveshwar, Kabir, Tukaram etc who questioned the blind traditions practiced during that period. In fact these saints attacked the superstitions prevailing in the society. However, rationalism in strictest sense only appeared during colonial period where western philosophers like Ingersoll, Bradlaugh, and Bertrand Russell etc started dominating the minds of the intellectuals who studied English language and were exposed to western culture. Agarkar, Mahatma Phule, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy etc were the founders of the organized rationalism in India in later half of 19th century. In fact, these movements can be termed as religious reform movements to contextualize the emergence of rationalism.

Early 20th century saw growth of various Rationalist organizations which were set up in places like Delhi, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Bombay, Vijaywada, Bhilai, Rourkela, Madras, Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Amrutsar etc. by well educated Indian intellectuals with strong affinities to Western education and culture. Jawaharlal Nehru, M.N. Roy etc contributed for the growth of rationalism in India. Atheist Centre, founded in 1940 by Gora appears to be the milestone in practical rationalism. R.D. Karve and his colleagues wrote extensively on various aspects of rationalism in their ‘Reason’ magazine in spite of opposition from the society and rulers. These organizations started challenging Gurus and ‘Godmen’ like Sathya Saibaba. Dr. H. Narasimhaiah and Abraham Kovoor tried their best to convince the society the fraudulent activities of Saibaba and were exposing his supernatural powers. However most of the rationalists confined their activities by writing the articles in the newspapers and magazine and participating in the public debates. Abraham Kovoor gave momentum to the existing organizations by his miracle-exposure campaigns. Kovoor was quite famous for his rhetoric and was able to entertain and fascinate large groups of people by giving lecture-cum- demonstrations and exposing the tricks of the ‘Godmen’. Shri B. Premanand of Kerala took over the task of exposure of Godmen and he toured extensively to spread the message. There was tremendous response to his lectures from the public and he inspired many youths of post independent India.

The remaining portion of the book covers various aspects of ANS which was chosen as field work for author’s research. Author had given ethnographical account of ANS in detail. He had described in detail the ANS activities like spreading scientific temper, campaign against superstitions, exposure of Godmen, efforts to enact the anti-superstition bill, magazines and literature published by ANS, etc. While accompanying the group of ANS activists for a tour around Maharashtra, author was very curious about ANS and wanted to see it for himself. He wanted to know how do people react when ANS activists enter remote villages; how does ANS attempt to convince the people that some of the beliefs and events so central to their everyday lives are harmful, pathological, based on illusions or made up by people who fool and exploit them in the name of religion, traditions or rituals; do people oppose the statements, or do they ignore them or   are they converted. He observes that ANS activists always try to relate to the perspectives of villagers, children and college students and try to involve them in their programs through games, tricks, songs and other interactive elements. The programs chosen are very simple in nature and lively to participate. He concludes that the didactical methods applied are of a rather higher level.

Author observes that activists never shied away from challenging and provoking the gods, deities and spirits, ridiculing the people capable of controlling black magic and deliberately doing the most inauspicious things. In fact the programs which are of interactive in nature coerce the listeners to participate and change the attitude. Through theses participations, activists try to invoke the spirit of inquiry within them. Author had gone in detail to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of ANS which appears to be quite truthful and unbiased.  Author raises a question whether or not rationalism is to be understood as directly opposing religion, since ANS has taken a moderate and rather unspecific position in this regard. ANS related harmful religious practices with that of superstitions and advocates scientific temper as the remedy for these age-old ills.

While probing for individual interpretations and applications of rationalism in day-to-day life, author approached many activists to extract the information. He tried to find how the rationalistic attitude is applicable in family relations, marriages, festivals, births, and deaths etc. Surprisingly he found varied opinions in these matters. In fact, ANS activists believe that the fight against irrationality and the fight against injustice are one and the same. However author has praised non-religious marriage ceremonies and non religious ways of dealing with death as advocated by ANS.

In the concluding remarks, author is of the opinion that Indian rationalisms are in the process of trying to disenchant Indian public – that everything in the world is, in principle, explicable (by science) without any reference to supernatural entities (like religion, spirituality and miracles). He takes an overview of the world rationalistic movements and tries analysis of them in Indian context. In fact rationalism has come very long way in various descriptions like Agnostics, Atheists, Brights, Clandestine, Freethinkers, (Secular) Humanists, Infidels, Secularists, liberals, etc.  He concludes that Indian Rationalist Movement can be seen as a part of a longer transrational movement.

As mentioned in the blurb of the book by Prof. Frederick  Smith of University Iowa, Johannes Quack has ventured into new territory in his close study of the Indian Rationalist Movement particularly its manifestations in early  twenty-first century Maharashtra. He has combined ethnographic analysis, social theory, and a  deep knowledge of Indian history with reflections on secularism, religious belief, rationality enhancement, and dis-enhancement, the result is a vivid depiction of India in the throes of modernity, in which class, gender, nationalism, and ideological and discursive strategy are contesting for the very future of India. This excellent volume must be examined by anyone interested in modern and contemporary India because it addresses in a most illuminating way a desperately understudied topic.

Disenchanting India:

Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India

Johannes Quack,

Oxford University Press, pp 362