Indian Rationalist Movement: Past, Present and Future

Dr. G. Vijayam

Atheist Centre, Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh is immensely happy to be associated with Maharashtra Andh Shraddha Nirmulan Samithi in the International Conference scheduled to be held in Mumbai on August 9, 2019. We are proud to be associated with the programme. Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was a Doyen of Rationalism and he was uncompromising on any principle and the stalwart shed his blood until his last breath. You may recall that Dr. Dabholkar was assassinated in the month of August, 2013. All of us in India and abroad, recall Dr. Dabholkar supreme sacrifice to strengthen secular ramparts we guard. It is a matter of great regret that the criminals in the case were not caught so far.

The Conveners of the International Conference, in particular Shri Avinash Patil, Executive President and Dr.Sudesh Ghoderao, secretary. MANS and the entire executive body deserve congratulations for the efforts they put in.

Secularism – a Historic Necessity

Separation of Politics from Religion is no longer a mere cherished idea, but of a practical necessity. It is not only in India, but also all over the world, it is the only way to resolve many burning problems between different countries and the regions. It is much more so in the Indian context. Mixing up of religion and politics is like oil on the fire. The fusion of politics and religion is detrimental to human progress.

When we look into the history of the world, we realize that mixing up of religion and politics resulted in great bloodshed. In the Middle Ages the freedom of the rights of individuals were non-existent.

The dawn of the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe brought a sea change in the situation. The 100 year War, the Seven Year War and other innumerable wars and conflicts in Europe resulted in the realization that politics must be separated from religion.

The idea of religious toleration emerged due to various factors. People also realized the stupidity of religious wars. Economic factors also contributed. Similarly, the dawn of Science and scientific outlook also contributed to religious toleration. Arnold Toynbee, the famous British Historian, in his An Historians Approach to Religion, stated: The Seventeenth Century secularization of Western Life by which science replaced religion and pursuit of science as the paramount interest and pursuit of the leading spirits in the western society.

The Founding fathers of the Constitution of the United States of America, which was ratified in 1789, had no reference to god in it. The Secular Commitment of the US Constitution was further reiterated and made it explicit by the first amendment that was adopted in 1791. It stated the Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Well known French Philosopher Rousseau regarded as a retarding influence and strove for separation of religion and politics. The French Revolution highlighted the necessity of reason. The idea of separation church and state had tremendous impact on various European countries. The Communist regimes in Russia, China and East European countries subscribed to the concept of separation of religion and politics. Ataturk Kamal Pasha declared Turkey a secular state and it continues to be in the same tradition even today. The Indian national movement was essentially a secular movement.

We are now at the beginning of the 21st Centurya Century of hope for the future of humankind to march towards a post-religious society. We are living in a global village. The world is on the same wavelength and ready to respond in a positive way for the onward march of humanity. The aims and aspirations of the people all over the world are the same. They want peace, prosperity and development in all fields.

In the developing countries secularism is not merely an ideal to be cherished, but it is a practical necessity. Secularism is a very breath of the people. The future and growth of the developing countries is intricately inter-connected with secularism. Unless secular approach takes strong-roots in the soil of the development countries, the very survival of the developing countries is in jeopardy. This is so because many of the developing countries are multi-racial, multi-religious and their social backgrounds differ. Unless secularism, which is a uniting bond of diverse sections of society, gets strengthened as the uniting force, there is a lurking danger that these nations fall apart, opening a Pandoras box of feuds and conflicts.

Rationalist movement in India

India is not only a land of religion, superstitions and blind beliefs, but also of atheism, rationalism, humanism, skepticism and agnosticism. It is a land of enlightenment, philosophical quest for truth and appreciation of the principles for common good. It is the birth place of Buddha and Mahavira and also of Charwakas , Lokayatas and Samkhya philosophy. In the Middle Ages Sant Kabir challenged the idol worship. Vemana in Andhra was a social revolutionary who challenged orthodoxy and appealed for unconventional thinking. Basaveswara in Karnataka raised the banner of revolt against caste system, outmoded customs and fought against caste and untouchability. The dawn of modern age was accelerated by outstanding social reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Mahatma Phule, Eswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshav Chandra Sen, Pandita Ramabai, M.G.Ranade, Maharshi Karve, Kandukuri Viresalingam and many others who brought a new awakening among common people and heralded a new era.

In the 20th Century Gandhi linked the struggle for political freedom with social emancipation and with his constructive programmes he made the freedom struggle the most potent force for the onward march of society. Similarly, Bharat Ratna Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar led an uncompromising struggle against caste system and untouchability.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru who spearheaded the struggle for modernization and socialization and strove incessantly for promotion of scientific temper and humanism. Periyar EV Ramaswami, Gora, M.N. Roy, Abraham T. Kovoor were the architects of the atheist, humanist, rationalist and freethinker movements in modern India. The revolutions in religion produced a rich harvest of social change workers who acted as harbingers of change for sustainable development. Modernity in a secular society required tremendous effort. Many attempts for social reform facilitated march towards secularism, atheism, humanism, rationalism and freethought.

The fight against caste and untouchability has been a long-drawn one. It is not only a fight against caste system and segregation but also against abject poverty, inequality, and oppression. When caste barriers fall, people will be liberated from many superstitions, blind beliefs and belief in karma. Untouchabilty and caste system are structural violence. Social and structural inequalities will be questioned by the poor and downtrodden and the value system will be questioned and sex discrimination of women is questioned by people. Everyone is born equal, and hence they should live equal. Then old values tend to collapse and new ones will emerge as per the aspirations of people.

Modern Rationalism and march towards equality

In this century Periyar EV Ramaswami, M.N. Roy, AT Kovoor, Gora, Saraswathi Gora, M.V. Tarkunde, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, and many others stressed on reason, Democracy and Constitutionalism, equality of opportunity are highlighted by people.

The Western liberal and progressive thought left an indelible impression on the minds of Indian people. In the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh, P.B.Shelley, Bertrand Russell and others created congenial atmosphere for rationalism and atheism and free thought. Karl Marx made it clear that religion is opium of the people. The growth of the nationalist movement, the humanist ideals of Jawaharlal Nehru, the progressive thought promoted unconventional thinking. The nationalist movement, which was opposed to the religious communalism, led to the inculcation of scientific outlook and secularism. Independent India became a Secular State. The founding fathers of our Constitution were firm on their secular commitment, even though the partition of the country was based on religion and Pakistan declared itself a theocratic state. The founding fathers also thwarted the efforts to bring a reference to God into the preamble to the Constitution. They rejected outright the motion of H.V. Kamath to this effect and they proved true to their commitment to secular ethos of the country.

In the post Independent India organized efforts for atheism, rationalism and humanism have grown. The terms humanism, rationalism, atheism, skepticism denote a non-religious way of life. For historical reasons in different countries different terms were in vogue, but all of them more or less convey the same meaning. In India, atheism is more popular as an alternative to religious viewpoint. They promoted questioning spirit and turned attention of the people from the imaginary other world to the realities and problems of the world.

Conflict between science and religion:

In the West, the conflict is between religion and science. The Church tried its best to prevent the onward march of society through scientific discoveries. The best examples are the churchs opposition to Copernican Theory. Earlier, the church opposed the growth of medical science. Vesalius, the Father of Modern Anatomy was not allowed to dissect human bodies on the pretext that the human body was a divine creation. It also opposed Darwins theory of evolution tooth and nail as Darwin made Gods role irrelevant in human evolution.

Movemental Approach :

It is the time to strive with a common cause and with a movemental approach where the issue gets prominence and action becomes important. Action unites as the collective work increases the areas of united action. Internal democracy and toleration to different nuances that would yield better results in progressive movements. Mere partisan approach of the political parties approach and magnifying their differences with others would weaken the cause they wish to champion and sometimes, it may even defeat the very purpose. It is the time to learn lessons from history. It is the most opportune time to build a non-religious alternative. Atheism, humanism, rationalism, freethought, secularism and skepticism are non-religious view points.

Secularism is a must:

Let us not forget that it is the science, which reduced hunger and disease in the world. With centuries of prayer and preaching, religion could not alter the material condition of the people to rise above the poverty. Religions glorified poverty whereas science and technology alleviate human suffering and improve the living standards of people. For Centuries religious wars led to bloodshed, whereas secularism taught people to live amicably within the boundaries of a State.

What we can do:

Promote Rationalism, atheism and humanism to strengthen secularism, strive for Casteless-ness and for eradication of untouchability. Promote science and scientific outlook; secular social work to lessen poverty and injustice; expose superstitions and blind beliefs; strengthen alternate way of life free from religion, strive to bring rationalist view into the mainstream of education; develop alternate educational institutions; produce non-religious literature and innovative cultural programmes; use media effectively for greater outreach; help women with social and economic problems, infuse courage and confidence among youth; practice the Rationalist, Humanist and Atheist ideals to build a society on scientific temper and critical thinking. Atheism is a positive way of life. The Indian Constitution makes it an important obligation in the Fundamental Duties. Art. 51A(h) of the Constitution makes it A Fundamental Duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism, the spirit of inquiry and reform.

Look Forward – Go Beyond god

When the idea god is relegated into the background and human being became important, there is progress in the modern world. We have come a long way in the modern world. All round progress and sustainable development is possible only when human being becomes the primary concern. Human life and its problems must gain precedence over others. We have to move away from the imaginary god Centred universe to the Human centred world.

Believers in traditional religion necessarily look to the past for inspiration rather than to the future. They seek wisdom in the teaching of religious prophets, which are quite inadequate to tackle many social issues of modern life. We need a morality of initiative, not morality of submission, a morality of hope rather than fear of punishment. People should feel free and masters of their lives. But, still it is pathetic to see that most people go through life without much questioning.

It is clear that the theistic way of life is not able to solve lifes problems. Whatever may be the name of religion it turns the attention of the people from this world to the imaginary other world. It promises salvation after death. The worlds problems are relegated into the background.