Role of Atheist and Rationalist Literature in Social Change

G. Vijayam

“. . . There were 113,11,50,000 nonreligious people in the world in 2010, and that number is expected to increase to 123,03,40,000 by the year 2020.”

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Atheist Centre is immensely happy that Maharastra Andhshraddha Nirmoolan Samitee is organizing the Second Andh Shraddha Nirmulan Sahitya Sammelan on May 14-15, 2016 at Sangli, Maharashtra. We heartily congratulate you for the noble endeavour to create awareness among people to fight superstitions and blind beliefs that retard the onward march of society. Taking inspiration from Shahid Dr. Narendra Dobholkar you embarked on empowering the youth, women and the oppressed and suppressed people through this literary festival.

For centuries religions appropriated the powerful tool of literature to turn the attention of the people to imaginary god and other-world after death of the person. Hence, literature could address the stark realities of poverty, inequalities and injustice and oppression in   society and the nations. As literature had become the handmaid of religion and used art, architecture and other forms of fine arts to sing the glory of god and to perpetuate superstitions. In the Middle Ages the Western countries were in the Dark Ages,  as religion was all pervasive and Christianity turned people’s attention to non-existing and imaginary  other world. That is why the historians dubbed Middle Age as the Dark Age.  Till the advent of the Renaissance and Reformation, Europe and the West remained in the Dark ages.

The Renaissance and Reformation brought a sea change and opened up a new vista. Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic religion. Luther heralded a new era by stating that “Work is worship.” For centuries religion taught to people that “worship is work.” Martin Luther brought tremendous awakening among people by challenging the Sale of indulgences (pap parihara patra) to the Princes and the rich people. The poor and the downtrodden remained as the wretched of the earth.

In the conflict between science and religion, Galileo wrote science books in his mother tongue, Italian. It was a radical departure from writing books in Latin, like in Sanskrit in India. When people started writing in the local languages that literature came much closer to the common people. People realized through literature that “Man is the measure of the measure of all things.” Then, in the modern age Science developed with leaps and bounds.  It was a revolutionary step. The conflict between Science and religion is too well known to elaborate further. Finally, Science became supreme. Not only science, but also Scientific and secular outlook changed the course of human history.

In  the 18th and 19th Centuries there was yawning for democracy. This resulted in the American and the French Revolutions. Thus literature played a major role in awakening people for their liberation.  Thomas Paine, who declared himself a Universal citizen, accelerated the pace of American Revolution in a decisive manner by the literature he had produced. His books “The Crisis” and the “Common Sense” are memorable. He also wrote a book, the “Age of Reason”. Thus, a series of revolutions enabled people to question the established order. Liberty, equality, fraternity and justice led to creating new consciousness among the people. In spite of several restrictions, democracy and Constitutionalism was a battle cry for liberation. The Russian Revolution became a ray of hope for the onward march society. The industrialization, urbanization, colonization, and Imperialism made the socio-economic exploitation crystal clear and in Europe people were people restless.

Literature in common people’s language

In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggles revealed the strength of common people. The advent of the Indian Independence was a beacon light for people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In awakening people, literature played a crucial role. Gandhi was well aware of the significance of publication of journals, hence he edited journals such as Indian Opinion in South Africa, Navajivan  and  Harijan after coming to India. For writing three articles in his journals like “Puzzle and its solution”, “Shaking the Manes” Gandhi was charged with sedition and he was sentenced for six years. Thus for Gandhi literature had become a powerful instrument of social change in the freedom struggle.  Literature proved to be the voice to the voiceless.

Even in the height of the freedom struggle, the circulation of his journals was comparatively low as all other daily newspapers in the nook and corner of the country published Gandhi’s views on various issues day in and day out. Gandhi was not a journalist.  He was a publicist, championing freedom and liberation of people from mental slavery. When literature was published in the common people’s languages and not in Granthik, the literature became the vehicle of social change.

What is true of Gandhi’s journals, it is equally applicable to all progressive minded journals, including atheist, rationalist and humanist journals and the literature. The aim is not commercial or making profit, but to awaken common people and make the realize  the power inherent in them. Gandhi made people fearless which heralded societal change.

Democracy and questioning spirit

The periodic elections, however faulty they are, became weapons in the hands of people in making and unmaking the Governments though their franchise. It was beginning of a qualitative change.

From times immemorial, some people challenged the authority of religion    and the control of religious people. They were persecuted. Their books were burnt. People like Giordano Bruno were burnt alive for stating the sun is also a star.

The advocates of social change were known as social reformers. They promoted rational thinking, humanist outlook and atheist approach. They championed equality all humans. They opposed the rigours of the caste system and opposed the heinous practice of untouchability and atrocities on women. The central theme of literature shifted from singing the glory of god to empowering people to challenging the inhuman customs and traditions.

India is a subcontinent with various states and provinces and many of writings in the local languages are not still available to people. Much of the valuable literature is lost in the struggles. The caste distinctions, internal feuds and lack of the sense of preservation of the literature, and natural and social calamities were some of the causes for the destruction of the unconventional literature.

In recent centuries, atheists, rationalists and humanists and freethinkers were known as social reformers. Bsaveswara, Kabir, Vemana, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Mahatma Phule,  Eswar Chandra Vidyasagar,  Kandukuri Veeresalingam , Agarkar, Narayana Guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan, and Periyar EV Ramaswami, Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar,  Prof. H. Narasimhaiah, Dr. Abraham T. Kovoor, Premanand, M.N. Roy, Gora, Saraswathi Gora. Dr. Indumati Parikh, Malladi Subbamma and  innumerable  other social reformers fought against superstitions, outmoded customs such as sati, child-marriages and the belief in devils and demons, exploitation of women and girl children, and many other social evils. The orthodox sections of society and the vested interests opposed these reformers vehemently.

In the Western society there is tradition of writing their views and publishing in the journals or books. The economic position in the West enables the literature for the posterity. But the economic and social situation in India and other developing countries is quite different, due to paucity of resources and commitment. Superstitions and blind beliefs still rule the roost.

Only recently, the universities in India and some publishers are coming forward to publish on outstanding atheists, rationalists and social reformers. We are happy  that Johannes Quack, a German Scholar did research on Maharastra Andh Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti and the Oxford University Press published the thesis in 2012 entitled “Disenchanting India” – with a subtitle: “Organized Rationalism and Criticism of religion in India.”  Prof.  Sunanda Shet, did her doctoral work on “Gora – His life and work” and it was published by B. Premanand in 2000.  Gora’s writings on atheism and social progress have been translated into some Indian languages.

Gora – an atheist social revolutionary who propounded positive atheism

For centuries Atheism suffered persecution in the hands of the religious fanatics. Every effort was made for thought control and suppression or the truth which challenged the existence of god. In the West, the Inquisition and Index of books oppressed and suppressed free development of the personality of individuals. Even the development of science was opposed by religion. However, in spite of the persecution science flowered and benefited the human kind.

Similarly, every effort was made to contain and control the freedom of the individual with regard to dissent about god. The books written by atheists and free thinkers were burnt. The writings of Charvakas and Lokayatas were completely lost, because of the religious intolerance.

In the West, the persecution continued even in the universities. In India, there was relative freedom for dissent. But, in India, the structural violence acted as a deterrence and invisible hand and the atheists and freethinkers suffered social boycott and benign neglect. In spite of the persecution some people boldly defied the religious taboos and braved the social stigma. Some of the social reformers like, lshwara Chandra Vidya Sagar were agnosts. Some others used the traditional jargon of religion but tried to reinterpret the scriptures in a liberal way. In the modern period, the revolutions in religion and the spread of science and technology reduced the rigour of persecution to some extent. But for anyone to declare himself openly as an atheist required greater courage, sagacity and tenacity.

Gora (1902-1975), founder of Atheist Centre declared himself as an atheist, and braved the opposition from religion, with grim determination. He was ready to be in the minority of one and tell the truth to the world. He was uncompromising on his principles and sacrificed everything for the cause of atheism.

(Excerpts from his speech delivered during Literary Meet held at Sangali on 14-15 May 2016)