Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

What is the Source of ANiS’ Strength?

Many Social Activists used to ask Dr. Dobholkar, “Your organization has spread to every nook and corner of Rural Maharashtra and attracts attention of the media with constantly ongoing innumerable activities; and yet how does it remain free of factionalism, casteism, indiscipline and many other ills like paucity of funds and shortage of workers?” This lengthy question requires a much lengthier answer to understand the source of ANiS’ strengths that keep the movement thriving and flourishing.

ANiS’ ideology is very different than that of other social organizations. It is not founded on any economic, political platform or any religion or race. It is based on four principles that are put into practice in all its activities. They are:

  • Eradication of all superstitions that enable exploitation of ignorant, gullible people,
  • Instilling Scientific Outlook,
  • Inculcating secular viewpoint and critical approach towards religion
  • Engraining democratic human values and helping to bring about comprehensive social change.

Eradication of Superstition and Cause and Effect Relation:

Blind belief has caused many obstacles in human progress till man invented a new way of looking at happenings around him. Reason cleared his vision and illuminated the path of progress. It says -there is a cause behind all that exists or happens; human intellect can grasp this cause; some causes may not be discernible for a while but man now knows the way to find them and this is the most reliable way of acquiring and enhancing knowledge. This leads to the conviction that whatever happens in the life of a person – good or bad- is not the making of his fate or god, time of his or her birth or sins committed in the earlier births. There is always a cause behind the suffering of a person, his exploitation which can be diagnosed, established and remedied.

Scientific Outlook:

However when an attempt is made to draw attention to exploitative superstitions and the way to remedy them, even those at the receiving end of exploitation are startled and ask you, “Who gave you the right to make these abrupt changes in our lives?” and “does your science know everything?” To be able to answer such questions, the activist needs to understand the philosophy of social change that supports scientific outlook. Although it is not possible to remove all obstacles in the path of progress, one can certainly light the path and cautiously avoid the pitfalls. Past history tells us that man had to face such innumerable obstacles and pitfalls till the rationale of ‘Scientific Outlook’ struck him and lighted his path. The Polish Astronomer Copernicus proffered two theories; one that the earth and all planets revolve round the Sun and the second that the earth rotates on its own axis from east to west and completes a full rotation in one day. This overturned the cause-effect relation between the sun, the earth and the planets, as spelled out in the Bible. The Bible had said that all this is caused by the will of the Father in Heaven. People did not take notice of Copernicus’ theories then. But when Bruno confirmed Copernican theory he was burnt alive and Galileo had to beg for pardon for experimentally confirming the truth. But their sacrifice proved to be the beginning of a new age of science. It enabled man to discard the Christian religious theories of god, providence, destiny or the Hindu theories of Praktan, Prarabhda, Karmavipak etc. For the first time man became independent of the Word, the Book and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God controlling every thought and action of every human being. It gave man a new self assurance, and confidence.

Scientific Outlook blessed humanity with three more boons. In India women and Dalits were not allowed to acquire any knowledge. But this new way of thinking was available to all irrespective of caste, creed or gender. Secondly Science does not claim to possess answers to all questions and to know the ultimate truth, as do most religions. It keeps striving to reach the truth. Change becomes possible as you inch towards truth. Thirdly, Scientific Outlook is the only means or technique, available to mankind, to obtain valid knowledge. It is now accepted that whatever knowledge becomes accessible to mankind will be through Scientific Outlook and not revelation.

In simple words Scientific Outlook means believing anything to the extent of the evidence available for it.

Observation, reason, inference, verification and experiment are constituents of Scientific Outlook. Scientific Outlook is not a mere mathematical process. Its core contains values. Those values are modesty, independence, exactitude and fearlessness.

It is the duty of every Indian citizen to adopt the Scientific Outlook. Inculcating this outlook is mentioned as one of the core elements of education. It is also an important value that has to be inculcated in the minds of students in their school days. Moreover adopting and inculcating Scientific Outlook that helps eradication of superstitions is mandated by our constitution and National Education Policy.

Scientific Outlook can be defined as: any logical statement that can be universally validated by observation, examination, rigorous logic, mathematics, verification and experiment. This new outlook came into existence only 400 years ago. But it has completely changed mankind’s outlook towards the whole universe. It is not just a mathematical process but has an intrinsic value system in it (as stated above) although practicing all those values in everyday life is very difficult for common people. Yet merely talking about rationalism, discussing ill effects of superstition, discarding or reforming age old traditions and customs also requires courage and can lead to confrontation. Anyone can do this much.

Scientific Outlook could not spread its roots deep into Indian soil although India did have a long tradition of independent thinkers who propounded their own theories. Indian intellectuals of the past conceived the idea of ‘Zero’ and the mathematics of the World progressed by leaps and bounds as a result. Nagarjun, a renowned chemist discovered how to make mercury compounds. Aryabhatta proffered the theory that the earth revolves around the sun, a thousand years earlier than Copernicus and Varahmihir knew ages before, that the sun is a star. Though this knowledge was derived from observation, investigation, exploration, scrutiny, discourse, use of elementary mathematics and the genius of those ancient scholars, it was yet not the Scientific Outlook as we see it today. There are reasons why this tradition disappeared without developing into the modern Scientific Outlook.

Such factors as the caste system, subordination of women, restriction on propagation of knowledge, prohibition of independent thinking, validity of and reverence for the word and the book and negating dignity of labour stopped not only the spread of knowledge but also stopped rational free thought altogether. The ‘Adwait’ doctrine of identity of the human soul and the divine essence taught us that the emancipation of a human being lies in uniting one’s soul with the divine essence (whatever it means!). The material world that we see and experience is Maya, not real but illusion. Our education system also discourages inquisitiveness. Asking questions, on the part of a student is seen as an affront to his teachers or elders. Idolization has become so rampant in our society that self respect is replaced by chauvinist pride and arrogance; criticism is impossible as it is construed as insult or abuse; because of intolerance and chauvinist tendencies, the individual and the society have become over sensitive and aggressive. To add to this, there are many religions, each with many sects and deities or hallowed saintly persons and the multitudes of their worshippers. Another and more important reason is the lack of political strength and will that can straighten out the fabric of our disorderly society. We are not prepared to give up obsolete, senseless and exploitative customs and traditions or even to re-examine them. Politicians reap the benefit of encouraging these orthodoxies and pandering to chauvinistic demands. Such atmosphere cannot promote Scientific Outlook.

Scientific Outlook is accused of not answering any questions regarding the existence of god or Atma (soul). These critics do not know what is meant by Scientific Outlook. Atma and other similar concepts are beyond the pale of human observation and experiment. That is why ANiS’ stand is that of an agnostic. Moreover it believes that it is not possible for human beings to obtain any knowledge that is not accessible to observation and experiment. Another accusation is that common people are not capable of assimilating scientific outlook; they need the support of religion instead. This is not true. The common man believes in any phenomenon, incident or thing only to the extent he sees proof of its validity. In fact understanding scientific outlook is much easier than understanding any religious doctrines e.g. the doctrine of ‘Praktan’ or the Brahma. The third objection is that because of science, morality declines and indulgence increases. This too is not true for it is possible to be moral and evade indulgence without the aid of religion. ANiS believes that it is not religious tenets but reason that gives rise to morality. ANiS activists lead simple, unpretentious lives devoid of any addiction or indulgence. Religionists claim that religion does not mean religious rituals. Religion is the philosophy that is based on morality. Scientific Outlook too is not just mathematics. It is the cause-effect relationship – the reciprocal relationship that is revealed in the Biblical adage ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Scientific Outlook gives your thinking a moral turn. As one adopts Scientific Outlook, he begins to question the accuracy and reliability of all the fancy concepts like magnet therapy, Reki, Vastushastra astrology, revealing what is in store in the future as well as spiritual ideas like Moksha, Brahma, Parabrahma, Swarga, Atma, Paramatma, etc. and eventually discards them as useless and opposes them as they promote exploitation of the gullible.


Faith and Superstition:

ANiS does not want to oppose faith; they want to eradicate exploitative superstitions not faith. But it is sometimes difficult to distinguish faith from superstition. The increasing spread of Science and Education could not eradicate superstition. Superstitions change with respect to time and the individual. We can roughly say, ‘That notion, of which ‘the cause effect relation’ has been indisputably established can be called conviction or trust; and the notion for which no ’cause effect relation’ can be established and yet is believed to exist is superstition.’

ANiS activists are frequently asked ‘where is the need for such a special drive for eradicating superstition? Will it not disappear as science and education spread? Darkness (meaning superstition) cannot be thrown out but a lighted candle will gradually help expel it. A petromax lamp will do the job better and when the day breaks the darkness will disappear altogether.’ But what we experience is quite the opposite. An Indian or a Maharashtrian who is now supposed to be a modern, scientific and universal man, still believes in vows, penances, Karnee, Bhanamati, animal sacrifice and Narayan Nagbali. He argues that ‘Baba-Buvas are surely perilous to the society and should be exposed. However the Baba who is my Guru is altogether of a different ilk. I deeply believe in Him and will not tolerate if anyone tries to do him any harm.’ Thus superstitions change with respect to individuals. They also change with respect to time. Despite the anti-Sati law passed by Lord Bentinck in 1829 that still continues to exist in law books, women in India, even today, have to agitate for making that law more stringent. Even today a woman has to prove her chastity by putting her hands in boiling oil and remaining unscathed. In short whatever is utter foolishness is Superstition. Faith is accepting the existence of something for which no indisputably established evidence is available but at the same time, it is not contradictory to your values, involves you emotionally and drives you to act.

Narration of human Progress is history of examining Faith. Yet no one likes that his faith be examined. The force of reason that drives a person to earnest action is faith. Such faith as defined by Justice Ranade has three components. a) earnestness- meaning decision taken by emotion and not intellect. b) With the force of faith, intention should be converted into action which requires conquering fear and allurement. c) That which enhances value judgment is Faith and that which degrades it is superstition. Faith should not refuse any examination on the basis of Truth. Obsession with one’s faith should not become an obstacle in the practice of others’ faiths. It means that which disregards the principle of non-violence is superstition.

Four centuries after Bruno was burnt alive and Galileo was made to apologize for experimentally proving the facts of Earth’s rotation and revolution, the Pope had to beg for pardon. Since then the right of Scientific Outlook, in the field of knowledge, to discover and pronounce what is truth and what is not, was indisputably established. This is an example of eradicating superstition. Superstition is fossilised, pious ignorance of gullible pious people that assures them emotional protection, but at the same time promotes their exploitation. Science knows for sure that the genome patterns of all human beings are much too similar and there are only four blood groups. But this fact cannot make an iota of change in the caste system prevailing in our country. Everyone thinks that his caste is superior to and more pious than all other castes and seeks protection in it. This psyche sustains the caste system that exploits people at many levels. ANiS fights against caste system by promoting inter-caste and inter-religion marriages.

Justice Ranade’s definition of Faith as the force of reason that drives a person to earnest action, needs a little explanation. An individual does not live solely by his intellect but needs emotional earnestness to help him take decisions and act on them. Emotion hastens decision and leads to quick action. This is deemed to be the strength of his faith. But here it is important to remind oneself of the third point of this definition, viz. that which enhances value judgment is faith and that which degrades it is superstition. E.g. driving the British out of this country and obtaining freedom was a subject of Faith for the freedom fighters. There was earnestness and they had overcome fear and allurement also. But one has to examine whether the third condition regarding value judgment is fulfilled. E.g. to judge the fight against the British rule, we have to ask: Would it have been reasonable to shoot every British man in our country? To whom should the British have handed over the power? Why do we want freedom? These questions can be answered intellectually as: we fought against colonialism; British people are our friends; we wanted freedom not for restoring the old powers but for the progress of the common man. The freedom fighters decided to fight because of their faith in their leaders.

One more point needs to be discussed here. How can one determine whether a faith is ethical or not? This can be tested in two ways. The first is whether a person is prepared to examine his faith. That faith for which no examination is allowed is superstition. This is the first test of determining whether a faith is ethical; the second test is whether the faith is accompanied by non-violence. One’s faith should not hamper practicing of others’ faiths. One can examine one’s faith thus: do you examine any faith other than yours on the basis of truth; are you tolerant and nonviolent regarding others’ faiths; does your faith drive you to action; whether your faith enhances your human qualities or degrades them. Insisting on such examination of faith is essential for improving human life and culture.

Secular viewpoint and criticism of religion can be developed only by Rationalism which is a moral philosophy of human wellbeing in all respects. Rationalism propagates secular ethics that has human happiness and dignity at its core. Individual freedom and individual responsibility from which emanates individual freedom is the foundation of this ethic. Rationalist philosophy is distinct from religion and unlike religion, is concerned with the perceptible world only but it does not oppose religion. Secular Ethics is founded on the cause-effect relation revealed in the adage, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Rationalism proposes to examine all systems and thoughts that hinder worldly wellbeing of society. The rational decision taken by the individual on his own is more praiseworthy than the decision taken because of the fear of god or lure of emancipation.

Society plays a big role in building moral values. Organized religions like Christianity and Islam have emanated from the then prevailing chaotic atmosphere of oppression, exploitation and immorality in the regions of their birth; new religion that emerged out of such chaos gave the society an alternative moral and orderly societal arrangement. People were expected to remain moral due to faith in the religion, fear or love of god and lure of emancipation. But in practice religion became oppressive and exploitative. Society changes with time; whereas religion being static, society outgrows traditional religious values making them obsolete. But the custodians of religion warn people that, ‘society cannot be sustained without morality and morality without religion. And rational examination of religion uproots morality altogether.’ As opposed to this, rationalism advocates a morality of ‘greatest good of the largest numbers and fulfilment of natural human urge’. Every individual has the right to take his own decisions but the same right compels him to respect similar right enjoyed by others. A human being has to live and grow in society and finally quit it when his time comes. He knows that he has to accept human values of love, friendship, affection and co-operation that are also for his own good and the good of society. These moral values have evolved from biological instincts during the course of evolution. Moral individuals make a moral society and a moral society alone can nourish individual morality. This cause-effect relation is very easy to understand and does not need the support of any spiritual principle. However without a favourable atmosphere it is difficult to build and sustain a moral society, e.g. when individuals of 50 families living in a slum, have to fetch water from a single tap, bitter quarrels are inevitable. What is required in such circumstances is not sermons on morality but making enough water and taps available.

Norms are values that help decide whether a given social behaviour is right or wrong. Habituation to these normative values leads to slavery; so much so that, no one dares change them even when they put the whole of society in danger. Those in power have a vested interest in upholding normative values. Changing normative values, therefore, leads to far-reaching social reconstruction. Although such broad social reconstruction cannot easily happen, an individual can sharpen his common sense and morals and develop new values. To initiate the process of change, even pointing out defects in the norms and canvassing opposition to them is important. ‘No talk without action’ should not be a precondition for attempting to bring about any change. ANiS activists are engaged in all such activities to quietly further their cause.

Engraining democratic Human values – Changing Norms:

Comprehensive Social Change is not a revolutionary process; it is on the other hand a very slow evolutionary process. All of us feel the need for change in social structure and norms. And many of us also feel helpless and incapable of doing anything in bringing about a change. The danger in this thought is that it discourages individuals and institutions that strive to cause changes with whatever resources and abilities they possess. Moreover some pessimists even go a step further and argue ‘if society is not going to change, in spite of all the efforts I put in, then why shouldn’t I help myself a little bit from the chaos?’ ANiS activists refrain from this kind of “self-help”.

Rationalists believe that thoughts become a powerful force for change when they catch the imagination of a large number of people simultaneously. What happens when such a thought is constructive and has the force of conviction of all people, united as one, is seen in the villages that have received the “Gram Swachhata Award” (Award for the cleanest village). But when such a thought happens to be destructive- e.g. convincing people that bringing down a Masjid and building a temple there, or vice versa, is a problem of utmost priority over all other development problems – it causes communal riots. This means that building a positive social psyche is very important. Even if you are unable to change the polity and economics of the country, you can still lend your hand to building up a positive social psyche.

Every individual possesses reason – the ability to discern what is good and what is bad; and therefore, can not only avoid succumbing slavishly to normative values but also fight against exploitation, political deception and high handedness, economic swindling and mental slavery, all caused by outdated normative values. A class of such rationalist intellectuals, who may not be in power, can yet create awareness among people. Our constitution has mentioned the responsibilities of individuals. It says every individual should adopt Scientific Temper, Humanism and the Spirit of Reform. Striving to change the outdated and oppressive normative values is fulfilling this responsibility.

Taking one example, the norm regarding women in the past and even at present is that ‘a woman is inferior to man’. When you try to inculcate the new norm of equality of gender, it becomes necessary to articulate it and then try to practice it in your own life. Moreover one has to endeavour to apply the new value to all aspects of women’s lives; to political aspect by improving women’s representation in Institutions of Local Self Government, legislative assemblies, and parliament; to economic aspect by giving women equal rights in their fathers’ or husbands’ properties; to educational aspect by providing not only educational opportunities but also hostels and dormitories for women; and to religious aspect by refusing to perform rituals like Kanyadan.

While trying to bring about this change, one must remember that present day man with all his intellectual abilities has evolved from animal ancestors. A large part of his brain is nearly the same as that of his predecessors. His neocortex-the seat of his intelligence and judgement developed just a few thousand years ago. This period is not enough to create a coherent harmony between these two, old and the new parts of the human brain. Man is not just an entirely intellectual creature; he is emotional too and most of his decisions stem from his emotional brain derived from animal ancestry. Indeed, as Bertrand Russell said, “Our life should be inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

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