I feel greatly privileged in being asked to deliver the fourth Premanand Memorial lecture. I have had the privilege of knowing Premanand from the eighties when I was in CCMB. I have had the pleasure of interacting with him on several occasions in the intervening years. The last I spoke to him was in mid-2009 when I received a surprise call from him, a few weeks before he passed away. I still remember his zest for life and the complete absence of remorse, regret or self pity. He was going through a great deal of pain and suffering but he still managed to keep his smile and laughter and his characteristic light-heartedness. The most admirable qualities of Premanand were his tremendous courage, openness, brutal frankness, and his relentless fight against irrationality. He has been an inspiration for many like me and that is why I am especially privileged to be here today.
Until recently, free thinkers like us viewed irrationality, blind belief, and the lack of scientific temper as something that promotes superstition and obscurantism, and also comes in the way of individual and collective development. Freethinkers like Premanand propagated quite passionately that blind faith has been the bedrock of exploitation by charlatans, godmen and priests in all religions. We have known all along how obscurantism can not only lead to wasteful expenditure but also endanger lives. We have known that meaningless religious rituals have an inherent gender bias, that lack of rationality makes us accept injustice, and also that it makes us fatalistic. Belief in supernatural power and the belief in divine protection give us an illusion of protection and prevent us from being proactive in governing our lives. That irrationality and self-reliance cannot go hand in hand. In other words the absence of rationality can seriously hamper one’s growth and realizing one’s true potential. We were clear about the harm irrationality can do to society, but even so I am beginning to realize that perhaps we did not fathom the extent to which irrationality has damaged the fabric of our society. Let me give a few examples.
Look at the damage we do to our environment. We immerse our gods and goddesses in natural water bodies demonstrating a complete disregard for the environment. Idols made from materials that are non-biodegradable and are coated with chemical paints leach cadmium, mercury and lead in the water, threatening every life-form that depends on it. In the din created by all religions, the voice of reason from freethinkers is hardly ever heard.
The communal lines, on which our society is divided, fuelled by caste-based and communal politics shows how polarized our society is getting on religious grounds. Rising religiosity with its frenzied festivals is not only reducing tolerance but also lessening regard for the freedom of people of other faiths and the faithless. Thus loudspeakers blaring azaans from mosques or chants from temples, encroachment of public spaces, a heightened sensitivity to any form of criticism that often gives way to aggression, and violation of private spaces, are only some of the fallouts of a mindless display by organized religion.
Look at the way myth is passed off as history, be it Rama’s place of birth or the bridge built by monkeys. Right now, the historical Charminar in Hyderabad is under threat from communal politics. A temple allowed to be built in the historic monument only a few decades ago is threatening to usurp the historicity of the monument itself. We haven’t forgotten Ayodhya. Temples, churches and mosques are allowed to grow from moles to mountains in the middle of the road like cancerous tumours, choking the flow traffic. No one dares apply laws that are supposed to govern each of us to such structures. We have let the nation go too far, from hate speeches to pogroms.
The gruesome rape in Delhi last December shook the nation. Rapes have been happening for a long time. Rapes have continued in every part of the country in spite of the nation’s fury. This incident is a clarion call to the fact that violence against women in our society has reached enormous proportions. Dalit women being regularly raped by upper caste men go unreported. Rape, domestic violence, violation of women’s rights, highly discriminatory practices against women, female infanticide, female foeticide are just some weapons our society uses against women. What can be the future of a society that unleashes such violence against 50 percent of its population? And where does all this prejudice arrogance and violence stem from? From irrationality. It is deeply etched in our minds that women, the lesser beings were made by god to serve men.
It is time that we take a hard look at our culture. We need to see what goes on in our homes and schools that leads to a mind-set where bias, prejudice, and violence become natural fallout. Irrationality forms the sheet anchor of bias, prejudice, hate and violence. It is in that space that the task of freethinkers must go on with strategic and renewed enthusiasm.
It is fashionable today to romanticize every aspect of Indian culture. Jingoistic elements in our country are highly intolerant to any critical evaluation of our culture. No doubt that India’s ancient culture has innumerable aspects that make us justifiably proud and sets us apart from the rest of the world. Yet there are many aspects of our culture that come in the way of our individual and collective progress. Unless we are prepared to change our mindset, which is dictated by the culture in which we grow up, there is really no hope for a violence-free, prejudice-free, equal society that would allow an individual to realize his or her potential. One of the basic criteria for progress is change. Without change there can be no progress, there can be only stagnation.
Why is our nation soaked in irrationality, irrespective of class or level of education? Scientists who are expected to be the beacon of rationality, fail us the most. People who are privileged with everything from wealth and fame to power and position to make them secure, are the ones who generally exhibit the greatest level of irrationality.
Bringing up children
First, look at the way we bring up our children. Questioning is discouraged among children both at home and in schools. Children who question are labeled as naughty or precocious by both parents and teachers. A questioning child is first and foremost seen as a trouble-maker. So silencing the child is the first option parents and teachers resort to. Curiosity is built in our genes and that is why even toddlers are curious about everything that surrounds them. We forget that it is curiosity that has taken the human race to where it is today. And it is that curiosity that is nipped in the bud in most homes and schools. In fact, by and large, in our educational institutions, while we are willing to patronize those who do not question, there is virtually no nurturing of independent thinking. It is not just the inconvenience of furnishing logical answers to questions asked but also the reluctance to revisit what is being questioned when logical answers are not available. A strong emphasis on unquestioned acceptance in contemporary society, especially if it comes from any kind of authoritative position, be it age, power or position, has become a bane of our society.
It is, therefore not surprising that very few ever ask (if one were a Hindu) as to why one’s mother is required to change her whole lifestyle from what she eats to how she dresses or how she interacts socially when one’s father passes away. Why is a widow prescribed a code of conduct – ostensibly to keep her carnal desires under check, while a widower is free to bring home another bride soon after he lights the pyre of his dead wife?
Similarly, in every religion, age-old, irrelevant, irrational customs, rituals, and traditional practices not only go unquestioned but are perpetrated from one generation to the next.
Obedience is a quality that is oversold in our culture. Children in our society, by and large, face violence in their homes and schools. In the name of strict discipline and extracting obedience, both parents and teachers resort to violence. Corporal punishment is banned only on paper but is prevalent everywhere. Not only that most parents also see nothing wrong in a teacher resorting to the cane. Appealing to the child’s sense of reason is completely lacking, forget about evaluating the unfair and sometimes unreasonable expectations of parents and teachers. Consequently, we learn only to toe the line or blindly follow what is told. It makes one docile and automatically discourages dissent and rebellion of any kind.
An undue emphasis on respect for elders often translates into our inability to stand up to age or authority of any kind, be it religious, professional or whatever else. We can’t deal with dissent whether it is within families or in institutions. We cannot even deal with criticism.
Children who grow up facing violence, grow up with the belief that violence yields results and one should not hesitate using it. It is just another way of wielding power. Children who grow up facing violence will indeed become violent human beings.
We also know that no one in the world has ever achieved anything great without questioning or rebelling.
What does religion do to believers?
All religions propagate dependence on supernatural forces which is an antithesis to self-reliance. On the other hand, the basic premise of scientific temper to which all atheists adhere, is the non-existence of supernatural powers that can be ordered to serve humans, which means that all problems can and must be faced in terms of one’s moral and intellectual resources. The mistaken belief that an omnipresent and omnipotent god is our savior, ever-willing to protect us, takes away the will to be self-reliant or bold. It gives one the illusion of being protected and makes one complacent.
All religions promote fatalism, by convincing followers that everything in the world is pre-ordained and is a part of a grand design. Our joys, sorrows, trials, tribulations, victories and everything else is decided by God, as all the mushrooming religious television channels spout day in and day out. One is constantly taught that one is not responsible for one’s deeds. God is responsible. If “what has to happen will happen”, why on earth would anyone even try to do anything at all? Why would one want to take responsibility for oneself if one believes that a so-called power willingly creates problems, provides solutions and everything else and also acts as a guide?
The clergy of every religion propagate that all wisdom and knowledge known to mankind is written in their holy books or ancient scriptures. Religions, therefore, encourage followers to be backward-looking instead of forward-looking. Science, on the other hand, which atheists have no problem in accepting, is forward-looking. Scientific temper implies recognition of the fact that knowledge often progresses by disproving earlier ideas, beliefs, theories and laws. It considers knowledge as open-ended and ever-evolving.
Religions never encourage questioning since any application of logic or rationality would make the entire edifice of religion crumble like a pack of cards. This is contrary to what happens in science. One of the most important attributes of science is the right to question. Knowledge advances and science progresses because people exercise their right to question.
Instilling fear of retribution is a part of every religion. The clergy, irrespective of religion, exploit believers by a self-proclaimed closeness to god and by claiming knowledge of how to appease gods, through which a sinner can escape imminent punishment. That is where bribery comes in. Wrong-doers and those looking for out of turn rewards, begin to bribe gods in anticipation. The rich give god cash or gold and diamond crowns, but not a penny to the needy, since only god can give him favours, which no needy person can give. Pay-offs are meant only for gods, so that the cycle of sinning and being let off can go on. Indians go abroad and build temples only to keep almighty on the right side. Non-resident Indians send money to India for temples, mosques and churches. When did anyone last hear of rich non-resident Indians giving money for educational institutions or hospitals? According to laws of every country, all gods should be in prison as they are the largest recipients of bribe. Indians take it a step further – they believe that if god accepts money for doing favours, there is nothing wrong in their doing it. That is why Indians are so easily corruptible. Our habit of placating god for personal benefits gets naturally extended to placating the rich and the powerful. In a country like India where laws are lax, and justice is delayed and denied, as long as religions continue to hold a sway over people by providing them escape routes through confessions or bathing in holy rivers or other ritualistic appeasements, immoral, unethical and illegal practices will continue to thrive. True character is built not out of fear of god but out of accountability to one’s own conscience – a conscience that relies on reason.
All these factors work against building confidence and conviction, or increasing one’s knowledge, or acquiring a fearless and questioning attitude, or nurturing the capacity and willingness to understand and analyse issues which are essential ingredients for being bold.
One of the most essential conditions of being human is to recognise another individual as a human – no more, no less – which implies that there be no discrimination whatsoever, be it based on colour, race, religion, caste, creed, language, gender or circumstances of birth. While discrimination of any kind is unacceptable in a civilized society, it is important to know how to make a distinction. All humans are not born equal in terms of abilities and potential, and distinction allows one to differentiate between bad, good, better and best.
Kindness, compassion and altruism are other essentials of being human. All humans are born with these qualities, which have given humans an evolutionary advantage. But it is social conditioning and dictates of religion that very often lead to aberrant behavior. When a mother or a loved one cries, a toddler who still hasn’t learnt to stand erect tries its best to assuage him or her, since kindness and compassion is a natural phenomenon. When someone drowns, it is human instinct that pushes another human to endanger one’s life and save the other; one does not wait to check the religion of the one who is drowning before attempting to save him or her.
In spite of our natural propensity to such human qualities, what happens in reality is quite the opposite. We live in a society that constantly discriminates based on the colour of our skin, the language we speak, the religion, caste or creed we belong to, not to mention one’s gender. Naturally, these are also the basis on which we seek our identity. Discrimination and such identity-seeking make us all a highly divided lot.
Religion divides people by strengthening narrow identity-seeking behaviours. All major wars through history have been instigated by religion. Believers argue that religions propagate moral values. This is not entirely true as every religion has two aspects to it, the moral and the dogma. All religions preach the same as far as the moral aspect goes, which we have no quarrel with. In fact, religion is not necessary to inculcate the right values. It is the dogma of a religion that forms the backbone of a religion and sets it apart from others by giving it a distinct identity. This is precisely what divides humans along the lines of their belief systems which are not based on logic and reason.
Science, the guiding light of atheists, on the other hand, is truly international, uniting people across borders, races and religions. Scientists around the world use the same method, that is, the method of science, employ the same techniques, use the same materials, and publish in the same journals.
Being human requires the inculcation of an attitude that people can live an honest and meaningful life without following a religious creed. It also requires that one recognizes that the need for moral action is for the welfare of humanity and not for fulfilling the will of god.
We would like to live in a world where there are equal opportunities for all, irrespective of the circumstances of one’s birth, where every citizen enjoys equal rights and is expected to discharge equal responsibilities. While equal rights and responsibilities are enshrined in our Constitution, what happens in reality is far from equal. As far as equal opportunities go, despite 65 years of independence, our country is far from its goal of providing equal opportunities to all its citizens.
The recent Right to Education (RTE) Act, which ostensibly attempts to make quality education accessible to all is touted as one of the major achievements of the present government. The RTE bill provides for a certain percentage of seats to be reserved in all private schools for the unprivileged that will be given a voucher by the government. It was a foregone conclusion that this bill will achieve little in universalizing education. As an example of how strongly rooted discrimination is in our society, let’s take the example of what happened in a private school in southern India after the RTE was implemented, The school took in such students but insisted on their hair being chopped in a certain way to easily distinguish them from the rest of the regular students who came from a rich background. Other schools have deployed a separate area to keep such discrimination going. If the government truly wishes to make education accessible to the poorest of the poor, the only way it could do so is to make neighbourhood schooling compulsory for all.
Ours is a nation of unequals. Being a feudal society, Indians have made inequality a part of their culture. We are so attuned to inequality that we not only accept it without a whimper, we also no longer strive for equality.
Women accept that they are not equals of men. Men are taught to behave as superiors. We bring up our children accordingly and the idea and practice of equality is perpetrated from generation to generation. A linguistically divided nation, each region considers its language and culture superior to the rest.
We believe that Brahmins have the best genes, Dalits have the worst genes. There is absolutely no truth in this belief. Fair-skinned people think they are superior to dark skinned people. The rich believe they are better than the poor. The urban think they deserve more than the rural. We think that fair skin is better and more deserving than dark skin. The whites show tremendous superiority complex for no reason at all.
Except for friends of the same age, our social relations are essentially hierarchical. We don’t usually establish equal relationships. The minute one addresses someone as anna (elder brother) or akka (elder sister) it takes away one’s moral right to defy or say anything contrary to the person lest it shows disrespect. Adults talk down to younger people. The young are taught not to talk back to adults. Forging equal relationships across age and gender barriers does not come easily to us.
As regards rights, there are numerous instances of the rich and the powerful who think that they are more equal than the rest. Politicians, celebrities, and VIPs behave as if they have more rights than the common people. Thus a rich youngster in a drunken stupor can run-over pavement dwellers in the dead of night and expect not to be punished, or politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists caught looting the country through an unholy nexus, expect to be treated better than petty thieves and ordinary criminals in jail.
As far as obligations go, it is often among the rich and the powerful that one would find those who assume a freedom from all obligations to the country or society. The poor and the lowly employed would think twice before breaking rules or evading taxes. It is the rich who do that.
Religion by definition is unequal and therefore cannot ever endorse equality. Each religion claims to be the best. Therefore, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs and so on believe that no other religion equals them. Their god, their religion, their religious books and their clergy are the best. Thus a Christian is taught to believe that there can be no better human being than a good Christian; those who follow Islam believe that those who don’t follow their faith are infidels; and Hindus think theirs is the best religion. Seeds of conflict are sown right there. Besides, there are inequalities within each religion: Hindus have the caste system; Muslims too are dividing hierarchically much in the same manner, and the Christians have countless denominations.
As far as women are concerned, they have been at the receiving end of the worst form of discrimination mandated by all religions through the ages. All religious rituals, practices and traditions have been designed to be discriminatory and suppressive. Take, for instance, the tradition of karva chauth – a practice in north India of married women fasting for the well-being of their husbands and other similar practices. Apart from there being no logic in this practice, it is important to recognize that it is only women who are expected to follow meaningless rituals in the name of devotion and protection of the husband: the reverse is never mandated. Is there one practice or a ritual or a fast that men keep for the well-being of their wives? A woman is expected to display a mark of marriage, like sindur or mangalsutra, to signify to the world that she is taken, never a man.
In fact, when it comes to women, religions diligently pay a heavy lip service to women. Devout Hindus argue that their religion confers a special place to women as evidenced by the qualities bestowed on their goddesses, for instance, for wealth they worship Lakshmi; for education they worship Saraswati; for power, Durga; and for rage, Kali. So all the clout seems to be with the goddesses, while the gods are like ministers without portfolio!
Let us see what happens in practice. Women are denied freedom or independence of any kind. According to Manu’s diktat (the Hindu progenitor of mankind) which is followed till date, a woman is the property of her father till she is married, a property of the husband after marriage, and then the property of her son after the death of the husband.
Grooms are for sale and it is becoming increasingly difficult to have girls married when there is not enough money for dowry (groom price). Brides are meant to be burnt if they don’t bring enough dowry to satiate the greed of the groom and his family. Therefore, a daughter becomes a burden who takes away wealth to her husband’s home. Consequently, there is a premium on the male child. The obsession for the male child is driving little girls out of our world, either soon after birth when they are stifled or right in their mother’s womb before they see the world. The bias against the girl child has reached such proportions that in several states in India the ratio of boys to girls in the population is so skewed that there simply aren’t enough girls available for marriage. Several states like Punjab and Haryana where female foeticide is rampant have started ‘importing” brides from poorer states like Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal to take care of their home and their hearth and suffer indignity. Why don’t educated boys decline dowry? Because they have learnt obedience and blind acceptance. Why don’t girls refuse marriage with dowry – because they have been taught to accept subjugation?
Women cannot show anger – that is reserved only for men who are free to express rage at the drop of a hat. Women are meant to be beaten for the most innocuous of reasons like not cooking a tasty meal, or perceived to be neglecting children, or stepping out of the house without permission even if it is to visit her parents or siblings, or speaking to strangers. According to a study, in Andhra Pradesh (AP) 21% married women face domestic violence for the above reasons. What is even more sad is about 80% women in AP agree that husbands are justified in beating their wives. This is because our girls are taught to accept all kinds of subjugation and remain mute, since they are enslaved to the men folk in their lives. Rape is an instrument unleashed on women who show courage, to teach her a lesson. Where have Kali or Durga gone, may I ask? While girls are taught to stew in the silence of shame after being raped or violated, boys learn how to aggressively get what they want, even if it means throwing acid on a girl who dares to spurn his love.
Being employed does not automatically bring financial independence for women. Not only are all financial decisions generally taken by the man, he also gets to keep the money. What happened to Lakshmi’s portfolio? In India nine out of ten married women have neither freedom of mobility or financial freedom, nor the independence to take any major decision of the household including her own healthcare.
Girls can do without adequate nutrition and education, while boys must be given both. As for purity, chastity and fidelity like Sita, these ‘virtues” are meant only for the fairer sex. The men are free to indulge in any amount of promiscuous behavior for in his case it is not at all about purity as it is about virility.
Oppression, insubordination, enslavement, preferential treatment or annihilation are equally detestable, whichever gender, race, religion, caste or creed it is aimed at or rooted in.
The way forward
Traditional culture and religious attitudes clearly come in the way of producing bold and human individuals who wish to march towards equality. Only those who free themselves from the above shackles become truly fearless, rational, human and equal, and we have a number of examples of such individuals in our country.
A change in the mindset of men and women is the first requirement. Women themselves will have to be the change they wish to see since they are the ones who would nurture and educate future generations. If women are looking for sympathetic men, let me assure you the numbers are very small. Those kinds of men will have to be created and raised. And only a mother can do this best. Equality, like charity, begins at home. The day we learn to bring up our daughters and sons equally in every respect, we will be firmly on the path to an equal society.
Children must be encouraged to question and to find answers. They are born with curiosity, kindness, compassion, reason and sensitivity. If only we would guard and nurture these qualities without imposing on them any dogmatic belief or even atheism for that matter, the chances are that they would naturally grow up to be rational and humane. Values such as honesty, integrity, courage, free thought, freedom, equality and dignity are best imparted through practice. Imbibing a scientific attitude from a very early age and employing the method of science to answer questions or solving problems will guarantee the foundations on which boldness and the desire to be humane and equal can be built.
We will need to take a re-look at our notions of success, which is becoming increasingly equated with wealth and fame. The end has become important, the means unimportant. We seem to have forgotten that one cannot be happy in isolation that much of our happiness depends on other people’s happiness.
Education and knowledge are important tools to empower any individual. It makes us aware of our rights and responsibilities. Science gives us knowledge that hits at the root of irrational beliefs and practices. Technology frees us from needless drudgery, releasing time for creative pursuits. Law gives statutory protection. Hence, education, knowledge, technology and law are the four pillars on which we can empower our future generations.
The best tribute that we can pay to Premanand is to carry forward his struggle to some day free all those who are victims of inequality and fear, and prisoners of irrationality and customs – and enable them to march towards equality, making the world a more humane place to live in.