Interview with G. Vijayam of Atheist Centre, Vijayawada.
The foundations of the rationalist movement in Andhra Pradesh were laid by Kumaragiri Vema Reddy, popularly known as Vemana, through his verses in popular, everyday Telugu. The Atheist Centre is a social change institution founded by Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, popularly known as Gora, (1902-75), and Saraswathi Gora (1912-2006) in 1940 at Mudunur village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. On the eve of Independence in 1947, the centre was shifted to Vijayawada and since then it has been the hub of activity for promotion of atheism, humanism and social change. Here are excerpts from an interview with the centre’s executive director, G. Vijayam, son of Gora:
Who were the founders of the rationalist movement?
The history of the humanist or rationalist movement in the State can be traced back to the writer-poet Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao and the social reformer Kandukuri Veerasalingam Pantulu in the 19th century. When orthodoxy in society reached its pinnacle, rationalism was given shape by the early social reformers through literature. Veerasalingam is considered to have brought about a renaissance in Telugu literature. The playwright Tripuraneni Ramaswamy was yet another reformer who used his literary sword to propagate rationalism.
What did the rationalist movement aim to do?
Rationalists tried to end some of the social practices such as child marriage and introduced widow re-marriage, and some British utilitarians such as Arthur Cotton believed in maximising the good in society. Unlike Tamil Nadu and some northern States, the zamindari system did not prevail in Andhra Pradesh. The prevalent ryotwari system did not help in the anti-Brahmanism movement in the State. The birth of the Justice Party was on an anti-Brahmin plank and the radical humanist M.N. Roy led the self-respect movements.
Rationalism also emanated from the nationalist movement of Mahatma Gandhi and eradication of poverty and alleviation of human suffering were the focus, in addition to achieving independence. Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, or Gora, had close association with Gandhiji and left the teaching profession to work among the ‘untouchables’, and in the Independence movement from 1939.
What is the significance of rationalism today?
These days people are academically literate and professionally competent, but fail to think rationally when it comes to their personal lives. They tend to believe in the superstitions or miracles of a few self-proclaimed godmen and get cheated. What is needed is the promotion of scientific temper among people from their childhood.
What is the significance of the Buddha?
The Buddha, after enjoying all the luxuries, came out of the materialistic world to do some basic questioning and found answers for them. Rationalists also tend to do the same. However, these days professionals are treading the reverse path, falling prey to godmen by accepting whatever they say and by failing to ask them basic questions.
What is Gora’s contribution?
Gora, who questioned the concept of God, had to leave his job as a botany professor once in 1933, and again in 1939 from the Hindu College at Machilipatnam for the same reason. He, along with my mother Saraswati Gora, started the world’s first Atheist Centre in 1940 and organised the first World Atheist Conference, too. He went around the world between 1970 and 1974 propagating atheism as a positive way of life. He died while addressing an atheist meeting in 1975.
What is the ground-level work of the Atheist Centre?
We have been working on inculcating the scientific temper among children and people at large; Gora was the first atheist with a science background and he began questioning all social practices on a scientific basis. The centre organised magic shows for children, explaining the scientific principles behind the tricks. It even exposed to people the tricks used by godmen to produce articles from thin air.
What is your prescription for improving rational thinking?
The government should include lessons on rational thinking in the syllabi from the primary school level to the high school level, promote science exhibitions more extensively, encourage children to question the basics of scientific principles or anything happening around them in society.
The government should enact a law to ban miracle cure, put a stop on politicians going to godmen, make use of self-help groups to promote the scientific temper among rural folk and target the unorganised student community to curb superstition.
Courtesy: Campaign against Superstition