India is no stranger to irreligion and humanism, and never genuinely has been. Through its vibrant history, the nation has been host to a plethora of notable freethinkers and skeptics, and has served as an enriched mausoleum of humanistic thinking and culture. In spite of its dismally low number of atheists, Indian skeptics such as author Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru are well-known not only in the Indian subcontinent but across the globe as well. No slackers on that list!
But the civil state of India has been ravaged by systematic discrimination and division into class systems that disparage human equality, promulgated by religious traditions and beliefs in the caste system (a key component of traditional Hinduism). This has manifested itself as the maintenance of the “untouchables” (or dalit, as is widely known), which is a level on the caste system that is regarded to be “below” others. In fact, here’s a gripping description of their plight, from National Geographic:
Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India’s people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down.
The ancient belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India’s constitution forbids caste discrimination and specifically abolishes Untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India’s population, governs daily life with its hierarchies and rigid social codes. Under its strictures, an Untouchable parent gives birth to an Untouchable child, condemned as unclean from the first breath.
In fact, dalit in Sanskrit means “suppressed” or “broken.”
“It’s like you are born with a stamp on your forehead and you can never get rid of it,” says Amit, one of the community correspondents and an activist for dalit rights.
Also plaguing India is superstition deeply embedded in its religious culture. Fear of ghosts, demons, haunted houses, and otherworldly specters runs rampant. Prevailing paradigms dictated that pregnant women should not view solar eclipses (with no scientific reasons whatsoever to affirm). Sustained and fueled by fear and misunderstanding of the unknown, this superstitious nature suffused in Indian culture has yet to be decimated.
Humanism Overturning Prejudice and Superstition
Near the forefront at the battle for combating the forces of prejudice, irrationality, and the awful, derogatory caste system is a fresh wave of secular humanism, spearheaded by two late heroes: Goparaju Rao (nicknamed in India as Gora) and Saraswathi Gora. The husband and wife served and died as icons of social progress and harbingers of an age of reason–an age that deemed India capable of relieving itself of past misapprehended beliefs lacking logical basis, and firmly rooting in its place respect for science and critical evaluation. After he was forced to resign from his profession due to expression his atheism, Gora devoted himself to dispelling the superstition and irrationality institutionalized and revered in his nation; he and his spouse established the Atheist Center, a home for the expression and discourse of thoughts pertaining to religion and disbelief. The Atheist Center was awarded the International Humanist Award in 1986.
Together, the couple crusaded without relent against the strain of anti-intellectualism that had rooted itself in the culture of India, surreptitiously poisoning the irrational beliefs and practices of the masses beyond the point of even recognizing the baselessness of the notions held. In fact, he and his wife publicly viewed solar eclipses, as there was a superstitious belief that pregnant women should not do so. They resided in haunted houses to dismiss the myths about such places. Every full moon night marked the periodical “cosmopolitan dinner”, hosted by Gora, in which Indians of all religions and castes were warmly invited to dine together, signifying the harmonic ideals they strove to achieve. As an act of dissent from the government, the couple additionally organized “beef and pork” parties, shattering proposed laws prohibiting such items due to religious reasons. Always the contrarians, this couple rose to fame as valiant social reformers working to unburden India of its baseless faith and superstition.
Gora and Saraswathi viewed the caste system with abhorrence. They regularly conducted inter-caste and inter-religious marriages to dispel prejudices amongst civil groups. In fact, their own daughter was wed to a dalit, or “untouchable”.
From The Hans India:
The atheist movement in South India is a fertile ground for the onward march of atheism and rationalism. It was a citadel of the freedom struggle and social reform movements, challenging colonialism, imperialism and the oppressive Nizam rule.
It fought against caste system and untouchability with democratic approach and egalitarian value system. It champions castelessness and strives for a post-religious society. It became a role model to the world in its commitment.
Gora engaged in a series of profound and thoughtful conversations with the well-known Mohandas Gandhi. Their conversations have been recorded in a book titled An Atheist With Gandhi. This collection of excerpts from discourse between the two, has often been described as “brief” but “eliciting wonderful thoughts and analysis.”
The Wonderfulness of Thought
In a nation suffused with a culture that espouses irrationality, that sings hymns to otherworldly spirits no one has put forth a morsel of evidence for, that prizes blind submission over critical discourse and dissent, that is–simply put–superstitious and proud of it, it takes quite some valor to take a stand and challenge the roots of the dogma that is draped over the minds of your peers, your parents, and your society.
Saraswathi Gora and Goparaju Rao. A couple shaped in the flames of irrationality gripping India, searing and decimating the grains of critical thought in favor of silence and faith. A couple that managed to not only escape from these flames, but to strive to smother the kindle of injustice and unreason. Consistently an adversary of authoritarian illiberalism and unscientific convictions, this pair of social reformers are not to be trifed with when it comes to matters of social progress and the advancement of logical thinking.
I rightfully suppose I speak for all humanists when I applaud the paramount and rousing bravery demonstrated by the paragon of brilliance and intellectual virtue that is Saraswathi Gora and Goparaju Rao, working to combat the bastion of unreason in south India.