Author – Dhruv Srivastava
On 20th August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a well-know atheist and anti-superstition campaigner, was shot dead by two unknown assailants, while he was out on a morning walk. On 30th August 2015, M. M. Kalburgi, a scholar and rationalist, was shot dead at his home. On 2nd July 2011, the house of U. Kalanathan, secretary of the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham, was attacked in Vallikunnu after he suggested on television that the temple treasures of Padmanabhaswamy Temple should be used for public welfare. These incidents made me think -do atheists have a place in India?
In a society with many religions, you can feel as relieved as you can feel confused. Following a religion blindly, without ever asking – Why do I do what I do? How could a ritual possibly affect my future? Does my offering actually reach a higher power, or does it go as wasted food? Why is it a sin to eat non-vegetarian food on Tuesday and Thursday and not on other days? Why aren’t all my prayers answered? Similar questions appeal to the mind as life goes on, and such curiosities have made me look towards religion from a new and different angle.
Worldwide, people who follow thousands of religions, who have different ideas about God, exist. This includes atheists. Atheism came from the Greek word Aethos, meaning ‘without God’. People, who don’t believe in the existence of some supreme power or specifically, a religious deity, are of the atheistic kind.
India has been entirely different in its approach to atheism. With its citizens being extremely dedicated to appeasing their deities, India supports a vast variety of religions and cultures simultaneously. Religious events are celebrated with much enthusiasm and dedication to the gods, that it is hard to find something similar in other parts of the world. So, it is really hard to believe that atheistic Indians exist.
With film stars releasing movies on religious holidays, and people spending lot of money for religious ‘daan’, charity and religious celebrations, it is hard to see that atheists exist in the Indian society. While some people have doubts about the existence of the Almighty, they still continue to worship and visit temples as advised by society. On the other hand, there are some who openly admit their atheistic stance. There is abundant atheistic literature available where writers adopt a critical stand against the most-practiced Indian religions. Bertrand Russell‘s ‘Why I’m Not a Christian’ inspired Ramendra Nath’s ‘Why I’m Not a Hindu’.
In the past, many notable politicians and social reformers have been atheists. To this date, we have had people in notable professions and positions, joining the list. Prof. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, philosopher and noble laureate, is an atheist. He also admits to it by associating with one of the atheist schools in Hinduism, the Lokayata.. The actor John Abraham is a well known atheist, who admits to being a spiritual but agnostic person. The famous director and producer, Anurag Kashyap, clearly shows his atheistic stance with the words, “I am an atheist. Cinema is the only religion I believe in.” Even the first Prime Minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru stated:”What the mysterious is I do not know. I do not call it God because God has come to mean much that I do not believe in” giving proof of his atheist viewpoint. With that, we can clearly agree that atheists very much exist in our society.
Some other notable mentions are Meghnad Saha an Astrophysicist, Motilal Nehru, an activist of the Indian National Movement and father of Jawaharlal Nehru, P. Chidambaram, politician and former Finance Minister, Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British Booker
Prize-winning novelist knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, Suhasini Maniratnam, an actress, Meera Nanda, writer and historian, film director Ram Gopal Varma and Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, a social reformer, anti-caste activist and atheist, who expounded his philosophy of positive atheism as a way of life and wrote a book on the same. In fact, this list is quite long.
The ‘Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism’, a survey conducted in May 2013, revealed that ‘the number of non-religious people in India has risen.’ While in the same survey in 2005, 87% participants declared themselves religious, the percentage fell to 81 % in 2013, a drop by 6 % in seven years. There are even Indian websites and organisations supporting atheism and its followers.
In 2008, the website Nirmukta was founded. It later became an organisation aiming to promote free thought and secular humanism in India. A random survey of Indian metros states that about 30 percent of the people ‘DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD’. Moreover, 17% have admitted publicly of their adherence to this philosophy. Among those who do believe in God, an indefinable superpower is seen as a better approach than belief in an isolated religious concept.
According to the supporting organisations, being an atheist can be a good thing, as you are spared the religious riots, tensions and religion based politics. You are also spared the rituals the religious extremists have to perform in order to please their Gods. In spite of the open, free willed and unbounded nature of atheism, its followers face a tensed relation with fellow devotees who do not take atheism very well, as do people in western countries. Violent incidents like the killing of Narendra Dabholkar and M.M Kalburgi indicate the hatred religious fundamentalists have against atheists in India.
Indians should understand the importance of having diverse beliefs. A free country’s citizens should have the right to believe and practice whatever they fancy, and the people should be accepting and tolerant, unless of course they try to hurt others intentionally.
The first ‘Hug an Atheist Day’ was organised in India on 7 July 2013, by Nirmukta. The event aimed to spread awareness and reduce the stigma associated with being an atheist. On 23 September 2014, the Bombay High Court declared that the government cannot force a person to state a religion on any document or form.
The Atheist Centre is an institute working for social change but the attitude in India is best summed up in Debarati Roy’s words, “While belief in god and/or religion is a matter of personal belief, and everyone is guaranteed that freedom as a fundamental right, religion is such a sensitive issue in India that atheists debunking popular religious notions can be met with a lot of resistance. However, social acceptance and government recognition for atheists seem like a requisite for a secular state.”
In conclusion, Atheist Indians not only exist but also help us see God and religion from a whole new perspective.