The politics of atheism

Religion in India, used to polarise or mobilise masses, is beyond the pale of scrutiny. J.Jayalaithaa’s burial instead of cremation and the refusal of Tirupati authorities to obtain a food safety licence for laddoos have triggered a debate on the role & relevance of faith.

The politics of atheism

DEBUNK RITUALS AT YOUR PERIL: A genuine believer never exploits anyone in the name of faith or religion. Devotees take part in the Golden Chariot procession of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala in Tirupati on the occasion of Vaikunta Ekadasi. PTI

Sudhanshu Ranjan

The burial of J. Jayalalithaa, an Iyengar Brahmin, has spawned a debate on atheism and its role in politics. Her relatives re-performed her last rites by cremating a doll, supposed to be her replica, on the banks of the Cauvery. It is proved beyond doubt that she was a devout Hindu who visited temples and refrained from doing any work during the Rahu kaal. Still, her party, the AIADMK, decided to bury her, and not cremate, which is the last samskara of a Hindu. Among Hindus, only sanyasis are buried as they are totally detached from the worldly bondage and have no kin to perform their last rites. Moreover, they perform their pind daan (offering of food to the departed soul) themselves before their death. 

The politics of Tamil Nadu carries the imprint of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, the founder of the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). He made a blistering attack on the caste system and religion, “(A) sizable population today remains as Untouchables, and another sizable population exists in the name of Sudras and as serfs, coolies and menials. Who wants an independence that cannot help change these things? Who wants religion, scriptures and gods, which cannot bring about a change in this sphere?” The Justice Party, established in 1917 in Madras, after a series of non-Brahmin conferences, played precursor to the Self-Respect Movement. From 1920 to 1937, the Justice Party was in power in the province for 13 years  —forming the government four times. However, in 1944, Periyar transformed the Justice Party into the DK, a social organisation, and withdrew it from electoral politics. But a rebel faction, claiming to be the original Justice Party, went asunder to remain in electoral politics. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are the offshoots of the Justice Party and the DK.

It is nothing short of a conundrum that Jayalalithaa, an Iyengar Brahmin, not only became the unquestioned leader of a Dravidian party grounded in anti-Brahminism, but created history by forming the government for the second consecutive term. Periyar focussed on social justice and rationalism in his writings and so did M. Karunanidhi. But religion remained deeply ingrained in the popular psyche. Even Karunanidhi always remains wrapped in a yellow shawl, reportedly on the advice of astrologers since it is his mahadasha of Jupiter and yellow is auspicious for it.

No body becomes an atheist by the way their last rites are performed. Hamid Dalwai, a Muslim reformer, wanted his body to be cremated, not buried after his death as he was an atheist. This declaration infuriated some people of his community so much that they refused to accept him as a Muslim. Justice M. C. Chagla, according to his wish, was cremated, and not given a burial as per Muslim tradition. The problem is not with the religion. When Karl Marx criticised religion as opium, he only meant that it intoxicates people and makes them forget the hard realities of life. In fact, in 1843, he wrote that the religion is the heart of the heartless which acts as a balm on despair. He castigated religion on two occasions in other contexts.

A genuine believer never exploits anyone in the name of religion nor does s/he hate non-believers, rather he tries to convince them and also accommodate them. When Mahatma Gandhi said, "God is Truth.", Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) challenged him and wanted to know where was the place of atheists in his (Gandhi's) scheme. Gora asked him how could a person believe in truth if s/he did not believe in God. Gora believed in truth but not in God. After a long debate with Gora in November 1944, Gandhi rephrased it as “Truth is God.” During the debate, Gandhi said that he should fast because atheism was spreading. Gora has recorded, “Evidently he thought that atheism had developed in reaction to the misbehaviour of god-believers and that better conduct on their part would render atheism unnecessary.” Gora became so close to him that he became a dear member of his “family” and he became almost a master to him. Gora, a Brahmin, was working for the uplift of untouchables and thought that belief in God divides man into sects. He thought that an atheist could serve better the cause of removing untouchability. He even married his daughter off to an untouchable. It was no love marriage. Gandhi was to attend the marriage but he was assassinated before it could be solemnised. However, Jawaharlal Nehru attended the marriage.

 According to Gandhi, even atheists can be religious. He said about Charles Bradlaugh that notwithstanding his non-belief in God, he was a man of noble character and a truly religious man. And he was a great atheist. Bradlaugh was a political activist and a famed atheist of the 19th century, who founded the National Secular Society in 1866. He was elected an MP from Northampton in 1880 but he refused to take the oath in the name of God; instead he wanted to "solemnly affirm". The matter was referred to the Select Committee which did not take oath like this. He was also arrested, forfeited his seat in parliament. But he was re-elected in the by-elections four times in succession with bigger margin each time. In 1886, he was finally allowed to take the oath in 1886. Two years later, he secured the passage of a new Oaths Act which enshrined into law the right of affirmation for both Houses. In his debate with Gora, Gandhi said about Bradlaugh, "I remember of clergymen who had come to funeral of the great atheist Bradlaugh. They said they had come to pay their homage because he was a godly man."

Genuine people, whether theists or atheists, are seekers after the truth, And both believe in the welfare of the mankind. Bhagat Singh, in his booklet Why I am an Atheist, has written: “The day we find a great number of men and women with this psychology who cannot devote themselves to anything else than the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity; that day shall inaugurate the era of liberty.” Similarly, Swami Vivekananda said that he worshipped a god whom the ignorant ones call man. So, the aim of both is the same. Gandhi appositely commented that atheism was spreading because of the ignoble behavior of believers. One should be genuinely a believer or a non-believer. Public posturing and private conduct should be totally seamless.

The writer is a TV journalist & columnist.

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