The gunning down of anti-superstition crusader Narendra Dabholkar in broad daylight is a grim reflection of the continuing battle between reason and faith, rationalism and obscurantism in our country today. Since the dawn of civilisation, the hegemony of the ruling classes has always been exercised, amongst others, through the control of ideas and the collective social consciousness of society at that point of time. Reason and rationality have always been the casualty since they inevitably question the very foundations of blind faith used to bolster those in power. Thus, the maintenance of the status quo is often achieved by denying access to knowledge that can challenge the prevailing belief systems.
It is precisely by posing such a challenge that Dabholkar earned the wrath of those who reaped profits through the spread of superstition, obscurantism and blind faith. The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, which was founded in 1989 and now has over 180 branches, threatened a variety of self-styled godmen and the profiteering of ‘miracle men’. A mobile laboratory, the Vidyabodh Vahini, was used to scientifically demonstrate and demolish many a superstition and trick dressed up as divinity. Dabholkar openly challenged all ‘miracle men’ and, along with astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, challenged astrologers to come forward to establish their claims. Not surprisingly, not a single such person took up the challenge. Dabholkar opposed the introduction — by the UGC in 2001 during the Vajpayee government’s tenure — of astrology as a subject at universities.
Conscious of the fact that obscurantism and superstition thrive on backward social consciousness perpetuated by blind faith buttressed by the caste system and patriarchy, Dabholkar actively campaigned for social reforms. The treatment of women, particularly widows, and the execution of young people marrying outside their caste were issues for a passionate campaign. Eighteen years ago he had proposed that the Maharashtra legislative assembly enact a law against superstitious practices. For 14 years, during this period, the state had governments led by the Congress-NCP alliance. It is ironic that hours after his death, the state government issued an ordinance, whose watered down and timid content reflects why it took so long.
The lack of scientific knowledge to understand various natural phenomena coupled with abject conditions of survival continue to push millions of our people to embrace gurus of superstition. The solutions to health problems and several personal issues are often sought through such practices. Those who consider this to be a fringe issue should see a survey done by the Hindustan Times (September 1) that shows the common prevalence of ghastly obscurantist practices all over the country. Such merchants of miracles have built astoundingly large empires of property. It is only natural that all campaigners of rationality and social reform who challenge such practices are sought to be eliminated for allegedly attacking ‘religion’ and ‘faith’. Dabholkar always maintained that he was not anti-religion but against the moral sanction illegitimately derived from religion by such people.
The history of rationality in Indian philosophy and religion is as old its metaphysics. The Pali Vinaya-Pitaka, which records the Buddha’s code of conduct for his monks, decreed that the display of ‘miracles’ by a monk would be treated as an offence. Whether the Buddha believed in the actual possibility of attaining miraculous abilities is not the point of his discourse. Buddha’s sermon is an ethical position on miracle-making: even if miracles were possible, monks were told that it was not morally justified to make a show of them since the display would primarily be for accruing material and other benefits from gullible believers.
India’s foremost chronicler of the history of philosophy and science, Debiprasad Chattopadhyay maintains that India’s rationalist heritage predates the universally-accepted beginnings of the ‘Age of Reason’ from the 6th century BC, credited to Thales of Miletus. Drawing from the Satapatha Brahmana, the codification of which, in its present form, is placed between 10th and 7th century BC, Chattopadhyay speaks of one Uddalaka Aruni who propounded the methodology of reasoning based on the interpretation of observation. Aruni finds a detailed mention in the Chandogya Upanishad, widely accepted as pre-Buddha (since there is a latter day tale of Uddalaka Jataka) and whose core is the following: the observation of phenomenon that present themselves before our eyes, putting aside all supernatural or mystical interventions, and endeavouring to give a strictly natural explanation. What else is this but the triumph of reason?
The battle between rationality and faith is, therefore, as old as the beginnings of Indian philosophy and religions. The modern Indian republic carries forward such an engagement when our Constitution decrees the fundamental duties of every citizen of India to include the development of “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” (Article 51A). No citizen would be able to discharge this duty unless we provide an educational system that fosters these values. Jawaharlal Nehru had said: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then all is well with the people and the nation.”
Dabholkar’s murder must make us all sit up and realise that unless our educational system is fine-tuned, the inculcation of a scientific temper and rationality cannot be established. Campaigns for social reform will have to be taken forward hand in hand to change the material conditions that continue to feed the spread of such retrograde practices of superstition. Obscurantism is not a fringe issue to be battled by just a few well-meaning individuals. It is our collective responsibility as it directly contests the rationalist foundations of our Constitution.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal