'Difficult to be unbeliever in religious India': From an atheist
It is difficult to be an unbeliever in a religious society. Atheist Sachi Mohanty ruminates on the need to question conservatism and debunk religion.india Updated: May 03, 2015 18:39 IST
The Nepal earthquake tells us that we live on an ever-changing, geologically-active planet. Fossil evidence tells us about our long history of evolution and of the kinship we share with all life on the planet.
After learning about evolution, plate tectonics and astronomy - this week, the Hubble Space Telescope, which has travelled 6,115,507,200 km, completed 25 years of orbiting the earth - and learning about our place in the universe, how can any educated person still believe in the gods of man-made religions? The religion and its gods and myths that I grew up with started appearing to me to be silly before I finished high school. Once you acquire some basic science education, religious explanations look positively primitive.
I was not an atheist always. I remember childhood visits to the Shiva temple with my mother and trying to ring the temple bell by jumping up to reach it. But before the age of 10, I was skeptical enough to stop participating in rituals at home.
My mother followed the rituals she must have learned from her mother - carrying flowers, a coconut and bananas to the temple on Mondays and worshipping the moon on specified days. To my scientific mind, the worship of the moon, the sun, and the Ganga are absurd.
And yet, the new generation of educated women in India continues to worship the moon and all the other gods. Hindus are also obsessed with Ganga water. I remember a bike trip from Delhi to Rishikesh and Haridwar with three others in August 2011. It was the day before Anna Hazare took his show on the road on August 16. It rained incessantly and we were stuck in a hotel room in Haridwar watching the Anna saga unfold on TV. We eventually managed to do some biking on the mountain roads. On our way back, in Haridwar, one of my companions filled a jerry can with Ganga water and carried it all the way back home.
What gives? Well, in our society, there is acceptance and applause when you follow social rules such as doing religious rituals or producing babies after marriage or blindly respecting elders.
I have never believed that elders deserve unquestioning respect. My ancestors were illiterate and ignorant farmers. If education should serve any purpose, it should teach us to think clearly, rationally and above all, to think for ourselves. I see young men in my family who are happy to follow the orders of their semi-literate fathers and mothers when it comes to rituals. This pleases their parents.
How did I find it so easy not to follow my parents? It helped that my father was the average politically-aware, overly honest, short-tempered guy who did not really know how to bring up kids and with whom I had umpteen fights.
My father followed the 'my way or the highway' principle - and so did I. It's easy for me to see that when it comes to life decisions, adults should make their own. People in their 20s and 30s should surely choose their own mates. In India, many parents still control who their progeny make progeny with. This probably flows from our non-risk-taking mindset and our desire to please the elders.
There's a deep core of ignorance in Indian society which creates an ideal breeding ground for religion. Our cultural conservatism is stunning. I know 40-year-olds who are shy of using words like 'sex' and use euphemisms like 'dirty stuff' to refer to copulation.
Ignorance leads to a limited worldview and fixed notions about what is right and what is wrong. Hence, people in this country think it makes sense to go through silly rituals for many days as part of a process called 'marriage.' I remember the day after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991. I was at my mother's village where an uncle was getting married on the night of May 22. On the morning, I tuned someone's radio to BBC and learned about the assassination the previous night. I was shocked since I had attended an election rally by the former prime minister in Rourkela a week before. I suggested to the 'elders' that, as a mark of respect, the marriage be postponed. What a laughable idea it seemed to the oldies! The marriage went ahead and I went to the bride's village where the rituals took place in the middle of the night.
That was the last time I attended a marriage.
Yet, the pandit's meaningless shloka singing and the invocation of dead ancestors with a fire persists and the youth continue to buy gold and print marriage invitation cards and go through those ridiculous rituals.
Any corporate worker will have received an email invitation to a colleague's marriage. Work long enough in the same organisation and you will usually receive the 'good news' a year or two later of the arrival of a baby. It's like clockwork.
But about atheism. People will perform any ritual - while wearing funny headgear - if it's prescribed as part of their parent's religion. Many old men (and women too) in my family spend hours every day worshipping their dear gods. Cumulatively, they spend perhaps more than a 1,000 of their waking hours every year in doing flower arrangements and other rituals and perhaps reading a book. Of course, when it comes to reading books, religions prescribe the reading of the same book, again and again, endlessly and mindlessly.
Imagine how much learning could be acquired if one bothered to read real books (or even Wikipedia) that talked about astronomy or evolution or why religions are evil. But for most people, acquiring new information - especially knowledge that challenges their long-held beliefs - is anathema. They would rather watch television soaps featuring feuding saas-bahus or the IPL.
For now, it seems like the majority of Indians are destined to spend their lives singing songs in praise of various gods. I'm happy to be in the tiny minority of those who call themselves atheists. It doesn't bother me that I am in disagreement with about 200 family relations. Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and Weinberg are some of the physicists who share my lack of belief while most prisoners in America believe in god.
Needless to add, the figure is probably even higher in Indian prisons.
SACHI MOHANTY is a writer interested in the latest in science, technology and astronomy. His hobbies include scrupulously avoiding all rituals and occasions of a religious nature. He is @sachi_bbsr on Twitter