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The right to not believe, thank God

india Updated: May 13, 2012 01:58 IST
Renuka Narayanan

How awful to be jailed for saying you're an atheist, as happened this week in a foreign land. It makes you so grateful for ancient India's gift to us: the right to 'unbelief'. There were atheists in India in the 6th century BCE, called 'Lokayatas' and 'Charvakas'. And a modern PEW study says that 92 percent of Indians polled are religious: therefore eight percent are not.

The Charvakas did not believe in the soul, in gods or an afterlife since there was no physical proof of that. They were a small sect who believed that only the material world was real. They had no ideas on how to deal with our imagination and fears, our need to express gratitude and our longing to decipher the mysteries of existence.

But as far as I know, they were not hounded, imprisoned or killed for this. The implied non-interference makes you recall the Biblical good counsel in Proverbs 25:17: "Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbour's house lest he weary of thee and hate thee.'

The expression of narrow textbook belief is deeply embarrassing to the liberal and more importantly, affectionate members of any community when its fringe element makes more news than its well-behaved moderate majority. But despite everybody and everything, India still offers hope that people can get along and be not only accepting of differences but also proactively engaged with each other's traditions.

Yet religion had already put so many people off in the old days that we can understand why the Lokayatas and the Charvakas turned their backs on the whole boiling. 'Ajita Kesakambali' was the name of a stout Charvaka philosopher who took around a blanket of human hair (hence the name 'kesa-kambali'). We must hope that he regularly shampooed it in 'ritha' suds while wandering about the Upper Gangetic Plain, especially if he propounded that only matter mattered. His biggest talking points were that a person's "body dissolved into the primary elements at death, no matter what he had or had not done. Nothing remained. Good and evil, charity and compassion were all irrelevant to a man's fate" (DD Kosambi).

Sounds as boring as the fundos, doesn't he? Or were these ancient chat lines used on "maidens who spoke in Sanskrit to milch cows?" (Bill Aitken).

Whatever, let's persist in the hope that 'Ajita' was particular about washing and rejoice that nobody killed him just because of his limited worldview.

(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture)