Many of those of us who are non-believers have problems with holding on to our ideology in times of crisis. This happens during illness, death of someone close to us, and performance of some of the rituals connected with the religion into which one is born. We should have our own ways to deal with such things. I am going to narrate some incidents that I can recall so that they could be of some guidance to others who share our ideology. It will probably give them the strength to face certain pressures. This is not an instruction manual for us atheists but a narration of my experiences that show how, even in an orthodox society, it is possible for one to live with one’s own convictions and resist pressures to conform to the so-called norms of the religion into which one is born.
I have been an atheist from around the age of ten or so, or at least as long as five decades of my life. When I was a child and naturally dependent on parents there was some difficulty in expressing my atheism, but my mother knew about it. The first ceremony into which I should have been willingly involved was the thread ceremony. When it was said that it would be inflicted on me, I refused. Somehow, there was no pressure about this, and my two brothers and I managed to reach adulthood without this ceremony being inflicted on us. Then came examinations. Particularly the school and college examinations ,which I managed to pass without any offerings or prayers to non existent god/s. When I passed my masters degree with a university first and a distinction, some of my friends and relatives were totally surprised that I managed to pass without any prayers or offerings to gods. However all warned me that I would have to make compromises in my stand when I would get married, because marriages in the community into which I was born involve religious rituals, matching of hor(ror)oscopes and such stupidities. I told the scoffers that I would marry only someone who would agree to my conditions. I was told to prepare myself for a life time of bachelorhood! I managed to overcome this gloomy prediction and my marriage was done under the conditions put forward by me – involving no religious ceremonies and superstitious rituals of any sort. In India we have a Special Marriages Act under which no religious ceremonies need to be performed and the very act of registration by the concerned official is the marriage ritual. I married Asha who was agreeable to these conditions.When I made the decision to marry I told her that I was an atheist and no religious rites are to be performed in my residence. For many years I was staying with my parents and hence could not impose any conditions.
The same was my condition when I started a very small scale industry with some partners- my condition was that no bribes would be given to anyone and no religious ceremonies would be performed. We managed to to do this and are still running the business without violating these conditions since it was started in 1976! No religious ceremonies have been performed or any religious symbol displayed at the premises till date. The same has been applied to my residence as well once I purchased one. Often there are conflicts with one’s spouse and those relatives friends who stay with us.When someone comes to stay in my house, I impose one condition that no religious rituals can be conducted in there. They are free to pray and even keep a religious icon in their bed room but cannot light fires or incense. Priests of any religion cannot perform any prayers at my house.
In fact, when I purchased a new apartment and the house-warming was to be done, we invited our friends and relatives to a lunch on a new moon day falling on a saturday, supposed to be the most inauspicious day. When people queried why, I told them that all invitees would be available because there would be no other function on that day! It was true- all invitees turned up! The menu consisted of all items including non-vegetarian dishes – people were shocked because no Hindu would do that. Some of my relatives asked me as to how I could do that for a house warming. I replied that there was no compulsion on them to eat the non vegetarian items. I could see quite a few of them helping themselves very liberally to the very same things which they claimed should not be served for house-warming. One of my relatives asked me where the puja room was. It is customary in the community into which I was born to have a separate room for performing ritualistic worship to the myriad of gods of the Hindu pantheon. I pointed out to a room and when he opened it, it was the toilet. He was quite cut up with me and asked me whether that was the way to answer his question. Then I told him that knowing that I am an atheist he should not have asked such a question, reminded him that god is omnipresent and told him what was the problem if you worship there! I also reminded that that room would fulfill a more essential need than a room to worship any god! I told him that one could be alive without worshiping any god but cannot without using the toilet!
In 1985 or so I had an attack of fever which was not coming down by any medication. A few weeks before we had taken on a proprietor of a place of worship nearby. His henchmen had kidnapped, raped and murdered the daughter of an atheist who had dared to contest for an election there.Our group had protested against that and had demanded a CBI inquiry as the local police were hand in glove with them. The temple which he owned was dedicated to a powerful deity who could allegedly destroy anyone. When I came down with the illness which could not be properly diagnosed and treated, it was said that it was the curse of this deity that caused it. Many rituals were proposed to my parents and wife so that the curse could be withdrawn. But I was adamant and refused to do any of that. In fact, I got well a few days after this suggestion was made and if I had succumbed to letting them perform the rituals, it would have been claimed as the best proof for the powers of that god!
In 1995 my mother was dying of cancer. At that time suggestions were made by her relatives and some other well-wishers that she should be treated with all sorts of quack remedies including homeopathy. She firmly resisted those and told everyone to let her die in peace. She also told me on her death bed that her body should not be taken in a procession with all decorative marks of a lady who had predecased her husband! In the community into which I was born that was considered to be the best sort of death for a married lady! She also told me that while she knew I would not perform any ceremonies for sending her soul to heaven, I should not donate her remains to the medical college. She wished to be cremated without any religious rituals. But her last wishes were not respected by my father who summoned a priest. No priest was willing to come; the moment they heard her son’s name they gave some excuse and went away. Finally an amateur priest was summoned who came with a book of incantations in his hand. I told him that since he had been summoned by my father, he can ask my father to do whatever he wanted but I would not do anything connected with any religious ceremony. It turned out that he was not the one required to perform any rites, and only the sons had to do them. I refused point-blank and told them I would be only involved to the extent of taking her body for cremation. The amateur priest who had come was very professional in his approach, particularly about collecting the fees for the various rituals. My father also emotionally black-mailed my brothers into taking part in all rituals. The first thing that the priest did was consult his almanac and announced grandly that this lady had died at a very inauspicious time. In fact that the same is said of every death. She had passed away at the conjunction of five planets and unless appropriate rituals were done to propitiate them, five more members of the family would die. I replied that let us not do them and see what happens! The reaction was that do you think that these are very frivolous things? I said yes what you people are saying sounds like a joke! Then came the cremation and after a few days the issue of sending her soul to heaven. I refused to perform any ritual connected to that. My father, and more importantly, the members of my mother’s natal family tried to persuade me to perform these rituals. I had to face their wrath for not performing them, but I refused to succumb.
The next occasion when a death took place in our family was when my father passed away. He was having end-stage renal failure and was hospitalized. I had fixed some training programs in Uttaranachal at that time and did not want to cancel them, so I had to go ahead. When I was starting on my journey I was told by the nephrologist that he would not survive till my return. But I did not want to to trouble the organizers because of my personal problems and went ahead after making arrangements for his treatment and disposal of the body after death. The news of his death came when I was busy in the training program. The trainees asked me what the matter was and I told them. They asked me whether the program was called off and they had to go back. They had assumed that I would be going back. When I asked them why I should go back, they were very surprised. I told them that if I could bring my father back to life I would certainly go back to do it. Once a person is no more all that is needed to be done is to cremate the body. I told them I had already made arrangements for that and it is more important to do something for the living than grieve for the dead. They said that in their place the one who dies is lucky, because the living have to suffer. When I queried as to why it was so, they said that the dead person’s family had to give to the priest who performs the rites all his requirements for a year! The expenses associated with sending a person to heaven were so high that some families have had to mortgage their houses to meet them!
After a fortnight when I reached home some people told me that I was a ungrateful son for not having sent my father’s soul to heaven. They said that if I could not afford it I should have performed at least a grade 3 ceremony to send his soul there. When I queries as to what that was I was told that a 1st grade ceremony would cost Rs.10,000 or more. When I asked how much more, I was told there was no upper limit. It all depended on the son’s capacity! One could even spend millions on it. The second grade one would cost Rs.8000 and was for the poor. The 3rd grade was for the really pauperized person and would cost only Rs.3000. So, even sending one’s dead to heaven could be by different types of transport, depending on ones capacity to pay! By contrast, when Premanand, whom I considered as my ideological father, warned me on his death bed- do not cancel any program to come and see my dead body. He was very particular that no religious rites should be performed for his body and stated that he did not have any soul! We had made arrangements for that through our rationalist groups and his body was donated to the medical college.
I have seen hypocrites who never bothered to look after their parents when alive, shedding copious tears over their bodies and performing all sorts of rites with pomp and ceremony to show others how much they cared for their parents! I was under attack from members of my father’s family. In fact a few years after my mother died, there was ‘trouble’ at the family house. The family into which I was born has a family house in which the deity of the family is installed and all the religious ceremonies are performed. All members of the extended joint family meet there for religious ceremonies on some festival days. When the cause for the trouble was ‘researched’ by some as(s)trologers who charged huge sums for their ‘services’, a great discovery was made that my mother’s soul was the one causing the problems. It was because I being the eldest son had not done the ceremonies that should have sent it to heaven! So, they asked me to do them. I refused. So, finally the as(s)trologers cast a magical spell around the family house so that the ‘trouble’ would cease and her soul would not enter there! Probably her soul is still doing the rounds looking for someone to send it on to heaven! When my father died they raked up the incident with the ‘trouble’ and the as(s)trologer, and told me that I had not performed the rites when my mother died and that I was doing the same thing again now that my father was dead. I said it will not be done when I die too, and so they could all be ready for more ‘trouble’ when I too die! It is very important to feed the priests, perform all sorts of mumbo-jumbo rituals and pay the priests through the nose to send someone’s soul to heaven after death! The degree of love to a parent is not determined by how one treats them when alive, but by what one does after they die! It is more important to take care of the soul after death than the body when one is alive!
Another issue is regarding declaring ones religion on official records. During every census I have told the enumerators that I am an atheist and note this on the form which they fill up. In the University where I was employed they sent a form to all the faculty asking them to fill in details of their caste and religion. I wrote nil for both. I got a memo from the head of the institution asking me to once again state my caste and religion. Then I replied that I had neither. That was followed by one more asking for the caste and religion into which I am born. At that time I had no option but to state them with a rider that one is not born into a religion. This is a common problem, including when submitting affidavits to the courts. I take care to see that no religion is mentioned. Some of the atheist groups have evolved their own secular, non-religious ceremonies for those who do not want religious rituals to be performed on them. The atheist groups of Tamilnadu have a type of marriage, called Self-Respect marriage, in which no supernatural power is invoked, The Arjak Samaj, another atheistic group in North India have their own non-religious ceremonies for marriage, birth and death. The Humanist groups all over the world have their own secular non-religious ceremonies for milestones of life. So, it is not needed to follow any superstitious rituals for recording the important events in one’s life. It can be done without invoking any diety or supernatural powers.
It is very important that those of us who claim that all these ceremonies invoking supernatural powers are useless should have the courage not to perform them or take an active role in them. We should have the courage of conviction to stick to our ideology in times of crises. I know that many of us feel it is very difficult for us do this, but it is not impossible. We can resist the imposition of superstitious beliefs on us. I have tried to live up to my convictions so far and will try to do so as far as possible. I do hope that this will be an example for those who want to live a life based on their own convictions and not based on those thrust upon them by society or religious authorities. I have to mention that the inspiration to live my life in this way has come from the lives of the ideological leaders of the rationalist movement who have shown through their actions that it is possible to do so. I have to mention the names of Abraham T. Kovoor and B.Premanand who were my major inspirations. We also had senior radical humanists like G.K.Nettar, B.R.Mallya at Mangalore who were much older. They had lived their lives based on such principles as I described above, and they guided me when I had doubts. It is because of these rationalists that it was possible for me to learn how to practice atheism in all aspects of life.