A Twice-Born Atheist
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles charting the ideological development of Prof. Narendra Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.
Recently, I was the target of a vehement attack from a Hindutwavadi, asking who was I to deny the existence of god. I told him that we Atheists are not denying the existence of an entity, but it was they, the believers, who were irrationally propounding the existence of a non-evident thing called god! I told him that like Brahmins I too claim to be twice born. Every human baby is born an atheist and then very likely converted to the type of theism practiced by its parents. Some of these revert back to their original state of mind and I told him I am one such.
That encounter made me recall my younger days. I was born into a Hindu family with my parents belonging to the Gowd Saraswath Brahmin caste. As said, one is not born a Brahmin but made one by such rituals that make one so. By this criteria, I was never one because I have not undergone the rituals that a brahmin boy should go through.
I remember, at a very young age, folding my hands in prayer in front of a lithograph of an old man with a beard sitting under a tree with some offerings before him. Along with that there were a pantheon of gods of the Hindu variety like Rama, Krishna, Shiva etc… My name was supposedly given by a Swami of the Ramakrishna Mission who used to stay nearby. My mother took the baby to him and he named me after the founder of the mission, Vivekananda, whose original name was Narendra. Many times I am reminded in public by well-meaning people that one day like my more famous name sake I too will realize the truth. I counter them by saying that I have already done that or just ignore it! I have to consider myself lucky that I have not been named after one of the millions of gods of Hindus, as that would have elicited more comments about the fact that I have been named after a god! One can imagine some one named Vishnu or Shiva being an atheist!
When it was time to go to school I was sent to a ‘convent’. Schools run by Christian nuns are generally called that. The nuns had a prayer for every single thing. Before the class commenced one had to thank god for what we were going to learn, after that for what we had learnt. There were prayers prescribed for home use too! We had to thank god before going to sleep, after waking up and so on. Every meal was interposed between two prayers one before and the other after. One had to submit a report almost each day about the numbers of prayers said. As I said my younger days were spent in praying, playing and learning the three Rs but not necessarily in that order.
The festivals used to be celebrated with the customary eats and rituals, though there were not many in our house. In fact I cannot recall any event in which a priest had been summoned to our house. But, I used to attend some of these in the natal joint family house of my mother. We hardly had any connections with my paternal family as my grandfathers sons were in continuous battles with each other and their father. It was always a gang up. Once A would gang up with B,C and D to fight against their father. Then they would gang up and fight each other! After that the youngest one went and joined his father! Any way in between these fights there used to be attempts at reconciliation only for them to start again. Amidst this atmosphere of insecurity I was a very shy child unable to communicate to others. My father was doing totally nonsensical things as I could clearly see, though I was very young. He was a great believer in astrology and fate. As already narrated in one of my previous articles, he used to consult an astrologer . This man had assured him that the configuration of planets was such that a building which he had purchased (probably as advised by the same astrologer) would never leave his hands! He was heavily in debt to all sorts of people and also to his own brother in law. I could understand what was going on, but was unable to do anything about it. So, I used to pray to the god to set right everything and was very confident that everything would be well soon. Many times in my fervent prayers to this non existent entity I would set time-frames too. I would ask everything to be corrected by the next morning or so and fervently believed that it would be so. But that day never came, which made me doubtful of the very existence of this god. I was suffering from ill health too. I cannot say whether there was any psychosomatic element to that, but I used to have bouts of asthma and be bed ridden for days. After the treatment from quite a few doctors had failed or whether it was before I cannot recall, an oracle was consulted who advised sea baths on three consecutive new moon days followed by feeding an untouchable woman. Due to some problems only one half of the procedure could be followed. There was no one to take me for the sea bath. But, my mother managed to perform the other one.
There is a ritual called feeding the untouchable woman. A dalith woman would be called to the house on the new moon day and made to sit on the veranda, or more preferably outside, somewhere near the toilet (as the house would be polluted if she was called inside), given plenty of cooked rice and some plain curry to eat. Then oil would be poured on her head until it would flow down her sides and her face. The woman who was to come to our house had a few children with her, and usually when the oil was poured on her and it flowed at down her face, she would wipe up it with her hands and apply it to the heads of the children! However my mother was kinder than the others and she would pour only a part of the oil. The rest she would allow the woman to take away in the bottle that she would bring along. When I asked my mother why this was being done, she told me that it was to transfer my bad luck to the Dalit woman. I expressed concern as to what would happen to the woman’s children if she died due to my bad luck. My mother told me to shut up and not ask such inconvenient questions. That was what started me thinking about the state of dalits. But, it was just a seed sown then. The ritual described above is practiced around these parts to get rid of the “evil effects’ of ‘bad’ planetary configurations. These evil effects are supposedly passed on to some dalit by the act of feeding them and pouring oil on their heads! The superstitious also put items like nail clippings or hair into the food served, to act as the medium for transferring the ill effects to the person. This, called as agelu in these parts, has been banned by the government.
None of these worked and my condition was not improving. In retrospect I can think that there must have been some psychosomatic element involved, and that was one of the reasons why I started suspecting the very existence of a god who could be so cruel to one of his most fervent believers! The prayers taught by the nuns at school were not working at all. But, I was a good student and used to get excellent marks in all subjects. One of the most important roles of the deity was in examinations. When the exams were being conducted my mother would remind to pray to god before going to school on those days. I used to do so very obediently, but, after I started getting doubts about the very existence of this god, I used to act as if I am praying and not do anything at all. This seemed to make no difference in the results of the examinations. So, before one of the exams I prayed to god to make me do very bad. Nothing like that happened and I did well despite my prayers. This made me bolder. When my mother asked me to pray to god before going to school when the exams came around, I told her that it is useless to pray to a non-existent god. I still remember the cryptic comment she made – she said you have realized the truth at a very young age. In retrospect she too must have realized that god is a myth, but fearing the reaction of the society into which she was born, she had not the courage to express her beliefs. From that time on I stopped praying. However, there were compulsory prayers at school and we all had to go through this torture of praying to this secular god common to all religions.
I had all my school education in institutions belonging to Roman catholics. They have the habit of classifying students into two groups, the Catholics and others. the Roman Catholic students would have separate classes where they were brainwashed into believing the cock-and-bull stories of the Bible. The rest, under the collective label of Non-Catholics used to be indoctrinated in what were called moral science classes. There we were taught the values of ‘morals’, sin and virtues, creation and the greatness of the universal god and such trash. These subjects were taken quite seriously and even examinations used to be conducted on them. They had a very salutary effect on me. The nonsense taught in these classes made me more of an atheist and my conviction became stronger. These classes were usually taken by the most useless of the teachers and the way they were conducted gave the students an impression that it was only due to some compulsions thrust upon them by some higher authorities, or probably with the idea of preserving the so-called ‘minority characteristics’ of these institutions. The teachers could not answer many of the questions put to them. The reference books were non-existent and a slim book published by the school itself was the guideline. It had various chapters on the topics mentioned above and also some ‘inspiring’ stories. These also strengthened my ideology that all the so called supernatural was hogwash.
All my friends were boys brought up with similar backgrounds, some of them Roman Catholics and others belong to the various castes of our region. We used to have discussions about things in general and many times about the existence of the supernatural. The arguments used to be about the origin of the world, events taking place around us and the such. The Hindutwavadi outfit the Rashtriya Swayasewak Sangh or the RSS was a very strong ideological influence. Though I was an atheist I was drawn to their ideology of a strong nation and more than that the anti-minorities stance being fed with the tales of the atrocities being committed by them on the weak, disunited Hindus. In fact it was some sort of a Savarkar type of attitude of a political Hindu, an atheist but supportive of a strong Hindu society united against the so called minorities who were out to destroy the fabric of the nation-state which should be essentially ‘secular’ keeping minorities in their place!
During the courses of these arguments I learnt what the mentality of our people was. Some of us who were non-believers had to bear questions about the so called miracles. How does so and so produce ash from thin air? How do they walk on fire? How does so and so cure disease etc. We used to argue that it was due to various physical reasons and there was nothing supernatural about it. Then the million-dollar question would come up – if it is all that easy, why don’t you do it and show us?! That was a difficult one to answer and we had no solution. It was the desire of an effective counter to these questions that led me on the quest for someone who could teach me how to deal with these issues. In fact, in retrospect I always think how much progress I could have had made in my life if I had met someone at a very young age who could have shown me these things, and hence I make it a point never to miss any interactions with young people among whom there may be someone who is like the young me from five decades ago. Often I meet people who are now grown up, who tell me about some interaction that they had when they were young, which changed their attitude towards life forever!
More about these things later.
Professor Narendra Nayak is the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. He has been traveling the country, holding demonstrations and teaching scientific temper to school children, for the past 3 decades.
General discussions on Prof. Nayak’s series chronicling the development of his ideology will take place on the forums here.
Edited by Satish Chandra and Ajita Kamal