Ominous Signs

To be an Atheist or not to Be!

Chaman Lal

[In ancient times—Male sage Yajnavlakya had threatened Gargi—the woman philosopher, not to ask too many questions. Yajnavalkya said : ‘‘O Gargi, do not ask too much lest thy head should fall off. Thou askest the Deity about which we are not to ask too much. Do not ask too much, O Gargi.’’ Brihdarnkya Upanishad-Sixth Brahma!
Asking too many questions even today is as much dangerous as in ancient times, at least in India, South Asia or religion dominated societies as one can see the happenings in Vrindavan (in October 2016) and the National Human Rights Commission dismissing appeals about it later.]

There was a time when E V Ramaswamy Naicker, more popularly known as Periyar, started Self-Respect Movement, which being rationality based and atheist in nature could blow up the conservative foundations of religion, particularly Brahiminical religion in South India. During freedom struggle, many leaders of the movement with their enlightened scientific outlook turned atheists such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jai Prakash Narain, EMS Namboodripad, whole lot of Socialists and Communists and above all most revered revolutionary hero of the nation—Bhagat Singh, who proclaimed himself an atheist with his essay—'Why I am an Atheist', written almost a year ago before his execution on 5-6th October 1930 in Lahore jail, after meeting another revolutionary Randhir Singh, who had refused his wish of courtesy call, because 'Bhagat Singh shaved his hair' and became a 'fallen Sikh'! Bhagat Singh sent back message that it was just one part of his body, he shelved for the freedom of the country; we are going to shelve each and every part of our bodies for the nation in near future, but your narrowness pinches'! After receiving this emotional message, Randhir Singh agreed to meet Bhagat Singh and after his meeting with Randhir Singh, Bhagat Singh jotted down his classic essay, as he was so far-sighted that his meeting with Randhir Singh can be given distorted colour later, which exactly happened! Randhir Singh after his release just after meeting Bhagat Singh in Lahore jail, put in his memoirs that Bhagat Singh had 'admitted' his 'sin' of 'cutting his hair' and on his advice has turned into 'Sikh religious faith'!

Irony is this that Periyar in his editorial in the 29th March 1931 issue of his Tamil journal Kudai Arsu admired Bhagat Singh for his courage of conviction as atheist and got its Tamil translation, done by P Jeevanandam and published it as a booklet from his publication in 1934, which has run into tens of editions by now and Tamilnadu has always celebrated Bhagat Singh more for his revolutionary ideas than his heroic romantic image!

85 years later on 14-15th October, when Balendu Swami, an earlier Hindu faithful, turned into atheist, due to his sense of rationality developed by his study and experiences of life, invited many of his atheist friends from his face book page to join his birthday bash, which fell on 14th October and discuss the ideas of atheism in his private place called Ammaji Ashram on Parikrma road of Vrindavan, which runs an eco-friendly restaurant also known as 'Ammaji' restaurant, built in memory of his deceased mother. Vrindavan, otherwise a small town of less than sixty thousand population, is an attractive place, where foreigners, mostly European whites can always be found in large numbers fascinated by the charming personality of Lord Krishna and apart from large number of other older Hindu temples, which include temples relating to stay of sixteenth century Bhakat poets—Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and rebel Hindi poet Meera Bai, a new modern ISKON temple is a centre of attraction. Vrindavan is known for its nearby Barsana temple Holi festivities also, where not hundreds, rather thousands of foreigners turn up to enjoy the sight of 'Lathmar' (Stick Beat) Holi of men and women. That sometimes foreigner women getting molested in melee of surging crowds is not uncommon on this occasion. Vrindavan is also known for its population of 'Widows', who are in number of thousands and live in temples/ashrams of Vrindavan. Their tales of sufferings including their exploitation, have also been filmed, serialised many a time in films and media.

Balendu Swami coming from a religious family background had spent more than three years in a cave like place without meeting any member of family or any other, just in meditation in search of 'God'! And when he could not 'discover' or find him, his reason turned him to atheism. Balendu Swami experimented with Birthday Atheist meet last year also, but it did not get much publicity and was limited to facebook page event, yet nearly one hundred people did gather from far and wide on their own expenses-men and women both, many with families. But this time Facebook page of the event got larger publicity and print media also took note of it, so it attracted nearly five hundred plus strong responses from at least sixteen states. People travelled from as far places as from Belagavi in Karnatka, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, apart from nearby states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, UP included as site itself. Seeing the larger response even for a private event, Balendu Swami took caution to inform and seek permission from local authorities, as he booked many hotels for his guests to stay in Vrindavan. Somehow some mischievous elements in local electronic and print media probably incited by some local religious Hindutva groups, telecast/printed few generalised anti-religion philosophical comments of Balendu Swami as 'anti-Hindu' on 13th and 14th October in local Hindi papers/TV channels. Some people had reached a day earlier, but large number reached on 14th October, morning to evening, as they were supposed to meet at 2 pm. On 14th October morning not more than 50 persons, led by a saffron colour dressed Sadhu attacked Ammaji ashram with sticks, stones, damaged its signboard, broke its glasses and misbehaved with guests reaching there. One lady photo journalist Sarvesh from Delhi was badly beaten as she was recording the attack on her mobile or camera. Few policemen who could have easily controlled this small motivated crowd, rather helped the attackers and contributed to torrorisation of guests, large number of them left as dictated by police there. One big group from Punjab, which came with their own hired big vehicle was attacked and they went away, though later regretted going away under such pressure. While travelling from Delhi, close to Vrindavan around 1 pm, this writer also got a phone call from a guest coming from Ghazipur in UP about the situation. Police and attackers forced Balendu Swami to give in writing that meeting is cancelled. However there was no formal meeting on record, so many people, including this writer entered Ammaji Ashram after 3 pm through back gate, as on front gate few policemen and agitators were still menacingly telling people to go away.

Nearly two hundred people including many families-people from 2 years kids to 80 years old, men and women, students, teachers, professionals included, after tea and snacks, sat on chairs informally and cultural items started to be performed. Poetry of Pash, Faiz and other songs were sung by Ajit Sahni from Ramnagar-Nainital group. Later a play Panchali based on Mahabharata tales was presented and discussion on play also took place after. During dinner time Birthday cake was cut by Balendu Swami with his German wife Ramona and one year daughter Apra by his side and all gathered, sung birthday songs!

Next morning after breakfast at Ashram, about one hundred persons held a discussion on atheist views of Bhagat Singh and many participants made suggestions to take this discussion further. UP participants declared to hold a big atheist meet in Prime Minister Modi's constituency Benares / Varanasi, with big preparations including security concerns. Delhi participants started making preparations to hold another national level meet of atheists in Delhi by December. Delhi meet is likely to focus on the increasing attacks by Hindutva groups on any kind of rationality or scientific temper oriented meets, which is a fascist kind of stifling the freedom of free thought ensured by Indian constitution. Participants were worried that even in ancient times Charvak, Ajit Keshkambli like thinkers, Samkhya Darshan like school of thoughts could practice or believe in agnosticism or atheism in India itself, though in ancient times too—Male sage Yajnavlakya had threatened Gargi—the woman philosopher not to ask too many questions. In 21st century, when in many advanced and developed countries, faith in religion is becoming rare, here in South Asian countries religion is becoming increasingly a tool of fascist forces for gaging free thought and scientific rational thought processes. On 4th October IPTA conference was attacked by similar Hindutva groups at Indore in MP, Vrindavan attack was continuation of such tendencies starting from attack on JNU/HCU/Central University of Haryana, attack on Mahashweta Devi play Draupdi—an ominous sign for coming times, if not resisted massively by all liberal-democratic-rational thinking sections of society!

Vol. 49, No.34, Feb 26 - Mar 4, 2017