It is wise to begin the New Year with introspection. While it is easy to look inward with respect to one’s personality, deeds and behaviour, it is often difficult when questions are raised about matters as personal as faith. In a country as spiritually diverse as India, raising such questions become even harder when done in a public platform. You are bound to either offend someone or hurt their religious sentiments.
Rationalists have been waging an uphill battle for centuries. But many like Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare have paid with their lives. All three were gunned down for raising questions about superstition, harmful ritualistic practices, black magic and blind faith. But this hasn’t stopped their movement. Even today the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) that was set up by Narendra Dabholkar carries out new anti-superstition campaigns each month.
“Our latest campaign is to persuade people against going to babas and other god men to resolve domestic crises. These people take advantage of people’s desperation to swindle them,” says Milind Deshmukh, State Chief Secretary, MANS. Deshmukh explains the modus operandi of these men who claim to have super human powers. “Suppose a mother goes to them asking for help in finding a child who left home after a fight, they would say something generic like ‘the child went in the western direction’. Now most kids who run away from home in Maharashtra come to Mumbai. So this information is not the result of some psychic ability.”
And this is why we need to make an important distinction. Rationalists do not mock or reject religion. Their battle is against blind faith and harmful rituals. Reformers also try to eradicate religious practices that discriminate people based on their caste or gender. The Bhumata Brigade led by Trupti Desai is a successful example of how women questioned age old norms that excluded them from places of worship.
The women persevered and prevailed when they were finally granted entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple after 400 years. Desai has now set her eyes on the Sabarimala temple in Kerala and plans to visit it with a contingent of women this month. “I’m a deeply religious person. But unless you question your faith, you cannot truly understand it,” says Desai. “I know God does not discriminate. But unless I raise questions and demand equal rights these ‘thekedaars’ of faith will never grant women the right to worship as equals. Our battle isn’t against religion. It is against patriarchy,” she explains. The Bhumata Brigade has also campaigned against the caste system, dowry and ill treatment of widows.
Questions need to be raised about burying differently-abled children alive during a solar eclipse in order to cure them. Or why something as natural as menstruation is looked down upon? Or why some women are either conditioned or coerced into having sexual intercourse with so called god men just so that they can give birth to sons or bring their families good luck.
Deshmukh cites the example of sixteen teenage girls being rescued from the clutches of one such god man in Dombivli, Maharashtra last year. “The parents willingly sent the girls when they were told that pleasing the god man would bring them immense wealth and good luck in business. These parents don’t see their daughters as living breathing human beings and couldn’t care less about the trauma. These girls are seen as commodities that can be traded for a profit. While some parents were ignorant, others were just greedy,” says Deshmukh.
Even religious scriptures are replete with stories of doubt being essential to faith. Thomas the apostle is perhaps most famous as ‘Doubting Thomas. According to the Gospel of John (20:24-29), Apostle Thomas refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to ten other apostles until he could see for himself and touch the wounds inflicted on Jesus during crucifixion. Jesus then goes on to let Thomas touch his wounds and says,
“Thomas because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” This suggests that while Jesus asks for faith alone, he also lets Thomas have his proof.
Similarly, in the Upnishads, when devas and asuras approach Prajapati to understand the meaning of aatman (soul), Prajapati first gives a simplistic explanation that the asuras accept and leave. But Indra has his doubts and keeps asking questions till he is satisfied with the explanation, thereby ensuring the devas have better knowledge and understanding. It is this wisdom that helps the devas trounce asuras in battle.
So it is clear that religion and rationality are not mutually exclusive. It is also clear that superstition and blind faith are dangerous. Unless dogma and ritualism are questioned, we cannot get rid of sociocultural ills. It is clear that unless you doubt, you can’t really believe.