by Ajith B
“Religions are born and may die, but superstition is immortal.” - Will and Ariel Durant in the Age of Reason Begins
All murders are foul. However, some are more so because these crimes challenge the very values that a society relies on to ensure fair living for its people.
The gruesome killing of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar in Pune on August 21, 2013 belongs to the second category. Sixty-seven years old Dabholkar was taking his regular morning stroll when two unidentified assailants came in a motorbike shot him dead. He was not a pensioner who had chosen a cozy retired life of yoga, morning walks and small talks; but a crusader who was tirelessly fighting against superstitions, religious mountebanks, animal and human sacrifices, black magic, casteism and other degrading practices for the last two decades. Considering that India’s fight against these irrational beliefs and practices has a long history through many centuries, it is ironical that it had to sacrifice yet another bold life in the 21st century in the very same fight.
The murder of Dr. Dabholkar was an assault on the core values that India needed as a secular democratic nation as well as an unpardonable crime against a human being.
Saga of relentless struggles
Narendra Achyut Dabholkar was born on 1 November 1945 as the youngest of 10 siblings in Satara region of Maharashtra. His was a family of progressive values. His father Achyut and mother Tarabai helped to inculcate scientific temper and rational thinking in the boy.
After initial schooling, Dabholkar went to study medicine in Government Medical College, Miraj and received a MBBS degree. He then worked as a doctor about for about 12 years before becoming a full time social activist. The first social movement he involved was "One village, one drinking water well" with Baba Adhav, which focused on Dalit’s rights to water sources.
It was in the early 80s that he actively started working on eradication of superstitions, which became the mainstay of his activism in later years. He joined the Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ABANS) and later in 1989 founded Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS). His tireless campaigns against tantriks and ‘godmen’ of dubious nature earned him deep-rooted hostility of people threatened by these campaigns as well as wide recognition.
Dabholkar’s activism in the last twenty years was not limited to eradication of blind faith. He was also actively involved in other progressive movements like Dalit and Women’s rights and environmentalism. A few months before his death, MANS under his leadership engaged in an agitation against the self-proclaimed spiritual leader Asaram Bapu for wasting huge quantity of water for a Holi celebration when Maharashtra was suffering from its worst drought since 1972.
A tireless campaigner, Dabholkar addressed over 3000 public meetings and rallies and wrote many magazine articles and books. He was also the editor of Marathi weekly 'Sadhana' founded by the freedom-fighter Sane Guruji.
He was instrumental in drafting and pushing forward an anti-superstition law (Anti-Jaadu Tona Bill) in Maharashtra for a decade. Political parties like BJP and Shiv Sena and some Hindu rightwing organizations opposed this bill. They alleged that this legislation was against Hindu tradition and culture. Dabholkar was categorical in denying these allegations. He said in an interview, "In the whole of the bill, there's not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away, this is about fraudulent and exploitative practices."
In August 6, he criticized the CM Prithviraj Chauhan for not bringing this bill in the monsoon session of Assembly and demanded an ordinance route to clear the legislation. Finally, a day after his assassination, Maharashtra Cabinet promulgated “Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Ordinance”.
Who was afraid of Narendra Dabholkar?
Freedom and reason were the two core values cherished by those who fought for the freedom of our country. As Tagore wrote in his famous poem in Gitanjali, they wanted the country to awake into a heaven of freedom where the mind is without fear, knowledge is free and the clear stream of reason has not lost its way. After India won the freedom, these two values were enshrined in our constitution.
Even then, why was a gentle man like Dabholkar, who had been waging nonviolent campaigns for scientific temper and against inhuman practices brutally killed in broad day light in this country? In other words, who was afraid of the rational values that he was trying to instill in people? Why was a bill that seeks to punish people performing black magic opposed as anti-religion and against God?
It is a known fact that Dabholkar faced many threats throughout his activist career, mostly from hardline Hindu organizations. For them, his work was against Hindu Dharma. Even after his murder, some of these groups unapologetically justified the vehement opposition they had on Dabholkar’s campaigns. Hopefully, authorities will be able to identify the real culprits soon.
However, beyond the extreme reactions of some isolated fringe groups and beyond the specifics of the murder and its perpetrators, the questions raised above have other dimensions too. We need to understand the socio-political context that makes these crimes and such disregard for public welfare possible.
Meera Nanda, author of the book ‘The God Market: How Globalization is Making India more Hindu’ offers an analysis of this situation. She has coined a term state-temple-corporate complex to describe the forces at play here. According to her, it is an amalgam of four different entities coming together for their own good:
- Elected representatives of the people and government machinery
- Indian and foreign corporate sector
- Religious sector consisting of large network of temples, administrators, gurus, swami, other godmen and tremendous wealth
- Political Hinduism that maintains fraternal relations with the religious establishment and the corporate players at the same time
Citing Asaram’s arrest on an alleged rape case of a minor girl as an example she writes – “The young girl was brought to the guru for an exorcism, of all things... This kind of andh shraddha, or blind faith, which our godmen so routinely encourage and exploit, is precisely what Dabholkar and his Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti were fighting against, a fight that cost him his life. Asaram’s case is also proof—if more proof is needed—that a state-temple-corporate complex is always at work and everywhere in India. Most of the times, it lies hidden to plain sight; we are so used to the sight of our elected representatives and the pillars of civil society—from prominent scientists, business tycoons to Bollywood superstars—prostrating themselves before gods and godmen that we do not notice how smoothly faith, politics and money blend into one another.” (Frontline, October 4, 2013).
One might disagree with the basic ideological tenets and details of Nanda’s analysis. It is not possible to ignore the fact that manifestations of a nexus between money, religion and politics are becoming more and more visible in our social life though. Viewing Dabholkar’s killing in this backdrop, what we see is a failed nation rather than an individual’s murder.
Inheritor of Indian reformist tradition
Though we do not know who the real killers of Dr. Dabholkar are, it is highly possible that motivation for this heinous act was some misplaced religiosity. It is ‘misplaced’ because it fails to recognize the reformist tradition of Hinduism that helped to awaken a society to take up the challenge of building a modern nation state. It is a fact that religion played a critical role in the social life of Indian subcontinent from early on and Hinduism evolved as a major belief system and a way of life over centuries here. At the same time, like all other major social forces, it had both progressive and regressive aspects.
Many thinkers and religious leaders in 19th century India recognized that some of these regressive aspects of the religion had become more potent and reform was a historical necessity. The great reformist movements of the era include names like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (Brahmo Samaj), Swamy Dayananda Saraswati (Arya Samaj), Sri Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna mission) and Swami Vivekananda. In Maharashtra, which was Dabholkar’s place of action, there were movements like Prarthana Samaj whose leaders were Mahadev Govinda Ranade and R. G. Bhandarkar and Satyashodhak Samaj founded by Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule. Narayana Guru, Aiyyankali and Periyar are some of the notable names who led similar reform movements in South India and were able to make sweeping transformations in the society in late 19th and early 20th centuries. While many of these reformers drew their inspiration from ancient texts, modern education and western renaissance values made possible by colonialism also influenced them. Some of these movements later developed into open revolt against Brahminism and Hinduism and dalit movements against caste hierarchy (e.g. Ambedkar).
What was common in all these reformers was the realization that the degeneration brought about by religious bigotry, casteism and superstitions required serious reforms. The social and religious movements they found conducted powerful campaigns against irrational believes, idol worships, excessive ritualism, polytheism and other practices that were at the root of the evil-plagued society of the time.
This year is Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary. Among the organizations that are trying hard to portray themselves as Swamiji’s true inheritors one might find those organizations that were in the forefront of venomous opposition to Dabholkar’s activities. However, Vivekananda was extremely categorical about regressive practices like superstitions and caste system.
About superstitions he said, “The hundreds of superstitions that we have been hugging to our breasts for centuries have to be weeded out of Indian soil, and thrown aside, so that they may die forever. These are the causes of the degradation of the Hindu race and will lead to softening of the brain. That brain which cannot think high and noble thoughts, which has lost all power of originality, which has lost all vigor, that brain which is always poisoning itself with all sorts of little superstitions passing under the name of religion, we must beware of.”
He also said, "I would rather have every one of you be rank atheists than superstitious fools. There is no mystery in religion. Mystery mongering and superstition are always signs of weakness. These are always signs of degradation and of death. Therefore beware of them; be strong, and stand on your own feet”
In all probability, Swami Vivekananda would have found Dr. Dabholkar, a rationalist, as the true bearer of his legacy in its true spirits.
To reclaim the timeless appeal of religion
Dabholkar’s work was never against the belief in God or religion. Instead, his focus was on the forces that exploit gullible human beings in the name of god and religion. In fact, a thought process based on reason cannot but notice the influence the religion has on human society. This impact has both positive and negative elements. Many thinkers felt the need for highlighting the need for true religiosity and positive aspects of religion from the exploitative nature of some of the religious practices.
Some great minds like Albert Einstein, though they did not believe in a God who rewards and punishes human beings, defined religiosity as the recognition of something beyond our mundane existence. Einstein said: “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
Even for those who demand the abolition of religion, it is not possible to turn their eyes away from the social realities that made religion a reality. Karl Marx wrote, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
Famous philosopher Will Durant, though a firm agnostic, was very respectful towards the timeless appeal of the religion. He wrote, "these church steeples, everywhere pointing upward, ignoring despair and lifting hope, these lofty city spires, or simple chapels in the hills -- they rise at every step from the earth toward the sky; in every village of every nation they challenge doubt and invite weary hearts to consolation. Is it all a vain delusion? Is there nothing beyond life but death, and nothing beyond death but decay? We cannot know. But as long as man suffers, these steeples will remain."
Unfortunately, constructive side of religion is often neglected. History is full of stories about vested interests who try to use this timeless appeal of religion to their own selfish advantages. It always took the boldness of prophets and reformers to correct these deviations. Jesus as a young boy went to the temple and saw moneychangers who were buying and selling in the premises of the prayer house. He drove all of them and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves. He then told them, "It is written, my house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves”.
Sadly, history teaches us that moneychangers continue to occupy houses of prayer of all religions.
This is what makes people like Dabholkar exceptionally relevant. It is critical to separate the wheat from the chaff to reclaim the timeless spirit of religion.