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Disenchanting IndiaOrganized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India$

Johannes Quack

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199812608

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199812608.001.0001

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Rationalism as a Way of Life

Rationalism as a Way of Life

(p.220) (p.221) 14 Rationalism as a Way of Life
Disenchanting India

Johannes Quack

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The aim of this chapter is to outline the consequences of rationalism in the everyday lives of ANiS members. Various applications of the worldview of rationalism can be as simple as that of an avoidance of alcohol, to so far-reaching that individuals may fall out with their friends and family if they do not share their views, or as controversial as a decision to object to all final rituals in the case of death and instead donate their whole bodies or particular organs to medical use. Further, it is outlined how the underlying ideological position of exclusive humanism and modern materialism often goes against mainstream Hinduism. ANiS activists accordingly reject many of their fellow Indians beliefs and practices as immoral, as well as ineffective and irrational.

Keywords:   lived rationalism, everyday live, application, ritual, death, organ donation, exclusive humanism, modern materialism, Hinduism

The history of atheism is not only the history of Epicureanism, of open-minded skepticism, of enlightenment materialism, of Marxism, of nihilism and some other intellectual theories. It is also the history of millions of simple men on the street who are busy with their everyday worries and much too occupied with simply surviving to be able to ask themselves questions about the gods. This too-often neglected practical atheism is the existential facade of unbelief and as fundamental as its noble, theoretical facade. (Minois 2000: 29)a

Following from Minois’ stress on the practical side of atheism I focus in this chapter on the practical side of rationalism. The guiding questions were thus: What is the impact of rationalism on the everyday lives of ANiS members? What happens in families where family members are divided over the issues of rationalism and religion? How do the rationalists manage to stay true to their beliefs, and even try to spread them, given the opposition that they face? For example, how do rationalists react to the fact that the religious rituals they object to form a constitutive aspect of the way of life of many other people in India?

Throughout this book I have stressed that rationalism is more than the cognitive rejection of religious beliefs and more than an abstract worldview (although these are both central aspects of it). To substantiate this argument further, this chapter addresses questions like those listed earlier under “lived rationalism”—what the members of ANiS call vivekpūrṇ jīvan jaga ṇe (living a rational way of life). This first focus raises the question of the way in which lived rationalism relates to and is co-constitutive of ANiS’ agenda. The second focus of this chapter is a discussion of what has emerged as the most visible and crucial practical aspects of what it means to not only agree with rationalistic convictions, but to also live rationalism. It was often pointed out to me by ANiS members as well as other rationalists that true rationalists are to be judged not by what they say but by what they do. In private life the most important practical test for the commitment to rationalism is how people deal with lifecycle rituals. How do they marry? Do they agree to inter-caste or inter-religious marriage among their children? Do they allow or prohibit “unnecessary expenses” and a “waste of resources” as part of the marriage ceremony? What do they do when a relative dies? Do they reject all last rituals in case of their own death? Are they willing to donate some of their body parts for medical use or to dedicate their whole body to anatomy classes?

(p.222) Rationalism in everyday life

It is high time that the idealism of rationalists must percolate to the level of their families. When family remains untouched, many appear to be progressive in talk, but not so in action. Platform speeches and the realities of the “home-front” must synchronise. The gap between precept and practice should not be so glaring. (Vijayam 2007: 81)

I have already outlined that ANiS is an organization that builds upon shared convictions, activities for samāj sudhārṇa (reforming the society), as well as friendships and solidarity among its members. They have a specific worldview as well as their own songs, private jokes, and rhetorical styles. ANiS members are part of a larger movement of likeminded rationalists who come together for conferences, campaigns, and meetings to reconfirm their chosen way of life. Yet to describe only the rationalists’ agenda, the structure of their organizations, their meetings, and their activities would be to disregard an important element: how rationalism is lived in the everyday lives of ANiS members.

Many rationalists pointed out to me that for them, applied rationalism means interfering whenever they see injustice. This confirms my interpretation that moral issues are, for the ordinary member, at least of the same importance as the related theoretical or even epistemological issues. The different interviewees gave many examples of how they, as rationalists, challenge the injustices in the world (see also chapter 12). A father said that these can be little things, like how to raise one's children. “One should not privilege the son in any way. One should also be happy with two girls. I have two girls and I am happy.” This position, according to the rationalist, can lead to conflict with the extended families. His parents-in-law wanted more grandchildren, in particular a grandson. He considered it, however, to go against the interests of society to produce more than two children in the hope of having a son—not only because sons are privileged over girls, but also because he was against population growth. This led him to add that rationalists should also fight for a just economical system—that the wealth of the country should be better distributed and that corruption should be fought (“corruption is the biggest problem for social justice”).

Another theme running through many of the answers I received was that some members entered the movement for a particular reason, while over time their perspective and habits in other realms changed. A young activist living close to the border of Gujarat, for example, pointed out during a “Science Workshop” at Pune University on July 30, 2007 that he had undergone drastic life changes since he joined ANiS. He had joined the movement primarily to engage in social work in the field of public health, promoting awareness of certain illnesses, snake-bites, and the dangers of traditional and religious healers. He told me that he was now running an inter-caste marriage bureau. The best example of the sort of life-changing influence active membership in ANiS can have is Avinash Patil. His main (p.223) motivation for joining the movement was to do social work. Through ANiS, he told me, he also gained a new perspective on the relationship between men and women in Indian society:

Most importantly [my perspective on] the relationship of gents and women changed. Now I see that in [Indian] society there are very large differences. A husband or man is seen to be superior to a woman or wife. This thinking has not fully gone but we want to change this. We want to see women on the same level. And we want to give this to our colleagues, but also to our wives or to other women. In general we are not discriminating in any way. This is a change in me that results from this sort of thinking, from our scientific temper. (Pune, 28.10.2007)

Patil further told me that he had decided to leave his job in construction because he could not reconcile his rationalist convictions with the working practices and working environment in this field. Becoming a rationalist for him meant making the necessary changes with respect to his environment:

When I used to work in the construction field, as a business contractor, the provision was to please the officers or to please the other people you are related to. We used to have alcoholic drinks and parties, which is a common thing in this business. But already when I was working in that profession I did not like all these things due to my thinking, including the religious practices and the corruption that is also there, in fact there is a lot of corruption. So I was struggling with myself. I tried to cut myself off from that. So finally I took the extreme step to leave this business. I could not continue because of the issues of addiction, the religious practices, and the corruption–these were the main changes in my profession. (Pune, 28.10.2007)

He also talked a lot about the influence of rationalism on his private and family life:

But there were also changes in my personal life. In our family we do not practice anything connected to superstition including pūjā (worship) and similar things. Nowadays we do none of these things. My mother is involved in this to only a certain degree, but she is also changing herself, trying to change. Moreover, my wife and other relatives are also not fully changed. They have not fully accepted our life based on scientific temper but they try to accept it. So in our family we do not perform any practices connected to blind faith like pūjā or homa (sacrificial fire ritual).…This process is happening in my family life as well. I am trying to make it happen in our family life as well. For that I have tried to talk to my parents, my wife, my children, and also to other relatives. At first they rejected my thinking, my dialogue, but after some time they listened to me and nowadays they try to accept such things. And this is the process, the humanity-changing process that takes some time. This is the strength of thought. (Pune, 28.10.2007)

Patil finally told me that rationalism can also be important if one tries to find the right role models in the education of their children. A rationalistic education for him meant that one has to raise the awareness in children of all the irrationalities (p.224) shown on television—for example the advertisements, which are based on exaggerations and lies and make one desire things that one does not actually need. Other ANiS members gave many examples of “applied rationalism” in the field of education as well. How concrete such issues can be becomes obvious in a statement by a very dedicated activist from Bombay. He explained to me which members of his family are rationalist, which are not, and what problems this can cause. He added: “Now my son does not set off firecrackers [during dīvālī, the ‘festival of lights‘]. He understood that they are useless and he changed his friend as well. He does not smoke or drink, and he is helping not to pollute the environment so he does not take an auto.”

So far I have discussed some of the explanations and interpretations that the rationalists themselves gave implicitly or explicitly on the topic of how rationalism can be applied to everyday life. These are complemented by observations that I made during my fieldwork. The thrust of what is said here is based on my experiences when traveling with a group of rationalists for over two months. During this time, we spent day and night together; from time to time we were hosted by local ANiS members. In addition, I visited ANiS members on my own and stayed with them for a couple of days at a time. Their hospitality and openness was enormous. Finally, during the time that I was not traveling or staying with rationalists, I had the opportunity to be hosted in Pune by a kind old woman who also had family ties to the rationalist movement. This time was however shaped by difficulties and quarrels between the religious and rationalist sides within the larger family. The rest of this chapter draws on all three kinds of research settings mentioned here to describe what I call “lived rationalism.”

My attempt in the following is to give only impressions and examples of the issues at stake and not an overarching and generalizable description. The underlying problem is best explained by way of an example: A young rationalist teacher once told me that “rationalists reject the Indian idea of ranking people” and he added that “for rationalists a servant is not a servant but an employee just as I am an employee of this college. We earn differently and that is a problem but we are not different as humans.” Months later I stayed a few days in two rationalist households where the servants were treated noticeably differently from what I had experienced during my former stays in India. In the household of Gogineni Babu, where I stayed for a few days in Hyderabad, for example, the driver and housemaid were introduced not only by name but also with the other family members. Moreover, this was done in such a way as to demonstrate that rationalists try not to reproduce caste and class hierarchies and that they do not “rank people.” This impression was confirmed through one such incident in which the child of the driver played with the son of the rationalist couple all day as if they were brothers. They ate together, shared toys, and so on. Of course this could be the case in households that have no connection to rationalism. Maids who have served in a household for a long time can achieve a status in the family that is quite close to that of a family member. It remains an open question to what (p.225) degree it makes sense to ascribe such observations to the rationalism of the people, especially considering that I was also a guest in rationalist households in which servants were treated comparatively badly. If one would go as far as drawing connections between the worldview of rationalism as outlined above, and the way in which people treat their servants, are deviant observations then only exceptions to the rule?

Such questions cannot be answered comprehensively, but this is no reason not to address them. Such examples can highlight goals that exist within the movement, which some reach and others do not. Further they show the complexities at stake and that more in-depth research would be needed to make generalizable statements. Moreover, there are some observations concerning the lives of rationalists which are more likely to be linked directly to their worldview. This stems from major observations like the comparably fewer children they have, to minor points such as that in one of the two families mentioned above, the children had learned that they could tease their parents by saying “god bless you” (in English). In the following, I describe and contextualize a selection of related observations that can give a larger picture when taken together. A strong link between the rationalist and humanist ideology and the private and public practices of ANiS members cannot always be inferred, but in most cases they are at least plausible.

The first of these observations is somewhat related to the example with the children given above. The two activists of the science-van team that I joined for a few weeks around the city Nanded would often ask the women who had prepared lunch or dinner in the schools or villages where we stayed to join us and the other men to eat together. Although almost all of the women refused to join the group, this gesture was often repeated by the rationalists and I came across it also in other situations. Sometimes this invitation was accompanied by further statements about the general position of women in a Maharashtrian household and the unjust gender relationship in Indian families at large, which are represented through the custom of women eating the leftovers of the men.

A good example of a more private detail is the furnishings that I came across while I stayed in the homes of several rationalists. There were often some rationalist books demonstratively placed on the bookshelves. A rather rich rationalist with whom I stayed for a couple of days had at the center of his main bookshelf a statue of Socrates in between popular science magazines and rationalist literature from India and the West (from Voltaire and Russell to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). Also symptomatic was that one teacher from Nanded, Hamand Shivdas, had decorated his son's room with pictures of and texts about the Āryabhaṭa (India's first satellite, also the name of an early Indian astronomer) and the Flosolver (the first “super computer” of India). Others had astronomical charts and graphs to decorate their walls and were happy to explain to me astronomical details that disprove the “pseudoscientific astrological claims” and the “common superstitions” of the people.

(p.226) By and large, the homes of the rationalists were simply furnished and appeared standard for a middle-class background. But, of course, no religious symbols, pictures, or statues were to be found. The only exception I came across (several times) was a Buddha statue found in the households of those ANiS members who had followed the lead of Ambedkar and had converted to Buddhism. In the one household in Beed district where I discovered some religious symbols, I tried to find out about them. I learned from my host Hanumant Bhosale that within the family, there were different perspectives:

I am not objecting that my wife and my daughter devote their time to the gods. But I do not do it. For me work is worship. I only tell the people what is right or true. I never waste my time. […] We should not press the people to reject religion. At the same time it is my work to tell this to people and I should continue. (Ambejogai, 10.09.2007)

This rather moderate and liberal position on the rationalists’ “mission at home” leads to the general issue of possible tensions that can occur in families due to the different religious and rationalistic practices and positions. In my interviews, I spoke with most of the rationalists about their family situations. The minority reported that they lived in families where all members1 were part of the rationalist movement; a few among them proudly pointed out that this had been the case over generations. The most common scenario I came across was where religious family members lived side-by-side the rationalists. This led to some tensions, but they generally seemed to get along without major disturbances. Finally there were, however, also a minority of families within which the different perspectives generated more or less open conflict.

In interviews, most rationalists came to a halt in their narrative flow of words and became somewhat abashed when they touched on the topic of the religious practices within their families and the relationship between family members. In cases where things were not harmonious, people preferred not to speak about it. By and large it can be said that the decision to become a rationalist is a personal one which is most often not supported by all family members. In most cases where not all family members were part of the rationalist movement, tensions existed, albeit to different degrees. I experienced this myself because I had close contact with a rationalist family whose son (himself neither a member of the movement nor practicing any religion) had married the daughter of my host in Pune. Whenever the rationalist and religious sides of the family met, one couldn’t help but notice the tension created by even the smallest differences in viewpoints between the two sides.

A different conflict that I encountered several times was connected to food. In one Brahmanic family, the son pointed out to me several times during dinner “I eat (p.227) everything” and “I also eat cow.” Each of these comments was fiercely responded to by his mother and grandmother who could not stand this fact. Yet, they had to realize that they can do little against his convictions and his willingness to make public statements about it. The gravity of such statements and the underlying discourse within a Hindu family only becomes understandable in its full significance when set against the religious default position of Brahmanic Hinduism. In many ways, food is one of the most central items that structures traditional Hindu society, depending on what and with whom one eats. The importance and “purity” of food reflects status in society as well as internal and moral status. Very early on in the rationalist movement, “inter-dining ceremonies” were organized by people who wanted to erode the Hindu social order.2 Along with the promotion of inter-caste marriage, inter-dining was promoted by rationalists like Periyar and Gora as well as by most of the organizations which supported their anti-caste position. With respect to the example given here, it should be added that the impurity that results from breaking food taboos is extreme with respect to eating meat from cows. Given the special status that is attributed to cows in most parts of India—the five products from a cow: milk, curd, butter, urine, and dung (pāñcagavya) are central to many ritual practices—cow slaughter is legally banned.

All this underlines that the decision to become a rationalist does not only have personal consequences, but also consequences within one's family as well as within the wider community in which one lives. Besides questions like how one raises one's children, whether or not one drinks alcohol, and how to celebrate and deal with lifecycle rituals such as birth, marriage, and death, there are many further issues related to the rationalists’ rejection of what is usually summarized under the label “caste.” One rationalist from Pune told me how his son's inter-caste marriage led to some members of his (former) caste to formulate protest notes and insults.

The ways in which the rationalists can have a hard time in their communities and in everyday life is also exemplified by the fact that they have “coming out” campaigns. When a rationalist described the idea behind this campaign to me I was reminded of the gay and lesbian movement in the 1960s in Europe and the United States. Within the Indian Rationalist Association, the English term “coming out” was used in this respect. Sanal Edamaruku told me in an interview about the coming out campaign that they had:

If you are an atheist and if you are sure about that, tell your friends.…But you must have courage to tell them what you are [a rationalist and atheist]. You don’t need to be afraid (p.228) of that thing. You have to tell people your position. That in itself is a big, big change in society. It also gives courage to a lot of other people to come out. And ultimately this challenges the big system, especially the Hindu religious system, which is all encompassing. You know, from your childhood it is completely controlling of your everyday life. The moment you are out of that, it gives courage to a lot of people who are half-hearted. Those who think that this is the right way gain courage. It is like a wave or something like that. One person changing, and without even preaching or education, just his presence changes the whole society around him. There is a big impact in that thing. (New Delhi, 06.04.2007)

Critique of religious rituals and promotion of secular rituals

Let me take you to the living museum of rituals where you will encounter the fetishism of the lower cults, tree and animal veneration, the totemic worship of tools, relics of sympathetic magic, ancestor worship, and phallic worship, along with harvest and spring festivals. (Babu 1994: 48)

This statement is taken from the article “Ceremonies in India” by the rationalist and humanist writer Gogineni Babu and exemplifies the critical position of the rationalists on religious rituals in the specific Indian context. For rationalists, the two things they primarily set out to fight against come together in religious rituals: injustice and irrationality. On the one hand religious rituals are seen to be a central element in the hierarchical logic of purity-impurity that underlies the caste system. Therefore, there is a moral concern in the rejection of religious rituals. On the other hand such rituals are for the rationalists quintessentially irrational practices. They generally are seen to be a waste of resources because they are ineffective. In most cases “gullible people” are deceived by the ritual practitioners (godmen), since they promise an impossible effect and not only cheat the people, but contribute to and reinforce the irrational thinking which allowed them to prey on them and their ritual practices in the first place.

The first aspect, that the rationalists object religious rituals because they are seen as a key element in keeping the structure of “homo hierarchicus” alive in India, is a classical theme within Indian rationalism. The ideal typical life of a Brahmanic Hindu is ritualized to an extremely high degree and, if followed properly, the scale, the amount of time and money that has to be dedicated to Brahmanic rituals can be quite impressive (e.g., Vidyarnava 1991). The Indologist Garvin Flood notes on rituals in Brahmanic Hinduism: “Ritual patterns constrain life from birth, through childhood, to marriage, and finally death.…It is ritual action which anchors people in a sense of deeper identity and belonging” (1998: 198). Although there was a tendency in Western scholarship to overemphasize the actual influence of the codified rules of purity on the everyday life (p.229) practices,3 it is sufficient here to note that for the rationalists “Hinduistic ritualism” stands for a society where caste boundaries are strictly upheld and reproduced through ritual practices. For the Indian rationalist, rituals have thereby a direct influence on the actual social hierarchies that structure larger parts of Indian society.

As outlined earlier, nearly all the rationalist organizations are connected in one way or another to Dalit movements and see themselves as a part of this heritage (such as “Mahatma” Phule and Ramaswami Periyar). Until recently, the position and practices of a “priest” were a central point of criticism for most rationalists. Yet the criticism of religious rituals rests not only on the point that they represent and reproduce the caste system; a second line of criticism targets the irrationality on which they are based and the superstitious worldview they continue to reproduce among the masses. Irrational for the rationalists is the idea that ritualized practices can somehow transcend everyday forms of causality and bring about desired ends that have no rational or natural connection to the means employed.4 The head of ANiS Dabholkar addressed the issue of religious rituals as being a “waste of resources.” In many of his speeches, he itemized for the audience the amount of unnecessary spending, as for example, in the text “Broad Ideological Stand of Eradication of Superstition,” showing that in Maharashtra, 30 lakh (3,000,000) kg of rice is wasted every year during marriage ceremonies (n.d.-a: 3). Dabholkar further addresses topics concerning ritual practices in subsections of his book Ladhe Andhashraddheche (2006) with titles like “Break the chains of blindly followed traditions,” “horrible and outdated rites,” and the “economic reasoning of rites and rituals” (2006: I, 66, 71). A separate section deals specifically with marriage ceremonies and the aim of ANiS to promote satyashodhak (truth finding) marriages in the tradition of “Mahatma” Phule (2006: I, 86 and see chapter 6).

To summarize the general perspectives of the rationalists on religious rituals: Rituals are based on wrong and dogmatic assumptions of the world codified in religions, and lead to a waste of resources and ijā pohocaviṇāre va śo ṣaṇ kar ṇāre ācaraṇ (harmful and exploitive practices). They are used to separate humanity into different creeds and castes where supernatural claims legitimize the superiority of one group of people over another.


                      Rationalism as a Way of Life

Figure 14.1. Secular (satyaśodhak) Marriage of ANiS Activists in the Tradition of “Mahatma” Phule and Savitri Phule, both on the pictures in the back. (Annual Report 2007/2008)

Yet the Indian rationalists do not object to secular rituals like hoisting a flag or framing their own meetings by songs and formalized speeches.5 The point is that these practices do not conflict in any way with their naturalism, exclusive humanism, or rationalism. Celebrations with ritualized elements relevant to the constitution or the nation might help them express their loyalty and respect for such ideas, but they include nothing “magical” or “irrational,” and usually do not involve wasting resources. Moreover, for special occasions like birth, marriage, or death, they strive to find secular alternatives. The idea of secular lifecycle rituals is an old one in India. It was a central topic for the various anti-religious movements of the 19th century which I introduced in part II.6

(p.231) Today, practically all larger Indian rationalist organizations have their own concepts and booklets which describe how to perform secular funerals as well as secular and inter-caste or inter-religious marriage ceremonies. As an example I depicted here two booklets edited by Babubhai Desai, the head of the rationalist organization Satya Shodhak Sabha (Truth Seeking Body) working from Surat, Gujarat. The book on secular funerals depicted here features—as with most such publications—ready-made forms for the donation of the body to a medical college and donor cards signaling agreement to organs transplantation.

Marriage and Death: rituals as the default position

The tests for atheism are the three big transformations in life: Birth, marriage, death. If we succeed and the people do not perform rituals, then we have true atheists. (V. K. Sinha, Bombay, 24.08.2007)

There are many kinds of rituals in Brahmanic Hinduism—probably most central to all of these are the saṃskāra (lifecycle rituals). Performing the lifecycle rituals is an aspect of the Hindu dharma (order, duty, religion, law), something one can read in any scholarly study of Hinduism. The Indologist Axel Michaels, for example, points out that classical Brahmanic Hinduism lifecycle rituals are incontrovertibly of the greatest relevance (see 1998: 85–175). Flood outlines how the saṃskāra are rites of passage that serve to legitimize social order and to uphold social institutions (see 1998: 201). However very little is to be found in the literature on what happens when people reject this tradition. In this respect it must be highlighted that in rejecting ritual and religion, the rationalists are rejecting something that is central to the lives of the vast majority of their fellow Indians—indeed something that, according to many scholars, is constitutive of the Indian way of life.

Klimkeit writes with respect to the importance of, for example, the saṃskāra of marriage that non-religious ways of marriage meant for India the most radical break with religious traditions (see 1971: 72). And on the previous page:

For the Hindu orthodoxy, the development of a non-religious wedding ceremony must have had an effect like dynamite under the foundation of age-old ways of thinking. It is only possible to imagine this outrageous innovation if one recalls the central significance of the wedding in Indian life. (1971: 71)b

While I would argue that the ceremonies connected to death are even more important than the other saṃskāra, this is irrelevant to the fact that a rejection of any such ritual is a grave decision. In what follows, rather than analyzing the ways in which the rationalists deal with all Hindu rituals, I will focus exclusively on the lifecycle rituals of marriage and death in order to provide more details and reach a greater depth of analysis. These are the two lifecycle rituals that the rationalists put (p.232) greatest emphasis on compared, for example, with the other two major saṃskāra: the birth ceremonies and the upanayana (initiation ceremony during which a high-caste boy between the ages of eight and twenty-four will be given the symbol of high-caste males, a sacred thread).

Non-religious Marriages

There was a friend of mine who could not marry when the rest of us were already married. He passed his M.B.B.S. and later became an M.D. too. Yet he remained single. Finally I pestered him into telling me why he does not want to marry. And this is what he said. “Narendra, the trouble is that my horoscope shows a severely malevolent Mars.” This was most unexpected for his mother had taught us science when we were in school. I asked him again.…He replied, “See, Narendra, the Mars that my mother taught was worth just two marks in the examination while the adverse Mars in the horoscope can destroy my whole life.” If educated people like my friend cannot think logically, is there any question that the uneducated ones will do?…These people are educated but do not have a scientific outlook. The second most important task before the ANS movement is not just deliberating over scientific attitude but infusing abiding effects in the minds of the people. Giving them these new sanskars! (Dabholkar's “Broad Ideological Stand of Eradication of Superstition” n.d.-a: 4)

The attempt by the Indian rationalists to give “new sanskars” (saṃskāra) to their fellow Indians is an extremely difficult task given how deeply the “old sanskars” are embedded in mainstream Hindu culture and tradition. Flood writes about marriages in India: “marriages are, of course, arranged.…Caste compatibility is the most important factor in a Hindu marriage, though other factors of wealth, occupation, and astrological compatibility are taken into account” (1998: 205–206). In the context of mainstream Hinduism, a marriage is seen as not only (some would argue not at all) a step taken by a couple but as a matter of greater family relationships and issues. If one opens the matrimonial page of any newspaper, besides the specification of jāti (the endogamous sections of Hindu society usually translated as “caste”) and gotra (family clan),7 age, and education, one often also finds the rubrics skin color and astrological information. Michaels notes that no marriage is performed without prior consultation of the stars (1998: 131), while the written horoscope is checked in a “matching ceremony” (hinted at by the quote of Dabholkar above). Finally, often the family from the bride's side has to pay a considerable amount in dowry.

This is to some degree a stereotype of an Indian marriage. There is, of course, not one kind of Indian marriage. Dowry practices, for example, vary considerably (p.233) by region and caste while in some parts of India bride-price is mandatory. Here it is sufficient to see that the rationalists basically oppose all the components of the stereotypical Hindu marriage as listed above. For the Indian rationalists, marriage is primarily an individual decision between two people, the man and the women (gay and lesbian relationships are hardly discussed in this respect).8 The two main factors according to which a potential spouse is usually selected—caste and religion—are opposed by the rationalists and they propagate and support inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. Some of the branches of ANiS do have a special office to support inter-caste marriages. The rationalists further reject the astrological procedures which accompany common marriage arrangements.

From the beginning, the rationalists have argued against child marriage, excessive dowry, and similar practices. Instead of the widely spread ideal among Indians to celebrate marriages in the most extravagant way possible, the rationalists advocate small, simple, and short ceremonies with only close relatives and friends. It is hard to estimate how many ANiS members had a simple and secular marriage. The same is the case for inter-caste or inter-religious marriages. Several ANiS members explained to me that there are so few inter-caste and inter-religious marriages because it is extremely difficult to find in “separated Indian society” a fitting spouse from outside of one's caste who is willing to marry a rationalist. So the rationalists do not prescribe to their members how (not to speak of whom) they marry.9 On the other hand, there is a social and moral pressure on the members of the rationalist movement. The ideal application of rationalism, the ideal of “lived rationalism” is implicitly and explicitly depicted in the speeches and publications of the movement and further highlighted through the exemplary way of life of the leading members in the movement. Statements like the following one uncover implicit forms of pressure: “A friend of mine was hiding his Hindu marriage from me, because he was embarrassed. I said to him: ‘Yes, it is embarrassing, but not so much as not to tell it to your friends.’ ” A more obvious point that is likely to raise social pressure is that inter-religious marriages or inter-caste marriages are promoted by ANiS and supported whenever they occur.

In my conversations with ANiS members I got the feeling that marriages of some leading figures of the movement are seen as ideal-typical by many ordinary members even if they themselves did not follow these “role models.” I also collected accounts of rationalists staying true to rationalism by conducting inter-caste (p.234) or inter-religious marriages (against the wishes of their families and society.) I met a longtime activist in the rationalist and humanist movement, Vishvas Naiknavre, who was very interested in my work and invited me to his home to answer all my questions. In a typical middle-class suburb of Pune, I entered a very untypical room, filled with an uncountable number of books, all of which seemed to be piled around a comparably small Buddha statue at the center of the largest of the bookshelves. During our extensive conversation (parts of which I had recorded as an interview) he recounted for me the details of his marriage ceremony which had taken place some fifty years ago; his memory seemed to be working perfectly well despite his age.

I was looking for a girl but did not want to use horoscopes in any way because I did not and still do not believe in it. My father was a very practical man and so he did not mind my objections to astrology. So I arranged for a day which was most convenient for everybody. The central problem of this marriage was not the neglect of astrology but that the two families were of different caste. (Pune, 29.08.2007)

He continued to tell me about the resistance and challenges which they faced from members of the two families, some of whom they are now estranged from, with no contact between them since that time. Nevertheless, because his convictions matched those of his wife and due to the support they got—albeit to a varying degree—from their parents, they succeeded in pushing their ideals through:

No rituals were to be performed and no particular dress was required. You may ask “what remains of a wedding then?” It is a gathering of family and friends. But in addition to this, the main thing is a registration in front of all of them. And there were some speeches and blessings for example by Lakshmanshastri Joshi and by the social reformer Bhaurao Patil.10 (Pune, 29.08.2007)

While he re-narrated the circumstances of their marriage his wife was present and she added her perspective to underline his account with visible pride and blissful memories of how they came together and made a point with their inter-caste marriage. She concluded: “Despite all opposition from friends and family, we did this. And still today such kind of a marriage is a novel thing.”

These accounts of inter-religious and inter-caste marriages exemplify the ideological ideal and the common members of the movement make sincere attempts to live up to it. In that respect there are minor differences concerning the way in which a secular marriage should be performed. A senior ANiS activist also told me, that after his wedding a friend had said that “it was nice, but it was too much like a meeting.” Looking back on his marriage after several decades, he said that he had to agree with him. Another veteran of the Indian rationalist movement had (p.235) conducted many other secular weddings (and continues to do so in his eighties) in the role of a “secular priest,” and he emphasized to me that he tries to keep the ceremonial character to some degree. This is, according to him, not very easy and sometimes his perspective stimulated virulent debates, since for some other rationalists, any kind of ritualistic aspect is too much. Yet, equally problematic in his mind is that some of his colleagues tend to the other extreme. “Many of my colleagues prefer to talk during the secular marriage ceremony about the rationalist movement and its aims rather than about the couple and its life.” For him “that is the problem with Rationalists and Humanists. They are so involved that they do not separate occasions.”

Non-Religious Ways of Dealing with Death

I wish to declare with all earnestness that I do not want any religious ceremonies performed for me after my death.…I do not believe in any such ceremonies and to submit to them, even as a matter of form, would be hypocrisy and an attempt to delude ourselves and others. (Jawaharlal Nehru in his last will—cited after Zachariah 2004: 257)

Nehru had requested unambiguously in his will that no religious ceremonies be performed after his death. However, his daughter Indira Gandhi ignored this wish and ordered a funeral performed in full accordance with Hindu religious customs and traditions. Zachariah comments: “The people, so the rationale went, were religious; so it would be religion that they would get” (2004: 257). For most Hindus the antyeṣṭi (last sacrifice) is of major importance for the deceased person, while many cultural scientists point out that the performance of final rites is also of great relevance for the surviving family and relatives and the larger social community and structure. The classical Hindu understanding of death and the connected antyeṣṭi, according to Flood, “controls the pollution of death and re-integrates the family back into normal social life from which they have been separated by death, and allows the spirit of the deceased to travel its own way” (1998: 207). It would have been a major point of concern for most Indians to see that their leader and first prime minister and his family were not going through the ceremonies. Death is one of the most polluting and inauspicious occurrences in classical Hinduism; the whole family is in a highly polluted state and for many Hindus, this is the time of heightened danger of being attacked by malevolent spirits until śrāddha (ancestral rites) are performed. The respective ceremonies usually take place over ten days (with all kinds of regional variations) and are meant to move the deceased into the realm of the pitṛ-loka (ancestors). Otherwise there is the chance that the deceased remains in the world of the preta-loka (ghosts) and comes back to haunt the living.

Again, the rationalists reject in their official worldview all these beliefs and practices. They reject the idea of being religiously or ritually “polluted” through death, they see no necessity to perform rituals at all, and they also reject the (p.236) abstract and “theological” concepts of rebirth and karma, as well as the more concrete beliefs connected to the transitions from the spheres of ghosts to those of the ancestors. To my mind, the alternatives they propose are even more radical than what was said about the marriage ceremonies above. The fact that Indira Gandhi defied the final wish of her father is a case in point for the argument of the importance of the final rites in mainstream Hinduism. The radical rationalist position does not only reject rituals and ceremonies, it argues that a dead body is mere “material” that has to be used as efficiently as possible, the best way being to avoid all religious rituals and to donate bodily organs for further medical use and to allocate what remains to medical colleges for their autopsy classes and other uses.

I will introduce the position of rationalists with whom I talked about these delicate and at times very emotional issues. As with the ideal-typical secular marriage ceremonies introduced above, one has to bear in mind that some of the following statements represent the ideal-typical ways in which rationalists’ deal with death and do not represent the common practices of all members of the rationalist movement. The importance of these exemplary statements does not lie in them being representative, but in the way in which they stand for a rationalistic ideal that serves as a constant reminder and goal for all those who cannot live (and die) up to it.

The first paradigmatic statement I want to introduce is that of a rationalist who had lost his father only a couple of months before the interview took place. The father of my interviewee was a rationalist himself and had insisted that there be no final rituals performed. His son explained to me that he wanted to follow the ways of his father: “Hindu rituals are too elaborate, one has to spend an enormous amount of money; they are meaningless and they feed only the priests. I would suggest a simple, hygienic, memorial meeting.” He added that it is important that this meeting should be without the dead body “since this would be a ritual.” On my questioning of what problems the presence of the dead body might cause at the memorial meeting, he explained to me that the body might be seen by some as still “somehow living” or the deceased still somehow “present” which has to be omitted. He feared that some start to “kind of worship the dead body” and added that the best solution is to give the body straight to a nearby hospital so that they can decide what is of use to them. In addition, he recounted for me how difficult and tragic this was for him with respect to his father but that he does not regret it and would wish the same for himself.

The interview became very emotional at this point. At the same time, the son was more than willing to recount what had taken place in order to highlight his and his father's dedication to the cause of rationalism. In his words, the main point is that: “His body should carry his message.” The old man died in his sleep but as soon as his death was discovered, the son took the corpse to the hospital “which I reached four hours after his death. We [my father and I] were so close and it was kind of a trauma that I faced myself.” At the hospital the doctors decided that his eyes could be donated to an eye clinic, while the rest of the body would be (p.237) handed over to the main hospital for anatomical studies. Visibly touched by his memories, the rationalist related to me how he had waited until the doctors had removed the eyes from his father and supervised the following steps. “I did not want my mother to see him. The eyes looked so horrible when they showed me the body for the last time.”

I recorded a second ideal-typical account of how a rationalist faces death that is quite similar to this story. In a long interview with Gogineni Babu, a leading member of the humanist and rationalist movement, the question of how to deal with the death of a close person in a “rational” way became central. As an example he told me about his mother, how she suddenly and unexpectedly died due to a brain tumor and how he had to deal with this situation. Before her death, it was already agreed by her and the family members that the body should be donated to a hospital. Her son recalled in an emotional moment the very dramatic circumstances of her death. At home she had some kind of a stroke and “we were taking the breathing body to the hospital” where the doctors declared that she would not recover but would pass away soon. Her son remembered how he signed the death certificate stating that she was “clinically dead” and how in this most emotional moment he and his father had to make immediate arrangements for the donation of the bodily organs:

I went from hospital to hospital with the liver of my mother. That was my passion and what I had to do. I see this as a tribute to the principle of life. And I know all the feelings that I had in this moment. This was not cold or technical but [done] out of extreme love for the person that was so close to me. Because of all the mutual love I can say all this here. The whole body was donated to the hospital and I am sure that this was the best thing that we could do. (Hyderabad, 18.11.2007)

For him, this was “the most human way” of dealing with the fact that his mother had died. He pointed out to me that finding a human way was so important to him because of his conviction that our purpose in life should be to serve humanity, and if this can be done through a final step with our dead bodies, there is nothing to be spoken against it, even if others cannot understand this. To friends who cannot imagine their body cut up, he replies that the medical advancements are based on such observations. He added, as if I had made an objection, that “the donation of one's body is a moral thing to do. In fact, I consider it to be the most moral thing you can do.”

During our conversation we touched several levels—that of personal grief, that of social responsibilities, and philosophical questions related to “materialism” and the “soul.” Concerning his own grief he was strictly opposed to the idea that any kind of ritual or reference to any religion could be of use there. “How do you deal with death? Is a ritual a good answer, based on a nonsensical mythology? Rest in Christ and go to heaven. I cannot see how this can help any intelligent person.” The reference to Christianity was primarily because of my presence. His main criticism was directed to Hindu rituals and here also his judgment was unequivocal. The (p.238) only positive aspect he could see was that “all these rituals only distract your attention.” Yet, he considered this an escapist rather than a helpful fact.

With respect to most of the other family members, he was convinced that the ceremony they performed was the best option they could choose. Instead of performing the traditional Hindu rituals, the family held a memorial meeting where food was arranged and people close to his mother spoke a few words. It was noted above that some rationalists criticized their colleagues for making secular marriage ceremonies look more like a rationalist campaign rather than like a celebration of the couple and their future. All the more striking for me was to hear what happened in this case. In addition to the memories shared by the family and friends, a representative of the hospital was invited to speak about organ and eye transplantation during the memorial meeting. Printed cards for agreements to donate parts or the whole body were even prepared for all the guests in advance so that they could fill them out during the meeting. Being a well-known member of the movement, this was clearly also a statement that rationalism is not only an issue for the debates and newspapers, but should be applied in private life and even in such existential cases as one's own death or the passing away of a family member.

During his long and uninterrupted narration of the circumstances and decisions concerning the death of his mother he kept saying: “Nothing like this is technical or heartless” and “this is humanitarian” or “there is nothing more moral you can do than donating to humankind.” It is hard to say whether or to what degree these assertions were meant to forestall respective criticism, whether he was still struggling himself with the decisions he took, or whether he was questioned so often on precisely this point by relatives and acquaintances that these assertions became part of the story. Later he told me how he, as a rationalist, had to face constant criticism from different directions. He obviously reflected on the common criticism to describe the agenda and activists of the rationalists as cold, instrumental, and heartless (see chapter 12). Against this he stressed the importance of his “humanist emotions” and spoke of the way in which he sees such actions as an expression of compassion and care for other human beings.

Finally, I want to introduce a third account that was also part of a longer narrative interview and which shows that not all the statements I got from rationalists were as clear and categorical as the two given above. Prabhakar Nanawaty, whom I met several times and on one occasion asked what he thinks is the best way to deal with the death of a close person started with the following statement:

Make it simple, if it is possible, go to the crematorium and finish it all. Make it ash and forget about the death part at all. After that you do not have to do anything. You do not have to remember. After one year—if you want to—you can remember. Remember and forget. That is what I feel. (Pune, 29.10.2007)

In the same interview, I raised the point that there are two important aspects of how one could consider religion to be helpful with respect to death. “One is a (p.239) practical one: what to do when a person dies. The other one is a more theoretical one: where does death come from and what happens to us when we die?” Beyond that, I made the proposition that most religions give answers to both these questions, and asked him: “What about rationalism?” On hearing this question, Nanawaty laughed out loud and answered:

I do not believe that religion has got any answer to death. Whatever I have read there is nothing. Like any scientists I can tell that it [points to the body] is just made out of carbon. Once your breathing and heart stops you are dead. You can forget about all these things. (Pune, 29.10.2007)

With “these things” he referred to ideas of the soul, rebirth or any other conceptions of after-life or non-material life-substances. He elaborated further on the irrationalities of such beliefs. On the one hand, it seems that his perspective was comparable to what his two colleagues described above. Once a person is dead, the body is lifeless material that is best utilized and recycled by removing those body parts that can be of further use. Alternatively, if this is not possible, you resolve the body quickly and cleanly and forget. However, during another part of the interview Nanawaty gave me the following account:

Recently I wrote an article for one of our magazines about how the death scene has changed in the last decades. Earlier a boy would see three to four deaths in a family. So nobody was afraid of death. Now [we have] isolated families, which means that the larger family is not united. There are only a husband and a wife and two kids, but the husband is not exposed to death at all, not even of his parents. If he has got parents they are separated and stay somewhere else, if something happens they will be admitted to the next hospital. [The attitude is that] if anything happens, let the hospital take care of it. Death in family and at home has become a rare occasion. (Pune, 29.10.2007)

All this was not only reported but also lamented by him. Nanawaty was convinced that these developments were heading in the wrong direction. He continued to elaborate on this:

And a second thing is that we are not exposed to death anymore. It is not only about death, but also about how to deal with the things after death: how for example condolences are given. People used to go and put their hand on him.…Even the disposal of the body has become a problem nowadays. It is creating a lot of problems especially if you live in an urban area. Religion expects that even if a person dies in a hospital, the body should be brought to the home for some time because, after all, it is from home that the last ceremony should start. (Pune, 29.10.2007)

Moreover, and to my surprise, he continued to tell me about all the religious practices that used to be common; that, for example, in his village after the death of a person, nobody would have eaten anything until the body was disposed of, but that this does not happen anymore. According to Nanawaty, these developments are all the more pronounced in the urban areas where all knowledge of how to deal (p.240) with the issue of death has been lost. After he had finished his descriptions, I was perplexed and told him that what he described for India is also seen by some as a growing problem in Germany. I added that in Germany “some people say that is the problem caused by the decline of religious influence.” In addition, I explained him that these people argue that “a materialistic and instrumental view of people like the rationalists on issues like death replaced the religious beliefs and practices in this context.” Finally I asked him: “Should we come back to the religious way of dealing with this?” To this question he answered that “rationalism does not mean that you do not have respect for the dead body.” While elaborating on the point of how one should respect the dead body, Nanawaty admitted that this is very often not the case within medical colleges. Further, all of the explanations and arguments he gave revealed the very deep ambivalence that he felt. On the one hand, he was happy to defend the position of the rationalists, with which he started in the interview and to which he came back at the very end. However, in between these framing statements, he shifted back and forth, appreciating religious traditions and rejecting many of the developments that the critics of the rationalists would attribute to the increase of secular, materialistic, and naturalistic perspectives. Other rationalists I spoke to had similar positions. Without me raising the topic, a dedicated activist, who had been in Europe several times, told me that he also rejects what he knows about the anonymous practices in the West which have the function of repressing an allegedly negative occurrence from public consciousness. “That philosophy of life that does not prepare for birth and death is inadequate. But mythology and religion is just nonsense.”

Although the official and ideal position of the rationalists sounds straightforward and clear, personal acceptance and application is another thing. In these existential questions, the far-reaching gravities that a complete and unconditioned application of the rationalists’ worldview can bring along are brought dramatically to the fore. The rationalists’ extreme attitude toward death is all the more controversial, ambivalent, and prone to stimulate conflicts if more than one person is involved; this is practically always the case. In the conversations I had with rationalists, many gave me the impression that, concerning their own death, they still have to work things out on their own. They often stressed that in cases where a family has to decide what to do after the death of one of its members, positions can clash dramatically. Most of the rationalists who told me that they want no final rituals and their body to be handed over for medical use, nevertheless signaled to me that they would not push this through against the religious feelings of others. Others, like the head of the FIRA and official “patron” of ANiS Narendra Nayak seem to be proud of his uncompromising stance. He recounts in his article “Death of My Father” that “due to my refusal to perform the rites connected with the death, I had earned the wrath of her [his mother's] maternal family as well as my father's family” (2007: 272). At the same time I heard, however, statements like the following one made by a member of ANiS with whom I had debated this topic extensively. He drew a difference between the last rites and the other lifecycle (p.241) rituals like birth or marriage ceremonies. “Death makes a difference as far as rationalism is concerned: You cannot take a decision the way in which you want to take the decision.” He illustrated this with the following example:

If in a family some four or five people are rationalist and only one is religious, as a rationalist, one should listen to this person only. This is not a majority vote because if somebody has important feelings we should not hurt them. Whether those feelings are ok is a different question. Afterwards we will do that analysis. But today, at that moment, we have to agree to whatever the religious person says. As a rationalist, yes, I will also go with that kind of thing and I will follow the rituals. (Pune, 23.08.2007)

In addition, also the above quoted Nanawaty stressed that in all these cases, individual decisions should be respected.

It depends on the individual. If an individual has got rationalist tendencies, if he feels that these [religious ceremonies] are all useless things, good. But even if somebody performs these [religious ceremonies] it does not mean that he follows the religion. We do not oppose it. But one thing is there, if some people have deviated from religious practices, we give a lot of publicity to non-religious ceremonies in our Vartapatr.…A lot of publicity is given so that somebody else gets motivated by such practices. (Pune, 29.10.2007)

In the two magazines Vartapatr and Thought & Action, one indeed finds many articles that debate these issues by discussing for example religious ceremonies and conceptions of death. Similar statements are also to be found in publications of other rationalist organizations in India.

Nayak wrote in his article “Death of my Father”: “One has to analyze the reasons for all the rituals that follow death, particularly when the living have to get into all sorts of problems of the pecuniary kind to perform the rituals. The first seemed to be the demands of the priestly class. The priest is required for every ritual” (2007: 273). Nayak states that it is “not just about my father's death, but all about rituals connected with it” (2007: 272). He supports his argumentation by attributing to Albert Camus the view that “society judges a man by what he does when his mother dies.” According to Nayak, he was conducting a training camp for activists of the Kumaon region about scientific temper when he was informed of the death of his father. He makes an implicit statement by noting that “when I had started on my tour on the 7th of July, it was clear to me that I would not see him [his father] again.” He recounts:

The news of my father's death reached me in the middle of a discussion with a group of trainees…; they were expecting the program to be cancelled. When I said I would continue, they were surprised. For, Uttaranchal is a state, full of many superstitions. A death in the family, they said was a torture of the living. The ceremonies connected with that involved such an expenditure that the living would envy the dead! The priestly class had to be fed and given various gifts including a year's supply of provisions. One can imagine (p.242) this in a hilly area where people have to resort to terrace cultivation and scratch out a meager living. (2007: 272–273)

Similar statements and related articles of exemplary men standing by their rationalism no matter the opposition can be found in publications of other rationalist organizations in India. Some of these accounts go so far as to give the death of a rationalist a status close to that of a martyr. The former president of the Bombay Rationalist Association (1977–1980) and of the Indian Rationalist Association (1978–1983) Yahya Akberali Lakhandwala (1916–1983) is quoted here as one such example. According to his son, on the day of this death, he came back from a meeting with members of the Ahmedabad Rationalist Association and got into a confrontation with Hare Krishna in front of his house, during which he collapsed. According to the rationalist Justice Jahagirda, he said some months before: “After all I must die fighting” and his colleague M. K. Samant noted in the rationalist magazine Ayudh:

Death came to him as to a fighting soldier. He collapsed when he was having an argument with some members of the Hare Ram Hare Krishna Sect on their senseless behaviour. It is as if Yahyabhai gone to “God” to challenge him and ask for an explanation. (1983: 18)

And F. K. Amin and R. V. Shah note in an article of the same memorial magazine that

he lived for Rationalism and died for RATIONALISM. As a true rationalist he desired to donate his eyes to “Eye-Bank” and his dead body to the Medical College for research to Medical students which was fulfilled. (1983: 17)

On the next page of this edition of Ayudh, the declaration of the donation of eyes, the organs, and the dead body of Lokhandwala was also printed. Many more quotes that engage with ideal-typical rationalistic ways of dealing with death from rationalist magazines could be given.

One last quote is given here because it shows that in some respects, there is a kind of ideal rationalist way suggested to the members of the organization. The Freethinker published the last will of N. I. Chacko, a member of the Indian Rationalist Association who died on December 11, 1978 and comments that it “is hoped that all other Rationalists will emulate the example set by him in making their last testament”:

I have no belief in God or in a soul or life after death. I am known, or rather taken as, a Christian, having been born and brought up in a Christian family. Therefore it may be that, unless I leave a testament, my friends and relatives may give me a Christian burial. Let it be known to all concerned that I will have no such non-sense.…When death occurs to me there need not be any fuss. There would be no religious rites or prayers. It is not necessary that my children should be worried about being present at the time of disposal of my body. In fact there should be as little delay as possible in making over my body to the medical profession, the idea being that they should be able to make the best use of my remains. (1979: 52)

(p.243) Summary: rationalism as a way of life

The aim of this chapter was to outline the consequences of rationalism in the everyday lives of ANiS members, in other words, aspects of what I called “lived rationalism.” Different applications of the worldview of rationalism can be as simple as that some rationalists stop drinking alcohol, or so far-reaching that they break with their friends and family, or as controversial as the decision to object to all final rituals in the case of death and rather donate their whole body or some organs for further medical use. I explained why rationalists stress that all people should apply reason to all aspects of life. Such an application of rationalism focuses primarily on moral issues, but other spheres of social life reaching from the interior design of their houses to such practical questions as the number of children in their families can be influenced as well. In some incidences, most prominently life cycle rituals, it is difficult for the rationalists to break free from the prevailing cultural norms and practices.

The second part of this chapter described, against the mainstream Hindu context, how and why the Indian rationalists object to all religious rituals as immoral, as well as ineffective and irrational. For the Indian rationalists, it is important that with respect to rituals, they only accept purely immanent human goods. This became probably most clear with respect to their rejection of the performance of rituals that involve any kind of a “waste of resources.” Charles Taylor locates the moment in time where such arguments established themselves as a relevant atheistic as well as materialistic position in European history. The rationalists’ position on religious rituals in general is captured nicely with the observation that these are “rejected by ‘men of sense’, because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance one's fortune, nor render one more valuable to society” (2007: 263).

Finally, with respect to lived rationalism several of Taylor's descriptions of modern unbelief can be added to highlight certain aspects. This includes the kinds of altruism that can result from exclusive humanism by making benevolence toward all human beings its own reward rather than dependent on supernatural judgment, as Taylor describes the “values of modern moral order” (see 2007: 361). Next, statements by the Indian rationalists like “work is my worship,” their practical applications of rationalism in everyday life and rejection of priests and their religious rituals can be analyzed with Taylor as representative of a kind of modern materialism that values ordinary human nature against outlooks which aspire to some “higher” level of existence in this world or in afterlife. Such a defense of “ordinary human desires against the demands of the supposedly superior renunciative vocations,” according to Taylor, “seems to reach its final end and logical conclusion in materialism” (2007: 362). The rationalists’ combination of exclusive humanism and modern materialism becomes most obvious in the disengaged and instrumental rationalism they apply toward death. Not the (p.244) subjective experience of the mortal individual is of importance but the most rational, efficient and hygienic utilization of the mortal remains for the larger human welfare. The fact that such and related arguments made by Indian rationalists are not met with general approval, but are at times vehemently criticized is outlined in the following chapter.


(1.) In what follows I use “family members” in a rather loose sense since it can refer to a nuclear family at the very least and to the extended family at most. This depends on the individual situations in which the rationalists cited and referred to live.

(2.) According to the article “Ceremonies in India” by Gogineni Babu the third Sikh guru Guru Amar Das (1469–1524) was one of the first to introduce public inter-dining in India. His express purpose was the intermingling of castes so that caste-ism may be eliminated (see 1994: 60). This article is based on a speech Babu gave in 1992 at the IHEU “World Humanist Congress” in Amsterdam. The original version has allegedly been reproduced in Free Inquiry (USA), Indian Skeptic (Tamil Nadu), Modern Rationalist (Tamil Nadu), and in translation in Les Cahiers Rationalistes (French) and Hetuvadi (Telugu); it is published in the book The Humanist Way (Babu 1994).

(3.) This is a hotly debated topic within anthropology and this is not the place to review the contributions of Dumont, McMariott, Edward B. Harper, Mary Douglas, and many more who took part in the respective debates.

(4.) The rationalists use the term ritual as many cultural scientists do. The anthropologist Lewis suggested that the term ritual is commonly used by scientists only as an adjective of compromise to replace the ungainly “magico-religious” (Lewis 1980: 10). J. Goody stated along similar lines that scientists use the concept of ritual as a category of behavior (custom) in which the relationship between the means and the end is not intrinsic; that is, it is either irrational or nonrational” (1961: 159). Sax, in his article “Ritual and the Problem of Efficacy” (2010), opposed the notion “ritual” to the modern “episteme” that is also central for the rationalist's agenda.

(5.) The concept of secular rituals in the cultural sciences is debated within roughly two theoretical contexts. Within ritual theory Moore and Myerhoff published the book Secular Rituals in 1977 with which they highlighted that there are many ritualized practices that have nothing to do with “magico-religious” issues. A second context is that of secularization theories and the question as to why many attempts to get rid of lifecycle rituals failed and how states like the former GDR or the former USSR tried to establish secular alternatives to baptism, confirmation, marriage and Christian funeral rituals.

(6.) Gogineni Babu gives an overview over their history (1994: 47–66). In addition, one can add that in the 19th century, leading social reformers came up with alternative marriage ceremonies such as Phule's and Tripuraneni Ramaswamy's “Vivaha Vidhi.” Banerjee cites from Bengal in the Nineteenth Century by Pardip Sinha that “even during the Young Bengal days the rebels had faced the dilemma between family and freedom” (1979: 23). Banerjee adds: “Brahmo opposition to idolatry led them to seek new marriage ceremonies in Bengal. This movement was all the more important because it aimed at the negation of caste distinctions in marriages. Keshab Chandra Sen's followers took a bold step in 1864 by celebrating inter-caste marriages.…The movement of Keshab Chandra was crowned with success when the ‘Native Marriage Act’ III of 1872 was passed” (1979: 30–31).

(7.) Officially the gotra system has been legally forbidden since the Hindu Marriage and Divorce Act of 1955, but it is nevertheless frequently applied in many strata of Indian society.

(8.) In 1975, the magazine Freethought published an “interview with a rationalist bride” (S. V. Vasundhra who married the general secretary of the IRA A. Suryanarayana without changing her name) that features several “progressive” answers and reflects thereby the comparably “extreme” views of the rationalist. Among these is her answer to the question of whether a secular marriage arrangement should be only between members of the different sex: “No, not necessarily! If it is between members of the same sex, perhaps it will ease our population problem!” (Vasundhra 1975: 132).

(9.) Hiorth notes that for the RAI in 1969, the constitution was amended at the initiative of Joseph Edamaruku such that from then on “members had to abstain from religious ceremonies in their private life” (1998a: 205). With respect to ANiS I never came across such explicit pressure.

(10.) Joshi was a famous radical humanist and writer (see chapter 8) and Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil was famous Maharashtrian reformer who founded the Rayat Shikshan Sanstha (Education Society for the Masses).