An Atheist In India

08/12/2014 11:58 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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ALLAHABAD, INDIA - 2014/11/06: Hindu devotees offer prayers on the bank of River Yamuna during the 'Dev Deepavali' festival, on the last day of holy month Kartik at Baluaghat, at Allahabad. (Photo by Amar Deep/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Neither desire for heaven nor fear of an imaginary hell / My work-filled world is free of the lies of rewards / What I see with these eyes, what my senses capture / Are all I accept. I know that the formless invisible / Is only deception, I do not believe in fate or gifts from gods / My universe is stuffed with material, enchanted reality / Perceived by my sense organs, not impalpable / My heart is the slaughterhouse of blind faith / The finest human being is one whose mind is free / Of god. I bow my head every day to this atheist.

These are the words of the Bangladeshi poet Nirmalendu Goon, translated into English from Bengali. His battle is against the artifice of the afterlife, within reach not of the sense organs or of rational intelligence, but of blind faith alone. For a long time in India, this was the struggle of the atheist too -- to travel upstream against the current of a widespread and largely unquestioned belief in the existence of god, who has the power to answer prayers and protect humans from harm of all kinds -- financial, physical and emotional.

Not any more.

But first, the mandatory disclosure: I am an atheist. I was born and brought up in a typical Calcutta urban family whose members paid obeisance to a chosen few among the Hindu pantheon, not with much religious zeal, but with an eye on covering all the bases to ensure that wishes were fulfilled.

The school for boys that I went to was run by Christian missionaries who, back in the 1970s, cared little for anything other than the education and physical well-being of the students. Yes, there was the ritual enunciation of the Lord's Prayer every morning, followed by the reflexive touching of a square panel on a wall and crossing oneself -- till the Rector revealed that the spot we were so reverent about was actually a cover for electrical wiring.

So, Christian god and Hindu gods were unobtrusive presences in my growing up years, but they might as well not have existed for all the influence they seemed to have on our sorrows and joys. It's not so much that I actively chose not to believe in their existence as the fact that they made themselves invisible and, therefore, redundant. Teachers, parents, and friends held the key to happiness, not some so-called authority up there.

As I drifted gently towards atheism, the need to associate myself with a religion also became superfluous. At home and in school, I began to assert more loudly than I needed to that I believed in no religion. And that I could not be considered a Hindu for genealogical reasons alone. In school, there would be a survey of religions every year. The form had no option for atheism. I assiduously added it by hand every time the form had to be filled in.

In the Calcutta where I grew up, beef, pork and ham were so delicious that there was no question of genuflecting to any religion that needed me to avoid these. Society was genuinely multi-cultural and the specificity of other people's religions didn't seem important at all. The violent ultra-left revolution that ran through Calcutta and Bengal didn't find it necessary to attack religion, for it was a private matter and not a huge influence on crucial political and personal choices.

But that was then. It's a different story in India now.

Religious identity and gaudy displays of prescribed rituals encroach routinely on daily life and social spaces today, turning a regrettably large part of interpersonal exchanges into clashes between religious ideologies. And, inevitably, these collisions are not between ideas, but between invectives. What has been left behind, in the process, is the fundamental conflict between theism and atheism.

No one cares that I have no god. They only want to know which god I believe in. An atheist is not seen as taking a rational stand, only as being against one religion or another. What makes me happy, though, is that I am almost everyone's enemy as a result of this. Rabid Hindus think I am pro-Muslim -- because, let's not beat around the bush, if you're not with us you're against us. Moderate Hindus think I am denying my roots out of misguided Westernisation. Followers of other religions alternate between shaking their heads sadly -- you're going straight to hell -- and being belligerent -- are we fools and you, the only clever one?

But no one in India will engage me in a debate -- or even a passionate argument -- on the logic of theism.

The advent and growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose ideology is powered by the hard-core Hindutva of the cadre-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has given new muscle to a large swathe of young and middle-aged people born into Hindu families, who are delighted to pinpoint the other -- you know whom we are talking about -- as the enemy. Who needs friends for support and companionship when you can have an enemy to mind -- and word-bomb? This in turn has hardened the religious identities of those who follow other canonical paths to their chosen gods.

The opposition, then, is between religions, not between atheism and theism. (And I'm not even going into the hysterics of the 'spiritual but no religious' brigade, who talk dreamily of 'some force out there'.)

That's why it's no fun being an atheist in India today. No one wants to prove you wrong. It's lonely.

The poem above has been used with the permission of the author.

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