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Issue No.: 550 | April 2013

Disenchanting India: Organised Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India By Johannes Quack

Reviewed by Prabhakar Nanawaty

Johannes Quack, an academically qualified in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Anthropology is currently a research fellow at McGill University, Montréal, Canada. He has painstakingly documented various aspects of rationalism as practiced in India by travelling the length and breadth of the country. He met many contemporary rationalists and recorded their views about rationalism. He attended a seminar organized by the Federation of Rationalist Associations in India hosted by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, (ANS - which Prof. Quack refers to in his book under review by the acronym ANiS). While interviewing rationalists, he spent much time with ANS activists to record their views. The book, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, is the result of his studies, observations and experiences. 

This book, largely based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, is about the Indian rationalist, atheist, humanist, and freethinkers' movement. He describes his research as 'multisited' ethnography. In classical research, researchers generally limit their efforts to interviews, seminars, studying related documents, collecting inputs through questionnaires, visiting places and videotaping. However, this researcher, in addition to these methodologies, spent time with the activists to get the feel of, and insight into, the organization under study. His critical assessment of ANS can be summed up as a 'Social Audit'.

The prevailing rationalist movements in India explicitly challenge the belief in supernatural powers as practiced by charismatic gurus even in this age of advanced science and technology. All these rationalist movements are engaged in showing a way out of the enchanted, imaginative world towards a rational and this worldly way of life. The rationalists stress the fact that there has always been rationalism and criticism of religion throughout India’s history such as the Charvakas, Lokayatas and reformists like, Basaveshwar, Sant Kabir, Sant Tukaram, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Mahatma Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Agarkar, Maharshi Karve, Raghunath Karve, Periyar E.V. Ramasami, M.N. Roy, Gora, Dr. Ambedkar and Abraham Kovoor among others.

The first part of this book is about Indian Rationalists of an earlier era based upon sparse literature available. The author tries to explain the notion of 'mode of disbelief' and its relationship to the notion of 'mode of religiosity'. While doing so the author elaborates the concepts of 'rationality', 'irrationalism' and 'rationalization' as employed by various western philosophers and compares those concepts in the Indian context. For some, rationalism means fight for justice and equality, avoid violence and search for the truth. For a few, rationalism is that philosophy of life that is based upon the reasoning faculty of a person. That may be one of the reasons why Indian rationalists call themselves buddhivaadi, vivekvaadi, tarkvaadi, yuktivaadi, even manavataavaadi. The differences among them appear to be related to the individual’s belief in the existence/non-existence of God. 

Humanists are simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives. Rationalists want to link humanism, rationalism, atheism, science and technology, the scientific temper and power of reason in order to live a contented life, emotionally and physically. While concluding theoretical aspects of rationalism, the author quotes Max Weber and Charles Taylor extensively. 

In the next part, he traces the roots of organized rationalism in India by quoting Charvaka and Vedic materialism. He describes the Bhakti movement led by saints like Basaveshwar, Kabir, Tukaram and others who questioned the blind traditions practiced during that period. In fact, these saints attacked the superstitions then prevailing in the society. However, rationalism in its strictest sense only appeared during the colonial period when western philosophers like Ingersoll, Bradlaugh, and Bertrand Russell attracted intellectuals who studied English language and were exposed to western culture. Agarkar, Mahatma Phule, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy etc. were the founders of organized rationalism in the latter half of 19th century. In fact, these movements can be termed as religious reform movements to contextualize the emergence of rationalism.

Early 20th century saw the growth of various rationalist organizations in various parts of India by well-educated intellectuals with strong affinities to western education and culture. Jawaharlal Nehru and M. N. Roy, for instance, contributed to the growth of rationalism in India. The Atheist Centre, founded in 1940 by Gora appears to be a milestone in popularizing practical rationalism. R. D. Karve and his colleagues wrote extensively on various aspects of rationalism in their Reason magazine despite opposition from the society and rulers. These organizations started challenging gurus and ‘godmen’ like Satya Saibaba. Dr. H. Narasimhaiah and Dr. Abraham Kovoor tried their best to convince society of the fraudulent activities of Saibaba by exposing his ‘supernatural powers’. However, most of the rationalists confined their activities to writing articles in newspapers and magazines and participating in public debates. Kovoor, who gave momentum to the movement by his miracle-exposure campaigns, was quite famous for his entertaining rhetoric and fascinated large groups of people by giving lectures/demonstrations and exposing the tricks of the 'godmen'. The late B. Premanand of Kerala took over the task of exposing ‘godmen’, touring extensively to spread the message and inspiring many youths of post independent India.

The remaining part of the book covers the fieldwork done with ANS. He gives a detailed ethnographical account of ANS describing in detail their activities of spreading scientific temper, campaign against superstitions, exposure of ‘godmen’, efforts to enact the anti-superstition bill, distributing the magazines and literature published by them, etc. While accompanying the ANS activists on a tour of Maharashtra, the author wanted to see people’s reaction to their activities. He wanted to observe how the activists of ANS try to convince people that some of the beliefs and events so central to their everyday lives are harmful and pathological. They try to show them that they are based on illusions or that they are made up by people who fool and exploit them in the name of religion, traditions or rituals. The author wanted to see to what extent people reacted to the satisfaction of the activists. ANS try to see things with the perspectives of the villagers, children and college students and involve them in their programs through games, tricks, songs and other interactive elements. The programs chosen are very simple and the participation is lively. He concludes that the didactical methods applied are of a high level.

Prof. Quack noted that activists never shied away from challenging and provoking the gods, deities and spirits, ridiculing the people claiming to be capable of controlling black magic and deliberately doing the most inauspicious things. They related harmful religious practices with superstitions and advocated scientific temper as the remedy for these age-old ills. In fact, the programs, which were interactive in nature, persuaded the listeners to participate and change their attitude. Through this participation, activists tried to invoke the spirit of inquiry within them. The author has analysed in detail the strengths and weaknesses of ANS which appears to be quite truthful and unbiased. He raises the question whether or not rationalism is to be understood as directly opposing religion, since ANS has taken a moderate and rather vague position in this regard. 

While probing individual interpretations and applications of rationalism in day-to-day life, the author approached many activists to find out how the rationalistic attitude is applicable in family relations, marriages, festivals, births, deaths, etc. Surprisingly he found varied opinions on these matters. In fact, ANS activists believe that the fight against irrationality and the fight against injustice are one and the same. However, the author has praised non-religious marriage ceremonies and non-religious ways of dealing with death as advocated by ANS. 

In his concluding remarks, the author is of the opinion that Indian rationalisms are in the process of trying to disenchant the Indian public – that everything in the world is, in principle, explainable (by science) without any reference to supernatural entities (like religion, spirituality and miracles). He takes an overview of the world rationalistic movements and tries to analyse them in the Indian context. Rationalism has come a long way and its votaries are variously described as Agnostics, Atheists, Brights, Clandestine, Freethinkers, (Secular) Humanists, Infidels, Secularists, Liberals, etc. He concludes that the Indian Rationalist Movement can be seen as a part of a larger ongoing trans-rational movement. 

Prof. Frederick Smith of University of Iowa mentions in the blurb that Johannes Quack has ventured into new territory in his close study of the Indian Rationalist Movement particularly its manifestations in the early twenty-first century Maharashtra. He has combined ethnographic analysis, social theory, and a deep knowledge of Indian history with reflections on secularism, religious belief, rationality enhancement, and disenhancement; the result is a vivid depiction of India in the throes of modernity, in which class, gender, nationalism, and ideological and discursive strategy are contesting for the very future of India. This excellent volume must be examined by anyone interested in modern and contemporary India because it addresses in a most illuminating way a desperately understudied topic. 

RELIGION IN INDIA by Johannes Quack _ Oxford University Press (New York)
Also available on _ 2011 _ Pages 362 _ Rs.995.

Reviewed by PRABHAKAR NANAWATY, Editor, Thought and Action, the official journal
of the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee. Email:






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