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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 14 New Delhi March 24, 2018

Breaking Idols, Fearing Ideals: An Analysis of the Rationalist Movement in India

Friday 23 March 2018

by Divyanshu Patel

Any opposition not based on rationalism or science or experience will one day or other, reveal the fraud, selfishness, lies and conspiracies”

Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy

This article makes an attempt to understand rationalism as a thought in the light of contemporary politics and a series of events such as killing of rationalists like Govind Pansare, D.R. Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh and most recently vandalising the statue of Periyar in Tamil Nadu. These events have shaken the conscience of our nation and the founding principles on which the modern Indian nation was envisioned.

Thus, rationalism should not be understood only in ideational term and academic discourse in today’s India, but also in its necessity as a way of life in a hierarchical society like ours. The Indian Constitution in itself embodies and endorses the spirit of rationality. The idea of reason and developing a scientific temper is stated and embedded in the Constitution and articulated in Section 51 A stating cultivating scientific temper as a fundamental duty. This article seeks to examine how rationalism as an idea has had a deeper presence in actions and articulations of the masses, despite repeated threats from various quarters. In later iterations, I will make an attempt to elucidate on two other aspects: rationalism and its impact on Indian polity and the need for a rational outlook while formulating and envisioning the structure, system and policies concerning education.

The commonplace association of rationality only with the ‘West’ is a misguided belief. (Quack, 2011) The rationalist in the Indian context is against the destructive and indiscriminately violent practices that religion sanctions and legitimises. This is even more significant in the current context where biases—communal, caste and gender-based—are growing rapidly. The recent cases of racist attacks and ideologically driven propagandist initiatives are telling examples of the loss of reason. This is again pushing the country into a dangerous position because for welfare the need of rational thinking is immensely crucial. It is stated so because it is inextricably intertwined with the other ideals embedded in our Constitution. For instance, being secular has to be looked at in consonance with the idea of rationality.

Recent events testify the need to analyse rationalism and its concomitant concerns. The need is to look at how it functions as an underlying ideological basis of social movements. The opposition to those exercising rational thought in their efforts to effect a constructive change in the society is also a manifest example of what-is-rationalism and how it is perceived. The murder of Dabholkar on August 20, 2013 is a telling example of the same. Subscribing to rationalist thought, Dabholkar had been a vociferous opponent of the practice of superstitious beliefs and practises. Dabholkar’s Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANS), Organisation for Eradication of Superstition, as an organi-sation opposes the idea of exploitative religion and not religion per se in principle. (Quack, 2011)

It is imperative to recognise the initiatives undertaken to create awareness against malpractices, situating it as a roadblock to development and highlighting it as antithetical to reason. Dabholkar’s death was marked by a proactive step by the State of Maharashtra—enacting the Maharashtra Eradication of Blind Faith Bill as a law—wherein such practices were criminalised. This bill seeks to outlaw practices of black magic, spirit exorcisms, and blind faith. It places into effect the idea that there is “close relation which is observable between positive social change and what characteristics mark the idea of rationalism”. (Ranganathan, 2014, 15)

The case of Dabholkar and Pansare points towards the idea that rationalism entails applying a scientific perspective and reason to the understanding of the world around. This idea challenges the view that scientific is not only concerned with the study of science. Generating awareness and criticality in the analysis of the everyday events and actions is the application of rationalist thought which is sought to be explored in this series of research articles. Crusaders of these views have been silenced by forces that fear the impact of rational thought and perceive it to be a threat. A telling example of this being Gauri Lankesh, a voice that challenged the very basis of extremism and irrational thought. Vandalising the statue of Periyar should not be seen in isolation too; it is also in the line of that thought process which sees any ideology based on rational thinking and propagating equality as its opponent.

Rationalist Icon and Masses

Being born in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh at a time when India was witnessing a landslide change, both at the social and political fronts, one did not have any sense of unfamiliarity with ‘what is rationalism’ or ‘what are rationalist movements’ (across the world and in India). This was perhaps because of the vibrant social environment that many in my generation experienced since the very beginning. Resonant of rational views, the appeal of the vibrant slogans and emotional campaigns were always for the shared idea of an inclusive society. Portraits of Buddha, Phule, Shahuji Maharaj, Periyar, Rammanohar Lohia, Ram Swaroop Verma, Lalai Yadav were never unfamiliar to the common masses. The strange aspect was that despite this, engagement with the Indian rationalist movement and its icons in the academic domain fell short of mass mobilisation that it generated in the public domain.

Rationalism is not only an academic discourse in India but it has been a way of life for many people to resist the long subjugation of human rights in the name of identities like caste, gender or religion. That is the reason why Periyar was a hero for rationalists like Ram Swaroop Verma, Lalai Yadavin north India. There is a common thread between all of them which binds their ideas and makes them as one common force against the larger complex web of discrimination and prejudices, aptly termed as Manuvaad or Brahmanvaad—a convenient reference-point for any kind of act harming human dignity.

The sway of unreason, it becoming normalised and commonplace is a dangerous phenomena that necessitates a rational outlook with a heightened sense of urgency. The moot argument is that though the masses might be unfamiliar with rationalism as an academic concept, its icons were never alien to them, especially taking into consideration the socio-cultural movements of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and more importantly in Northern India by organisations like the BAMCEF and DS4 in the early 1980s. (Kumar, 2014)

Understanding Rationalist Movement 

Quack (2012) states that the emergence of rationalism, or rather the organised rationalist movement, cannot be traced only as an intervention of the West. The emergence and spread of rationalism as an “impact-response schema” (Quack, 2012, 67) is a flawed understanding. Instead he situates it back to the religious and social reforms of the nineteenth century that saw the emergence of the rationalist tendencies massively in the public sphere. Quack (2011) describes it as the “substructure” of rationalism in India. Linked to that was the enormous impact effected by the association with the Western anti-religious groups. Also pertinent is the consideration that strands of what is under the purview of rationalist thought derive from ancient Indian materialism—the Lokayata and Carvaka—and the medieval Bhakti Movement. Quack highlights the continuous harking back by the rationalist organisations to the former as the philosophical basis of rationalism. The point of reference which forms the basis of commonality is the assigning of the supernatural as delusionary. Quack further points out that the Buddha and his teachings, primarily the characteristic of its questioning of the Brahmanical ideas and norms, find relevance in the central ideas that comprise the understanding of rationalism in India.

The secular reformatory agenda and the critique of the religious practices within the Bhakti movement place them in a position of being the ideological predecessors of rationalism. Quack highlights that there is an identification with the articulations of the Bhakti Saints—Kabir, Tukaram—that offer “rational and critical perspective on religious authorities and their claims to authoritative knowledge”. (p. 59) This is indicative of Indian rationalism having distinct roots in the idea of Western rationalism and not merely being classified as an off-shoot of what came about through exposure to the West via the colonial route. But the impact of the Western ideas of Enlightenment and organised movements, especially in the 19th century, particularly in Britain, cannot be disregarded.

The term “rationalism” as a label for the worldview of an organised group of people critical of “religion” is clearly derived from 19th century Britain. (Quack, 2011, 73)

Tracing the genealogy of the rationalist movement in 19th century Britain, Quack (2011) documents how key figures and organisations effected the coming together of the freethinkers as a movement. Robert Owen (1771-1858), a social reformer, created in 1839 a “Rational Religion”, which led the public to call his followers “Rationalists” and in 1942, his association was renamed the “Rational Society”. George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), one of Owen’s successors and most influential followers, became one of the leading figures within the anti-religious movement in England in the middle of the century. Quack (2011), citing Colin, highlights that the there were approximately 60 rationalist groups in Britain culminating in the formation of the “National Secular Society” in 1866. Further Rationalist activities in England culminated in the foundation of the “Rationalist Press Association” (RPA), a London-based organisation, that defined “rationalism” in 1899 as “the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority”. (Martin, 1992, as cited in Quack, 2011) Charles Bradalaugh and Annie Basent were the key figures with respect to the spread of rationalism to India.

Further, Quack (2011) highlights in the article “Organised Atheism in India” that there was a considerable engagement of the individuals involved in the emerging rationalist and atheist movement in twentieth-century India with the organisations supporting the cause in the west. An example of the same is the association with the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) in London.

“Throughout their histories, the Indian groups maintained links with like-minded groups in the West, especially the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Most of the contemporary Indian rationalist and atheist groups are connected through the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) which was founded by the Keralan rationalist Basava Premanand (1930—2009) in 1997.” (Quack., 2011, 51)

An instance of the organised functioning dealt elaborately is the Atheist Centre (1940) estab-lished by Gora in Mudnur, Andhra Pradesh. Quack documents that this centre, in consonance with the commitment to atheism and scientific temper, actively publishes and organises activities that serve as forums for deliberation on humanist issues and concerns. Another telling example of organised rationalism is Phule’s radical anti-caste movement, the Satyashodhak Samaj,

Interestingly, Quack (2011) explains that a point of continuity across rationalist organisations is the advertising of a ‘challenge’, that is the offering of reward to anybody who can prove to have supernatural powers under conditions specified by the respective groups. The intended motivation clearly lies in the will to dispel the misplaced understanding of the fact pitched in through self-proclaimed divinities and to raise general awareness regarding the harmful effects of the same.

Further, the opposition to the supernatural is the common thread that associates the rational and the atheist. (Bandiste, cited in Quack, 2011) The supernatural is primarily seen as being driven and understood in the realm of the religious. The engagement of these organisations is with multiple facets of anything and everything that has an impact on daily life. This demonstrates the concern that the attempt is to remove the factors within everyday life that lead to the belief in ritualistic and potentially harmful practices.

Periyar and Rationalism

As the founder of the Self-Respect Movement Periyar too stated the need for eradication of social evils, promotion of rationalism, and freeing the society from the shackles of superstitions and blind faith in God. His aim was to establish a casteless society functioning only on the basis of equality. And for this goal the rational path was extremely important for him. This is evidenced in a very explicit manner in the Tamil and English journal that he published, Pagutharivu which means “rationalism” in Tamil and The Modern Rationalist. In fact, Periyar gave an important place to rationalism in his Self-Respect Movement.

“We want the people to live as rational beings. We do not propagate anything unbelievable. We do not talk anything based on god, children of gods, incarnations, religion, shastras, customs, and so on. We talk of things acceptable to our sense of reasoning.” (Periyar, 1971)

 Periyar’s social movement is strongly based on the idea of rationalism and he saw it as a solution to many of the societal problems emerging out of the lack of rational outlook. He stressed the necessity of independent thought and reasoning in bringing about positive social action. Further, the importance of independent thought and not being influenced by a particular monopolistic worldview is significant. He attaches great value to the sense of reasoning as a human capability. Also there is a very strong resistance to the God-idea and for him it is just an explanation that man has constructed as a personal preference—an outcome of the inability to understand the nature of things by humans. According to him, this belief was a hindrance to progress. He rejects blind conformity and even the idea of idol worship as being unacceptable to him. He clearly articulates his position as an atheist. (Ramendra, 2007)

“I confess that I am an atheist in a manner in which I am spoken of.” (as cited in Ramendra, 2007)

Periyar questioned the creation of the divine as distinct and above the human. This, according to him, promoted a false dichotomy and was misleading in nature. The opposition to religion is evident starkly in Why should Religion be Abolished where he argues that religion suppresses rationalism and destroys social unity by making human beings think that they belong to separate communities. He raises a question mark on the idea of divinity as a misplaced notion because of the ever-increasing number of claimants of the divine which create a disconnect between what was stated as GOD and the followers.

Thus what is evident in these formulations is that Periyar challenged the superficial authority of religion and the distinctions that it generates. For him, religion is a barrier to progress as it generates hindrances to equitable social welfare. A vociferous opponent of caste-generated inequalities, Periyar too questions the Brahmanical supremacy in Manu’sCode, seeing it as an instrument for Brahmin dominance and monopoly over the society. Linked to the same is the support to women’s equality and need for education. The rational ideal is mirrored in the condemnation of the imposition of ideals through marriages not involving consent and the prevalence of unjust practices such as the Devadasi system which demeans women in the name of religion. Thus it is quite evident that Periyar supported a rational and secular ethic which he applied to a rigorous critique of all social injustices.

Way Forward

Rationalism as an academic discourse has still not become the focal point and there is a serious dearth of relevant literature on the subject. There has not been a serious attempt to map the nuances of the rationalist movement in the Indian society. In stark contrast the icons of rationalism have had a far-reaching presence and have transformed the political discourse of the country. Based on doctoral research till date and activism, this is an attempt to fill the gap and engage with this concept academically.


• Ambedkar, B.R. 1979, Dr B.R. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches Vol 1-17, Delhi: Dr Ambedkar Foundation. https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_01.pdf

• Bandiste, D. D., 1999, Understanding Rationalism, Indore: Rationalist Publications.

• Chandra, S., 2002, “Religion and State in India and Search for Rationality”, Social Scientist,30: 3/4, 78-84. doi:10.2307/3518078

The Indian Express,http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/narendra-dabholkar-murder-case-a-timeline-2847149/ accessed on March 20, 2017.

• Ilangovan, S., 2010, “Rationalist Responses to Hinduism in India”, The Human Prospect. 4:3. http://www.institutefor scienceandhumanvalues.com/pdf/THP_V4-3_Iilangovan.pdf accessed on March 20, 2017.

• Kumar, V., 2014, Caste and Democracy in India: Perspective from Below. New Delhi: Gyan Publications.

• Oommen, T., 1977, “Sociological Issues in the Analysis of Social Movements in India”, Sociological Bulletin.26(1), 14-37. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23618291

• Periyar, E.V.R., 2005, Collected Works of Periyar, E.V.R. Chennai: The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution.

• Phule, M.J., 1991, Collected Works of Mahatma Jotirao Phule (Vol. 2.) Bombay: The Education Department: Government of Maharashtra.

• Quack, Johannes, 2011, Disenchanting India: Organised Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, New York: Oxford University Press.

• Quack, J., 2012, “Organised Atheism in India: An Overview”, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27:1, 67-85, DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2012.642729.

• Ramendra, 2007, Rationalism, Humanism and Atheism in Twentieth century Indian Thought, Patna: Buddhiwadi Foundation, http://drramendrashomepage.blogspot.in/2007/12/my-free-e-book-rationalism-humanism-and.html?m=1~

• Ranganathan, S., 2014, “The Rationalist Movement Against Quack Healing”, Economic and Political Weekly. 49:1, 13-15.

• Venkateswaran, T.V., 2013, “The Dilemmas and Challenges Faced by the Rationalist Indian”, Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 36.

Divyanshu Patel is writing his doctoral disseration on “Rationalist movement in India” at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU and is known for his long activism with the Bamcef.

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