The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 4.
India is an overwhelming experience. The crowds, the color, the beauty, and the poverty enthrall and exhaust a visitor. The subcontinent of more than 900 million people is full of exotic sights and startling contrasts: sacred cows in the middle of eight-lane traffic jams; the gorgeous saris and jewelry worn even by street-dwellers; pilgrims ritually purifying themselves in a sacred river as it flows out of a hydroelectric dam; color televisions in rural mud-huts. One striking contrast is that India is a country saturated by religions - Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism - but is also the home of the largest and most active humanist movement in the world.
I was in India to visit its humanist groups and to gain firsthand knowledge of their internationally renowned development projects and social welfare programs. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was holding its annual board meeting in Bombay on January 1 and 2, 1996, and several Indian humanist groups organized international conferences to coincide with this event.
The first conference I attended was organized by the Indian Radical Humanists, who also hosted the IHEU Board meeting. (The religious right in the United States may be interested to hear that the leaders of the international humanist movement were transported to their board meeting in a mobile abortion clinic.) The theme was "Integrated Human Development in South Asia," and the venue was the remarkable new Radical Humanist headquarters in Bombay, the M. N. Roy Human Development Campus. When completed in 1997, the four-story campus building will have over 200,000 square feet of floor space. It will house a women's welfare center, health clinics, conference halls, libraries, educational facilities, a hostel, an arts center, and much else besides. Part of it will become the South Asian Humanist Centre, dedicated to advancing humanism throughout the region.
The inspiration behind this magnificent center is Dr. Indumati Parikh, president of the Indian Radical Humanists. In the early 1960s Dr. Parikh moved to live in one of the worst slums in Bombay. She set up a medical center there to bring health care and basic social services to the inhabitants of the shacks and tents. She still works in the slum, but she now has over 100 co-workers. These volunteers include some of the leading doctors in Bombay, along with many women from the slums. Dr. Parikh's operating area has over 100,000 people, but her influence reaches much further as many other aid and development agencies have learned from her methods.
Dr. Parikh's humanist approach to improving social conditions emphasizes education and empowerment. For example, she has promoted family planning by giving women the means and the confidence to control their fertility. Through health, hygiene, and education programs she has drastically reduced the rate of infant mortality. Now that parents can be confident that their children will live to adulthood, they are prepared to limit their family size to the number of children they are able to adequately support.
Practical development work is also carried out by the second humanist organization I visited - the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The Atheist Centre hosted a World Atheist Congress, entitled "Positive Atheism for a Positive Future." The title neatly captures the core idea of the Atheist Centre, which was founded in 1940 by the social activists Gora and Saraswathi - a husband-and-wife team who were colleagues of Mahatma Gandhi.
Conferences are usually held in specialized conference centers completely isolated from the day-to-day work and concerns of the organizers and participants. But the Atheist Congress was held in the midst of the Atheist Centre, near the modest living quarters of the workers and their school, hospital, and training center. These surroundings gave the conference a very practical focus and a warmer, more human atmosphere. On the opening evening the school children put on a wonderful display of dancing. The Atheist Centre's dance troupe, using traditional Indian dance forms to convey humanist messages, is so highly regarded that it has given performances in the President's Palace in New Delhi.
The Atheist Centre, like Dr. Parikh's group, has received substantial financial support from the IHEU development program administered by the Council for Secular Humanism. Its hospital specializes in corrective surgery for the physically disabled, especially polio victims. Thousands of children have received - free of charge - surgery, leg braces, and physical therapy. The educational work of the center includes education in health care and training in job skills. The Science Exhibition Hall - which was given funding last year by the IHEU - is visited by school children from throughout the region.
In addition to promoting scientific understanding, the Indian humanist groups apply scientific methods to expose the tricks of India's many godmen and fakirs. In recent months the Indian Rationalist Association's "guru-busting" exposures have been covered in the New York Times and on British television. During last year's reports of "milk-drinking" Hindu statues, the explanations of skeptics and humanists were given far greater coverage in India than in the West. Consequently, fascination with the alleged phenomena lasted much longer in Europe and America than it did in India.
Fire-walking is an alleged miracle of mind over matter often used by Indian fakirs. The gurus claim that mystical powers can enable their faithful followers to walk on hot coals. The Atheist Centre therefore put on its own fire-walking display at the end of the conference, to show that faithless skeptics could survive the hot-coal treatment just as well as mystics. I was astonished by how searingly hot the coals actually were. The heat made it uncomfortable for me to stand within five feet of them. Nevertheless, a dozen people walked over the red-hot coals several times each. The bed of coals was about six feet long, requiring three or four steps from each walker. One walker was burnt, probably from walking too slowly. The others were unharmed. Unfortunately, they had to restrict the numbers of walkers so I did not get a chance to take a stroll on the coals myself. The skeptics explain fire-walking by non-mystical physics: the heat conductivity of charcoal is relatively low, so that if someone walks quickly enough over the coals he or she will not be burnt. A mundane explanation for a very impressive demonstration.
The Atheist Centre - through a subgroup called the Association for Economic Equality - runs programs for "Integrated Rural Development" in parts of Andhra Pradesh (population 80 million) where government services are unavailable. They select very poor villages to develop into model communities by means of integrated programs in health care, nutrition, basic education, vocational training, and economic and social transformation. The Association currently operates in 150 villages. Over the last twenty years its programs have directly helped many hundreds of thousands of families. And the example provided by the model villages influence many areas where the Atheists are not directly involved.
The Integrated Rural Development program combines humanist principles with some of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, with whom Gora and his family lived for a time. But whereas Gandhi tried to maintain village life by opposing modernization, the Atheists use science and modern thinking to give people the means to improve the quality of their lives without having to leave their villages. Through educational programs and by practical example, the Atheists promote a scientific, secular, and democratic outlook among the villagers, and support the ideals of self-sufficiency, equality, ecological sustainability, social responsibility, a simple life-style, and the decentralization of political and economic decision-making.
I visited the village of Srikakulam, where the Atheist Centre runs many projects, including a school for disadvantaged children and a rural hospital with an operating theater, maternity home, and pharmacy. It treats about 3,000 patients a month and trains twenty multi-purpose paramedics a year. The work of the Atheist Centre is supported by many international charities, including Oxfam and the Save the Children Fund. In 1985 Princess Anne of Great Britain, in her role as president of the Save the Children Fund, spent a whole day at Srikakulam with the British ambassador to India, and said on her return to England, "The Atheists are doing wonderful work in India."
In Srikakulam we were shown the work of handloom weavers at a nearby village. In 1990 some of the handloom weavers had starved to death because they could not earn any income in the face of mechanized competition. Learning of this tragedy, the Atheist Centre developed a program that, through the introduction of new equipment, special fabric designs, and sophisticated marketing techniques, tripled the weavers' incomes by 1995.
Another subgroup of the Atheist Centre, called Samskar, is an organization for "the rehabilitation of the socially abandoned." Samskar has two main projects: the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of so-called criminal tribes and the eradication of the system of religious prostitution.
The criminal tribes are believed to be descended from a caste of thieves who, since the British classified them as hereditary criminals in the nineteenth century, have been kept in special settlements where they are given no chance to create a life outside their "hereditary role." They are cut off from the rest of society and treated very badly. Over the last twenty years Samskar has worked both to change social attitudes toward these people and to provide them with counseling, education, and job training.
The tradition of religious prostitution also has its origins in the caste system. Parents belonging to particular sub-castes of "Untouchables" may "marry" their young daughters to a local god. The parents do this for money, to please the village chief, or to propitiate the gods. When the girls reach puberty, they are ritually raped by the village chief and thereafter cannot refuse sexual services to any higher-caste man in the village. The religious prostitutes - called jogini in Andhra Pradesh - are treated with contempt by villagers. They often die young after giving birth to many children.
In 1986 the Atheist Centre succeeded in getting the state of Andhra Pradesh to make it illegal to initiate girls to a life as jogini. Samskar runs a rehabilitation program for the girls and women who have been affected. The jogini learn to read and write and are taught sewing, housekeeping, and farming. Their children are educated. Under a government scheme the ex-prostitutes are given a small patch of land and some livestock. In 1990 there were estimated to be 15,000 jogini in Andhra Pradesh alone, but the Atheist Centre believes they will have eliminated all religious prostitution in India within ten years.
The experience of visiting these projects illuminated the discussions that took place at the conferences, as did the daily experiences of being in India. I think children are chosen to beg from Westerners only if they are strikingly beautiful or terribly disfigured. I was approached either by winsome five-year-olds who pleaded for money so they could eat or by lepers holding out the stump of a hand. The effect is to break your heart, or harden your heart, or both.
The humanist groups in India work to address the poverty and suffering by direct aid, as with their medical work and occupational training programs. But they also address the social, cultural, and economic issues that underlie these problems. The humanist approach to development recognizes the dignity and potential of every individual and, therefore, focuses on giving people the self-respect and the means to solve their own problems. But it also recognizes that personal development takes place in a social context, and that as well as working with individuals we must improve the social environment they live in.
To understand the work and goals of humanists in India it is necessary to understand Hindu culture. Hinduism is polytheistic and polymorphous. It is an organic religion that has grown over four millennia. It has a strong element of animism, with thousands of local gods and spirits, often represented by or inhabiting stones, streams, and trees. It also has atheistic traditions (perhaps it is easier for a polytheistic religion to accept atheism than for a monotheistic one), represented, for example, by the Jains. Hindus accept Buddhism and Sikhism as offshoots. And Hinduism has incorporated elements from the imported religions of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity and has in turn influenced the Indian forms of these religions.
Hinduism is able to incorporate not only the teachings of other faiths, but also their teachers. In Vijayawada we visited a sixth century c.e. Hindu temple carved into a cliff overlooking the holy river Krishna. One of the statues inside the temple was a thirty-foot reclining Buddha. But the Buddha's appearance had been changed to represent the Hindu god Vishnu, in accordance with the Hindu belief that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu.
This striking reminder of the adaptability of Hinduism was matched by a symbol of its retreat from the world. At the very top of the stone temple there was a small cave dug into the cliff-face. Generations of holy men had lived out their lives in this hole, meditating for decades in the belief that their meditations would make the world a better place. The temple was beautiful, but the hermit hole revolted me. Many of the statues and carvings of gods represented sex, fertility, and the creativity of life. They were celebrating this world and human nature in a down-to-earth way rarely seen in Christianity. But, surrounded by all the statues of Vishnu and Shiva incarnate, this hole represented futility incarnate. I was glad to go back to the Atheist Centre where people try to improve humanity's lot, not by retreating from the world, but by engaging it and providing practical solutions to its problems.
The atheist and humanist groups in India are considered radical and controversial not so much because they are atheistic - Buddha himself did not believe in any god - but because they reject the concept of karma. Karma underpins the caste system, and the caste system traditionally determines the position and role of every member of Hindu society. Caste determines an individual's place in society, the work he or she may carry out, and who he or she may marry and meet. Hindus believe that the karma of a previous life determines which caste an individual is (re)born into. In Hinduism all men are born unequal: caste is pre-determined and unchangeable.
The highest caste is the Brahmins (the priest caste, of course) and the lowest caste are the Untouchables. As their name indicates, the Untouchables were shunned by all other castes and excluded from society. Even in the smallest villages, Untouchables had to live outside the village boundary, and they could not use the same well or the same paths as the other castes.
Total destruction of the caste system has always been a central aim of Indian humanist groups. The Indian government has outlawed "untouchability" and introduced a system of "positive discrimination" that reserves a fixed percentage of jobs and university places for the lower castes. Unfortunately this system has helped perpetuate the caste mindset and has also encouraged communalist politics by linking religious identification to economic and political privileges.
All the humanist groups in India have been very active in combating belief in karma and reincarnation and the fatalism that accompanies this belief. The co-sponsor of the Atheist Congress was the Dravidean Movement, an organization dedicated to empowering the lower castes and the former Untouchables. Also called the "Self-Respect Movement," this militantly anti-religious organization is based in the state of Tamil Nadu, on the southeastern tip of India, where it has a membership of half a million and the support of many millions more. The Self-Respect Movement runs many social and educational institutes, and it has great political influence in Tamil Nadu.
The greatest strength of the humanist movement in India is its combination of theory and practice. It helps people but also analyzes the roots of their problems. It provides philosophical answers but tests these answers in practical projects. The great Indian humanist leaders - such as M. N. Roy, Gora, and the Dravidean leader Periyar - have been important thinkers and writers, but they have also built durable and successful organizations that generate social change at the grass-roots level. Some of the Indian humanist groups have only a small membership but are influential among intellectuals and opinion-formers. Other groups have mass membership and substantial political clout. Between them the Indian groups show how humanism can be influential, relevant, and popular, and how it can radically improve the quality of people's lives.
The caste system is unique to the Indian subcontinent, but many of the other problems and issues faced by India are common to the entire developing world. A particular concern of the Indian humanists is the argument that, when people lack adequate food, shelter, and health care, "Western" concerns like free speech are an unnecessary luxury. This view is promoted by many developing world politicians and convinces many Western liberals. At the conference in Bombay, a British delegate quoted a Romanian worker who said his newfound freedom was worthless: "Can I eat freedom? Can I buy firewood with it?" But an Indian humanist took issue with this, pointing out that, although the Romanian can't eat freedom, he can say he is hungry, he can ask for food, he can vote for different policies. Countries that don't have these freedoms, regimes that silence the disadvantaged, almost always treat the disadvantaged worse than countries that do have freedoms and rights.
Another Indian humanist told me he feared the increasing popularity in India of the so-called Singapore Model of development that claims "benevolent" political authoritarianism is a price that has to be paid for economic development. Some Third World countries in East Asia have become First World countries in only one or two generations. Many people, not unreasonably, view these "Asian Tigers" as the most relevant model for India and other developing countries. It is argued that after the countries become rich they will be able to "afford" freedom and rights, but not before then. Others argue that Western liberal permissiveness leads to decadence and social chaos.
A large majority of the world's population lives in developing countries. So this debate is really about the future development of global civilization. Humanists need to address this issue with an open mind and a willingness to deal with the practical realities as well as the philosophical theories. But the humanist principles of integrated development - including education, social progress, ecological sustainability, and individual empowerment - should surely be central to any model of development.
Westerners are right to be wary of any tendency towards "cultural imperialism." Different societies have different traditions and standards, and an uncritical assumption of superiority for Western norms is unjustified and harmful. Westerners involved in development work in non-Western cultures must be very open and sensitive to the cultural context. Change should be organic, not revolutionary; a drawing out of what is best in the culture, not an alien insertion.
But avoiding cultural imperialism does not mean embracing complete cultural relativism: basic human rights come before any cultural prerogative. For example, when Indian humanists work to abolish the dowry system, it is not because the dowry system is "un-Western" - a few generations ago it was common in the West - it is because it is inhuman to treat people as property. And it is people, the individual human being, that are of fundamental importance, not culture or tradition. Indian humanists, who have nursed women burnt alive by their husbands because their families failed to pay the agreed dowry, know this far better than the cultural relativists.
It is notable that humanist projects and groups in India have always been inspired and run by Indians. Humanism has not been imported to India by missionaries. In fact India has a secular constitution that proclaims the virtues of science and humanism. Many of the founders of the modern Indian state, including its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, were avowed humanists who saw that a secular state was the best framework within which to promote tolerance and freedom of religion and belief.
In the last decade this tradition of secularism and tolerance has been under threat. Inter-communal tensions have erupted into violence, and communalist parties have been gaining increasing power. The state of Maharashtra, which includes the city of Bombay, is now run by a demagogic party of extreme Hindu chauvinists who wish to change India from a secular state to a Hindu state. The humanists I spoke to in India felt that the growth of communalist parties had probably peaked now that people had seen that they could be just as corrupt in power as all the other parties. Even if this analysis is correct, it hardly provides grounds for optimism about the future.
A better ground for optimism can be found in the strength of India's commitment to secularism, humanism, tolerance, and democracy. India's secular democracy has survived fifty turbulent years in a region not noted for its democratic stability. The contrasts that make such an impression on a visitor to India are in fact a testament to the strengths of its society: by allowing diversity to flourish, Indian society is able to adapt as it modernizes and build new social structures to meet the changing needs of its people. I believe that India can develop into a modern state that combines the best of its own cultural traditions with the universalist humanist values that transcend ethnic and religious rivalries. If it achieves this, then the "Indian Model" will become an inspiration for the rest of the world.
My first visit to India was an exhilarating experience. It introduced me to a fascinating culture and a very attractive and friendly people. It also vividly demonstrated the great value of organized humanism in a developing country and the potential for cross-fertilization of ideas and methods between humanists around the world. These themes will be explored in depth at the next Humanist World Congress, in Mexico City in November 1996 (see back cover of this issue). The Mexican Congress will be the first IHEU Congress ever held in a developing country. Humanists from India, East Asia, East and West Europe, Africa, North and South America, and the Middle East will come together in the world's largest city to explore issues of development, human rights, women's emancipation, cultural diversity, and secularism. I think the Western humanists attending will benefit greatly from the experience and wisdom of their colleagues in the developing world. I hope to see you there.
The Indian General Election, held in the last week of April 1996, produced very mixed results for the defenders of Indian secularism. The vote was split roughly three ways between the ruling Congress Party, the Hindu communalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a coalition of regional left-wing parties called "the Third Force." The defeat of the governing Congress Party was largely due to its reputation for corruption.
The Hindu chauvinist BJP is now the largest single party in parliament, but it is short of the parliamentary majority necessary to implement its anti-secularist aims The BJP formed a government in May, but this lasted only a few weeks. At the time of going to press, the Third Force coalition was in government.
The Third Force government is committed to maintaining India as a secular state. But the inherent instability of the new parliament - and the likelihood of splits in the Congress Party - is expected to lead to a second general election before long.