The Middle Path for India

How can a pluralistic country like India understand and develop scientific temperament? Narendra Dabholkar’s successors tell us

Avinash Patil on the mission of MANS as he speaks with Shivani Karmarkar 

Medieval Europe was shaped by the struggle for power between kings and popes. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church was swift to fill the power vacuum in most parts of the continent, and became a dominant participant in the political sphere. It was in this context that the French Revolution, while overthrowing monarchy and establishing republics and liberal democracies, demanded a strict separation of the State and the Church. The modern philosophy of rationalism, which also developed around this time, followed suit. According to modern rationalists, any way of knowing that is not through reason or logic is either to be disregarded or completely rejected. This includes everything from empiricism to religious faith.  

“Most thinkers, philosophers and rationalists in India today are inspired by this Western philosophy. They believe that the blind faith inspired by God is the root of all superstition, and therefore the idea of God and religion itself must be eradicated. Such a demand is antithetical to the Indian context,” says the Executive President of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS or Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee), Avinash Patil. Since the day Narendra Dabholkar founded MANS, the organisation has been working for the development of vivekvad (rationality or reason, for the lack of a direct translation), and scientific temperament in India.  

Unlike Europe, Patil continues, the Indian society is not ruled by religious powers, but oppressed by discriminatory systems such as that of caste. “The caste system will not allow revolution to take place here. The hierarchy, exploitation and beliefs that are propagated by this system, such as the law of karma, are drilled into the Indian psyche. Because of this, people are left without the courage or the strength to fight against injustice and discrimination,” he explains.  

It is these systems that MANS is working to eradicate. The reformers germane to India – from Bhakti movement poets like Mira Bai, Kabir, and Tukaram, to social reformers like Jyotirao Phule – have all tried to do exactly that. “There is a multiplicity of beliefs about God, or supernatural power, in the Indian culture. There are people who believe God resides in idols, and others who believe (he) doesn’t. Some believe God is in nature, while others believe he is inside human beings. If we talk about completely eradicating the idea of God, then we will not be able to come into dialogue or interaction with any of these believers,” Patil says.  

Instead, what is needed is to subvert these rituals and make them relevant to the context and needs of today. For instance, Vat Savitri, also known as Vat Poornima, is a popular festival celebrated in Maharashtra, where married women fast for a day, and perform certain rituals around a Banyan tree to pray for their husbands’ long life, and for them to stay together through seven lives. Narendra Dabholkar once asked a woman participating in the ritual whether she really understood or wanted what she was praying for. She replied saying not only was she praying for her husband’s long life, but also for this to be the last one! It is through such candid conversations that MANS is able to come into a dialogue with followers of different faiths. Once they do, they are able to propose alternate ways of looking at and participating in these rituals that simultaneously is able to respond to the needs of today. So, in the case of Vat Savitri, the women are encouraged not only to pray, but also plant saplings of Banyan during the festival. Similar subversions are proposed with other popular festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, and for age-old rituals of witchcraft, fear/worship of snakes, etc.  

This is not always easy to do. Naturally, if a community’s long-held faith or beliefs are questioned, they respond with resistance or animosity. But an effective way of initiating this conversation is through holding workshops on magic and miracles. MANS has popularly held many workshops in Maharashtra with people from different age groups, to show them how a certain trick by different god men is done. “When we show them miracles and the science behind them, they get interested. That is the only trigger to ask them to think in a scientific way. I myself have performed many miracles at these meetings – like eating glass or putting a needle through the tongue. This is what you call a trailer of MANS. Thereafter we have to go putting our thoughts out there,” says Rajendra Kankariya, a senior member of MANS. 

Such scientific presentation of miracles is an especially good entry point to engage students from schools and colleges, Patil says. In fact, it is crucial for practical exposure to be given to children, not just on the topic of superstition and god men, but also across all fields of knowledge. “Information-knowledge-attitude. This should be the sequence followed in education. But in our country, we are still stuck at information. How do we convert the information to knowledge that can be useful to our lives? This is something that requires soft skill development.”  

Humans have always developed by directly engaging with their environment. One of the first developments – the creation of tools – was done in this way. With the tools, humans further processed nature to secure their basic needs. And this in turn led to further development of the human brain. The more experiences the child is exposed to, the more their personality develops. This is lost in today’s education system. We have completely become dependant on and trapped by books. The development of a child’s practical sense is hampered because of this.” 

If India has to become a superpower on the back of its large, young workforce, it is crucial to first develop scientific temperament and soft skills in our society. Otherwise, the large population boon that we are enjoying will easily turn into a bane. What is the point of being a superpower if superstition takes over?  

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