Review by Dilip Simeon


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Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India-By Johannes Quack
Oxford University Press, New York, 2012
ISBN 978-0-19-981260-8; 978-0-19-981262-2 (pbk)

Review by Dilip Simeon, for H-Asia, a part of H-Net: asia/

On March 10, 2012, Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian
Rationalist Association inspected a crucifix in front of a suburban
church in Mumbai. The crucifix had attracted hundreds of devotees on
account of droplets of water trickling from Jesus’ feet. Edamaruku
identified the source of the water (a drainage near a washing room)
and the capillary action whereby it reached Jesus feet. Later, in a
live TV program he explained his findings and accused Church officials
of miracle mongering. A heated debate began, in which priests demanded
an apology. Upon his refusal, the police charged him under section 295
of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious sentiments.

This book is an account of the broader rationalist movement in India
of which Sanal Edamaruku is a prominent member, and a vivid
description of its origins, practices and beliefs. A monograph on the
radical avowal of scientific reason, it fills a much needed lacuna in
the annals of modern India. The clubbing together of reason and
science, is of course, a problem in itself, one that the narrative
enables the reader to discern. Borrowing partly from Charles Taylor’s
book A Secular Age (2007), the author coins the term ‘modes of
unbelief’ to refer to the rationalists’ questioning of India’s endemic

The story of Indian rationalism has an illustrious cast in Quack’s
telling. It includes Jotiba Phule, G.G. Agarkar, Shahu Maharaj, Annie
Besant, Ramaswami Naicker, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, M.N. Roy,
Goparaju Rao ‘Gora’, Annadurai and a host of others. Much of the
activism that the study focuses on derives inspiration from Phule’s
Satyashodhak Samaj. This is because an important dimension of
organized rationalism was and remains the challenge to sacralised
social injustice. The roots of this challenge lie in diverse
intellectual currents such as the Bengal Renaissance and the religious
and social reform movements of Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and
Maharashtra. The rationalists trace their roots to ancient Indian
materialism and the medieval Bhakti movement – this claim is a counter
to the traditionalist charge that the reformers were westernisers and
intellectual slaves.

Many Indian rationalists were strongly influenced by Western
intellectuals such as the nineteenth century American thinkers Robert
Ingersoll and George Holyoake. They also had personal ties with such
figures as the MP Charles Bradlaugh and his ally Annie Besant (who
played a strong role in propagating rationalism in India before she
became a Theosophist). Organizational links were established early on
with the English Rationalist Press Association (RPA), whose
publications had great influence, and encouraged the advent of Indian
journals such as the Anglo-Tamil Philosophic Inquirer and Free
Thought. Organised rationalism dates from the founding of the
Rationalist Association of India in Bombay (1930) that merged with the
Indian Rationalist Association in 1950. The latter body was founded in
1949, with a leading role being played by R.P. Paranjpe, a former Vice
Chancellor of Bombay University. Among its members were C.N. Annadurai
(sixteenth Chief Minister of Tamilnadu) and the well-known maverick
communist M.N. Roy. Even though not all these personages remained
within the loosely-defined doctrinal fold of rationalism, all of them
contributed to the propagation of what came to be defined in the
Indian constitution as a scientific temper.

The core of the book is an ethnographic study of the Andhashraddha
Nirmulan Samiti, (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition,
ANiS, better known in the province of Maharashtra as MANS).
Established in the late 1980’s, Quack describes it as one of the most
active rationalist organisations in India. ANiS has branches in most
districts in Maharashtra, publishes monthly magazines and conducts
regular programmes in schools, colleges and villages to combat
superstition and educate people on matters pertaining to sex, the
environment, addiction and black magic. Led by ANiS, rationalists in
Maharashtra have also initiated an anti-superstition Bill, that has
been approved by the Cabinet five times but not yet (2012) passed into
law. (Quack errs in stating – p 13 – that it was passed in the
legislative assembly in 2005).

The book undertakes an in-depth study of ANiS, its organisational
structure and practices. The relevant section begins with extensive
interviews with its president, Dr Narayan Dabholkar, who also edits
the respected Marathi weekly, Sadhana. ANiS’ approach – representative
of a broad range of Indian rationalists – amounts to an ideology of
humanism, and is exemplified in a statement made by one of its
activists: ‘The task is to link humanism, rationalism, atheism,
science, and the fruits of science – that is technology – the
scientific temper and the power of reason, in order to live a happy
and fulfilling life, both emotionally and physically.’(p 12) Chapter
13 contains an account of what rationalism means to its various
proponents. The account in this section evokes interesting tensions on
matters of accommodation to astrology and Ayurveda.

The author discerns that ANiS’s and Dabholkar’s ‘position with respect
to religion grew less confrontational over the years’ (187) and that
its main critical focus was on superstition and the misuse of religion
to exploit people. Thus, Dabholkar avers that ‘the caste system is the
oldest superstition of mankind’ (185) and Sanal Edamaruku describes
superstition as a kind of enforcement of ignorance (189). There are
small sketches of other agnostic intellectuals, such as Gogineni Babu,
former director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, who
in an interview with Quack, cited art and music as exemplars of a
spirituality without religion. We also come across philosophical
problems posed by the fact of scientists holding apparently irrational
beliefs and indulging in religious rituals and practices. He cites in
this regard the late Professor A.K. Ramanujan’s remembrance of his
father, the astronomer Srinivas Ramanujan, who along with his
scientific work, also practiced astrology, held on to caste rituals
and reminded his son that the brain has two lobes (194).

The author makes an effort to understand the personal motivations of
ANiS activists. An interesting observation is that their most
characteristic stance lies in seeing rationalism as ‘primarily a moral
category’ (215). Social justice is seen as accompanying rationality.
Thus, the activist Sushila Munde asks him: ‘can any rational person
say: I believe in injustice?’ In another interview, Vandana Shinde
stressed that non-violence was part of rationalism, which for her
meant ‘to avoid violence and to try to find the truth’ (215).

The rationalist movement and its efforts to dispel superstition have
been the source of controversy. Hindu nationalist groups have attacked
them (and this includes attempts at physical disruption of their
events) for undermining Hindu culture and hurting Hindu sentiments.
Others have criticized the anti-superstition Bill for attempting to
deprive ordinary people of a rich source of traditional healing

The book is a rich source of information about what may be called the
progressivist spectrum of Indian thought – along the way providing the
reader with references to theoretical studies of secular modernity and
enlightenment rationality. These include Max Weber’s concept of
disenchantment and more recent work by Charles Taylor, Ashis Nandy and
Gyan Prakash, among others. We gain access to material about and
web-links to rationalist groups across India, and not just in
Maharashtra. It provides the reader with food for thought on complex
questions such as the relation between the aspiration for social
justice on the one hand and the struggle for rational thought on the
other. In India it was never a straightforward battle between science
and organized religion. Rather, in the words of G. Vijayan, head of
the Atheist Centre: ‘In India we find that the conflict is between
religion and social reform. In India we find philosophical freedom on
the one side and social ostracism on the other’(53). The narrative is
engaging and full of ethnographic detail about personal dilemmas,
doctrinal conflicts and rationalist performances. Disenchanting India
is a major contribution to and entry-point for the study of complex
and long-standing problems of Indian society.