Thriving business

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

At Tondiarpet in Chennai on September 13, 2009, members of the Dravidar Kazhagam taking part in a firewalk to disprove the claim that it can be done only by those who have faith in God.

At Tondiarpet in Chennai on September 13, 2009, members of the Dravidar Kazhagam taking part in a firewalk to disprove the claim that it can be done only by those who have faith in God.


Going backward

R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram

IT has only been a few years since the Kerala Police arrested “Swami Amrita Chaitanya” under circumstances similar to that of the recent detention of Asaram Bapu. Though the scale of his operation was relatively small, Amrita Chaitanya (originally Santhosh Madhavan) was found guilty of raping two minor girls and was sentenced to 16 years’ rigorous imprisonment in 2009.

The young “godman” was not so widely known at the time of his arrest. But Kerala soon learnt that he had a well-established ashram, with an orphanage attached to it, and owned property at many places in the State. He also commanded a fairly large following that included film stars, politicians and policemen.

The allegations against him included sexual abuse, molestation of girls at his ashram and shooting pornographic videos. At the time of his arrest, a lookout notice had been issued by the Interpol reportedly based on a complaint by a Keralite woman in the Gulf that he had swindled Rs.45 lakh from her.

At about the same time, in an unrelated incident, another youth, “Swami Himaval Maheswara Bhadrananda”, was arrested soon after he accidentally fired his gun inside a police circle inspector’s office at Aluva, near Kochi.

Elsewhere, in Thiruvananthapuram, a man claimed he was the next incarnation of Sai Baba and began to gather disciples, but died before his “predecessor”.

It could be a long, but entertaining list. There is so much diversity among Kerala’s gurus, “ammas”, evangelists and leaders of religious sects—and among them are quite a variety of frauds, innocents, tricksters, thieves and rapists.

A society that triumphed over one of the harshest schemes of religious and caste discrimination with the help of an enlightened social reform movement, and embraced the progressive idea of “class instead of caste” for social emancipation very early in India, ought to have had a different milieu.

But misuse of faith, superstitious beliefs, religious and caste prejudices and the scourge of faith healers, stargazers, psychics, palmists, and black magicians are as widespread in Kerala today as it is in other States.

Without doubt, one of the most tangible changes in Kerala in the past 25 years has been the increase in the number of places of worship, the growth of religiosity in society and the startling accumulation of wealth in the name of religion and rituals.

There are two main reasons for this trend. One relates to the rise of the Hindutva forces following the Ayodhya campaign in the early 1990s; their subsequent failure to make an impact in the political arena in Kerala; their usurpation, hence, of all issues connected with the Hindu faith for political ends; and the encouragement all this offered to other fundamentalist or religious groups and ideologies to undertake competitive religious (and political) posturing.

It is easy to see how the major political formations with secular ideologies were kept out of such a parallel enterprise of mass mobilisation on the basis of religion. A subsidiary network of faith-related commerce alone could flourish in such a fertile atmosphere for it, and Kerala witnessed a revival of the belief industry that exploited superstition and religious fear in myriad ways. Secular parties could get a toehold in this system—and make electoral gains—only if they agreed to take a passive, uncritical stand vis-à-vis the faith industry.

The other factor that encouraged such a religious revival was the liberalisation of the economy, which, according to a well-known study undertaken by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, has resulted in the accumulation of most of the wealth in the hands of about 10 per cent of the population, to the detriment of the majority of people in Kerala.

However, in this case, the State saw both the rich, with their problems of plenty, and the disadvantaged, with their frustrations of poverty or scarcity, turning to the same faith-industry peddlers for everyday solutions.

What is surprising is that such a resurgence of blind belief, superstition and evil practices is happening in a State once known for its radical social revolution based on rational thought and progressive ideology.

Kerala’s rationalist movement has a long history, the origin of which is often traced to the revolutionary action in 1927 of Sahodaran Ayyappan, a prominent disciple of the social reformer Sree Narayana Guru, in breaking one of the biggest social taboos of the past era: sharing a meal with members of the lower castes.

This event, radical by contemporary standards, triggered a long but erratic series of rationalist actions in pre-Independent Kerala. This included, prominently, the launching of a daring campaign against the peculiar custom at the Kodungalloor temple in Thrissur district during the Bharani festival, when devotees used to drink alcohol, sacrifice a rooster before the deity and run around the streets in joyous abandon, singing ribald songs.

There were also frequent campaigns burning the “religious/caste demon” in effigy at places where people of the lower castes continued to be barred and encouraging inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. The first rationalist magazine, Yuktivadi , was also launched in the late 1920s.

By 1967, the first rationalist organisation, Kerala Yuktivadi Sangham, had come into being in the State, and its ranks swelled with prominent free thinkers and rationalists, among them A.V. Jose, M.C. Joseph, Abraham T. Kovoor, Joseph Edamaruku, and several progressive leaders of the major political parties. Yuktivadi and several such journals began to appear regularly.

But it was the audacious miracle exposure campaigns undertaken by A.T. Kovoor (originally from central Kerala, he later settled in Sri Lanka) in the late 1960s and 70s and the wide media coverage they received that helped rationalists make a State-wide impact.

It became the model for several movements by the Yuktivadi Sangham and other such groups in Kerala against irrational beliefs, imaginary creatures and apparitions (especially one weird Kerala version, “kuttichattan”), for exposing the secrets behind miracles and faith healing and against “godmen” and their supposedly supernatural proclivities.

One of the most well-known campaigns of rationalists in Kerala was against the State-government sponsored Makaravilakku—the glow of “divine” light that would flicker thrice near a hill on the horizon, exactly at the moment when the doors of the forest temple at Sabarimala opened for the evening rituals on a particular day in January.

The “miracle” is still a huge draw and the revenue from millions of pilgrims who gather to witness it every year meant that the authorities remained silent about its true nature for decades. However, from the mid-1980s, groups of rationalists who trekked to the spot had been lighting rival camphor fires at the very location and have produced photographs to prove that it was truly man-made and was the handiwork of the temple authorities and government officials.

In 2011, in the wake of a stampede that killed several pilgrims, the Yuktivadi Sangham filed a petition against the misuse of government machinery for lighting the fire and claimed that it was against the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The government was thus forced to admit the truth before the court.

Other major initiatives of Kerala rationalists included: (a) theatrical campaigns against miracle-makers, faith healers, crying statues and godmen/women; (b) sustained opposition to the cult surrounding Amritanandamayi, and the corporate empire that grew in its wake; (c) movement against attempts to revive “yagas” and other such rituals that claim to provide miraculous results; (d) protests against efforts to promote Islamic banking and the government subsidy given to Hajj pilgrims; (e) demand for a law to monitor and control the wealth of churches in the State; and (f) demand that the treasures discovered at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple should be used for public causes.

But as tantrics, astrologers, palmists and faith healers continue to flourish and crowds multiply at the satsang venues of Amritanandamayi and Sri Sri Ravisankar, at public meetings of clerics like Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musliyar and at Divine Retreat Centres, Pentecostal prayer houses and evangelist gatherings, rationalists in Kerala are an unhappy lot.

Many hardy soldiers of the movement are convinced that despite their dedicated campaigns, rational thought and healthy scepticism are disappearing. Instead, an intellectual culture that is irrational, unscientific, dogmatic and politically retrogressive or sectarian has emerged in Kerala—a society which, otherwise, displays all the trappings of modernity.

“True, the number of people attending our meetings is coming down. We know that it is a long battle, and have not allowed our activities to go slack,” U. Kalanathan, president of the Kerala Yuktivadi Sangham, told Frontline .

Many critics now blame the Left too for its failure to take forward the early gains of the rationalist movement. “The progressive leaders of the Left and other political parties used to cooperate fully with the initiatives of the rationalists in Kerala. But the situation has changed. The compulsions of electoral politics began to guide the policies of the Left somewhere in between, and very soon it withdrew completely from the sphere of socio-religious reforms. That is unfortunate because the Left remains the only progressive force in Kerala that has the mass support that can take the rationalist agenda forward,” Kalanathan said.

Tamil Nadu

In Dravidian land

R. Ilangovan in Chennai

Tamil Nadu, so far, has not seen an incident like the murder in Maharashtra of the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who had fought against superstitious beliefs and miracle practices associated with Hinduism. Here, the name of Rama can never be exploited to stoke communal flames. The State is strongly insulated from such acts of irrationalism, thanks to the firm footing of the century-old Self Respect Movement of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.).

Rationalism and atheism are closely linked to Periyar’s struggle for social emancipation. His combative campaign against God, religion and sastras succeeded in creating social awareness against superstitious beliefs in Tamil Nadu. Though mired in multiple controversies, the D.K. has been carrying forward his rationalist campaign.

Atheists elsewhere work individually and in tiny formations. But Periyar converted atheism into a movement, which blends ideally with the ideologies of social progressiveness the State is known for. “We function as an inverse force against religious indoctrination,” says K. Veeramani, president of the D.K.

Atheism, intellectuals say, is an atypical product of ritual-based Hinduism. “That was why Periyar, who belongs to the galaxy of original thinkers, politely turned down the invitation of Dr [B.R.] Ambedkar to embrace Buddhism. He remained in the fold of Hinduism to fight superstitious beliefs and practices. This enabled him to mobilise significant support from within the precincts of the faith itself and sustain the movement,” says Veeramani.

What rationalists attempt to do in Tamil Nadu is to make people “unlearn” what they have imbibed from centuries of religious indoctrination. Even the literati are not an exception to this. It is bizarre that intellectual acumen and irrationality coexist in society. Such inherent contradictions foster blind faith even as secularism is professed.

Another significant contradiction is a perceived imbalance between preaching and practice among the educated. “They teach lunar and solar eclipses scientifically in classrooms but fast at home during eclipses. Many scientists hold personal beliefs that are at variance with science. This intrinsic faith in and obsessive devotion to rituals that defy any scientific temper are appalling,” says V. Kumeresan, general secretary, Rationalists’ Forum, a wing of the D.K.

Agnostic perseverance against the countervailing means adopted by theists, it is believed, is expected to develop the spirit of inquiry in people, which will eclipse religious dogma. “That is what we have been attempting to do to counter the shrill resistance from ‘holy bigotry’. Science, of course, is secular and does not accept faith as explanation. Despite undeniable differences with sections of society, we have never been hostile to individuals,” says Veeramani.

The Dravidian concept of atheism is not confined to god-negation, says 89-year-old Periyarian V. Anaimuthu. He points out that Periyar had targeted the practice of not allowing anyone other than Brahmins to become priests. “While other religions allow those who command the required educational qualification to become priests, Hinduism does not permit that,” he points out.

The Rationalists’ Forum, Kumeresan says, has opened a broadside at all forms of superstition, miracles performed by self-styled godmen, the ritual of coconut breaking, fasting during eclipses, firewalk, carrying pots of burning coal, spiking one’s tongue and body with iron hooks, the concept of auspicious time, astrology, palm reading, black magic, vaastu, and so on. The movement had challenged miracle men like Sai Baba to disprove their claims of having superhuman powers. “Can these godmen bring a pumpkin out of their mouths and hands instead of tiny rings or holy ash?” the activists ask.

It is not easy to campaign against superstition and theories of sin and salvation that have been deeply rooted in the minds of people for thousands of years. It would have been, he points out, all the more difficult for Periyar in the early 20th century when illiteracy, ignorance and poverty were more formidable than now as hurdles to any rationalistic transformation.

But the crass commercialisation of life in today’s neoliberal environment and the fragmentation of knowledge have rendered his followers’ task all the more complex and dangerous. The D.K., rationalists claim, has taken up the task of eradicating superstitious practices through legal remedies and awareness programmes, all in an organised manner. But social activists say that Tamil Nadu’s atheistic campaign has not been able to convert itself into an effective pan-India movement. It is tough, atheists claim, to fight the abstract that wields vicious power over people’s minds. It negates the radicalisation of people and is too cerebral for the common man to comprehend. “That is the reason why godmen like Nithyananda and Premananda thrive here,” says an activist.

The activists, however, have a grouse that the media in Tamil Nadu do not provide space for the movement’s activities but give publicity to superstitions such as milk-gulping Ganeshas. “It is amusing to read a report in a Tamil daily that a Vinayagar in Nanganallur, Chennai, helps his devotees get visas easily. He has been named as ‘Visa Vinayagar’ and today he draws huge crowds,” Veeramani rues.

Has the Self-Respect Movement yielded the desired result? “No,” admits Veeramani. The movement, despite being a century old, could not eradicate superstitious beliefs, he says. “The toughest battle is to be fought in the minds of people who are under the vile grip of irrational beliefs. We need legislation such as the one in Maharashtra. We have no support from anyone, including the State,” he says. A major criticism against the Dravidian movement is that it failed to fight feudalism, which is the social base of irrational ideas. Also, a section of Periyar’s followers who took the social movement to the political plain were too caught up in political exigencies to take forward the reformist legacy of Periyar.

The argument that political parties have fallen to vote bank compulsions shrugging of their social responsibilities is not far from true. “The political will is not there,” the D.K. leader says. However, an objective assessment of the rationalist movement in Tamil Nadu will point to the fact that it has fared well “qualitatively” though not “quantitatively”. “Otherwise, you could have seen the intolerance you witnessed in Maharashtra. The movement has shaken the very base of religious orthodoxy that devalues humanism and promotes intolerance,” he says.

Rationalists like him also are not happy about the Left’s role in the State in the propagation of rationalism. With its grass-root level reach, it could have either joined or taken up this socially relevant movement, says Veeramani. “They concentrated more on class and confused it with caste later,” he says. Without countering theism that creates feudal societies one cannot fight communal fascism, he argues.

Senior Marxist leaders say that the Tamil Nadu Science Forum, a wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is involved in the primary task of spreading the scientific temper among the youth, especially students. Volunteers such as 67-year-old Mohana Somasundaram selflessly pursue the battle against superstitions and take the message to students in remote villages.

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