We Become Atheists
Saraswarthi and Gora
(first of two files)
We look back into our lives and review them either for ourselves or for others. We weigh the pros and cons of the past from the vantage of the present. Such a retrospect more often than not is colored by our looking at them from a time which is not its own. Our passions cool down and our past views change. It is next to impossible to relive our past, but retrospection is as valuable a psychological process as introspection. They may lead a man into dejection or inspire him to further action.
A man like Gora can hardly find time to spare for writing an autobiography. His life was so active and dynamic that he hardly found time to stand and stare. He was not a man to wait for things to shape his life. He endeavored all his life to shape them. He was of the firm opinion that free humans shape events and create conditions and slaves' lives are shaped by events. In choosing alternatives or giving a turn to events he displayed a rare dynamic spirit. In organizing campaigns for the establishment of social and economic equalities he could not indulge in the pleasure of sharing his personal experiences with others.
Gora suffered and struggled. He put up with hardships patiently and with a smile on his lips. If he had compromised his principles on any issue he would not have been Gora. With his family, friends and colleagues backing him up he weathered many a storm. Those who knew him personally know how he kept sufferings to himself and spared a smile for others. It was not self imposed suffering but he suffered for atheism. All his life was devoted to removing the prejudice against atheism and making it an acceptable and respectable term. He made atheism more positive than negative. In this he differed from other rationalists and agnostics. He fought against all religious racial, communal and caste labels. He stood for democracy, economic and social equalities. All his campaigns were directed towards this goal. He respected human personality and raised his voice against anything that denies or curbs human freewill.
In his hectic life, at the age of 73, he could spare a month to write about his past experiences, rather, in outline. Four days after finishing this draft he breathed his last. He didn't expect to die so early. He hoped to live actively, at least, for ten years more. When he was asked to write an autobiography, he pleaded lack of time. His mind was attuned more to programs of action than to cool retrospection. But he did look back on his life at its far end. We don't know what he would have done if he had lived longer. But what little he has given us of his autobiography is a precious picture of his life and message. Gora's life was intertwined with his philosophy. So, while he was narrating certain experiences and influences in his life he invariably gave expression to his views on human affairs. A careful reader will find in this book the quintessence of his life and views from his own pen. Gora lived and died an atheist.
Patamata, Vijayawada. LAVANAM 13th November, 1975.
To this account of my life, I would like to give the name, "We Become Atheists," rather than "I Become an Atheist." Of course, I take the responsibility for initiating the kind of atheist thought and action described herein. But its fulfillment is largely the result of the cooperation, sacrifice and resolute action of several workers, friends, relatives and, particularly, of my wife and children. Some of them adopted atheism too. Therefore, it is appropriate to call this account, "We Become Atheists."
As I look back, I recall no special event that turned me an atheist. But I can trace the growth of atheist thought and practice in me.
Born and bred up in a high caste Hindu family in India, I was conventionally orthodox and superstitious in the days of my boyhood. I believed in the claims of divine revelations by my parental aunt. Twice or thrice in a week, she went into trances, muttered advice and distributed sacred ash. I constantly kept a small packet of the ash in my pocket and thought that the presence of the ash enabled me to pass examinations at the school. I passed the Intermediate examination in first class. I little imagined that a few years later, when I became an atheist, I would drive the pretenses of obsession out of my aunt. But even at the age of 22, when I appeared for the degree examination of M.A., I had the packet in my pocket. All the same, I passed last in the rank of five candidates for the subject of Botany. Being the last in the rank, ordinarily I had the least chance of getting a job. My father was in economic distress. I thought that if I could not help him with my earnings, at least, I should not be a burden on the joint family. What could I do? The old saying that where there is a will there is a way, acquired a new significance for me. I wrote to my Professor, R.V. Seshayya, who was then working at Tirupati. I offered myself to be his servant if he could give me food and lodge. He sympathized with my sad condition. He called me to Tirupathi and treated me like his brother. I was doing odd jobs at his home.
The security at Seshayya's household set me think of my life. I lost faith in the packet of ash and developed the will to succeed. Sense of self-confidence sprouted in me. Though I had no idea of atheism at that time, obviously that was the beginning of atheism in me. It was opening up my mind and taking me out of the ruts of orthodoxy.
Two months later, the lectureship in Natural Science at the American Mission College Madurai, fell vacant. Solmon, who was holding the post, left for USA for higher studies. The other four of my classmates did not apply for that post in the hope of getting better jobs. Good or bad, I took it up. I found that my classmates did not fare better than I. I was last in rank at the examination, but I rose to be the first in job position in due course. I owed the success to the attitude of atheism that was growing in me. My mind was becoming bold and open. Seshayya kindly provided me with the necessary money to buy some clothes and to go to Madurai.
Two incidents at Madurai speak of the change of my mind. At Madurai I was faced with the problem of finding a suite of rooms for my residence. Madurai is a place of pilgrimage and a crowded city. After vigorous search, I found a big house in the outskirts of the city. For the last few months it was kept locked and unoccupied as it was supposed to be haunted by ghosts. I disregarded the superstition and the landlord gladly let out two rooms for me at a nominal rent. Fine. Practically, the whole house with thirteen rooms and two halls was open to me. I lived alone in it.
My neighbors and also my colleagues at the college dissuaded me from taking the risk of living in a haunted house. They related to me their personal experiences of unwitting residence in haunted houses. I pooh poohed them. After two or three months, tenants gradually came to occupy other rooms. Soon the house was full and I was confined to my original two rooms.
The other incident related to my work at the college. It was a practice in those days to select students for appearance at the final university examination. The Selection test was held three months in advance of the final examination and the unselected students were denied the opportunity to improve their standard by diligent study during that period. When I was a student, I felt that the practice of selection was unfair to the unselected students.
At the American Mission College, for the first time, as a lecturer, I got the authority to select among my students. I deliberately gave pass marks to all my students and recommended the selection of all of them for appearance at the final university examination. My method looked strange to the principal, Rev. W.W. Wallace, who had been used to the practice of selection. He thought that being new to the appointment and inexperienced, I was inconsiderate. He asked me to revise my full list of recommendations for selection. I told him: "I taught the class. I set the test paper. I valued the answers. If any of them failed, it means I failed to teach them well. I am satisfied with their performance at the test. I recommend all my students for selection." Now I see it was a piece of bravado. However, with age and experience.
Rev. Wallace looked at my championship of students with sympathy and endorsed the list of selection of all my students with the admonition that he would not honor my recommendations hereafter, unless the present batch of students acquitted themselves creditably at the final examination. I narrated the event to my students and said, "I have done my duty. Now it is for you to do yours." The appeal worked well. The principal was surprised that the final results gave a bumper crop of first classes, distinctions and high percentage of passes.
Evidently everyone bears immense potentialities. Release them. With a sense of freedom and responsibility, they work wonders. I achieved success when I gave up dependence on the packet of ash and stood on my feet. I tried the same with my students who were generally depressed with the fear of failure at the selection. I removed the fear and the students proved worthy of the trust reposed in them.
India was under the British rule till 1947. The government helped promotion of Christian institutions. The Christian missionary institutions, in their turn, zealously attempted at proselytization. Accordingly, Rev. Wallace suggested to me that I could go to Yale University for my Ph.D. and become the Rector of the science department if I would embrace Christianity and become a member of their mission. At once I felt a Hindu.
Though I was leaning atheistically, I had not got over the influence of early nurture. I continued a vegetarian which was the habit of the caste into which I was born. I wore the 'sacred thread' which was the symbol of the caste. The discarding of the packet of ash was just the beginning of the march towards the goal of atheism. I had a long way to go.
Also the goal was not well-defined in my mind at that time. Therefore, when I did not accept the offer of Rev. Wallace, I was more a Hindu than an atheist. Of course, the question of change of religion does not arise with an atheist at all, because he rejects all religions. But my reaction to the suggestion was that of a Hindu. In view of the excellent results of my students at the final examination, the principal did not want to disturb my place in the college. But, when I rejected the offer of change of religion, I thought that my position in the college was unsafe. A post was vacant at the Agricultural Research Institute, Coimbatore and I shifted there in the month of May, 1926. Rev. Wallace gave me a good certificate of my services at the College for one year.
The suggestion that I might become a christian, helped me indirectly. I followed the customs of Hinduism and adopted the habits of the caste of my parents, because I was taught and trained in my childhood that way. Just like mother tongue, we generally imbibe thoughts and practices of parents or of guardians, without examining their merits and defects. In the case of religious faiths, we are taught to cling to the faith of the parents and to decry other faiths. This close mindedness is the cause of Jihads and Crusades. But my reaction was somewhat different. The rejection of the offer of Christianity raised a series of questions in me. What is Hinduism? What is Christianity? How are they different? What are other religions? How do they compare with one another? With a desire to know the answers, I started reading English or Telugu translations of the Bible, Bhagavatgita, the Quran, Vedas, Upanishads and other religious books. I went through the volumes of Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East. At one time, for over three months, I pored over the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica every day and read through references and cross references of god, soul, salvation, rebirth, spirituality, other-worlds and so on. Being a student of science, I was already acquainted with the principles of physics, chemistry, geology and mathematics, besides my subjects of botany and zoology. The wide reading introduced me to philosophy, sociology, ethics, economics, politics anthropology, fine arts and psychology. I was especially interested in abnormal and religious psychology, as in them I found the clue to understanding man's belief in the existence of god and soul.
I do not say that my study of the subjects was deep and detailed. I cannot quote page and chapter of any book, though I took down cursory notes as I was reading. But the study was extensive, spread over five or six years. Further reading was casual. I find that such general reading helped me to reflect and to develop my own thoughts freely rather than become bookish and bind myself to what others said instead of what I have to say. Authority of books shifts responsibility of thoughts to others, whereas reflection retains the freedom and responsibility of the self.
As a result of reading and reflection, I was conceiving of god in general, without denominational associations of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or paganism. Further, I came to the conclusion that it was man that made god out of psychological necessity in primitive times. Metaphysical justification of the existence of god was a clever after thought of the civilized man to preserve the faith, at best for its use as a sanction for moral conduct and at worst for aiding exploitation of the gullible masses.
Along with the reading and reflection, I was seeking opportunities to discuss my views with learned persons and religious priests. The opportunity for exchange of views increased when I left for Colombo (Ceylon) after a year at Coimbatore. At Colombo, I was the Botany Master at Ananda College, which was managed by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. There I came in contact with Buddhist priests, and not only listened to their discourses but studied the books which they kindly lent. The one year stay at Colombo was a valuable gain to me for enriching my knowledge. The next year, 1928, I left Colombo to serve as Lecturer in Botany at Pithapur Rajah's College at Kakinada, India.
I recall with interest an incident of discussion with a Hindu scholar at Masulipatam, sometime about 1937. He was delivering a series of public discourses on Hindu philosophy and was answering questions everyday at the end of the talk. At the question time, one evening, I requested, him to elucidate on the use of the neuter gender for god (Brahma) of Hindu faith, instead of the customary use of the masculine gender for god as in other faiths. I was aware that in Sanskrit language, in which Hindu scriptures were written, gender went with the form of the word, but not with the meaning of the word. "Dara," a synonym of "wife" in Sanskrit, is masculine gender. My question was innocent. I wanted confirmation from that scholar that Hindu concept of god as power appropriately needed the use of neuter gender. The use of the masculine gender, on the contrary, betrayed man's domination, in the course of civilization, in philosophical concepts too, as in economic and political affairs.
Perhaps the form in which I put the question did not express the amount of respect expected of references to god. The scholar at once asked me whether I was an atheist. I told him I was. But that did not matter. The question was there to be answered. The scholar's response was different. He said he would not talk to atheists and asked me to leave the meeting. I said that it was a public meeting and that I asked the question at the appointed time. Why should I leave the meeting? The scholar looked daggers at me. He said he would leave the meeting, if I did not. He got down from the platform, walked a few paces away and stood with his back towards the audience. My repeated requests to him to come back to the meeting were of no avail. Then I said that the gathering should not be deprived of the benefit of his talk on account of me. So I left the meeting. A few who thought that I was right, also left the meeting with me. Next day, a notice was put up at the meeting place, "Atheists are not allowed."
The experience with the Hindu scholar was one of the many instances when I was confronted with the prejudice against atheism. Dictionaries give "wickedness" as a meaning of "atheism," besides godlessness and impiety. Conscious of the prejudice against atheism, advised me to take another name instead of atheism, as however noble the work I do, the name of atheism brings with it disrespect and ignominy, and good work falls into disrepute.
In spite of these warnings and hard experiences, I prefer to stick to the label of atheism, because atheism alone renders changes, radical and lasting in human affairs. Those who fear the changes steadily give atheism a bad name in order to stem its growth. Everyone whom succeeding generations respected as a prophet of an era of freedom and progress was persecuted by contemporaries for heresy and blasphemy, if not wholly for atheism. The life histories of Moses, Jesus, Mohamad, Joan of Arc, and Gandhi are clear instances in this connection. Obviously, atheism is a progressive force. Atheists should not mind the slander and prejudices that vested interests spread against atheism.
Saraswati was ten years old when we were married in 1922. Like me, she hailed from an orthodox home and orthodox custom required girls to be married before puberty. Strict orthodoxy prescribed eighth year as the upper limit for the marriage of girls. My elder sister was eight when she was married. Until the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1935 prohibited early marriages, women's lot was miserable with early pregnancy and occasional widowhood. According to custom, Saraswati gave up school study soon after her marriage and engaged herself in religious ceremonies that are prescribed for married girls. Observance of the ceremonies is supposed to ensure happy relations with the husband for the girl. The temptation is similar to the promises of prayer.
Saraswati joined me in 1926 at Coimbatore. Naturally, her reading was little but she has keen understanding and sound common sense. We kept nothing private, and much less secret between us. On account of openness of relations, we think together and act together in complete harmony.
On joining me, Saraswati left orthodox habits and adopted the atheist attitude. An incident was significant in this context. At Colombo she was pregnant with the first child. When she was carrying the fourth month, there was a solar eclipse in the afternoon. Hindu orthodoxy imposes the disciplines of silence and shutting up in a dark room for pregnant women at the time of any eclipse. Non compliance is threatened with mutilations of the child to be born. But Saraswati saw Buddhist, Moor and Burgher women freely moving about in the streets of Colombo, regardless of the time of the eclipse. Surely, some of these women must be pregnant too. If the evils of infringement were real, all pregnant women should be equally affected and their children should be maimed, irrespective of faiths. But that doesn't happen. Therefore, the disciplines relating to eclipse are a superstition of Hindu faith. Thinking along these lines, Saraswati transgressed the taboos at the time of the eclipse. After the full period, the delivery was normal and the child also was normal. The experience equipped her with the credit to persuade other pregnant women to give up the superstition. We have nine children now. Both solar and lunar eclipses occurred at different periods of her pregnancies. Nothing untoward happened to us on account of the violations of restrictions imposed by custom on pregnant women during eclipses.
Saraswati's cooperation has been of great assistance to me in growing atheistic. The early steps of atheism were concerned with working against superstitions. Later, when we took up economic and political programs of atheism, Saraswati rose to the occasion and was repeatedly imprisoned in that connection.
My parents lived at Kakinada. They were getting old. I desired to be serviceable to them. When I was born on November 15, 1902 at Chatrapur, now in Orissa, my father, Goparaju Venkata Subbarao, was the head clerk of the Forest Department. He was popularly known as "Sambho" owing to his ardent devotion to the Hindu god, Sambho, that is, Siva. For his skill in draftsmanship and capacity to tackle any volume of work, he was promoted to be the Sheristadar at Parlakemedi, where my elder sister, elder brother and I had elementary education. My father was again transferred to Kurnool. But my brother and I continued our studies at Parlakemedi. Our paternal aunt, who claimed divine revelations, was our guardian.
As frequent transfers, though on promotion, disturbed our studies, my father chose to settle down at Kakinada in the Revenue Department. At Kakinanda, in P.R. College, my brother, Narasimha Rao and I continued our further education. He went for engineering course later on and I went to Madras for my M.A. in Botany at the Presidency College. While I was serving at Madurai, Coimbatore and Colombo, the condition of my parents was constantly in my view. Presently an opportunity arose. P.R. College at Kakinada opened the degree course of study in Botany, and preferred its alumni for the staff. I accepted lectureship and was happy that I was going to serve my old college and also that I was living with my parents. But conditions were not so happy as I hoped for. Atheist attitudes markedly changed my ways of life and resulted in clashes with the conservative and conventional methods of my parents and of my alma mater.
My parental aunt continued to go into trances as in the past. Of course, I received "sacred ash" from her when I was a boy. The growth of rational thought changed the picture now.
A fortnight after I came to live in my parental home, I found my aunt in trance in the prayer room. She was reprimanding my mother on some trifling matter. My father was a strict disciplinarian. My mother was kind and loving to all her eight children. We bore special respect and affection for her. So when I overheard my aunt in trance finding fault with my mother, without a second thought, I broke into the sanctum sanctorum with a stick in my hand and threatened to thrash my aunt, unless she gave up that nonsense. My father who was sitting before the deity was dumbfounded at my rudeness. The whole situation was suddenly silenced. I withdraw from the room. There were no more trances and revelations afterwards.
The reason for my immediate reaction was my reading of the psychology of Religious Mysticism. I learnt that trances, visions and revelations were either subjective illusions of weak minds under the influence of overpowering autosuggestions or were pretensions of cheats in the halo of religious belief. The knowledge disabused my mind of respect for my aunt's trances though I performed my duties to her as the elderly woman of the family. Further, the family got into straitened circumstances by following the advice of the so called divine revelations. On return to Kakinada, I could see the loss and trouble suffered by the family. A few years later my father fell out with my aunt. During her last days she came away to me. At an advanced age of over eighty-five, she died at my house at Masulipatam.
After my discourtesy to my aunt in trance, my father was not happy with me. He supposed that the deity of our family possessed my aunt, took her into trance and revealed advice through inspired utterances. The rudeness to my aunt in trance was considered rudeness to the deity of the family. It was an act of sacrilege. Except my flouting of the religious faith, there was little to find fault with me. Yet, it was not a small matter. He openly remarked that he made a mistake in giving me higher education. He was looking for an opportunity to teach me a lesson.
The full moon of August was the day each year when the sacred thread was ceremoniously changed for a new one. On that day in 1928, my father held out a thread to me and asked me to wear it as a matter of religious discipline and respect for the rules of caste. I had not discarded the thread wholly so far. I was only indifferent to it. But my father's conventional discipline challenged my atheistic leanings. Politely I told him, "Father, I have great regard for you. But I have no respect for caste. For the past two or three years I have been indifferent to wearing the thread, which is a symbol of a caste. But on this day, when the thread is changed for a new one, let me make up my mind and be honest to my convictions. I'll discard the thread wholly from today."
My father was enraged at this defiance of caste. In severe voice, he repeated thrice, "I am your father, I command you. Wear the thread." It was a moment of test for me. Gently but definitely I replied, "No, please." "Get out of my house. You are a sinner. I won't look at your face," was the harsh command of my father. He turned his face away and walked quickly into his room and shut the door.
I was outcaste. My mother shed tears. I came to Kakinada from Colombo to serve my parents. Atheism estranged me from them. The news spread around. I took a week to secure a house for me to shift from my parent's home. I was not economically hard up, as I was holding a job in the college; but I was socially alienated from friends and relatives who agreed with my father. My wife and I lived almost alone in the new house with our first child, Manorama. Neighbors looked upon us with suspicion. My mother visited us off and on. Every month I was passing on a part of my salary to my parents to relieve their economic strain.
The Gandhian movement of the Indian National Congress combined constructive work with political fight. It spread throughout the length and breadth of India, and liberalized old traditions of caste and communal differences. In 1920, my father had a part to play in the Gandhian movement: He donated two bags of paddy grain to the Congress volunteer camp. For this act he was suspended from service for one month by the British government. My father was a generous man in many respects. My open apostasy defied his authority as a father and he was angry with me.
After excommunicating me, my father was consulting Hindu high priests on the propriety of his action. Some of them seemed to have advised him to review caste rules in the light of modern events, especially the Gandhian drive against the observance of untouchability.
One incident settled the issue. Dr. Duriseti Chalapati Rao was our family physician. He belonged to the same caste as my father. On one occasion, my father praised him for observing caste rules and complained against me for disobedience. The doctor, without a word, removed his coat and shirt and revealed that he did not have a thread at that time. He told my father that many young men of the age were indifferent to the caste rules. Only I was bold and honest. Should I be punished for being honest and he be praised for soft compromises with conditions around him? The doctor's performance and pleading set my father to think afresh. My mother's persuasion had its influence too.
After two and half years of excommunication my father called me and my wife for common dinner with him. Strangely, some orthodox relatives excommunicated my parents for eating with me. A few months later, my parents who were around sixty years of age, shifted to my new house which was more roomy and better ventilated.
I was happy I was serviceable to my parents. I did not interfere with their ways of prayer and worship. Nevertheless, their orthodoxy, was getting relaxed. For some time Saraswati had to adjust between the extremes of somewhat orthodox parents-in-law and heretical husband. She managed it well with tact and patience. My parents spread out their time in living with me, and with my brothers and sisters. We were eight in all. My parents lived up to the ripe old age of ninety, and spent their last days with my younger brother Sambasiva Rao.
My mother spoke at the public function of the celebration of my sixtieth birthday. She recalled the instances of my recalcitrance. With abundant motherly affection she added, "After all, a son is a son."
I was reading extensively for and against atheism. Atheism was not an intellectual understanding with me. I wanted to know how an atheist was different from a theist in the ways of life. It appeared to me that people closed their minds with faith in god and fate. They lost initiative, became superstitious and fanatically cling to their beliefs. But god and fate were beliefs with no basis in reality. They were falsehoods. If we reject them, we stand on our feet, feel free, work well and live equal, since all of us belong to the same kind. With this ambitious plan, I set about my life. I knew I would clash with vested interests and conservative views in the old ways of life. But I would work with no regrets.
At first I started with exposure of superstitions and pulling down sectarian walls. I discarded the sacred thread because it was a caste symbol. As I was a student of science with some wide reading of different branches of knowledge and as I had leisure and held a job which placed me decently above want, I indulged in discussions against superstitions, and accompanied them with demonstrations of simple scientific experiments. For instance, turmeric with slaked lime turns red. When lemon juice or tamarind paste is added to the red substance, it turns yellow again. The truth is turmeric responds to acid and alkali media. Ignorant of the chemical nature of the reaction, mendicants shroud it in a religious garb and present it as a miracle. Similarly, eclipses are not explained in a scientific way, but are associated with superstitious practices in the name of miracles. Miracles thrive where ignorance prevails. And religious belief closes the mind and becomes the source of dark superstition. Close to my residence was a slum of untouchables, called Atchutapuram. Untouchables are socially segregated, poor, illiterate and downtrodden. I established contacts with the slum and started an adult night school there on my own accord. But the adults were irregular and slow to take advantage of the school. On studying the situation I found that the immediate need of the adults of the slum was not education but food. Most of them had to work the whole day at odd manual labor. Either they were not paid the wages for the day or they were paid so late that they bad to buy foodgrains late and cook for the day to eat. The prospect of obtaining labor for the next day was uncertain and the threat of starvation constantly hovered over them. I learned the reality of slum life more than I taught them lessons. And to be real to the common people, atheism should solve the economic problem of India.
The academic life at the college posed its own problems. To mention one, I noticed a student of my class dull and inattentive. I talked to him privately and he said that he had no interest in Botany. Fine. I requested him to think over and tell me the next day the subject in which he had interest so that I could recommend to the principal the change of his subject. He thought over and informed me that he could not fix his interest on any subject. I explained to him that the defect was not with Botany but with his attitude towards life. I encouraged him to continue in Botany class as he had already done three weeks in it. A few days later I held a test for the class and deliberately gave him a good mark. He was surprised and asked me if he was good at the subject. I encouraged him and in the next test he deserved the mark. He passed B.A. in Botany at the first chance. Ten years later, I met Suryanarayana, the same student at a meeting in another district to learn from him that he was teaching Botany in a school and, with a glee in his face, he said he was creating interest in Botany in his students. Supply cheer and man is all right.
There were several occasions for me to seek atheistic solution of the problems of my students, their educational difficulties and domestic troubles. I asked them to feel free as masters of their lives, to take steps towards equality of all humans and to live open without a blush and to tell what we do and to do what we tell. These simple guidelines evoked new enthusiasm among my students. They used to visit me with their families, and my wife and I paid return visits to their homes. The social calls mingled up several of us crossing conventional barriers of caste and communal differences. It was a big change in India in those days before attainment of political independence. I was happy to be with the students both inside and outside the college. The happy relations had a healthy effect on their studies. They paid good attention to what I was teaching and fared well at examinations. Most of them came out brilliantly as professors, legislators, advocates or successful businessmen. Even forty years after the completion of their student career, I keep up good social relations with many of my old students. J. Venkateswarlu, Professor Emeritus of Andhra University, C.V.K. Rao legislator of the State Assembly, Narayana Prasad serving in the United Nations Organization, Acharyulu a successful accountant at Bombay and T.V. Raghavulu, a former minister, are some whom I can mention. This wide and abiding sociability I attribute to the atheist way of life.
One of my students, B.V.D. Narayana Rao, started a manuscript magazine. He had a flare for journalism. He requested me for an article on atheism and I wrote one on "The concept of god." I said that the concept of god was useful in three ways. Firstly, it provided a ready answer to every question in the form of god's creation and god's will. Secondly, it supplied a sanction for moral conduct in the form of hope of heaven and fear of hell. Thirdly, it could be molded conveniently for any theme of fine arts. A large volume of song, dance, painting and sculpture was produced in the name of god. In spite of its usefulness, the concept of god was a falsehood. Like every falsehood, it corrupted mankind by importing superstition and fanaticism into the belief in god. I concluded that though god was a useful falsehood, it should be discarded as every other falsehood in order to promote truthful life and real social harmony.
P.R. College, where I served, was inspired with the ideology of Brahmooism, a liberal offshoot of Hinduism. Yet avowed atheism was too much of irreligion for the management. The authorities of P.R. College took exception to my expression of atheist views in the article on 'The Concept of God' and called for my explanation. I replied that I was an atheist by conviction and those were my views. My services were dispensed with after a due notice of three months.
My students moved in the matter and lodged a protest against my dismissal. It was of no avail. After five years of lectureship, I left the services of my alma mater in 1933. Atheism clashed with my parents. Atheism caused my dismissal from the college.
Saraswati and I were discussing every turn of events. But we did not expect the dismissal from P.R. College. For our maintenance we were wholly dependent upon the salary from the college. Our only property was a thatched hut we put up on a plot of land which we purchased by disposing of Saraswati's ornaments. The landlord of the house we were living in after getting excommunicated by the parents, took advantage of our social odium and was frequently demanding higher rent. So we thought of putting up a hut of our own. It was on the outskirts of the town with open fields around. My parents joined us in that hut. My father drew a pension on retirement from government service. As I was economically depressed on losing the job at the college, my parents chose to go on a long visit of relatives in other districts. I had three young children by that time. Of course, we were hard hit by the dismissal. But that did not unnerve us. We chose to go the atheist way. It was uncharted. We should be prepared for risks and untoward incidents. We are the masters of our lives. We cannot complain. We should chose our course of life and act with freedom and a sense of responsibility.
Equipped with hope and confidence, I decided to start a tutorial college. It was a private institution to coach students for public examinations. Some of my old students who had graduated by then came to my assistance. We were fourteen in number. We gave the name of 'Andhra Tutorial College' to the institution. A friend of mine who sympathized with our venture, let out a portion of his house for a small rent to locate the tutorial college. All the fourteen of us did all the work ourselves, from sweeping the premises to teaching the students. It was a successful beginning in cooperative living. We divided the income from fees equally among us. My share of the income was a tenth of what I got at P.R. College. I cut the coat according to the cloth and Saraswati wonderfully rose to the occasion.
All my colleagues were not atheists. They appreciated my atheist way of life. M. Bhaskara Rama Rao, who was my student at P.R. College, was very much attached to me. His early death deprived me of a valuable friend.
Mrs. Durgabai, who later gained reputation as Dr. Durgabai Deshmukh, was a student of the Andhra Tutorial College. By that time she was in the forefront as the leader of the Congress Movement. In 1930-33 she was the dictator of the Satyagraha camp at Madras. She underwent long terms of imprisonment. When the political movement took a turn for constructive work, she desired to acquire academic knowledge by regular study. She sought my help in the matter.
While I was teaching her, she often fell into a reminiscent mood and related to me her experiences of political fights and prison life. She introduced me to several political dignitaries. At her instance, I served as a personal volunteer of Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Kakinada during his Harijan tour of India. Running of the adult night school at Atchutapuram acquainted me with the realities of the economic condition of the slums. Teaching Durgabai stimulated my interest in political life. The experiences were useful to me when I added economic and political dimensions to atheism.
Durgabai was not only a political worker of eminence. She was interested in problems of widow remarriage and inter caste marriages. Saraswati and I were with her in her activities. Putsala Satyanarayana, of Uppada, who later became a legislator, was our close associate. Working in the field revealed to us practical difficulties in the way of social reform. The first hurdle was the parents of the parties to the marriage. Then the public would be willing to help but afraid to commit themselves to any specific act of assistance. Looking at the difficulties, the prospective bride or the bridegroom would withdraw suddenly from the scene of action. Amidst these uncertainties, one has to work with patience and resolve. Suramma was a widow who steadfastly braved the ordeal and married successfully. Some of those who helped us greatly for the consummation of the marriage, were unwilling to sit for a photograph with the newly married couple. They would help, but they would not like to be known publicly as helpers of a reform. Saraswati and I were the common hosts for every marriage feast of unconventional alliance.
Indeed work at the Andhra Tutorial College opened to me opportunities of social and political significance which service at P.R. College could not. Salaried security of jobs and freedom of work and expression do not go together. Freedom is certainly attendant with risks. Its ups and downs stand in marked contrast with the uniformity of weekly wages or monthly salaries. But this uniformity is the enemy of initiative and innovation. If I chose the freedom of atheism, I should take the uncertainties that go with it. If I continued at the Tutorial College, perhaps, I could have developed activities that would put atheism to test. That was my dream also. But the sudden dismissal from P.R. College and the meager income from the Tutorial College imposed such a financial strain on me and Saraswati that we agreed to take help from a strange quarter that delayed the strait experiment with atheism for six years. When one of my position and devotion to atheism was tempted by desire for security even for a while, the pressure of economic conditions should be so enormous and enslaving as to border on economic determinism in the case of common people. How then are people to be released from this pressure? Some have got to withstand the economic conditioning, and change the order. They are atheists who can change the order instead of succumbing to it. Atheists are masters of systems but not slaves of systems. But I should admit, I yielded to the pressure and took six years to rebel against it.
My dismissal from P.R. College evoked wide sympathy from several quarters. The cooperation from my colleagues at the tutorial college was an aspect of it. Further, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later on became President of India, was Vice Chancellor of the Andhra University at that time. P.R. College was affiliated to the Andhra University. He was known for his liberal views and acts of generosity. He was not an atheist. But he thought that a lecturer of a college should not be persecuted for unorthodox leanings. With his recommendation, the subject of Botany was opened at Hindu College, Musulipatam and I was offered the post of lectureship. I took it up. After a year of work at the tutorial college, I shifted to a regular college again..
A flood of letters congratulated me on my appointment as lecturer in Botany at Hindu College, Masulipatam. They thought when I was dismissed from P.R. College on the score of atheism, the present appointment was a moral victory for my cause. The tutorial college at Kakinada gave me a send-off and my colleagues continued the college for a few more years.
The principal at Hindu College, Masulipatnam, K. Sivarama Krishna Rao was kind to me. As I was known as an atheist on my appointment, there was no room for misunderstanding. Further, Sivarama Krishna Rao himself was considered a non-conformist and there was much in common between us.
The work at Hindu College was light for me. I was already a teacher for nine years. Further, the course of Botany was just started and I taught only Intermediate classes here whereas I handled B.Sc. classes at P.R. College. I utilized my spare time for the spread of atheism. Practically, every weekend I used to go out to address public meetings on atheism. In two years I visited most of the villages around Masulipatam and in adjacent districts also. Usually I spoke for two hours and at the end invited questions. The answers lasted for another two hours. It was natural for me to stand the strain of a four or five hour meeting as I was inspired with the zeal of spreading atheism. But what encouraged me was the response of the gathering which stayed all the time and asked me questions also with interest. The longest meeting lasted for seven hours from 1 to 8 P.M. at Duggirala (Guntur District). That was in 1937.
The theme of my talks was to say that god, soul and other-worlds were false. I treated with god, soul and other-worlds in general rather than limiting myself to Hindu, Christian or Islamic concept of them. As the audience was mixed, questions often related to denominational faith to which the questioner belonged. Questions, and cross-questions of different denominations themselves revealed that no denomination was wholly valid. My general reading of all religions enabled me to meet every question with confidence. The questions were usually forty to fifty. I recollect the largest number was 136 at Anantapur. The answering of questions clarified my understanding of atheism and also gave me a picture of people's faith, its form and use.
The meetings were attended in hundreds. There was no disturbance at meetings, except at Phirangipuram (Guntur District) which is a stronghold of Catholics. The elders of the village disapproved of the disturbance and arranged the meeting again the next day in quieter atmosphere with bigger audience.
A particular feature of meetings on atheism was the punctuality of its start. Indian villagers who are not used to machines, take time leisurely. Meetings usually start hours late. One of the early meetings was at Challapalli. It was announced at 1 P.M. and was widely advertised by placards and handbills. The place was a cinema hall. I went there five minutes before time. The convener too was not there. About ten persons were in the hall. I drew a chair, announced myself and started the meeting punctually at 1 P.M. by my watch. Five people ran out of the hall to call in the people who came for the meeting but were loitering in the streets or sitting in coffee houses. Within half an hour the hall was full. The convener also rushed in. There was a loud protest that I should not have started the meeting without the full audience. "Though 1 P.M. was the time announced, we have to wait for the audience. It may mean 2 P.M. also" was the argument of the convener. I simply replied, "One may mean two for theists. For atheists one means one." The reply caught the imagination of the people. Thereafter, every meeting on atheism was punctually attended. Educational institutions at that time were conventional and job oriented. Mahatma Gandhi characterized them as "mills to manufacture clerks." The atheist mind was eager to change every existing system and custom with a view to make them more free, equitable and social. I thought of a college to be managed by students and teachers, free of commercial interests. The new college would encourage initiative, social mingling and technical skill. There was response from the public of Bhimavaram, a town of the adjoining district to sponsor such a college. A committee was formed. I was its principal member, since I put forth the plan. The university required the collection of a hundred thousand rupees for the college for granting affiliation. Five thousand rupees were readily subscribed and the members of the committee started collecting further donations.
An elderly gentleman was attracted by the plan of the college. He wanted to donate sixty thousand rupees. Fine. He showed me his bank book with a balance of seventy two thousand rupees. The other twelve thousand he would keep for his expenses during the rest of his life. He imposed no condition or wish for the donation except one. He wanted me to wear the "sacred thread." He said that, because I was a moving figure of the committee, students would flout rules of caste by my example. At once my eyes were opened to the reality. I was working in a caste ridden climate. Politely I told the gentleman, "I am not fit for this work. I shall resign from the committee. Please pass on your kind donation to the president of the committee." The elderly gentleman advised me to be considerate. Sixty thousand rupees was more than half the amount we were to collect for the college. But atheism was more to me than the bright prospect of establishing the college of my dream. He would give the donation only if I remained on the committee. It was an impossible condition. I resigned from the committee. The political movement in the country raged again. Some members of the committee took part in it. The interest to establish the college receded into the background. Later, another of the conventional type came up at Bhimavaram. A big section of the youth were attracted towards Marxism. They resorted to the method of strikes. There were frequent student strikes at Hindu college too. The management thought that my atheist propaganda was indirectly responsible for the strikes. It resolved to dispense with my services. After five years at Hindu College, I faced the second dismissal in 1939.
Students took up my cause. They approached all the members of the management and successfully prevailed upon them to revoke the order of dismissal. But the principal was not happy, when the management yielded to the student pressure. In his capacity as the principal, he imposed disciplinary regulations on me, prohibiting me from meeting students outside the classroom and banning the expression of my views on atheism inside or outside the college, in speech or writing.
The ban was too much for me. Should I resign immediately? The students who fought in my behalf to get the dismissal order revoked, did not want me to resign. It was shameful for me to serve under a ban. I agreed to stay for a year and to resign at the end of the academic year in 1940.
The two dismissals plainly placed the choice before me between atheism and job. Saraswati and I chose atheism. In fact, the principal did not accept my resignation at once. He knew that I added two more children to my family, six by now. He was kind to me when he started the course of Botany in the Hindu College and took me as a lecturer after I was dismissed from P.R. College. He was kind again to remind me of my responsibilities to the family and to advise the withdrawal of my resignation. It was a question of prestige for him when I suggested that the ban on me should be lifted. There was no common ground between us if I valued freedom to spread atheism more than the security of a job. The resignation was accepted.
When I resigned the job at Hindu College, Masulipatam, I had before me some choices for the next step. I was offered the secretaryship of a Life Insurance Company. A scientific company asked me to take charge of their section of Biology. The manager and correspondent of a High School wanted me to take up its headmastership, which fell vacant just a few days ago. These were the jobs with security of service and salary. There was the other offer of public work. Anne Anjayya invited me to settle down in his village of Mudunur (Krishna District) and to carry on public work in the manner I liked.
Every time in life we face alternatives for choice. The final choice depends upon objective of life, either rolling in the conventional rut or the desire for a change and taking risks of a change. Atheist thought that took shape during the several lectures and answering of questions, made it plain to me that every individual has the freedom of choice. It is the fear of responsibility that follows the choice, which compromises the individual to conventional ruts and permits him conventionally to shift the responsibility of the results of choice to god's will, fate's decree, force of circumstances, inexorable custom, economic condition, political necessity or the cultural pattern. Whatever the plea, it is a question of owning responsibility of choice or shifting responsibility of choice to some agent outside the individual. I recognized that the tendency to shift the responsibility of choice is the theist way of life and the opposite, namely, the boldness and frankness to own responsibility of choice is the atheist way of life. Atheists assert the freedom to make choice everytime and to face consequences without regrets and with a sense of responsibility. If the results prove unpleasant, the individual is as free to change the choice as he was to choose earlier. Throughout, it is a question of asserting freedom with a sense of responsibility and using freedom under the cover of faith in an external force that is supposed to determine choice and the results of choice.
Saraswati and I were clear in our minds. I had already worked for fifteen years from 1925 to 1940 as a lecturer in five different colleges. The atheist disciplines do not agree with theist conventions. I faced two dismissals. Why should I accept a salaried job again to repeat the same clashes or to compromise with conventional ways for fear of clashes? So, we chose to accept Anjayya's invitation to go to Mudunur. The choice is attendent with risk but it has the scope for the expression of freedom with a sense of responsibility. With six children ranged from twelve to a year in age, Saraswati and I went to Mudunur in August 1940.
Mudunur had a population of about 3,000, two miles from the nearest road and eight miles from the nearest town, Gudivada, which has a railway station. It had a branch post office, an elementary school and a dispensary. Communications and facilities have improved considerably after India became independent, but Mudunur was a typical village when we went there. Anjayya was its accredited leader by virtue of his liberal disposition and a sense of service and sacrifice. He was a freedom fighter in the Gandhian movement of 1930-33.
Saraswati and I were born and bred up in towns. My job as a lecturer in colleges confined me to towns. Except for addressing meetings on atheism, I had little contact with villages. Therefore, Mudunur gave us a valuable opportunity to know village life, especially because more than eighty per cent of India's population lives in villages. Those who do not know villages do not know India largely.
Mudunur was one of the villages where I addressed a meeting on atheism two years ago. I had a few acquaintances and I was known there. Further, at the instance of Anjayya, Mudunur received us kindly and maintained the family collectively. Two thatched huts were put up for us in a private land just outside the village. It was called the Atheist Centre. From there we carried out our activities till 1947 when we shifted to Patamata, (Vijayawada).
It was a wonderful experience for those seven years when everyone looked after our needs in general and no one was responsible to us in particular. A friend would send us his milch buffalo and another hay to feed her. We enjoyed the milk. We received cereals and pulses by collective donation and clothes when we needed them. Vegetable growers who carried gourds and greens in the early hours of the morning to the market in the town, would drop a few vegetables at our hut on their way. Thankfully we collected them at daybreak. The omnibus on the road gave us a lift to the town free of charge and somebody would buy us postage for correspondence. Our needs were met in kind and seldom we had the occasion to handle a coin. Special mention should be made of Puvvala Nagabhushanam who was theistic himself, but was attracted towards the atheistic way of life and actively took care of us all the years we were at Mudunur.
The first program I took up at Mudunur was the running of Adult Education School. 86 adults ranging from 20 to 70 years of age from Mudunur and neighboring villages formed the class which met in a shed on the tank bund. The class sat from 12 noon to 2 p.m. punctually, a time suitable to villagers engaged in farm work, and to teachers of elementary schools. Anjayya also attended the class. I formulated a syllabus of the fundamentals of all subjects, arts and sciences taught ordinarily in colleges. My wide reading for atheism enabled me to take the class in all subjects. Prof. N.G. Ranga spared me volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica for reference. History, economics, politics, philosophy, sociology, ethics, logic, fine arts, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, engineering and elements of all subjects were in our course of study. It was a pleasure to acquaint the villagers with the fundamentals of all the subjects in their familiar language. It was training for me too. It was interesting, indeed. Side by side with this education, the students who were drawn from all castes and religions of the village, brahmins and untouchables, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, grouped into twos and three and played the host for the rest at tea by turns every Saturday evening. The teas mingled up all castes in their homes; Brahmin houses or untouchable slums. The social mixup raised an uproar, but the band of 86 adults braved the opposition.
The experience of common teas encouraged us to plan a cosmopolitan meal in the untouchable slum in the month of February, 1941. The invitation was open with a small fee towards cost of food. There were about 260 guests. It was a big affair in a village where caste distinctions were rigid. Elderly women, including Ramanamma, Anjayya's mother took part in the common dinner. But it was not without an echo.
M. Suryam, M. Krishnarao, M. Suryarao and Dr. S. Subbarao were the Brahmin participants of the common dinner in the untouchable slum. Suryam had two children too. When they returned home after the dinner, their parents closed the doors on them, as eating in untouchable slum was an affront to the rules of caste.
The four had the sympathy of the village with them though their parents were stubborn. For a week they stayed with their friends. In the meantime, there was rethinking of the problem by the parents and the boys were readmitted into their homes without any condition.
A few years later, M. Suryam became an agent of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. His cosmopolitan views and acts stood him in good stead. He mingled freely with his clientele without reservations of caste distinctions. Consequently he won wide sympathy, expanded business rapidly and rose to high position in the company. He not only developed into a good businessman but served as an active propagandist of atheism, frequently recalling the incidents of adult class and common dinners.
The adult class gave me wide contacts in and around Mudunur. Adiraju Amruteswararao, a teacher, attended the class with a few of his students from Appikatla, two miles away. From Bollapadu and Marrivada, villages on the other side also, there were regular adults at the school. Perumal pedaled 16 miles on bicycle to and fro between Mudunur and Gudivada town to attend the classes. There was general sympathy and respect for atheism.
Anne Anjayya gave a fillip to the atheist movement by persuading Ramakumar Varma to hold a conference of atheists. It was held in 1941, at Kanumur, a village eight miles from Mudunur. It was attended by about three hundred delegates and the conference had free discussion during its three days. Tummala Gopala Krishnayya was the secretary of the committee that was formed to spread atheism. He took me round several villages for meetings on atheism.
Movva Sivarao of Mudunur, undertook to print and publish my book in Telugu on Atheism (Nastikatvamu). In that book I used the neuter gender for god, because god is a concept. The change from the accustomed masculine gender attracted attention and set about rethinking. The book went through three reprints.
Wherever I was called for a public meeting, I insisted on my lodge and board to be arranged in the local untouchable slum. I took the occasion to mingle the two sects among untouchables, Mala and Madiga. Ordinarily, they do not interdine nor [do] they draw water from the same well. I consider their mingling an achievement for the atheist way of life.
At Mudunur I demonstrated fire-walking and dispelled the superstition associated with it. There is a notion that one could walk on fire only after a religious ceremony, as it was done. My wife and I walked on fire without the ceremony. My son Lavanam who was a boy of ten also walked. A few villagers, including women followed us. It was strange. To the huge gathering that assembled to witness the fire-walking by atheists, I explained the scientific principle involved in firewalking. When fire is super hot, the moisture on the skin of the sole gets immediately converted into vapor. It acts as the insulating layer between the skin and the fire during the short interval of two or three rapid strides on the pit of fire. Only care should be taken to see that the fuel burns for a sufficiently long time to get super heated.
Similarly with the magnet from some machines in villages, I demonstrated the phenomena of attraction and repulsion. Some cheats use them for exhibiting peace and war between dolls of gods of mythology.
On the occasion of an eclipse, Saraswati gathered pregnant women of the village and dispelled the superstition associated with it, as she did in Colombo.
The social mingling through common teas and dinners on the one hand and the scientific explanation and exploding of superstitions through demonstrations on the other, created a new awakening among the people of Mudunur and the surrounding villages. They moved with an open mind and revised old habits.
Puvvala Suryam is a musician of Mudunur. He made a living by playing on violin. He was attracted by the atheist ideology. He found that songs of classical music bore themes in praise of god. He was unwilling to propagate theistic thought through his music. He discarded the violin and started to live by hard physical labor. He became an example of an earnest atheist. A scholar of another village was attracted by Suryam's example. He composed songs with humanist and rationalist themes and Suryam entertained atheist audiences with the new songs.
Yellamanchili Butchayya, a young man of Mudunur wanted to marry intercaste to set an example for the abolition of caste distinctions. He married Puvvala Suryam's daughter on principle in the teeth of opposition of his relatives. Kaviraj Tripuraneni Ramaswamy of high repute as a non-conformist, iconoclast and rationalist, presided over the largely attended marriage function. Movva Pichayya and Kolli Ramamohanarao celebrated their marriages. discarding religious rites and holding cosmopolitan dinners and inviting local untouchables too. Marriage by civil registration became popular among atheists. My brother, Sambasivarao's marriage with a widow in the orthodox village of Kanakavalli, with untouchables sitting along with others for lunch was a big social revolution in those days in the context of prevailing Hindu caste-convictions. A riot was feared. But the opposition of conservatives did not take shape in the light of atheist awakening.
The atheist awakening revised the personal habits of villagers. Indian villages are known for insanitation. Soil pollution has been an age-old bad habit with them. Atheist awakening opened their eyes to the uncleanliness and indecency contained in it and men and women in several homes took to the construction and use of trench latrines. In this respect an item of the constructive program of Mahatma Gandhi came to our help.
The sympathy for atheism spread so wide and deep into the minds of people that in the census of 1941, from Mudunur village 142 persons classified themselves as atheists, disowning labels of caste and religion. Ramaseshayya incurred the displeasure of the Sub-Registar when he refused to associate himself with a label of caste or religion for additional identification at the time of registering a document. Similar was the experience of witnesses in courts of law. A small provision which went unnoticed so long, had to be culled out in order to meet the demands of the atheists. It provided an alternative to the usual oath in the name of god. By such bold and consistent action of the villagers, Mudunur soon came to be known as the "godless village."
It is a common view that theism, and its opposite atheism also, are concerned with philosophical questions, personal discipline and social conduct have little to do with political and economic affairs. That was the case in primitive times when political and economic systems had not developed significantly and religious faith dominated the life of the people. In the modern age, things have changed considerably. Emphasis has shifted to economic and political affairs. The old view is out moded. To be a real way of life, atheism should concern itself with all aspects of life and especially with economic and political systems because political authority and state law control and regulate social relations more than religious faith does in the modern age. From care of children and mode of education to family planning and rate of immigration, from irrigation facilities and land distribution to food rationing and property rights, state law rules in the modern age. Therefore we atheists wanted to bring political and economic affairs into the purview of atheism. The occasion of Quit India Movement of 1942 came in handy.
Earlier in 1941 Mahatma Gandhi conducted the movement of Individual Satyagraha as a silent protest against India's involvement in the Second World War. We were discussing its progress in our adult school. At that time, Anjayya was more interested in the methods of Subhas Chandra Bose than in the ways of Mahatma Gandhi. So he joined the Forward Bloc of Bose. When Bose was known to have left India to woo the help of Germany for winning India's freedom, British government arrested associates of Bose. Anjayya went underground and was later detained in Deoligaol till 1945. On account of the political changes, we discontinued the Adult School after a year and planned to take part in the Quit India Movement.
By 1942, other workers had gathered at the Atheist Center. Prominent among them were Kana, D. Ramaswamy, T. Challayya, D. Tatayya and R. Arjuna Rao. They expressed their agreement with atheism and its political program. Some students of the Adult School also joined us in the political action. We formed a good team of Satyagrahis in the Quit India Movement. Saraswati, my daughter Manorama and my sister Samrajyam were among the women who were arrested. Ours was the largest single batch in Krishna District to suffer imprisonment. Kana, Tatayya and Chellayya were imprisoned twice between 1942 and 44. In Alipuram Camp Jail I talked frequently to groups of fellow prisoners on atheism. They belong to the four Southern language groups of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Political action broadened the base of atheistic thought and prison life gained for us wider acquaintance.
I have nine children, five daughters and four sons. The number is outrageous from the point of view of the needs of family planning in capitalist society. Strangely, in socialist society, not only mothers of many children are honored and special allowance is granted for proper nurture of each child but childless mothers are taxed. Motivation of private profit presents norms different from collective welfare of socialist society.
Mahatma Gandhi was surprised at the large number of my children especially because I live by public support after 1940. He asked me why I was not observing celibacy. I said that I did not like to raise an artificial barrier between my wife and my self, especially when I denied her caste and property. If I denied myself also to her, I would give scope for inhibitions that disturb harmonious relations. Gandhi appreciated my situation and remarked that I was novel in having a large family without private property in public work.
From a rationalist standpoint, I should have taken to contraceptives, if I did not like celibacy. But effective measures of contraception were not commonly procurable in India in the thirties and forties of this century. When vasectomy became handy, I got sterilized in 1948. Nevertheless, on account of the atheist way of life we have bestowed sufficient care on our children so that they grow as assets to atheism. Our atheist outlook was reflected even in giving names to our children.
The first is daughter born in 1928. Except for defying the ban of eclipse, Saraswati and I had not grown assertively atheist. So we adopted the name of Manorama for her, a name suggested by our friend Dr. Aserappa of Colombo.
The second is a son, born in 1930. We were outcaste by that time and we grew atheistic. That was the time of the Salt Satyagraha Movement launched by Gandhi. So we called him Lavanam, which means salt in Indian languages.
The third is Mythri, another daughter. She was born in 1932, the period of Gandhi-Irwin pact and the Second Round Table Conference in London. Climate of friendship was prevailing at that time and Mythri means friendship.
Vidya is the fourth child and third daughter. She was born in 1934 when I was trying the experiment with education in Andhra Tutorial College. Vidya means education.
The second son and the fifth child is Vijayam. Vijayam means success, for Congress scored a sweeping success in 1937 elections, when he was born.
The third son is Samaram, meaning war. He was born in 1939, the time when the second world war started.
The next son is Niyanta born in 1941. Niyanta means dictator. That was the year of dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. Gandhi was also made the dictator of the Congress to conduct the antiwar satyagraha.
The eighth child, a daughter, is Maru. The name means "change" in Telugu language. She was born in 1944, when there was a change in the Congress program from Satyagraha struggle to constructive work.
The last child is Nau, a daughter. Nau means nine. She is the ninth child born in 1947.
The novelty of names attracted some of my friends who also gave their children names like 'Agust' for the child born in August 1942 when the August Movement of Quit India started. When we were released from prison in 1943 the child of a friend of mine was given the name of' 'Viduthala,' which means release. My grand daughter is called Suez, because she was born in 1955 at the time of the Suez crisis and her brother is named Chunav which means elections as he was born in 1952 when India conducted the first general elections with universal adult suffrage.
Some atheists changed their names into Kana, Nara, Madhu, Vempo, Bhanu etc., to dissociate from caste and religious association. As both Saraswati and I are atheists, the children have grown in an atmosphere of atheism and they have not so far felt the need to complain against it. Just as I discarded the thread which is a mark of the caste, Saraswati cast aside her tilak (rouge on forehead) and 'Mangalasutra' which are symbols of Hindu wifehood. When Saraswati and I discarded the marks of caste and the symbols of religion, our children too followed suit by training when young, and by understanding as grown ups. Their attitude of action and adjustment without complaint made them sociable and useful members of the family and of the society. Since 1940 when I left my job, my wife and I have been living on public subscription. It gladly maintained my children too and in the long run they have been offered ample facilities for development.
Besides food and clothing, an important problem with children is their education in a country which does not provide for social welfare. At Mudunur, Tummala Ramarao, took special care to give elementary education to my children. Then all of them studied Hindi. Gandhian movement created facilities for the spread of Hindi free of charge. Lavanam gained proficiency in Hindi. Vajayam and Samaram passed highest examinations in Hindi.
Mrs. Durgabai who had established Andhra Mahila Sabha in Madras kindly offered to give regular education to my children in that institution. Lavanam and Mythri went to Madras for that purpose. But their education suffered a setback owing to bombing at Madras and the consequent evacuation in connection with the Second World War. Lavanam did not continue education further as he did not like to study in the British educational system. What attainment he has, is due to self-cultivation. He is well acquainted with Hindi, Telugu and English to speak on public platforms and to write articles in journals. Lavanam was picked up to interpret Vinoba's Hindi talks into Telugu during his tour of Andhra Pradesh. In my foot march with my associates from Sevagram to Delhi in 1961-62, he interpreted my English speeches into Hindi.
Manorama stopped with elementary education after her marriage. Yet she received training in social work and nursing at the centers of Kasturiba Memorial Trust and worked for a few years in slum areas. Other children studied Matriculation privately and qualified themselves for further education. Mythri passed M.A. and Vidya did B.A. by private study. When we shifted to Patamata from Mudunur, Maris Stella Women's college was close to us and the other daughters and granddaughters studied B.Sc there, partly with the help of friends and partly with the assistance of scholarship grant for the children of those who were imprisoned in the freedom movement. With the same help Vijayam and Niyanta passed M.A. and M.Sc. at the Andhra University. Special mention should be made of the kindness of Mr. J.S.R.L. Narayanamurty, who was a lecturer and who gave Vijayam and Niyantha free food and lodge during their study at the Andhra University. Samaram completed his Medical course with the help given by Mr. Ch. Seshagirirao. Mr. Seshagirirao, who married Vidya, my third daughter later on, has been a source of constant help to us for every need. Maru too studied Medicine with the help of Dr. Sushila Nayyar, who was a secretary of Mahatma Gandhi and became the Health Minister of the Central Government.
A pleasant surprise came from Dr. George Willoughby of USA. During his tour in India, he visited Atheist Center at Patamata and was pleased with the way of our life. He arranged for education of my children in Philadelphia, USA for a year each by turns. Thus Lavanam, Vijayam, Niyantha and Nau took the chances to go to U.S.A. Just as Narayanamurty helped Vijayam and Niyantha at the Andhra University, Mr. Maturusurya Prakasam of Vijayanagaram kindly helped Vijayam to go to USA.
Thus all the children have education or educational training by the help of friends and of public subscription. We are beholden to them. Also my children who are now qualified for holding jobs, choose to seek self-employment only and be helpful to the needy. They see from my experiences that a job impedes freedom of action and initiative. In capitalist setup desire for private profit tempts talent and honesty with security of a salaried job and uses their services for furthering profits. The high salaries offered for service depletes free society of talent and honesty and this weakens revolt against capitalist exploitation. Every seeker of jobs is an accomplice of exploiters. So movements for social change give a call for those in jobs to come out, sacrifice comfort and join the struggle for revolution.
My association with Mahatma Gandhi is a hotly debated question with some rationalists. They see no common point between an avowed atheist and a man of god, as Gandhi called himself. Of course Gandhi did say that a blade of grass would not move without god's behest. What then is its congruity with his unique method of Satyagraha which calls on every one to insist on what he feels to be the truth? It was this method of Satyagraha or non-violent resistance that roused millions of Indians against odds to fight against the forces of British imperialism. Was it god's command or Gandhi's call to action?
To resolve this apparent paradox I wrote to Gandhi in 1930. I went to him in 1944. My talks with him were narrated in the book, An Atheist With Gandhi (60 pages, Navajivan Publishers, Ahmedabad). 24 pages of the book were taken up by the Introduction by Kishorelal Mushruwala, a close associate of Gandhi.
I said in my book that Gandhi "was preeminently a practical man. As a practical man, he took any situation as it obtained with all its paradoxes. He never sat down to scan and to sift its contradictions intellectually, but he moved the whole situation towards the ideal of happiness for all mankind. He condemned nothing before hand lest a good cause should be lost by bad judgment. He only let things drop when they could not bear the strain of progress. Practice was his test of fitness. He subordinated intellectual and sentimental considerations to practical purposes. He tested a system of medicine by the cure it effected. He tested the advocate of the cause by the work he turned out." (page 56 57) The emphasis on practice was the meeting point between Gandhi and myself.
Two instances confirmed the commonness.
When I was with Gandhi at the Sevagram Ashram, "I wanted to dissect a frog to demonstrate the phenomenon of heartbeat to the nurses class which I was teaching. The nurses objected to the dissection on the ground that it went against the principle of non-violence (ahimsa). The matter was referred to Bapuji (Gandhi) and he replied, 'Dissect the frog, if that is the only way to explain the heartbeat.' And I dissected the frog." (An Atheist With Gandhi -- Page 40).
Compare this incident with what happened at Ananda College, Colombo. I wanted to dissect a frog to demonstrate heartbeat to my students of class of Human Physiology. Buddhist priests on the management of the college prevented me from the dissection on the plea that it was killing. The priests eat meat. They say that they do not kill but buy meat from the stall. The priests are speciously argumentative. Gandhi was honestly practical.
The other instance related to my daughter, Manorama's marriage with Arjunarao. She wanted to marry an "Untouchable" on principle in order to establish castelessness. Gandhi agreed to get the marriage performed in Sevagram Ashram, as it conformed to his vow of blessing marriages between untouchables and non untouchables only. He also accepted to replace mention of god with truth, in deference to the needs of my atheism. Further, my wife, children and atheist associates did not attend the regular prayers of Sevagram Ashram. Gandhi did not mind our absence. Evidently, doing work was more important to him than repeating the name of god. Why then did Gandhi conduct prayers so regularly and mention god so frequently? The reason is clear. He was conventionally a believer in god by early training, even as I was. He continued the habit in so far as it did not stand in the way of his work. He was more concerned with real practice of programs than with intellectual perfecting of principles. Nevertheless he did not hesitate to revise an old habit whenever a present situation needed the change. He started with the common Raghupati Raghava type of god. As he pushed forward, he held that god was truth. But in 1931 he said, "I went a step further and said Truth is God. You will see the fine distinction between the two statements, namely, that God is Truth and Truth is God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth." He made the change in order to meet the objection of rationalist workers. In 1925 when a conscientious objector protested against the mention of god in the Congress pledge, Gandhi answered, "So far as the conscientious objection is concerned, the mention of God may be removed, if required from the Congress pledge of which I am proud to think I am the author. Had such an objection been raised at the time, I would have yielded at once." In the case of my daughter's marriage, he dropped the mention of god altogether from the pledge. Therefore, Gandhi was not that superstitious as he appeared to be by the conduct of prayers. Leading millions of illiterate, downtrodden and tradition bound common people of India towards the goal of Swaraj or freedom, he was "hastening slowly" in changing old ways which were of no immediate concern.
At the meeting of the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1946, he described himself by saying, "It is one thing for me to hold certain views and quite another to make my views acceptable in their entirety by the society at large. My mind is ever growing, ever moving forward. All may not keep pace with it. I have, therefore, to exercise the utmost patience and be satisfied with hastening slowly." Change, he wanted; but he chose the speed of change. Confronted with the ghastly situation of Hindu-Muslim clashes in 1947, he chose to change the form of prayer and added the name of Muslim god, Allah, in the Hindu verse. The change raised a storm of protest from Hindu quarters. Gandhi stood firm. He fell to the bullets of a Hindu assassin.
Gandhi called himself a "Sanatan Hindu." In essence he was not a Hindu. He was basically a Human. In the sea of humanity, a human is a rarity. Cut up by labels of race and nationality, class and culture, caste and religion, humanity has become highly sectarian. There is hardly a place for a human to live. So Gandhi was eliminated.
Emphasis on practice as the test of truthfulness, openness of mind for progressive change and humanness transcending were the characteristics of Gandhi that took me to him. Similar features of atheism made me and atheists acceptable to him though we did not attend prayers and called god a falsehood. But the difference was there. (page 52, An Atheist with Gandhi). Gandhi's method of continuing conventional belief in god, however open, had the advantage of establishing immediate communication with the mass of people. Later, it suffered the reaction of losing the essence of change and holding to the form of belief. The Atheist method, on the contrary, raises initial prejudices and renders communication difficult. Yet, the change achieved, however slow, is stable and firm. Gandhi appreciated the content of atheism. He advised me to take another name instead of atheism in view of the heap of prejudice against it.
Conventionally, atheism is equated with wickedness. Yet, I take to it deliberately for its promise to bring about permanent change for human welfare. Atheists have a hard way to fight through, but every step they take is a definite gain to humanity.