An Autobiographical Account of Lavanam
edited by Mark Lindley
The Humanist Chaplaincy of Harvard University
An Autobiographical Account of Lavanam
I was practically born a Gandhian. The year of my birth, 1930, was the year when Gandhi started, as part of India's national liberation movement, the civil-disobedience campaign against the British salt tax. With thousands of companions he marched nearly 250 miles to the sea, picked up a handful of natural salt from the shore, and thereby called for all Indians to use salt obtained without paying the tax imposed by colonial law. My father, Gora, had already for some years been active in the national liberation movement, and this tax protest was its greatest undertaking to date, so he named me "Lavanam," which means "Salt" in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. As far as I know, no one else has been given this name. It had a great influence on my development. Even as a child I was an ardent Gandhian.
Another privilege that I had from birth was that my parents had been excommunicated -- on account of their atheism and their involvement in programs for social equality -- from the traditional, high-caste Hindu society in which they had been raised. So I was born into an explicitly atheist cultural and social milieu, shorn of caste, religion and superstitious beliefs. This helped me to grow, as a young person without any sectarian identity, into habits of free thinking and unfettered moral activity.
As a child I attended public meetings with my father, including various lectures which Hindu preachers would often give on philosophy, mythology, tradition and nationalism. At one such lecture, when I was eight years old, the speaker not only declined to answer a rather harmless question posed by my father, but even declared that the meeting would be terminated forthwith unless the atheist were to leave (which my father courteously did). I was struck by this authoritarian inability to handle a perfectly sensible question. In thinking about it, I decided that learning is a two-way affair and calls for etiquette as well as openmindedness.
Gora was an academic, teaching biology in a succession of colleges in southern India and Sri Lanka. His atheism caused him to be dismissed twice, in 1933 and again in 1939, but on each occasion his record as a teacher and as a social worker on weekends and during vacations led to his reappointment by higher authorities. In 1940, however, he decided to devote himself fully to the causes of atheism, socio-economic equality and the national liberation movement. With the approval and coöperation of my mother, he quit his job in 1940, left a relatively sophisticated mode of urban life and went to a remote village, Mudunur (twenty miles from Vijayawada), where a group of people who had heard him lecture invited him to relocate. There he founded the Atheist Centre, the first such center as far as I know. I was the years old, and very proud of his initiative.
I thought I should no longer study in an educational system which had no respect for free thought, so with my father's consent my regular schooling now ended. Yet at Mudunur I was schooled in agriculture and came to understand a rustic culture that was in many ways representative of India's problems and resources. A new phase in the Indian liberation movement began in 1942 under Gandhi's leadership. My parents and several other relatives and colleagues at Mudunur took part and soon went to jail for opposing the British administration. My turn to engage in civil disobedience came when I was 12. I had started a local children's organization, the "Nehru Bala Sangham" (named after Jawaharlal Nehru); more than a hundred of us children held demonstrations to spread the message of the national liberation and social-reform movements. The police disliked me for this, so when I courted arrest on January 26, 1943, I was separated from the rest of the group and given six cane lashings on each palm. They were administered publicly, in the hope of deterring others from civil disobedience. Intoxicated with the national spirit and with the example set by Bhagat Singh when he went to the gallows with a smile on his lips, I managed to take my beating without showing any expression of pain. The police then took me to a lonely place miles away and left me; the local people cared for me and brought me home. This experience enhanced my commitment. I took part in the clandestine disruption of the local communications system of the British government, and acted as a courier between adults engaged in the liberation struggle.
One day when I was 14, my father asked all his colleagues at Mudunur what they might do to further the cause of atheism. Offers were made to write a book, produce a film and so on. My offer was to go around the world. I was thinking of how Buddhism and Christianity had been spread by missionaries willing to risk their lives. The offer drew laughter, but I did not forget it.
In the mid-1940s Gandhi invited Gora to bring his family to Sevagram so that the two of them could discuss Gora's atheism -- and also, it soon became clear, so that Gandhi could judge first-hand the mettle of our family and the colleagues who accompanied us. Thus I had the opportunity to live at Sevagram when Gandhi was there. Although I did not yet know any other language except Telugu, Gandhi made me feel at ease as we talked in a mixture of Telugu (which he understood only to some extent), Hindi and English. I was with a loving second father, not a remote great man. He kept an eye on me as I carried out my daily duties at the commune, so I tried to perform them -- and since then my duties elsewhere -- as diligently as I could.
In 1955 I was asked, now a young man of 25, to translate Vinoba Bhave's speeches from Hindi (which Gandhi had urged me to learn) to Telugu, as Vinoba toured our province during his nationwide march to solicit donations of land from the rich to the poor. A long-time disciple of Gandhi, Vinoba was phenomenally gifted intellectually and widely regarded as his spiritual heir, and in the post-Gandhi period was very active in upholding the tradition of constructive work and coöperation. The government of India gave Vinoba's land-donation program its legal sanction and we at the Atheist Center participated in the movement.
When I joined Vinoba, his daily meetings to exhort landowners to give away some of their holdings would always start with a 40-minute prayer, drawing upon texts from all the religions practiced in India. As an atheist I was concerned about this, so I proposed to translate whatever Vinoba said before the prayer, then step down from the dias in order to dissociate myself from the prayer itself, and then resume translating afterwards. Vinoba, who respected individual liberty no less than Gandhi had, readily accepted this arrangement even though I was a youngster and far less eminent than he.
But then, after three meetings conducted in htis way, he asked me whether I would be willing to remain with him on the dias if instead of conducting a prayer he presided over five minutes of silence. As an inexperienced young man, I wanted to be more clear so I asked him what he would sugthe audience think about during those five minutes. I thought he might tell the Hindus to think of their god, the Muslims of theirs, the Christians of theirs, and so on. But to my surprise, he said he would ask them all to think about truth, non-violence and compassion -- the binding factors among humans! I was overwhelmed by his generosity and felt that he was continuing where Gandhi had left off. Now there was no need to step down.
A new translator took over when Vinoba went on to a province where a different language was spoken, and the local Gandhian leaders asked him now to resume the all-religion prayer, as they assumed it had merely been for my sake that he had changed over to a contemplation of truth, non-violence and compassion. But he said that I had been only an instrument of his reaching a decision of his own. Until his death in 1982, Vinoba adhered to silence as his only form of public prayer.
Vinoba's generosity encouraged me to discuss theism and atheism with him. As a not-very-well-read young man, I often felt silenced by the sheer weight of his immense scholarship, yet when I expressed my feelings freely and frankly, he would produce arguments to strengthen my position. On one occasion he told me, citing a sage from Maharastra (the province of which Bombay is the capital), that one should feel in one's heart that there is a god, in order to avoid arrogance, but should behave as an atheist. My association with Vinoba, the "Walking Saint of India," broadened my vision and trained me to interact meaningfully with theists.
And yet my greatest education was to assist my father. We edited journals and books together, and I took part in all the constructive programs he promoted. I joined every civil-disobedience protest and every march across towns or provinces that he undertook in order to advocate non-partisanship in government and to urge government leaders (including his good friend, Nehru) to live modestly. I was by his side in his campaigns to expose religious miracle-workers -- walking on fire or the like -- and to dispel superstitions. I traveled far and wide with him, and in Hindi-speaking areas translated his speeches.
Sometimes he would set me a difficult task. In 1950 he wanted to conduct and adult-education program in one of the slums of Vijayawada, but the residents were adamant in their ignorance and, worse, their fatalism. Some of our co-workers tried and failed to engage their interest, so I was asked to try. The first day I went, these good people declared, "God has written on our foreheads, condemning us to be illiterate, ignorant, poor, untouchable; what can we do?" (They considered it their destiny in this life. According to Hindu belief, their souls might fare differently in their next lives in this world.) They told me, "Please don't waste your time and ours!" It was quite a challenge, so I stood up abruptly and, touching the forehead oft he person sitting next to me, exclaimed, "If anyone has written on your forehead condemning you to be illiterate, ignorant, poor, untouchable -- he is your enemy, and my enemy! Bring him here! What right does he have to inscribe on your forehead such a fate? We must punish him!" Then I touched the next person's forehead and, wiping my hand across it, declared: "I sweep off from your forehead whatever has been written there! I am writing a new message! If you come daily to me you will become a different person!" They were taken aback by my offensive behavior, so I left; but when I came back the next day, some of them were waiting for me, and thereafter the adult-education classes caught on. That is the kind of fulfilling work that my father taught us all to do.
In my 20s I had no time to think of courtship. At 30, I married a woman whose father, Gurram Joshua, was a unique personality: born poor, he had held his head high and became a superbly elegant and renowned poet at a time when poetry was normally a monopoly of the high-caste rich. He dedicated his poetry to the cause of social equality and humanist values. He and my father though born into different castes became good friends in 1950, and within a few years decided to complement their friendship with a caste-free matrimonial relationship. Joshua's third daughter, Hemalata, and I had never met, but we agreed with our parents' idea and we were married in Sevagram before Mahatma Gandhi's hut in 1960. Ever since, she and I have been together in all our activities. I am proud of her very active role in developing positive atheism into a way of life.
As atheists we consider it our bounden duty to help dismantle everything that degrades a human being or dehumanizes the individual. A humanistically atheistic approach has been vital to all our social-work programs: youth camps, rural development, cyclone relief, criminal reformation, the rehabilitation of jogins (religiously sanctioned prostitutes), the promotion of marriages between people born into different castes, and so on.
In 1962 there was a military clash between India and China over the demarcation of the border, so the World Peace Brigade and the Gandhians organized an international friendship march which was to go from Delhi to Beijing. In the event, the Chinese authorities denied us permission to cross into their land, but even so, the march changed my life, because during it I became friends with Dr. George Willoughby, a Quaker from the USA. He obtained a scholarship for me to study social change in America in 1966-1967, with particular attention to the civil-rights campaign.
I had had the privilege of meeting Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited India in 1959 along with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and Bayard Rustin. In his study of Gandhian thought, he had read my father's book, An Atheist with Gandhi, and had noticed how my father on one occasion said, "I want atheism to make man self-confident and to establish social and economic equalities non-violently. Tell me, Bapu, where I am wrong," and Gandhi replied, "I can neither say my theism is right nor your atheism wrong. We are seekers after truth.... Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove." Dr. King told me that this passage had led him to adopt a similar attitude toward atheism.
He was of course deeply interested in our family's work for the eradication of untouchability. (He wanted to meet my father, but had to settle for me as Gora was away at the time.) Our meeting, though less than an hour long, was one of the greatest experiences of my life. When I asked him how he regarded Gandhi, he immediately replied, "Gandhi is my weapon!" and these captivation words brought me close to him. In the USA in 1966-67 we met again now and then but had little time together because of his very active role in the anti-Vietnam-War movement; and then the assassination of this most courageous and renowned of Americans robbed me of further contact with him.
George Willoughby introduced me to various social-change movements in North America and put me in touch with a series of humanist and rational-minded groups: the American Humanist association, the American Rationalist Association, the Freethinkers of America, the United Secularists of America, the American Ethical Union and the International Humanist Ethical Union. I had the privilege of associating myself closely with people like Joseph Lewis, Howard Radest, Paul Kurtz and Eva Ingersoll Wakefield (who edited the works of her grandfather, the famous agnostic, Robert Ingersoll). The American Humanist Association and their local chapters arranged tor me to address meetings throughout the USA, and I had the opportunity of visiting the Canadian Humanist Association and knowing Dr. Henry Morgantaler. All this helped me to understand atheism from a Western point of view and to develop a sense of universal humanism.
I returned home by a westward route and visited humanists in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. (In Bangkok I was given hospitality by some elderly Indians who during the Second World War had worked with the dedicated nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose, in his "Indian National Army," fighting the British on the Eastern front!)
I made use of all these contacts in organizing Gora's first world tour in 1970, on the occasion of his participation in the International Humanist Congress at Boston. In addition to the USA and Canada, he visited Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Indonesia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. He helped found the Atheist Society of Australia and, having met Dr. Madalyn O'Hair in Texas, undertook the first World Atheist Congress, which was held in 1972 in Vijayawada (and which I was privileged to assist in organizing and conducting). In 1974 he attended the International Humanist Congress at Amsterdam, visited several countries in Europe, and established good relations between atheist groups in Russia and the Atheist Centre at Vijayawada.
In 1975 Gora died quite suddenly while addressing a public meeting at Vijayawada. He bequeathed a great legacy of cultural and social reform and political activism, and since he was renowned throughout India as the founder of modern atheism in our homeland, his death left a big void. Yet under my mother's devoted guidance all her children and grandchildren as well as various other colleagues have vigorously carried on and expanded the activities that he started.
We work to promote knowledge, human service and fellowship. We consider it invaluable to show the world, as my dear father showed Gandhi, that to do good and to be good, god and religion are unnecessary. To that end we have founded three autonomous organizations: (1) Arthik Samata Mandal, for the promotion of economic equality, (2) Vasavya Mahila Mandali, for women's emancipation, and (3) Samskar, for the reformation and rehabilitation of socially abandoned people. These organizations receive financial help from international funding agencies and from various branches of the Indian government. Their work embraces the great variety of developmental, social-work and social-reform programs touching directly the whole spectrum of day-to-day live in dome 350 Indian villages and urban areas, and influencing many others indirectly.
The library at the Atheist Centre, though hardly luxurious in its accommodations, has attracted scholars because of the wealth of its holdings on subjects related to Gora, Gandhi and the international atheist movement. We also maintain the Gora Science Center (for the diffusion in India of a scientific temper to overcome superstition) and a 30-bed hospital. And in various towns and villages the Nasthika Mitra Mandali ("Atheist Friends' Association") sponsors meetings where young men and women can learn about and discuss the serenely held and morally active type of atheism -- "positive atheism" -- that Gora taught us.
A focal paint of my own activities has been to strengthen our international contacts. I and several other family members and colleagues -- Hemalata, Mythri, Vidya, Vijayam, Veeraiah, Nau, Hari Subrahmanyam, Nyantha, Sakala, Samaram, Rashmi, Keerthi, Rajatha, Malathi, Ratna, Sunanda Shet and Umesh Patri -- have traveled extensively in the cause of atheism and of good will amongst humanist-minded people around the world. Some of this good will has been reflected in the 1986 Humanist Award to the Atheist Centre, which my sister Mythri accepted at Oslo from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and in the "Atheist of the Decade" award which Atheists United Kindly presented to me at Los Angeles in 1991.
Our close association with the Gandhian movement is facilitated by the fact that Gandhi in his maturity evolved from a traditional Hindu to a dedicated secularist who considered it important to confine god-belief and religion to the private sphere of life. Indeed he felt strongly that public life should be shorn of all the sectarian feelings that set one human against another. Yet alas, his public use of religious language contributed to such misunderstandings and mistrust that it became impossible to prevent the horrific division of India in the name of religion -- uprooting millions of innocent people and entailing mass slaughter -- and his own assassination by a religious fundamentalist.
After having declined in 1941 to meet Gora ("Atheism is a denial of self.... I have no time to spare for talks"), Gandhi in his last years came to cherish him ever more warmly ("You are a member of my family. Come to me any time you find me not engaged with others"), and in some of their last meetings planned to help him write a book-length exposition of atheist philosophy and to conduct my elder sister's wedding in an atheist ceremony. Gandhi was deeply impressed by Gora's moral qualities, and in view of his own constant search for moral truth, his opening to atheism seems to me a promising sign for the future of humanity. While technology is today bringing people into closer communication with one another, they remain divided by religion as well as by nationality and class. In order to convey Wendell Wilkie's prophetic vision of "One World" into reality we shall have to develop a universal -- post-religious as well as post-nationalist -- human fellowship. Atheism is inherently universal and non-sectarian, concerned as it is with direct relations among individuals and between humanity and Nature; but it has not yet been sufficiently understood in this positive sense (for various reasons; cultural inertia, the vested interests of religious authorities, the misuse of religious sentiment by political demagogues and the fantastic militancy of some philosophically or emotionally insecure atheists). Just as Gandhi in his ever-serene and ever-yearning quest for truth overcame his earlier prejudice against atheism, so may humanity as a whole! I will continue my efforts, along with fellow seekers after truth all over the world, to forge a post-religious and post-nationalist society.