Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR by Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, by Cliff Walker]
Gora: A Man for All Seasons
Review of Gora's autobiography We Become Atheists
by Irene Brereton in Humanist in Canada No. 39, 1976
Gora: A Man for All Seasons
"One-adult-one-vote is the out-standing character of democracy. The quality of voting franchise ought to lead through appropriate legislation to equality of opportunity and equality of social respect among people. But democracies have not so far succeeded in establishing this equality despite their voting rules. What is the reason?"
This is the question which Gora tackles in this account of his life
and his struggle towards atheism in a society dominated by strict religious
rites and superstitious practices, an account which was finished only four
days before his sudden death at the age of 73 in July 1975.
Gora was born into a high caste Hindu family. As a boy he wore the sacred thread and carried a pack of sacred ash in his pocket as a good luck charm; but, when difficult times came after he had graduated from university with an M.A. degree in science but without a sufficiently high grading to secure a position easily, he abandoned the ash and began to develop a determination to succeed by his own efforts.
That he did break away from stifling religious constraints and superstitions was undoubtedly due to the great moral courage and boundless humanity of this man who, despite his high birth, always felt himself close to those who were weak and helpless. In his early years, he was able to convince people of the folly of their superstitions by daring them himself. For example, when he was unable to find accommodation the city where he took his first lecturing position, he went -- much against the advice of his colleagues -- to live in a "haunted" house, in which no one else would live. Nothing happened, of course, and soon others joined him there. Similarly, he and some of his family walked barefoot through the red hot embers of a fire to prove that there was nothing miraculous about this 'miracle' performed by men -- you just had to know exactly how to do it.
His wide study of all the religions and their holy books, combined with his reading of the classics and his own study of science in university, gave him a profound understanding of man's belief in gods and the soul. It was a general understanding, not tied to any particular denomination and it led him to the conclusion that in primitive times man had gods out of psychological necessity. Civilized man had then preserved this faith in the supernatural, at best as a sanction for moral conduct, and at worst for aiding exploitation of the gullible masses.
Gora felt that if people had a little scientific knowledge, superstitious practices or frauds connected with natural phenomena, such as eclipses, could be banished. He saw that miracles thrive where ignorance prevails. In carrying out his educational and humanistic work among the untouchables and others and airing his views on religion he aroused the ire of the college authorities and was dismissed from his teaching positions.
Living without a secure salary and having a large family to feed faced
him with great difficulties; but he felt that for him, the constant constraint
of being tied to the mental and moral obligations of a monthly salary precluded
initiative and innovation. After his first dismissal he had taught for
a time in a co-operative tutorial college set up by himself and some friends
and had found that many opportunities to do work of social and political
significance opened up to him once he was freed from the security of a
regular job. One can only agree that for a man like Gora, an ordinary 'job'
would represent a tremendous waste of talent and dedication. So finally
he chose the freedom of atheism and the uncertainty which went with it.
Though again offered many secure positions he valued freedom to spread
his opinions and philosophy more than financial security. He and his family
lived on subscriptions and donations in money and kind. Although they lived
very simply, the children were well fed and very well educated. Since his
death, his family and friends have been carrying on his work.
The India of the 1930 was a ferment of nationalism and growing political awareness. As early as 1885 a small section of upper class people were agitating for constitutional reforms. In 1905, with the growth of nationalism, there was an increasing demand for Dominion Status, which led in 1906 to a boycott of British goods. In 1920 Gandhi began to lead his non-violent, non-cooperation movement and in 1921 was given sole authority to lead the National Congress Movement.
Gandhi and Gora
Both Gandhi and Gora had found that the Constructive Work Programs that
they had been carrying on among the people -- covering adult education,
sanitation, untouchability, and women's liberation -- brought short-lived
improvements on a small scale. Both men decided that non-political methods
do not succeed in solving the problems of people living in a complex society.
For any real change, there must be political struggle culminating in legislation.
Gora did not find himself differing greatly in the early years from Gandhi and the Congress Movement as far as objectives were concerned. Their differences concerned the method of achieving these objectives. They agreed, however, that "practice was the test for truthfulness," or, as we say, that politicians must practice what they preach.
Both Gandhi and Gora had made a practice of living in the untouchable quarters wherever they traveled or worked. This not only indicated that the ideas of untouchability was unacceptable to them, but also, since they were clever, educated leaders and of high birth, it impressed on people and on other politicians the well-known Gandhian principle that the leaders must stay close to the people if they are truly to serve them.
Gora very much enjoyed this work among people. The questions and the answering clarified his own thoughts on many issues and brought him a close understanding of the thinking of the ordinary people. They learned many useful things from him besides his atheist philosophy as is well illustrated by the following amusing story of his weekend meeting in the villages around Masulipatam when he taught at Hindu College.
"A particular feature of meetings on Atheism was punctuality. 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 for 1 p.m. and was widely advertized by [plackards] and handbills. The place was a cinema hall. I went there five minutes before time. The convener 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 converter 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 be two for theists. For atheists one means one." The reply caught the imagination of the people. Thereafter, every meeting on atheism was punctually attended."
The difference between Gora's approach and Gandhi's is shown by the following quotation:
"Mahatma Gandhi was surprised at the large number of my children especially because I lived 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 myself, 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 methods 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."
Gora's political activity started with the Quit India Movement in 1942,
in connection with which he suffered imprisonment. He disagrees with the
"power politics" which is accepted by even the social democratic
parties; he contends that power politics is the capture of the authority
of government by fair means or foul. This confrontation leads naturally
to the formation of political parties whose main aim is to secure power
or to remain in power. This in turn leads to party machinations and corrupt
practices. Yet the real purpose of politics should be to solve people's
problems by means of government legislation. In order to achieve this legislators
must become people-minded instead of power-minded. When power becomes a
mania, people are forgotten.
Gandhi proposed a method of decentralization of the basic units of administration so that the people are able to be in direct touch with their representatives and maintain direct control of them. When Gandhi was assassinated and not able to carry through his beliefs, Gora left the Congress Party. He continued to think about this question, but he knew that, though decentralization is desirable, it can be carried out only after you are in power. Even a man like Vinoba, who lead the mighty march throughout India with a great following, could not achieve administrative decentralization.
Politics with Parties
To the end of his life Gora pondered the problem of politics without
parties. He felt, as many of us do when we see our legislators spending
most of their time bickering and fighting for power while the problems
of the people are almost forgotten, if people were elected simply as members
of a group to run the business of the country, rather than as competitors
pitting one group of society against another, there would be a hope of
gaining economic equality and social justice. Unfortunately the most powerful
groups in our society do not want the ordinary people to have economic
equality and social justice. Which means we must break that power first.
How will this be done? Gora sought election to Parliament in the first
general election in India in 1952 on a partyless platform. He did not succeed
at the polls but his attempt started the Atheist Partyless Movement. The
numbers of their candidates increased in the elections of 1972 and he felt
that partyless democracy had emerged as the political program of atheism
and that it was gathering support.
So my review of this great little book must end as it began with a question: Should we work to abandon political parties and seek ways of selecting representatives of the whole society who will humbly associate with and serve the people who elected them rather than cut themselves off by competing in groups for power?