Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
Gora -- An Atheist Gandhian
From the book
"Rule, Protest and Identity -- Aspects of Modern South Asia"
edited by Peter Robb and David Taylor
|Mr Hugh Gray, lecturer in Politics, Centre of South Asian
Studies, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,
had presented this paper on Gora in a Seminar at the Centre of South Asian
Studies. It was part of a book entitled, "Rule, Protest and Identity
-- Aspects of Modern South Asia" edited by Peter Robb and David
Taylor and published by Centre for South Asian Studies, School of Oriental
and African Studies, University of London and Curzon Press, and Humanities
Press in 1978.
Here we publish excerpts from it.
Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, known as 'Gora' was born on 15 November 1902, at Chatrapur, a small town in Orissa.  His father, a composer of devotional songs and a government official, worked as a clerk in the Forestry Department. Later he moved to Kakinada, Andhra, where he worked in the Revenue Department. At 20 years of age Gora married Saraswati, aged 10 years, the daughter of a close friend of his father's. After his marriage Gora studied at Presidency College, Madras, where he received an M.Sc.
His first job was as a lecturer in biology at the American College, Madurai, where he was able to rent cheaply a large haunted house in which nobody else would live. He was already critical of Hinduism and was told by the college authorities that if he became a Christian he would be sent to the United States to study for his doctorate. As he knew nothing of Christianity at the time, he started a comparative study of Hinduism and Christianity, but concluded that one religion was no better than the other. He began to question the existence of God, personal or impersonal, and to reject metaphysical explanations of the human condition.
He resigned his lectureship to spend a year on cotton research at a government agricultural station in Coimbatore, but left this job 'as I could not fit into the dull routine of official duties'. Then he became a lecturer in biology at the Ananda College, Colombo, a Buddhist institution. Buddhist members of the Sangha there objected to Gora dissecting frogs to demonstrate their heart beats to students. (Yeats later at Sevagram some of Gandhi's followers objected to Gora's dissection of a frog when he was teaching student nurses. Gandhi, however, after listening to both sides decided that Gora could dissect frogs for scientific demonstration and did not consider this contrary to his doctrine of non-violence)
In 1928 Gora returned to Kakinada, where he was appointed as a lecturer at P.R. College. Shortly afterwards Gora's father asked him to leave the family home as Gora had ceased to wear the sacred thread. After two and a half years they were reconciled and his father invited Gora to dine again with the family.
It was at this time that Gora first came into contact with Gandhi's ideas and he immediately decided that from then onwards he would be 'a human being without a caste label'. He discarded western clothes and wore khadi. Aided by student Volunteers he organized demonstrations against untouchability and in support of the salt satyagraha. He also started adult classes to teach the illiterate to read and write.
In 1932 he wrote an article on 'The Concept of God' for a student magazine in which he attacked the irrationality of idol worship and (as at university seminars) expressed his view that God was a concept, not a scientific fact, and that the endeavour to remove poverty and suffering was impeded by Hinduism and by such metaphysical ideas as karma and dharma.
He was asked to resign his lectureship, although the Vice-Chancellor (Dr S. Radhakrishnan) seemed sympathetic to his view when he argued with him that freedom of thought was essential to university education and without it higher education was useless. A year later he was offered another lectureship at Hindu College, Machilipatnam. Meanwhile he ran a tutorial institution, where he and other teachers charged low fees and received equal salaries for their work.
Opposed Superstition, Promoted Scientific Outlook
Gora also encouraged his wife to defy the superstition that women should not expose themselves to the light of an eclipse or cut vegetables when pregnant. The resultant child was without the physical deformity expected to result from the breach of these customs.
From 1936 he started to visit Andhra villages and tried to persuade villagers to give up superstitions and adopt scientific attitudes. He encouraged them to discard caste symbols and tried to foster interdining between members of different castes.
Gora held that atheism implied honesty, keeping one's word, and punctuality. He always made it a rule to start meetings punctually, although only two or three people were present and hundreds came late. The meetings went on for hours, and Gora always left as lengthy a period as people wanted for questions. When he was asked why he greeted an opponent with a 'Namaskar' (the joining and raising of the hands in a traditional greeting of respect) he said he was exchanging a reciprocal greeting with a fellow human being, not saluting the non-existent divine in the other person.
By this time Gora had six children, but with his wife's support he decided that the time had come to give up his employment as a university teacher, so he resigned.
Work for Eradication of Caste and Untouchability
Some atheist followers from Mundunur, a village about thirty miles from Machilipatnam, invited Gora and his family to settle there, offering him a house and their support. He did so and, using the village as a base, started to travel throughout Andhra, going from one village to another to preach against caste. Gora said that the organization of interdining was difficult. He found that members of the lower castes were prepared to interdine with higher castes but not with castes they considered lower ranking than themselves, or with untouchables. He considered that it would help to remove Hindu-Muslim difference if they ate together. He started by eating beef with Muslims and asking them to eat pork with him. He thought it was useful in breaking down caste barriers (particularly for those who were vegetarians like himself) to demonstrate lack of caste prejudice by interdining and publicly eating whatever was the food of others.
News of these dramatic protests against caste barriers spread and Gora's name started to become widely known in Andhra, as a strange saint-like character who preached atheism. He also gave demonstrations of fire walking to show that there was noting mysterious about it, and that it could easily be done 'because of the presence of water vapour which provides a protective covering for the feet'. However, it was said that many villagers were more impressed by the fire walking than by the scientific explanation which Gora provided.
GANDHI AND GORA
In September 1941, Gora wrote to Gandhi asking for an interview. He wrote
|For one year I have tackled the problem of untouchability with the
atheistic outlook. I have a few co-workers who agree with me in the
atheistic approach. The atheistic approach mainly consists in the non-recognition
of sectarian labels like Hindu, Muslim, Christian. We take man as man.
Thus by discarding the lables (sic) and mixing up people in the general
stream of humanity, we hope to remove untouchability also.
Our programme of work so far has been confined to systematic and periodical cosmopolitan dinners in which the guests pay for their fare which is always simple and cheap. The dinner is open to all and about forty to fifty guests drawn from all castes, including 'untouchables', take part in the dinner. The persons vary from time to time.
In the village atmosphere where caste restrictions continue to be rigid, open cosmopolitan dinners are not easy to accomplish, Yet we succeed, because we find that the atheistic attitude brings a definite cosmopolitan outlook and pushes out all sectarianism including untouchability.
The result of one year's work encouraged us to proceed along the same lines. Before we do so, we desire to seek your advice. All of us have great regard for your wisdom and experience. We want to be told and warned of the possible pitfalls, if any, that lie in the way of our atheistic approach. In the light of your advice we are prepared to revise our outlook and programmes. If you like, I will go to Sevagram for a personal talk with you. 
Gandhi replied 'Atheism is a denial of self. No one has succeeded in its propagation. Such success as you have attained is due to your sincere work among the people around you. I am sorry I cannot invite you to come here. I have no time to spare for talks'. 
Two years later Gandhi was persuaded by mutual friends to meet Gora at Sevagram. Gora said to him
|God is a falsehood conceived by man. Like many falsehoods it was, in
the past, useful to some extent, but like all falsehoods, it polluted human
life in the long run. So belief in god can go, and it must go to wash off
corruption and to increase morality in mankind.
I want atheism to make man self-confident and to establish social and economic equality, non-violently. Tell me, Bapu, where I am wrong. 
|Yes, I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say my theism is right nor your atheism wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic. You will change whenever you find yourself in the wrong. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove. Then I may go your way or you may come my way; or both of us may go a third way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you though your method is against mine. |
On another occasion Gandhi said to Gora
|Truth means existence: the existence of that we know and of that we do not know. The sum total of all existence is absolute truth or the truth.... the concepts of truth may differ. But we all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God. This notion of truth as an objective, impersonal reality is historically prior to the atomistic, epistemological and scientific view of truth.|
If Gandhi had lived longer he would have presided at the marriage of Gora's eldest daughter to a Harijan at Gandhi's ashram. They had a long discussion as to the form of words to be used at the marriage ceremony, as Gora would not allow the word God to be used. Gandhi agreed to substitute the word 'Satya', where he would have used God, saying 'For me God is truth although for you truth is not God. I am willing to substitute "Satya" where I would have used God at the ceremony'.
Dr. Prakash Gupta said that when Gora stayed in Gandhi's ashram he was 'completely in its spirit'.  Dr Gupta was in charge of scavenging (the cleaning of lavatories) and he said that Gora always volunteered for these unpleasant tasks, which some members tried to avoid. On the occasion Gandhi had prepared a declaration that he wanted all ashram members to sign. Only Gora said he could not as it began 'in the name of God'. Gandhi immediately crossed out the word God and substituted the word 'truth', then Gora signed.
Gandhi expressed a wish to meet Gora's followers and it was agreed that a group of them, including Gora's son Lavanam, should come and live at Sevagram for training.
Prabhakarji said 'Gora was a soft man, not a hard man. Something in him spoke to something in me. We had our strong differences but we understood each other. He was a true Gandhian'. 
Gora said 'Gandhi was bored by those who always agreed with him. He always enjoyed discussion and argument when there was a basis of agreement which made the exchange of differing ideas meaningful'.
Gora agreed that he and Gandhi shared the view that social institutions are the expression of values that mould the minds of individuals and that by changing the values one changes the institutions. They both saw truth as an objective, impersonal reality. For Gandhi truth was ultimately God -- the divine reality identified with all that is.  Because every man embodies divine truth, he carries within himself a portion of that truth and engages in selfless search for it. Gandhi also sought to augment it in individuals, groups and institutions. For Gora there was no identifiable divine absolute; he denied it. He saw the total of all existence as a set of relative truths constantly changing as scientifically verifiable knowledge increased. Truth for both of them was an objective, impersonal reality, but for Gandhi it had an ultimate explanation and for Gora it did not. For Gora man was his own legislator, giving a meaning to his own life by committing himself to principles that had no significance (other than aesthetic) apart from such committal.
Gora admired Gandhi for his open conduct and active living. Gandhi's openness fostered non-violence and in active living Gandhi experimentally tested his truth. For Gora individuals were only responsible to themselves and their fellow men for their deeds, and were free to choose and to act not act. Men were self-made, moulded by environment and to a much lesser degree by their genes. Men had no Karmic inheritance and were responsible for their lives and actions. God, government, property, mores and conventions were man-made and could be changed by men.
GORA AND POLITICS
In the 1940s Gora worked for the Congress party and the Independence movement. From 1945 until Independence he was a full-time organizer for the All-India Congress Committee in Delhi. After Independence he resigned from the congress sharing Gandhi's view on the future shape that the movement should take. For the rest of his life he was associated with the Sarvodaya movement.
Gora stood as an independent candidate in two Andhra Pradesh elections: first in 1952 from Vijayawada for the Lok Sabha, and then in 1967 for the Legislative Assembly. He stood not to win 'because elections present educative opportunities'. He tried to show how a political candidate should behave, spending no money and making no attacks on other candidates. He invited all the other candidates to share common platforms with him and explain their views and policies to the voters, but few accepted. At his meetings he would provide people with the names and symbols of all the candidates and explain election procedure. He would never ask for votes. He advised all voters to attend all the political meetings held during the election campaign and to question the candidates closely. He would not end a meeting until there were no more questions.
Gora believed that it was a government responsibility to feed and clothe everybody and to provide all citizens with work. A socialist government should promote social and economic equality. Ministers, M.P.s, M.L.A.s should set an example in simple and unpretentious living. People's representatives should live in cheap houses, have cheap cars, travel third class on the railway, and use buses, never planes. From 1952 he started his campaign for 'pomplessness' and Congress politicians in Vijayawada were constantly harassed by peaceful demonstrations and exhortations to the simple life by Gora's followers.
In 1947 Gora had established his ashram at Patamata, just outside the town of Vijayawada. He started a weekly magazine in Telugu to propagate his views, called Sangam, and subsequently published a number of books in English and Telugu on his views, activities and the need for party-less, decentralized democracy. 
Many of Gora's Sarvodaya colleagues, although they agreed with his general approach to politics, found it difficult to go as far as he did in war against the caste system. Chundi Jagannatham said
|The only argument of Gora's I could not digest was over food. In working with Harijans he urged that one must eat with them. He said, only if you are accustomed to having beef between your teeth, can you conquer all prejudices. You must eat what they eat if you are to remove caste and religious barriers. If only, Gora said, you friends would accept my strategy, real progress could be made. To achieve results one must fully participate in the lives of Herijans; social work among them done by vegetarian outsiders is not the same thing at all. |
Gora supported the Bhoodan movement because it promoted mutual help in villages, but he wanted direct action programmes to bring pressure to bear on state governments. He thought that Vinoba Bhave concentrated too much on the metaphysical aspects of Gandhi's thought and not on the dynamic aspects of non-violent revolution. He complained of the lack of effective follow-up on Bhoodan and Gramdan. For Vinoba Bhave Gora had respect, but none of the sympathy, liking and admiration that he had for Gandhi.
'Why Gramraj' -- Democratic Decentralization
In 1958 Gora published Why Gram Raj in which he advocated devolution of political power and complete decentralization of the economy in accordance with Gandhian ideals. He saw anarchy as the main feature of a non-violent society in which self-restraint and voluntary action would replace state power and coercion. Political parties were seen as groupings of divisive middle-men between people and governments. As little power as possible should be delegated upwards from the new village republics, and delegates to higher levels should always be subject to control and recall by those they represented. People should understand, use, and not serve machines. Gandhi had objected to industrial society because it maimed and alienated men. Like Gandhi Gora had no objection to electricity and small-scale mechanical aids. Small was beautiful because it enhanced the quality of life.
Liberation of Women
In this period his views on morals started to shock some of his Sarvodaya colleagues. He considered that just as open rebellion could end private property so an open rebellion against the sanctity of marriage could end adultery. He said that there was no blame in unmarried motherhood for the woman. He considered that marriage was a public and joint declaration by two human beings of caring and responsibility towards each other and their offspring, nothing more. For responsible people marriage was only a social convention which might one day disappear.
THE GREAT MARCH 
In 1960 Gora became known throughout India. He started by staging a satyagraha in front of the Legislative Assembly building in Hyderabad. A letter from him asking that blocs and whips should be abolished was read to the Legislative Assembly by the Speaker, who commented that although he could not collaborate with him, Gora had noble ideas. Meanwhile outside the Assembly Gora had been arrested. The Speaker announced that Gora would be released and talks between the state government and Gora would take place, to see if any of his ideas could be implemented.
Subsequently it was pointed out to Gora by Congress Ministers that the questions he raised should be taken up with the central government, as the changes he suggested were important, implying that conventions and rules and perhaps even the Constitution, would have to be changed.
in March 1960. it was decided that there should be a March to Delhi. Gora had always been close to Jayaprakash Narayan, who agreed to preside over a preparatory conference, which was held in Hyderabad in August 1960. This was followed by smaller meetings throughout the state, propagating the ideas of pomplessness in current politics, and partylessness to come.
Sevagram to Delhi on foot
On 8 October 1960, the great march to Delhi started from Gandhi's Sevagram ashram. At the outset the party numbered sixteen, which increased to forty-two by the time they reached Delhi. Along various stretches of the march they were joined by large numbers of local supporters. They passed through districts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and reached Delhi in ninety-nine days after walking eleven hundred miles. At the head of the march a large flagless pole was carried, to symbolize people without party.
The Sarvodaya movement did not at first support the march, but district branches co-operated without being officially associated with it. Everywhere Sarvodaya members, acting individually, made arrangements for meetings and to provide the marchers with vegetarian food and a place to bathe and sleep.
They covered eight to fourteen miles a day, starting at five a.m. and trying to reach their destination by midday. They would have a meal on arrival. Everywhere they held meetings. In the towns they would speak to Bar Associations, Student Unions and other groups. Their programme was planned ten days in advance and Gora's son Lavanam would go ahead to see that posters were displayed and introductory leaflets distributed.
Only in one village in U.P. was there initial opposition to their presence. The landlord who controlled the village was a Congressman. He told Lavanam that he would not allow Gora and his friends to sleep in the village because they had supported the case for a separate Vidarbha state. (Gora similarly supported the movements for separate Andhra and Telengana states in Andhra Pradesh, because he considered that smaller political units were intrinsically better.)
The landlord sent all the villagers to the fields and when Gora and his friends arrived the village was empty. A meeting for five p.m. was announced through hand megaphones. Nobody from the village attended and on returning from the fields the villagers stayed in their huts, From nearby villages ten people came to the meeting including a school-master who asked a number of hostile questions. Gora spoke for three hours. Afterwards the teacher asked what arrangements had been made to feed them and, hearing none, sent them food from his village.
In another U.P. village there was an argument with a bidi leaf merchant. The marchers were carrying a banner reading 'Ministers are Our Servants'. The merchant said Our M.L.A. is a minister and we cannot accept anyone carrying such a banner., But after discussion he allowed them into the village under protest. Later the minister concerned sent Gora a personal note of apology.
Only in a few places did Jan Sangh, Congress, and Communist supporters attend meetings to put their cases, heckle and ask questions. Everywhere the marchers were fed by the villagers and given tea.
Letter to Nehru
Before reaching New Delhi Gora sent a letter to Nehru saying that the office of Prime Minister should be above party politics and asking him to contest the next Lok Sabha election as an individual people's representative, not as a Congressman. He told Nehru that he should move to a modest, small house, and stop living in isolation from ordinary people in Teen Murthi. He also asked Nehru to strongly advocate inter-caste marriages -- the prelude to a casteless society -- to preach pomplessness, to abolish political parties, and to introduce decentralization.
Satyagraha and Discussion with Prime-minister Nehru
In January 1961 satyagraha was offered in front of Teen Murthi; Gora's march filled the headlines of newspapers and he received massive all-India publicity for his views.
Nehru's private secretary came to see Gora and offered him a choice. Nehru offered either to address the whole group for a few minutes, or meet Gora and a few friends for a full discussion of the issue raised. Gora accepted the second alternative after the offers had been fully discussed.
According to Gora, Nehru received him with great kindness and charm. Nehru said he had great sympathy with Gora's demands. They were all in the true Gandhian spirit, which he had always so admired, but they were difficult to implement in present circumstances, when he was trying to increase all India national unity. He was not in agreement with Gora on partylessness and argued that Gandhians could make a special contribution within Congress, particularly in educating people to choose worthy and unselfish representatives. As to pomplessness, he would personally prefer a more simple life style, but accepted the symbols of office which his colleagues thought suitable. Education was the most important task for them all and must come first; and then the secular ideals he shared with Gora could be achieved. He praised Gora's efforts in promoting intercaste marriages and castelessness. His differences with Gora were mainly on methods not ends. All sincere followers of Gandhi had his deep respect and Gora's thinking was. in many ways, except on parties and political democracy, remarkably similar to his own.
After New Delhi Gora toured U.P. and M.P., held meetings and collected some thousands of rupees for his work in Andhra. He returned by train travelling third class to Vijayawada. An unexpected consequence of the march was that Gora became much better known in the world outside India and started to receive invitations to visit foreign countries from many humanist groups. From then onwards he visited many European countries and became internationally known as a very unusual Gandhian.
THE LAST YEARS
Gora rejected historical determinism and considered Marxism to be a 'Fatalistic Philosophy'. Dialectical theory was, metaphysical. There was no simple economic or social model to explain change and he did not think that the caste system would change fundamentally (although it might be modified) by a change in the mode of production or the economic relations into which men entered to produce goods and services. He considered that the Indian Communist parties had made a fatal error in not frontally attacking the caste system: 'Look at them how they marry within caste and exploit the caste factor in electoral politics. Many of them do not understand that their living styles should be like those of villagers or the urban poor, if they are to successfully promote revolution.'
Jayaprakash Narayan and Gora
After the split between Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, Gora sided with J.P., but continued to insist that any political movement must be partyless. (For Gora, Vinoba Bhave 'preached too much and acted too little'.) In 1975 Gora. and J.P. agreed on the need for total revolution and a complete social transformation but Gora urged on J.P. that he should not accept the collaboration of the parties in Bihar, but insist on their dissolution, and form a partyless bloc. J.P. argued that when parties offered their help in achieving stated political goals it was foolish to refuse their colaboration.
According to Sarvodaya leaders J.P. wanted Gora to lead the movement in Andhra Pradesh, and spent hours trying to persuade him saying 'He is a clean man, we must have him.' 
Gora discussed with his friends the organization of a partyless conference in Warangal to disown J.P.'s movement, but was dissuaded from doing so by his Sarvodaya friends. He went to Bihar and spoke in support of Jayaprakash Narayan, but continued to express his opposition to political parties and J.P.'s association with them.
Gora continued to reject Gandhi's view that the universe emanates from sat or absolute truth. For Gandhi morality and dharma could not be ultimately divorced from rta or cosmic order. For Gora both were man-made. At the level of relative truth they were in agreement that what at one time might be true might cease to be so as new insights were discovered. For Gora there was no God or absolute, personal or impersonal. Such ideas were false, or hypotheses. This last concession made it possible for Gandhi and Gandhians to work with him and accept him as a fellow seeker after truth. Gora, like Gandhi, was never dogmatic and always admitted the possibility of being wrong.
Gora was Unique
Gora died from a heart attack in 1975. Chundi Jaganathan said of him
|Very few members of Sarvodaya are atheists although there are some nastikas. Many religious people worked with Gora for improvement in the lives of villagers, He had a particularly strong appeal for young people. Although he rejected God, religion and even reincarnation, he brought about a total consciousness of humanity wherever he went., In villages people are judged by their deeds, not their words, and that is why Gora was seen as a saint. Gora was unique. |
But Gora was only unique as an atheist saint. In India, like all saints and sanyasis, he expressed himself through symbols, and behaviour which was instantly recognizable. He transcended local languages and local religions. His political identity was national not regional, although Andhra Pradesh was his main arena for action.
(Courtesy: Publishers of the Book.)