Of rationalists, atheists & Hinduism… Why is spirit of questioning crushed?

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Jawed Naqvi

It took the Pope 400 years to lift the charge of apostasy from Galileo for discovering that it was the earth that went around the sun, not the other way as the Bible had informed him with authority. One got the news of the Pope’s unusual if delayed benevolence through Alistair Cooke’s weekly “Letter from America”. We have not heard of the landmark papal correction in any discourse since. It took the maulvis of Nakhas a month or more to accept that Neil Armstrong had indeed walked on the moon. They grudgingly admitted to their befuddled followers that the feat was after all no rumour to insult Muslims or even Christians.
There is no such pulpit (yet) in Hinduism that draws universal reverence from the diverse community. That’s one good reason why Hindus cannot be fundamentalists, though some are trying to contrive a new faith to sound like one. The rationalists and atheists have always been around since ancient times, of course, challenging the Brahminical guesswork mostly about the cosmos, but they paid dearly and still suffer for the indiscretion. Gauri Lankesh was killed for denying she was a Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated for claiming to be an ideal Hindu. Fahmida Riaz must have wondered how she could have seen it coming.
Unlike Gandhi, for whom he had great affection, Jawaharlal Nehru was a rationalist and made it worse for himself by quoting Al-Beruni’s unflattering insights about Hindus. The mediaeval chronicler from Khorasan saw Hindus as “haughty” and “conceited” for believing there was no king like their king, and no religion like theirs. “A true enough description of the people of his time,” Nehru noted gleefully in The Discovery of India. Did Godse kill the wrong man?
Like Alistair Cooke, Charles Darwin was a great letter writer too. A quote from him to N.D. Doedes aptly describes any rationalist’s quandary. “I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose.”
The man who introduced me to elementary Darwin happened to be a devout Muslim. Maulana Surti taught a general science course to humanities undergraduates at Aligarh Muslim University. A genial and witty man, he was always open to disagreements from his students, including questions about his faith though he never hesitated to rib them back for failing to spar with him as equals. The history faculty was exceptionally renowned. The stewardship of Prof Irfan Habib, among the finest historians of our times, had successfully put the small nondescript town on the global map of high academia. It was a status symbol of sorts for history students to have studied there.
But Surti Sahib was a different kettle of fish. “Maulana,” I asked him during a packed lecture on Darwin: “On the one hand you teach us the theory of evolution but by your faith you obviously believe in the precept of creation. That must be very confusing.” The maulana chuckled heartily and the reply was prompt. “Young man, who would know better than you that the world is based on contradictions.”
The allusion to Mao Zedong’s treatise on contradiction focused on an issue that every student at the history faculty was expected to be familiar with. I have since been torn between Maulana Surti’s disarming wit and Irfan Habib’s wry humour, one that always underscored his scathing rebuttal of stereotype assumptions common among ordinary historians in India and abroad.
So why is the questioning spirit being crushed in India today? Why is it that in the land of Buddha’s intellectual eminence and the questioning spirit of caravakas, history books are being burnt and pulped, universities being handed over to zealots? One of the reasons may be perhaps that an identity is being conjured of India as a jagatguru, the supreme teacher to the world. Whereas the rest of the world develops by acknowledging the contribution of everyone to their growth, Indians of the ultra-nationalist variety in particular tend to believe that they had attained intellectual nirvana in the ancient times and therefore they have the right to be regarded as the most enlightened today.
Visit any museum of anthropology — the ones in Victoria and Vancouver in Canada are exceptionally rewarding — and you would learn a thing or two about how humans and beasts have migrated across the world over thousands and thousands of years, how the Ice Age prompted and enabled mass movement of both from Siberia to Alaska through a temporary land corridor enabled by the shrinking of the seas. The most powerful countries on earth constitute either a salad bowl of migrants or a melting pot of cultures.
In India, Guru Golwalkar, considered the most important founder of ultra-nationalism, posits that the North Pole was situated on the current border of Bihar and Odisha, and it then shifted to its present location by a natural phenomenon. One could see why it was important for a “son of the soil” theorist to claim or believe in something so outlandish.
Allow me to call it the “Sadda Mian” complex. Sadda Mian was a scion of the royal family of Bhopal with links to Afghanistan. Sadda Mian, movie actor Dilip Kumar once told me, was a raconteur and dilettante who kept a colourful variety of birds and fed some of them with his mouth. There is a small lake in Bhopal called Bhadbhada, which Sadda Mian, like many other denizens of that remarkable city, believed to be the biggest water body on earth. One day the actor took him to Mumbai, and drove him to Marine Drive. Sadda Mian stood there, his sherwani unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze. As the waves from the Arabian Sea relentlessly struck the rocks on the beach, one could hear him exclaim: “Kya haqeeqat hai Bhadbhadey ki!” (What chance does the Bhadbhada have here!)