Narendra Dabholkar (1945-2013)

dabholkarWe can sometimes forget how much courage it takes for people in some other countries to be openly atheist and fight superstition. The murder of Narendra Dabholkar in India last month is a case in point. A physician by training, he was a simple man who tried to free Indians from the clutches of charlatans and god-men that plague that part of the world. He was gunned down by people on motorbikes as he walked along the road.

The Economist obituary had a nice appreciation of his life.

He was a slight and courteous man, with unfashionable spectacles, in simple khadi shirt, slippers and cotton trousers: no one to notice on the street. Yet over three decades, ever since he had decided to switch his work from curing bodies to curing deluded minds, he had become famous. The organisation he had founded in 1989, the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS in its Marathi acronym), had 180 branches in the state. In village after village he and his activists would confront the babas, sadhus and other “godmen” who preyed on the poor and simple, challenging their claims and reporting them to the police. He investigated and demystified cases of black magic and possession by ghosts; he campaigned against animal sacrifice, the prodigious waste of drinking water and good food during religious festivities, and the pollution of local rivers during Ganesha’s birthday festival by the immersion of thousands of idols made of plaster of Paris.

In Kolhapur Dr Dabholkar exposed “Cowfly Baba”, who gave false comfort to people for ten rupees a time by pretending to remove dirt and cowflies from their ears with a glass tube. He poured public scorn on Sathya Sai Baba, a millionaire godman who appeared to make holy ash, gold chains and Swiss watches appear from thin air. Dr Dabholkar also offered 21 lakh rupees (about $33,000) to any sorcerer who, under strict scientific conditions, could stay on fire for a minute without moving, duplicate a currency note, grow a severed limb two centimetres by the application of powder, or turn water into petrol. The sum remains unclaimed.

Needless to say, this debunking of nonsense caused outrage among people who either benefit from the gullibility of others or are so deluded that they think that they must defend the honor of their gods.

Dabholkar would marvel at the contradictions in India, a very modern country that was also prone to such superstitions

The only inexplicable thing, he would say (all other “inexplicable” things being rationally explained by natural laws) was that India in the 21st century was still so full of superstition. It launched its own satellites, but before a launch the gods would be invoked with flowers and sandalwood paste; its IT was the envy of the world, but even middle-class people would not start a new project on “inauspicious” Saturdays. The cult of the individual was gathering pace, but people still believed that their fates were in the hands of the gods, not themselves. They clung blindly to karma, which was a law for “sheep” and “slaves”.

But his critique is not limited to India. In the US, the idea of auspicious times and astrology may not be so popular but we have our own ludicrous beliefs that contradict science. We too have our ‘god-men’ except that we call them evangelists and faith healers. Our government institutions having opening prayers. At least one Supreme Court justice believes in the devil. And though they may not call it karma, we too have many people believing that their fate is in their god’s hands and that there is some supernatural dispenser of justice.

Narendra Dabholkar was an exemplary person. We need more like him all over the world.


  1. lpetrich says

    The Charvaka school faded away not long before European explorers reached India, sad to say. 🙁

    But I recall an interesting argument that they had about the afterlife. Wouldn’t someone in it want to return to their home and their loved ones?

    Europeans invented atheism and materialism separately — I doubt that anyone in Europe ever heard of the Charvakas until modern times. Alexander the Great’s armies ran into some gymnosophists (naked philosophers) in India, and the geographer Strabo knew about Brachmanes (Brahmans), so India wasn’t completely unknown.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Europeans invented atheism and materialism separately”

    Ancient Greeks connected them tightly.

    It is interesting to note that the US Declaration of Independence starts with a statement that is thoroughly Epicurean. Due to Thomas Jefferson, of course.

  3. The Beautiful Void says

    RIP Dr Dabholkar. You were a great man and will be missed. Atheism neither needs nor wants martyrs, but we seem to accumulate them anyway.

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