An atheist ashram in India


In the west, Hinduism and Buddhism are seen as peaceful, contemplative religions that preach peace, tolerance, and harmony, and advocate for practices like mediation and yoga. But in those countries where those religions are the majority, we have seen the rise of militant religious chauvinists that have sought to discriminate against minority groups, sometimes using violence and even murder.

Take for example, this recent news item about Purnendu Goswami in India who abandoned his Hindu faith and started an atheist ashram as a nonbelievers’ spiritual healing center. Given the rise in Hindu chauvinism and intolerance in that country, you can guess what happened when it was announced in October 2016 the first public conference of rationalists to be held at their ashram.

Before the conference could meet, Hindu nationalists, armed with sticks and stones, attacked the ashram and demanded that the Goswamis be arrested.

Swami Phool Dol Das Maharaj, a saffron-clad guru from Vrindavan who was among those who protested outside the ashram, said: “Swami Balendu claims all scriptures are fictitious and meant only for entertainment. His statement is against Hinduism, and he should be banned.”

The district administration sided with the nationalists and asked the organizers to call off the conference, saying it could hurt religious sentiments.

Even after the Goswamis complied, the outpouring of protests and threats carried over into social media.

“Atheists are deviants who need rehabilitation,” Neeraj Shastri, a chief priest at the Prem Hindu Temple in Vrindavan, said recently. “Vrindavan only has place for believers of Radha and Krishna.”

It is astonishing to me that religious people think that they have the right to not have their feelings hurt while at the same time think that they have the right to hurt the actual bodies and property of others. Goswami’s own dramatic personal journey of transformation shows this.

Goswami, who comes from a Hindu family, once shared the feelings of Hindu pride in the land of Krishna. Goswami’s brother was once a popular religious leader in Vrindavan.

As a teenager, Goswami was arrested as he joined a Hindu nationalist mob bent on demolishing Babri Masjid, a historic mosque in Ayodhya that allegedly had been built over an ancient Hindu temple. One of the first in a series of attacks on India’s minority Muslim population, the 1992 incident sparked some of the bloodiest anti-Muslim riots across India, killing over 2,000 people.

Interestingly some local Muslim leaders, a community that has been targeted for violence in India by Hindu nationalists, have joined with the Hindu nationalists to attack nonbelievers who, unlike the Hindus, have done them no tangible harm though no doubt they ‘hurt their feelings’ by saying that there are no gods.

But despite the hostility, Goswani’s ashram is still functioning.

Despite the dangers, Purnendu Goswami has continued to finance his rationalist experiments in Vrindavan by running an ayurvedic restaurant and holding ayurvedic retreats, yoga sessions and cooking classes. He believes these will help him safeguard his ashram as a healing center with an atheist worldview, where humanism, reform and inquiry are promoted.

But the center of his work remains his school for underprivileged children, where currently 200 students are enrolled. Besides an education, he provides them with free food and clothing.

“This is my religion,” he said, cradling a cherubic 3-year-old student who lives in a nearby shanty. “Godmen exploit people’s blind faith and insecurities in the name of religion. I want to serve my community.”

At the school, Goswami forbids any form of corporal punishment and inculcates a scientific approach in his students, cutting across religious, class and caste lines.

“Faith for me is love without discrimination and bias. Religion only makes people narrow-minded,” said Goswami. “Only when children are given an education without religious dogma can they grow up as thinking, empathetic citizens.”

There is a struggle going on in India between those who seek to retain its official secular status against encroachment by Hindu chauvinists, as well as another struggle between those who seek to preserve its democracy in the face of authoritarian tendencies. Both struggles are similar to what is going on in the US. There was powerful speech in the Indian parliament by Mahua Moitra, a new member of the Indian parliament from Bengal, describing the growing signs of fascism that are creeping over India. She refused to back down in the face of heckling by other MPs.

Comments

  1. mastmaker says

    I’ve always held it that a religion is peaceful and docile only until it gets political power. Then it runs roughshod over minorities. That’s very apparent in the history of every religion from Christianity, Islam down to recent ones like marxism & leninism.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Has anybody ever heard about a religious movement that isn’t political?

  3. kremer says

    @ Lassi
    Jehovah’s Witnesses are by decree (of course) supposed to stay out of politics to the point of being forbidden from voting. I don’t know what their typical beliefs on on political issues though, so I do not know quite how annoyed I might be with that fact.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @kremer: But they set themselves above secular authorities. For example they refuse to participate in national defense, whatever the law says.

    You cannot serve two authorities. If religious and secular rulers disagree, you have to make a choice that is inevitably political. And it is made by the leaders of the religious movement, who know the Higher Truth(TM) of the movement. In secular matters a religious movement acts like any other political party.

  5. Swamy says

    What is astonishing is that atheism is considered a deviation deserving some form of punishment in Hindu philosophy. That is a recent development as in earlier times atheist thought in Hinduism has been a non issue. I myself am atheist and no one around me is bothered.
    I think this phenomena is a reaction to decades of christian missionary activities & muslim appeasement practiced and encouraged by the earlier governments. As an example, in India the Hindu temples are under government control unlike the churches & mosques which are totally independent from government scrutiny. A major part of temple revenue, about 80%, is taken by the government. From ancient times India has always welcomed societies persecuted e.g. Parsis and Jews. Atheism is nothing new but the current reaction is.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Swamy,

    What you say is consistent with what a colleague of mine at the university, a Hindu professor originally from India, said during a panel discussion we were both on. He said that there are a broad range of philosophies under the Hindu umbrella and atheism was one of them.

    I think what we are witnessing is that some people are using Hinduism as a wedge issue, realizing that nothing gets people more fired up than feeling that their religion (or at least their version of it) is under attack. This line of agitation only works if the religion is the majority and thus can demand that politicians kowtow to them.

    I had not known that Hindu temples in India are under government control. That seems strange to me given that India was founded on secular principles and its initial leaders like Nehru were determined to keep it that way. It would be interesting to see how that change came about. In Sri Lanka, the Hindu temples are privately owned. Buddhism is the majority there and I believe that no Buddhist temples are owned by the government but some of the self-appointed spokespersons of religion keep demanding, and getting, special treatment from the government.