Rationalising the rationalist – Prakash Belawadi

Prakash Belawadi“To point to a stone idol and say ‘it is a stone’ is not the entire truth. It is, in fact, ‘of stone’ and recognised as ‘not that.’ To see it as ‘sacred,’ is an act of faith, by the faithful of that persuasion. It is not an offence to be differently persuaded, for there are indeed other faiths of the divine, but there is an utter failure of the aesthetic in the rational position that it is ‘only stone.'” – Prakash Belawadi

RationalistsThis is not an obituary, though it is occasioned by the murder—or assassination, as some prefer it—of Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, academic and author.  Many tributes are being written on his scholarly contributions to Kannada literature and epigraphy. Every one of them will dwell on his rationalist positions on Hindu idol worship and controversial articles with regard to Basaveshwara (Basava), the 12th century pioneer of Veerashaivism, revered by many even outside the Veerashaiva or Lingayat faith as a saint; and possibly, on Kalburgi’s questionable support to the late Dr U. R. Ananthamurthy on the idea of “urinating on idols.” In the absence of a clear owning up of these murders by organisations and persons, and the failure of the investigation agencies to identify the killers thus far, the widely accepted surmise that the motivation was of wounded religious sentiment must continue to be probed. The threats were indeed present, precisely on those grounds, and the killings followed a pattern. So, the question that is open to debate is exactly what the rationalist position could be with regard to faith. 

To point to a stone idol and say “it is a stone” is not the entire truth. It is, in fact, “of stone” and recognised as “not that.” To see it as “sacred”, is an act of faith, by the faithful of that persuasion. It is not an offence to be differently persuaded, for there are indeed other faiths of the divine, but there is an utter failure of the aesthetic in the rational position that it is “only stone.”   

When an actor assumes the role of Krishna, the godhead, everybody else in the company of actors understands that the person is, in fact, NOT Krishna, but plays along as other characters.

Everybody in the audience, too, understands, clearly and unhesitatingly that the actor is NOT Krishna. But this is a conscious act, “a willing suspension of disbelief”, not an act of faith (barring the odd and occasional fan of cinema or religious TV serials).

The investment of belief in a stone idol is not a failure of intelligence or imagination. It is evident to the faithful that it is indeed stone, but to believe that it is sacred requires more than the suspension of disbelief: it requires faith. To conclude that the idol is simply “stone” is not an intellectual achievement. It is banal.

This is by no means an inquiry or speculation into who the killers were or what their motives could be in murdering the professor. But the facts, according to eyewitness accounts, are that on Sunday morning, August 30, two young men rode on a motorcycle to Prof. Kalburgi’s home in Dharwad, Karnataka. While one waited on the bike, the other walked up to the door and rang the doorbell, told Prof. Kalburgi’s wife who opened the door, in Kannada, that he was a student and wanted to see the professor.  She left the visitor waiting in the hall and went to the kitchen. She heard two gun shots. When she came out, she saw Prof. Kalburgi had been shot, and the killers had ridden away on their motorbike. The killers are yet to be identified. But except for a few vocal skeptics of the “Hindu terror” theory and open supporters of the Sangh Parivar, there is near universal agreement in the media on the surmise that Prof. Kalburgi was killed because of his views on Hindu idol worship, possibly by members of a Hindu extremist group. 

Investigating officials already point to a pattern:  Earlier this year, on February 16, less than 200 km away in Kolhapur, in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, a communist author and known critic of communal organisations, Govind Pansare and his wife Uma were shot near their house, during their morning walk, by unidentified gunmen. While the 82-year-old Pansare died four days later in hospital, his wife survived skull wounds and told the police a month later that the killers were on a motorcycle and spoke to them in Marathi before they opened fire and she lost consciousness. She could not identify the brand of motorcycle or the killers’ faces.

The Pansare killing itself was similar to the notorious attack on his activist friend Narendra Achyut Dabholkar in August 2013 at Pune, about 240 km from Kolhapur, while he was on a morning walk, again by unidentified gunmen on a motorbike. The 68-year-old Dabholkar was also a rationalist and author, founder-president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, campaigning for legislation to eradicate superstition.

All three of them had received threats from anonymous sources. Soon after the murder of Dabholkar, Pansare had received a letter that warned: “Tumcha Dabholkar karen (You will get the same as Dabholkar).”

According to one report, Kalburgi’s daughter Roopadarshi said there was a threat to her father “from groups that couldn’t digest his views on caste and communalism.”

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah acknowledged the perception of threat, although it is not clear yet exactly why special police protection to the Kalburgi home was given, or later removed, apparently at the behest of the family itself.

The police on Monday have arrested Bajrang Dal member Bhuvith Shetty, at Bantwal in coastal Karnataka, because of his short-lived tweet on Sunday, following the murder of Kalburgi, which read before it was deleted: “Then it was UR Ananthamoorty and now its MM Kalburgi. Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death. And dear KS Bhagwan you are next.” The latter, another rationalist and writer, had offered to burn selected verses from the Bhagavad Gita. He has now been given special police protection.

Kalburgi himself came up against some Lingayat community leaders for the  first time in 1989 because of articles in his book, Marga, which questioned the known biographical details about Basavanna’s life. His more recent encounters with dharmic outrage are related to his views on idol worship and his backing of a more unfortunate comment attributed, somewhat erroneously, to the late Dr Ananthamurthy, that one can “urinate on idols.” Erroneous, because Dr Ananthamurthy had written in a 1996 book that he had so experimented “in his childhood” to test the theory of retribution by unseen, wrathful deities.

The rational position is banal if it challenges faith by the physicality of phenomenon. God or divinity cannot be proved in a laboratory. Man, although given the power of consciousness, is limited by nature, for we cannot know the secret of the birth of the universe or the miracle of life. Science understands it, and it is always humble in inquiry. The rationalist who mocks faith fails the test of inquiry, for he is looking at the wrong end—the object under question is not the stone idol, but human faith. It is a human game to speculate on the Creator and Creation. It is a human need to believe in the miracle, for that is what it is. 

So, what is the state to do? The authorities of faith, whenever they have had power over peoples, have imposed it brutally and suppressed dissent, with censorship.

Wherever science has been made accessible to the non-violent cause, it has been possible to liberate humans from the impositions of faith.

We the people have given ourselves a state with the framework of a Constitution to make laws that we will be bound by. To choose our faith is a liberty given to the individual. But to mock the choice, cannot be a crime.

However, to silence the person who mocks, by murder or threat, is a punishable crime. So the state must defend Kalburgi’s right to criticise faith, and the faithful’s right to practice it. – Deccan Chronicle, 2 September 2015

» Prakash Belavadi is a  celebrated Bengaluru-based  theatre and film personality,  actor-director and journalist.

Tilting at windmills