Persecuted under India’s blasphemy laws for proving last year that the water trickling down a Crucifix in a Catholic church in Mumbai was not a miracle, but bad plumbing, he faces a three-year prison sentence. The Catholic Church, which filed the case, say they will drop the charges if he apologises for the “offence” he has caused.
Edamaruku, who is well known in India for debunking religious myths as the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, refuses to do so. This makes him even more unpopular with Indian Catholics, who have already clashed swords with him previously when he publicly criticised Mother Teresa’s legacy in Kolkata. He has been in exile in Finland since he was refused bail in July 2012, and now travels in European cities campaigning in defence of free speech and rationalism, and against blasphemy laws. He has generated much interest and support, in quarters as varied as Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin.
Yet, for a man who has ruffled as many feathers as he has, he appears remarkably unruffled and calm when I met him in Oxford (he was here for an event organised by ‘Oxford Skeptics in the Pub’). He begins by enthusiastically describing the work that the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) does: they travel to Indian villages and replicate and explain the ‘miracles’ of local charlatans and ‘god-men’. The aim, he says, is to move people from a traditional superstitious way of thinking to a modern one. For a country where 75 per cent of the population are superstitious, this is a mammoth task.
I ask him how people react to this assault on their traditional beliefs, expecting anger and disbelief as a response. Surprisingly, he maintains that they are friendly and grateful for “showing them the truth”. The explanation lies in the Association’s unique strategy – they do not confront believers, they merely show them facts and provoke them to reach their own conclusions. They believe a life without religion is advisable, but they don’t try to convert people to atheism.
But why does he recommend a life without religion so strongly? Most people in India subscribe to religion (less than 0.5% of Indians identified as without religion in the 2011 census), and on a daily basis, this doesn’t really hurt anyone. Many would go so far as to say that faith gives people hope, and a moral code on which to base their decisions.
Edamaruku is quick to dismiss this idea – he calls Hindu mythology “Machiavellian”, and says that it does not provide a moral code. He uses an example from Hinduism’s most holy book, the Bhagvad Gita. In it, Krishna, an incarnation of God, tells his colleagues that the ends justify the means, especially in war, and encourages them to lie and undermine the accepted code for ‘honour’ in battle. He is sceptical even of karma, saying that it is dangerous because it leads to the idea that your caste is a product of your actions in a previous life. It compels people to accept their place in society, and encourages the dominance of the Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste. He says that the concept of karma essentially leads to “mental slavery”.
Edamaruku has a personal reason for dismissing religion as well. He was fifteen when he watched his neighbour, a famous Indian athlete, succumb to leukaemia. Convinced by faith healing, her family had refused blood transfusions and instead asked a local ‘healer’ to cure her. The senselessness of how her life was lost, he says, is what convinced him that “people need to be liberated” from a life of religion and superstition.
I ask him about the theme of his recent lecture tour – the clash between traditionalism and modernism in India. Why does he think rationality is the most important means by which to achieve modernity? The answer is simple: there are two Indias that exist next to each other and are in permanent conflict – one is medieval and the other progressive. The only way to ensure that progressive India wins is to get rid of a culture that is based on traditional religion; according to him, it is these traditional religious ideals that promote gender injustice, and stifle India’s potential for economic growth. Moreover, the way this conflict is settled will determine how the rest of the world will look at India, and this is of crucial importance in a globalized world.
Many Indians who view the ‘progressive’ India as a mere reflection of Western values find his views unappealing. They argue that these times of globalization are exactly when India should hold on to its traditional roots, to ensure that interaction with the West does not create a vacuum of Indian values and culture. Edamaruku thinks this is a false dichotomy, and argues for cosmopolitanism. Increasing cultural interactions are an opportunity for Indian culture, not a threat. They allow for a cultural give and take, and give Indians a chance to get rid of the negative aspects of their culture.
But who decides what is negative and what is positive about a culture? Edamaruku believes the power lies with the people, but that they are only equipped to make this choice in a “free marketplace of ideas”. Everyone has the right to promote what they think correct, allowing individuals to eventually make informed decisions. Indian culture can be developed by incorporating new values of human rights, without losing its original precepts. A classic example of this cultural conflict is evident in the blasphemy laws that he is persecuted under. They date back to colonial times (they are part of the Indian Penal Code written in 1860) and are directly at odds with the fundamental rights to free speech that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution of 1950.
Edamaruku strongly believes the laws should be scrapped and even laughs at the idea they can prevent religious conflict. India, according to him, does also have a strong history of cooperation between religions; he cites the cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in the early days of the Indian independence movement. In any case, when violent and aggressive statements have been made, as in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of the country into India and Pakistan, these laws were never used. He maintains that they have only ever been used against rationalists, and by upholding them the Indian courts serve only to keep India from being a modern nation.
But then how can India draw the line between freedom of speech and preventing religious riots? Who decides that if not the courts? Edamaruku claims that this is not a tough line to draw – freedom of speech is only useful if it is unbridled and absolute, there can be no ifs or buts. As long as someone isn’t actively inciting violence or calling on people to kill and persecute practitioners of another faith, they are allowed to say what they like. According to him, both the rational and the religious have a right to criticize each other’s views – correction is only possible if criticism is permitted. Without freedom of speech, he believes that there can be no intellectual or cultural growth.