Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India

Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India

Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India

Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India


India is frequently represented as the quintessential land of religion. Johannes Quack challenges this representation through an examination of the contemporary Indian rationalist movement, which affirms the values and attitudes of atheism, humanism, or free-thinking. Quack shows the rationalists' emphasis on maintaining links to atheism and materialism in ancient India and outlines their strong ties to the intellectual currents of modern European history. At the heart of Disenchanting India lies an ethnographic study of the organization "Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti" (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition), based in the Indian State of Maharashtra. Quack gives a nuanced account of the rationalists' specific "mode of unbelief," describing their efforts to encourage a scientific temper and combat beliefs and practices they regard as "superstitious". Quack also shows the role played by rationalism in their day-to-day lives, as well as the organization's controversial position within Indian society.Disenchanting Indiaprovides crucial insights into the nature of rationalism in the intellectual life and cultural politics of India.


Friends, I am an activist of the organization Maharashtra Andhashraddha
Nirmulan Samiti. The van you see outside belongs to ANiS. There is a big board in
the front of the van which reads vijñānbōdh vāhinῑ (science-awareness vehicle).
Can you guess what that means? It means that we help people understand science.
But we are not here to teach you science. This is a science program but it is not
going to teach you science and it is not a science quiz. This is a different sort of
program. Friends, you must have seen the various things that we keep here. You
can see a lamp, a coconut, a nail board, a candle, and many other things. We do not
use such things in our science studies. Rather, we collected these things from our
dev ghar (prayer room) and from the bag of a bhagat, tantrik, or mantrik (religious
specialist or healer). They use these things to cheat you, but we will use them to
educate you.

Friends, we are going to watch a program about chamatkār (miracles). We are
going to learn about bhūt (ghost) and bhanamati (sort of black magic), and how
one becomes possessed by a ghost; we will also learn about quackery and karaṇī
(witchcraft or sorcery, see Skultans 1987: 663). We will learn about what all these
are, how and why these things happen, and about the people who engage in such
acts. Friends, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti has worked for the
past twenty years. We show the same program to audiences everywhere we go. Our
organization works towards the eradication of such superstition. Why does the
organization work on these issues? Because it is our duty! Our constitution tells us
to encompass a scientific approach, to value humanity and an inventive mindset,
and help others to do the same. It is our duty as Indian citizens. This is why the
organization works on these issues. (Nashik, 28.09.2007)

These are the opening words of a program conducted by activists from the rationalist organization Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition—ANiS). During my ethnographic fieldwork on the aims and activities of this organization, I accompanied groups of activists who traveled for several months with their “science vans” throughout Maharashtra

1. The quotes in the prologue are translated from recorded programs performed by ANiS activists I accompanied on their trips around the city of Nashik from September to October 2007. I reassembled the order of the quotes in some cases and made some minor changes to the text to make them more easily readable. Throughout the book my translations of Hindi and Marathi terms are in parentheses while omissions are indicated by ellipses and additions by square brackets.

2. The word “Nirmulan” is sometimes spelled “Nirmoolan” and there are different abbreviations used. The official name is Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (literally: Maharashtra Superstition Annihilation Committee) which some abbreviate to MANS. The activists themselves tend to use ANS or ANiS to refer to the organization. I use ANiS in this book as this is a common abbreviation and because everybody speaks of “anis.”

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