Humanism in Action: The Work of Gora and the Atheist Centre in India

Ratna Holopainen

At the age of seventeen I came to the Atheist Centre. At that time I did not imagine that my journey towards atheism had started. My background is lower middle class conservative traders' community. My parents had five daughters. According to Hindu tradition the family which has no sons finds it very difficult to get salvation. From my teens I found this aspect very unfair and I began rebelling against the irrational traditional dictates, often formed by men. Hence I wanted to take up a job that can prove me equal to the other sex. At Atheist Centre I got this opportunity to excel myself as a human being above the concept of sex.

That time the printing technology in India was almost dominated by men. Atheist Centre was the first institution in Vijayawada to train women in that branch. Along with my elder sister I joined the training in 1983. The first two years were a period of training for me. I was very much influenced by Ms. Mythri, daughter of Gora and in-charge of the programme in printing technology. The training at Atheist Centre was mainly aimed for women with different problems. There I first time learnt what kind of difficulties women often could meet. I also observed how Ms. Mythri handled the training programme with compassion and foresight.

After two years of training I was asked to be in-charge of training. Soon I found that my trainees did not show much interest in learning. For me a good teacher was one who could teach in a good and properly way. And that was all! But I could not make my trainees take interest. When Ms. Mythri asked me about my experience as a trainer and teacher, I told her my troubles. She laughed and told that we should learn more about our trainees - who are they? What problems they have? How we could help them? And how could we revive interest in them? Her advice was very useful. Very often I reported to her and she gave me her advice.

Most of the trainees were older than me. Many of them were married. Some of them had children. I myself, being an unmarried young woman with a harmonious family background could never even imagine that women had to face such problems. Very often I found the religious background was behind their hardships. I become aware of the necessity of negating the religious influence in order to reclaim the human being for learning. In that work Ms. Mythri played a crucial role in rescuing the life of many women.

Nearly in all societies women are the worst victims of various social impositions. In India religion, caste, tradition, family and social prestige are the worst enemies of women. When I began to think these, I started discussing these topics with Lavanam who was looking after the printing press. One day I asked him: "what should be the quality of a social worker?". He was doing binding work with us of an atheist journal published by the centre. He looked at me and said: "kindness and patience". Please, note, he did not say higher education or experience or belief in atheism. He continued: "irrespective of caste, religion, race or sex, treat your fellow human being as a human being. First recognise the fundamental fact that people around you have one common identity- that is, we are human beings first". What he said went deep in my mind.

Against this background of my close association with the Atheist Centre at Vijayawada, let me put before you the genesis and contributions of the centre to fellow human beings.

An eye into the past

The social dynamics of positive atheism of Gora attracted Gandhi for its human aspect. Gandhi came to know about Atheist Centre's work for removal of untouchability in early 1940Žs. For the same cause Gandhi's best social programme was to fight for the right of untouchables to enter the temples. Though the untouchables were a part of Hindu society, still entry into Hindu temples was denied to them. Gandhi started this programme since he believed that all were God's children. He tried to find a spiritual solution and advocated the temple entry programme.

For atheists god is an imagination. So to visit a temple had no meaning for them. They advocated human-centred social programmes for the removal of untouchability. The components of the programme are:

I. Cosmopolitan dinners where people of all social categories used to sit together and inter-dine. Inter-dining between people of different social groups was a taboo in India for a long time.

II. Inter-marriages, it means marriages across caste, race, religion and other limits. In India people often avoid inter- marrying. Generally marriages are fixed by parents. Hence Atheist Centre advocated inter-marriages irrespective of social categorisation. So the nature of atheist social work is human-centred initiatives, individual development and reform and social transformation.

Religions started with local needs and local gods. No religion is or has been universal. As atheism is human-centred, it opposed the domination of god-centred social order anywhere. Thus Atheism is universal, as it does not believe in any god and any religion. Atheist social work is beyond the narrow barriers of nations. With this conviction in humanist social action, Atheist Centre defends the cause of secular social work, human self-respect and improvement of human conditions through non-religious programmes.

Education plays a major role to bring a change of mind in the individual. More so, self-learning and social education are needed for development of individual character and proper socialisation. When the Atheist Centre started its social work, it began with educational programmes of adults, particularly for untouchables and women. Gora planned and started a non-religious curriculum for it. In a recent article (in Telugu, the local language of Andhra Pradesh) published on Gora, Dr. K H S S Sundar, a research scholar on modern social and cultural history of the region, introduced two phrases to describe the net effect of Gora's impact on education.

A) secular socialisation and B) equal socialisation.

These phrases implicitly suggest that the so-called untouchables had enough space in Gora's educational programme for equality with other learners. In addition to this, Gora's break with traditional educational syllabus (curriculum) that abounds in religious lessons had a deep influence on the shaping of individual personality in a secular way. While Raja Rammohan Roy of Bengal, the pioneer social reformer of 18th century India sowed the seeds for scientific education, Gora laid foundations for an alternative model of secular teaching.

The other three important programmes of the atheist social work in the past were:

  1. Exposition of superstitious beliefs and promotion of scientific temper through exemplary programmes like open-air fire walking.
  2. Organising women to break taboos. It is, for instance, believed in India that if a pregnant woman is exposed to eclipse, the baby will be born with physical deformities. Gora's wife Saraswati proved this wrong when she freely walked outside during the time of eclipse.
  3. Public hygine programmes. Concept of private toilets was not usual in India for a long time. Gora, as part of Gandhian constructive programme, promoted the construction of private toilets on a large scale. This programme was specifically aimed to liberate women from the stress and attendant health problems. Usually women go to stools after nightfall because males move freely in the villages during daytime. Males do not much bother about the timing when they are defecating publicly without any hesitation. Women can not do the same. As a result they had to wait and undergo stress in waiting for the fall of night. This caused several abdominal problems. Gora' s programme of private hygiene was very well received and appreciated by all, particularly women.

A look at the present

With the guidance of Saraswati Gora atheist social work reached higher stages in its disaster management work under the leadership of Lavanam. When the killer cyclone hit the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh in 1977, nearly 25 000 people died, Lavanam and his wife Hemalata played a major role in forming disaster management as a part of Atheist Centre's work. Representatives of Atheist Centre made a major breakthrough during relief operations. They insisted that help should go on the basis of human needs, and not on the basis of communal social groups. Human suffering has no religion or no social category. In India, local relief agencies often tend to help the victims on communal lines. Atheist centre opposed the trend and convinced people the need to help people irrespective of social and religious denominations. Though this argument created a flutter in the beginning, people finally got convinced about the efficacy of atheist social work. After the cyclone, the Atheist Centre shared its social work programmes to three separately formed voluntary organisations: Vasavya Mahila Mandali, Arthik Samata Mandali and Samskar. Vasavya Mahila Mandali is involved in women's programmes like promotion of women groups for self-help, health programmes, working women's hostel, a shelter home for women with problems, an eye bank, AIDS control. The organisation is highly reputed for its women's counselling programmes in Andhra Pradesh.

Arthik Samata Mandali is involved in integrated rural development and specific programmes for children. It continues as one of the leading organisations in the field of disaster management. The organisation has specific emphasis on weavers and tribal population. The eye camps and polio camps run by the organisation have been popular.

Samskar is the organisation that confined itself to the spirit of Gora's unconventional social approaches, social reform and rehabilitation. The organisation works with the problems of socially abandoned categories of people like criminal tribes and Jogini women. Lavanam and his wife Hemalata have been taking challenging tasks like criminal reform and Jogini women reformation. Just before his sudden death Gora started the reform work in the ex-criminal settlement of Stuartpuram in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh.

The British Government promulgated in 1871 the Criminal Tribes Act. According to this act certain castes and tribes in India considered as criminal tribes. Hence branding the inhabitants of these communities as criminals by birth as well as profession.

Criminal reform work at Stuartpuram is first of its kind in India and, perhaps, in the world where transformation of the so-called criminals from the culture of crime to the culture of civility has been attempted.

During the time of British rule the settlements like Stuartpuram were called 'communities of criminals'. Families in these colonies became victims of the culture of crime. Thus it was not the individuals, but the families that needed help. Hence the nature of work of Samskar in the Stuartpuram settlement was a kind of reorientation of family as well as social life for the dreaded criminal families and integrating them with the outside society. This was a social challenge that was not accepted by any other organisation earlier. Samskar's effort has been unique as it is the first ever open-air reform effort among the criminal families. The efforts of Samskar are still continuing and the plans are afoot to expand the project so that social integration and area development can be addressed side by side. I am privileged to have associated myself with the project for two years when I had an opportunity to study the subject.

Jogini system is a religious institution where young girls from the lower cates are wedded to local goddesses. This kind of marriage has two implications:

First, the girls can not marry any man because they already are wedded to gods.

Secondly, they are declared as village property and can be used by males of the locality at their will.

As a result, these girls have no family of their own, but often become mothers of 'bastard children'. Those men who are responsible for the birth of these children do not claim them. This is one of the most inhuman cultural practice in the name of religion and god. It totally reduces the concept of equality between men and women and the rights of the children to a big zero. In course of time these girls have been reduced to village prostitutes. This system continued without break in Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh till 1986. As Lavanam and Hemalata Lavanam are strong non-believers, they opposed the Jogini system with the help of Government and local support. After the entry of Samskar the system was attacked from all sides through interventions like village meetings, youth counselling, children education with residential facilities, women literacy programmes, awareness drives, rehabilitation, political education, rescue efforts, short stay facilities, marriages for the rescued women and girls, family life orientation etc. The efforts are still continuing.

A peep into the future

Modern society has strengthened the institutional grip over individual life. Religions and State suppress individuals to protect the interests of the exploiters. Advancement of science and technology without the corresponding progress of social values and moral responsibilities has created a conflict between the minimum and the maximum incomes. So the charity-oriented social work of the past cannot solve most problems.

The atheist social work should give strenght and means to the individuals' self-respect, self-confidence and the power of decision-making. Then the people can work both at individual as well as collective levels to influence the surrounding society. This is the future responsibility of social work initiatives. The Atheist Centre is today guiding its programmes along these principles of social thoughts. When people get training in accordance to these principles, they can provide better leadership in future to continue the process of this kind of social legacy.

Atheism and Atheist Centre in Indian history

Culturally and philosophically atheistic thought is as old as the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the four Vedic texts in India. From the philosophical level atheism entered the social level to oppose the tyranny of Brahmanism as it maintained the social divisions of high and low through the so-called Varna system. This is a method of social strati- fication by professions. Atheism was then a tool to demand and to achieve social equality of all human beings.

Atheism in modern times became a positive philosophy and a life style of human-centred ethics and social order. Social reforms and social work have been the most important tools in consolidating the atheistic position in history. Gora and the Atheist Centre in India have been close to the ambition of the common people to progress in every walk of life. Gandhi too accepted atheism as a way of seeking truth. He provided enough space for Gora to interact with him closely. Vinoba Bhave and Lavanam continued the relation later. Vinoba Bhave was a close associate of Gandhi who continued Gandhian social work.

The importance of the Atheist Centre in the modern Indian context and in particular, modern Andhra context can be estimated form three different angles:

First, the Atheist Centre ignored god and religion in rediscovering the essence of human social relations. The Centre went beyond caste, religion, class and sex. In that way it became an influential secular liberating force.

Secondly, it became a force promoting secular and atheist social work for the first time in the country and tried to liberate the abandoned social classes in Indian society.

Thirdly, the interface between Gandhian constructive plans and atheist social programmes presented a new model to Indians. In that the believers and non-believers can jointly explore the possibilities of social action programmes for the development of villages and village infra-structures. According to Lavanam, this symbolises the concept of post-development initiatives. In that process we move from routine development aspects to people-centred modes of self-development based on self-dignity.


It is of great importance for the future of all atheists and humanists to explore the possibilities at the global level for a well-knit interactive network and opportunities of working together. Indian experience shows that there is a need to root their efforts in the social and cultural conditions at the local level. These activities need cooperation of atheists, humanists and freethinkers in the whole world.