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10

One does not have to defend the absurd in order to respect a person. Objecting to the absurdity of declaring Mother Teresa a saint does not mean disrespect for her work.

Today, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint. This naturally resulted in a flood of praise and criticism on social media. Contrary to the respectful tweet from the Prime Minister on the occasion, his supporters were NOT happy. They were critics of this step. In their eyes, she is fraudulent, and worst of all, she engaged in conversions (the prime majority fundamentalist objection to religious minority figures in India).

Those who admired Saint Teresa (must get used to not calling her Mother Teresa now) had their own reasons to cheer the long awaited development. In their eyes, her service to the poor and ill made her deserving of respect. Incidentally, this is something nurses in hospitals do routinely and get far less money for it than Mother Teresa got in donations for her cause. Nor do the see the service as a part of promoting their cause. Which does not negate the fact that she did serve like countless other organizations and people dedicated to service. Baba Amte, for example.

I don't have a problem with religious conversions. In fact, I have often said in the past that the poor must be allowed to change religion as often as they wish and religious organizations wanting to increase numbers for their religion should be encouraged to pay them to convert and/or stay in the religion. This beats a lot of hatred and violence in the name of religion and would probably do something constructive for a change.

While there are disturbing questions about Mother Teresa's ethics raised separately by several people, I think no one is perfect and if she had rendered significant service to mankind, it stands independent of criticism in other areas. Today is not necessarily a day for deliberate drawing out of every flaw, real or perceived that she had. In my view, regardless of the questions raised about her, her influence and role model for people was almost entirely one of service - which is not a bad thing.

My problem is with "Saint" and "miracles" that are required to declare a saint. The two "miracles" that proved her a saint were serious medical conditions that got "miraculously" cured by praying to her. To become a saint, the miracles have to be "scientifically inexplicable". However let us not underestimate the refusal of a mind to understand explanations, which are inconvenient to what is desired. These "miracles" have been robustly contested by rationalists and doctors. I will not get into them here, because this article is not about the miracles either - even if inexplicable healings happened.

Hospitals, the world over are replete with stories of "miraculous recoveries" that doctors have no explanations for beyond having tried their best, and yet no one has bothered to declare them places of supernatural occurrence. Sachin Kalbag, the editor of Mid-Day The Hindu, recently had a close brush with death and "miraculously" survived. His post delves beautifully into his contemplations on divine intervention as several unlikely coincidences happened that improved his chances of survival.

If a person who prayed to Mother Teresa made a miraculous recovery and a hundred who prayed to her did not, why is only one of them proof of a miracle? This was a woman routinely surrounded by the sick and dying, for whom she offered care (including medical) for decades and yet such a motivated effort found two miracles. After she died. What about the many who died? Are they proof of her NOT being inclined to save people more than inclined? Could it be that miracles started happening once her influence was gone from the world? What if someone had a freak road accident and died after meeting her? Would she be declared a malicious entity?

Selective vision is a wonderful, perception affirming thing. We see what we are looking for. You see cures in a hospital, miracles in a place of worship Even if 2000 people made unexpected recoveries in a hospital while only 2 did in the saint's worship.

 

India is a country prone to belief in the supernatural. Partly because of a rich mythology, but largely because belief is the only thing a lot of people can afford when faced with very expensive needs, wants and problems. And yet, praying to Mother Teresa is NOT an appropriate course of action if you are diagnosed with a tumor or brain abscesses.

"Saint Teresa" is not about ill people finding care in her organization, or poor and ill people finding free treatment in her memory, it is about ill people being saved by praying to her. This is my problem.

For anyone living in India, miraculous cures are nothing new. Loads of Hindi films have them, usually when the villain is wiping the floor with the hero and just before the climax. Every family has a deity or three (or a more modern guru or mata they find) to pray to when things go wrong. From Baba Ramdev curing homosexuality to homeopathy curing cancer. From quacks taking people off necessary drugs because they "conflict" with their treatment to "faith healing" events in various churches. "Miracle cures" are a staple in India. There is nothing new about them. Why two miracles make a saint should be a question that even the most gullible believer in miracle cures must ask.

Does the canonization of Mother Teresa to Saint Teresa over two piddly miracles mean that the church admits that the countless faith healing events churning out "miracle cures" every week are bogus? I do hope so. It is overdue.

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I had felt compelled to meet Narendra Dabholkar once, after knowing his views for years. I liked what he was doing. What he said. I agreed with his views about the dangers of superstition. We had a long talk, and he suggested that I become a member of their organization. I was ambiguous. I had a baby who was quite young. I had things I was doing. Not really time enough to get into stuff like that you know, I, who was writing an average of three posts a week on this blog (but not about rationalism), told the chap who quit his medical practice for such "stuff" because he had the foresight to see how the erosion of reason ruined us as a whole. I myself had a live and let live approach, even though I understood what he did, to debunk superstition and spread awareness of rationalism was necessary work. I participated in religious ceremonies though I thought they were bullshit and ineffective for whatever claimed purpose they were being conducted. I listened to people talk about various miracle workers while making no effort to encourage them to think things through.

"What is the harm?" I thought. People believed whatever would bring them solace. I remained in touch with ANS (Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti) articles and news though I didn't interact with them much. I liked what they had to say, but I wasn't "active" about my rationalism. Then, one day, I was numb. Reading news of Dabholkar being shot dead. Reading countless people on social media share his work, his views. I was one of them. I remembered his patient, extremely reasonable manner of explaining things. He was dead. What a waste. There are very grudging token attempts to nail his murderers. No real will behind them. Who would offend bastions of BELIEF? What was "justice" anyway? How could punishing a person or five compensate for the loss to people at large?

"There is real harm." It was an expensive lesson. The silence of those who didn't bother to work for necessary change, who didn't want the inconvenience of offending people is what made sitting ducks of those who were doing good work. Pick off the voices, and silence dissent.

Belief in superstition is not just about faith, it is about controlling the gullible and it has a dark underbelly. The pretty side is where countless people find hope, as they look at a few well publicized miracles and play an emotional lottery hoping for a similar result, taking it as "luck" when the expected result doesn't happen. The dark side is what happens to those who say "The Emperor has no clothes". And Narendra Dabholkar is hardly the only one to face the ire of religious fanatics for trying to bring a voice of sanity.

Before someone says that it is the Hindu fanatics who killed Dabholkar, let me remind you of Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who had to flee the country for the crime of debunking a "miracle". 

This isn't  matter of being polite and not insulting someone who did "good work", it is a matter of actively speaking up against wholesale encouragement to believe in the irrational, to stand up and be among the number of people who have a problem with the promotion of such beliefs, before the few who do it remain the standing ducks to be picked off one by one, like Dabholkar was, Pansare was, and open threats could be issued.... while the rest pretend to believe in rational thought but choose polite evasions and be "goody goody" rather than look bad disagreeing about "respect" of a "good person".

You may afford to think that oh, you like Mother Teresa, therefore you will not look too closely at why she is being called a saint. Today is your day off for skeptical enquiry because it is a special absurd occasion. After all, in this world of selfish people, is it not a miracle someone wants to help people at all? You may afford to encourage a view that helping those in need is something only a saint is capable of (and thus exempt yourselves from having to do anything). You may say, oh it is a pity that people who question superstition get murdered and I promise to be extra skeptical tomorrow. I was like that. I learned my lesson with Dabholkar's murder. It is one I won't forget in a hurry.

Respecting selfless service ought to be good enough for you to not be required to defend the absurd either.

Update: A lot of people have commented on Twitter that the miracles were a formality and the recognition is for her work. Personally, I think the recognition is more about the church having people of worship native to India, so that more people are interested. It is a huge market, you know? But all that apart, there was nothing wrong with respecting Mother Teresa, or declaring her a Saint without the miracles too. Contrary to the belief of the few "rationalists" clinging desperately to this belief of the miracles being a formality, you have the usually sane Outlook Magazine reporting on how the devout still feel her presence, etc. Let us not even pretend that the "devout" don't pray to saints to solve problems. Not even you are that gullible.

4

 

Narendra Dabholkar has become an icon of rationalist thought in India, but his works being mostly in Marathi are understood by few non-Maharashtrians for either endorsement or criticism. I am attempting to translate some of his speeches, so that his thoughts may reach more people and inform opinions. This is part 2 of the speech, starting around 11:30 minutes into the speech. Part 1 is here: Narendra Dabholkar's speech on tradition and superstition - English translation Part 1

The act against black magic and superstitions may not have been passed (It was passed after his murder), but nobody noticed that a law containing "Dev" (God) came into force in Maharashtra four years ago. The name of that act is Devdasi Prevention act 1934. It got amended four years ago. Now, if you marry a girl who has completed eighteen years of age to a God, then the person conducting the wedding is a criminal, the person marrying is a criminal, the parents of the person being married are criminals and those attending are criminals. You cannot say that parents and girls are willing, so what is your problem?

When I untangled the first jat (dreadlocks): We oil and comb our hair daily. Poor girls in rural areas may not. Sometimes their hair gets tangled and the tangles keep increasing and they are not able or don't untangle them. Once it starts becoming visible someone says "This is Yellama's jat." Then slowly they start offering her vermillion and turmeric, then applying banyan tree sap, then eventually she starts "channelling the goddess", then she starts taking the goddess for worship around the village and eventually becomes a devdasi and lands up into prostitution.

The jat that this whole thing begins with, the first time I untangled it, was 27 years ago. I still remember there was a beautiful eighteen year old girl called Mangala and I convinced her to untangle her old dreadlock. It was a four year old thick and long dreadlock. But before I could untangle it, the girl's mother came to meet my wife and told her "your husband doesn't know. He is putting his hand on Yellamai's jat. Yellama is a vengeful woman and if she gets enraged, she doesn't rest till she has made a guy wear a sari (emasculated him)." It is over twenty five years since I untangled the jat and I am still roaming around in these (male) clothes only.

From that one dreadlock, there were enough lice to supply the entire district of Satara. So our dispensary (Dr. Narendra Dabholkar practiced medicine till 1982) had women lining up to untangle their dreadlocks. Now the thing is, the woman who has a jat wears a cowrie necklace around her neck. Until that necklace called darshan must be put on another woman's neck, there is no permission to untangle the dreadlock.

You know what idea we did? Not we, my wife, I didn't used to be there. When the woman who wanted her hair untangled said "I have darshan on my neck, what do I do?" My wife used to say "Put it on my neck". So my wife used to wear the darshan and untangle her hair and our dispensary had darshans hung in rows. Nothing happened to us.

Why am I telling you this? Because even today the reality of our society needs to be understood and it isn't as simple and straightforward as it appears.

I had gone to Nashik. Nashik is preparing from now for the arrival of Sinhastha (Kumbh mela) in three years. Last time, a mere (sarcasm) 70 lakh people had arrived on one day to bathe in the river at one auspicious moment. 29 died crushed. Now this time around the estimates are for a crore. India has a fertile mind. So a discovery has happened in India that is found nowhere else in the world. It goes something like this.

Dev (Gods) and danav (demons) together churned the sea. 14 treasures emerged from it, the last of which was amrut. Now logically, if both did the work, they could have shared the proceeds. But Gods decided that they wanted to keep it all and started stealing it away. Both Gods and demons grabbed the vessel with amrut inside. 12 years they struggled to take it. In the process, one drop of amrut spilled on each of Allahabad, Ujjain, Haridwar and Godavari (Nashik). So we have discovered that in those twelve years if you go and at that exact moment bathe in the Godavari, your bank balance (karma) for sin for the last twelve years becomes zero. This facility can be found nowhere else in the world.

So thousands of sadhus arrive in fancy clothes and cars. They need thousands of liters of shrikhand and tens of thousands of liters of milk. When they go for the ritual bath, they fight like little children over who goes first. They smoke marijuana. All this isn't said by Narendra Dabholkar, but the one proclaimed to be equal to a sage in Maharashtra, who got a dnyanpeeth award. Kusumagraj (Marathi poet and author Mr V.V. Shirwadkar) has a poem called Sinhastha - have you read it? He has described all this in it.

[recites the poem - describes the excesses of the celebration and ostentatious "austerity"]

And for this last year, 433 crores were spent out of state coffers. At a time when half the schools in Maharashtra didn't have tin roofs or chalk and blackboard. I had gone there. I had printed copies of this poem and I had gone there to distribute it. Some Akashwani man saw and came over and interviewed me. And after the intervew, he hung his head and asked me if it would be okay if the interview played after the Sinhastha.

The budget for three years later is 1300 crores. What is the priority? Whoever wants to go and bathe can go and bathe. Why is money being spent from our pockets on religious things instead of the malnourished children?

The real problem is that we have all decided not to use intelligence. The biggest problem with traditions and orthodox practices is that we don't understand what we do. This question is not related with anyone's individual religious practices.

Vata savitri is worshipped. Shyamchi Aai (classic by Sane Guruji) describes how Shyam's mother is ill and she instructs him to go around the banyan tree on her behalf, and Shyam being male is ashamed to do it. She asks him, what is to feel ashamed in doing something good? I extrapolated this to what today's Shyam's mother would say and what today's Shyam should say. Shyam is Sane Guruji. For the last fourteen years, I'm the editor of Sadhana, established by Sane Guruji, so I have a right to ask this question.

What is the meaning of this? Firstly, after doing the vata savitri puja, the husband's life gets extended, and secondly, every birth, for seven years, she gets the same husband. This is what the vata savitri tradition tells us. So, for a doctor like me running a hospital, it is very easy. Put on a saline drip for the patient inside, plant a banyan tree outside and give a bundle of thread to the wife. Tell her "here, your husband has been started on saline, you wrap this thread around the tree seven times. By whatever reason, what matters is your husband will be saved"

The man you called Hindu Hriday Samarat, that Swatantraveer Savarkar has written that the banyan tree will shade the traveler under it, but when it is old and diseased, it will collapse on the traveler under it. Worshiping a banyan tree that doesn't even understand whether to shade or crush the traveler under it is worshiping falsehood. This isn't Narendra Dabholkar talking, it is the first Hindu Hridaysamrat Veer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who said it.

In Kolhapur, women were worshiping the banyan tree on the vata savitri day, going around the tree. A jeep came at full speed, one of the women was pulled into it by her arm, and it took off. It was outrageous. A woman was worshiping in the village and she got kidnapped like this, and people gave chase on motorcycles. The jeep wasn't going fast and they caught up with it. They asked "don't you understand anything? The woman was worshiping and is this appropriate?" The man who had pulled her asked the people "Do you know who I am?" "Who are you?" "I am her husband."

The people were surprised. "What's wrong with you? Your wife was worshiping for your long life and to get you as a husband for seven births, what is your problem?" The man replied "Two years since we married, she didn't even stay with me two months, I'll stay like this or what for seven births?"

I asked a woman who seemed clearly uninterested in the motions of the worship whether she was asking for the same husband for seven births, and she replied "I did ask for this same husband for seven births, only wished that this was the seventh birth."

What are we doing? What are we examining? We don't even understand that the traditional practices and rituals we do.

This is the end of part 2. Part 3 will be posted soon.