Cheap Copies

This is good. Not least because it cites a philosopher of science who has written several articles for B&W. A ‘holy man’ shows up in a village in India and performs some conjuring tricks – then unmasks himself. Score one for rationalism.

“We are rationalists” declares the intruder, Sanal Edamaruku, secretary general of the Indian Rationalist Association. “We have come here to show you how sadhus and god-men are using simple tricks to cheat you.” The sadhu himself is divested of wig and beard and revealed as a completely ungodly rationalist volunteer. He’s no guru – just very skilled at conjuring…The miracle is that the spell has been broken. Once the crowd have absorbed the shock, and broken into laughter, this poor, remote village has been liberated from superstition. Perhaps for ever.

Dear Indian Rationalist Association. Dear Indian rationalism – long may it flourish. Forever, in fact.

Despite a tenacious western orientalism which overemphasises and overvalues Indian religiosity, reinforced by the homegrown ‘Hindutva’ movement propagated by the BJP (anatomised by Meera Nanda in New Humanist Jan/Feb 2005), India has a long and distinguished rationalist tradition which is considerably older than that of the west. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the seeds of rationalism were planted many thousands of years before the Enlightenment.

It’s actually both orientalism and occidentalism (that is, anti-orientalism) that overemphasise and overvalue Indian religiosity. Kind of a lose-lose situation. People with silly dopy romantic exotic fantasies about India and anti-romantic postcolonialists join forces in declaring rationalism an inauthentic hegemonic import, a stalking horse for imperialism, a mere tool of capitalist efficiency, a disguised form of tyranny. Which is unfortunate.

Professor Desai is clear that while the forms of Indian activism can be an inspiration for a renewed practical western rationalist project, western traditions of rationalist and humanist thought remain an essential model for India: “Our entire enlightenment depends on the west, and we have a lot more to learn.” In his speech at the conference in 1999 which celebrated 100 years of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), Sanal Edamaruku was explicit about the vital role played by the availability of cheap copies of classic western humanist texts, printed by the RPA, publishers of the journal you are reading now.

Dear RPA. Floreat.

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