Book Review: Bhagat Singh-Why I am an Atheist. Reviewed By: Harsh Yadav.Read Now
“Why I am an Atheist” is one of the paramount revolutionary and rational texts written in the Indian subcontinent. It’s a 24-page essay that Bhagat Singh wrote in 1934 when he was in Lahore Central Jail. He was detained for being involved in the assassination of Deputy Superintendent of Police John Saunders in retaliation to Lala Lajpat Rai’s death. In the prison, he met Baba Randhir Singh, a religious man and member of the Ghader Party who was convicted in the first Lahore conspiracy case. Baba Randhir Singh wanted to teach him about God and his beliefs, but Bhagat Singh maintained his atheistic stand. Reacting to his atheistic attitude, Randhir Singh said, "You are giddy with fame and have developed an ego which is standing like a black curtain between you and the God". As a reply to Randhir Singh, he wrote this essay on October 5th-6th, 1930.
Bhagat Singh was an Indian Marxist revolutionary who was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. He was heavily impelled by the works of Vladimir Lenin and called himself a staunch Leninist. His two revolutionary acts against the colonial British Raj led to his hanging in 1931 at the age of 23 which gave him an Olympian status in Indian revolutionary history. He is today remembered as a figure who not just wanted a political revolution but a social revolution to break the age-old discriminatory practices. Bhagat Singh has written many articles on untouchability in Indian society and communalism. “Why I am an Atheist” is his magnum opus.
He begins the essay by elucidating that vanity is not the cause behind his atheist views. He rebuffs the existence of the almighty God from his experience of what he witnessed around himself and in society. He further explains that vanity cannot lead to atheism that these two are in contradiction to each other. When someone is lead by vanity he either reckons himself to be in possession of godly qualities or declares himself a god. According to Comrade Bhagat Singh, none of these two individuals are atheists. They are theists who believe in supernatural powers that are controlling the universe.
Bhagat Singh says that he has not turned atheist after he received acclamation after the constituent assembly bombing. He has been an atheist for a long time. Initially, he too like most Indians was a staunch believer. He used to recite the Gayatri Mantra in school for hours. However, eventually, he came to question his belief and started believing in disbelief. When he joined the revolutionary party, and came to know his comrades well, he was surprised to find them having no sense of impiety. The members were neither here nor there in matters of belief and some were closet atheists. There were Comrades who according to Bhagat Singh were well-read on socialism and communism but yet they couldn’t suppress their desires to recite Geeta. There was one who Comrade was not involved in such practices as he considered religion to be the outcome of human weakness or the limitation of human knowledge, but yet he was not critical of the existence of the omnipresent almighty god.
When he joined the party, he had the desire to study more so that he could challenge other Comrades during debates. He writes:
The romance of the militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our way of thinking.
He first studied mysticism and blind faith and next he replaced them with the cult of realism. He studied the works of Bakunin, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Nirlammba Swami. He roved into the mysteries of the world, studied them, and found no direct proofs for them. Instead, what he found were several religions that were mutually incompatible with each other - Hinduism is very different from Islam, and Buddhism and Jainism with Brahmanism. All faiths differ on the rudimentary questions but each of them claims to be the only true religion. Bhagat Singh calls this the “root of the evil” as instead of instigating the ideas of ancient thinkers and thus dispensing ourselves with the ideological weapon for future struggle, we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool. This very dissertation is very important to understand the religions such as Buddhism which started as the struggle against Brahmanism in India but after some years it became a regressive religion that was supported on the foundation of serfdom, especially in Pre-China Tibet. Therefore, the lack of a single universal faith in this world was proof that there was no God. By the end of 1926 when he was 19 he was convinced that the existence of an almighty God is a façade.
Bhagat Singh elaborates on Karl Marx “Religion is the opium of the masses" quote by saying;
Beliefs make it easier to go through the hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find strong support in god and an encouraging consolation in his name. If you have no belief in him, then there is no alternative but to depend on yourself.
Marx when he said "religion is the opium of the masses" believed that religion had certain practical obligations in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. In this sense, while Marx may have no sympathy for religion itself, he has deep sympathy for those proletariats who put their trust in it.
Bhagat Singh discussing vanity tells us that in difficult times, vanity evaporates and man cannot defy the beliefs held by the general public. He wrote this in the most difficult phase of his life and still had not given up his rationalism as he had no hope of afterlife like religious people; instead, he stressed moving to nothingness after death.
He draws a fine line between the morality among theist and atheist, that atheist conduct moral acts without any selfish motive of the reward in this life or afterlife. An eternal reward and damnation is the basic premise on which religion thrives. Atheist wages war on oppressors, tyrants or exploiters not to become a king or for a bounty, but to cast off the yoke of slavery and establish liberty and peace. This reason explains why morality has been hijacked by religion, one of the biggest scams of mankind, namely, many people believe that you cannot effectuate moral acts without the fear of almighty and eternal damnation.
Bhagat Singh apprises us by saying that it is incumbent for every person who stands for progress to lambast every doctrine of the old belief. This is a common thing in many revolutionaries and is also found in the writings of Mao Tse-tung. He says that faith is appreciated in any theory if it has been subjected to rigorous reasoning as reason is the guiding principle that shatters blind belief which is hazardous as it makes a person reactionary by depriving his understanding power.
Bhagat Singh says in a way that it is not enough that only atheists have to explicate their ideas, theist should be held liable in this debate as well to explain why they believe in something that they cannot see. He asks a simple question that why God created this world that is full of misery and plight, where no one lives in peace. He says that the concept of an ‘omnipotent god’ is not sound as he is held by a law that prohibits from ending melancholy or maybe it’s his pleasure to torture humans. He compares him with Roman Emperor Nero who burnt Rome, killed many but still a limited number for his leisure and enjoyment. History remembers him as a psycho and mass murderer who enjoyed torturing. Pages are blackened with invective diatribes condemning Nero: the tyrant, the heartless, the wicked. He also takes the example of Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan who slaughtered thousands and asks that why almighty created such a world where the majority of his creations are slaughtered and oppressed by the few. Millions are dying of hunger and living grim lives. Labourers are leading an awful life while the rich vampires are sucking their blood.
Hindus believe in the concept of reincarnation, that one gets reborn after death and that his next life is determined by the deeds of the present life. So if anyone is suffering and is oppressed in this life, then he must have been a sinner in the previous one and the one who is oppressing others in this life were godly people in their previous life. This provides legitimacy to their oppression. Lenin also in his works on religion illustrated this. In ‘Socialism and Religion’ Lenin explained how capitalists use religion as a tool for their profits and to justify their actions and they assure the workers who work in terrible conditions of getting an astounding afterlife by obeying their employers conscientiously. Lenin believed that religion is a historical phenomenon tied with feudalism and capitalism.
Bhagat Singh thereon talks about the philosophy of jurisprudence. He says that the punishment can be of three types. These are revenge, reform, and deterrence. Out of these, reformative has significant scope but Hinduism gives no room for reformation. As no one remembers one’s past, one is denied the opportunity to reform. One continues to suffer blindly without knowing the causes or effects. Bhagat Singh does not seem to consider the possibility that remembering all of one’s past will place an unbearable burden on one’s soul, and hence one is allowed to reform with a clean slate and redemption through suffering. That’s why he called poverty the capacious punishment and called it a sin.
Bhagat Singh raises the question of why an all-loving almighty god cannot stop someone from transgressing. Why he cannot see the plight of millions and learns the truth only after millions had undergone untold tribulations and penury. What is the fate of a person who by no sin of his, born into a low caste family, is shunned and hated by the upper caste all his life. He cannot go to school and hence remains ignorant. Why are lower caste kept illiterate by Brahmins. If they heard a few words from the Vedas, Brahmins would pour molten lead into their ears. Bhagat Singh asks that if someone commits a sin, who is responsible, the person or the god who, according to various scriptures, is responsible for anything happening in this universe. These are few questions he asks the theist to justify their imaginary lord.
Bhagat Singh exposes religion as follows:
My dear friends, these theories have been coined by the privileged classes. They try to justify the power they have usurped and the riches they have robbed with the help of such theories. Yes! It was perhaps Upton Sinclair that wrote at some place that just makes a man a believer in immortality and then rob him of all his riches and possessions. He shall help you even in that ungrudgingly. The dirty alliance between religious preachers and possessors of power brought the boon of prisons, gallos, knouts and above all such theories for the mankind.
The above quote reveals why religion is a pertinent tool of capitalism. It justifies the authority. In early times, monarchies were buttressed based on ‘Divine rights of the king,’ that is, the king dictated to the population because he is the figure most adjacent to god, and it was the god who entrusted him to rule over people. With the advent of capitalism, a similar approach was taken by the bourgeois to preserve an unequal status quo and pacify the proletariat. The working class needs to abandon religion, only then only they would be able to rise against the bourgeoisie and gain control of the means of production.
Bhagat Singh says that people rebut socialism on the pretext of implementation even though common people understand the merits and the welfare of people under socialism. So he asks theist that if an almighty God is so loving and filled with love and compassion then he must step up and fill the hearts of people with altruistic humanism that forces them to give means of production to the working class and free them from the shackles of money.
He casts aspersions on the other freedom fighters as he says that the British is not ruling from God's consent, but the reason, rather, is that we lack the courage to oppose it. British are commanding us at the point of gun and coercion through police and militia. He asks that where is God when one nation oppresses the other for imperialist goals, which according to him is "the most deplorable sin".
Bhagat Singh instructs the readers to read Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is a stalwart book against religion as it offers a logical explanation of the creation of everything in our surroundings, including that the progress of mankind is due to man’s constant conflict with nature and his efforts to deploy it for his own well being. He further says that God was invented by man in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses and limitations. This gave him the courage to face impediments and also to circumscribe his outburst in prosperity and affluence. He in the end coaxed the readers to be rational and oppose every regressive narrow concept of religion and face adversaries with valour. It is more salutary to face dilemmas in a realistic and judicious manner instead of anticipating for them to solve themselves with prayers. Thus, his atheism is not the outcome of vanity.
Religion enslaves people; it makes a mockery of human potential by curbing people from expanding their knowledge and understanding of the world. It makes us slaves of an imaginary being and makes us bow in front of the figurines just like how it was during serfdom days, except in this case there is no one on the other side who can be held culpable. We have to spend our entire lives on our knees thanking him for saving us from his wrath yet all of us face tragedies.
He ends the essay with a heavy message:
Let us see how steadfast I am. One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, during your last days you will begin to believe! I said, No, dear Sir, it shall not be. I consider it an act of degradation and demoralization on my part. For such a selfish motive, I am not going to pray. Readers and friends, "Is this vanity"? If it is, I stand for it.
As said before, the biggest tragedy of humankind's history remains that religion has hijacked morality. This makes people fall for various religions as many assume that you cannot be morally upright and conduct righteous acts without being religious.
Harsh Yadav is from India and has just recently graduated from Banaras Hindu University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. Harsh is a Marxist Leninist who is intrigued by different Marxist Schools of Thought, Political Philosophies, Feminism, Foreign Policy and International Relations, and History. He also maintains a bookstagram account (https://www.instagram.com/epigrammatic_bibliophile/?hl=en) where he posts book reviews, writes about historical impact, socialism, and social and political issues.
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