In his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories”, GK Chesterton had daringly proclaimed that “civilisation itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions”, and that “the agent of social justice is the original and poetic figure; while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves”. In a very similar way we must understand that the development of reason and rationality was not a necessary development in the story of the human race, but rather a rebellion and revolution in every sense of the word.

Reason, like civilisation itself, was an utterly contingent event in the history of our species, and this contingency necessitates the existence of continuous efforts to preserve its revolutionary potential. Much like the detective in Chesterton’s essay, who “stands alone and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves’ kitchen”, reason too requires its guardians and even martyrs. Unfortunately, Narendra Dabholkar, one of the most important anti-superstition activists in India and founder of the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANiS), was one of those brutally murdered for his stand against blind faith and superstition.

Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune in August 2013, after almost thirty years of working to propagate the scientific outlook and eradicate superstition in Maharashtra. In The Case For Reason, Suman Oak has translated into English from Marathi his book Timiratuni Tejakade on the theoretical basis as well as the practical battles fought by the anti-superstition movement.

There are no miracles

This book is the first volume of The Case for Reason, titled Understanding the Anti-Superstition Movement. It is divided into two parts – the first being a sort of theoretical framework through which Dabholkar explains his fight against blind faith, pseudoscience, and miracle-working, spiritual leaders. The second part is even more interesting as it is an account of the many practical battles the members of ANiS had to fight in Maharashtra during their efforts to investigate so-called miracles and supernatural occurrences.

The influence of Dabholkar’s medical training, who was a doctor by profession before he became a social worker, is quite visible in his style of writing, which is always extremely logical and clinical. In the theoretical section of the book, Dabholkar’s articles outline his firm belief in the importance of the scientific outlook and the inevitable logical fallacies made by those who propagate pseudo-sciences like astrology. His essays express his staunch belief in the theory of naturalism, according to which life is not a miraculous event but “was created in particular conditions according to nature’s laws and wherever such conditions occur, creation of life is possible”.

It is the propagation of this scientific truth that Dabholkar dedicated his own life and work to – the bitter truth that miracles do not occur and everything happens according to the laws of nature. The religious mode of knowledge known as revelation is considered outdated and vehemently opposed to the scientific outlook by Dabholkar, who was himself, in both private and public life, a staunch atheist. However, as he himself notes, his crusade was not so much against religion (which he believed was a fundamental right given us by our Constitution) but the misuse of religion in the form of superstition by so-called godmen and miracle workers to make financial profit and gain political power over the public.

Why reason took a back seat

In the first section of the book, Dabholkar provided a very interesting theory on why the scientific outlook failed to take root in India even though we had great philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers in ancient times like Nagarjuna, Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Bhaskaracharya. In the centuries that followed, the theory of karmavipak, which, according to Dabholkar “utterly contradicts the core of scientific outlook, that is the theory of causality”, strengthened the already existing foundations of the caste system. This led to a situation where almost all sections of society other than Brahmins were denied the right to education. “...[T]he toiling masses were considered lesser humans. The process of observation-investigation-inference-experimentation that develops scientific outlook was not allowed to operate”.

What became deeply ingrained within the social psyche was that the material world is illusory and that Brahma is the real being, even though what this Brahma is was never explained to the people. In one of his other essays Dabholkar clearly enunciates that caste is perhaps the highest form of superstition in the country. It is clear from this that the eradication and annihilation of caste is one of the most important moves to be made against the prevalence of superstition in India.

Debunking the practices

The second section of the book comprises of fascinating reports, case studies and stories from Dabholkar’s experiences in the field. There is the story of Godbaba Bhanudas, whose touch could apparently make everything sweet. ANiS investigated his “miraculous” powers and found that it was all due to the use of saccharine powder, which, being a synthetic substance, cannot be created by the human body.

There is also the highly interesting account of the Dungeshwar Temple, located on a hill near the sea, where anyone who defied custom would apparently be severely punished by the deity. ANiS, under Dabholkar’s leadership, took up the challenge made by one of the custodians of the temple, and proved that there were no supernatural or macabre activities that occurred at night there.

There are also case studies which detail mysterious phenomena like idols of Ganesh that “drink” milk offered by devotees, the purported reincarnation of the Rani of Jhansi, the strange medicine made by the Gurav brothers which cured all eye ailments, and the case of little stones which appeared miraculously from the eyes of schoolgirls in Sangli district. In all these cases Dabholkar and ANiS were able to secure a rational explanation for what seemed like extremely irrational and even supernatural phenomena.

The incessant forward march of science has often led to more harm than good, and over the last hundred years philosophers of all political persuasions, such as Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault, have contested the hegemony of “reason” and instrumental rationality. However, in no way have they meant to make a case for superstition or the supernatural. Instead , their purpose was to highlight the unreasonable, even miraculous eruption of reason in human history.

This posthumously published book is dedicated to the miracle that is rationality, but also maintains a profound awareness of how quickly this light can be extinguished, and how many sacrifices we must make to keep that from happening.

The Case For Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement, Narendra Dabholkar, translated by Suman Oak, Westland.