When a snail sheds its shell, it still remains a snail -- Albert Einstein
Sreekanta Swamy (SS): Prof.Kumar, you call yourself a Hindu Brahmin but you seldom visit our Ganapathi temple and pray. I know you call yourself a Secular Humanist. But does this mean you are no longer a Hindu?
Me: My dear friend, the short answer is “No”. The long answer is: I was born a Hindu Brahmin. I still am one. What is distinctive about Hindu Brahmins is Personal cleanliness, concept of Ahimsa & Vegetarianism and a commitment to learning and dissemination of knowledge. I practice all these. So I am a Hindu Brahmin. I also look like an Indian, not like a European, American, Chinese, Japanese or African. I speak English like an educated Indian and not with a British, American or Australian accent. I tolerate people who spit on the road, urinate publicly & I tolerate the cows (the brake inspectors) who walk with a royal gait on the main roads of any Indian city. Only Indians can do this. So I am an Indian to begin with and then as a sub-category – a Secular Hindu.
SS: But a Religious Hindu believes in the divinity of the Vedas and venerates the Agamas as equally revealed. These primordial hymns are God’s word and the bedrock of our Sanatana Dharma. Do you think these are meaningless?
Me: These Vedas contain hymns, rites, interpretation & philosophical instructions relevant only to the primitive man. For our ancestors they gave meaning to their lives but make no mistake – they were formulated by elderly sages and not by any God or gods for political purposes.
SS: Is that so? Then again Hindus like me believe in Karma, the law of cause & effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words & actions. What is your take on that?
Me: My dear friend, this Karma theory was invented by the tribal chiefs, the witch doctors and the Kings to placate the underprivileged have-nots and give them an explanation for their plight and to discourage rebellion. Your status in this life, they said, depends on your Karma brought forward from your previous life. If you are born to Lower-caste parents, it is mainly because of your bad Karma in your previous life!
SS: You seem to have a plausible explanation for everything. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all Karma has been resolved and Moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth is attained. You don’t believe in this?
Me: No. The soul is a presumptuous superstition, invented conveniently by our ancestors. As per Evolutionary Psychology, our primitive ancestor, while he slept and while his body lay curled on the ground beside the campfire, he seemed to hunt or to fight, to make love or to feast in some other region, in his dreams. When he woke up, his friends assured him that he was very much there itself all the time. The thinking Savage (there were not many of them) started wondering: What was then this part of him that wandered from the body in his dreams? What if not the “Soul” which was something distinct and separate from his body, invisible and could easily travel in & out of his body. He dreamt of dead relatives but they were dead. So their souls which outlive the destruction of their bodies must have visited me. This was the genesis of the idea that a soul is everlasting & immortal.
But if there is no such soul, there cannot be any reincarnation either!
SS: But reincarnation (Punarjanam) is the backbone of Hindu religious philosophy………..
Me: If reincarnation is a fact of life or rather a fact of our afterlife, then how can we explain the increase in human population on our planet? You cannot. So reincarnation is a fantasy and wishful thinking, invented by our clever sages to circumvent man’s fear of death & nothingness.
SS: But you can’t prove that there is no soul & reincarnation! We Hindus believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and temple worship or rituals like Yagnas, homas, abhishekas, archanas & sevas create communion with these gods. What do you have to say?
Me: Well all these are unfalsifiable. But if you ask me, Prayers are useless. For any communication to be effective, it needs a sender and a receiver. Since we Secular Humanists believe that there is no receiver at the other end of the line, praying tantamounts to talking with oneself!
And just as when a snail sheds its shell, it still is a snail (Albert Einstein said this to defend his lack of faith and he said he was nevertheless a Jew though an atheist Jew), likewise without the extraneous shell-like trappings of the Hindu Religion ( Temples, prayers, soul, afterlife, reincarnation, moksha, heaven & gods), I can still be a Hindu -- a Hindu with a proud prefix – a Secular & Cultural Hindu!
SS: What if you died and found yourself face to face with Vishnu or Shiva? What then? Are you not scared of being punished for your lack of faith?
Me: I would say " Lord, this clearly is an embarrassment, but you should have given us, in all fairness, some sensory evidence ratifying your existence. I have merely made good use of the brain given by you and had come to the conclusion that you don't exist. Isn't this a non-culpable offence?", and I am confident that I will be condoned but frankly, I would dread the monotony & boredom of life in Heaven!
SS: Why so?
Me: No matter how blissful Heaven is, it cannot possibly keep a human being engaged forever, not when there is literally an infinite amount of time to grow accustomed to, and then get bored of every new distraction.
Soon a glorified soul will have checked off everything on its list, accomplished everything it ever wanted to do during life, met all its idols and heroes in person, obtained answers from God to every fundamental or nagging question, and still the afterlife drags indefinitely on. After a few thousand trillion eons, it is virtually certain that eternal bliss would become eternal monotony. Eventually, oblivion would become a reward, not a punishment.
Furthermore, this afterlife doctrine devalues our existence here and now.
Me: Life on earth is all the more precious because it is brief. What is the point of improving yourself or cultivating your mind now, if there will be infinite time after you die to do those things? Why bother fighting for justice or defending the downtrodden when a perfect world awaits us anyway? Although arguments could be concocted for why God still wants us to do these things, the existence of an afterlife would remove all the urgency from them. In the theistic worldview, life on earth is ultimately pointless.
In fact it is atheism (which tells others what you do not believe) and secular humanism (which tells others what you do believe) that provides a real reason for living life to the fullest.