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Coming out as an atheist in multi-faith India

Audio 13:50
Rohan Joshi
Rohan Joshi Photo: Rohan Joshi

In a country like India, a mosaic of religions and cultures, passions are easily ignited when it comes to religious belief. Violence can even be an option. Is there a place for atheists in such a society? For people who do not subscribe to a particular dogma? Mumbai resident Rohan Joshi talks about being an atheist in India.



He was 16 years old and riding a bus in Bombay when the evidence became irrefutable to Rohan Joshi: "God does not exist."

It hadn’t dawned on him suddenly, like a door slamming in his face, but had been a slow realisation, the result of years of questioning.

“My parents always encouraged me to ask questions and read things and be scientifically minded," he said. "As a result, I came to a position of atheism naturally. The existence of God on a scientific basis just seemed impossible to me.”

Rohan Joshi is 34 years old now. He still lives in Bombay where he works as a stand-up comedian. If Twitter may serve as a measuring rod for success, he has gathered four million followers. He is one of the four members of All India Bakchod (AIB), a group that draws on humour – mostly irreverent – to address all aspects of life in India. AIB has become a social phenomenon that has fully and successfully exploited digital platforms such as You Tube, Twitter, Instagram, and so on, to get their message across.

Growing up in multi-faceted India

Joshi grew up in a country with a population of 1.2 billion where over 1,700 languages are spoken, home to many of the world’s religions - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism to name but a few. So he didn’t grow up in a vacuum but in a place where, very early on, he became aware of how different faiths are worshipped.

He also grew up in a Hindu household where pujas (Hindu religious rituals) are performed every day. He jokes about how his Dad’s morning pujas and bell ringing served as his own personal alarm clock.

“While my parents are both quite religious, none of these rituals were ever forced upon me,” he says.

It took Rohan some 10 years to “come out” as an atheist. By then he was around 25 years old.

“When I told my parents, they were like 'That’s fine, we respect that.' I was very fortunate because there are a lot of families who would not be comfortable with that," he recalls. But he still participates in religious rituals to make his mother happy or when his presence as a son is needed for some specific acts of devotion and that is only at home with his family.

Intolerance towards free-thinkers

Few in India enjoy that degree of freedom and acceptance.

In March this year a father who defined himself as an atheist and a rationalist was killed in Coimbatore in southern India because he openly questioned the existence of God.

Under the Indian penal code, insulting religion or religious beliefs is punishable by jail sentence or a fine or both. Critics argue that the law is too broad and can lead to abuse.

“Hurting the sentiment… is punishable by law," explains Joshi. "The standard [used by the court] for defaming a religion is not the first person who gets offended when you criticise a religion, it is how offensive it is."

The comedian says that he is just one among a growing community of free-thinkers who question religious practices in India. And they are not all rationalists, agnostics or atheists.

“There were spirited conversations around the triple talaak [divorce under Muslim law which the Indian Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional on 22 August] even among people within Islam. And last year there was a very spirited protest about how certain [Hindu] temples do not allow women in. A Hindu women’s group stood up and said why, are we less in the eyes of God?”

Religion as a political tool

Progress towards the kind of attitudes he would like to see is slow, admits Joshi, but it is happening, even though he feels at times it can be terribly frustrating.

“That’s because in India, religion and politics are closely intertwined. We have an uncomfortable history… of splitting voters along religious lines. And you can trace it back all the way to the Shah Bano judgement in the 80s.”

In 1985 the Supreme Court of India ruled in a favour of a divorced Muslim woman, granting her alimony from her husband. The judgement created a major controversy with vigorous opposition from the more conservative Muslims. Under intense political pressure, the Congress government, led by Rajiv Gandhi, voted to overturn the judgement.

“That was a huge setback,” comments Joshi. “And our country has been dealing with the fallout from that.”

Similarly, the comedian admits he is extremely uncomfortable with the Hindutva philosophy favoured by the ruling BJP party. For him, it is a militant ideology that is being identified with Hinduism when the two are quite distinct from each other. He also deplores that Hindutva is being used a political tool to divide the country.

“Our politics have been entirely coopted by religious identity politics. This [Hindutva] is the logical conclusions of ... what started 30 years ago. This is the reckoning that it has led us to. It sucks because this sort of squabbling stops us from unlocking our true potential”

Fame, money, caste are some of the factors that enable Rohan Joshi to be very vocal about his choice. He is aware of that and candidly says, “I have so many layers of privileges that protect me. I am a Hindu, born a Brahmin, the most revered caste”, as well as being a male living in a city.

Not believing in a God or gods doesn’t make Joshi a man devoid of spirituality. He says he is nourished by what he sees as the miracle of life, that is, a bunch of random scientific variables that combined in a specific way had a one in a trillion chance of creating life and it happened.

“I am very spiritually nourished by this idea of infinite possibility as opposed to a preprogrammed route that was set down by God,” he comments.

“I am very spiritually nourished by this idea that the universe is a place of chaos where somehow some form of order and stability finds itself and that life pushes itself through the chaos. And that life is an expression of that chaos.”

Follow Rohan Joshi on Twitter: @mojorojo

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter: @zxnt

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