(Hand-typed and edited by Cliff Walker)
Atheist Centre Benz
Vijayawada -- 520010 India
Atheist Centre is a social change institution founded by Gora (1902-1975) and Saraswathi Gora (1912) in the year 1940 at Mudnur village in Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh, India. On the eve of the Independence to the country, Atheist Centre was shifted to Vijayawada in 1947 and since then it has been the hub of activity for promotion of atheism, humanism and social change. Atheist Centre carries on its multifarious activities with the cooperation and good will of the people. Since the demise of Gora in 1975, Atheist Centre carries on all its activities under the able guidance of Ms Saraswathi Gora, the co-founder of the Centre. She is assisted by the dedicated team of people who are engaged in the promotion of atheism as a way of life. Atheist Centre is also actively engaged in Secular Social Work activities for comprehensive rural development and rendering assistance to people to develop an alternate way of life on secular and humanist lines. The Centre maintains live-wire contact with the humanists, atheist, secularists, rationalists and social change workers in different parts of the world.
Gora (the founder of the Centre) and family, along with some 'other colleagues, was associated with Gandhi and the nationalist movement. They participated in the freedom struggle and underwent imprisonment. Gora had long discussions with Mahatma Gandhi on atheism and social change and the discussions have been published in the form of a book entitled, "An Atheist with Gandhi", published by the Navajivan, the official publishers of Gandhian literature. Even in the post-Gandhian period, Atheist Centre is closely associated with the Bhoodan movement of Vinoba Bhave and other Gandhian activities all over the country. Thus Atheist Centre is in the mainstream of national life, maintaining its distinctive position with its non-religious, humanist and atheist approach.
Right from the inception Atheist Centre adopted a comprehensive approach for sustainable development. It views life as an integrated whole and is striving to build an alternate way of life, a life stance based on a secular-humanist-atheist alternative. Atheist Centre's active association with the freedom struggle and its grassroot level work for the eradication of untouchability, caste and other parochial considerations, brought it in closer touch with the realities of the village scene, in addition to its activities on a wider plane.
Atheist Centre: A Bird's View
Counselling: One of the main activities of Atheist Centre is to provide socio-psychological counselling to a large number of people who come to the Centre with various types of problems. A large number of women and men come to Atheist Centre every day to seek guidance in this regard. Women and youth are subject to intense pressure in a tradition-bound society. If any one wants to break the barriers of caste and religion or to marry intercaste, they are subjected to intense social pressure. Atheist Centre provides much needed support and encouragement to such people. In addition to this, many people come to Atheist Centre for guidance and counsel on many personal matters. The marital disorder, family problems, breaking down of cordial relations between parents and the children, problems of dowry, desertion, destitution, unwed motherhood, sex discrimination, stranglehold of superstitions and many other problems form part of the counseling.
Atheist Centre through its counselling programmes instills courage and confidence among the people, in particular women and youth, to face realities of life boldly and solve their problems. For the last five decades Atheist Centre rendered assistance through counselling to hundreds of people and turned a new leaf in their lives.
Removal of Untouchability and Caste
Atheist Centre, right from its inception, gave highest priority to fighting the evil practices of untouchability and caste distinctions. In the teeth of severe opposition, Atheist Centre took up the programmes of inter-dining and intercaste marriages to fight the heinous custom of untouchability. Gora made it a point to stay only in an untouchable locality when he was invited to address a meeting at any village. An inter-dining programme was also organised in the village on the occasion. It was a deliberate attempt to usher in social change in a traditional society.
Atheist Centre is in the forefront in organising the intercaste and casteless marriages for a casteless society. More than five hundred such marriages took place at Atheist Centre and other parts of the State. Members of the Atheist Centre placed an example before others by marrying casteless and breaking the barriers of untouchability. It is the example that inspires others in the efforts for social equality. In addition to the casteless marriages, Atheist Centre also organises social mixy pot programmes where the food is cooked in different homes, but eaten together, transcending the barriers of caste. Atheist Centre organises gatherings of intercaste married and casteless couples and honors them with a view to give them social recognition and also to set as an example for others to emulate. Atheist Centre encourages the marriages under Special Marriage Act, which is a Secular method without reference to caste and religion and also the most inexpensive form of marriage. Under the aegis of the Athesit Centre even inter-religion marriages have been performed. Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, and Hindu-Sikh marriages were held at the Centre stressing on national integration and strengthening the secular values in society.
Atheist Centre is also involved in the abolition of the practice of devadasi and the child marriages. Devadasis were married and child marriages were discouraged. Gora organised the widow remarriages and encouraged and performed marriages of Devadasis breaking the social taboos and paved the way for social reform. Atheist Centre does the intercaste and inter-religion and reform marriages in complete openness and no secrecy is involved. It invites parents and relations of both sides and informs them about the marriage. Many a time it has to face severe opposition or the parents and relations. But it is the openness of methods that enabled change in the attitudes of others and the process of reconciliation in the families becomes easier in the long run. It adds the necessary moral fibre to the reform.
Atheist Centre also helped some of the prostitutes to come out of the clutches of the antisocial elements and helped the girls get married. It also tackled the problems of the unwed mothers and strove to give them social status and a respectable position in society. The courage and confidence infused by the Atheist Centre, enabled them to lead a dignified life. As there is no Social Security in India, it is the family which provides security and protection to the young and the old. Atheist Centre strives to strengthen the family ties based on equality of the sexes and self-respect. The small, but timely interventions save some people from impending disasters. Women who are victims of social problems come from far and wide and they receive the much-needed protection and reassurance that their life is worth living. The rapport of the Centre with the community is so strong and cordial that such women are brought to the Atheist Centre by people.
Atheist Centre is striving to give the much-needed courage and confidence to women who are in distress. As social taboos are still very strong, some of the women who lost their husbands, are subject to inhuman customs and rituals. Atheists Centre fights the outmoded practices and not only gives protection to such women to save them from such ordeal, but also educates their families about the indignity of women involved in such a process. The timely help to such women changes the course of their life and they regain their self-confidence. Thus with various programmes for the welfare and protection of such women Atheist Centre endeared the respect and gratitude. On its part, Atheist Centre feels happy for rendering assistance to a person from unnecessary cruelty and indignity. The counselling programmes of Atheist Centre are guided by Ms. Saraswathi Gora and Ms. Mythri and others.
Fight Against Superstitions
Dispelling superstitions is an important aspect of the Atheist Centre. The miracle mind is the bane of Indian society and prevents its onward march. Hence, Gora and Saraswathi Gora started fighting superstitions right from the 1920s and they viewed an eclipse, defying the taboo that pregnant women should not do so. They lived in so-called haunted houses and exploded the myth. Since its inception Atheist Centre took up programmes to promote scientific outlook and rational thinking. Fire-walking demonstrations have been organised in the villages. Many so-called miracles were exposed. Godmen were challenged to prove their supernatural powers. When Sai Baba visited Vijayawada, Atheist Centre questioned him to prove his miracles. Scores of people were arrested in this connection.
Exploding the myth of miracles is an ongoing programme of Atheist Centre at various levels. People are educated to develop scientific spirit and questioning attitude. Blind beliefs are a pane of progress. Atheist Centre also exposed the hoaxes of rebirth.
Combating Witchcraft and Sorcery
In a traditional society where people are still steeped in superstitions, the belief in witchcraft and sorcery plays havoc in the lives of innocent people. It leads to feuds and even murders in the villages with the allegations and accusations of being sorcerers. In the erstwhile Hyderabad State, the belief in witchcraft and sorcery is still deeply entrenched in the minds of the people. Concerned with the loss of limbs and even lives of some innocent people, the district administration in Medak invited Atheist Centre in 1983 to dispel the superstition. A team of doctors, social workers, psychiatrists, and scientists, headed by Dr. Samaram, visited Medak district to study the mass hysteria which reached epidemic proportions. Similar assignments were undertaken in Nalgonda district thrice to educate the people about the nonexistence of witchcraft. It is only Ill-health + Ignorance = Witchcraft. The latest programme to dispel the fear of witchcraft has taken place in the second week of October, 1995. In exposing witchcraft and sorcery, the Atheist Centre receives the cooperation of the Indian Medical Association and other social organisations.
The progress of the developing countries is intricately interconnected with the spread of science and scientific temper. Right from its inception, Atheist Centre has been repeatedly stressing on inculcating scientific outlook. Seeing is believing. And the understanding of the natural phenomenon will help in dispelling the superstitions. Hence, Atheist Centre organises periodic science exhibitions even in the villages. Science, understanding and education broaden the mental horizon of the people. A permanent science exhibition has been set up at Atheist Centre, Vijayawada, in Sir Hermann Bondi Hall. With the growing activities, a Hall of Science has been constructed.
Promotion of Ecology and Environment
In order to spread environmental consciousness and ecological concern, Atheist Centre undertakes a number of programmes, including the organisation of Environmental Exhibitions. The Science as well as Environmental exhibitions attract the wide attention of the young, the youth and the women. Awareness is a prelude to action. The media also gives good coverage to the activities of Atheist Centre and thus helps in dissemination of information. With a view to spread the message of science and environment, a Science March was undertaken by Atheist Centre in 1992, covering one hundred villages in Krishna district as part of the national movement of Bharat Jan Gyan Vigyan Jatha supported by the Union Government. Atheist Centre organised practical demonstrations in the villages on science. The popularisation of science and scientific outlook received good cooperation and attention from the public. The inquisitiveness of the young is an indication of the growing awareness among the youth about environment and science.
The Gora Science Centre of Atheist Centre has taken up awareness programmes to educate the scientific fact behind the recent mob hysteria regarding the idol of the Hindu god Ganesh "drinking milk." Gora Science Centre demonstrated to the people how the surface tension fooled the devotees. The Atheist Centre organised a science exhibition and took steps for popular education to dispel the misconception associated with the total solar eclipse on October 24th, 1995. It is heartening to note the change in the attitude of people country wide due to the spread of science and the constructive role played by the media as well as the voluntary effort of innumerable people.
Striving for Social Cohesion
When peace and tranquility is disturbed in society, steps for conflict resolution and reconciliation become necessary. Hence the Atheist Centre took up peace marches covering long distances in strife torn areas. When the Mulki agitation for a separate Telangana caused untold misery, under Gora's leadership a peace march on foot was undertaken. Similarly in 1989, Atheist Centre organised a Unity March on foot for 70 days covering a distance of 1400 kilometres in four riot districts of Andhra. The march, headed by Mr. Lavanam and Mrs. Hemalatha Lavanam, received good response from the people who were affected by social tensions. On earlier occasions Gora organised similar marches, including the foot march from Gandhi's Ashram in Sevagram near Nagapur to Delhi, covering a distance of 1000 miles in a hundred days.
Secular and Humanist Education
With a view to promote literacy and education on secular and humanist lines, Atheist Centre organises education and awareness programmes. Adult and women education is an important ingredient of the of the activities of the Atheist Centre. Substantial work has been done by the Atheist Centre in the field of social and adult education. Gora's books for adult literacy and scientific and social outlook are widely read. Gora and other members of Atheist Centre wrote a number of books and journals which are published in English and Telugu. For five years, a Hindi journal "Insaan" was also published.
Sex Education and Family Planning
In a traditional society like India, championing sex education is an uphill task. Undaunted by the hurdles, Atheist Centre is championing sex education. Dr. G. Samaram of Atheist Centre wrote on Sex Science in the most popular Telugu daily newspaper for five years and his five volumes, "Sex Science", became very popular. So far, Dr. G. Samaram published a hundred books on health education and family planning, popularising medical science. The books are widely read. For the last 20 years Dr. G. Samaram has been contributing every week, in his daily and weekly columns, on various aspects of health and, in his column of questions and answers, on sex problems. It is receiving wide attention. Dr. G. Samaram is not only a medical science writer, but also a practicing doctor. Dr. Maru and Dr. Samaram are helping Atheist Centre in the organisation of health camps and health awareness programmes.
Promotion of the small family norm is an important aspect of all the programmes of Atheist Centre. The overpopulation is causing untold misery to the people. Female literacy and health are closely connected with the spread of the small family norm and the adoption of family planning. Education as well as health are entry points in many villages in the organisation of Atheist Centre's programmes.
Secular Social Work and Comprehensive Rural Development
In addition to the above mentioned activities, Atheist Centre has also been carrying on comprehensive rural development programmes through Arthik Samata Mandal, Vasavya Mahila Mandali and Samakar. The first two were founded by Gora and the third was started in the post-Gora period and all three have their headquarters at Atheist Centre. Taking inspiration from the life and work of Gora, they carry on activities under Atheist Centre's umbrella.
Arthik Samata Mandal
Arthik Samata Mandal (Association for Economic Equality) operates in 150 villages in four districts of Andhra Pradesh striving for comprehensive rural development covering a broad spectrum of health, education, mother and child care, child sponsorships, balwadis (creches), polio corrective surgeries, rural eye camps, health education complexes in rural areas, community organisation, waste land development, and poverty alleviation programmes. Both preventive and curative aspects of health are highlighted. In addition to the preventive efforts for the eradication of polio, polio corrective surgeries are carried on to help hundreds of polio victims and follow-up action is taken for their community-based rehabilitation. Similarly, eyesight has been restored to more than 20,000 people through cataract operations in the mass camps in the remote villages. Princess Anne, President of the Save the Children Fund (U.K.) Visited Arthik Samata Mandal in 1986. Mr. Veeraiah is the secretary of Arthik Samata Mandal.
Vasavya Mahila Mandali
Vasavya Mahila Mandali is a women's organisation of Atheist Centre. It runs a Working Women's Hostel and Gora Abhay Nivas (a home for women with social problems) and a number of training programmes in Atheist Centre, and also recently started a rural centre, Vasavya Centre for Social Development. (Vasavya is an abbreviation in the Telugu language which stands for reality, social outlook, and development of individual personality). Vasavya Mahila Mandali also covers a broad spectrum of activities for comprehensive rural development in 50 villages. Health, education, mother and child welfare, community organisation, training for women, medical social work, eye bank and eye camps, provision of drinking water facilities in the villages, rural sanitation including construction of lavatories, formation of thrift groups and cooperatives, creches for children, youth programmes, social defence programmes to fight alcoholism and drug addiction, counselling and career guidance to women, and general development programmes form part of Vasavya Mahila Mandali's programmes. Mrs. Vidya, former MP, is President of Vasavya Mahila Mandali. Mrs. Rashim Samaram is the Secretary.
Swetcha Gora Eye Bank was started in September, 1995, at Atheist Centre for free cornea grafting operations. Within one year 20 blind people were restored eyesight by cornea grafting. Public awareness has been generated through rallies and meetings. Swetch Eye Bank maintains the lists of people who have donated eyes and also the list of the blind who need cornea grafting. The medical doctors are also extending full cooperation for performing operations freely, bearing the expenditure of the medicines also.
Samskar (Reform) is an offshoot of Atheist Centre's work among the criminal tribes who are known as denotified tribes. Gora, Lavanam, Hemalatha Lavanam, and others from Atheist Centre worked in the settlements of Andhra Pradesh and initiated steps for criminal reformation. With the persuasion of Atheist Centre, the state Government also extended a helping hand by providing land and other facilities to the changed criminals. The socio-psychological rehabilitation of the ex-criminals by the Atheist Centre culminated in the establishment of a separate organisation, Samskar, to give further fillip to the efforts. The criminal reformation efforts are still going on for their rehabilitation.
Eradication of the Jogini System
Samskar also took up the programmes for the eradication of the Jogini system, which is a remnant of the Devadasi. It is a heinous practice thrust on the poor, untouchable women in the remote villages of the erstwhile Hyderabad state. It is known as Basivi in Karnataka and Matangi in Maharastra. Samskar took up the relief and rehabilitation activities initially with the cooperation of Ms. Kumudben Joshi, then Governor of Andhra Pradesh. Chelli Nilayam, Sister's Home, was founded at Varni, in Nizamabad district in 1987. The socio-psychological counselling programmes helped in changing the attitudes of the erstwhile jogins as well as of the villagers, and it helped in initiating the steps to resolve the problem. The efforts of Samskar received impetus with the enactment of Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1988. It was the voluntary effort of organisations like Samskar which gave wide publicity to the Act and brought new awakening among the poor women.
Samskar took up programmes for the eradication of the Jogini system by adopting a multi-pronged attack on the problem by constant counselling, awareness building, economic and social activities, education, health education, and consciousness-raising activities. The State Government also helped in the economic rehabilitation of the changed jogins by providing land and other opportunities for rehabilitation. Some of the changed Jogins even got married. Two such marriages took place in the Governor's official residence (Raj Bhavan), in the presence of the then Governor Ms. Kumudben Joshi in 1990. Another such marriage was held at Atheist Centre in its International Conference. Some others also got married, breaking the traditional taboos on their marriages as they were supposed to be married to god. It is heartening to note that a great change is taking place in the outlook and perception of the Jogins and the work is spread over 60 villages. The attitudinal change brought about in the women is very heartening. It is a human problem requiring sympathy, understanding, and the necessary resources to help thousands of such women. Mr. Lavanam and Ms. Hemalatha Lavanam are President and Secretary of Samskar.
Atheist Centre's National and International Outreach
Atheist Centre is developing atheism as a positive way of life and touching diverse fields through its activities. At the time of natural calamities such as the tidal wave and cyclones, Atheist Centre is rendering assistance to people. Similarly, in order to avert human made calamities affecting the social field, Atheist Centre is taking up programmes for social awareness.
Atheist Centre is publishing literature and journals in English and Indian languages. Gora's books have been translated into different languages and have been published. Atheist Centre organises a number of conferences, Seminars and International Conferences. The Golden Jubilee of the Atheist Centre was celebrated in 1990. Sir Hermann Bondi, well known scientist and humanist, presided over the International Conference of the Golden Jubilee. Another International Conference marked the conclusion of the Golden Jubilee. The first two World Atheist Conferences were held at Atheist Centre in 1972 and 1980, and the third was held in Helsinki. The fourth World Atheist Conference, on the theme "Positive Atheism for a Positive Future," was held at Atheist Centre on January 4th to 6th, 1996.
World tours of Gora in 1970 and 1974, and Mr. Lavanam's tours in Europe and America, as well as visits of other members of Atheist Centre abroad, helped to maintain cordial relations with like-minded people in the international field.
Atheist Centre was given the International Humanist Award at the World Humanist Congress held in Oslo in 1986. Mrs. Saraswathi Gora was honoured with the Challagalla Award for her outstanding work for social reform. She was also honoured with Malladi Subbamma Award.
The distinguished visitors to Atheist Centre included Mr. R. Venkataraman, the then Vice President of India and the successive governors of Andhra Pradesh -- Mrs. Sarada Mukherji, Mr. Ramlal, Mrs. Kumud Ben Joshi and Mr. Krishna Kant and the Union and the State ministers. Atheist Centre also receives distinguished visitors from abroad.
Art and Culture
With a view to promote secular art and culture, Atheist Centre has a dance school Vasavya Nritya Vihar, in which children from different age groups learn dance on secular themes promoting humanist values. National Integration, World Peace and Harmony, social and cultural integration, social problems like untouchability and jogini reform form part of some of the themes of the dance programmes of Vasavya Nritya Vihar of Atheist Centre. The children had the opportunity to exhibit their talent on secular themes on different occasions and they gave a performance in the President's palace (Rastrapathi Bhavan) in New Delhi. Using the traditional dance form, these artists convey the message of secularism, humanism, science, and scientific and social outlook. These new values are inculcated in the minds of the young.
Endowed with the experience of half a century, Atheist Centre is looking forward into the 21st Century for building an alternate way of life based on atheist, secular, and humanist values and scientific temper. Taking inspiration from the founding fathers and the illustrious predecessors in atheism, humanism, rationalism, and social change in national and international arena, Atheist Centre in a humble way is trying to carry forward the work with determination and zeal. Jai Insaan (Victory to Human) is the motto and the slogan of Atheist Centre.
Atheist Centre Benz Circle, Vijayawada -- 520 010, A.P., India Phone: 91-866-472330 Fax: 91-866-474212 P.O. Fax: 91:988-473433