Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
A Memory Of And Tribute To Gora
Formerly, Managing Editor,
Rationalist Press Association, London.
My memories of Gora are very sadly reduced by the length of time that has passed since he came to stay with my family and me on his visits to the United Kingdom in 1970 and 1974, as well as by the great changes that have taken place in my own life since then.
I think, too, that there is another reason, which has only become apparent to me as I have sat down for the third time to try to write this memorial. That is, that when Gora came, I was in complete awe of him. I did not understand him. I had no way of making any real personal contact.
What I most chiefly remember of Gora is his silence. I must have spent several hours in his company, with very few words being spoken. It was not that he had no small talk, although it is true that he had none. Gora took the everyday matters of life utterly for granted. If we were travelling, the kind of car or train, or the way of making roads, let alone the ownership or capitalisation of the transport system seemed to be of absolutely no interest to him -- no more interest than the current fashion in western clothes or music held for him. He ate when he was hungry or when h:s hosts put something before him. But he ate only a little. He was not at all concerned with what he ate or drank, as long as it was vegetarian food and non-alcoholic drink, and eating and drinking seemed to be necessary chores that had to be done, but were of no intrinsic worth or interest. It was as though all such matters were ephemeral.
If we were a religious community we would say that Gore had his mind on higher things, and we would invoke worlds beyond this one to explain (and, no doubt, to praise) his unworldly behaviour. But we are not religious in that sense. As followers of Gora we are atheists. And as such we stand the religious explanation on its head. Gora was not concerned with higher things, but with deeper things, not with fantasies, but with fundamentals.
Gora looked not beyond, but beneath the ordinary matters of everyday human life. The only time that I ever heard him make any comment on everyday things was when we were together in the USA in 1974 for the International Humanist Congress. Two of our American hosts took us on a tour of Washington. In the course of this we came to what is often called an 'urban renewal' project. This means that old houses and buildings are pulled down and new ones put up in their place. Gora, for once, was moved to amazement. 'But in India', he said, 'these buildings that you are pulling down would be palaces. This was not a comment on the fact that attractive buildings were being replaced with ugly ones, but on the comparative wealth of the USA that enabled society to regard perfectly serviceable buildings as things to be replaced. I think, although l cannot be sure now, that he made some remark, when he was told that the buildings were being destroyed because the owners or occupants had neglected them to the effect that it would be better if the buildings had not been neglected, and that it was the conduct of those neglected them that needed to be changed, rather than the buildings.
I hope that l am right in believing that that radical approach to the basics of life was typical. His point takes us deeper than a contrast between the wealth of the USA and that of India (or even UK, for that matter, so great is the gap between the USA and the rest of the world). Gora's point was that we are responsible for the world that we make, and that to squander wealth on the needless replacement of buildings is an evasion of that responsibility.
Gora himself seemed to live a life of the utmost simplicity, and in the kind of poverty that usually characterises religious people, as I have remarked. In 1970 he came in the winter. He wore the basic simple cotton garments of his home (as indeed does Gora's son, Lavanam, when he comes to England now, whatever the weather). In order to keep warm Gora had a top-coat that had been made up of many layers of material sewn inside a plastic mackintosh. It was a practical and spectacular garment ... but showed a complete disregard for fashion and convention. Practicality was all that mattered. If only all those religious persons, who lead superficially similar lives, but live with their eyes fixed on a non-existent 'higher' world, would only follow Gora's example and turn their eyes to the fundamentals of this.
If I seem to be overly concerned with religion, it is perhaps in reflection of Gora's open-mindedness and complete lack of dogmatism. He was greatly concerned with the peace movement and this led him to work and share his life with a very wide range of people. At one point on his visit I took him to stay with some students who were living in a flat, in crowded conditions and without any grandeur whatsoever. At another point I took him to stay with Cannon Collins, the dean of St Paul's Cathedral, who did so much to found and lead the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Cannon Collins, as befitted his position as dean of one of England's premier cathedrals, lived, if not in spendour, in very comfortable circumstances. The contrast was marked. But Cannon Collins was firm in his Christian belief and soon drew me into an argument on the origins of the scientific revolution. Whether or not he argued with Gora on such points I cannot say, but I am sure that if he did, then Gora gave him a far better fight than I did.
Religion comes in an infinite variety of forms. Coupling the name of Gora with Religion brings one naturally to his association with Gandhi. It might seem presumptuous for a Westerner, and Englishman, to express an opinion on Gandhi, but I am sure that what united him with Gora was not only their common manifest simplicity of life and poverty, but their similar vision of and concern for the fundamentals of life. But if I want support, I turn to Gora's own book. We Become Atheists, and find that he praises Gandhi above all for his practicality and for his concern for that which unites humans and humanity. Gora says, 'in essence he (Gandhi) was not a Hindu. He was basically a Human'.
In the same book we find Gora contrasting the simplicity of Gandhi's hut with the pomp of Nehru's palace. He praises the simple life led by Lenin. Had Gora lived, no doubt he would have drawn a contrast with the lavish lifestyles of more recent Russian and East European Communist Leaders. And he might have noted that of all of Karl Marx's disciples, Lenin was the least dogmatic and the most practical.
It was, of course, his radical and fundamental view of life that led Gora to his belief in partyless democracy. He looked underneath the factionalism caused by religion and by political parties to find the important aspects of life that unite us, or which would unite us if we let them. It is a view from which the world would benefit greatly. At the time of writing, things look quite optimistic in Europe, but who knows what the future holds?
To live a simple life and to take the fundamental view requires both strength and courage. These Gora had in full measure. With the silence that l have mentioned went an impression of immense personal strength. When he talked to a meeting, it was slowly and quietly, without any flamboyance, or pomp, as he might have said. And yet he dominated his audience. The dominance, however, derived from strength, but not from power. He was, indeed, an awe-inspiring man.
It is a privilege to have known Gora and to have housed him briefly. It is a privilege to be asked to write this memorial for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Atheist Centre, which he founded with his wife, Saraswati. It is a privilege to be associated, even at a great distance, with the continuing work of the Centre. I send my
greetings not only to Lavanam, who has stayed with us many times, and to Hemalata, of whom we have very fond memories (and a tape recording of her beautiful singing, and hope one day to see again, but also to Vijayam, whom we met in New York and in London, and to all the rest of the family whom we have never met, and to all the workers at the Atheist Centre. I am sure that the Centre will go forward to a second fifty years of Positive atheism, and so continue the work of Gora.