Author: Bhagat Singh
Description: A quite remarkable document from one of India’s most firebrand revolutionary socialists, an anarchist and activist who played a small but influential role in the movement for Indian independence in the 1920s. I can’t approve of Singh’s political approach (i.e., assassination), but I do find his thoughts on atheism very moving for two reasons – firstly, because they come out of such a conspicuously religious (if religiously diverse) society, so much so that even now too many people think of ‘the East’ as being infused with spirituality and mysticism and completely incompatible with atheism: not so. And secondly because he wrote from prison and in full knowledge that he was likely to be sentenced to death by hanging, so disproving the common line about there being no atheists in foxholes.
The essay was prompted by a desire to defend himself from the charge that his lack of belief in a god came from personal vanity. But in a way, this defence is the least interesting part of his argument, because on the way he articulates the basis for his position so well, and with such surprising directness. No pussyfooting around here. The theory of reincarnation is dismissed as ‘unutterable trash’, and he sets out the central problem of theodicy about as well as anyone has:
Nero burnt one Rome. He killed a very limited number of people. He caused only a few tragedies, all for his morbid enjoyment. But what is his place in history? By what names do we remember him? All the disparaging epithets are hurled at him. Pages are blackened with invective diatribes condemning Nero: the tyrant, the heartless, the wicked.
One Genghis Khan killed a few thousand people to seek pleasure in it and we hate the very name. Now, how will you justify your all-powerful, eternal Nero, who every day, every moment continues his pastime of killing people? How can you support his doings which surpass those of Genghis Khan in cruelty and in misery inflicted upon people? I ask why the Almighty created this world which is nothing but a living hell, a place of constant and bitter unrest. Why did he create man when he had the power not to do so? Have you any answer to these questions? You will say that it is to reward the sufferer and punish the evildoer in the hereafter. Well, well, how far will you justify a man who first of all inflicts injuries on your body and then applies soft and soothing ointment on them? How far the supporters and organizers of Gladiator bouts were justified in throwing men before half starved lions, later to be cared for and looked after well if they escaped this horrible death. That is why I ask: Was the creation of man intended to derive this kind of pleasure?
But where he really sends shivers down your spine is in the passages where he considers his impending fate. How he wrote this stuff from a humid Lahore jail cell is beyond me.
I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation. My soul will come to nothing.
Let us see how steadfast I am. One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.
He did. They hanged him less than a year later.
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