Friday, 31 July 2015


Apparently today is Guru purnima - messages of how important a Guru is on this full-moon day are flooding us. On TV they are preaching why it is important to lay down our full trust at the feet of a Guru in order to reach salvation. We are being told how obedience to a Guru is an important tradition in India. TV screens are showing statues of Shirdi Sai Baba being showered with milk. They are pouring milk - food produced by an animal they consider holy, food which their holy animal produced for its babies - after taking it away from the animals and instead of feeding their own children with the food produced by another mother, are pouring it on the head of a statue of a man who himself never did this.
This is not how Humanists deal with their teachers. A Humanist 'guru' is valuable but not Holy! A Humanist 'guru' teaches how to ask the questions rather than supply the answers! A Humanist 'guru' is a friend, a philosopher and a guide but never the final authority! They are not 'gurus' at all in the traditional authoritarian mould - they think and they teach how to think independently. and they promote Human values and independent inquiry.
The Carvakas, Ajita Kesakambali, The Buddha, Socrates, down the line to Vemana, Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant, Diderot, Bertrand Russell, Jawaharlal Nehru, Einstein, Karl Popper, John Dewey, Ambedkar, Tarkunde, Indumati Parikh, H. Narasimhaiah ... and a thousand others like them fall in this tradition.
In any case, since every one is remembering a favourite teacher, apart from thinking of parents, and school and college teachers, I take the opportunity to recall the life of - M.N. Roy who was introduced to me in my father's library who gripped my imagination with his extraordinary life story in his autobiography and inspired me with his vision in his writings. Long years ago I wrote the shortish entry about him in the MS Encarta Encyclopaedia. There are so many references that Google throws up - and you will also see that his home in Mexico is today a trending Pub, called M.N. Roy!
Actually, M.N. Roy seems to be gaining new traction - I was asked to speak about him twice in recent days and am receiving several inquiries about him as well. I also had the chance to speak of him in a major TV interview to be aired Sunday night 2 August.
M.N. Roy was called the most consistent political prophet of the 20th century: he was one of the first internal critiques of Marxism, foresaw the fall of the British Empire, showed why the Nazis and the Fascists were even more dangerous than the British colonialists, proposed the first draft Constitution for a future Independent India and issued dire warnings re. cultural nationalism that would lead ultimately to cultural fascism.
Here is something I wrote about him many years ago.
Humanist philosopher and activist with rare intellectual gifts and vast practical experience, M.N. Roy was a leading participant in revolutionary movements in four countries spread-out in three continents.
A school dropout, Roy joined the ranks of the Bengal militants as a teenager, and soon became a leader of the revolutionary movement which aimed to overthrow British colonialism by means of an armed insurrection. Roy's clandestine travels in search of German and Japanese arms to achieve this purpose began in 1915. In the course of the next 15 years, Roy realised that the Japanese and the Germans had their own designs on India, discovered Karl Marx in a New York library, established in Mexico in 1917 the first communist party outside the Soviet Union, disagreed at the Second Communist International in 1920 with Lenin on the National and Colonial Question, was soon elected to the highest decision making bodies of the Communist International, travelled to China as sole emissary of the Communist International with a brief to transform the Right Wing Kuomintang into a revolutionary instrument in the hands of the proletariat, befriended Gramsci and Einstein, inspired and influenced Nehru, earned universal respect for his courage of convictions, and was expelled in 1929 from the Communist International for his heretical and non-doctrinaire views.
Even though much is now known about this phase of Roy's life, one of his biographers despaired that the story of his early life may never be fully told: official documents and his notes relating to China and Russia were suppressed or destroyed because he fell out with Stalin, the manuscript of a magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the British Empire written in 1929 and predicting the fall of the Empire was destroyed by the Nazis, to complicate matters further, Roy wrote in several languages - Bengali, English, Spanish, French, German and Russian - and often in proscribed journals and used over 15 noms de plume Indeed, M.N. Roy is itself the most permanent of the several pseudonyms that Narendranath Bhattacharya (1887 - 1954) adopted in 1917 to escape from the American police when he jumped bail!
Roy's clandestine return to India in 1930 after spending 15 years in 17 countries finally led to his arrest, in camera trial and imprisonment by the British. Despite the difficult conditions of his imprisonment as an ordinary criminal and not as a political prisoner, Roy continued with his prolific writing, and produced 9000 pages of writings, some of which have later been published as Fascism; Historical Role of Islam; Heresies of the 20th Century; Nationalism: An Antiquated Cult; Science and Philosophy etc. As a tribute to his sole companion in prison, Roy also wrote an amusing best selling critique of Hinduism: Memoirs of a Cat!
On release from prison in 1936, Roy formally announced his break with Marxism by rejecting historical determinism and class war, and declared that without a cultural and philosophical revolution no social, political and economic revolution was possible. Terming this desired cultural transformation a 20th century renaissance, Roy later founded in 1946, along with his second wife Ellen Gottschalk and other colleagues, the Indian Renaissance Institute for 'spreading the spirit of Enlightenment, Humanism and the Search for Truth'.
Roy formulated his materialistic approach in 22 thesis where he attempted to restore to 19th century Radicalism its humanist essence, and hence called his philosophy Radical Humanism. Roy's approach integrates the scientific attitude and the democratic spirit - democracy is not merely a process, it is a system of values. For the Radical Humanist, the quest for freedom and search for truth constitute the basic urge of human progress. The quest for freedom is the continuation, on a higher level - of intelligence and emotion - of the biological struggle for existence.
The method and programme of a social revolution must therefore be based on a reassertion of the basic principle of social progress. Hence, the programme of the humanist revolution will be based on the principles of freedom, reason and social harmony. In this way, Radicalism gives to freedom a moral-intellectual as well as social content; and it also offers a comprehensive theory of social progress in which both the dialectics of economic determinism and dynamics of ideas find their due recognition; and it deduces from the same a method and programme of social revolution in our time. Radical Humanism provides an approach to the reconstruction of the world as a commonwealth and fraternity of free men, by the collective endeavour of spiritually emancipated moral men.
In 1944 Roy prepared a draft Constitution for India where he proposed an alternative system of political economy emphasising decentralisation and devolution of power, which would be in tune with his humanistic approach of restoring sovereignty to the individual in society. Roy soon rejected political parties themselves as legitimate instruments for the spread of democratic values, and in 1948 dissolved his own Radical Democratic Party which he had founded in 1940 to promote a humanist approach to politics and (most unpopularly) to support Britain's anti-fascist war efforts. Roy's alternative proposal for a humanist society was a party-less but organised democracy with a network of people's committees as its base. His ideas are elaborated in a collection of speeches: People, Power and Parties. After dissolution of the political party, Roy spent the rest of his life working for his cherished Renaissance, and the Radical Humanist Movement joined hands with similar groups in Europe and America to found in 1952 IHEU. Roy was closely involved in the establishment of the IHEU, but could not attend due to an accident to which he finally succumbed. He was elected a founder Vice-President in absentia.
A revolutionary at heart, and fired by the ideal of Human Freedom, Roy finally became a philosopher of the modern renaissance and that of the humanist revolution.
Roy's approach is summarised by Justice Tarkunde: "A humanist revolution, which is designed to achieve the ideal of comprehensive democracy, must necessarily partake of the character of the ideal. A humanist revolution is also a path to be traversed rather than a goal to be achieved. A Radical Humanist who traverses the way to a humanist revolution is, therefore, succeeding all the time".
And Roy's life is summarised in the eloquent tribute paid by the late Prof. G.D. Parikh: "Beginning as a nationalist worshipping geography, he could make any land his own. Appearing to swear by a dogma, he could struggle as a rationalist; seeming to believe in ideologies, he retained an indomitable interest in ideas. Founder of a political party, he never became partisan. A politician universally respected for honesty and integrity, a man of action hailed as a philosopher. He did not strive for greatness, he strove to lead a good life and to bring such living within the reach of all those who live".

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