New Delhi: The nation knows Bhagat Singh as the revolutionary leader who challenged the British and sacrificed his life for the country. But Bhagat Singh was also a fiercely independent thinker, who rejected the mere idea and the existence of God at a time when India was riddled with superstitions and speaking out against God or religion was considered a sin.
Just a year before his execution in 1931, during his imprisonment in Lahore jail, Bhagat Singh had a conversation with a fellow inmate, Baba Randhir Singh. Randhir Singh, a religious man and a member of Ghadar Party who was convicted in the first Lahore conspiracy case, tried to incite his belief in God. However, Bhagat Singh did not change his stand and said that he will remain an atheist.
Thereafter, Randhir Singh said "You are giddy with fame and have developed an ego which is standing like a black curtain between you and God". In reply to Randhir, the freedom fighter penned an essay titled 'Why I am an atheist', discussing his atheism and how he came to the conclusion about God's non-existence – which, he wrote, did not come because of his vanity.
Bhagat Singh explained how a religious boy who chanted prayers for hours, became an atheist and also questioned theists about the existence of God. After his execution, the essay was published on September 27, 1931 in Lala Lajpat Rai's English weekly The People.
Bhagat Singh began his essay by talking about how people were so quick to assume that his beliefs stemmed out of vanity. He wrote that he had never imagined that his beliefs and opinions on God would garner so much criticism.
It is a matter of debate whether my lack of belief in the existence of an Omnipresent, Omniscient God is due to my arrogant pride and vanity. It never occurred to me that sometime in the future I would be involved in polemics of this kind. As a result of some discussions with my friends, I have realised that after having known me for a little time only, some of them have reached a kind of hasty conclusion about me that my atheism is my foolishness and that it is the outcome of my vanity.
Once he had come out as an atheist, it was tough for him to deal with questions of faith that were thrown at him. He wrote how his friends believed that the fame he received after the Delhi bombing and Lahore Conspiracy had gone to his head, which led him to dismiss the existence of God – an allegation he denied saying that he was an atheist even when he was an unknown name.
My friends say that after Delhi bombing and Lahore Conspiracy Case, I rocketed to fame and that this fact has turned my head. Let us discuss why this allegation is incorrect. I did not give up my belief in God after these incidents. I was an atheist even when I was an unknown figure.
He then spoke about his duration at the National College, which is where he said he became sceptical about God's existence, despite being a firm believer at the time. He wrote that in spite of growing a beard and 'Kais' – a religious custom among the Sikhs – his belief in religion as a whole started wavering.
In the Non-cooperation days, I got admission to the National College. During my stay in this college, I began thinking over all the religious polemics such that I grew sceptical about the existence of God. In spite of this fact I can say that my belief in God was firm and strong. I grew a beard and ‘Kais’ (long head of hair as a Sikh religious custom). In spite of this I could not convince myself of the efficacy of Sikh religion or any religion at all, for that matter. But I had an unswerving, unwavering belief in God.
However, Bhagat Singh knew that he had turned into an atheist when the entire responsibility of his party fell on his shoulders. This is when, he wrote, he became an avid reader in order to equip himself with knowledge so that he could defend his party against any kind of contemptuous ridicule with logic. His belief during that time underwent a dynamic change and by the end of 1926, he had fully embraced atheism.
Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. For some time, a strong opposition put the very existence of the party into danger. Many leaders as well as many enthusiastic comrades began to uphold the party to ridicule. They jeered at us. It was a turning point in my revolutionary career. An incessant desire to study filled my heart. ‘Study more and more’, said I to myself so that I might be able to face the arguments of my opponents. ‘My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking. By the end of 1926, I was convinced that the belief in an Almighty, Supreme Being who created, guided and controlled the universe had no sound foundations.
In his essay, Bhagat Singh openly proclaims that the origin of faith lies in a man's weakness to stand without any support in the face of obstacles.
Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds.
He swam against the tide and described the struggles he faced, which he said is what a person goes through when he discards the old and conventional beliefs of God and his power.
You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking.
But, what makes his essay really stand out were two hard-hitting questions that he asks about God's existence:
1. If, as you believe there is an Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient God, who created the earth or universe, please let me know, first of all, as to why he created this world? This world which is full of woe and grief, and countless miseries, where not even one person lives in peace.
2. Pray, don’t say it is his law. If he's bound by any law, he's not Omnipotent. Don’t say it is his pleasure. Nero burnt one Rome. He killed a very limited number of people. Hecaused only a few tragedies, all for his morbid enjoyment. But what is his place in history? Nero: the tyrant, the heartless, the wicked.
Concluding his write-up with a well-defended argument, Bhagat Singh urged people to rise above religious convictions and move forward on the path of reality, rather than finding comfort in mystical entity.
Society must fight against this belief in God as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way man will try to stand on his feet. Being realistic, he will have to throw his faith aside and face all adversaries with courage and valour.
It is evident from his essay that Bhagat Singh recognised the potentiality of religion as a source of arousing the spirit of patriotism. While he was often torn by serious conflicts about his beliefs, he could find consolation in prayers and meditation while he was in prison.
However, rationality overtook self-delusion and Bhagat Singh decided to stand on his own and depend upon the power of his own knowledge. Bhagat Singh termed the identity of God as 'artificial crutches' and embraced liberty as his religion, while socialism became his God and 'Inquilaab Zindabad' his life's motto.
Let us see how I carry on: one friend asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, "During your last days you will begin to believe". I said, No, dear Sir, it shall not be. I will think that to be an act of degradation and demoralization on my part. For selfish motives I am not going to pray.
Readers and friends, "Is this vanity"? If it is, I stand for it.