VRINDAVAN, India (RNS) — In this major pilgrimage center for the Hare Krishna movement, Purnendu Goswami survives as a rare atheist.
Goswami, 44, runs the Bindu Seva Sansthan ashram in this northern Indian town that is considered sacred in Vaishnavism, one of Hinduism's main branches. Dressed in a white robe like any local guru, the plain-speaking Goswami holds retreats and classes in ayurveda, the traditional Indian healing practice, in what is, in this landscape, an exotic milieu: a nonbelievers' spiritual healing center.
Hindus believe that Vrindavan is where the Hindu god Krishna spent his childhood in divine play, and the area is dotted with more than 6,000 temples to Lord Krishna and his consort Radha.
As religious beliefs in India have become militant under the influence of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Goswami’s atheism has come to be seen as a threat by local godmen and politicians.
Goswami, who comes from a Hindu family, once shared the feelings of Hindu pride in the land of Krishna. Goswami’s brother was once a popular religious leader in Vrindavan.
“We would wake up taking Krishna’s name,” he said. “Our days were spent reciting from ancient Hindu texts and preaching to thousands of devotees.”
As a teenager, Goswami was arrested as he joined a Hindu nationalist mob bent on demolishing Babri Masjid, a historic mosque in Ayodhya that allegedly had been built over an ancient Hindu temple. One of the first in a series of attacks on India's minority Muslim population, the 1992 incident sparked some of the bloodiest anti-Muslim riots across India, killing over 2,000 people.
In 1995, the brothers founded an ashram in memory of their grandfather Bindu, a revered commentator on classical Indian texts who influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi and India's political patriarch Jawaharlal Nehru.
“We were raised in a very religious environment where literacy meant being conversant with scriptures. There was no critical thinking as such,” said Balendu Goswami, Purnendu's brother.
But a couple of years after the ashram’s launch, Balendu Goswami felt exhausted by his public religious engagements and retreated into isolation in a cave for three years and 108 days.
“My brother spent his time meditating on the relevance of religion in everyday life by not talking, hearing or seeing anyone or anything,” said Purnendu Goswami. “Around the same time, even I felt disillusioned by the exploitative and commercialized nature of religion. The switch to rationalism was a slow process.”
When Balendu Goswami came out of his retreat, the demands on the brothers resumed, as thousands of devotees constantly asked them to provide solutions to daily problems. The need for answers that they felt unable to give only crystalized their nonbelief.
“It was like a devotional attack because we had started questioning religious belief itself and exploitation based on superstition,” said Purnendu Goswami.
In 2000, they determined to completely transform the ashram. Age-old religious customs were rooted out, scripture classes and religious rituals were stopped, and all statues of gods were removed. "Maybe it was God’s will,” said their father, Balak Ram Sharan, who supports his sons despite remaining a practicing Hindu himself.
Over the next 15 years, the Goswamis immersed themselves in travel, spiritual healing retreats, community service, scientific education and heterodox schools of Indian philosophy. Their journey into rationalism culminated in a 2015 private meeting with around 200 prominent atheists across India to discuss ways in which atheists can offer some hope for the afterlife in this world without taking recourse to religion. The meeting went off with no opposition from the local religious community and even some support from local media.
The success of that gathering spurred the Goswamis to call the first public conference of rationalists at their ashram, inviting speakers from across India to gather in October 2016.
Before the conference could meet, Hindu nationalists, armed with sticks and stones, attacked the ashram and demanded that the Goswamis be arrested.
Swami Phool Dol Das Maharaj, a saffron-clad guru from Vrindavan who was among those who protested outside the ashram, said: “Swami Balendu claims all scriptures are fictitious and meant only for entertainment. His statement is against Hinduism, and he should be banned."
Mohammad Umar Quadri, the imam of Mathura district’s Shahi Jama Masjid, said Balendu Goswami was a “publicity seeker” who had no right to hurt the feelings of believers.
The district administration sided with the nationalists and asked the organizers to call off the conference, saying it could hurt religious sentiments.
Even after the Goswamis complied, the outpouring of protests and threats carried over into social media.
“Atheists are deviants who need rehabilitation,” Neeraj Shastri, a chief priest at the Prem Hindu Temple in Vrindavan, said recently. “Vrindavan only has place for believers of Radha and Krishna.”
Nikhil Goswami (no relation), a priest at the prominent Banke Bihari Temple, said: “We will never allow any atheist influence here. Pilgrims are led by faith, not the lack of it.”
As the religious intolerance increased, Purnendu Goswami encouraged his brother to leave India for Germany, while he withdrew from public life, devoting his time to school work and community service.
In the preceding years, several outspoken rationalists — Narendra Dabholkar, founder of the Committee to Eradicate Superstition in Maharashtra; the progressive scholar M.M. Kalburgi; and the Communist thinker and politician Govind Pansare — had been murdered, it is thought for questioning religious beliefs and discrimination in Hinduism. (In 2017, journalist Gauri Lankesh would also be murdered.)
“Like them, Balendu would have had to pay the price for making his nonbelief public,” said Chaman Lal, a retired professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “State actors were clearly collaborating with religious leaders to root out humanism and scientific inquiry.”
Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of Hindi at Delhi University who had come to Vrindavan from Delhi to attend the Goswamis' conference, said, “It is becoming increasingly difficult for rationalists to counter the hypernationalism from religious fundamentalists.”
In April of this year, Pragya Singh Thakur, a BJP member of Parliament, accused atheists of framing her for taking part in the Malegaon bombings, in which six people of Maharashtra were killed in 2008.
Despite the dangers, Purnendu Goswami has continued to finance his rationalist experiments in Vrindavan by running an ayurvedic restaurant and holding ayurvedic retreats, yoga sessions and cooking classes. He believes these will help him safeguard his ashram as a healing center with an atheist worldview, where humanism, reform and inquiry are promoted.
But the center of his work remains his school for underprivileged children, where currently 200 students are enrolled. Besides an education, he provides them with free food and clothing.
“This is my religion,” he said, cradling a cherubic 3-year-old student who lives in a nearby shanty. “Godmen exploit people’s blind faith and insecurities in the name of religion. I want to serve my community.”
At the school, Goswami forbids any form of corporal punishment and inculcates a scientific approach in his students, cutting across religious, class and caste lines.
“Faith for me is love without discrimination and bias. Religion only makes people narrow-minded,” said Goswami. “Only when children are given an education without religious dogma can they grow up as thinking, empathetic citizens.”
The children call him "Swami" — their rationalist teacher who initiates them into the religion of man.