Rationalists like Ruchi Ram Sahni who fought to usher India into a new scientific independence would have been horrified at the dogmatism and lack of scientific temper today.
These days when rationalists are being murdered every other day and those who oppose archaic Hindu traditions are worried about their safety, it is worth recalling earlier figures who stood for rationalist principles and the scientific temper. One such figure was Ruchi Ram Sahni (1863-1948), beloved teacher of chemistry at the Government College, Lahore in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Sahni was well known as a teacher, scientist (working after retirement with Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr), and science educator – the Punjab Science Institute, which he co-founded in 1887, was one of the first efforts in India to teach science in the vernacular. But he was also a public figure, associated for many years with The Tribune newspaper, an active participant in political affairs later in his life, a social reformer and a rationalist. He had many confrontations with orthodox Hinduism, and his liberal values (embodied in the Brahmo Samaj of which he was a member) led at times to social ostracism. To his regret, even his own widowed mother refused to live or eat in his house as a result of his unorthodox ways.
In his memoirs, recently re-published by Oxford University Press, Sahni castes a droll eye at caste practices during his childhood experiences at Dera Ismail Khan in the mid-1800s, wondering at the belief that wood could prevent the transfer of religious pollution. In Dera Ismail Khan, he says, at the time, barbers were all Muslims and it was a practice for Hindus to take of all their clothes, wear a loin cloth before a shave and tie the clothes into a bundle and hang them from a wooden pole. He says:
The reason for it was supposed to be that the barber would rub a little water at the roots of your hair so as to soften them. This was supposed to be sufficient pollution which you could only get rid of by bathing yourself and washing the clothes that you might have on your body at the time. … The stick served as an effective insulator for communal pollutions.
In later years, Ruchi Ram Sahni joined the Brahmo Samaj and was averse to discrimination on the basis of caste and religion. He and other Brahmos like him, drew a great deal of flak for this:
The reader will find it extremely difficult to realise that in the early eighties of which I can speak with personal knowledge and even bitter experience, it required no small courage even to make the verbal profession of the “Brotherhood of Man” and to acknowledge openly that Mohammad, Christ and all other great teachers of humanity were as worthy of homage and reverence as Ram or Krishan or one of the other saints, sages and seers of our own country. … I wish to emphasize, as the plaintiff of plain facts that I myself noticed scores of times that the mere mention of Christ or Mohammad with respect as a great religious teacher, immediately led to the emptying of the Samaj hall of practically everybody excepting the few Brahmos. How many times, on such occasions, have I not heard people exclaim, as they rushed out of the hall, “Oh, they are Christians”, “they are followers of Mohammad”, “they have no faith of their own”, “they are denationalised people” and a dozen other similar opprobrious epithets. My friend, Bhai Kashi Ram remained an outcaste from his community – and many other well educated and highly influential men, – simply because he had taken a cup of tea at the house of a Christian missionary. I have myself been abused in my face by educated persons for being a Brahmo and even for eating with an outcaste like Lala Kashi Ram.
Sahni’s criticism of exclusionary caste practices was of a piece with his rejection of superstition, which dated to his student-days in Lahore in the late 1870s. Inspite of the freedom they had to move away from orthodox traditions and the upbringing of their parents, many students continued to carry with them the prejudices and fears they had learnt at home. They found Sahni an odd character, because he defied current irrational beliefs and tried to show his friends how ridiculous it was to believe in what were clearly old wives tales. On one occasion, he shocked his hostel mates by buying a fine charpai from an acharyaji who had been gifted the bed by the family of the deceased, despite their warnings that it was inauspicious to do so.
In another instance, some students came to him on a dark winter night, claiming that someone had done jadu tona (black magic) in the parade ground and left a largish bundle of charms at a particular place. Because he did not believe in black magic, they asked him to fetch the bundle but warned him that he would be attacked on the way by the jin-bhuts. Sahni proceeded to the parade ground in the middle of the night and picked up the bundle. His friends were surprised when nothing happened to him.
Sahni had other interesting run-ins later on, after joining the Government College, Lahore in 1884. Theosophists like Pandit Bishen Narain were a favourite target:
The Pandit was accompanied by an extremely emaciated middle-aged person who claimed to have been deputed by Kot Homi Lal. This mythical personage was supposed by the theosophists to be several centuries old. He had been living in voluntary seclusion in remote and obscure recesses of the Himalayas. He represented in his person the esoteric knowledge and wisdom of the Aryan sages and, indeed, he was himself one of the best specimens of the seers and saints of India. It was only on rare occasions that Kot-Homi realising the dire need of the world deputed one of his disciples to wean the erring nations from their evil ways. Pandit Bishan Narain explained all this and was then pleased to inform his hearers that the half-starved person by his side was a privileged man whom the great Kot-Homi had sent down to the plains of Arya varta. This was really interesting but what was the evidence to support the Pandit’s meticulous story. … He was ready with his credentials to support his bona-fides. He said in such matters there could be no such “proof”, but they could see for themselves that the chela (disciple), the Pandit’s own words, of Kot-Homi Lal, the Himalayan hermit, was a “charmed” person. “Let anyone come forward from this big gathering and cut the finger of the chela. No blood would come out”.
While they did not doubt that the chela’s finger would indeed bleed if cut, how could this be verified? Sahni and his friends found a way:
But we college students were not to be put off so easily by “mere” legal difficulties. Next day, several of us sought out the mystical chela and his guardian and while examining the so-called charmed fingers, one of the party, S. Thakar Singh, chipped off a large loose bit of flesh with a sharp knife that he had, according to arrangement, taken with him for the purpose. A stream of blood came out of the finger. We had, however, satisfied ourselves about the fallibility of Kot-Homi Lal, if there was such a personage anywhere at all. We next hung up our blood stained fleshy “trophy” from the top of a pole and carried it in a procession through the streets of Lahore as an advertisement of our achievement.
On another occasion, Ruchi Ram Sahni challenged Madame Blavatsky, whose views on thought reading, clairvoyance, ghosts and many other psychic phenomena had become quite popular. She avoided the question he asked by talking about her pet subjects.
Even though he defied tradition, there was some amount of protection for a rationalist like Ruchi Ram Sahni. His friends did warn him of dire consequences because he was a non-believer, but no one ever threatened to kill him or sent him hate mail because he was unorthodox in his views. On the contrary, he was widely respected as an educator and public figure. On the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2013, the government of India honoured his legacy with a stamp, released during a commemorative event at the Panjab University, Chandigarh. It is too bad that his legacy is in such peril today.
Neera Burra is a sociologist and has recently edited a book titled A Memoir of pre-Partition Punjab: Ruchi Ram Sahni 1863-1948, published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017. She is the great granddaughter of Ruchi Ram Sahni. She blogs at https://ruchiramsahni.wordpress.com/.