Khushi Ram: A Humanist Life

Khushi Ram was born in an isolated village in the Punjab in India in 1921. He emigrated to Canada in 1986. Callum Brown interviewed him in his home in Vancouver in October 2009.

 My name is Khushi Ram, and I was born in India, Punjab.  Social stratification is all over the world, but the peculiarity about the social stratification in India is that it is hereditary, it goes from birth to birth. My family belongs to the lowest strata of society in India. So much so that some people called us outcastes, not within the caste system. We were very poor, my father was a landless agricultural labourer with even no house of his own. The landlord will give him certain land and he will build a hut and we will live there. Somehow I shone in my class and some teachers almost fell in love with me, they tried to support me, up and up. I was working with my father on the farmer’s land but somebody, that seven kilometres school headmaster sent one of his teachers to me, because I was well known in my area by that time as a brilliant student. I broke all their previous record at the entrance into university, we call it high school final. I got very good marks.

Middle school and high school, six classes. It was a Sikh institution, I had to learn their system, even their sacred books by heart and all that, singing and doing all that, but by name I am not a Sikh. You know every religion has a peculiar name: Muslims have a Mohammad or Ali or something, he can’t be a Thomas; similarly Ram is a Hindu, I can’t be Sikh. Anybody Sikh, Khushi Ram, he can’t be a Sikh, so nominally I was a Hindu but I was learning all sorts of things, but I never formally entered their fold. I had some idea about God but only that if you sing his praise and do the hymn business, he is happy and then you get some sort of a benefit. Not very clear ideas. Although all those things are written, nobody will explain it to us, we were just told to learn by rote.

When I finished my school, I topped, got very good university marks and was hoping to win even a scholarship, but I had no plan. I got scholarship, then again I joined B.A with Honours in economics and political science as subsidiary and Persian as a language. That’s how I got my education. M.A level I did after I had entered service, run by an Institute set up by Ford Foundation, we call it Indian Institute of Public Administration. There I got my M.A in public administration.

We were married when I was even probably in my primary class, I don’t remember. She came to my house even when I was at school, because due to various factors, poor people send their daughters to daughter-in-law’s place early due to this abduction and rape and all sorts of things. She was totally illiterate.

[In] 1947, the Partition time of India, the British people had left, Muslims had left, so there were a lot of vacancies, quickly I got a job. They were hunting for people to come, educated people, so there I got job and then I got very good promotion because I was working hard at my job, had some intelligence upstair.  I was in central government. I wanted to get experience of [working in], magistrate, court work, law and order, so I opted for that. Then I retired in ‘71 because I was 58 at that time, and because I was known for my efficiency and honesty, without my asking State Bank of India, the premier bank, they took me up on their interview, so they gave me three year term. Then they were happy with my job they gave me another three year term, six year by that time in 1986. And my daughter here, without asking us, she sponsored us to come migration to Canada. One fine morning I got the paper, fill up and gave it to Canadian embassy, told me. So I was surprised, and anyway I filled up the form and, and they approved us, so in end of ‘86, actually Christmas day, I was here with my wife, with my son.

In India they teach us very rudimentary things. Although I did Honours in economics, the socialistic ideas should have been given more prominence but it was very rudimentary but I did it. But nothing about Marx ideas about sociology or his religion or anything like that. I had some inkling that some people don’t believe in God. But I never worried about God. I was too busy with my study, but when I went to Delhi and I was on my own, you know I could think for myself, I got interested in this. Hindus observe caste system, which is so derogatory to the lower, we have all handicaps, no rights. So I hated that, I wanted to come out of it, formally. So I began to study religion, and I liked Baha’i faith, but before I could sign their card I studied varied religions because they believed all religions are equal and good, progressive type of revelation, unlike Christianity that you can enter only through Christ, unlike Mohammad that he is the last prophet. They believe in progressive revelation, that God has been sending His messenger right from Adam and Bahaullah is the latest one, not the last one, but the latest one. So they gave me some ideas about Christianity, and some ideas about Mohammadism.

But by that time there was too much of brain, so I had to look at religion critically, and I thought all are humbug, just don’t bother. But I had no set philosophy like Humanistic ideas, I was a freelancer, just a freethinker. When I was with the State Bank of India for six years I had to move from city to city, and I would go to book stalls, and then I happened to read something about Bertrand Russell, and so that’s how I got an idea that there is another world too. So when I came here in 1986 I straight away began to go to the library, and the first book I happen to read was History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. I liked that book so much although I had just come. I was not even having a good job, I bought that book and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Thereafter I liked this idea, and one day I saw in a railway train an advertisement about the Humanist Society in Canada. So I noted their telephone number and asked about them and attended their meeting and I never looked back.  I will never miss their meeting, wherever it is, big meeting, small meeting, group meeting, general meeting. I am very much interested in this and I have continued to be with them for the last about 25 years.

Humanism means to me, cut out the supernatural. Everything is self-contained here, self-originating, self-controlling, and it’s limitless. Nobody can know, not to speak of the next world or God or anything like that. We can’t know even about this world itself. [But in India,] Dr. B.R. Ambedkar belonged to our lower caste people, then he started the movement [to] get out of Hinduism because it is not giving you good place. ‘No honour in that religion, come out and embrace Buddhism.’ I needed a religion, so I formally went over to Buddhism. It is only for the sake, for this reason that it tallies with Humanism. Humanism is my first preference, if anything goes against Humanism I just throw it. But I would say 90% [of] scientific ideas, Humanism, and evolution − all this tallies with what Buddha said, according to my interpretation. There may be orthodox people indulging in what is reincarnation and rebirth. Because I feel that Buddha did not teach all those things, they are later additions by people who went over to Buddhism through Hinduism and carried these ideas.

I have seen the Partition, even before Partition, the communal riots between the Hindus and Muslims especially. Too bad, just sheer madness. Religion only divides. Religion has entered so much into our life that you can spot religion even in small activity of mind. For example, how I cut my beard, the Hindus, the Sikhs will not cut it at all, the Muslim will cut this portion, Jews will cut this portion, the Hindus may remove the whole thing. And the name, somebody’s name is Rahim or Ali or Mohammad, he cannot be a Hindu, or a Sikh or a Christian. If I am a Ram I am a Hindu, I may not believe in any damn thing. At least in India somebody’s Thomas, we know he is a Christian, convert from whatever caste, and so it’s like that. I hate it very much. If I had any power I will number the people 1,2,3,4,5, not the name, because if I ask him, ‘What is your name’, and he says, ‘My name is Ali Mohammad’, I will simply begin to hate him, ‘Ah! he is a terrorist type, he should not enter my house’. I am not of that type, but this is the impression.

Nobody can live without religion. For example, naming ceremony itself, their names are all Hindus. I was a non-observant type, I did not give [my children] any education, religious type, never told them to go to Gurudwara or temple for anything or prayer or anything, nothing. My son married a Christian lady from Bombay although we belong to Delhi, and believe me till today I don’t know what his religious ideas are and what religious teachings they have given to the two children. But from the talks I have with those boys, one is now in Australia, I feel they are free lancers. Their mother is devoted Catholic, she goes to the church every Sunday, but luckily for us she has not forced her two children to go with her and be that observant type. The younger one is still with her in Bombay, he is in the 11th standard, 1st year of the university. My son who is here, whenever I see him going to some Gurudwara or temple with his friends, I try to say ‘no don’t go, they are not ours’. If you want to believe, Lord Buddha, he is real emancipator. And then I show him any literature or film which is anti-caste and they are influenced by that. But they tell me that don’t worry much about religion, either for or against, things go on, don’t get agitated. But they appreciate, they know what I do, they appreciate, ‘Yeah you are on the right track’.

My two grand children are too young and I think they will be Canadian, nothing more than that. They never talk about God and we never talk to them about God, we never take them to temple or Gurudwara or any place. Even if we have to go there as visitors with our friends we leave them behind so that they remain untouched by that. You know, it is very difficult for children to be non-observing religion. If their parents are observing, it is tough. When my wife died, after two or three days I asked the younger one, he was less [than] five at that time, in the hospital itself when she was dead and when we were coming home, I separated him just for the sake of curiosity. I said, ‘Adi now, where is your grandma? What happened to her?’ He said, ‘She is dead’. I said, ‘What, what do you mean by this?’. I was trying to be funny with him, he said, ‘You don’t know, she was motionless, we were trying to speak to her, she did not respond, so she is dead. That’s all, that’s gone’. And after five or six days I again asked that guy, small one, I said, ‘Now Adi, do you remember still your grandma?’, he said, ‘Yeah’, ‘But where is she?’, and he told me ‘She is in heaven’. Now, because his friends, you know they talked to each other and some elder guy gave him this idea to that boy and he picked up that thing. I did not contest. I said okay, let him be happy whatever it is. In fact my son, small one, he tells me, ‘he is our God but I never see you praying to him’. I told him: ‘No he doesn’t require prayers. We just have to remember him that he is, he gave us certain teachings and we like them that’s all. We don’t offer him anything to eat or anything, no nothing, unlike the people do in temples.’ My daughter she has two sons, one is pilot in India now, the other is still at the University here, they are of my views because I give them books to read. For example, the one here is now reading Richard Dawkins’ book, and whenever they come here they look at my books and pick up some good book and just to read it. I tried to give them this Humanistic idea but I don’t force onto them, leave it to them.

Almost 99.9% of  people, some sort of religion has to be there for them, at least for what is called their crucial stages of their life. For example birth, they have named the child, then marriage ceremony, death ceremony, they are involved in that and even when we are in trouble, we try to catch on to something and God is the handy thing. Even when we cry we say, ‘Oh God!’, like that. Or when we are happy, then we would like to thank somebody who has turned all things nice to us. This is normal, but there is so much of bad things about this, a simple idea, simple hypothesis of God is probably not that bad. But the superstructure that institutional religions have built around it, with all sorts of superstitions and baseless fears and groundless hopes which tie us to that, that if we could somehow remove it, then people will come out of this, what is called too much attachment to your religion. The revival of religion in America probably as a reaction to the staunchness of the Muslims, they probably feel that only religion can cut religion.

I am a committed Humanist but my children are not, they are blank, almost, and the moment they come into contact with another religion or religious person, even for any specific purpose like marriage, being a blank slate they will immediately go over to that. For example if my son doesn’t believe in any sort of this thing and a Muslim girl comes up and tells him: ‘I marry you, yes okay, but you will have to become Muslim’, he says, ‘Yeah damn it, I don’t care for anything, I will become a Muslim.’ But if you were a strong Christian or a staunch Hindu, he will say: ‘Damn it, you come to my fort otherwise I don’t touch.’ You require a lot of intelligence and you require a lot of courage, two things, to be Humanist, to declare that I don’t believe in God in a society where everybody believes in God. They simply throw you out, and any human being, being social in nature, he would like to be a part of them. And so willy-nilly he says ‘okay I am with you’.

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