The aroma of Indian food welcomed guests entering the Phillips Brooks House yesterday afternoon, as a man dressed in white linen sat grinning on a red leather couch.
The man, Lavanam—whose name means “salt” in Sanskrit—had come to speak on the state of secularism in India.
The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and Greater Boston Humanists invited Lavanam to Harvard on what may be his last visit to the United States.
A recent National Awardee for Social Programs by the Indian Government and the current Director of the Atheist Centre in India, the octogenarian spoke of the positive role of atheism in modern society.
“We need to humanize the dehumanized individual and re-socialize the institution,” he said several times.
According to Lavanam, atheism can achieve this goal by shifting the focus from theism to human beings.
“To be good and to do good, God is not necessary,” he said.
Lavanam also filled his speech with personal anecdotes of his father’s relationship with Mahatma Gandhi and his experience growing up as a “born atheist.”
Speaking of his experience as a young man teaching members of untouchables—the lowest level in India’s caste system—he noted that “we need to unite people, get rid of hatred, fear, poverty and inequality.”
According to Sarah J. Chandonnet, the Humanist Chaplaincy’s campus organizer, “One of the big challenges is seeing that atheism has gone on for thousands of years.”
“Atheism is as old as India itself,” he said.
“Let us not go back, let us go forward, let us make the human being the center of our social action in society,” he added.