Shriram Lagoo’s name (part 1)

The Maharashtrian rationalist journal Thought & Action records that in the early 2000s, the famous film actor and rationalist Shriram Lagoo ‘was harassed by the hooligans of [the] RSS [a right-wing Hindu organization] who insisted that he should change his first name because Shriram is God’s name [but] he is an atheist.’ The anthropologists Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn have noted the remarkable consistency of the preoccupation across global contexts of a commitment to finding the proper ‘fit’ between person and name. Here it was the perceived lack of a fit that was at issue.

The origins of the controversy lie in Lagoo having written a piece called ‘Retire the god’ that served as the introduction to a new book on the noted Keralan/Sri Lankan rationalist Abraham Kavoor. It went further than Narendra Dabholkar’s organisation was itself willing to go, at least publicly, on the question of the existence of God and the article inspired considerable public debate. Dabholkar and Lagoo then began a program they named Vivek Jagar (Knowledge Awakening) in which they staged debates across Maharashtra. In another issue of Thought & Action Dabholkar reported details of a specific confrontation between the actor and Hindu right activists that occurred immediately after a Vivek Jagar program at Sangli:

“Dr. Lagoo wanted to go to Mumbai by night train. We, all the organizers, were at station to see him off. The train was late. During that period we saw a group of young people rushing towards Dr. Lagoo. At first we thought that the group may be fans of Doctor who also is a famous film actor… Within no time they surrounded us and started shouting slogans like Jai [i.e. victory to] Bhavani, Jai Shivaji; Sanatan Hindu Dharm ki Jai… They started asking questions like, Why do you speak against Hindu religion?… One of them suggested that Dr. Lagoo should shout Jai Shri Ram. Dr. Lagoo was not afraid at all. He must have thought himself and with a smile on his face he said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and after a pause added ‘Lagoo’ to it. The slogan became ‘Jai Shri Ram Lagoo.’ Even in those strenuous moments we could not help laughing. All these angry young men were confused. At that moment the train entered the platform and Dr. Lagoo boarded the train. Thus further confrontation was avoided.” 

Lagoo’s forename Shriram presents a paradox, since his use of it is at odds with both of the strategies we have considered in earlier posts: neither purified nor boundary-crossing, the name Shriram Lagoo unambiguously encodes its bearer’s Hindu background. No change, or renaming, has taken place to cause offence—it is his continued use of the name that seems to be the problem. (Indeed, as the examples given in earlier posts indicate, the objects of the majority of rationalists’ naming innovations are their children, as with Lagoo’s son Tanveer).

If his own name became a matter of concern due to his very public atheism, part of Lagoo’s rationale for preserving it is sentimental: ‘As a child I…was not [in] a position to oppose my parents not to give God’s name to me. They were very pious parents and as such they might have chosen the God’s name for their beloved child. They have given me name with their love and affection’. There are also practical concerns: ‘Atheists do not like to be called by God’s name, [but] there is no simple and easy escape route for them,’ one activist told me. Another stated: ‘More than 10 million people have gods in their names. Some are Bhagwan or Paramatma Singh, even Ram—there are so many. But I have not chosen my name. My parents gave me my name. I became a rationalist later on in life. So how can I change it?’