The Language of Faith

 

There was a lovely, cheery song we all used to recite in Kindergarten. Five decades later, I still recall the lilting notes, and the words still make me smile. The song went like this:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens

Each little bird that sings

He made their shining colours

He made their tiny wings.

Today, the song would be considered politically incorrect on many counts:

It is misogynist, many would say –  Why should God be portrayed as being of a particular gender? It’s parochial, promoting a limited world view of a particular  religion, liberals would argue. And worse, the song talks of an exclusionist God – is ‘He’ only for the bright and beautiful, the wise and wonderful and not for the plain people, the simpletons et al? Most would shudder at its reference to a universal ‘Creator’ and refuse to allow their children to be exposed to such ‘unscientific’ gibberish.

In all the hullabaloo, the sheer simple pleasure that a child gets because of the rhythmic resonance, because of the beauty of the world around that the words picture, would be discounted.  Of course, there is merit to the argument that prayers and hymns with religious overtones are not the only songs with rhyme and one does not have to bring God in to be able to make a word portrait of Nature.

However, the difference I have with those who question the language of faith has to do with their purported scholarly analysis of narratives they do not understand.

For instance, take this extract from a piece on economics from a daily newspaper.

‘… Wealth is a price-weighted sum of otherwise incommensurate assets, and those prices are determined in financial markets, which aggregate flighty expectations about the future into prices today…’

The daily newspaper is for a general reader, and the said piece is a book extract with a tantalising sub-heading, intended to invite the average reader of that newspaper: ‘There are various mechanisms by which government policy can be influenced.’ However, despite a degree in Commerce, I have no qualms in stating upfront that I could understand little of the said piece, and the sentence quoted here simply blanks my mind. That is because economics has its own language, its idioms, terms and phrases.

My argument is that religion or faith, similarly, has its own language, idioms, terms and phrases.  Articles and books that claim to be scholarly analyses of faith should be  subject to the scrutiny of experts in the field of faith.  Just as a general reader may not be able to understand the language of economics even of an article that appears in a daily newspaper , a scholar, be it of any discipline, may not be able to understand the language of faith because of their lack of exposure and training in the language that theology speaks. And also, perhaps, because to accept is anathema to minds trained to question.

Whereas fanatics’ motives are transparent and their misinterpretations of religious doctrines are limited by time, if not by reach, the word of academics very often lives on, cloaked in the guise of a rational approach of people trained to think, and by implication the right to question.

With the patronage of what might be termed the hegemony of brahmanical intelligentsia, academics proceed to unpack denseness and remove the wool drawn over words by a supposedly recacitrant religion. Their self-belief is almost narcissistic, and their attitude towards theology is snooty.

The outcome of their discourse and dissertation is a signal disservice to societies across space and time because of the simple reason that they are largely ignorant of the language of faith. However, as the stature conferred on them by society gives their voice an undue advantage, they influence the way people think and behave.

It is important that the language of faith be studied by those who are familiar with its nuances.  Iconoclasm should take a toll on the spurious scholarship of nihilism rather than trying to destroy the fabric of faith that holds societies together.

Advertisements

Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.

 

Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.

Yoga: beyond physical well-being

The PubMed biomedical literature database reports a spurt in #Yoga research in recent years but > 90% of it relates yoga to health conditions.

In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Yoga (In search of yoga: Research trends in a western medical database) Marcy C McCall reports that while the first recorded yoga article in western medical research dates to 1948, authored by E. Abegg, there has been a surge in academic interest post-2007, with an average of 200 articles being added every year in recent times.  The article concludes by stating, ‘Systematic reviews and yoga trials are increasing, indicating a potential increase in quality of evidence. Three conditions show consistently high correlations with yoga research: stress/anxiety, pain, and depression. A significant rise in the number of cancer publications suggests an area of emerging research.’

Yoga has been described ‘as a safe and effective intervention to increase strength, flexibility and balance, and treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression, stress, and potentially asthma’ by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and by the National Health Services, UK.  It is less known that yoga seeks to align individual health with social health, which is in line with WHO’s definition: ‘Good health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the object of living, and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities.’

The Bhagavad Gita (verses 5.23 and verses 6.20 to 25) tells us that yoga helps us reconcile our aspirations with the outcomes, tolerate agitations that arise from desire, and recognise that expectations and disappointments are par for the course for sentient beings as long as they live.

The path of Yoga suggested by the Gita provides for the inescapable reality of expectations.  It also grants that it is natural to feel frustrated when these expectations are not met.  However, it counsels us to show forbearance in the face of such disappointments.  Yoga, says the Gita, helps us cultivate an endurance to the psychological pain akin to the fortitude with which we learn to bear physical pain.

I too have been discriminated against …

… but no one has spoken up for me, and so many hundreds of thousands like me.  Because I’m born a brahmin – that most hated of castes in the land of my birth. 

We are portrayed in school text books as vile creatures who hold fellow humans in contempt and deny them the right to be aspirational.  Our mannerisms, dress, customs and appearance are ridiculed in movies and literature.  We are stereotyped by associating us with certain identification marks drawn from our language and appearance, which too are fodder for mocksters. We are often deprived of admission to professional courses of choice because no performance is stellar enough for the likes of us who are designated a ‘forward’ community.  When it comes to government or public sector jobs, we have to ensure our performance falls within the narrow band of the highest scorers.  We are discriminated against at every stage of our lives because history holds our ancestors responsible for various social ills that have percolated to the present day. 

Ours is a fast dwindling community, with each subsequent generation choosing to restrict the number of offspring – in a sense, you could say we are a ‘minority’ too.  But no one has, or ever will, stand up for us or question the discrimination against us – because, you see, we are brahmin.

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.

Children: objectified, reduced to a mere statistic.

Children ceased being just bundles of joy since a couple of decades.  For many, they had become a ‘responsibility’.  One did not just enjoy having them and/ or having them around.  One had to ‘plan’ when to squeeze them in depending on career needs, care-giver availability, and even travel plans in the case of global parents who had a choice of countries that they could offer their yet to be born offspring to choose to be citizens of.  But, at least, children were still considered human organisms.

The position of children took a turn for the worse when they became objects of scientific and social experimentation: think sperm and egg banks, advocacy of free living, surrogacy and so on.  Most recently, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have been urging the devout adherents of their respective creeds to bring more children into the world – so that they may save their faith from extinction or claim pride of place as the world’s most populous religion.  Children, now, have been reduced to a mere statistic.  Join the race or be damned.

PostScript: Science and religion may well come together and set up labs that can reproduce babies on demand for every kind of need: to pass on your inheritance, to borrow an organ, to populate your faith, to churn out a workforce, you name it.  And lobbyists and social scientists would be kept busy arguing for/ against the rights/ freedoms of citizens and tracking the grossness of the new world and predicting worse …