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.

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Trampling on faith

 

Turf Clubs are exclusive public places. There is no space there for activists who would question the right of a human to goad a horse to trot at a pace faster than it would like or to force the animal to negotiate hurdles wilfully placed on its path.

Temples, too, are exclusive public places. They are meant for believers to congregate, worship and offer prayers with devotion.  They are not spaces for activists to try their hand at modernising practices they consider archaic or to mock the unquestioning acceptance of traditions by the faithful.

In much the same way as activists, non-believers who run-down one or another deity cannot appreciate the sentiments of the faithful. Be they #Durga worshippers or #Mahishasura worshippers, Vamana-Trivikrama or #Mahabali worshippers, they are all together under the band of the devout. They find qualities that are noble in the object of their worship. This belief is not mere fodder for political adversaries to settle scores.

The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!

Minority Matters

In recent days I have been listening to two flawed arguments involving ‘minorities’ in India.  One pertains to a social minority – the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trangender ( #LGBT ) community and another concerns the religious minorities – particularly Christian and Muslim communities.  I just want to present two simple counter-arguments to the popular opinions that have been occupying media space.

On the LGBT community, those who are not in favour of homosexuality argue that same sex cohabitation or marriage is ‘against Nature’ and ‘against religion’.  A simple counter to this would be: Aren’t notions of sexual morality, marriage, and religion themselves social constructions, albeit systems that have been with us since millennia and may even be considered to have stood the test of time?  In any case, Nature, in its physical manifestation, delights in overturning established theories and scientists are hardly agreed even on the fundamentals of Nature as it has to do with the mind.  So, whether you want to consider homosexuality as a physical aberration or a mental deviance – either way you aren’t on a strong wicket.

Coming to the second concern: The argument of the religious minorities is that there is a sense of insecurity among the Christians and Muslims in India due to acts of aggression against their communities ever since the BJP government was elected to the Centre.  My counter to this is: Rather than allow themselves to feel persecuted, which subsequently clouds reason and provokes biased judgements, religious minority groups may want to weigh their disquiet against a few systematic intrusions into the Hindu’s religious space over the years:

The recent opening of the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s vaults and proactive political intervention to get the treasures ‘protected’ albeit due to judicial intervention [The court observed, ‘“Since the deity is a perpetual minor in the eyes of the law, the court has jurisdiction to protect it.”] has upset several Hindus, whose visit to seek peace in communion with their God has been perpetually marred by the subsequent draconian security. Hindu personal laws have also been repeatedly adjudicated upon and amended [“The Hindu community has been tolerant to these statutory interventions. But there appears a lack of secular commitment as it has not happened for other religions,” observed the Supreme Court in 2011].  However,  neither these nor co-equal interventions of a political nature in other temples and aspects of their life been seen by the Hindu community as an act of aggression by the parties in power.  They have not been projected as the face of authoritarianism by adherents of the Hindu religion regardless of the religious, social or political affiliations of those at the helm.

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 …

Karma: A definition and a deconstruction

“An object which is sought to be reached by an agent through a kriya is what is meant by karma.”

– V. T. Tirunarayana Iyengar.

Examining the individual components of the scholarly interpretation, we can see that karma involves:

an object or goal,

an agent or actor who is seeking to reach the goal,

a process that is undertaken to try and reach the goal, and

kriya or performance of acts intended to facilitate the process of reaching the goal.

Attainment of the object or goal is the purpose that motivates the kriya or act.  Every act, therefore, is expected to be done with an aim to further the process of attaining the goal.  An unstated, underlying clause appears to be: Moments lost in acts that detract from this purposeful journey impact the extent of success in the quest.

However, it is important to note that the goal is sought to be reached. The emphasis, therefore, is on the performance of the act and not on the outcome per se.  Implicit in this interpretation is the awareness that while one has the capacity to engage in action, the outcome may be impacted by external factors.  These factors could include personal limitations, limitations of the environment in which the action takes place, and other factors that are not feasible to fathom out for a variety of reasons. However, read in conjunction with the explanation of kriya, it is clear that there is a certain emphasis, expectation even, on the manner of acting.

The object is sought to be reached by an agent.

Digressing a bit here, and interpreting the definition in a way that was probably not intended, I want to ask: Is it possible that the rule called varna-ashrama dharma could have been originally intended to make it possible for actors to frame meaningful goals, which, in turn might fall under the broad classification of purushartha-s, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha? In any case, the varna-ashrama  rule could be applied to contemporary times by understanding it to mean that at any point of time an individual should balance the demands of their vocation in accordance with their stage of life.  For, when setting the goals and doing the kriya or actions intended to achieve the goals, is it not simply common sense to want to think in terms of our natural proclivities/ acquired vocation (varna) and our stage of life (ashrama)?

Getting back to the definition, it seems that karma, in philosophy, is a concept which is concerned with the ends, and the means employed to attain these ends.  Whereas, in common parlance, karma is a theory that tries to explain results proactively and retrospectively.  For, karma in common parlance is used to convey ‘payback’ which may be understood to mean:

a) benefits and costs arising from individual acts of body and mind impact our state of being; and

b) the accumulation of benefits and costs of past acts impact the outcomes of ongoing and future acts.

How can this commonsensical understanding of karma be reconciled with the scholarly interpretation?  Reconciliation, I believe, would motivate individuals to positive action to attain their goals rather than allow them to wallow in passive acceptance of status quo.  At the same time, the emphasis would be on sincerity of purpose rather than success of an endeavour, making the agent and their actions central rather than results that are impossible to predict or control.