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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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!

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.