THE INDIVIDUAL IN A SOCIETY – Our Interaction With Religion, Politics and Law


THE ROLE OF RELIGION

Wonder and Awe

Like lotus leaves on water, most of us have an ‘untouched’ relationship with the societies we live in. It is our immediate concerns that define our day to day living, and it is in attending to these concerns that we interact with the society. Still, there are three very strong societal influences that impinge on us, defining the way we think, the way we act and the way we live. And we allow ourselves, albeit involuntarily, to be moulded by these three strong influences, namely: Religion, Politics and Law.

To me, Religion is not restricted to worship and prayer; Politics is not merely governance and administration; and Law is not confined to policies and the justice systems states have in place. To me, Religion is a way of life, Politics is a reflection of a time period and Law regulates what we pass on to posterity.

Over the next several paras I would like to examine the way humankind has been defined and shaped by these influences. It’s an imaginary journey I take, propelled by wonder and curiosity, quite unconstrained by any existing body of knowledge as such. The purpose is to see if, instead of being passive recipients of the effect of these three strong influences we can use them to re-define ourselves and the world we live in so that when we leave, the world is a somewhat better than when we came in.

Religion does not only affect the believer. Value systems inculcated by dominant philosophies, cults, groups and so on, which, I think is what we call religion, affects societies, nations and the world. The ramifications of a strong religion transcend time and can be felt for aeons. Over millennia, Religion has moulded the way people think, feel, react, emote, eat, grow, dress, interact, live.

How did the concept of religion come into being? Did it start with an idea of a super being? A God? Did it grow with the notion of there being a right and a wrong?

Seeds were scattered, plants grew, as if by magic. Animals mated and young ones were born in their likeness, miraculously. Sunrise, sunset, day in, day out. Year after year a cycle of seasons so predictable.

And yet, so unpredictable is the weather, so unpredictable is death, and so final. Nameless dangers lurk in the dark, in the water, in the forest…….

Awe for that unknown power that made all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; fear for the one who created and destroyed at will, as it were.

Let’s praise the Lord, our God, who makes everything move by sheer will; let’s propitiate that being which controls all, please with offerings and pray.

But things are not behaving as expected. The rains are never ending, the heat is scorching, the seeds are not sprouting, the animals are dying and so are we. Someone has done something wrong. So, what is right and what is wrong? Who shall define it?

Thus was Religion born, perhaps, and grew …..

Who is God?

From being a spiritual journey, in wonderment and joy at the idea of a Creator of the Universe, Religion probably became a philosophical journey, questioning the existence and the form of such a Creator.

If a Creator exists, where is that Creator? Where was that Creator before all of Creation came to be? What is the form of the Creator? How was the form acquired?

All we need to do is identify ourselves completely with Early Man and the questions that probably troubled them and excited their curiosity will be ours.

Since so much needed to be explained, and there was so little to go on, the idea of a super-natural being at work probably sounded convincing to most and was a convenient solution as well, to the question of how the Universe was created and is sustained. The idea of God took root and grew.

From a spiritual and philosophical quest, Religion probably took a turn towards the notion of devotion when Nature, which is so disciplined, orderly, symmetrical and so on was found to be quirky on occasion. When these quirks of Nature caused death and devastation, when there were no answers that could be found to certain troubling questions, Man probably found God a convenient peg to hang his ignorance on.

When it thundered, rained ceaselessly and swelling waters swallowed the land, or when mountains rumbled and the ground beneath one’s feet cracked, or when lightning struck and burnt down trees or killed people or when animals and men died by the score or several score, when crops failed and the sun scorched like fire …………. when all these horrible, unexplainable things happened, Man decided that God was angry, God was displeased, God was venting his anger and displeasure.

But, why was God angry? What was the reason for the displeasure?

It was, perhaps, in trying to answer these kinds of questions that Man brought down the Creator from spiritual and philosophical heights to pagan and plebeian levels.
Giving Concrete Shape to an Abstract God

Having conceived a God in his likeness, Man, perhaps, began to give attributes to God and make God a more ‘wholesome’ being, concretising all that had hitherto been in the realm of the abstract. And, as Men are differently made, so did God come to assume various forms, qualities, capabilities, and even desires.

Bound by his inability to think beyond what was known or could be imagined, Man made God subservient to his limitations.

Different gods became ‘popular’ at different points in time, and different gods were ‘created’ for different tasks, perhaps as a natural corollary of necessity.

Soon, Man had made heavenly kingdom fit for the gods! With its own ruler, the ruled and rules governing them and their operations!

God became a psychological crutch for Man – so powerful and yet so powerless; so intelligent and yet so ignorant.

Anything that he could not accomplish, Man began attributing to fate, destiny, the pre-determined path that God had designed for each creature.

Anything that he could not explain, Man saw as the inscrutable will of God – the omnipotent, omnipresent one who alone could accomplish every task involving physical, mental or magical powers; who alone knew everything about everything past, present and future.

Mediating between Gods and Men

Development gave rise to desires, desires gave rise to disappointments, disappointments strengthened the belief in destiny, which once again gave rise to the desire to control destiny, which in other words meant, influence the divine powers so that their actions are favourable to us!

As the ways of the divine powers, or gods, are inscrutable to the masses of Men, a way had to be found to help understand them. This, perhaps, gave rise to that vast body of religious literature which constitutes rites and rituals to be observed to keep God, or the gods, happy.

Who could perform these rites and rituals better than those who conceived them in the first place? So, a class of men was created which had special powers to mediate with God on behalf of their bourgeois brethren.

As Humankind evolved, and his desires and desperation grew, the power of the mediators grew proportionately. They rose to exercise a special power over Man, who made his own mind subservient to the will of the Mediator, in lieu of his devotion to the Divine.

When Mediators differed, or when ordinary men aspired to be Mediators themselves, newer pathways to God were ‘revealed’.

Religions of the world are but pathways to God, Nirvana, to the Divine, to Realization or Moksha, or whatever is the name you want to call the Ultimate Reality.

In search of Love, Peace, Brotherhood

From being a search for that unique, unifying force which is the mastermind behind all Creation, Religion has expanded to assume a larger than life role in the evolution of human consciousness.

But, simultaneously, it has also been reduced to trivialising God in various ways. It has moved far away from being a simple contemplation on and search for the Spirit that breathes life into the Universe. It has more or less lost even its philosophical moorings.

Those of us who believe in God, and/ Religion, can try to make a difference to the way these wonderful concepts have come to be perceived. We can begin by building bridges between Religions, identifying the causes and reasons for divisiveness and working towards removing them, and refusing to be subservient to or support vested interests that would be wary of disturbing the status quo.

To contemplate on the Source of All Creation, the Primal Force, the Prime Mover, or, simply, God, is a deeply personal experience. It could be a wonderful, inspiring, even mystic journey if we free ourselves of the trammels of Religion as we have come to know it.

The bedrock of the movement towards a better world

Like rails which keep a train on track, Religion helps keep society within certain bounds or value systems. The moot point is, how universally acceptable are these value systems. This question would become particularly significant if we realize that different religions preach such different values.

A universal religion that ensures the whole of humanity subscribes to a common value system and/ or worships a common God can be little more than a pipe dream, at least as of now.

But, setting aside our fear of the unknown, reservations about being considered a heretic or non-conformist at best, delusion about the dangers of questioning tradition, illusion about the superior knowledge contained in the compilations that have come down to us as scriptures, setting aside all these misconceived notions, if we would only begin to look at Religion as fallible, and take courage to question the questionable and seek changes where necessary, we would be taking a giant step towards making Religion look inwards and reform itself before looking outwards, seeking to reform the hapless society, which, in a way, it both helps create and is created by.

Not that such exercises to ‘reform’ religion are not ongoing or have never been done. It is the earnestness of these endeavours that does not always stand scrutiny.

Throughout the history of mankind, when an individual or groups of people have attempted to change an existing order out of a genuine concern for its impact on humankind, an indelible impression has been made. Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha are but two examples of such individuals whose attempts to reform the religious order of their day resulted in a remarkable upheaval.

Each of us, in our own way, can and, I think, must, stop being passive practitioners and ardent followers of our respective Religions.

Where it oppresses rather than comforts, where it demands rather than gives, where it postulates rather than consults, where it is coercive rather than compassionate, we can and must rise up to point out, question and seek to remedy the Religion. For, this is the only way Religion, which is such a powerful force, can unite rather than divide humanity.

Our Relationship with God

Our adherence or lack of adherence to a Religion and its tenets need hardly affect our relationship with God.

There can be no question that God would be as easily accessible to the worst among us as to the best. For good and bad, right and wrong are subjective, human measures.

As for ‘seeking’ God, the believer need not seek the reality of God through a ‘mediator’ or in any particular manner or place.

Equally, the relationship with God cannot hinge on material returns for reinforcement. The feeling of comfort that one gets from an innocent belief in this intangible entity is the greatest gift that is bestowed on the believer.

There’s no quid pro quo in a relationship with God, for God would not ‘grant’ depending on what we ‘give’; God would not punish for what we may have done or not done; God would not cease to exist or cease to care, come what may.

If God is, it can only be as a personification of Goodness. To my mind, it is folly to subject this special relationship to the norms that govern human relationships.

THE ROLE OF POLITICS

The power is in each of our hands

At any point of time, it is an individual or a few persons who determine what should be done. Then, politics is all about getting the others to fall in line.

Politics, then, is not about mere governance of peoples, but about influencing thought, controlling minds and triggering actions.

Power and Politics, of course, go together. And the Power comes, always, from the People. The more the number of people you can get to fall in line with your thinking, the more the number of people you can influence and get to do as you bid, the stronger is your political acumen and clout.

So, whether or not we are the ones holding the reigns, we have the power to determine what will be the path taken, provided we assert our individuality, believe in our potential as an individual with power to change the course, and make a courageous attempt to give voice to our opinions and ideas.

The importance of informed, active participation

Politics is about the power to decide what will happen and how.

As individuals who are affected by the political process, we have a responsibility to be informed citizens, aware about what is happening around us, and how it is going to change our lives.

Every one of us can form an opinion about whether certain events must take place, whether they must happen the way they are planned, and why they must or must not.

Each of us has a duty to evaluate the pros and cons of the actions contemplated and enacted by those in power. The measures may pertain to trans-national treaties, curriculum changes in our schools or local garbage collection timings.

Whether it is a unilateral decision by a dictator or the deciding authority, a collective decision by a cabinet or a group or a consensual decision arrived at after discussion with various parties, if we feel strongly that a decision is going to have an adverse effect, we must make our views known. And, in doing this, it is important not to take a short term or selfish view.

Participate actively in decision-making

Chimpanzees are our closest ancestors in the evolutionary chain and an evolved intelligence is almost all that differentiates humans from chimps. This being the case, why do we frustrate our intelligence and choose to behave like dumb, driven cattle ever so often, when we can at least attempt to change the course, if not actually achieve the desired result?

Individuals have a responsibility to be the conscience-keepers of the society they live in. The politics of a society is a reflection of the time period. History will judge our time period by the kind of decisions we allow the politics of our time to shape.

To perform our role as conscience-keepers, we need to throw off our passivity and actively participate in the decision-making process that is politics in the making.

Lack of support or resources or knowledge need not constrain us. Even those of us who consider ourselves Very Ordinary Persons (VOP as against VIP) can make ourselves heard through accessible forums (such as letters to the editor, blog posts, articles in the press, pamphlets, street corner talks, open public lectures, peaceful, non-disruptive demonstrations), choose methods that match our means and abilities and learn more about the issue by looking up sources in print, on the web and discussions with a spectrum of people.

In the interest of preventing short term self interest to prevail over the long term health of the society, its mental and moral health in particular, individuals have a duty to be better informed in all their roles – as citizens of the globe and their nations, as parents, voters, working people, shoppers, road users, and guardians of this, our blue planet, above all.

Might is not always Right!

The ‘might’ of majority is often cited as the reason for putting in place policies that may not have universal support. That the majority view may not always be the right view or the most ideal approach is often overlooked.

A consensual approach, where an attempt is made to convince everyone and carry everyone along may be better, if an honest attempt is made by both the supporters and others to thrash out issues in a spirit of give and take. However, in reality, consensus is achieved by arm twisting of various degrees by the majority, employing various methods.

Thinkers, inventors and trailblazers were often those who did not hesitate to take the road less travelled by.

So, even if ours is the only dissenting voice, if we have the courage of conviction about the wrongness of the popular choice in a particular situation, we ought to register our dissent and make sure our views are known to those affected by the decision of the majority.

At various points in our life, we go along with the tide simply because we lack the fortitude to stand up to the might of the majority.

Discretion may be the better part of valour, but should we confuse inaction with discretion? Surely, a discreet way to assert our individual spirit can be found if only we would not deny ourselves the chance to at least consider speaking up!

Religion and Politics, and our role in shaping them

There have been times in History when Religion and Politics – two major influences on Society – have been at each other, daggers drawn. There have been other times when the two have had a symbiotic relationship, nurturing each other and helping each other. Working in the name of Society, for the welfare of Humanity, these two behemoths have also often worked in tandem to retain their hold over their ‘subjects’.

Through my posts thus far I have been presenting a case for the individual to assert their moral right to their individual identity, for each has a unique relationship with God, each has a unique set of values instilled by their upbringing, and each has a perspective about what they want the society they live in to be like.

Given that disruptive and amoral tendencies are not what is being talked about here, I do not see why individuals cannot try to come out of the bind of religious practices that they do not believe are furthering their communion with God and which they think are not conducive to building a more compassionate world order.

Similarly, if guided by a spirit of social well being rather than short term self interest, I think individuals must not hesitate to make their opinions known if they feel that the current policies are not enhancing the quality of their life now or are threatening to the future of their selves, their families, neighbourhoods, societies or the world.

The politicisation of religion

From what probably began as a simple contemplation on God and innocent wonder at God’s creative genius, Religion has become a powerful tool to mould public opinion. Those who constitute the religious order have apparently allowed religion to be re-fashioned by the circumstances and expediencies of the day. So much so, reading the various religious scriptures today, one finds it difficult to believe that God or God’s messengers could have said such words.

I feel that, like Nature at its rugged best or pristine self, the best relationship that we can have with God is one that evolves on its own. We cannot escape the guidance of Scriptures and human mediators, but we could use them as we would a bamboo stick or trekking gear to explore the unknown regions of the world. There need be no hesitation in making our own interpretations. Indeed, such original thinking, I feel, is obligatory on our part so that we can re-invent religion and make it a source of joy.

Whether or not there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow should be least of the questions troubling us, and even more, our children. We should lose ourselves in the simple enjoyment of the fascinating display of colours.

Religion for the generations to come

We cannot shelter our children from the squalor that much of the world is steeped in. Television brings it into our living rooms and bedrooms. The Internet allows interaction with sick minds in isolation.

We cannot trust our children with absolute freedom, we cannot teach them to look on everyone with trust.

Discretion, diplomacy, dilution of values – these are all “essential life skills” that children have to learn if they want to progress, and we have to teach them to practice such duplicity!

In order to come out of the morass of deceit, delusion, selfishness, greed, jealousy, fear and so on that fashions so much of our lives, we need to set higher moral standards for ourselves. Religion is a way of life, a path to a higher order of things – morals, values, goals and so on. But if, in seeking to follow the prescribed way of life we feel overwhelmed by the dogma or stifled by the constraints, we have to exercise the option of taking that which brings us solace and leaving out that which oppresses us.

I don’t think one has to be ‘religious’ to follow a Religion. I don’t even think one has to believe in the existence of God to follow a religion. And, it doesn’t matter if you do not find any of the religions, including the one you were born into, satisfactory. All that matters is that you set these morals, values and goals for yourself, on your own.

Our beliefs irrevocably influence our children and decide their mental and spiritual health. By subjecting them to believe in such truths that we ourselves cannot believe in, by forcing them to follow such rules as we ourselves would sooner not, by allowing them to cultivate an aversion for that which is good in Religion because that which is not is slowly making it rot, we are only driving them to desperation.

Can there be any other explanation for incidents such as we have been witnessing in recent months and days – mass murders on campus by children hardly out of their teens, kidnap and rape by children not yet ten? We have made gun-toting militants and hardened criminals out of kids.

We came into a more peaceful, more trusting world. What are we going to leave behind for the generations to come?

Religion in Politics – a quid pro quo?

Having allowed Religion to be politicised, it is only to be expected that Religion will seek to influence matters political – matters that affect the society and its functions, the nation and its impact on the life of individuals that make its polity.

Let alone major decisions that could have national and international ramifications, like a jihad, even in simple incidents that affect our routine life and livelihoods, religious preferences may influence decisions.

For instance, a high school English Reader may no longer be a simple collection of random writing in prose and poetry. Students may never be exposed to certain authors, despite their literary merit.

Mercy killing, suicide, sexual preferences, marriage and divorce, business, banking, trade, international relations – from simple to complex matters of society and state, from matters pertaining to individual preferences to a nation’s choices, the concerns and considerations of Religion can often not be overlooked or over-ruled by those in charge.

There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. It is naïve to believe that everything is as it seems. Seeing this is the first step towards changing it.

Religion has to be re-claimed from the hold of vested interests so that it can once again counsel seekers and enable them to enjoy blissful contemplation on God, in all innocence.

By the same token, Politics has to be protected from religious interference. Narrow-minded zealotry will only stultify society.

Where is Religion going?

Those of us who are believers turn to God when we feel helpless, hopeless and there’s no one else who could understand, who would understand. Were God to feel hopeless and helpless ………..?!!!

Seeing the way Religion is being ‘packaged’ and ‘marketed’ today, would it be any wonder if the gods of the various religions went to war with one another like corporates in the marketplace?

Numbers count, so shepherd in more people to make the herd. Size matters, so build bigger and bigger monuments and institutions to god. Tell the faithful what they want to hear so that they don’t get turned away. After all, God is all-knowing and will understand that all your actions are for His (?) sake!

I would imagine true messiahs of God would want brotherhood to prevail over bloodshed; I would imagine that they would want peace, compassion and love to rule the earth and the earthlings. I do not think they would want to barter God’s words or enter into bargains over what words of God to retain or remove from their speeches, and ultimately, from the scriptures.

To ordinary folks, who make up most of the world, scientific dissection of philosophies and theories hardly matter. The question of God as the Creator is a matter of faith, and no amount of scientific evidence can satisfactorily prove otherwise to us. But that need not prevent us from thinking rationally instead of with blind faith, questioning superstition and refusing to ritualise Religion or trivialise it to a mere marketing exercise. Or worse, use Religion to divide peoples, destroy mankind.

The politico-religious nexus and the role of the individual

Isn’t it idealistic to imagine that in the “overlapping magisteria” of Politics and Religion (As against Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” to describe Science and Religion), an individual can presume to intervene, much less make a difference?

If people who watch distant events, unrelated to their lives, feel charged to join jihadi movements believing they can make a difference to those who live in a different continent, a different culture, it must be possible for individuals to be moved to action that will have a more positive impact on their immediate lives.

We need to break our “appalling silence” on issues that are going to have ramifications across generations so that we, or our children, will not have to repent.

“Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. (Martin Luther King Jr)

I would like to complement King’s exhortation with this message of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s, inscribed on a plaque in his memorial in India:

Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Science without Humanity, Knowledge without Character, Politics without Principle, Commerce without Morality and Worship without Self-sacrifice are seven deadly sins.

King and Gandhi were individuals when they began; they became lasting icons for humanity due to their courage of conviction. In their immortality there is a lesson to learn: It is important to temper our resistance with long-term vision about the future that humanity shares.

THE ROLE OF LAW

Law and an Individual in a Society

I’ve said it in an earlier post: To me, Religion is not restricted to worship and prayer; Politics is not merely governance and administration; and Law is not confined to policies and the justice systems states have in place. To me, Religion is a way of life, Politics is a reflection of a time period and Law regulates what we pass on to posterity.

If we look at ‘Law’ as a set of rules, then there are laws that govern global relations between allies and others, laws that govern trade, business and protocol, laws for desirable behaviour in space and Green laws for ensuring sustainable development.

There are also laws for governance of nations, civil and criminal laws that intend to allow sanity to prevail as societies unravel, social laws such as laws of etiquette at board meetings, music concerts, schools, meetings with Royalty, gatherings such as dinners, parties, weddings and funerals, and neighbourhood laws. (Indeed, even anti-social elements are expected to operate within the bounds of ‘gang-laws’, though this is not the concern here.)

And, of course, there are laws that each household traditionally carries forth like a family heirloom, from one generation to the next, and keeps adding to or dropping as an impossible rule, as generations evolve and grow.

‘Ignorance of the law’ is not looked upon kindly – whether it is in international relations, simple get-togethers or a family’s table manners. In a bid to abide by the law, be accepted, in a bid to fall in with the norms, most of us make an effort to know the rules or learn them. However, it is seldom that we rise to question a law. Indeed, such an attitude could well invite ridicule or wrath and result in our being cold-shouldered. So, we put up with everything – from minor inconvenience to gross injustice, stoically. The question I want to raise is: Should we? Should we silently succumb to the pressure to conform or find the courage to stand up for change?

Over the next few sections I would like to examine how laws have not always worked in the interest of society and how, sometimes, when they have been broken, it has benefited society in the long-term.

Abortion Laws and the role of Society

I must say, at the outset, that my views on abortion are ambivalent. I both oppose and support it, for reasons that will become evident as you read on.

Pregnancies are not always either ‘intended’ or ‘unintended’. They may also be ‘enforced’ – by rape or coercion.

I agree that abortion is not a pill to be used to wash out an unwanted life that two persons happened to create because someone was careless or too aroused to think or impulsive or any of the sundry reasons which are normally given by those who are informed, who did not intend to get pregnant, but did.

But, what about those unfortunate growing lives that show signs of debilitating disability? All infants need tender, loving care and none more so than special children, for whom sustained nurturing may be required well into their adolescence. This is not a role for institutions, which have to take care of many. It is a job for a loving heart, a person with dedication, capable of immense sacrifice. Intensive counselling, not a statute in a law book, should guide these parents to make an informed choice.

What of pregnancies caused by undesirable circumstances, such as rape? If abortion is not allowed as an option, the yet to be born child would be fatherless or orphaned at birth. And, what about the mental trauma the victimised girl has to undergo?

In societies that treat women as chattel, should women undergo repeated pregnancies at increasing risk to their lives and those of the lives they carry? What about the deteriorating living standards that each extra mouth brings into the deprivation that already exists? What price the lives of the young, growing children were the mother to die?

The problem cannot be resolved simplistically. It is a moral question with political dimensions and infringes on individual rights. But, surely, the human aspect deserves greater consideration from law makers than appears to have been the case thus far. Can we, as a society, make a start towards enabling more humane abortion laws by trying to reduce the number of abortions in the first place?

Around the world, some 50 million abortions are done every year, nearly half of them under unsafe conditions due to reasons of law, social stigma, cost of having an abortion under clinical care, and so on. In the US alone, about 750,000 to 850,000 teenagers report pregnancy every year. About 74 to 95 per cent of these are reported “unintended”. Nearly 150,000 of these pregnancies are terminated voluntarily, under medical supervision.

Immigration Laws – How ‘human’ is human?

Once upon a time, humans migrated from one place to another, moving at will, in search of greener pastures, more plentiful water and wildlife. Then came settlements and kingdoms, but humans continued to have the freedom to migrate, discover and populate new lands, even conquer and colonise. These journeys were fraught with risks, even danger, but a spirit of adventure, the will to survive and the urge to live better led them on.

Once the process of populating every land on the planet became complete, almost, began the process of stratifying populations within national boundaries. Movement between nations was possible, but with restrictions and stipulations.

Obviously, when there are laws that facilitate migration, albeit regularized migration, it is impossible to condone any subversion of the law. But then, when the facility to make a legal entry into another country is available, and so many millions use that route, why do so many more choose to become immigrants, illegally?

Perhaps, it is because the urge in humans to move in search of better pastures, better livelihoods, is primal and cannot be curbed. No matter the risks, the danger, the lies, the subterfuge, the dream of greener pastures leads them on. Hope is a rope that they hang on to, to swing them through life. Often, an entire life’s savings is spent on paying the human smugglers for an ‘unsafe’ travel, risking the lives of all in the family.

As long as there is the basic human instinct to migrate in search of ‘greener pastures’ on one side and the ‘eternally young human greed’ (as one of India’s ancient texts, the Panchatantra calls it) waiting to be fed on the other, no law can curb illegal immigration. In fact, in a case of the fence eating the crop as it were, the lawmakers themselves are accused of having violated human rights in making such laws!

Perhaps, a solution can be found by facilitating the creation of ‘greener pastures’ such as those that the illegal immigrants come in search of, in their own lands.

We export and import goods, and yet smuggling goes on. We combat this by collaborating and cooperating with governments and their agencies across the globe.

If only governments can think out of the box and cooperate positively to make better lives for their peoples instead of only collaborating to prevent people from trying to make their lives better!

The Story of A Young American

It’s the story of a girl, a court, a country. It’s also the story of how, in our eagerness to protect people as a mass, we forget to care for the individual as a person; of how, in our eagerness to show our concern for humanity at large, we forget to be humane.Ashley Jones turned twenty-one in 2007-08 and she had already spent seven years in prison. She has been sentenced to spend her lifetime in prison, without parole. Because, when she was 14, she helped her 16 year old boyfriend kill two people and attempt to kill two others.All the victims were Ashley’s relatives. The dead were her grandfather and her aunt. The wounded were her grandmother and a younger sister.Why did Ashley stab them and set fire to the household to hide evidence of her act? The prosecuting lawyer says it is because Ashley’s conscience has not developed. When she does something wrong, or plans to, her inner voice. we are told, does not counsel her.I wonder if anyone has asked why Ashley’s inner voice did not develop.Ashley herself says that everyone she loved, everyone she trusted, has let her down. Her mother was a drug addict and her step-father had sexually abused her. Even before the assault for which she was sentenced, she had tried to kill her mother when she was pregnant. Her grandparents took her in, knowing she was a difficult child. Her grandfather disapproved of her boyfriend and questioned her relationship with him.Obviously, Ashley did not have a normal upbringing. Her individuality, her role as a unique person in this world with unique needs, desires, fears, joys appear not to have been heeded or understood.Ashley, it seems to me, was suffering more from lack of love than absence of conscience. Perhaps, her inner voice did not develop because it was not nurtured in sufficient warmth.I think I have ‘developed’ a conscience, because my inner voice tells me what is right and what is wrong. So, do I always listen to it? Not necessarily. So, do I always feel remorseful when I don’t? Sometimes. So, do I make amends? Sometimes. But then, I also have loved ones whom I can trust and who haven’t let me down though I haven’t always listened to my inner voice.

Relief in the form of lashes for rape victim!!

When the law has been followed in letter and spirit, then justice is deemed to have been done. What if justice itself is unjust?

Consider this recent occurrence: An 18-year old Saudi Arabian girl had gone to meet a boy with whom she had had a relationship to recover some photos from him, which he was using to blackmail her. The couple was abducted by a gang and the girl was raped, repeatedly. The case reached the court, which ruled that the girl and the boy each had to suffer 90 lashes. The rapists were sentenced to undergo imprisonment of between 10 months and five years. The girl appealed against the sentence, only to have her punishment increased to 200 lashes and six months’ imprisonment! The reason: She had tried to influence the case by using the media!

Appalling, bewildering, outrageous, stinking …. there can be any number of words to describe this judgement. But such things do happen, and have been happening, and we keep allowing them to happen and will continue to allow them to happen. The question is: what can we do to see that such blatant injustice masquerading as ‘justice’ does not continue to determine the way our co-habitants on the planet live?

We cannot allow the incident to lose itself disguised as the ‘internal affair’ of a sovereign nation. Activism or trampling over deep-rooted cultural and religious sentiments will not get any relief for the affected either. Such over-zealous moves will only ensure such acts are undertaken clandestinely, or worse, make life more miserable for the victim as in the present case.

However, a deliberate, measured and sustained discussion, moved by altruistic motives alone, could initiate a crusade for change, and possibly render in a revolutionary and paradigm shift in the way laws – be they of religion or any other source – are made and applied.

Two news stories from Nigeria and the USA

Can individuals, by their actions, cause a change in entrenched systems and practices that are protected by law and backed by the society?

I would like to talk about two recent incidents in this post, which show how individuals and their actions can kickstart a public debate, creating mass awareness and bringing simmering discontent into the open. The lesson I’m trying to draw is that individuals do have the power to initiate a re-look at the status quo, if they have the courage to withstand a cacophony of criticism.

A recent special report on ‘Religion in Public Life’ in The Economist, talks of the religious violence in Nigeria, due to clashes between its Muslims and Christians. Followers of both religions are about equal in number, but while the north of the country is predominantly Muslim, the south is mainly Christian. About 20,000 people have been killed in the violence since 1990, says the report. But now, a Catholic Archbishop and a local Imam are trying to put an end to this violence. Both of them go together to the place where there has been an outbreak of violence and try to sort it out through their personal intervention. The Archbishop’s initiative continues in the face of opposition from fellow Christians who resent his meetings with the Imam and his visits to mosques.

The second news I want to present in this post is about Lilliana. Lilliana has been in the news in the US because she is a symbol of the debate over illegal immigrants in the country.

Lilliana, a Mexican, illegally crossed the US border in 1998, after failing to secure a student visa she had applied for. She soon got a job at a corn packing facility. In 1999 she married and applied to become a permanent resident of the USA. In 2003, Lilliana got a work permit for a year. In 2004, she was told that she was ineligible for permanent residency and could be deported any time. In September 2007, she got a formal letter of deportation. She sought and got sanctuary in a church in California. Her case has aroused much public sentiment with voices across the nation both supporting and opposing her deportation.

The Archbishop and Lilliana may or may not be able to render the change they seek directly, but they have definitely set the stage for a larger, more informed debate on the issues or causes they represent. Hopefully, instead of polarizing society, such a debate will throw up various ways of looking at the problems, and hence, various solutions to the problems.

A curious case from India: A pontiff deviates from a tradition

In the south of India, in a place called Udupi, is a temple to God Krishna. Eight mathas, or religious institutions, are in charge of running the affairs of the temple, with the leadership being passed on by rotation among the heads of the mathas. It is now the turn of one of the mathas (the Putthige matha) to take over from another (the Krishnapura matha). The hitch is: the head of the matha that is in line to take over has broken a hoary tradition.

In the tradition of the Udupi Krishna temple, no pontiff who has ‘crossed the seas’ and toured a foreign country can perform religious rites intimately connected with the idol of Krishna. The pontiff, called Swami Sugunendra Teertha, whose turn it is to take over the leadership now, has ‘crossed the seas’, to travel to the US to bless his devotees there. The heads of the seven other mathas are unwilling to pass on the baton to him as he has violated the tradition. Swami Sugunendra is unwilling to abdicate. His argument is that times have changed and so should religion that is steeped in traditions of an age long past. The devotees of the Udupi Krishna temple and followers of the eight mathas are divided on the issue. The date of the formal ‘coronation’ is January 18, 2008. It is not yet clear how the problem is going to be resolved.

If one looks back at the history of World Religions, monolithic religions have broken up, time and again, over such differences, and schisms appeared and broke up the sects further. Today, most of the major religions of the world have several sects claiming allegiance to them, with the differences among the sects of the same religion dividing them in perpetuity even as their religion unites them till eternity.

If we were to consider the curious case of the Udupi pontiff from a larger perspective, it gives rise to some intriguing questions:

Most of us are connected to an institution or a religion or a nation or some group – at least a family – which has some rules or guidelines or laws. Would we be right in breaking such of these laws as we consider unfair or repressive or backward while ‘belonging’ to the said group? Do such of those who break the rules of the group they are part of forfeit their right to continue in the group?

Change is eternal where gross things are concerned. But should such change affect traditions, customs and practices that have become law due to their observance over centuries? Do laws become unassailable by virtue of their having been in existence for ages? Do those who challenge the established norms deserve to be punished?

At the end of a debate, is it always the majority that should have its way? Is the majority always right? Is what is right always the best way?

What is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is bad? What should change and what should not? These are questions that cannot be answered in the heat of the moment. In fact, they may not even have a permanent answer, as the best course could change with time.

I tend to agree with what a much maligned Hindu seer of ancient times, Manu, said: “Laws are made for a particular time and situation. When circumstances change, laws too have to reflect the changed circumstances.” This is true for a family, an institution, a nation, perhaps even Mother Nature!

Is the Law in Malaysia fair to persons of Indian origin? – A true story

I have intimate knowledge of the suffering undergone by an Indian woman, who had a bitter experience with Malaysia over decades, and who is now a US citizen.

She was married in India, to an Indian citizen who had a Malaysian work permit. Her father-in-law had established a successful business in Malaysia and become a citizen of that country. He wanted his son and daughter-in-law to join him there. This was in the 1960s. Subsequently, the son applied for Malaysian citizenship, but his wife’s application was not accepted as she was not an ethnic Malay or born of Malaysian citizens.

By the late 1960s, the couple had given birth to three children. All of them were citizens of Malaysia till they migrated to the US. But the children were deprived of their mother’s care and presence through most of their growing years, as Malaysia would issue her only a travel/ tourist visa which did not allow her to stay beyond six months at a stretch. Every six months her visa would expire, and she could return to her family and children only after spending six months in some other country. For decades, she kept shuttling between Malaysia and India. Her husband himself was granted Malaysian citizenship only around the year 2000, four decades after he went to Malaysia on a work permit!

His citizenship might have facilitated his wife’s permanent residency in Malaysia, but it did not mean anything any more as her children had become successful academics and entrepreneurs in the US and she had become an American citizen.

On the flip side, the couple’s children got the opportunity to study in some of the best educational institutions in Malaysia which they might have been denied in India, where the competition is greater and tougher. This, in turn, helped them study in some of the world’s best universities in the US and make a mark.

But the instability and deprivation the woman has had to live with as a consequence of the insensitive handling of her case by Malaysia have had their toll on her emotionally and mentally, though she is physically strong and agile even in her seventies.

I find a parallel between this woman’s case and those Malaysians of Indian origin who are now protesting their treatment as second-hand citizens in the country of their birth.

The protesting Malaysians are mostly descendants of those who were taken by the British from India to Malaysia to work on their rubber plantations. These persons of Indian origin might have made better lives for themselves than they may have in India, but the sheer numbers who protested show that there is a deep rooted, and apparently justifiable grievance that needs to be addressed.

When lawmakers use the law to quell dissidence rather than have an open debate and discussion about the causes for it, they lay the foundation for discontentment that simmers beneath the surface and erupts when the opportunity arises. This is as true for a family that is ruled with an iron hand by its ‘head’ as for nations of the world that refuse to allow expression of alternative points of view.

Religion, Politics and Law – their impact on the individual, the society and the future of our planet

It’s time now for me to pause, look back and put what I’ve been saying thus far in perspective, so that the path for the blog’s future is better defined. But before I do that, here are two quotations to mull over, for I feel they define my blog’s purpose much better than my own words probably could. The quotations are from F G Pearce’s Introduction to his book, An Outline History of Civilization (OUP, 1957):

“The new danger of our present Age is that Man possesses knowledge of the forces of Nature, but he does not possess self-knowledge. Man can control many of the powers of Nature, but he cannot control his own nature, his selfish thoughts and desires.”

“Systems are what they are because of what we are and what we desire. To change those systems we must begin with ourselves. When enough people are different the systems will change because the people want them to change; it will not be necessary to force them by violence and fear.”

Now, for a summary of what I have been saying over the last several sections, trying to see how Religion, Politics and Law – the three defining forces (or systems) of our time, as I see it – impact individuals, impinge on their lives and interact with each other, drawing us, unresisting, and often unsuspecting even, into their clutches:

Over millennia, Religion has moulded the way people think, feel, react, emote, eat, grow, dress, interact, live.

From a spiritual quest in search of God, to a philosophical search for the meaning of life to conceiving of God in man’s likeness, Religion has moved a long way from its roots, and has, in so doing, given concrete shape to an abstract idea, made God a commercial ‘commodity’ and converted His thoughts and teachings into ‘promotional literature’.

Religion, which is such a powerful force, can unite rather than divide humanity if we rise up and seek to remedy whatever ails it. We can and must find the courage to question, to change.

2. Politics is about influencing thought, controlling minds and triggering actions. Politics is about the power to decide what will happen and how.

As individuals who are affected by the political process, we have a responsibility to be informed citizens, aware about what is happening around us, and how it is going to change our lives.

If we feel strongly about a political measure – whether it pertains to trans-national treaties, junk food sold in our children’s schools or local garbage collection timings – we must make our views known. And, in doing this, it is important not to take a short term or selfish view.

In the interest of preventing short term self interest to prevail over the long term health of the society, its mental and moral health in particular, individuals have a duty to be better informed in all their roles – as citizens of the globe and their nations, as parents, voters, working people, shoppers, road users, and guardians of this, our blue planet, above all.

To perform our role as conscience-keepers, we need to throw off our passivity and actively participate in the decision-making process.

Even if ours is the only dissenting voice, if we have the courage of conviction about the wrongness of the popular choice in a particular situation, we ought to register our dissent

At various points in our life, we go along with the tide simply because we lack the fortitude to stand up to the might of the majority.

Discretion may be the better part of valour, but should we confuse inaction with discretion? Surely, a discreet way to assert our individual spirit can be found if only we would not deny ourselves the chance to at least consider speaking up!

3. Laws that we make today determine the kind of civilization, the kind of planet we will pass on to posterity.

In a bid to abide by the law, be accepted, in a bid to fall in with the norms, most of us make an effort to know the rules or learn them. However, it is seldom that we rise to question a law.

We put up with everything – from minor inconvenience to gross injustice, stoically. The question I want to raise is: Should we silently succumb to the pressure to conform or find the courage to stand up for change?

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