Monday, February 18, 2013

'Vishwaroopam' And The Need For Religion.

Would the world be a better place sans religion? Would humanity be served better if we all woke up as rational atheists with no shred of religion in us? Without religion there would be no religious fundamentalism, there would be no crusade, no jihad, no theology, no wars over theological hair splitting, no Taliban, no finger wagging evangelicals, so say atheists disgusted by all that goes in the name of religion.

When the Tamil movie 'Vishwaroopam' was made a football amidst religious groups, a suspect government and a strange acting judiciary a self-styled social commentator, Gnani, wrote in Facebook "I don't care for religious sentiments being hurt, I'd rather see the world of religion. I'll never defend any religious person from any hurt he/she suffers from arguments of other religions or atheists". Tamil Nadu's patron saint E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (in short E.V.R) made it his raison-de-etre in life to rid Tamils of religions. He felt religion was the root cause of a horrendously iniquitous social structure where the very touch or even sight of another human being was considered 'polluting'. Ayn Rand railed against the 'zombies of zen Buddhism' and every one who looked up to the skies.

During Crusades the Christians, riding out in the name of a man who preached love, killed Jews, the chosen race, saying 'God wills it'. White Americans could find verses in the Bible to prove that God willed Blacks into slavery. A Brahmin (and every other upper caste in the ladder) would consider the shadow of a Dalit to be polluting. Osama Bin Laden clothed himself and his act of terror in religion finding verses in Koran to justify his ends. Protestants and Catholics went to war with each other all over Europe killing thousands of each other until this very day. A Sikh guru who refused to convert to Islam was tortured and killed by an Islam king. Ziegenbalg learned Tamil in order to convert the 'heathen' by speaking in vernacular.

India, home to all three major religions and tens of others, superstitious beliefs about what causes small pox, a girl's zodiac signs, the time of birth and so much more have caused the death of millions. In one day, in the very modern age of the recent 90's, millions believed that a stone idol could 'drink' milk (it was just capillarity). In ancient India Saivaites and Vaishnavites killed each other simply because they worshipped variants of the same god and smeared ash differently (horizontal vs vertical) on their foreheads. A modern Indian politician made a career out of promising to build a temple for a mythical god who, he and millions others, believed was born in the very spot where a mosque stood. Of course the mosque itself stood on the place where a temple had stood. India, born out of orgiastic religious violence, convulsed every now and then in riots between Hindus and Muslims.

All the above is but a very brief survey of the ills attributed to what Karl Marx called 'the opiate of the masses'. Seeking to rid the masses of their opium Marx's followers, the world over, instituted their own opium and proved that one can kill one's own citizens by the millions in the name of another god, 'Communism'. The modern world's most monstrous savages, Hitler and Stalin, who industrialized savagery in concentration camps and Gulags were atheists. How come we never hear Stalin or Hitler's killings attributed to their atheism? I think it should be.

EVR's followers, particularly, Annathurai, would often speak of Voltaire without having ever read Voltaire. Voltaire, it should be crucially noted, revolted against, ecclesiastical organized religion and superstition, not against 'God' himself. Voltaire spoke of superstition as "a serpent which chokes religion in its embrace; we must crush its head without wounding the mother whom it devours". Will Durant is categorical in stating that Voltaire rejected atheism. Asked by Bayle "if a society of atheists could subsist?-Voltaire answers, 'Yes, if they are also philosophers".

Not everyone is a philosopher. The common man in his simplicity gets his ideas of morals from the New Testament or Hadith or Sura or Gita. In a striking manner religions mostly agree on what is good and moral. From the illiterate villager in India to a farmer in Idaho religion gives a compass to what might be otherwise a rudderless life with nothing to fear or aspire for.

What have atheists given to the world of literature or art or music or painting that would match the scope of religious outpouring. There is poetry in the defiance of Thyagaraja telling a king that he will not sing of a man as he sings of his lord Rama. Milton reconciling to his blindness saying 'they also serve who only stand and wait' elevates religion from an emotional crutch to a philosophical wondering of meaning of suffering.

Harold Khushner, grieving from the loss of his young boy who died of progeria, wrote his heartfelt 'When bad things happen to good people'. John Gunther, also grieving of his son, wrote 'Death be not proud'. Everyone who has faced strife in life has cleaved to books like those or to passages within religious texts to understand or at least to console one's own suffering. The atheist looks at all those with a smugness. Would the atheist rather have a world gone mad with people unable to suffer stoically? What a monied rich man can gain from fancy psychiatry to address grief the common man gains from religion or the local priest.

Unlike atheism, which is flat and barren, religion exists at different levels. There is Einstein who loved the idea of an abstract God that was beyond any conventional idea of labels. A Hindu steeped in Vedas can understand that the Brahman is to be searched within and is an individual journey. A Christian can boil down all of Bible to loving one's neighbor.

Voltaire, Will Durant tells us, does not believe in miracles or that prayers can change what has happened or about to happen. Asked by his apostle to teach how to pray Christ gives the Lord's prayer which, in all its simplicity, does not ask for anything to be changed by the very act of prayer. Acceptance of what has happened and not to expect miracles is a very cardinal principle of religion.

What of the atheists themselves who put so much store in rationalism and logic. In a strange irony that only life can offer both EVR and Ayn Rand, tied at the hip by their strident opposition to religion and exultation of individual reasoning, lived a life that was anything but rational. Of course I am insulting Ayn Rand, a far greater and subtler intellect, by comparing her to EVR who had no instruction in anything classical.

Both EVR and Ayn Rand demanded absolute unquestioning loyalty from their followers. And oh yes they loved to have people they could call 'followers'. Both left behinds stewards of their fame, Leonard Peikoff and Veeramani, who are extremely intolerant of any openminded justifiable critique by any one of their idols.

Ayn Rand's untrammeled individualism shocked many on the right wing even. William F. Buckley who was fashioning himself as the intellectual vanguard of America's right wing, rejected her atheism as dangerous. An individualism not circumscribed within a limit subject to divine authority was too fearsome to an American who had just battled Hitler and was locked in a mortal combat with Stalin.
EVR's bete-noire and famous Tamil writer Jeyakanthan wryly noted 'Veeramni and his DK partymen are not atheists, their god is EVR'.

Imagine Martin Luther King and hundreds of blacks standing at the bridge in Selma facing baton wielding horse mounted cops ready to strike down. They stood arrayed against brute force. In the front was what force in its visible form, behind them, if they retreated, was the yawning chasm of dark racist present day waiting to devour them invisibly. If they thought of Jews standing in front of Red sea pursued by the Pharoah's chariots I'd not be surprised. In that moment when hope is far away and suffering is at hand they found succor in religion and God.

Malcolm X decried Christianity as the religion of the oppressor. Yet MLK Jr saw that it is not Christianity that was the problem but the perversion of its message by racist bigots. MLK Jr, like Ganhdi, rooted his struggle in religious overtones. What can a leader do when they are fighting against the greatest empires of their day?

Cast out in the night from a train Gandhi 'clings' to his beloved Gita. Is this 'clinging' morally inferior to a stoic? Not in any way. This is clinging as a creeper clings only to rise and grow. Religion is often a tool. Gandhi and Jinnah both used religion as a tool. Gandhi was more heartfelt and sincere in using the tool to integrate an inchoate mass and even to reform the ills of Hinduism. Jinnah used religion as a wedge.

For the striking workers in Gdansk shipyard the message of a Polish pope gave hope. The Nikolai Church in Leipzig was the refuge of those who chafed against communist suppression for decades. The Nikolai church was the epicenter for a people without hope. When there is no hope in mankind and one has to keep struggling where does one go but to a divine omnipresence. In blighted neighborhoods in America it is the local church that still does what no government can ever hope to do.

I've seen crucial differences between how religion is practiced in India compared to America. A key aspect of the difference is Hinduism, the majority religion in India, is not organized religion unlike Christianity, which is the majority religion in America. The philosophical differences and the lack of organizational structure has its pros and cons. Indians have not seen religion as a force for good and societal change at a level beyond the local. Not at least since Gandhi. Churches are vehicles of philanthropy and service in America. To be fair, churches in India are not similar to churches in America.

Religions, particularly Christianity and Hinduism have continually thrown up reformers who re-interpreted, revitalized and reformed them from within. EVR, with his simplistic understanding of caste structure and penchant for scapegoating Brahmins could not see beyond destroying religion as a panacea. Gandhi wanted to reform Hinduism from within. EVR mistook being a bull in a china shop for iconoclasm. By focusing on Brahmins in a Neo-nazi manner EVR gave every other upper caste a pass to institutionalize casteism. In fact Dalits in recent times have argued that EVR was no friend of Muslims or Dalits. A free India, Gandhi's India, banished untouchability and institutionalized the reforms that Gandhi and many other fought for. Of course, as always, much remains to be done. But the foundation is there.

In Tamil Nadu the so called rational movement spear headed by EVR and later carried forward by Annathurai and his cohorts played mischief upon the ignorance of the ordinary Tamil. Annathurai would lecture tamils that Americans, devoid of superstition, progressed in science and technology. Nothing was or is further from truth. EVR, given that he did not read much, never understood the role of Christian theology in unleashing scientific curiosity and America's capitalism. The West owes a lot to Islam for geometry and algebra. It is not an accident that EVR's message of hate took root more easily than his atheism which floundered pathetically even amongst his own followers. Seeking political office and broad based acceptance the first principle of EVR that Annathurai abandoned was atheism.

Religion is not just about power and race. There is am indefinable beauty in the traditions and rituals that forms an envelope for religion. The harvest festival in Tamil Nadu where the Sun god is worshipped brings joy in a simple manner to a village of farmers. It is silly to question if a demon lived and if his death should be celebrated as Diwali. Even a villager in India can instruct an atheist that such a story is but a symbolism. Metaphors and symbolic constructs abound in religious rituals and festivals. Those festivals give a meaning to daily life. Ridiculing them by taking the stories literally only shows the impoverished mind of a smug atheist who preens that he is an intellectual while in reality he/she is a boor.

Much is made of sex scandals involving priests or the church. The abuse of boys by catholic priests in US is a despicable blot on the church. In Tamil Nadu Veeramani and his acolytes incessantly point to scandalous hindu priests (never from other religions for fear of being seen as anti-minority). The common man does not profess a religion based on the conduct of the local priest. Let it be noted that atheist Annathurai and Karunanidhi, self-styled ideological heirs of EVR, were scandalous in private life. Yet their private life is not taken as a yardstick to judge every atheist including EVR, who actually, was a more sincere person.

Scientists are prone to their own obduracies. Let not any man or woman of science think too superior of themselves compared to a farmer who prays for rains. The history of science is replete with examples of men (rarely women) failing to see the mistakes of their proofs or for entertaining the most basic principle of science, 'falsifiability'.

Hamlet tells his friend Horatio, "the world has much more to offer than what is dreamt of in your philosophies". Since not everyone is a philosopher Voltaire concedes "if God did not exist we would have to invent him". Religion has a place in human life. To deny it or to ridicule it is useless. Nothing in human life along the stretch of history is good for all time to come. Governments and markets and social mores evolve constantly. So does religion. So should it be. But to wish for the demise of religion is a death wish.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people." -Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922.