Secularism in the Indian Context

Continuing the same thread from my previous blog post, I thought I should do a little bit more research into the concept of secularism. Everyone in India bandies the word about, but nobody (including yours truly) seems to know what it actually means.

“Secularism” as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary – the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society; indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations” – is essentially a Western concept, and I decided to start my reading from Western authors. The first book I selected was The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur.

Paul Cliteur is a Dutch jurist and philosopher known for his liberal atheistic views, and this book enhances that reputation. It is divided into four parts, which the author considers as the pillars of a secular outlook.

Atheism

According to Cliteur, an atheistic worldview is a prerequisite for a secular frame of mind. He makes it clear that this need not be of the public and militant variety of Dawkins and Hitchens; and he is vehement that it should not be a state philosophy enforced on hapless citizenry like that of China or the former Soviet Union. Cliteur’s atheism is “a-theism” or “non-theism” – the denial of an absolute and personal God, like that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Atheism does not negate the philosophical concepts of God; neither does it purport to prove the non-existence of God. It is not belief in the non-existence of a concrete God, rather, it is the absence of belief. In this sense, Cliteur ranks it superior to agnosticism, which he considers to be a purposeful decision to politically defer a troublesome question.

Criticism of Religion

Cliteur posits two facets of “freethought” as essential for a secular outlook. The first of this is criticism of religion; not the religious establishment, but the basic tenets themselves. He does not subscribe to the viewpoint that religion “per se” is good, it is only the interpretation that is the problem – you cannot stretch what is written in the holy text to mean what you want it to mean, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. If a terrorist reads a passage in a holy book which exhorts the believer to murder the infidel and acts on it, the fault of the person is not for “misinterpreting” the passage: the fault is blind faith, and of the holy book for having the passage there in the first place. The secular person should learn to understand and reject such facets of religion.

Freedom of Expression

The second facet of freethought, Cliteur defines as the freedom of expression. It is not only necessary that one should be able to take a critical look at religion – one should also be willing and able to express that criticism. Cliteur has the same opinion as John Stuart Mill, the apostle of free speech, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against its will, is to prevent harm to others.” To put it in simple terms, any citizen of a free society should be able to say what he/ she wants to as long as it is not intended to provoke physical harm to other human beings. In this context, Cliteur is severely critical of the contemporary mindset of many of the liberal democracies that religious sentiments should be treated with special respect.

Secularist Ethics

In the final chapter, the author ties together all the discussion into the million-dollar question: can a moral human being exist without religious values: or will we descend into the utter chaos of moral relativity, a world where “anything goes” depending upon the hedonistic impulses of people?

It is no secret on which side of the debate Cliteur stands. He does a fine job of establishing that moral values are inbuilt in human beings, and a mature society will foster those intrinsic values rather than impose them as derived from a heavenly authority – which he considers infantile. In this context, he quotes Lawrence Kohlberg, the famous American psychologist, who had posited the following stages of moral development in children.

  1. Orientation to punishment and reward, and to physical and material power.
  2. Hedonistic orientation with an instrumental view of human relations (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”).
  3. “Good Boy” orientations; seeking to maintain expectations and win approval of one’s immediate group.
  4. Orientation to authority, law and duty, to maintaining a fixed order, whether social or religious, assumed as a primary value.
  5. Social-contract orientation, with emphasis on equality and mutual obligation within a democratically established order; for example, the morality of the American Constitution.
  6. Principles of conscience that have logical comprehensiveness and universality. Highest value placed on human life, equality, and dignity.

Cliteur writes:

The first two stages are typical of young children and delinquents. According to Kohlberg they are “pre-moral”. Decisions are made largely on the basis of self-interest. Stages 3 and 4 are “conventional”. They are the ones on the basis of which most of the adult population operate. The final stages are the “principled” stages. Those are characteristic of 20 to 25 percent of the adult population. Perhaps only 5 or 10 percent arrive at the sixth and final stage. Only at stage 6 is each life seen as inherently worthwhile, aside from other considerations.

Religious ethics, or “Divine Command” ethics, is stuck at stage four, according to Cliteur. The believer obeys God without questioning the inherent fairness of His dictum. Here, the author brings up two issues discussed at length in chapters two and three and ties them up with the concept of ethics in general – the question of God’s cruelty towards his creation (the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Phinehas and Jephtha) in the Bible, and the intolerance of contemporary Islam towards its critics, which sanctions murder even transcending national boundaries (the plight of Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh). Cliteur’s argument is very explicit: here, the believer is urged to forego all human values and follow the command of God as set down in the Holy Text to the letter. No earthly law or court matters to him or her; judgement is in the court of God.

In this context, Cliteur is scathing in his criticism of religious apologists such as Karen Armstrong, who argue for the inherent goodness of all religions, and point to the interpretation of the text as the problem. According to him, it is an invalid argument: a believer is more likely to interpret what is written down literally than search for esoteric explanations. What the apologists do in trying to make the religious texts acceptable to modernity is reinterpret them in the light of universally acceptable ethics; thus cutting the foot to fit the shoe. In his view, this is dangerous, as it exonerates religion from historical guilt. What is required is the realisation that ethics is secular in nature, and the total rejection of the inhuman aspects of religion. Here, we are back to the “non-theism” of the first chapter.

***

Paul Cliteur seems to have written this book as a reaction to growing Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri and the violent reactions in the Islamic world to the Danish cartoons mocking Islam is mentioned in many contexts. Obviously, growing fundamentalism and its attendant terrorism among the Muslim fanatics is indeed a cause for concern; however, I seriously doubt whether a total rejection of religion can be the solution. I do not see a move towards Western style atheism in the East in the conceivable future. Maybe, an appreciation of the metaphoric value of myth as opposed to literalism is the real solution.

Secularism and India


A long time ago, at a book exhibition, I happened to wander into the book stall of Indian Atheist Publishers. They are known for their religious and social criticism. Scanning their shelves, I was struck by a curious fact: while there were a lot of books criticising the Hindu scriptures, there were very few on Islam and Christianity. This was made even more interesting by the fact that social criticism of all three religious establishments was available in equal measure. This was during a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party were making their mark for the first time in Indian politics. One of their main arguments – that the secularism practised in India was “Pseudosecularism” and in reality, it only meant appeasement of the minorities – seemed to be borne out by this particular experience.

Looking back now, when the Hindu Right has grown enormously in political clout and become very vociferous, I can see this in a new light. The Indian establishment pussyfoots around religious sentiments – criticism of Hindu tenets are allowed because the religion includes that criticism also within its fold. There is no “religious authority” in Hinduism, so various interpretations are possible: till recently, they were encouraged.

However, Hinduism also seems to be tilting towards the intolerance shown by “religions of the book” to any criticism – the recent decision of Penguin to pull Wendy Doniger’s book from publication seems to be an ominous indication of things to come. In this context, I personally feel that educated Hindus have the responsibility to bring the healthy spirit of criticism back into the religion, and encourage the same in other religions. It is this Indian open-mindedness which gave birth to Kapila, the Buddha, Adi Sankara, Vivekananda et al. That we can do this without forsaking our essential spirituality is our great advantage. It is what makes India different: we do not need “a-theism” as defined by Cliteur to be secular. We are religiously secular!

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What Hindutva Means to Me

Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just ridden in to power at the head of the biggest democracy in the world. This has naturally created some apprehension in the minds of liberal thinkers, because the BJP is known for its rejection of secularism (which it calls “pseudosecularism”) and wholesale advocacy of Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”), a term coined by V. D. Savarkar. To be fair, however, he did not mean any kind of fundamentalism by the word – from Wikipedia, in Savarkar’s own words:

Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be … but a history in full … Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race.

In this sense, Hindutva means only being Indian in the true sense; accepting its multi-flavoured culture while at the same time recognising that there is a common thread which unites us all, rather like beads of different colours and size being strung together on to make a necklace. Indians were called Hindus by the Persians, because they occupied the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) river. It was a term more geographical than religious, and used in this sense, there is nothing objectionable in it.

But is “Indian” and “Hindu” synonymous in the current historical context? Unfortunately, I will have to say no.

Hinduism

Even though Hindus like to call their religion the Sanatana Dharma (“Eternal Law”), there is nothing eternal about it – it is a mixture of the beliefs of the Aryans who migrated to India around 1700 B.C.E, and the indigenous people of the subcontinent. Over a period of time, the mythologies of the nomadic and warlike Aryans melded and merged with a kaleidoscope of local beliefs to create the rich tapestry we know by the name “Hinduism” today. There is no standard textbook for it, nor is there any standard ritual. What may be sacred for Hindus in one part of India may be the most heinous sin in other parts.

However, over a period of time, this religion took on an organised structure, and in terms of humanitarian principles, one of the worst ever in the history of world religions – the hierarchy of caste. Brahmins ruled over this mega structure without contributing anything to society (except esoteric “learning”) while the actual working class was thrown out of the social framework altogether: they were considered too “unclean” even to touch. The lowest stratum of society lived on in abject poverty while working themselves to death, while the top layer enjoyed life without doing a day’s productive work.

One can argue that this was the condition of humanity in almost all human societies in the ancient and medieval world, and one would be right. However, what set the Indian society apart was that this structure was doomed to stasis. Since caste was inherited, there was no way to escape from its tyranny in this life – so Hindus posited multiple lives in which the soul will be born again and again, either higher up or lower down in the hierarchy depending upon how virtuous one was in the current life. And the yardstick of virtuousness was how one adhered to the “Dharma” of one’s caste. So the maintenance of the status quo was firmly established. The Manu Smriti (“Laws of Manu”) sets forth the “ISO standard” (so to say!) for this system.

I do not know how such a non-egalitarian society came into being, or how a small minority was able to lord it over a huge majority for such a long time without the use of force. But it happened.

The Philosophical Aspect

Indians always had the tendency to run away from public life and meditate. So it is not unusual that while producing one of the most unfair societies, India also produced some of the world’s deepest philosophies. The sages went to the forest and meditated, and came up with one of the most advanced notions of God ever formulated – that of the Brahman. The Brahman, which may be roughly translated as “World Soul”, is the be-all and end-all of everything, the bedrock of all existence. Individual Atman (soul, consciousness) comes from it, and goes back to it after death. It is without time or space, containing everything, and finding expression in everything. The ultimate end of any Hindu is the realisation of Aham Brahma Asmi (“I am the Brahman”) or Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou Art That”), as found in the Upanishads.

It is interesting to note that such a lofty philosophy existed side by side with a religion which was extremely cruel in its treatment of human beings: and that too, without conflict. Indeed, when the Buddha turned this philosophy on its head and said that there was no Atman or Brahman, it was also assimilated into Indian culture – and the Buddha was turned into an incarnation of Vishnu! This is the strength of this religion, this assimilatory nature: pluralism is inbuilt. This is why Hindus and Hinduism have continued even under trying times.

As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “People the world over worship me in different forms. Ultimately they all come to me.”

You can’t get more inclusive than that.

The Coming of Christianity and Islam

The coming of the Levantine religions to India was also relatively peaceful. Christianity and Islam came to the Malabar Coast via the trade routes. According to all historical records, the rulers of Kerala gave these people land and the permission to build places of worship, and also to proselytise and spread their religion: this happened when bloody wars were being fought in the name of God elsewhere in the world.

The entry of Islam to northern India was a bit more problematic, as it was brought in by warlike tribes from Asia and not peaceful Arab traders as it happened in Kerala. Under waves and waves of invasions by Muslim warlords, and the reigns of various Muslim dynasties, there is sure to have been bad blood between Muslims and Hindus. The intolerance of Christian and Muslim rulers all over the world towards other religions is generally well-documented: there is no reason to assume it was different in India under Islamic rule. But we must not forget that religious tolerance is a relatively recent idea in history, before judging them; we must also note that even in such intolerant times, India produced an enlightened emperor like Akbar.

Secularism, the Indian Way

I have heard it repeated ad nauseam that it was the English that gave India the concept of a democratic and secular country. While this may be true in the case of democracy, I would beg to differ in the case of secularism – because secularism was practised in India much before this idea arose in the West.

I got the following definition from the web, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Secularism: the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society

Full Definition of SECULARISM: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations

As one can see, secularism here is more concerned with the exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It is etymologically related to secularisation, which means “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions”(from Wikipedia): that is, a slow movement away from religion. Many scientists and progressive thinkers (Richard Dawkins being one vociferous example) in the West still believe that society will become fully atheistic in the future – they in fact see this as a desirable outcome. Secularism is seen as the first step to this Godless utopia.

I think Indian secularism is markedly different from this. It has its roots in the concept of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhavana as propounded by Gandhi – accepting the equality of all religions as valid pathways to enlightenment. Here, the state embraces all religions equally. It is driven by the principle of inclusion rather than exclusion – acceptance of all religions and appeasement of none.

The Resurgence of Hindutva

Unfortunately, the above principle would work only if all religions get enlightened. In India, it has led to minorities banding in communal terms and becoming vote banks, which politicians exploit. This has lead to dissatisfaction among the majority Hindus, which the BJP has been exploiting in a big way since 1989: twenty-five years hence, they have stormed into power.

The worrying factor here is the fact that the BJP’s interpretation of Hindutva is not one of inclusiveness. By calling Hinduism the Sanatana Dharma, they go back to Vedic Brahmanism with all its reactionary baggage. It is true that the caste hierarchy is condemned by the party, but the texts they consider sacred are the same ones which justified this system. The BJP’s requirement to accept the whole of Hindu thought and history per se as “true” and “sacred” precludes any critical review of the same – in this they are as bad as any Levantine religion. Only, they use the pluralism of Indian history very cleverly to promote the notion of “Hindu tolerance”. That they could do this while tearing down a religious edifice of another religion must be recorded as one of the ironies of Indian history.

***

To summarise: I do not reject the concept of Hindutva as “Indian-ness”. Rather, I consider it superior to Western secularism. But my notion of Hindutva embraces Charvaka, the atheist philosopher; it draws energy from the concept of Aham Brahma Asmi and Tat Tvam Asi of the Upanishads; it looks upon the Buddha and Adi Sankara with the same reverence. My concept rejects the Laws of Manu, which forced a king to kill a lower caste person for doing Sannyasa (the Hindu way of meditation and penance to attain enlightenment); it rejects the sentiments of a crazed mob which tore down a place of worship in the name of a mythical Hindu king who is hailed as “Maryada Purushottama” (a morally perfect human being).

I am an Indian, and a Hindu – and I stand by right to reject the Vedas, the “Holy” Scriptures, and “God” as defined by the pundits, and still remain a Hindu.

This is what “Hindutva” means to me.

The Role of the Vidushaka

Seeing my posts on Facebook, people are confused as to which party I support, as I make fun of everybody. My standard reply is that I am a liberal leftist as far as political leaning is concerned, with an intense hatred for fundamentalism, be it religious or secular. However, that does not prevent me from cracking jokes at liberal leftists also – because I tend to see the absurd and ridiculous in all things, myself not excluded. This is the way I am built.

Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s spinster detective, says often: “You know, I don’t usually find people either good or bad – just incredibly silly.” This happens with me quite often, especially when I listen to the pompous and self-important speech of politicians. Once you pull back from your emotional reaction and detach the words from their rhetorical context, the first thing I feel is a need to laugh.

The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think – Aristotle.

Yes indeed!

***

The Vidushaka is the “Court Jester” in Sanskrit drama. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

The vidushaka (clown) is a noble, good-hearted, blundering fool, the trusted friend of the hero. A bald-headed glutton, comic in speech and manners, he is the darling of the spectators.

Chakyar in his distinctive attire (image courtesy: The Hindu)

Malayalis are familiar with the Vidushaka in the guise of the Chakyar. The “Chakyar Koothu” is a famous form of satirical drama in Kerala, where the distinctively dressed Chakyar narrates tales from Hindu mythology on the stage, many a time acting out the various parts himself. The distinctive feature of this performance is the funny twist he gives to many stories. All the mythical figures (especially the villains of the piece) are interpreted in a satirical way. Even the great tragedies become comedies.

The Chakyar also makes fun of the audience, comparing them to mythical characters, sometimes addressing them directly and making pithy statements. There will also be plenty of social satire: mythical situations are interpreted in the light of current political realities. The significant point to be noted is that the Chakyar is beyond criticism. In earlier days, kings used to be present for the performance, and many a time they were openly ridiculed – but none of them talked back. If one does so, the Chakyar will no longer perform at that venue.

One can see how this must have served the purpose of feedback to the ruling class. The things people were afraid to say in public, the Chakyar told the king to his face: and he had to bear it with a stiff upper lip. And the humour took away any possible rancour which could have spoiled the situation. By laughing at himself, the king presumably was allowed revisit his policies with the emotional baggage stripped away. Because, as H. L. Mencken said: “One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.”

***

I try to imagine myself in the role of the Vidushaka on the internet.  So laugh with me (and at me), while I laugh at myself and the world! Rest assured, it will improve your mental and physical health.

The Chakyar has spoken.

By nandakishorevarma Posted in General

American Imperialism – The Disney Way (A Review of “How to Read Donald Duck” by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart)

…This book, conceived for the Chilean people, and our urgent needs, produced in the midst of our struggle, is now being published far from Chile in the uncleland of Disney, behind the barbed wire network of ITT.

Mr. Disney, we are returning your Duck. Feathers plucked and well-roasted. Look inside, you can see the handwriting on the wall, our hands still writing on the wall:

Donald, Go Home!

  • Dorfman and Mattelart, January 1975, in exile

Donald Duck as the agent of American imperialism? Surely it’s a joke, right?

Not according to Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, exiles from the Chilean dictatorship. They are in dead earnest – and they do a good job of convincing the reader, in this slim volume of less than a hundred pages.

Donald Duck (and later on, Uncle Scrooge) was my personal favourite among the Disney characters. In an age bereft of TV and computers, comic books were very popular among the bookish kids – and Walt Disney was a sort of god in the field. If anybody would have mentioned that there was anything political in those harmless fantasies in those days, he would have been ridiculed to death.

But that was India. In Latin America, a turbulent continent struggling with lawlessness on one hand and dictators backed by the USA on the other, anything and everything was political. In Chile, a country with an unfortunate history, the struggle between capitalistic despotism and communism was fought on the arena of comic books – unlikely as it may seem.

***

In 1973, the democratic government in Chile was overthrown by the military with the blessings of the USA and with liberal help from the CIA. Liberals and leftists were jailed and tortured. Democratic institutions were closed down. Books were burned, including this one. Even now, this book is not available in Chile: in those days, to be found in possession of one was to risk death at the hands of the authorities.

This “War of the Comics” had started in 1971. In 1970, after the Popular Unity government came to power, there was a marked shift to the left. This worried the US, because Chile was totally in their economic control till then. However, as David Kunzle says (in the introduction to the book), it was easier to nationalise the copper industry than to remove the influence of insidious American popular media. Chile took the effort anyway: apart from this book, a local comic called Cabro Chico (“Little Kid”) was created to counter Disney. How effective these measures were can be seen by the violent reaction of El Mercurio, a reactionary daily (funded by the CIA, no less), who claimed these comics were a plot to seize the control of young minds by Marxist media – which was true in a sense. What they forgot to mention was this was already being done by America, through its “free” press!

The inevitable happened: the military stepped in with the blessings of the US. In the words of David Kunzle:

On September 11, 1973 the Chilean armed forces executed, with U. S. aid, the bloodiest counterrevolution in the history of the continent. Tens of thousands of workers and government supporters were killed. All art and literature favourable to the Popular Unity was immediately suppressed. Murals were destroyed. There were public bonfires of books, posters and comics. Intellectuals of the left were hunted down, jailed, tortured and killed: among those persecuted, the authors of this book.

To illustrate where Disney stood in this fight, Kunzle reproduces a cartoon which is chilling in its implications. A couple of vultures, Marx and Hegel (see the blatant politicisation in the names) are attacking innocent animals, and Jiminy Cricket as the voice of conscience is trying to dissuade them. However, they attack Jiminy (“Get him, comrade!”) who says “Occasionally I run up against guys who are immune to the voice of conscience“. However, the farmer comes with his guns and chases the birds away, cheered on by Jiminy: “Ha! Firearms are the only thing these bloody birds are afraid of.” Emphasis is mine, to clarify the message – shoot the communist.

Definitely not the Uncle Walt I knew as a child – so let’s now look at Disney the man before diving into the book.

Disney the Man

Like many famous people, there is a wide chasm between Disney’s public persona and his private. Publicly, he is Uncle Walt, pandering to the all the children of the world and the universal child in all of us. He is the creator of innocent dreams, the merchant of fun and frolic worldwide. In an entertainment industry tainted by sex and violence, he stands as a beacon of clean fun.

In reality, Disney is now known to be a ruthless businessman whose eye is firmly fixed on the dollar (like the ‘$’ which lights up Uncle Scrooge’s eyes time and again). Almost all his work is the production of hapless wage slaves who are not given credit for their creative output. Walt is also a man of dysfunctional family relationships. Instead of being an animal lover, he only loved the money the animals brought in: especially shocking is the story where his film crew ran lemmings off a cliff into the sea, to show them committing “mass suicide” in his movie – a myth which has been disproven now. Uncle Walt is most definitely not Mickey Mouse: he is more akin to Uncle Scrooge.

Walt Disney, by his own admission, never learned to draw and never put pen to paper since 1926. What he did was assimilate and market the creative a genius of a group of people. The case of Carl Barks is illustrative: Barks retired in 1967 from the Disney Empire and was unknown until relatively recently even though he drew most of the popular Donald Duck stories and created many endearing and enduring characters – the most popular being Uncle Scrooge. In actuality, the relationship between Disney and Barks was almost a parallel of that between Scrooge and Donald (one almost wonders whether Barks did it tongue in cheek). Walt did not consider any of his employees as creators or what he did as art, it seems – he was interested more in its marketability. This trend is continued by the Disney studios even now. It is the god of capitalism and consumerism at the altar of whom they worship.

Walt’s family life also informs his stories. His father was a carpenter and failed farmer, who subjected him gruelling labour – getting up at 3:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers, sometimes in biting cold, to augment the family income. He also occasionally beat him with a leather strap for no good reason. The memories of a mother are absent from Disney’s memories, so is that of his little sister: there is no feminine touch. Walt did not keep in touch with his parents as a grown-up. According to the authors of this book, this dysfunctional childhood and subsequent development as a capitalist shapes Disney’s worldview, and those of his characters.

Now, onward to Duckburg!

Juvenile Literature

We tend to think of “Children’s Literature” as different. Children are supposed to live in a world of innocence, free from all subterfuge and deception. Their world accordingly, has to be “sanitised” from such “evils” as violence and sex: and above all, from politics. As the authors say in the introduction:

Inasmuch as the sweet and docile child can be sheltered effectively from the evils of existence, from the petty rancours, the hatreds, and the political and ideological contamination of his elders, any attempt to politicise the sacred domain of childhood threatens to introduce perversity where there once reigned happiness, innocence and fantasy.

It is this mythical world which Disney aims to protect with his magical world of talking animals.

According to Dorfman and Mattelart, this ideal child’s world is creation of the adult, based on their concept of what a child should be. Children’s literature envisages a magical world which is nothing but a projection of the adult’s inner child which wants to shut out the unpleasantness and angst of existence, prevent all forms of questioning, and ensure the perpetuation of the current society with its status quo. And this lie is self-sustaining: children nurtured in such an environment grow into adults who will continue to recreate this fantasy world of the nursery and the vicious circle is maintained.

So the apolitical world of the child is anything but: its lack of politics is its politics. And Donald and company invades this universe with their own subliminal messages which affect the mind of children in insidious ways.

The Uncle-controlled Universe

In Disney, there are no fathers, mothers, wives, brothers or sisters – we have instead a plethora of uncles, aunts, cousins and girlfriends. There is no reference to parents at all. The characters have no biological roots, and seem to have originated out of a vacuum. Moreover, there is no sexuality other than of the most puerile kind – the ladies (Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse) exist just to be courted, and they display all the drawbacks of the traditional nineteenth century female stereotype: bossy, temperamental, vain and foolishly romantic. There are no husbands or wives, just fiancés.

Disney’s “uncle-land” is, however, strictly hierarchical; and it is the authors’ argument that the lack of any strong biological ties makes this world even more arbitrarily disciplinarian than a real family ever would be. Scrooge McDuck exercises absolute control over Donald and his nephews by the threat of “cutting them out of his will” (in fact, this threat is used in more than one place in the Disney stories, showing where the real power lies – money), and makes them do grossly unreasonable tasks. Similarly, the slacker Donald also exerts total power over his nephews: however, the tables are usually turned when the kids prove much more resourceful than their uncle. Here is another significant fact according to Dorfman and Mattelart: it is only by mimicking adult behaviour and becoming “little men” that children are able to take control of their universe

The World Outside Duckburg

Donald and company constantly move out of Duckburg into the wild blue yonder. Disney is a stern critic of the city and its pollution, and the characters are always trying to move out into the “clean” world of nature. Like fairy tales, the woods are always available nearby. Also, once in a while Donald, Scrooge et al. make adventurous trips into the uncharted wilds of Africa or the Amazon: however, the aim of these trips is usually to bring home some priceless artefact or to make money otherwise. The dollar is always the bottom line.

The “natives” the Disney characters meet outside the sanitised environs of Duckburg are of two categories. The first is the “noble savage” popularised in colonial literature: the black, brown or yellow man who is full of an innate goodness but who did not get a chance to become civilised like the white man. These natives are shown as having plenty of natural resources (gold, diamond, oil etc.) which are no good to them (sometimes even a curse). Scrooge usually “helps” them by relieving them of these things in return for trinkets. (There are also bad characters like Black Pete and the Beagle Boys who steal from them. The only difference between them and Scrooge is that the latter does it openly under a patently unbalanced trade agreement! However, more about that later.)

The second type is anything but noble. These are the evil revolutionaries and insurgents who disrupt the natural order (read: feudal or capitalistic) of a country and try to impose a military dictatorship (read: socialism). Donald and Scrooge usually get caught in these disputes and are always shown fighting on the side of the “good” guys: i.e. the king or democratically elected president. Towards the end of the story, the natives realise that the revolutionaries are traitorous agents of “enemy” countries and turn against them and re-establish the monarchy or the capitalist republic. McCarthy would have been proud!

The Good, Bad and Ugly

Who are the bad persons in Disney?

Simple. They are the thieves who steal private property.

Private property is sacred for Disney, no matter how it’s made. Scrooge’s millions, even if made unscrupulously, are legitimately his: the Beagle Boys who try to take it away are evil. And as we saw earlier, those who try to “steal” the wealth from third-world countries are thieves, while those who take it away through patently unfair trade agreements are good: because commerce, the lifeblood of capitalism, is sacred.

There is hardly any manufacturing activity going on in Duckburg. The people are work in the tertiary service sector. So where is the money rolling in from? Maybe children don’t think about it, but it comes from manufacturing and industry, which keeps tycoons like Scrooge rich. By keeping Duckburg sanitised from its corrupting influence, all the Disney characters are kept firmly in the field of the imagined capitalist utopia of America. People have money-making “ideas” here, however, there is no explanation of how the ideas actually make money.

Take the central character of Donald. He is a slacker who is permanently broke, yet can’t hold down a steady job. Donald continuously has ideas which more often than not turn out disastrous; however, he manages to survive. And it is worthwhile to note that Donald is not concerned about where his next meal is coming from – he’s concerned about his next payment on the mortgage or the TV instalment! Donald is not a representative of the downtrodden poor – his poverty is lack of luxury, and the comics show that only his lack of enterprise is the reason for this. The lesson: poverty is due to the unworthiness of the person.

Contrast this with Mickey, the only really “heroic” character in Disney’s stories. Mickey is extremely smart and resourceful. His only aim in life is helping others. Like Donald, Mickey is never shown having a steady job yet he lives comfortably. One thing he’s always doing is helping the police nab malefactors, just for the fun of it. Mickey is the symbol of stability in a chaotic world, a “world policeman”. Need I say more?

A Static World

For all its hectic activity, nothing changes in Duckburg. The stories are endless repetitions: the characters are static in their nature. The Beagle Boys, for example, walk about with their masks and their convict tags around their necks! Even when Disney characters move across time to do historical stories, their nature and the type of societal relations does not change. However, by giving the “upper class” characters in his stories little quirks which allow them to oscillate within a permitted range, Walt Disney creates an illusion of fluidity and randomness which is not present in the usual superhero comics. He allows the status quo to be maintained while providing the feeling that it is being destroyed and recreated every time. Therein, according to the authors, lies his victory.

***

I cannot dispute the depth of research and the clarity of analysis on the side of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. They have written very lucidly, and most of their conclusions are hard to refute. Having read a lot of Donald Duck, I could recollect and remember many of the stories analysed here and look at them afresh through the eyes of the authors – and I saw a wholly different world. The book influenced me despite myself. Kudos, gents.

What I was thinking all the while I was reading was how popular media informs and sustains stereotypes which maintain the status quo: just look at most of our Indian movies and TV soaps. They have to, if they want to sell their product! This is the inherent nature of capitalism, or any philosophy which depends upon the perpetuation of social inequality to maintain itself.

But I still love Donald, because I believe that characters have a life of their own apart from their social context. I can still read Disney’s stories, and laugh at this silly little duck in the sailor suit with his grandiose ideas and short temper without thinking about the imperialist baggage he carries.

 

 

The Core of Buddhism (a Review of “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor)

This we may term the fundamental posture of the Buddhist mind. The serious commitment of the Occidental mind to the concerns and value of the living person is fundamentally dismissed, as it is in Jainism, and in the Sankhya too. However, the usual Oriental concern for the monad also is dismissed. There is no reincarnating hero-monad to be saved, released, or found. All life is sorrowful, and yet, there is no self, no being, no entity, in sorrow. There is no reason, consequently, to feel loathing, shock, or nausea, before the spectacle of the world: but, on the contrary, the only feeling appropriate is compassion (karuna), which is immediately felt, in fact, when the paradoxical, incommunicable truth is realized that all these suffering beings are in reality – no beings.

The main point of the doctrine is clear enough, however, which is, namely, that, since all things are without a self, no one has to attain extinction; everyone is, in fact, already extinct and has always been so. Ignorance, however, leads to the notion and therefore the experience of an entity in pain. And not disdain or loathing, but compassion is to be felt for all those suffering beings who, if they were only quit of their ego-notion, would know-and experience the fact-that there is no suffering person anywhere at all.

  • Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. III – Oriental Mythology

The above quote from Joseph Campbell (especially the highlighted portion) delineates the core concept of the philosophy propounded by Gautama Buddha – the non-existence of the soul. Here is where the Buddha takes off from the philosophies extant in India until that point of time, and takes the radical step of the killing off of the soul. Traditional Hindu thought posits the Atman, or individual soul, as an expression of the Brahman, the World Soul: the self and the Self. The aim of enlightenment is to realise that worldly existence is illusory: the “real” existence begins when one’s ego is extinguished and the oneness with the Brahman is known. This frees the soul from the cycle of karma, birth, rebirth and worldly existence.

The Buddha took this philosophy and stood it on its head. He agreed that suffering arises because of the attachment of the ego to the world – the basic illusory nature of the ego is to be understood, and let go. However, after this event, there is no unveiling of a beatific existence in an everlasting garden of the eternal bliss of oneness with the Brahman – because it doesn’t exist. In fact, nothing exists other than this fleeting moment, this here and the now. This is the liberation, the Nirvana.

On the practical front, the Hindu philosophies reinforced the existing political system. If one’s existence on this earth is illusory, it does not matter whether one is a Kshatriya king enjoying all the palace delights or a lowly untouchable scavenger carting away human excrement – the souls of both these people are parts of the same Brahman. In another life with different karma, they can be reversed until ultimately they merge with the world soul. The duty of the individual was to realise this and be a faithful cog in the machine, all the time trying to attain a higher plane of existence.

The Buddha did not question the fact that one is only a cog in the machine – however, by denying the existence of the soul, he proposed a different solution for the ending of pain: that of the cog to stop functioning as a cog. This was revolutionary in the sense that it threatened the existence of Indian society as one knew it at that point of time.

However, as Buddhism grew and spread as a religion, Gautama’s teachings were coloured and corrupted by the local beliefs wherever it reached. It seems that man’s need for transcendence proved stronger than his need for an earthly nirvana – the result is the religion which the world knows today as “Buddhism”, which is ridden with rituals and superstitions, and the very beliefs in karma and rebirth which the Buddha rejected. And in its birthplace in India, Buddhism was assimilated into Hinduism and the Buddha was transformed into an incarnation of Lord Vishnu!

In Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, internationally reputed Buddhist scholar and former monk Stephen Batchelor analyses this transformation. He does it as he recounts his career transformation from monk to layman; from his initiation into Buddhism under the Dalai Lama, to his loss of faith in its polytheistic worldview and subsequent shift to Zen Buddhism in Korea; his disenchantment with its worship of emptiness and hollow rituals which led to his eventual disrobing and marriage to a fellow bhikhuni (nun); his retracing of Siddhartha’s life journey geographically and historically while researching the Buddha’s discourses at the same time; and his ultimate realisation of its essential atheism.

***

Like others on the hippie trail to India, I thought of myself as a traveller rather than a mere tourist, someone on an indeterminate quest rather than a journey with a prescribed beginning and an end. Had I been asked what I was seeking, I doubt my answer would have been very coherent. I had no destination, either of the geographical or spiritual kind.

So writes Stephen Batchelor of the beginning of his journey.

In the early seventies, Western youth disenchanted with materialistic philosophies and moralising religions fell in love with the Mystic East, a country which existed mostly in their imagination. They trekked to India in hundreds, enduring unbelievable privation, filth and diseases, searching for a salvation which they could barely define. Many of them fell prey to debilitating diseases and death: many fell into the clutches of unscrupulous “Guru”s: a fortunate few found their real spiritual or temporal calling. Batchelor was one of the lucky few.

Batchelor started his spiritual journey as a monk under the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in India. Under the guru Geshe Dhargyey, he soon picked up the basic teachings of Mahayana Buddhism: of the karmic wheel of existence, of the cycle of birth and rebirth which had to be extinguished, the bodhisattva who reincarnates to save the world, and the multitude of benevolent and malevolent deities. At that point of time, Batchelor did not know that this was only one school of Buddhism and rather removed from the teachings of the original Siddhartha Gautama – it was rather a mix of the mythical Buddha and the local Tibetan religion.

Quite fortuitously, Batchelor had the chance to attend a ten-day course on Vipassana meditation provided by the Indian teacher S. N. Goenka, and this proved to be his introduction to Hinayana Buddhism, which relied on the concentration on the here and the now rather than a celestial existence elsewhere. The Vipassana meditation consisted of breathing techniques which was aimed at making the meditator aware of his body and self and how it connected with the world as a whole. Batchelor was entranced and explored further, and soon found that the so-called “canonical” Tibetan school left out many of the teachings of the Buddha. In his own words, this retreat “opened up the first crack in the edifice of my faith in Tibetan Buddhism”.

Batchelor followed Geshe Rabten to Switzerland to set up a mission there, but his disenchantment with Tibetan Buddhism continued, the more so because it was intellectual in nature and did not include the mystical experience as such. Soon he migrated to Korea to study Zen Buddhism under the teacher Kusan Sunim: however, there also he was dissatisfied. Zen Buddhism was wholly experiential in nature without any metaphysics to explain the concept of Nirvana. To paraphrase Batchelor, he was using the meditative practice of a religious school with whose philosophy he disagreed, to realise the philosophy of a school with whose practices he disagreed!

After Kusan Sunim’s death, the inevitable happened: Batchelor disrobed. He married the Buddhist nun Songil (Martine, a Frenchwoman) and settled at Sharpham House in Devon, a centre for alternate living. Then he got a chance to travel across India as a photographer, recording the Buddhist pilgrimage spots. This journey became a spiritual and historical trek, as Batchelor tried to disengage Siddhartha Gautama the man from the Buddha of myth – and came up with some surprising revelations.

This is the heart of this memoir.

***

Buddhist myth tries to project the Buddha as a perfect human being who could do no wrong. According to legend, after his enlightenment he wandered across India, spreading the sweetness and light of this exhilarating new religion, converting whoever he came into contact by the sheer magnetism of his personality. As all legends go, this is more myth than truth. Batchelor’s careful analysis of the Pali Canon shows the Buddha also to have been very much a human being with all the attendant faults and flaws: and very much a product his age, when a wandering sage had to depend mainly upon the largesse of whimsical kings, so had to keep always on their right side. It seems that Gautama also did this (his largely indulgent view of the court intrigues of King Pasenadi, his patron, bears witness to this fact). The Buddha’s actions were as full of political savvy as well as spiritual fervour.

Batchelor’s memoir draws a picture of Siddhartha Gautama as a driven man in search of a solution to the world’s ills, rather than as a loner in search of enlightenment: I was struck by the resemblance to the deconstruction of Jesus Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ. He sees the parable cited by the Buddha, of an ancient city which had been buried under the forest being rediscovered, as a temporal solution to the problem of suffering, rather than spiritual – as a new civilisation which has to develop based on the Four Noble Truths, which are outlined below.

  1. Suffering, which is to be fully known.
  2. Craving, the root of suffering, which is to be let go.
  3. Cessation of suffering which is to be experienced.
  4. The eightfold path which will lead to a full life.

Where Batchelor differs from the traditional view is in the nature of “enlightenment” that the Buddha received: rather than as a spiritual experience, he sees it as the discovery of a practical way out of the eternal cycle of suffering. He substitutes secular realisation for mystic insight. And the way lies not in the hereafter, and is not attained by withdrawal inwards to realise some mystic union with the world soul. It lies in the world, among the people. In the Here and the Now.

Batchelor cites the eightfold path as evidence of the secular nature of the Buddha’s teaching:

In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration…I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death…Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers…

The Buddha eschews both extremes of gratification and mortification – his is the middle way. The mind will succumb to desires; the trick is to be aware of the same, and let go. This letting go is a continuous process – there is no “still centre of existence” (to borrow from Joseph Campbell) to which one withdraws. The art of meditation is one of being continuously aware of oneself in this world. Thus, Batchelor places Buddhism at a corner diametrically opposite to Hinduism, where withdrawal from life and union with the absolute is seen as the ideal.

Batchelor’s view is not unique – a group of Neo-Buddhists in India, mostly from the Dalits (former “untouchables”) see Siddhartha Gautama as a social reformer who fought against Brahmin hegemony. Naturally, social reform is a natural outcome, since a man who preached universal compassion and rejected the idea of reincarnation would have necessarily rejected caste.

Do I agree with Batchelor? Partly. I also believe that Buddhism is essentially atheistic, and that the emphasis is on the Here and the Now rather than eternity. However, there is a major difference – I see Buddhism as a natural outgrowth of Indian thought. I have no doubt that the Buddha’s enlightenment was very much a mystic experience – only thing is, he tended to place nothingness in the place of infinity.

From Isa Upanishad

Om poornamadah poornamidam
Poornaat poornamudachyate

Poornasya poornamaadaya
Poornamevaavashishyate

[That is full (perfect); this is full. This fullness has been projected from that fullness. When this fullness merges in that fullness, all that remains is fullness.]

If x – x = x, then x can only be zero or infinity!

Hinduism posited that the temporal world is unreal (Maya): for the Buddha, it was not unreal but ephemeral. The Nirvana the Buddha preached existed at the very centre of life, in the eye of the storm. It is to act in the world, without being of it.

When it comes to the crunch, are zero and infinity all that different?

 

***

This is a thought-provoking book with some good insights into the historical Buddha, but the style is rambling and not very exciting. The constant shifts across time and space in the narrative are also jarring. However, it is worth a read.