On the first of July, terrorists took over a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and brutally hacked 20 hostages to death. This has (understandably) shook the country and the world at large: especially since attacks against atheists, liberals and religious minorities are on the rise in the country since the past one year. Predictably, posts lamenting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (from the non-Muslim Right) and those stressing that this has nothing to do with Islam (from religious apologists) have swamped the social media.
This particular incident, in a world which is growing more and more xenophobic and violent, has set me thinking deeply: for the perpetrators of this outrage were mostly educated youth with middle class backgrounds. The standard arguments about terrorism among the youth repeated ad nauseum by liberals (including yours truly!) – that mainly impoverished youngsters get sucked into terrorist outfits because it provides them sustenance; that terrorism arises mainly as a reaction against Western imperialist intervention – fall by the wayside here. This was terrorism in the name of religion, pure and simple: a personal religion based on the hatred of the “other”. And before my Muslim friends begin to take umbrage, let me reiterate that this kind of interpretation is possible with any faith.
Why? Why do young people choose this path of hatred?
I have a theory.
I am an atheist for all practical purposes – I consider the concept of a personal god, sitting up there in the cloud distributing blessings to his sycophants and raining down thunderbolts on sinners and non-believers indescribably silly. So also are the concepts of Indian gods with a multitude of faces and arms and gods who combine traits of animals and humans. Taken literally, that is. Once we consider these as metaphors, however, religious myths have an exquisite beauty.
I discovered Joseph Campbell in my early twenties. Sadly, I don’t think he is read much now in India. Campbell allowed me to look at myths, and thereby religion, in a new light. I could suddenly understand why mythical stories thrilled me even when my rational mind refused to accept them; why I felt rejuvenated when the temple opened the doors of its sanctum sanctorum for the twilight aarathi. Campbell put me in touch with my inner godhead, where all the journeys lead to, whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or atheist. This is the seat of the atman, the anatman, the immortal soul. The various religions and their paraphernalia are all metaphors for the same inexpressible mystery of living – all different masks for the same God.
What we call spirituality is nothing but a name for this inner quest. In Jungian terms, it is known as individuation; Campbell calls it the “Hero’s Journey”. This spiritual side is essential to human beings, and in our current times when religion is no longer prominent in society, it is expressed through art and literature.
But the spiritual side is not all “good” – in fact, there is no good/ bad dichotomy there. Everything is accepted. One of the main aims of the spiritual quests is to go beyond good and evil. This realm of the divine hosts both the ever-suffering Bhumi (The Earth Mother) as well as the bloodthirsty Kali.
One feature of our current society is the total abnegation of spirituality. We have become a race of consumers, bent only on the satisfaction of sensual pleasures. Success and failure are measured only on the basis of material gains: the growth of a country is evaluated solely on the basis of its GDP. On the educational front, the humanities are frowned upon, seen as a refugee camp for those who cannot make it in the professions or hard science.
In this context, our thirsty spiritual side is desperately hunting for sustenance – and finding it in the call of a bloodthirsty god, worshipped by bigots of all colour.
C. G. Jung famously wrote an essay on Wotan, the Norse god of war, which frighteningly foretold the rise of Nazism and its link with the warlike mythology of the Germanic races. Hitler was but a natural outgrowth of a warrior god who took over the psyche of a disenchanted people – and we know what level of destruction was wreaked on the world. We do not want such a thing to happen again.
But to prevent that, we must reconnect with Indra, Wotan, Zeus, Kali… not in the public sphere but in the realm of the collective unconscious, without the intervention of bigoted middlemen, the self-proclaimed “spokespersons for God”. We must recognise these entities within ourselves and sublimate them into our psyches. Otherwise, the bloodthirsty god will carry away his pound of flesh – and this time, humanity may not recover.