Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!

 

The Search for Meaning in Life

In the film Ikiru (“To Live”), master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat with stomach cancer. Finding that he has only one year left to live, he initially slides into depression and then into riotous night-life. All that is changed, however, when he meets Toyo, a young girl who takes pleasure in making toys for young children – it gives her a purpose in life. This wakes Watanabe up to what he is missing in his life: and he makes it his purpose to build a playground in the city, cutting across all the bureaucratic tangles. The most haunting image in the movie is of him sitting on a swing in the playground, singing, immediately prior to his death.

I was thinking of this movie all the time I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

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I had heard a lot about this book before I actually got around to reading it – and to tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed, especially by the second part. Yet I consider it a significant work, because I think Viktor Frankl has astutely identified the main reason for existential angst – the lack of meaning in one’s life in modern times.

It seems that Dr. Frankl has been engaged in what he calls “logotherapy”, where the patient is asked to concentrate outward rather than inward. As opposed to Freud who wanted people to dig deep into their psyches to locate childhood neuroses, Frankl asks them look into the world they live in to find the root of their existential crisis. The root of his philosophy is that most of man’s existential crisis rises from a search for meaning in life. In this, it is opposed to two other famous theories from the Viennese school of psychotherapy – Freud’s, based on the quest for pleasure and Adler’s based on the quest for power.

Frankl has his gruelling experiences in Nazi concentration camps to prove his theory. This comprises more than half of the book, and is really a torture to get through – not because of bad writing, but because he convinces us to accompany him on that nightmare journey. There is no hope, no mercy and no shred of human dignity in these hells on earth. The inmates are stripped of all their possessions including clothes, underfed to the level of starvation and overworked to the extent that many fall down dead from sheer exhaustion. Apart from this, they live in constant fear of being selected for the gas chambers.

The gateway to the dreaded Auschwitz Concentration Camp

What happens to people in this situation? They lose hope, and many of them give up on life. Others become cruel exploiters themselves (the Capos, the guards who are chosen from the ranks of prisoners themselves). Some try to survive by being smarter than others: and yet others find that extra something to pull them through – a meaning for their suffering, something to look forward to in life even in the midst endless misery. They become the rare beacons of light in the pitch darkness. Most of them don’t survive, because of their altruism – as Dr. Frankl says, “the best of us didn’t come back”.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For Frankl, it was the image of his young wife and his love for her which suddenly gave him a purpose in life.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

He kept on having conversations with her in his mind; even though he knew that she may be dead (she was, in fact). This gave him conviction to go ahead even when death stared him in the face. Dr. Frankl genuinely believes that it is this which helped carry him through, and on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Such a purpose does not necessarily mean salvation – but it does give one the power to endure it until it all ends. Viktor Frankl tells us the story of a young woman, whose vision of a tree branch through the window of the hut in which she lay dying, gave her sustenance.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

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One curious fact I noticed was that Frankl’s concept of ‘self-transcendence’, which seemed remarkably close to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. Also, the three paths which he mentions – through achievement, through selfless love and through cathartic suffering (when unavoidable, not masochistically chosen) – are applicable to the godhead from three different religions. The path of achievement of the Greek hero: selfless love to the level of dissolution of one’s self in god, that of Radha and Mira Bai for Krishna: and the suffering which cleanses, the way of the cross, the passion of Jesus Christ.


A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

In the Old Testament creation myth, the serpent is the villain: it is he who tempts Eve with the “Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which God had expressly forbidden mankind from eating.  This results in man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (the so-called “Fall”), and the everlasting enmity between man and serpent.

This is true of the Levantine Religions which subscribe to this myth.  But for me, brought up in sylvan landscape of rural Kerala, the snake is an entity to be worshipped.  He is feared, true, but that is because of his power which is enormous when unleashed – a curse from him can affect seven generations, it is said – but he is also revered.  During my childhood, each big house had a corner of their compound set aside for the traditional Sarpakkavu, the sacred “Serpent Grove”.

My family was educated and “enlightened”, so they did not go for this pagan nonsense (they believed in the gods, of course) and I grew up with a healthy contempt for such animistic practices.  As “civilisation” spread and villages became towns and then cities, traditional Kerala homesteads made way for modern terraced villas and multi-storey apartment complexes: and the sacred groves were slowly encroached upon by western style lawns and rose gardens.

Ironically, as I slowly lost my faith in the gods as absolute entities, my creative interest in the spiritual facet of myth grew (helped by the discovery of Joseph Campbell in my early twenties) – and I began to pine for the lost serpent groves: seas of tranquil peace in the hustle and bustle of daily life, where huge centenarian trees stood guard; where the afternoon slept peacefully, and nature woke to lusty and dangerous life at twilight.

The Sacred Grove

The concept of the sacred grove is hardly confined to Kerala, India or the East – It is part of  most of the pagan universe in general.  Sir J. G. Frazer, in his landmark book The Golden Bough, discourses at length about the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, where the priest-king was ritually killed annually and reincarnated in his successor.  From Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

golden_boughThis thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Curiously enough, the temples of the Goddess in Kerala are called “kavu”s (groves), even when there are no trees present within the compound!  I have always felt that we must have “progressed” from real groves to today’s elaborate structures as patriarchy slowly replaced the pagan matriarchy and the Goddess was subjugated as the consort of God.  At some point of time, the Earth Mother was enslaved by the her consort, who was her son as well – and instead of being the offspring of Gaia, man became her master.  (We all know the impact of this paradigm shift on the environment, but that is another story.)

If the Goddess represents the dark and mysterious female principle, her companion in popularity in Kerala, the snake, represents the male principle.  No wonder he also resides in a grove, and is directly linked with fertility.  People sacrifice at famous snake temples throughout the state for getting offspring and for their continued welfare: in the famous temple at Mannarsala, a down-turned uruli (a flat vessel) is the offering, under which a snake comes to meditate until a child is born to the devout couple (the Freudian and Jungian connections are obvious here).

So, going back to the Biblical myth, I always wonder whether the serpent was a benign deity originally, who was recast into the role of the villain as the Abrahamic myth gained traction?  The fruit he offers Eve makes her aware of her sexuality, and she is henceforth cursed (or blessed?) by God to “bring forth children in sorrow”.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was initially the Grove of the Serpent, and the myth had an entirely different form…

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

Our ancestral home in Thrissur is a huge monstrosity with sprawling grounds.  A few years ago, my sister (who is an artist and a connoisseur of artistically eccentric ideas) decided to create a Sarpakkavu in one corner.  Initially, no one was in support. The traditional method of creating the grove being leaving the area totally unattended, allowing the bushes, trees and creepers to grow at will, soon one corner of our compound was choked with grass and bush.  It became a haven for stray dogs, snakes and everyone was aghast at the unsafe conditions: but my sister doggedly persisted.

Soon, nature took over.  As the big trees began to grow and spread their branches, the shade of the leafy canopy slowly killed off the wild grass, and the floor became more even.  The fallen leaves provided the necessary support for the ground to hold rainwater, and as the soil became more fertile, a miniature forest began to take shape.  Most importantly – snakes which were rampant in our grounds seem to have disappeared, apparently retiring to this piece of heaven created for them.

This is how it looks today.

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While I walked around the area yesterday, I felt positive energy flowing into me: both physically from the oxygen-laden atmosphere and spiritually from the calming presence of the gently swaying trees.  I once again marvelled at the wisdom of paganism, where man instinctively understood his place in the grand scheme of things – not as master, but as a humble cog in the machine.  As I stood absorbed by this tiny ecological paradise in a world largely gone to waste, an old mantra to the Earth Mother, which I learned at my mother’s knee, came up in my mind:

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

(O Goddess, wearing the oceans as your dress and having the mountains for your breasts: Consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee; forgive the touch of my feet…)

To a Bloodthirsty God

https://nandakishorevarma.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/3eea4-ak_47_assault_rifle.jpeg?w=342&h=224

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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Joseph_Campbell_circa_1982.jpgI 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.

Bhudevi.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.kalibhakti.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Bhairav-Attributes-Kali.jpgBut 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.

CGJung.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Wotan_Abschied.jpgC. 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.

 

Hindutva – Fascism, Indian Style

As a student, I was attracted towards the BJP: in an aggressively secular democracy which stressed non-religiosity of the government to the extent of purposefully rejecting the common Hindu culture, fearing that it might hurt the sentiments of the minority, perhaps it was only natural. At that time, I understood Hindutva to mean the common inclusive culture of India, which was rejected by many aggressive Muslim clerics. I was upset at this, and did not want the rich literature, art and culture of our country (which is Hindu in nature) to be abandoned to favour minority sentiments.

However, as the ruling centrist-right Indian National Congress weakened, the BJP grew in power: and its cries of Hindu pride grew shriller. Riots started happening sporadically across the country. In 1992, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a centuries-old Muslim Mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob, alleging that it was built by the Mughal emperor Babur on the site of a destroyed temple of the Hindu deity Rama. Atrocities against minorities increased in frequency and ultimately peaked in the mindless carnage of Gujarat in 2002. As I watched, I slowly moved away from the party which contained the Hindu fanatics responsible for this atrocities.

The writing was on the wall, however. The Indian National Congress, lacking any coherent political ideology or leadership was thrashed soundly in the recent parliamentary elections. The BJP swept to power under the man who was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. For all practical purposes, the ideology of Hindutva had triumphed.

In this context, I thought I should read the slim book which is the root of it all – Hindutva by V. D. Savarkar. Understanding a fascist philosophy is the first step in defending oneself against it.

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fascism3
For Savarkar, Indian civilisation starts with the arrival of the Aryans. In fact, he dismisses all those existing in the Indian subcontinent at the time of their arrival as “scattered tribes”, whose languages were the “Prakrits” (uncultured tongues) which evolved from the immigrants’ Sanskrit, which means “cultured”. He is also at pains to establish that these original inhabitants were also most probably known as Hindus because Hindu is derived from “Sindhu”, the river Indus. Thus, at the outset itself, he establishes Hindutva as tied inseparably to the land. He also makes the astonishing statement that it is certain to have predated Egypt and Babylonia!

 

 

Although it would be hazardous at the present stage of oriental research to state definitely the period when the foremost band of intrepid Aryans made it their home and lighted their first sacrificial fire on the banks of the Sindhu, the Indus, yet certain it is that long before the ancient Egyptians, and Babylonians, had built their magnificent celebration, the holy waters of the Indus were daily witnessing the lucid and curling columns of scented sacrificial smokes and the valleys resounding with the chants of Vedic hymns – the spiritual fervour that animated their souls.

 

 

Emphasis mine.

Savarkar conveniently forgets the Indus Valley civilisation which had a settled city life, apparently some kind of government, and complex art and religious belief; and which was born, thrived and perished much before the nomadic Aryans ever reached anywhere near India!

(Also, India had a rich collection of Dravidian languages which was in no way linked to Sanskrit. A language of Dravidian origin, Brahui, is still existing in modern-day Pakistan! So the claim that all the languages of India are uncultured versions of Sanskrit is offensive and silly.)
Mohenjodaro_Sindh
Thus at the outset itself, the intention is clear – the falsification of history to create a false identity for the “Hindu” – the purposeful rejection of pluralism in favour of an identification based on a fabricated story of a mythical “fatherland”. And Savarkar says that he is treading on the “solid ground of recorded facts”!

But it is when the author veers off into areas of conjecture that the whole thing becomes seriously eccentric. He first of all sets out to discredit the Maurya civilisation as the first great Indian civilisation: for him, a great Hindu civilisation as delineated in the Hindu myths preceded it. Recorded history means nothing to Savarkar: he considers it all misreadings (at best) or outright fabrications (at worst) by the West. Rather, he considers the Buddhist era a period of decadence (!) when Hindus were totally enervated by the concept of Ahimsa which left them easy fodder for the Muslim invaders.

(For his examination of the “history” of the Hindu people, Savarkar uses dubious sources like the “Bhavishya Purana”. It seems that he accepts any text which is supportive of Vedic Brahmanism as the gospel (!) truth. Whether this is due to genuine belief or political agenda, we can only conjecture.)

Now the author goes on to establish that, in spite of all the differences of caste, creed and colour, Indians are one people – which is true and what is beneficial for the country, anyway – but then, puts the final spin on the ball when his fundamentalist agenda suddenly comes out baring its claws and teeth, casting aside its mask of patriotism. Savarkar writes:

 

 

But can we, who here are concerned with investigating into facts as they are and not as they should be, recognise these Mohammedans as Hindus? Many a Mohammedan community in Kashmir and other parts of India as well as the Christians in South India observe our caste rules to such an extent as to marry within the pale of their castes alone; yet, it is clear that though their Hindu blood is thus almost unaffected by alien adulteration, yet they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because we Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood which courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of common homage we pay to our great civilisation – our Hindu culture, which could not be better rendered than by the word Sanskriti suggestive as it is of that language, Sanskrit, which has been the chosen means of expression and preservation of that culture, of all that was best and worth preserving in the history of our race.

 

 

In short – Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains are in: Christians and Muslims out. Why? Because they don’t consider India as their “Holy-land” (Punyabhumi) in addition to their fatherland: for them, the Holy Land is Jerusalem or Mecca. So, as long as they remain tied to their Abrahamic religion which traces their origin from the Levant, they cannot be accepted as Hindus.

(Interestingly, Savarkar leaves the Jews and Farsis out of it. Jews mostly, I think, because the RSS have been supporters of Zionism since day one, and vice versa: also because Jews and Farsis were not proselytising religions so he did not perceive them as threat.)

Now Savarkar launches into his real agenda. He says that he is not criticising or lamenting, but stating a simple fact. Christians and Muslims cannot be accepted as Hindus (according him, this means Indians) unless they accept India as their Holy Land, by forswearing their allegiance to their “foreign” origins – this effectively means abandoning their religion in the current format.


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Thus, the philosophy strikes at the roots of secularism. If India adopts “Hindutva” as its guiding principle and starts rewriting the constitution, Hinduism may not become its official religion: minorities may be allowed to practice their beliefs in private. But the nation will be governed by laws based on the principles set forth in this venomous tract . All people who do not toe the “Hindutva” line will have to live as second class citizens.

From that to the concentration camps is only a minor step.

Think I am overreacting? The events of the past two years should set every intelligent Indian thinking.

The Hated “Other”

On the night of 28 September 2015, a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family in Bisara Village, near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The middle-aged head of the family, Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death: his son was critically injured.

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Photo courtesy: The Hindustan Times

Instead of condemning the event immediately, the Prime Minister kept his silence. Encouraged by this kind of tacit acquiescence, leaders within the BJP began to make provocative statements.

Six Outrageous Things BJP Leaders Have Said About Dadri Murder Over Beef

Ever since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office at the centre, Hindu fundamentalists of all sorts had been rattling their sabres with increasing ferocity, always finding some issue or the other to keep communal tensions alive. This murder seems have acted as a rallying point for them. Understandably, the other side – mostly left-wingers of varying colour from light pink to deep red, and the Indian National Congress – condemned the incident vehemently, accusing the BJP of direct complicity. The country went into emotional overdrive.

Confession: yours truly also reacted, dashing off angry posts on Facebook, and as usual drawing the ire of the conservatives. Over a period of days, however, after the initial heat has cooled down, I have started noticing a disturbing trend.

In olden days, such a dastardly act in India would have drawn universal condemnation from most Indians. But today, no BJP supporter is coming out to condemn the murder unconditionally. They always qualify it with statements about the sacredness of cows or how this is all a conspiracy to malign the BJP. Even the Prime Minister has made a roundabout speech, urging both Hindus and Muslims to preserve peace, as if both sides were equally faulty. On Facebook, even people from Kerala (where beef is eaten by the majority of Hindus) seem to take it as an “Us vs. Them” religious issue, with a pound of beef at the centre, rather than a straightforward question of the murder of an innocent man.

The polarisation of India on religious lines, which gained momentum during the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to have attained new heights. The “otherness” of Muslims has been established.

Now, it only remains to eliminate them.

We have seen this happening on a grand scale once in history – in Germany and the countries it conquered, during the Third Reich. Traditional anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe were inflamed by Hitler to dangerous levels which led to the torture and extermination of six million Jews. Hitler did not do this alone: many people abetted him while the world stood by and watched. Why? Because in the minds of most Europeans, the Jews were the hated “other”.

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220px-HumanzoodesIn this context, I recalled The Human Zoo, a book by the anthropologist Dr. Desmond Morris that I had read in the early eighties. In it, Dr. Morris says that the human species has grown too fast so that he “does not fit his primate boots” any more: anthropologically, he is still a tribe member, but his tribe has grown to a “super-tribe” – humanity – a huge entity he cannot identify with.

So what does he do? Create “in-groups” and “out-groups” – tribes within the super-tribe. These groups may be divided on national, religious or linguistic lines. The common factor is that we are part of one group, competing with the members of the other group in the bloody game of survival. It is “us” versus “them”. In Dr. Morris’s words:

What is it that makes a human individual one of ‘them’, to be destroyed like a verminous pest, rather than one of ‘us’, to be defended like a dearly beloved brother? What is it that puts him into an outgroup and keeps us in the in-group? How do we recognize ‘them’? It is easiest, of course, if they belong to an entirely separate super-tribe, with strange customs, a strange appearance and a strange language. Everything about them is so different from ‘us’ that it is a simple matter to make the gross over-simplification that they are all evil villains. The cohesive forces that helped to hold their group together as a clearly defined and efficiently organized society also serve to set them apart from us and to make them frightening by virtue of their unfamiliarity.  Like the Shakespearean dragon, they are ‘more often feared than seen’.

Such groups are the most obvious targets for the hostility of our group. But supposing we have attacked them and defeated them, what then? Supposing we dare not attack them? Supposing we are, for whatever reason, at peace with other super-tribes for the time being: what happens to our in-group aggression now? We may, if we are very lucky, remain at peace and continue to operate efficiently and constructively within our group. The internal cohesive forces, even without the assistance of an out-group threat, may be sufficiently strong to hold us together. But the pressures and stresses of the super-tribe will still be working on us, and if the internal dominance battle is fought too ruthlessly, with extreme subordinates experiencing too much suppression or poverty, then cracks will soon begin to show. If severe inequalities exist between the sub-groups that inevitably develop within the super-tribe, their normally healthy competition will erupt into violence. Pent-up sub-group aggression, if it cannot combine with the pent-up aggression of other sub-groups to attack a common, foreign enemy, will vent itself in the form of riots, persecutions and rebellions.

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In times of intense group rivalry, the subgroups start wearing their tribal colours aggressively, to mark them out from the others (think of our religious symbols or even, football club logos!). Usually, these groupings are temporary and artificial, and are taken off once the populace settles back into peace. However:

An entirely different situation exists, however, when a sub-group possesses distinctive physical characteristics. If it happens to exhibit, say, dark skin or yellow skin, fuzzy hair or slant eyes, then these are badges that cannot be taken off, no matter how peaceful their owners. If they are in a minority in a super-tribe they are automatically looked upon as a sub-group behaving as an active ‘them’. Even if they are a passive ‘them’ it seems to make no difference. Countless hair-straightening sessions and countless eye-skin-fold operations fail to get the message across, the message that says, ‘We are not deliberately, aggressively setting ourselves apart.’ There are too many conspicuous physical clues left.

Rationally, the rest of the super-tribe knows perfectly well that these physical ‘badges’ have not been put there on purpose, but the response is not a rational one. It is a deep-seated in-group reaction, and when pent-up aggression seeks a target, the physical badge-wearers are there, literally ready-made to take the scapegoat role.

The author is here talking about racial prejudice. But it is my contention that it can be religious too, especially in India – because in a caste-ridden society like ours, it is difficult to separate the individual from the faith which he or she was born into. For a religious minority, this provides a permanent sense of insecurity. What to do – disown the badges of religion and risk losing oneself in the mainstream, or wear them proudly and be the object of suspicion and hatred? It seems that the Muslim minority in India, for the major part, has taken the second route.

Unfortunately, this has pushed Hindus more and more into aggressive tribal displays. In the past few years, the Hindu religion which had been relatively private and individualised has moved into the public sphere. The symbols of religion (the vermillion spot on the forehead, the rakhee on the wrist) are brandished as objects of pride.

Maybe it’s only natural that, with the increased conviction of their religious identity, Hindus have started regarding Muslims as hostile to their very existence – aided by selected readings of history, carefully orchestrated by unscrupulous political ideologues. In such a situation,

A vicious circle soon develops. If the physical badge-wearers are treated, through no fault of their own, as a hostile sub-group, they will all too soon begin to behave like one. Sociologists have called this a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

It is at this point in the book that Dr. Morris sets out the fictitious example of the “Green-haired Man” who is racially profiled and targeted. This example has stayed with me for more than three decades now, so vivid was it: it was this which made me remember this book in the current situation.

Let me illustrate what happens, using an imaginary example. These are the stages:

  1. Look at that green-haired man hitting a child. That green-haired man is vicious.
  2. All green-haired men are vicious.
  3. Green-haired men will attack anyone.
  4. There’s another green-haired man – hit him before he hits you.
  5. (The green-haired man, who has done nothing to provoke aggression,
  6. hits back to defend himself.)
  7. There you arc – that proves it: green-haired men are vicious.
  8. Hit all green-haired men.

This progression of violence sounds ridiculous when expressed in such an elementary manner. It is, of course, ridiculous, but nevertheless it represents a very real way of thinking.  Even a dimwit can spot the fallacies in the seven deadly stages of mounting group prejudice that I have listed, but this does not stop them becoming a reality.

After the green-haired men have been hit for no reason for long enough, they do, rather naturally, become vicious. The original false prophecy has fulfilled itself and become a true prophecy.

Just meditate on the above passage, and think about the demonisation of Islam in today’s world – does anything ring a bell?

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A Review of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

(A couple of days back, the images of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai accepting their respective Nobel Peace Prizes were the toast of the majority of Indian news channels, a welcome relief from the grim news about terrorist violence in Pakistan and the menace of increasing Hindu fundamentalism in India. It made me think of this book immediately. The demon of intolerance and violence lies hidden inside all of us; it may escape its cage and take wing any day, then it may be impossible to cage it again. We need people like Malala to remind us of the fact – also that there are bright spots even in the darkest of times.)

*

All citizens must pray five times a day…

All men must grow beards…

All women must stay inside at all times…

No woman, under any circumstances, may show her face…

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Playing cards, playing chess, gambling and kite flying are forbidden.

Writing books, watching films and painting pictures are forbidden.

Cosmetics are forbidden.

Jewelry is forbidden.

Women will not wear charming clothes.

Women will not speak unless spoken to.

Women will not laugh in public.

Girls are forbidden from attending school.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you steal, your hand will be cut off.

If you commit adultery, you will be stoned to death…

Listen. Listen well. Obey.

Welcome to Taliban country.


What is the enduring attraction of dystopias? Why do we keep on reading about these hellish landscapes where humanity is long dead? Maybe it’s just the devil within, that makes many of us stop and stare at road accidents; maybe there is a cathartic effect, showing us that however bad things are, they could be worse. Or maybe it is the fascination of watching the human spirit soar above the inhuman universe. Most probably, it is a combination of all three.

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a dystopia with a difference: instead of being hatched in the brain of some gifted writer, it is one which existed, very near to us in time and space. For the second time, Khaled Hosseini trains his spotlight on his unfortunate home country-however, whereas in The Kite Runner it was only a plot device for the protagonist’s personal redemptive journey, here it is one of the main characters, this land of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

This novel is the story of two women, and through them, Woman in general; as she exists and endures in most parts of the world. Marginalised, a vagina in her youth, a womb in her womanhood, and a pair of hands for sweeping and cleaning in her old age. Created by God as an afterthought as a playmate to His star creation which He made in His own image.

Mariam is a harami, born on the other side of the blanket to the wealthy Jalil Khan and his housekeeper Nana. Nana accepts the fact they are outcasts, while Mariam doesn’t. She demands her share of her father’s love, which he is ready to give on the sly – the problem is, she wants it publicly. Her insistence on visiting her father at his town house ends in her mother’s suicide. Orphaned Mariam, an embarrassment to her father and his three wives, is married off at fifteen to Rasheed, an elderly widower… with whom she endures a loveless and abusive marriage. She is also an object of shame to him because she consistently fails in carrying a baby to term.

Laila is better off as far as family is concerned – she has an educated and loving father, a mother who is much more considerate than many others (even though she is slowly on her way to madness because of her missing sons who have gone off to fight the Soviets), and a charming friend, the one-legged Tariq, who is fast becoming much more than a friends as the children mature. However, her world slowly starts to unravel as Afghanistan’s war with the USSR is won and then the various resistance groups starts fighting among themselves. One of her best friends meets a horrible death, another friend is married off, and Tariq leaves for Pakistan with his family. Ironically, when her family finally decides to move to Pakistan, a stray missile lands on her home killing both her parents. The injured Laila is taken in by Rasheed; with ulterior motives, it is soon revealed. However, she has no option but to become the second wife of the lecherous old man as she is carrying Tariq’s illegitimate child: and the news of Tariq’s death has come from across the border.

As Afghanistan moves through the Civil war era to the Taliban era, the two women, initially hostile, form a bond. The bond is strengthened when Laila gives birth to a girl and loses glamour in the eyes of Rasheed, making her a fellow-sufferer with Mariam: and Mariam simply loves Aziza, Laila’s daughter, all the more because she is a little harami like herself!

Things slowly spiral to a climax when Tariq returns. It seems the story of his death has been manufactured by Rasheed. In a climax slightly reminiscent of a Hindi movie in the best Bollywood tradition, Mariam puts paid to her brute of a husband with a garden shovel, as he is trying to strangle Laila. Laila escapes with Tariq and her children, while Mariam confesses to her crime and receives the Taliban’s swift and brutal justice.

In the last part, we find Laila returning to the Taliban-exorcised Afghanistan, where she makes a pilgrimage to Mariam’s birthplace and unexpectedly receives the money left for Mariam by her repentant father. With it, she revives the orphanage and school where Aziza had been given shelter during the worst years of her life. We leave the story with the news of her third child growing inside her – whose name is already fixed (we can all guess what it will be!), should it turn out to be a girl.

*

Khaled Hosseini is definitely not a literary writer. His style is emotional: the story is given all importance, not the way it is delivered. There were complaints (rather justified, IMO) about the lack of dimension of the characters, especially the villain, in The Kite Runner: Hosseini was accused of playing up to the gallery by vilifying the Islamic world for the benefit of a largely Western audience. In hindsight, I have to reluctantly agree, even though I loved that book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is slightly better in the sense that all the characters are better drawn. The Taliban are shown as human beings, even though believers in a barbarian philosophy. Rasheed is unabashedly evil, however: but that has nothing to do with religion or geography – SOB’s like him are a dime to dozen in almost all third-world countries. However, the women protagonists are well-etched. Thankfully, they fight back even when the dice is loaded against them.

The novel follows a beaten path: there are very few surprises. The narrative structure is linear, and the author does not challenge the reader at any time within the narrative. The result is a story which flows at breakneck pace, loaded with emotion. We root for the good guys and boo the bad guys at all the appropriate places. And in the end, when Mariam cracks open Rasheed’s skull, we stand up and applaud. But I do not care if the emotion is cheap – I thoroughly enjoyed it. One needs to load up on junk food now and then!

The most noteworthy thing about A Thousand Splendid Suns is the way Afghanistan is portrayed: one weeps for the destruction of a beautiful country, gang-raped and mutilated by hordes and hordes of marauders. One wishes that the current tenuous peace holds, so that she can get back on her feet.

*

Once a taxi driver here in Abu Dhabi talked to me about his family back in Pakistan, on the hilly borderland near Afghanistan. These areas are still outside the police scanner and largely controlled by the Taliban. He told me how his brilliant daughter was forced out of school by armed men on pain of death. He had wanted to make her a doctor, and now she was confined to sooty pots and pans in the backyard. The poor man was almost in tears.

I remembered him when Mariam brought down the shovel the second time on Rasheed’s head. She was striking a blow for the taxi-driver’s daughter: and all such women, crushed under the iron boot of tradition which gives them existence only as man’s playthings and possessions.


You are fearsome: yet I bow to you, O Mother.

The Darkest Chapter in the History of Secular India

A word of warning: if you are an adherent of the Hindutva philosophy espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the following review will disturb you.

The book: “Gujarat – Irakalkku Vendi Oru Porattam” (“Gujarat – a Fight for the Victims”) should be read by all secular Indians to learn how government machinery and police were ruthlessly used for ethnic cleansing – written by a former Police Chief himself.

On 27 February, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the city of Ayodhya was allegedly set alight by Muslim rioters in the Godhra railway station in Gujarat state in western India, resulting in the death of 59 people. Over the next three days, crazed mobs of Hindu right-wing fanatics went on a rampage all over Gujarat, mainly the city of Ahmedabad. The police stood by impotently while Muslims were slaughtered mercilessly. It was the vilest incident of a sectarian attack, after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.

R. B. Sreekumar was Additional Director General of Police in Gujarat at the time. In this book, he comes up with the shocking revelation that the riots were systematically engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-core Hindu component of the BJP, and they were blessed and abetted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who allegedly told the police chiefs that “there would be Hindu backlash, and they were not to interfere”.

The carnage that followed boggles the mind. From Wikipedia:

It is estimated that at least 250 girls and women had been gang raped and then burned to death. Children were killed by being burnt alive and those digging mass graves described the bodies as “burned and butchered beyond recognition”. Children were force fed petrol and then set on fire, pregnant women were gutted and their unborn child’s body then shown to the women. In the Naroda Patiya mass grave of 96 bodies 46 were women. The murderers also flooded homes and electrocuted entire families inside. Violence against women also included their being stripped naked, objects being forced into their bodies and then their being killed. According to Kalpana Kannabiran the rapes were part of a well organized, deliberate and pre-planned strategy, and that this puts the violence in the area of a political pogrom and genocide. Other acts of violence against women were acid attacks, beatings and the killing of women who were pregnant. Children were also killed in front of their parents…

…Children and infants were speared and held aloft before being thrown into fires. Describing the sexual violence perpetrated against Muslim women and girls, Renu Khanna writes that the survivors reported “that sexual violence consisted of forced nudity, mass rapes, gang-rapes, mutilation, insertion of objects into bodies, cutting of breasts, slitting the stomach and reproductive organs, and carving of Hindu religious symbols on women’s body parts…

…Dionne Bunsha, writing on the Gulbarg Society massacre and murder of Ehsan Jafri, has said that Jafri begged the crowd to spare the women, he was dragged into the street and forced to parade naked for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram”. He was then beheaded and thrown onto a fire, following this the rioters returned and burned Jafri’s family, including two small boys, to death. After the massacre Gulbarg burned for a week.



Sreekumar also had to stand by while the violence went on – he could not intervene without instructions from his superiors – but later on, he decided to go on a one-man mission to see that justice was done. Against the advice of his colleagues and superiors, he began filing honest reports. When the Justice Nanavati commission was set up to probe the riots, Sreekumar submitted an affidavit which proved to be political dynamite. The commission published the report. The Gujarat government tried to pressurise Sreekumar into disowning it. He refused, and submitted a second affidavit.

However, even with all this activism, nothing happened – the UPA government (whose main component was the Indian National Congress) at the centre, even though theoretically in the opposite camp of the BJP, was hesitant to take decisive action. The reaction of the Gujarat government was as expected: Sreekumar was harassed and punished – transferred to a sinecure post and his deserved promotion denied. But he did not stop, and along with the help of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, succeeded in bringing many of the perpetrators of violence to justice: but due to interference from the state government (controlled by Modi) and lack of will-power of the Central Government, only the lowest level of the criminals – the one who actually carried out the rape, murder and pillage – were brought to justice. Those who gave the orders at the top could use their clout to escape.

The picture Sreekumar paints of Gujarat is less than edifying, to say the least. Government machinery is used regularly to destroy evidence and subvert justice. The cops who side with the government – even convicted and jailed in some cases – are regularly rewarded, while the honest ones are punished mercilessly. Muslims are forced to live in abject terror as second-class citizens. Muslim youth are regularly done away with in “police encounters” which are little more than cold-blooded murders. The government – any government – is powerless as all the key posts in the bureaucracy are filled with Hindu right-wing sympathisers.

The million-dollar question: is it a true memoir, or is the author a paid lackey of the opposition Indian National Congress as the BJP alleges?

As far as I am concerned, the book absolutely exudes honesty. Also, if Sreekumar is a Congress lackey as the BJP portrays him to be, why was he not “blessed” by the powers that be who was in power at the centre from 2004 to 2014? His battles seem to be lone affairs, with help from only a group of mavericks like himself.

I do not know whether Modi is the veritable monster that Sreekumar makes him out to be – we are all human, and there can be prejudices – but there is no doubt that his government stood by and allowed Hindu fanatics to murder Muslims. In my book, this indictment of Narendra Modi is enough.

Well, that person has gone through and image makeover and is currently the Prime Minister of India. Promising good governance, Modi seems to be subdued nowadays on the Hindutva (hard-core Hindu right wing) rhetoric. He has made all the right moves since occupying the highest seat in the Indian polity. But the experience of history teaches us that the tiger does not change his stripes.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.

The Philosophy of Hatred

I have finished reading Godless: the Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter. Whew! I didn’t think I would survive the ordeal.

Ann Coulter is a prominent right-wing media personality in America. However, it is not her conservative views which get her attention: it is the outright hatred she has for the “other”, and the purposefully rude way in which she expresses her opinion, that does it. Liberals hate her, and she revels in it.

I read this book to see whether Ann is as black as she’s painted. Well, she’s blacker. I did not think a human being could spew so much hate and still remain sane (unless it’s all an act to gain media attention, as some of her detractors say, which is quite possible).

Ann Coulter’s main argument in this book is against the separation of the Church and the State. As a conservative Christian, she would like to see the USA become a theocracy; however, this is effectively prevented by the constitution which is secular. So she goes on to attack secularism itself as a godless religion, rather than a logical frame work where all kinds of thoughts can coexist side by side.

The book is very badly written, with plenty of her pet peeves surfacing time and again, interspersed with snide remarks and name-calling, so there is no coherent central argument. However, the main points Ms. Coulter tries make can be summarised as:

  • Liberal thought is a godless religion, less logical than Christianity, which is being forced on Americans through public institutions and state schools.
  • Liberals want to live a life free of any moral code.
  • Liberals are hell-bent on supporting criminals who have done heinous crimes against humanity, and time and again have sent prisoners out on parole who have again committed more serious crimes.
  • Liberals are in favour of abortion, just because they don’t mind killing babies to enjoy indiscriminate sex.
  • Muslims are a danger to the world. President George Bush is right in attacking Iraq and killing Saddam Hussein. However, Liberals support Islamic terrorists.
  • Liberals support public school teachers who (in her opinion) are a bunch of overpaid slackers, responsible for Americans’ decline in the intellectual field.
  • Liberal science has no evidential support: the deleterious effects of pesticides, global warming, the fact that AIDS attacks heterosexuals as well as gays, the benefits of embryonic stem cell research… these are all myths created by liberals to further their political agenda. Anybody who speaks out against these is hounded out of the scientific establishment.
  • And most importantly – the theory of evolution (which she calls “Darwinism”) – is absolute nonsense.

Most of the “arguments” (if they can be called that) the author presents for each of the above are pretty shaky – most of them are straw men, and will convince only the already converted. She is in fact preaching to the choir. However, she purposefully misrepresents facts. These half-truths are more dangerous than outright lies; even those who dislike her rhetoric may fall for the veneer of truth in her analysis.

(I did a quick research on two cases which Ann Coulter presented as proof of the liberal penchant for loosening inhuman criminals on society. The first, the case of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920’s who purportedly murdered two payroll carriers, she presents as an open-and-shut case. What is more, she says that their liberal supporters were aware that they were guilty, but still lied to the authorities and public. However, it seems that there is plenty of evidence to believe that Vanzetti was innocent; and Sacco’s guilt is not proved beyond doubt. More importantly, there is every reason to believe that the defendants were not given a fair trial.

The second case is more distressing. Dennis Dechaine was convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Maine. The way Coulter describes it, the case is airtight: Dechaine is another monster that the liberals are trying to save. But a quick search on the net will bring out the full facts – there were at least two other people who could be guilty. Dechaine’s supporters are asking only for a retrial, not an acquittal, with newly acquired DNA evidence: however, the state is adamant that it will not budge. It seems more of a case of government obstinacy than a conspiracy to free a convicted criminal.)

If Ann had her way, lynch mobs would replace trial courts. She is angry with the drawn-out trials, the pleas for leniency, and the mounting pressure to ban capital punishment. In her opinion, harsh punishment is the only deterrent for violent crime: for all her hatred of Sharia law, one feels that Saudi Arabia would be her ideal country.

(Ironically, for a person hell-bent on the death penalty, she considers herself “pro-life”, which means against abortion. It seems that the conservatives value human life only when in the foetal stage!)

Ms. Coulter singles out some individuals for special treatment – one of the main recipients of her venom is Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis is the ultra-liberal: a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (something akin to a witches’ coven in Ann’s view), he advocated furloughs for even convicted first-degree murderers during his term in office. (Dukakis also declared August 23, 1977 as “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day”, to atone for their “unfair trial and conviction” – sacrilege according to Ms. Coulter.)

Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George H. W. Bush, helped in a large part due to a racist campaign focussing on the convicted murderer Willie Horton Dukakis allowed to go on furlough, and who committed a vicious assault and rape during his time outside the prison. Ann Coulter however, glosses over the campaign itself, playing down the racist angle. According her, Dukakis lost because his liberal views, especially the ones regarding the treatment of criminals, were rejected by the public (even so, Ann’s racial bias is evident throughout: at one point, she calls him the “Greek midget”).

Ms. Coulter uses gutter language to criticise many prominent Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore (her sexual innuendos about Clinton are nauseating), and fawns over Republicans, especially George W. Bush, who in her opinion is a sort of divine incarnation come to rescue America. Needless to say, she considers America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq legitimate – it is “protecting America”. From the hindsight of 2014, when the USA is crawling back from the Middle East with its tail between its legs, her contention that America would have won the Vietnam War had not protests at home forced the government to abandon it seems laughably silly. She writes at a point of time when Republicans are still waiting for the imminent discovery of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoarded by Saddam! One could feel pity for her, if she were not so contemptuous of the mothers who have lost sons in Iraq.

According to Ann, all liberals are anti-science: they use the scientific method just to push their agenda on abortion, gay rights, global warming, etc. No wonder, as the conservatives view science as a tool just to help them exploit nature and other human beings. She favours the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels: the protection of environment is anathema to her, as she views it from the biblical perspective as man’s natural bounty, to be consumed at will. The view that man is part of nature will sound like common sense to most normal human beings, but not to conservatives of Ms. Coulter’s ilk. To quote an example: “We believe in populating the Earth until there’s standing room only and then colonizing Mars; they believe humans are in the twilight of their existence.” – I rest my case.

But it is when it comes to the theory of evolution that Ann Coulter really outdoes herself. According to her, evolution is only a theory, having absolutely no basis in fact that the liberals are “forcing” on Americans, by making it mandatory in schools. Creation theory is much more solid in her opinion. Ann is clever enough not to argue for the Biblical creation myth as science: she knows that she will be laughed out of court. Her theory of choice Intelligent Design (ID) as propounded by the biologist Michael Behe, which posits a supernatural intelligence behind the development of various life-forms. Ms. Coulter says despite many scientists favouring this theory, liberals are using their hold on the scientific establishment and academia to keep it out of schools.

As a person who followed the ID debate with interest, I know most of what Ann Coulter says is contrary to facts. ID was thrown out of the science curriculum in schools because it was not science: it did not present any alternative to evolution; rather, it only argued that there was a divine will behind the process. As any college student knows, such a theory can never be refuted as it is not falsifiable. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District judgement has become famous not without reason.

This does not deter the creationists, however: they try to sneak ID into schools every now and then. The case of Roger DeHart is a classic example. This is what Ann Coulter has to say about it:

Roger DeHart used to teach biology at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington State, where he supplemented his curriculum with newspaper stories on the Chinese fossils from newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He never mentioned God. The ACLU threatened to sue and the school removed DeHart from his class, replacing him with a recent teachers’ college graduate who had majored in physical education. Thus were the students of Burlington-Edison High School saved from having to hear scientific facts that might cause them to question their faith in the official state religion.

This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1997 it became known to the public that longtime biology teacher Roger DeHart had been teaching intelligent design in his curriculum through excerpts of Of Pandas and People and Inherit the Wind. This event brought forth national attention and controversy. From 1986 to 1997, Roger DeHart had subtly posed the intelligent design theory in the classroom. After parents of one of DeHart’s students notified the American Civil Liberties Union, the group threatened to sue the Burlington-Edison School District if DeHart didn’t stop teaching intelligent design. The event sparked large debate, and support groups for both sides were formed. DeHart was later reassigned to earth sciences, and in 2001 he resigned and took a teaching job at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He taught there for one year before transferring to a Christian school in California.

See the subtle twisting of facts? Goebbels would have been envious! Of course, it is possible that Wikipedia is wrong or controlled by scheming liberals, but I find it much more believable than Ann Coulter.

Richard Sternberg is another example, who as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, published a controversial article about Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal of which he was the editor. There was a doubt as to whether the article may not have undergone the normal peer-review procedure, so the magazine disowned it. Subsequent to this turn of events, Sternberg filed a complaint against the Smithsonian for harassment; a complaint which did not stick as he had no locus standi since he was unpaid. Sternberg’s impartial credentials are also doubtful since he is an open proponent of ID. However, in Ms. Coulter’s version of the narrative, he is a martyred scientist tortured by the big, bad liberal establishment.

It is also interesting to note that most of the “scientists” quoted in the book belong to the Discovery Institute, which

…is a non-profit public policy think tank based in Seattle, Washington, best known for its advocacy of the pseudoscience “intelligent design” (ID). Its “Teach the Controversy” campaign aims to teach creationist anti-evolution beliefs in United States public high school science courses alongside accepted scientific theories, positing a scientific controversy exists over these subjects.

-Wikipedia.

The Discovery Institute, by their own admission as set forth in their manifesto, follows the “Wedge Strategy”.

The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and “reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The strategy also aims to affirm what it calls “God’s reality.” Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian, namely evangelical Protestant, values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log to represent an aggressive public relations program to create an opening for the supernatural in the public’s understanding of science.

It is hardly surprising that scientists resist the Discovery Institute’s attempts to gate-crash the science party. It has nothing to do with science, and plenty to do with religion. It is religious dogma’s last-gasp attempt to enter the science classroom through the backdoor, after reason has pushed it out of the front door. Please note that this has nothing to do with religious freedom: it is the attempt to teach religious belief as science which is being resisted. Ironically, as Ms. Coulter bemoans all these true scientists being persecuted by liberals, she is resoundingly silent about the history of the persecution of scientists by the religious establishment.

***

To sum up: the book is nothing but a polemic. It will delight the conservatives and disgust the liberals. However, I see one danger: any neutral person reading the book might believe the “facts” presented by Ms. Coulter, because of the superficial semblance to truth they carry. I would advise such readers with “open” minds to read the other side of the debate also. To balance Ann, I suggest Michael Moore!

***

One last word, especially to Indian readers:

  • Ann Coulter considers liberals’ tolerance of Muslims as treasonous, as she considers most Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a religion of violence.
  • She considers any consideration of the environment as a potential roadblock in the path of development and progress.
  • She believes Democrats develop African-Americans as a vote bank; she believes that illegal immigration is encouraged by them to swell their vote banks.
  • She believes gays and lesbians have no legal rights.
  • She believes there should not be any separation of the Church and the State, and America should be a Christian nation.

…Any of the above ring a bell?

Yes, conservatives are the same everywhere. Their philosophy is one of hatred – hate the “Other”, because they hate you. Kill them, before they kill you. If you listen to them, sooner or later fear will get into your heart – then hatred. From that to murder is only a step. It happened in Germany in the last century.

Beware.

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!