Category Archives: religion

Meek’s inheritance

It is said that God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Gospel of Matthew 5:5, New Testament).

In a simplistic though fairly prevalent view, the world is often seen to be naturally dominated by those species, groups that are more intelligent and resourceful, powerful, especially ones who are conscious about their dominant status and are ruthless in perpetuating the same. The directions and the dynamics of the world affairs are assumed to be decided by the duel between the extraordinary and the powerful adversaries who, though, share their vaunted ambitions to dominate these proceedings. The meek, by definition, do not figure in these power equations. They are too ordinary, small in stature and low in the scale of their ambitions. Like the grass falling in the path traversed by the horses carrying the marauding armies or under the jackboots of their equally intrepid enemies, many among the meek will be trampled, charred and decimated. But like the grass they will survive being multitudinous, even grow from the ashes, from the unlikely shelter under the boulder and cover the slopes and the ridges, plateaus and the valleys, soak the sun and the rain and continue to thrive long after the gory and destructive competition has stopped. In that sense, the meek may have a greater chance of escaping complete and systematic erasure which their more powerful and assertive brethren are likely to suffer, and therefore have, as a class, a better prospect of survival (though individuals may be mauled) and might inherit the earth after all, however scorched it is rendered by the big players, and grow life out of the waste land.

Apart from the facile imagery conjured up by the biblical quote this seems to have an empirical authenticity for many. Especially those that are religiously inclined implicitly believe in the core idea by mixing it up with the familiar good and evil conundrum. In a more modern context of pacifist activism (like Gandhism or in Tolstoyan thought), this might have been a good slogan to be used as a strategic tool for ‘political’ mobilisation through faith (ultimate triumph of the good, even if weak, over the powerful evil). It is possible that behind this there has been an astute appreciation of the cultural predisposition of a particular milieu, making a virtue of one’s weakness and deriving a political programme out of it.

Empirical evidence (for instance, from the stories upon stories of underdevelopment in the Indian subcontinent) suggests, however, that often what the meek and the docile (and they also mostly happen to be from the subaltern classes) eventually manage to inherit are the losses, the shards of shattered grandiose dreams of a better life and attainment spun and propagated by powerful rulers (including the ‘potential’ rulers) and those, under their command, who try to give a realistic shape to these aspirations. Being weak and not having the ambition and an independent initiative, they latch on to the bandwagon of ‘progress’ to move out of the morass of backwardness because of their implicit trust and touching faith in those who take upon themselves the ‘onerous’ task of driving the chariot. And many a time when the consequences of the historically wrong choices made by the latter become apparent the meek more often than not lack the wherewithal and the reserves to withstand any negative fall out over long periods or get away from them.

Whether or not the meek would ever inherit the earth is hard to tell, their suffering the consequences of the cumulative depredations on the earth and its immediate environment leaving a veritable Waste Land, is guaranteed. The insatiable consumption of the physical resources (the pattern of which is invariably skewed towards the strong and the resourceful !) is likely to make our planet more and more inhospitable for those left living. And not just the physical world, what about the tattered moral fabric, which the human kind would like to wrap around its soul in its advanced state of degeneration? So that the meek could be persuaded over the next millennium (if we do last till then !) that our primeval urges and our capacity for mean deeds, perpetrating utter cruelty and injustice are well under control and not about to display a characteristic runaway behaviour defeating all the civilisational attempts to tame them. One is reminded of the memorable line in a song from a popular Hindi film from the 1950s, Pyaasa (‘the thirst’), where a failed, destituted poet (on suddenly being discovered to be a commercially exploitable prospect and offered a potential celebrity turn in return) expresses his subaltern angst and disgust about the futility of this windfall gain:

‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye, Toh Kya Hai?’
(Even if this world were to be bestowed on me, what of it?)

[Note: This is a modified and extended version of a post published in another blog of mine elsewhere]

Faith and reason

In an article entitled ‘Faith, not just creed’ (reprinted from New York Times News Service by The Hindu, January 29, 2014) columnist David Brooks brought up several issues that might be of interest to anyone who would like to think and argue, both positively and negatively, about the form and the content of the religious spiritualism that is proposed and propagated by the faithful for the benefit of those who find it difficult to become one.

Brooks broadly makes three points in his article.

(a) The first, a relatively straightforward observation that the way the practice of faith appears in the public space is far from satisfactory. He talks of a “dull, oppressive and insipid” form of “religiosity in which faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” There seems to be a suggestion here that the organised religion and the practices (including some of the rituals) derived from it may have distorted the very spirit of religion. A position which many, irrespective of whether they are believers or not, would by and large agree with.
(b) It is an empirical fact that many common believers find themselves a little circumscribed by the usual trappings of the religion due to an uncritical respect for the tradition, the need to feel secure in the numerical preponderance of a communal assertion of an identity or simply because of the inertia of habit. According to Brooks, despite this their faith could be a more dynamic experience that is “marked by combinations of fervour and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand”. Again, this seems to be heuristically true. Though religion for many ordinary people, like it is in India, a way of life, something imbibed from the cultural milieu as naturally as one takes in air from the environment, it is possible that the subterranean strata of belief in their mind space come to be frequently challenged by percolation of the residues of doubt created by their own reason working on the empirical observations and experiences in course of the daily life.
(c) The third element in Brook’s presentation tries to highlight extraordinary and transcendental ways in which some savants (like the saint Augustine) with specially cultivated and spiritually motivated mind might have perceived and articulated their relationship with and experience of God, which relate to this world but at the same time “mysteriously surpasses the world”. For Augustine, in his love of God there is “a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace …”, not what is conventionally denoted by these words but “a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part“. Clearly, this is an ideal state of mind, a utopia, that many people, religiously inclined or not, may aspire, but very few attain, if at all, in the present state of the world where mankind is assailed by more gloom and doubts about the conduct of their own fellow brethren than that could be dispelled by just fervent faith.

Among the three points above, the one about the orthodoxy and the dogmatism (often bordering on fundamentalism) in the religious preaching and practice is, I find, a realistic observation. However, like in most areas of culture, this is a typical instance of an ongoing fight between a few good virtuous truly enlightened men and much more preponderant forces of evil whose main aim is not merely subverting the true idea of any religion as originally revealed but executing a more sinister project of perpetuation of their domination and hegemony over a silent majority, and persuading them to sink their gnawing doubts in the fetishes of creed paraded as faith.

Arresting as the articulation of Augustine’s love of God is, I am not sure that it is at all an arguable proposition, something amenable to reason. As far as one understands, people who would like to put forward the remarkable experience of Augustine and such saintly people in support of their argument that religion, apart from its importance (some will even claim about its primacy) in our life, is also unique, capable of spawning beautiful and many splendoured sense of God, do not anticipate an alternative point of view or premise. You either accept this, surrender to it, get submerged in it or you don’t get it. One has even come across suggestions that to arrive at this privileged view and making it one’s own, one has to surrender one’s ego about one’s being knowledgeable and reasonable, in other words, one’s alternative, distinguishing point of view. Either ego, or God !

I would venture to say that if reason can be thought of as the basic bonding among disparate empirical facts of the material world facing mankind that goes to make the complex and evolving architecture of the human mindscape, faith works by destroying most of these bonds, dissolving the existing structure, replacing it by an entirely different paradigm.

A more interesting point for me is about the inescapable, undiluted and unrefined attachment of ordinary men and women in many countries (as one commonly finds in India) for religious culture, including the rituals and many other crude practices, despite being uncannily aware that one does not automatically become a good human being just because of one’s allegiance to some form of religion. Can they be sure if religious morality can always help one conduct oneself in an ethically correct way and make choices that stand the scrutiny of reason? The fact that the answer to this question is not easy to find does not mean we stop asking this or that it is a trivial one.

(This is a follow up on my earlier post ‘About faith’ published in this blog as a reaction to the article by Brooks referred above)