Saturday, July 20, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

When rituals defy reason
Khushwant Singh

THERE are practices in all religions which defy reason and common sense and yet we are not able to do anything about them. One such nauseating ritual was sacrificing animals at Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati and the Kali temple in Kolkata at the behest of King Gyanendra of Nepal. In both temples goats and birds are slaughtered on a daily basis. There should have been a public hue and cry against this pagan ritual. There was none.

The recent issue of Philosophy and Social Action, published in Dehra Dun, quotes Andrew Sullivan, a regular contributor to The New York Times on conflict with Islamic fundamentalism. He writes: "The most important thing for us to realise today is that defeat of fundamentalism requires a long and arduous effort. The conflict with Islamic fundamentalism is not likely to be short. Unlike Europe’s religious wars (and inquisitions), which taught Christians the futility of fighting to the death over something beyond human understanding and so immune to any definitive resolution, there has been no such educative conflict in the Muslim world. The lessons Europe learned in its bloody history have yet to be absorbed within the Muslim world. There, as in the 16th-century Europe, the promise of purity and salvation seems far more enticing than the mundane allure of mere peace. That means that we are not at the end of this conflict but in its very early stages."

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The editor of the journal, Dhirendra Sharma, exhorts action: "It would, therefore, be meaningless today to sit idle the whole day of Sabbath, starve children because the moon could not be sighted due to overcast heavens. Similarly it is unbecoming of humans to treat women as sub-humans, deprive them of equal rights and freedom under the Islamic jurisdiction. But to please God’s will, Christians and Hindus had burned women alive to fulfil heavenly missions of the Father in Heaven! Shame upon those faithfuls of world religions who are ready to die and kill ‘them’, the others, in defence of "the Kingdom Come on this Earth, as it is in Heavens."

Sharma concludes: "But since I call the Hindu Holy Books fictions and disown and disavow their divinity, do I qualify to be murdered under the orders of a priest? There is no blasphemy in Hinduism, nor is there any provision of fatwa. There is no monopoly on Heavens, and there is no one path to Paradise.

"Indian philosophical dictum is: ekam sad-viprah bahudha vadanti — Truth is one but expressed differently by wise persons."

It is time enlightened people of all communities questioned the ethics of unethical practices in their communities, smashed the monopoly of pandits, pandas, mullahs and maulivis, jathedars and raagis over their respective religions and brought them to conform to moral standards of modern times.

Why do the innocent suffer?

The question was put in different words by a Jewish rabbi whose only child was afflicted by terminal cancer. He and his wife were a god-fearing couple who had never harmed anyone. So why were they being punished by having their son taken away from them? The rabbi wrestled with the problem and put down his thoughts in a highly readable little book "Why Bad things happen to Good people". For inspiration he turned to the classic on the subject: The Book of Job in the Bible. I have gone over the Book of Job over and over again because it is beautifully worded but have remained totally unconvinced with the arguments set out. Job was a good man without blemish. He was prosperous, had many sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law. Also land, vineyards and herds of cattle. He was a man of conviction and believed that he owed his good fortune to God. Satan took on a bet with God that if Job was deprived of his family and possessions, he would lose his faith in God. Job assured himself, "Whoever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off? Even as I have seen those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same... God will not cast away the blameless, nor will He uphold the evil-doers."

Job lost everything: his children, lands, herds of cattle and was himself afflicted with body sores and thrown out of his home. His wife pleaded with him, "Curse God and die." Three of his friends (Job’s comforters) tried to argue him out of his faith. "Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue." Job holds fast to his faith but longs to present his case to God as his mouth is full of arguments. "Great men are not always wise, nor do the aged always understand justice." God appears before Job and reminds him that it is He who created everything on earth. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. God wins the bet against Satan and Job is restored to good health and gets back his family and property.

Does unshakable faith in God really explain why the innocent suffer? Not to me; it is no different than accepting what happens with good grace: teyra bhaanaa meetha laagey (What you (God) ordain tastes sweet). It does not, more often it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and in the mind.

The fact of the matter is that we have little comprehension of why the innocent suffer as we have of why the wicked prosper. Can anyone give rational answers to these questions without resorting to theories about karma, evil deeds committed in previous births, and punishments to come in lives hereafter? They are absolute hogwash, unworthy of consideration by people with serious minds.

For the sorrow afflicted

The following poem was sent to me by Yonne Le Rougetel. She was my personal secretary while I was in Paris for two years and then in Delhi while I was writing the two-volume History of the Sikhs. She became a close family friend. She does not know the name of the poet.

Trace not my name in memorial stone

Ache not your hearts for times gone by

Weep no tears when you are alone,

Think of me living and heave no sigh.

Lay no wreath that fades away,

But plant a rose to catch the eye;

Wear no black or sombre grey,

Show the world I did not die.

Look ever upward to the light,

Feel me with you by your side,

Know that my love is yours by right.

And smile with me when your tears have dried.

Know that my love for you is real,

Know that I am closer than e’er before,

Know that I received the love you feel,

Know that we shall meet on the spirit shore.

Think of me, free of pain;

Think of me, without your fears;

Think of me, I am young again.

See then, all the pains endured

And all the times your heart has bled,

As the way the spirit has matured

A path on which all men must tread.