Saturday, September 4, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
The power of doubt
Khushwant Singh

MOST scriptural writing warns us against the pitfalls of dual thinking (dubhida) or doubt. All religions claim to hold the monopoly over knowledge and denounce doubters as renegades. It is ironic that every religion began by doubting the veracity of the one prevailing. Thus out of Hinduism were born Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism; out of Judaism were born Christianity and Islam. And everyone of them laid claims of having the sole monopoly over the truth. The point I am trying to make is that if you do not question what is accepted as gospel truth by the vast majority of people, you subscribe to a static, fossilised society which denies itself right to progress.

The chief perpetrators of the status quo are preachers of religion who have vested interests in maintaining things as they are; their livelihood depends on it. It is they who perpetuate the myth that religious scriptures are dictates of the Almighty put in the mouths of prophets and anyone who questions their sanctity will roast in the fires of hell.

Trouble with the truth
August 28, 2004
What makes a perfect evening
August 21, 2004
Kasi yatra
August 14, 2004
A prince or princely impostor
August 7, 2004
A tale of intrigue, violence
July 31, 2004
Eat, drink and be merry
July 24, 2004
House of Praise
July 17, 2004
In Faridís footsteps
July 10, 2004
One up on Ghalib
July 3, 2004
Star interpreters
June 26, 2004
What makes a city beautiful
June 19, 2004
CRI turns 100: No sound of celebration
June 12, 2004
Man-motivated tragedies
June 5, 2004
A verdict in favour of secularism
May 29, 2004
Charm of the Shivaliks
May 22, 2004
Meditating upon the Gayatri Mantra
May 1, 2004
Idol speculation
April 24, 2004
He couldíve been Betaaj Badshah
April 17, 2004
The potent Gayatri Mantra
April 10, 2004

A good example is the different versions of the origin of life on earth. Hinduism believes that it was the cosmic egg (Brahmand) which gave birth to everything. Judaic religion ascribes it to God who made every living creature and gave them name in a week: ancient Greek philosophers had their own theories. Thales believed everything was made of water. Anaximenes insisted air was father-mother of all that exists. Ethiopians, because they are dark-skinned, portrayed their gods black. Thracians who were red-haired gave their gods red hair.

Greeks also evolved the school of skeptics who questioned, and often demolished accepted myths and legends. Hindus had Caravales who questioned the sanctity of the Vedas, Upanishads and the epics. Had it not been for the skeptics, we would not have had a Galileo who refuted the Christian assumptions that the world was flat and the sun went round it and a globular earth went round the sun. To save his life, the poor chap had to recant. Later Charles Darwin told us how life began, how animals learnt to adopt themselves to their environment and human beings evolved out of monkeys.

Galileo was by no means the first to be hauled over the coals for casting doubts on cherished religious beliefs. As early as 415 AD, Hypatia was lynched by a mob of Christian fanatics. There were many others burnt at the stake. Muslims have a long list, including the name of Sarmad, who paid the ultimate penalty for questioning Islamic dogma. What is more, persecuting doubters was not restricted to religion. We had suffragettes who were subjected to violence for questioning male monopoly over politics.

One negative aspect of casting doubt on dogma is that in course of time doubters themselves become dogmatic. The classic example is the rise and fall of Marxism. What started as questioning the assumptions of capitalism in interpreting history itself became ossified into a kind of political faith which brooked no criticism and punished those who dared to question it. One victim of their ire was Leon Trotsky who was assassinated; and thousands who perished in Stalinís purges of dissidents were banished to Siberia.

The only conclusion one can draw is that though casting doubt on accepted beliefs is essential to progress, those who speak out boldly put their lives at grave risk.


Who live longer?

Who live longer, the rich or the poor? It is a silly question because the answer is, of course, as far as we Indians are concerned, the rich outlive the poor by many years. They have a better start in life, eat nourishing food, live in cleaner environments, enjoy more medical facilities, have tonics, can undergo heart surgeries which are beyond the pockets of the poor, take vacations in the beaches or mountains. None of these are available to those short of money. The dice is cast in favour of the affluent unless they shorten their lives by over-eating, excessive drinking, smoking or debauchery. Most well-to-do Indians can expect to live up to the eighties, whereas those not so well-to-do give up the ghost by the time they reach their 50s or 60s.

The pattern of longevity is roughly the same in advanced countries. Michael Marmot, Professor of epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London, calls this phenomenon the status-syndrome. He has some telling statistics. People living in congested centres of cities have shorter lives than those who live in the suburbs. The higher a person is in the business ladder or officialdom, the longer he or she can expect to live than those below them. Actors who win Oscars live four years longer than those who were short-listed but failed to get it. And so on.

Statistics also show that more money does not necessarily guarantee longer life. Considered nationwise, the Japanese, Swedes and Canadians have the longest expectancy of life in the world. An average Japanese lives up to 77 years, whereas the average American male lives up to 75, his female counterpart lives four years longer. America spends a lot more than any other nation on its health services; yet life expectancy in the States is no longer than that in Spain or Singapore which spend much less.

At 90, I am not much impressed by statistics about longevity. They do not tell on whether or not the longer lived got more fulfilment in their lives than the short-lived; whether they lived in good mental and bodily health or were periodically bed-ridden, unable to enjoy food and drink, hard of hearing, of poor vision and unable to read or write and suffering lapses of memory. Allama Iqbal was right in saying:

Too issey paiman-e-imroze-o-farda say naa naap

(Measure not life by the hour glass/ Of todays and the days to come/ Life is eternal, ever-changing/ Forever renewing its youthfulness.)


Blood group

Doctor: You and your wife have the same blood group?

Husband: It has to be : she has been sucking my blood for the last 30 years.


Banta vs Santa

Banta, who was standing on the platform of a railway station, suddenly jumped on the railway track.

Santa shouted: Banta, you will be killed.

Banta: No fear, it is you who will die. Didnít you hear "Gaddi platform par aa rahi hai" (The train is coming on the platform).

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)


Note: Khushwant Singh is away. There will be no column next week.