The other side of

Reviewed by Aruti Nayar

Agnostic Khushwant There is no God!
by Khushwant Singh with Ashok Chopra. Hay House. Pages 245. Rs 299

This is not vintage Khushwant Singh of wine, women and risqué humour. Neither are there any digs and asides that leave a lot to imagination. There is no double entendre and stress on sex and sexuality, another Khushwant-defining feature. On offer is a well-written book that is immensely informative. Agnostic Khushwant. There is no God! is an easy read about the different religions—-Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism. With great skill and dexterity, he unravels the complex philosophy underlying religions in a lucid style which is readable. The book has been divided into 14 chapters for a macroscopic view on various aspects of different religions, their scriptures and even internecine problems that beset religions and their practitioners.

The chapters The beauty of the Quran, Anti-Muslim prejudices and The significance of the Ramzaan fast are particularly informative. They give the reader an insight into Islam and help to correct the perspective by deconstructing many commonly held fallacies and biases against Islam and Muslims. More often than not, the reasons for biases are lack of knowledge and information. If only at least the educated people followed a more informed approach, many prejudices would wither. In an exemplary manner, the writer uses strong logic and reasoning to prove his point and does not fall into any mystical claptrap. Ashok Chopra, who has collaborated with Singh, in a precise and sparkling Foreward brings out the special bond that he shares with the author, so much so he has lost count of the books written by Singh he has published.

The chapters that deal with various aspects of Sikhism—-The Sikh religion and the beauty of the Adi Granth, Sikh prayers and Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh dwell on the lesser-known aspects and the lyrical beauty of verses and juxtapose the turbulent times in which the Gurus lived historically with their teachings. He quotes extensively to bring out not only the spiritual or mystical power but also the sheer lyricism of the poetry in the Guru Granth Sahib and other verses. Even when he discusses the finer points of Sikhism and the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev and the tenth guru Gobind Singh, it is as a rationalist and not with a person who is either overawed or blinkered by the sheer force of faith.The author’s pronouncements are not merely statements but backed by an analytical rigour. He quotes and brings out the power of poetry in religious texts. The Quran, he says, is very musical and as is the Guru Granth Sahib. He even displays a technical knowledge of the metric compostions. For instance, we learn that Asa di var is composed in the form of a heroic ballad and is set to the musical mode of the raga Asa and it is ivided into staves (slokas) and stanzas (pauris).

It is the essays like: God is not for sale and The need for a ban on religious processions that reach out to the target audience because true to form, he debunks hypocrisy and brings out incongruities in a provocative manner. For instance, he scoffs at the gradation of akhand paths and how the ragis of a jatha asked for more money if they got a Japanese harmonium! No wonder the veteran author does not believe in giving money at places of worship and only opts for direct charity. He feels, priests and ragis have acquired vested interests in religious practice. Until and unless they are divested of their stranglehold on places of worship, there is little chance of worship and there is little chance of their being restored as havens of spirituality.

He explains how instead of entering into a pointless debate on whether or not god exists, it is more important to bear in mind that belief in the existence of god has little bearing on making a person a good or a bad citizen. The tone is set in the first chapter itself: The need for a new religion—Without a God. He questions the relevance of God and shocks the reader in his inimitable manner and then goes on to explain after holding him captive. "One can be a saintly person without believing in God and a detestable villain believing in him. In my personalised religion, There Is No God!

He is of the view that religion has proved to be more harmful than beneficial and, in the process, debunks astrologers and the breed of so-called ‘Godmen’.

The chapter on meeting the Dalai Lama is evocative as the author explains how the aura that His Holiness exuded was contagious as were his guffaws. He writes: "The Nobel Committee had done well in awarding him the peace prize in 1989 because he is a man of peace. He has suffered many wrongs but has never uttered an angry word in protest. He has brought solace to millions of people who are troubled by the way world is going today."

Khushwant has studied all religions very thoroughly and makes available his knowledge without obfuscation and use of jargon. He does not throw abstruse philosophical concepts in the face of readers. And is bang on target when he declares that the role of religion in present-day society has shrunk to minimal proportions and it is only "Providing facile means of forgiveness through performance of pilgrimage or some trite from of penance or the intercession of godme." In this book, the most-read columnist informs and educates. This is a big change from his usual offerings where he is the entertainer par excellence. Kudos to his fair-minded rationality, objectivity and secularism. Readers deserve more such books from the veteran.