Category Archives: India

Religious conversions: views

Problems related to conversions seem to be hitting all parts of India, from the poverty-stricken tribal Orissa to the highly literate and affluent Mangalore. Militant Christianity came first, then militant Islam and now militant Hinduism. God alone knows what next, maybe militant scientologists!

Before anything, let us get one thing straight: these are middle and upper class/caste fights in which lower castes/classes get affected the worst. Religion and culture come to the mind resting above a full stomach. It is quite unfortunate that those affected most are the ones who historically are the ones affected most. Therefore, oppression does not really go away by conversions or Bajrang Dal activism, but merely takes a new form.

Christianity has always been an agressive (or as the Church prefers to call it, evangelical) religion. This seems to flow from Christ’s command to ‘spread the Good News’ . Considering the fact that most Christians do not follow Christ’s other words – like ‘remove the splinter in your eye before pointing to the one in your brother’s eye’, which essentially means getting your house in order before anything else – it is puzzling that they are so fond of spreading the Good News. Similarly, Brahmins who never have given a damn about the lot of Dalits for centuries are now trying to ‘reclaim’ them from the proselytizers. Both stink more than a little of hypocrisy.

In India atleast, religion has been an integral part of a person’s identity from time immemorial. Then why is it that people are so easily converted (which amounts to a drastic change in identity), and why are most of the converts from Hinduism to other religions rather than the other way round ? Consider the following issues:

  • Hindu rituals, for the most part are still in Sanskrit
  • Priests are still Brahmin
  • There are still temples which disallow Dalits
  • Reformation movements like the Bhakti movement have been largely suppressed or sidelined or have corrupted into mainstream thinking
  • Dalits in the hinterlands still suffer systematic deprivation and lack access to schools and healthcare

OTOH, consider features of Indian Christianity:

  • Christian rituals are adapted to the local cultural milieu. Attending a mass in English and in Santhali are radically different experiences
  • Anyone can become a priest. Most candidates who join do not become priests but come out after getting free education upto graduation and a good exposure to social service and philosophy
  • Most schools and hospitals run in tribal areas are either secular or Christian

It must be quite easy to see why religious conversions are quite high from Hinduism. New converts to Christianity get rituals highly customised to their culture, access to education (though there is usually no discrimination for admission – most Hindus would like their children to study in a ‘convent’ school). New modes of Christian worship like Praise and Worship are extremely popular among new converts and this is something that contemporary Hindu worship sorely lacks, i.e, they need to jazz it up a bit! ISKCON does a decent job of this, effecting quite a few reverse conversions, but seems like they want more white people than tribals!

It is hardly surprising that Hindus view conversions as a threat, because they are. But they have themselves to blame for the position that they are in. Any social institution that fails to adapt to changing circumstances will eventually die. Hinduism is nowhere close to this, but tensions are a sign that as a social institution (not as a philosophy : the two are very different entities) has not kept up with the times. If you don’t work for the upliftment of the poorest, don’t hold counselling sessions for youth in these fast-changing times, don’t change modes of worship to suit changing tastes and perceptions and then complain about a Christian conspiracy to undermine HInduism, you are basically missing the point. What people need is not a religion, but a means of upliftment – socially and psychologically. It is no surprise that various godmen like Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ganapati Satchidananda and innumerable others in metros like Bangalore are gaining in popularity – they offer a modern solution to contemporary human problems.

Tensions rooted in conversions to Christianity are not going to go away: like I mentioned, Christianity is quite fundamentally a proselytizing religion. What needs to be done is to adapt and stay abreast of the times – tastes, values, predispositions, culture are quite rapidly changing nowadays. It remains to be seen when Hinduism can address these issues, considering its massive inertia and elitism.

Point and counterpoint

Finished two books of essentially opposite characters, One was ‘One Straw Revolution’ and the other was ‘In defense of Globalization’ by Jagadish Bhagwati. Was interesting to read one after the other, since it covered the extremes of the globalization spectrum.

To be fair, Fukuoka was not trying to flagellate globalization as much as he was trying to point out an alternate way of life. Bhagwati, OTOH, was quite focused, as the title itself suggests.

One Straw Revolution

The book claims to be an introduction to natural farming, but is definitely far more than that. Though most of the book deals with Fukuoka’s method of ‘do-nothing farming’ (where you let nature take care of most of the work, with minimal intervention from the farmer), it also puts forward a way of life derived from the method of farming itself. Like the author says (paraphrased)

Once I realised that man knows nothing … Instead of talking about my philosophy, I tried to show the same to others by practicing agriculture.

He derives an alternate type of agriculture which uses the variety and complexity of nature to do most of the hard work, like controlling weeds, pests and manuring, with the farmer himself doing very little. Someone who knows a bit of community ecology will be fascinated by the practical usage of the same to make life easier. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, humans spend most of the energy they harvest/mine to modify ecosystems. However, given the complexity of ecosystems, this is usually a ham-handed approach which leads to other issues which need to be patched up, and so on and so forth. Fukuoka essentially tries to observe natural patterns and see how it can be used to his benefit, rather than fighting it. Of course, he builds his method around his philosophy of ‘man knows nothing’, but the method is useful even if you do not agree with his thinking. This book definitely lies in the ‘inspirational’ category and will leave the reader invigorated, if nothing else ;)

However, given modern logic of efficiency, this method is highly inefficient along the time ordinate, since gradually observing and adjusting to natural rhythms is extremely site specific (for obvious reasons) and iterative (Fukuoka himself took close to 2 decades to reach his level of expertise). NPK fertilizers and pesticides win out on this measure while losing out on practically everything else. Natural food is cheaper (those who buy from organic shops in Blore might find this shocking!), easier to grow and maintain while growing, and does not cause farmer riots all the time. Fukuoka also mentions the variety of problems farmers face when growing cash crops for a global market, especially when they are not sophisticated like corporations to hedge against the inherent risks.

In Defense of Globalization

Bhagwati is quite of the opposite character. Man can sufficiently control nature to increase welfare of all, any lapses are just because science is not yet perfected, and this implies the Western nations – given their superior science and technology – must help developing countries to grow faster. His idea to support growth is that

I noticed that the economic profile of all countries, developed or developing is pretty similar. Therefore, the obvious choice is to make the pie bigger.

As opposed to distributing the pie better. One cannot doubt that he is quite concerned with the welfare of all, just like Fukuoka, but supports globalization of trade as the best way out, in direct opposition of Fukuoka’s way out. Judging by the present scenario, Bhagwati has definitely been more influential!

Leaving aside fundamental differences in opinion, I found it quite instructive to read this book since Bhagwati makes a cogent argument about the various faults in the anti-globalization movement, most of which centre around them being more about good intentions rather than solid research. He concedes that globalization does not mean complete deregulation but needs to be ‘managed’ to cope with what he calls its ‘occasional downsides’. The problem that I have seen reading newspapers and such is that these downsides seem to be quite frequently ‘occasional’. One can hardly agree with Bhagwati that culture are environment are not affected, but rather helped by globalization, and that one should eat genetically modified foods because there is not scientific evidence that they cause any problems. There was no evidence that atmospheric pollution was bad in the 1800’s – the only lamenters being poets and artists – but no one disagrees now. Precautionary measures are something that Bhagwati dislikes saying that ‘anything and everything can be disallowed using moral arguments and this is bad for global trade’. If that is the price for precaution, so be it.

One consistent strain throughout the book is North-South relationship and how developing countries must learn from the big boys how the game is played (technology, management practices, financial aid, the whole nine yards!). USA uses 30% of the world’s energy. If everyone in India consumes like the average American, we would need to mine not only Mars but the Asteroid belt near Jupiter as well. If we concede that all cannot be Americans, then why should we follow the path of development that they did is not very clear. Our 9% growth is essentially creating brown-skinned Americans within a sea of poverty. India, like what we did with NAM, needs to chart its own path of development which is not infinitely optimistic about mining asteroids but takes a more realistic and cautious approach which increases the welfare of all.

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

The Idea of India – review

Just finished watching a very cool movie called The Story of Stuff. It is a 20 minute documentary that I recommend watching to anyone who has 20 minutes to spare. You can download the movie on the downloads section of the website. It the most entertaining, funny piece of media that I have seen about, well, the story of stuff. Happy New Years and all that, you have one less year to live!

A book that I finished (mercifully) after sporadic reading bursts stretching almost to a month was Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. One cannot truly write about all the various ideas of India in a book barely reaching 200 pages, and the author does not pretend to do so. He touches upon a few ideas of India – The British, Gandhian, Nehruvian, BJP being among the prominent ones, and how they interacted on subcontinental scale to produce some of the features of the Indian State, Constitution, Economy and culture. The book essentially tells us that there is no one true, perfect idea of India, and that one must always be able to compromise and adjust one’s beliefs in the face of realities. It is also concerned with the rise of Hindu Nationalism and critiques it on the basis of its origins, its beliefs and aims, and how these are counter-factual and ahistorical. Another book with similar critiques and pleas for cultural and religious pluralism that comes to mind is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Infact, a visit to any book store that stocks decent non-fiction writing about India will show that there seem to be a lot of literature on this subject. An interesting historical parallel is the glut of books supporting democracy and liberalism that were published during the times of the World War, criticizing both Communism and Fascism. One wonders whether a similar albeit quieter revolution is taking place within our society right now.

The book is quite partial to the Nehruvian idea of India which he argues is not an ideological obstinacy to ‘go socialist’, instead, one that was quite contingent and prone to change. The one thing he was ideological about was the role that a strong State had in the stability of India, and seeing the situations in Pakistan, Myanmar, most Central Africa, this seems like a justified conviction. The book is filled with interesting analyses, about the nature of social power in India, which was destroyed by the British rule, the evolution and shaping of cities by the people in power, Chandigarh being a good example, how nationalist leaders like Nehru and Gandhi had to first ‘become Indian’ before taking the pivotal roles that they did play in our history, how Hindu Nationalism ironically has a European core around which all the necessary obfuscation has been done, and interesting tidbits like this. However sceptical one may be that Khilnani can do justice to the object of the essay, the book itself is worth reading just for the analyses like those mentioned above.

The book itself was quite difficult to find, and I finally found it in Blossoms second hand book store near M.G Road in Bangalore, if anyone is interested.