Category Archives: religion

Subsidizing spirituality

If we define as ‘spiritual’ pretty much anyone who does not worry (or have to worry) about getting his daily bread (which would include swamis, scientists and musicians), then it seems strange that those who actually put in hard work to earn money somehow willingly part with it to keep the other kind alive. It does not seem to end with just economically subsidizing them, but also allowing them to behave in ways simply unacceptable normally even though they are, for all purposes, under the mercy of the people who pay them. You do not have to think hard to find examples — Musicians, actors and spiritual gurus have not all been exactly role models, but they still seem to get by pretty well, even better than those who collectively keep them alive.

A straightforward and somewhat simple-minded reason for such collective insanity would be that the ‘spirituals’ are somehow brainwashing the mob into such behavior, that some version of class antagonism goes on behind such dynamics. It is of course valid in some situations, but cannot explain the general trend. Similarly, one can give evolutionary explanations saying the if a society has to evolve, it must always have variety, and somehow this is unconsciously understood by everyone and this is the reason why we subsidize cranks and academics.

However, a deeper look into human nature always shows a desire for transcendence. No matter how rich or poor and regardless of location, this is always noticeable. To transcend time and space, to leave a mark which remains beyond personal existence has forever been something we have been striving for. From hopes of being immortalized by folk tales and songs to training our children to be like us (or better), this desire crops up everywhere. Since the’ spiritual’ section of humanity aims at creations which seem to fit exactly such ambitions, the synergy between some strange kind of demand and supply is hard to miss. From gurus puporting to explain inner space and scientists outer space and musicians trying to link both, all the while creating edifices of thought, emotion and technique which remain with humanity for ever, these people naturally have something that the people can tap into, either by ‘consumption’ of their works of looking up for guidance in their own quest.

However, this relationship is not as one-dimensional as the above description might suggest. A good example is that of the Sringeri Math in earlier times. It was the largest landowner in the region and simply because of its size was dependent not only on the donations of the common people but also the good-will of the local rulers. Similarly, the rulers understood the influence the Math had in the region and patronised it for political reasons if nothing else. Hence the basis for the extremely cordial relations between the Math and Tippu Sultan.

All over the world, religious institutions played an important role in the material life of people, and continue to do so in India. The best recent example is the Gadag land acquisition issue where in the forefront of the agitation were the heads of the various Maths in the region, since the local BJP MLAs obviously would not do anything about it. In fact, until the deliberate attempts of the British to dismantle it, everyday life in India seemed to revolve around local institutions and were largely insulated from the vagaries of the large scale political vagaries. In such a situation, an ‘impartial observer’ who was largely insulated from the demands of normal life was naturally needed, and in a strongly religious country like ours, no guesses as to who would be that observer.

Afer India went onto the path of modernization, and the temples of modern India were being built, there are again no surprises as to who were to lead the discussions and debates on how life should be organised. New religions require new priests. Scientists of Nehru’s time were very active in public life due to the mandate given to them to build a modern nation, a trait that is not very conspicuous among scientists today, given that India has a new religion called economics. There were, of course exceptions to the rule, people who were truly unaccountable for their actions either due to extreme mass appeal or asceticism, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Societies seem to subsidize certain capabilities and allow strange behavior when they see how influential they can be in everyday life — either by helping them forget the humdrum of daily life, if only for a moment, as entertainers or inspirers, or by making life easier to live by reaching for concepts not everyone has the time or the talent to absorb. Spirituality, on the other hand, cannot survive unless it comes down from the skies once in a while and actually dirties its hands in the slush that all those who support it have to wade through daily.

Those on the ground want to reach for the skies, whereas those up above will do well to keep their ears to the ground. Just as life flourishes where the earth and sky meet, civilization can sustain itself when the farmer and the philosopher can actually understand each other.

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Philosophy and the Common Person

In a recent sermon at Church, the priest was discussing the concept of resurrection, which is supposed to be one of the central bases of Christian faith. There was apparently a debate between our own church-goers as to the validity of resurrection and therefore he called up a set of people, divided into two groups, each trying to argue why resurrection is valid or not. Thankfully, it was a short debate, since neither group had the philosophical skills nor the oratorial skills to interest me. Obviously, nothing came out of this debate other than a huge waste of time – Something debated for two thousand years is unlikely to settled by six minutes of incoherent arguments.

One wonders why this particular issue is controversial, and not the issue of whether beer or whisky is served in heaven. Each one of us has the same insight into either problem, and atleast the latter is more relatable and one can argue from experience why beer or whisky is more divine. While debating such trivialities is definitely good intellectual exercise to keep the gray matter in shape, but can hardly be the carrier of any message of use to the people attending Church.

Each of us lives in two worlds, the imagined world of possibilities and potentialities and the lived world. Depending on one’s inclinations and imagination, one is as real as the other. Heaven, Rebirth, Resurrection, all these belong to the former, and beer and whisky to the latter. Priests, Philosophers and miscellaneous IISc junta normally spend most of their time in the former, whereas those engaged in productive work predominantly reside in the lived world of rude shopkeepers, interminable queues and overcrowded buses. One set tries to find dynamical patterns in the Monsoon, whereas the other gets drenched and muddy due to it.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that people tend to nod off when the priest talks about the Nicean council and eschatology, and observation of ritual is an excuse to socialise than to learn something useful. Philosophy is useful, in that it gives us a broad understanding of and the limits of the way of life that we pursue. However, its methods to try and reach useful conclusions are normally not interesting to anyone. It may make for dazzling sermons, but poor party gossip. What really matters is what understanding one gains from it, and its applicability in everyday life.

The issue is that Philosophy tries to reach at general, immutable principles guiding the universe and human nature. However, everyday life is exactly the opposite — particular (to an individual, community,…) and contingent. Therefore, while the question of resurrection and the implied final judgement may dissuade most believers from performing blatantly ‘sinful’ acts, it cannot tell them whether it is ethical to bargain with a street vendor or travel ticketless in a bus. One just cannot be debating the ethical merit of one’s position when  action is required right now, right here.

It is therefore not surprising when we see the popularity of new age gurus rising. These people are giving their followers exactly what they are looking for — guidance about their teenage child, workplace feud or love interest. The traditional stress on ritual and metaphysics almost pushes people toward Sri Sri and their ilk. What we need is a philosophy for life in this world, not for after death in another world.

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

Should we be worried about the (your favorite word here) Sene?

One has to stop watching NDTV news. They were among the most vocal in their campaign against the ‘Talibanization’ of Mangalore and almost suddenly went quiet and now are most vocal about Slumdog Millionaire, what with Anil Kapoor being their special correspondent and all. If they complain about ‘rightists’ stoking emotional fires in India for political purposes, they seem to be doing the same for commercial purposes. Now that we have appropriated an English film as our own and celebrating it, however grudgingly, everything else seems to go into the background.

But yes, the Rama Sene has almost completely gone off the TV/media radar for the moment, until they do something else  (someone else seems to have taken over the baton in Bangalore).  The media seems to have given them what they wanted: their two minutes in the limelight to show that they have ‘arrived’. The media showed, in its typical sensationalist form, an India that we are embarrassed of and would like to wish away. Talking to people not from the middle class in buses and trains, one gets a feeling that they are not as opposed to it as we would like them to be.

Social delinquency is not as rare as one might imagine it to be. India has always been deeply divided on the questions of caste, class, gender and religion. Things always seem to be simmering below, and sporadic outbursts are a public manifestation of these issues. It is not as if the Sene members woke up one day and decided to beat up people.

But the million dollar question is : Can this cause widespread social change ? If it is, then all minorities and women in India are in for some trouble. In answering this, we must first realise that all nationalist movements (be they Indian nationalism, Hindu, Kannada, whatever) have always been urban phenomena. The members of the Congress were upper middle class professionals and businessmen, Kannada Rakshana Vedike has most of its rallies in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities, and Mangalore has been simmering for some time now, on questions of conversion and culture, BJP’s main voter base has always been in the cities. So, nothing in the scale at which the Taliban operated can be achieved, all the more so since violence cannot be made mainstream without a organised militia (which no *-Sene has, but the Sangh Parivar does, but not comparable in scale to the Police or the Army).

This means that making a Nationalist agenda on whatever grounds cannot be widely accepted if it does not have the blessings of mainstream political parties. The Hindu Renaissance that the BJP claims to be spearheading has taken years of organization, building of cadres ( both with legal sanction (RSS) and otherwise (Bajrang Dal, et al) ). Even with such an organized machinery, their coming into power can be blamed on the Congress Party’s incapacity to produce good leaders. No other nationalist organization, neither the Rama Sene or the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike have such firm ideological grounding or discipline. Also, militant actions make it easy for the State to deal with such organizations, and this makes it necessary for them to toe the line and reduce violent actions ( Anyone remember large scale violence by the KRV recently ?).

The BJP itself has had troubles implementing its agenda at a national level due to the fractured results that the Indian polity returns. Coalitions are hardly the ideal ground for pushing hardline policies. Then, it is unlikely that smaller, less organized movements can have much impact. They can capture the public imagination for some time, but the combination of existing rival interests (KRV has already broken into two factions, so has the Shiv Sena) and short term public memory makes it difficult to build on such gains.

Will conflicts based on caste, culture, religion go away anytime soon ? No. Will they be the major talking point of any political party ? Not anytime soon. Should we be worried about *-Sene ? In their present form, No.

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs global  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

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.