Arun Shouries Articles

The vital difference | May 29, 2008

Arun Shourie: Monday, December 31, 2007

In the Indic traditions — as opposed to the Middle Eastern traditions — reality is multilayered. Hence no description of it is final: tolerance follows as an article of faith.

So, the first lesson to bear in mind is that every tradition has in it the potential to become extremist. In this sense, our traditions are indeed similar to the Middle Eastern traditions. This similarity should be a warning to governments and parties that keep traducing Hindus, for instance, and pandering to Muslims and the rest just because the latter are aggressive. Everyone learns.

And yet there is a basic, foundational difference — one that points us to what is of inestimable value in Indic traditions; to the priceless pearl that we should preserve, the one that these heedless secularists and the rapacious aggressives do not realise they are pushing Hindus, Buddhists and others to discard. This basic difference is as follows.

When a tradition has the following elements, as each of the three Middle Eastern traditions has, as do the secular traditions of the West — Nazism, Marxism-Leninism — it will invariably be exclusivist, intolerant and aggressive, and it will invariably deploy all means — from propaganda to money to violence:

Reality is simple;

It has been revealed to one man;

He has put it in one Book;

That Book is inerrant as well as exhaustive: so that whatever is in it is true, that it is true for all time; and that whatever is not in it or is contrary to what is in it, is false or useless or worse;

But the Book is difficult to understand; hence, you need a guide, an intermediary, a monitor: in a word, the Church, the ulema, or the Party;

The Book covers, the intermediary must cover every aspect of life: there is no distinction between the private and the public sphere, between the Secular and the Religious, between the State and the Church. These doctrines are totalitarian — in both senses: they insist on governing the totality of life — the Roman Catholic Church’s minatory insistence against contraception, for instance, and the reams and reams of fatwas that deal with even more intimate matters; they are also totalitarian in the sense that what they prescribe on any aspect just must be obeyed;

The test of piety is adherence to that Book and to the prescriptions of that intermediary — in every sphere of life;

It is the duty of that intermediary, indeed of every believer to ensure that all come to accept and adhere to The Message — there is only one Message;

As the Message is the ‘Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth,’ as there is no truth beside it, those who do not accept the Message are cussed; worse, they are thwarting the Will of Allah, or its equivalent — the march of History in Marxism-Leninism;

Hence, it is the duty of every believer, and even more so of that intermediary to use all means to make them accept the Message, and if, even after being offered the opportunity to accept it, they refuse, to vanquish them all together.

When these elements are present, the tradition will have one singular objective: dominance. It will become an ideology of power, a dogma that rationalises everything in the pursuit of hegemony. The dogma will necessarily gravitate to, among other things, violence.

Contrast those elements with propositions that are central to the Indic traditions:

Reality is multilayered complexity: both in the sense that there are layers within layers of it, and in the sense of each element mingling into others: the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh refers to the latter as ‘inter-being’;

It has not been revealed exclusively to one person: several have glimpsed it;

They have put down approximate descriptions of that reality as well as hints of how to glimpse it in some books: these are travel guides;

Perceiving that Truth is an overwhelming, incomparable experience; it is the one joy that lasts. This life gives each of us a unique opportunity to bathe in that effulgence. If we don’t, the loss will be ours — but that is about it: the Truth is not affected; the guides are not falsified;

It is not just the Book or some singular great figure who can teach us; everything, every event, every relationship can be a teacher guiding us to glimpse the Truth — indeed, our object should be to make everything teach us. The essential points are three: different ways will suit different persons; second, the individual is the one who has to strive — as ‘an island unto himself’; third, the striving, the search is an inner-directed one. It has nothing to do with the state or power or dominance over nature or man;

In pursuing this inner-directed search, indeed in leading one’s life, the test is not adherence to any of these travel guides, nor obedience to any intermediary, but darshan — the traveller’s own experience: do not mistake the finger pointing to the moon — that is, my teaching — for the moon, the reality, the Buddha counsels.

Every single element in these traditions guides and pulls the believer in the direction that is the exact opposite of the Middle Eastern traditions. Reality is multilayered, hence no description of it is final: tolerance follows as an article of faith. The search is to be an inner-directed one: where, then, is there a case for converting some dar ul harb into some dar ul Islam? The touchstone is not that I am adhering to what some book says or what some person, howsoever worthy, prescribed. The touchstone is my own experience. The consequence of even this single article is immense and radical. The Gita is set in a battlefield. At the end, Arjuna declares that all his doubts are settled. He goes into gory battle. Yet Gandhiji derived non-violence from it. The orthodox berated him. Where do you get the authority to advance such a notion, they demanded. Gandhiji’s answer? From here, his heart. What is written in this book, he says in Anashakti Yoga, is the result of thirty years’ unremitting effort to live the Gita in my life. When Mansur speaks to his experience, he is executed. Within Islam, the Sufis were a beleaguered sect . . .

Putting belief into practice

It is entirely possible, of course, to be earnest about one’s religious beliefs, practices, rituals and not turn to violence or to converting others through allurements or violence. Indeed, we can go further and say that in all traditions, the majority of people in their practice, in their day-to-day life are like each other: each of them has a hard enough time getting through her or his daily struggles to spare time and effort to forcing or even inducing others or even persuading others to his particular way. But when the religion insists that the object is to convert, to ‘harvest souls’ for Jesus, when it declares that all of dar ul harb must be converted into the dar ul Islam; when the religion is a doctrine of dominance, being earnest about one’s religion comes to include as an essential element that the believer assist in spreading that religion, and that he use all means to do so. If a believer does not do so, he is deficient in his belief.

That is why in the hadis, we find the Prophet repeatedly enumerating the boons that accrue to the martyr and his relatives from jihad, from killing and being killed in the cause of Islam. The pre-eminent rewards, of course, accrue to the one who joins in the fighting himself, the Prophet declares in scores of hadis. But even the one who does not do so directly, will be rewarded for every bit of assistance that he gives for the establishment, defence and spread of Islam, the Prophet declares. When a man keeps a horse for the purpose of jihad, ‘tying it with a long tether on a meadow or in a garden… whatever it eats from the area of the meadow or the garden where it is tied will be counted as good deeds for his benefit, and if it should break its rope and jump over one or two hillocks then all its dung and its footmarks will be written as good deeds for him; and if it passes by a river and drinks water from it even though he had no intention of watering it, even then he will get the rewards for its drinking.’ And again, even more generally, ‘If somebody keeps a horse in Allah’s Cause motivated by his belief in His Promise, then he will be rewarded on the Day of Resurrection for what the horse has eaten or drunk and for its dung and urine.’ [Sahih al-Bukhari, 52.44, 49, 105; similarly, Muwatta’ Imam Malik, 951, Mishkat al-Masabih, Book XVIII, Volume II, p. 822. The hadis compilations as well as books on shariah are filled with scores and scores of such exhortations and promises.]

By contrast ‘the one who died but did not fight in the way of Allah,’ the Prophet declares, ‘nor did he express any desire (or determination) for jihad, died the death of a hypocrite.’ [Sahih Muslim, 4696.] Again, the Prophet declares, ‘He who dies without having fought or having felt fighting (against the infidels) to be his duty will die guilty of a kind of hypocrisy.’ And yet again, ‘He who does not join the warlike expedition (jihad), or equip a warrior, or look well after a warrior’s family when he is away, will be smitten by Allah with a sudden calamity.’ Hence, commands the Prophet, ‘Use your property, your persons and your tongues in striving against the polytheists.’ [Sunan Abu Dawud, 2496-98.]

Such commands follow ineluctably from the propositions that I listed above. We shut this fact out by two blindfolds. We judge a faith by looking at ‘people like us’ — most of the ones we know are ‘persons like us’, they do not live by such commands, but it is precisely because they are ‘like us’ that they are in our social circle. Unfortunately, the outcome is determined, not by the millions who lead ordinary lives, lives like ours, but by microscopic minorities: to say, ‘But the majority of Muslims did not want Partition’ may be true but is little consolation — that did not save the country from being partitioned. Similarly, to say ‘But millions are living peacefully today, they have not the slightest intention of setting off for jihad’ is true but equally little consolation: the ones who take the propositions seriously and thereby heed the hadis, are the ones who are determining the direction that events are taking.

And the direction that Islam itself is taking. Once they enter the stage, the extremists come to set the standard of fidelity and piety within a community. The tradition metamorphoses in no time: look at the change that has swept Islam in Southeast Asia in just fifteen years.

Second, we often lull ourselves with the thought, ‘But so what if someone wears the scarf or burqa? If they want to send their children to madrasas, what business is it of ours?’ But there is a technology to all this. The ones steering a community make a point of starting with a completely innocuous demand, by inducing believers to adhere to a practice that does not inconvenience non-believers in any way. The headscarf, for instance, or the new piety-statement in lands as far apart as Egypt and Pakistan, the zebibah — the dark, calloused bump that registers on the forehead when it is repeatedly struck or rubbed on the ground during prayers. [For our own neighbourhood, observe the visitors from Pakistan; for Egypt, see, for instance, Michael Slackman, ‘Mark of piety as plain as a bump on the head,’ IHT, December 13, 2007.] Non-believers are not inconvenienced by such signs, and yet the practices go far. They become a device for making the adherent realise that she is not the same as the others, and to make her or him announce that she is not one of the others. Simultaneously, the marks drill into others that the adherents have come to look upon themselves as separate. When the non-believers in turn start treating them as separate, that they are doing so becomes a grievance. And thus another argument is acquired for transiting from separateness to separatism.

Hence, all who are apprehensive of a Hindu reaction should:

Get to know the non-Indic traditions;

Shed denial — from denial of what the basic texts of the non-Indic traditions say to denial of the demographic aggression in the Northeast;

Most important of all, work to ensure a completely fair and an absolutely firm state; and an even-handed discourse.

For their part, the Hindus cannot recline back, confident that the reaction will take care of the current pressures. They too have much to do. In particular, they must

Awaken to the fact that the danger does not come just from violence and money; it comes as much from the purposive use of the electoral system;

And so, they must organise themselves for this challenge as much as for others;

For this, they must vault over internal divisions, in particular the curse of caste;

Be alert not just to assault by others, but also to perversions from within: the commercialisation of the tradition; its becoming a commerce with deities — ‘Please get me this contract, and I will . . .’; its becoming ostentatious religiosity; persons setting themselves up as the guardians of the tradition, and then using the perch for self-aggrandisement . . .

Get to know the tradition; and live it.


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