Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Faith, Hindus, Christians and Cynics: A Letter to Sudin

Dear Sudin,

A couple of weeks ago, I read a letter to the editor in one of our local newspapers. Written by a Hindu gentleman who had visited a temple dedicated to Shantadurga, the letter does not indicate to us why he went there. One presumes however, that he was there to perform a ritual. While at the temple, he came across a farmer who was there to beg the intercession of the Goddess. He had suffered rodent damage to his crop, and was convinced, or so the narrator of this letter tells us, that sprinkling the teertha (holy water) in the fields would save him and his crop. This simple (and perhaps naïve) faith of the farmer proved too much for our gentleman narrator, and in his letter to the editor, exhorts that we must cease such practices of blind superstition and adopt scientific principles and rationality.

I have to confess on reading this letter I was most upset. While I might join the narrator in thinking the farmer’s practices naïve, surely they are just as naïve as the reasons that the narrator was in the temple in the first place? For what was our narrator doing in the temple? Was it not to honour a deity of graven stone?

You will realize that I am not rubbishing the practice of the worship of the Goddess. I am merely challenging the supercilious attitude of our narrator, asking him to indicate where blind superstitious faith ends, and rational belief begins! While the formulation above was clear to my mind, I nevertheless felt that I was missing something in my analysis of the issue.

A few days ago, in the course of a virtual chat, I was eager to impress you that I speak about the importance of faith in public life, not in religion. You retorted, indicating that perhaps this ‘faith’ was something you (Christians) have, whereas we (Hindus) don’t need it, it is enough that ‘we’ perform the ritual. No sooner had you made this suggestion, did I realize what was bothering me about this letter I have just elaborated on above. My response will deal with two issues; the first the whole idea that the Hindu/ Indian is alien to faith (this being a Christian/ Western innovation) and second the implications of this faithless religion.

In its attempt to dominate the world, colonialism set up certain binaries of virtues. Thus if the colonizer was material, the colonized was spiritual. If the colonizer intelligent, the colonized innocent. In these binaries, the colonized always landed up with the least flattering, as the colonizer was cast as the mature and pragmatic sibling in the relationship. These binaries were wildly popular during the halcyon days of nationalism. In the attempt to give the colonized a voice, rather than challenge these binaries, these binaries were valorized and made the basis of the colonized’s challenge. While we don’t engage in such childishly embarrassing binaries today, the tendency remains. There is an attempt at shallow sophistication. Thus colonialism is now tied to Christianity, and this faith-tradition is counterposed to the native traditions, and differences trotted out. Christianity has a text, Hinduism does not. Christianity has faith, Hinduism does not, and so forth. The idea is to cast colonialism as bringing modernity, and in face of the problems and violences of modernity, to suggest that the non, and pre-modern can provide a useful platform for a challenge to our modern mess. This is the intellectual origin of the suggestion that the Hindu has no need for faith.

Surely the encounter in the temple narrated above should convince you that the ‘pagan’ native is capable of and not innocent to faith. Empirically therefore, your argument should fall flat on its face. It is possible that you would choose to argue that this native has learned faith from the Christian. I trust you will not go down this embarrassing path and deny the bliss of faith to the native. Should you choose to do so however, what you are effectively doing is to suggest that Christianity is forever alien to native soil (a preposterous position for reasons beyond my being a South-Asian Christian). Secondly, you would be suggesting that the native faith traditions have somehow emerged fully formed, without any evolution, or that any evolution has been entirely indigenous.

In response to your argument however, I will not deny that there are Hindus who operate without faith. This is not however, exclusively a Hindu domain, since this dubious facility is shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews as well. These people fulfill their religious obligations, but do so recognizing that these are religious rituals that must be performed for the social sanction they obtain. Thus John Fernandes will take his children to mass, and introduce them to First Holy Communion, even though he thinks the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection to be ‘scientifically impossible’ and thus akin to our farmer’s use of teertha.

In these days of religious revivalism, fundamentalism et al, it is not the faithful that I fear. It is the religious. That is, those who operate in the field of religion without faith. It is true that the fields of faith and religion intersect so often that it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. The faithful can be gullible, but it is the cynical, those who perform religious ritual, without a belief in its spiritual merit, that are perhaps more to be feared.

In the course of my itinerations round Goa, I have seen the cynics that populate the temples, obsessed more with using the Goddess as a tool to power, rather than falling prostrate at Her feet. The narrator of the letter, I would wager is one of them. The product of his cynicism, is that not only is there a failure to grow in the virtues of trust and mutual dependence that faith brings, but it brings also, as was so obvious from the letter to the editor, a certain disdain for those of the lower order. These ‘superstitious’ are seen as in- need-of-education, and at the end of the day, merely tools for us to reach the paradise that we have deemed fit for creation. Indeed, as the good Pope Benedict XVI repeats constantly, contemporary man, having displaced God, arrogates unto himself the power of God, but in the process renders fellow humans less than human. Setting out to create paradise, he invariably produces the hell of contemporary existence.

To these ramblings, I would welcome your comments.

(Sudin, is the pseudonym for a Goan (Hindu) currently engaged in a PhD in the UK. While Sudin is a pseudonym, all other references are entirely factual.)

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 13 Jan 2010)

1 comment:

oskeladden said...

In all fairness, Jason, the idea that Hinduism lacks faith isn't purely a Western construct. There have been schools of Hinduism which've said as much, most notably Purva Mimamsa. I can dig out and translate a two paragraph summary of purvamimamsa by the Sage of Kanchi, if you like.

These schools never had much of a hold in the far south, where the bhakti tradition seems to have always held sway, but they *were* Hindu orthodoxy in the North for a long while, and they've left definite imprints on contemporary North Indian Hinduism. An orthodox Hindu from the South would never have made the statement you attribute to Sudin, but it's not unthinkable for a North Indian. I suppose Sudin is at best guilty of refusing to recognise the diversity of Hinduism if he claimed that faith was alien to Hinduism, but if all he was saying was that faith is not necessary to be a Hindu, he was simply expressing an idea that has a long, orthodox pedigree.

As an aside, from what I can see the main impact of 'modernity' on Hinduism (in the 19th century, anyway) was to *deprecate* faith in favour of a more intellectual approach to religion. One of the forms this took was emphasising ritual and sacrifice as noble, symbolic acts (drawing here on Marcus Aurelius, Julian the apostate, and that branch of late classical paganism), which were far preferable to blind faith and superstition. To these guys, faith wasn't the gift of modernity, the ability to free religion from superstitious faith was. This, obviously, has fairly interesting implications for the two incidents you describe in your blog post.