Posts Tagged ‘God’

Some Thoughts on God and Religion

January 10, 2016

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say, this structure allowed for dramatically rhetorical and rhythmic oration that gradually built up to a rising crescendo of moral righteousness.

The last time I checked I had found that the law of the land restricted the use of mosque loud-speakers to the amplification of the azaan and the Friday sermon. I wondered if the imam knew he was violating the law since this had been a subject of public discussion a while back. Perhaps he did but believed that this was one of the things God did want him to do and in our country, I am told, the commandments of God trump the law of the land. As was the case during my previous stay in the locality, the residents though tired of the repetitive message, were unwilling to raise the issue for fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of holy wrath.

I tried to make the best of the situation and turned my attention to exploring the relationship between God and religion which is something in our country we take for granted. It seemed reasonable to me to believe that the notion of god must have preceded the invention of religion. History does seem to suggest that from the very beginning of human existence man must have been wondrous of natural phenomena beyond his control and critically important for his survival – thunder, lightning, rain, earthquakes, fire and so on. Anthropological accounts provide evidence of how these phenomena were attributed to gods. Hence we have the very well-known pantheon of pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans – these imagined entities were the causes of various natural phenomena and some of them had to be appeased to be beneficent to human beings.

The invention of religion as we know it today seems to be a much later phenomenon dating perhaps to the emergence of large settled communities at the beginning of the age of agriculture. The stability of large communities was crucially dependent on adherence to a shared and mutually acceptable set of rules and values that yielded order and minimized disorder – hence the almost universal prohibitions against deceit, theft, murder and so on. These codes evolved to assume the form of religious injunctions.

What is of interest is that the concept of God and the institution of religion did not come together automatically – in some places they did and in some they did not with hugely significant implications. In fact, even the step of many gods being replaced by one god and fallible gods with limited powers being replaced by one omniscient creator of life was not a universal occurrence. The attribution of a divine plan to the omniscient god, transmitted to chosen sets of people charged with the mission to follow and realize it and to be judged based on their performance, was even less universal.

If we look across the world today, we can discover all sorts of combinations of godhood and codes of behavior. Aboriginal people like Native Americans retain almost all the characteristics of the pagan Greek and Roman constellations of gods. Hinduism, which should more accurately be considered a code than a religion, retains multiple gods with a great degree of freedom to deem any one of them as the patron god of a family. Buddhism is a religion without a god. The Chinese worship their ancestors and some acknowledge a benign heavenly emperor in the sky without any divine plan of sorts. In fact, Confucianism is simply a way, a guide to good living compiled by a human being without any divine sanction to enforce its acceptance or implementation.

It is only the three monotheistic religions arising in the Middle East that have gone all the way combining codes of behavior with the sanction of a single omniscient God with a divine plan communicated to followers through a holy text. And it is through these texts that one gets to the stage of knowing what God wants us to do and not to do – for example, the content of the sermon of the imam which triggered these observations.

In thinking through this evolution, it seems to me that religion has not done too well as far as its don’ts are concerned. Despite the rapid increase in the number of houses of worship per square mile of land, the incidence of code violations – untruth, dishonesty, exploitation – continues to mount and many excessively religious societies are in an extreme state of social disorder. The do’s of these religions, on the other hand, are a different matter – amenable to multiple interpretations and easily hijacked to support all sorts of political objectives. In this case, there are no countervailing forces to limit the potential damage to humanity.

Given the above and as a result of historical experience, it is not surprising to see in some places a movement in reverse – the separation of Godhood from religion. One comes across more and more people who consider themselves religious without necessarily believing in an omniscient God with either a divine plan or the power to judge, reward, or punish humans for their acts on earth. There are others who continue to believe in God but profess no particular religious identity. The declining global attendance in churches is one manifestation of these trends which does not imply that the people who cease to attend church have become irreligious. Rather, religion has once again been reduced to a social bond and a communal code of ethical behavior that people subscribe to without the need for divine sanction to ensure its acceptance.

I am eagerly looking forward to the completion of my stay in this locality although I am grateful to the imam for initiating this exploration. I am not sure he would approve of his sermon being used for such a purpose but perhaps he also does not fully know what God wants or intends in making his followers do what they do on earth.

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God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents. (more…)

On God’s Will

July 9, 2009

I do not know God’s will but I can (hopefully) spot the logic of an argument about God’s will. That is what I wish to do today.

I have been intrigued by a comment from reader Tahir on a post about Imran Khan. Tahir says: “It is beyond my understanding how Imran is dividing people. As far as religion is concerned, this division has been done by God.”

Where do you go from there if you accept that as a valid starting point?

It seems to me that if God has made the divisions (among and within religions), there must have been some purpose in doing so unless we assume that divine actions were without purpose – which is something we do not want to do. (more…)

Ghalib – 28: Who’s Afraid of Multiple Meanings?

June 17, 2009

We resume the series with a she’r that illustrates well some of the underlying beliefs of The South Asian Idea:

nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa maiN to kyaa hotaa

1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what? (more…)

China – 1: Why a Series on China?

May 17, 2009

Why should we write about China on The South Asian Idea?

For many reasons:

First, comparisons between the economies of China and India are becoming increasingly common. Both are categorized as emerging dragons and new global superpowers. In fact, a new name has been coined to refer to these twin stars of the future – Chindia!

Second, both represent amongst the most ancient, continuously-lived civilizations with very rich histories. It is possible to understand more about ourselves through a comparison of some aspects of these histories.

Third, both China and India are large, billion-plus countries and there is much discussion of what each can learn from the other. (more…)

Ghalib – 25: On Resignation

March 13, 2009

Ghalib says in his letters that in moments of despair he was given to reciting this she’r:

raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN
ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa

night and day the seven heavens are revolving
something or the other will happen – why should we be perturbed

The meaning is open to interpretation and the reader is encouraged to refer to the commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz for more on the literary wordplay.

The most common interpretation is as an expression of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds that an individual feels powerless to confront (as, for example, the 1854 epidemic in Delhi that Ghalib refers to in one letter). And indeed, at such times, it is a great consolation to be able to leave one’s fate in the hands of a power greater than oneself.

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, note that Ghalib takes recourse to this remedy at the moment of his greatest helplessness – a time at which even the most unsentimental of critics would concede the laying down of arms. But what happens when the sentiment is the norm? What happens when in the best of times a society is prone to leave its fate to be decided by the revolution of the seven heavens?

In such situations, I would shift the stress on the words ghabraayeN kyaa differently. Instead of reading them as ‘why should we be perturbed’ I would be inclined to read them as ‘shouldn’t we be perturbed?’ Would I be wrong to feel that the prospect of the ‘something or the other’ likely to happen with such an attitude should be a cause of major concern?

Would readers consider this a commentary on the Pakistan of today and its predicament? Not for nothing have the faithful been advised: ‘Trust in God but tie your camel.’

Second, from turning to a higher power for solace in a moment of despair to believing that all fate is decreed by a higher power can seem an imperceptible extension but it is an extension with profound implications.

Doesn’t this take us back to Hobbes (1588-1679) and Leviathan (1651) in which Hobbes makes his momentous contribution – shifting the focus of deliberation from the heavens to the earth and outlining a theory of politics that rests on anthropology and not on theology?

Hobbes’ contribution is now known as the ‘Great Separation.’ Was it this conceptual and intellectual break that determined that the ‘something or the other’ that happened in societies that went different ways would be so radically at odds with each other?

For an excellent introduction to Hobbes and the Great Separation, see the lecture by Ian Johnston.

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An Alternate Explanation for Existence

February 28, 2009

By Anil Kala

[A curious man standing on a beach, blissfully unaware that earth is round, wondered what lies beyond the horizon! He embarked on a long journey in a dead straight line to explore the end of earth. Nature was kind; his journey progressed uneventfully but sluggishly. He crossed the ocean, walked across the desert and overcame mountains and as was inevitable passed through the same spot from where he had begun his journey. It was a long time ago; things had changed during his sojourn. He could not recognize the place and said, “Deja Vu“.

We are like this man unaware, always asking, “What beyond that? What after then”? ad nauseum. Like Neti Neti*, these questions are absurd. There are no straight lines only warped space and warped time. The ends are seamlessly joined with the beginning like in a loop. We pass through same space and same time albeit after a long interval, yet do not recognize them.Time does not move forward endlessly nor directions disappear in endless space.]

Our situation is akin to a moving dot confined within a square. There is no way the dot can come out of the square, similarly we have no way of knowing what, if any thing at all, lies beyond death. Death is an irreversible event, therefore impossible to obtain first hand information on afterlife, if there is any. Yet man has never stopped propounding various theories regarding existence beyond life. There are people who believe life breaks at death and we go to either heaven or hell depending on our conduct during lifetime, others believe in rebirth and progressive evolution of life culminating in Nirvana/Moksha, still others like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are amazed at its absurdity. It will always be speculative to guess what could possibly lie beyond death. If we could relate this paradox to a mathematical sequence where first three or four terms are known and we are asked to find out the next term of the sequence, we can possibly arrive at a much better understanding of existence. Is there a way to look for parallels in nature and extrapolate sequence of existence beyond death?

Nature has a way of sustaining itself by procreation. It is not just the living things that procreate but also the non-living things such as stars, galaxies, hills, rivers etc. All things we see regenerate either as replica of itself or a near clone. Procreation is seen all around the universe. Therefore death is not termination of existence not if we consider a parallel in nature, the procreation. Along with procreation most wide spread phenomenon is a dynamic state of equilibrium; the tendency of things to settle down in a state of dynamic equilibrium. We see seasons following a rhythmic pattern so do days and night, planets settling down in orbit of stars etc.  There is one more way for events to proceed; an exhaustive energy consuming process leading to eventual disappearance of object. Is this kind of process natural? If we consider Big Bang theory, one would believe formation of universe in a cataclysmic explosion from a singularity. There is no sure answer that the universe will continue spreading ad-infinitum or we reach a stage after which universe starts contracting and collapse again into a singularity and begin all over again. There is enough evidence to suggest that there is slow down in spreading of universe therefore logical that it will contract again into a singularity. All these phenomena point to a relentless continuity. While steady state cyclical situation is wide spread; the slow but sure way to extinction for inefficient and weak in living things has been part of our verified history. Therefore, continuous evolution and regular extinction is basic nature.

We now have initial elements of sequence enough to extrapolate for next element of the sequence. We see that procreation is universal and a dynamic cyclical state natural, and rise and decline of species basic nature, therefore death can be termination of existence for some and an interface to next order existence for others. If some species survive death, it is logical to presume that some will continue to survive higher-level existence and go on and on while others will become extinct at various stages. Constant evolution will mean a stage will be reached where these highly evolved species will be in position to create a universe of their own.

They do not become Gods, but mere creators incapable of interfering in activities of their own creation. Our world is one such creation full of imperfection. There is no God to interfere; the world proceeds along in line with its creator’s rules until some of these worlds’ creatures will create other worlds. After having created a world of their own, these super-evolved creatures are now ready for quietus and like salmon dissolve their existence of their own volition.  

 * Neti Neti (Sanskrit) – not this, not this. In ancient Hindu philosophy God is considered impossible to define therefore in the negative way they say God is not this….

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Kim Aashcharyam? (What is the most amazing thing?)

February 10, 2009

By Anil Kala

 

There is a celebrated episode in Mahabharata known as ‘Yaksh Prasn’ (Yaksh’s Queries) which culminates in this question:

 

Kim aashcharyam? (What is the most amazing thing?)

 

Yudhishthir answers that despite knowing the inevitability of death our incessant desire for immortality is the most amazing thing.

 

The answer seemed very impressive to me until one day I thought this is really silly. I realized that things said in a dramatic manner often escape critical scrutiny. For example, that our desire to live at every cost is the most natural thing and the crux of our existence; without it life will not last another day. Didn’t Buddha say, ‘Being born is cause of all our miseries’?  Therefore if there is no compelling desire to live why would anyone want to live? What seemed amazing though was the conduct of Yaksh Himself. This entity claiming to be a God, cursed to spend time as a Yaksh until he found answers to some questions, goes about killing people merely because they are too thirsty or do not know the answers to His questions!

 

Then what is the most amazing thing?

 

My own answer takes into consideration two key features of human nature: deal-making and self-preservation and if you make a projection on these, you get the most amazing thing—the idea of God!

 

It appears to me that once humans began making use of tools they became quite capable of dealing with their primary adversaries, i.e., higher order carnivores. But what really vexed them were the sudden and inexplicable natural occurrences such as floods and lightening, etc., that killed them. The deduction must have been quite simple: the ‘force’ wants life for consumption like the carnivores. So they made deals with the force. The Hindu ritual of Yagn appears to me a good example to explain this. The central object of a Yagn is sacrifice.

 

Initially the tribal chief or his counselor arrived at this simple conclusion that this ‘force’ wants life to consume so they make a deal and offer life on their own. If it didn’t work the counselor told the chief that the ‘force’ might not have seen the sacrifice so they lit fire and made noise to make the ‘force’ aware of the sacrifice. Sometimes it worked and that confirmed their belief in the exchange.  When it didn’t work the exchange was considered insufficient so the sacrifice was raised from lower order animal to higher order and eventually to human sacrifice.

 

It is paradoxical that the more we evolve and the more analytical and argumentative we become, the idea of God gets entrenched deeper into our psyche despite any shred of evidence, direct or oblique, to suggest interference from heaven in any way in our existence.

 

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