It is a strange, new world that we live in, where teaching and learning are neither compulsions nor obligations, either on the part of the teacher or of the student. Yet we frequently congregate on the internet of our own volition, to learn and to teach. This is a world, real in its design, yet virtual as an entity, that has altered the fundamentals of teaching & learning. The methods of learning are indeed a paradigm shift from the conventional teacher-reads-student-listens-in-the-classroom mode. Here, neither does the teacher insist on attendance, nor is the student under any compulsion to attend. But, we still flock to the websites for information and knowledge.
This brings to the fore, the basic issue on which the entire edifice of our learning process is built – man’s yearning for knowledge – a primitive human instinct. It is precisely this primeval character that has never ceased to manifest itself in man, despite millions of years of evolution, that drives him in his quest for enlightenment.
An inherent detestation for the process of knowledge being shoved down the gullet has always been the single biggest barrier to the quest for knowledge. The conflict between learning out of interest and that of being taught as a regimen has never been better illustrated than by the golden words of Sir Winston Churchill - “Personally I am always ready to learn. It is just that I dislike being taught”. It is in this perspective that internet brings with it not only the novelty of the medium but also a draught of freshness in the methods of learning, where we learn because we want to – arguably the first step to helping ourselves learn.
We learn every waking moment of our lives – sometimes consciously, sometimes not; sometimes through a deliberate effort to learn, while at other times by default due to the bombardment of information from sources all around us. By this definition, all human beings on this planet are learners. Yet, every individual perceives and retains in different quantum. The difference is in perspicacity. My opinion is that this perspicacity is never entirely a product of conditioning. It is one that is borne of the extent of development of the five senses that we have been blessed with. Knowledge, experience, attitude, skill ,etc are many of the props that we acquire over the years since birth, that support and assist in the receipt and assimilation of the information gathered through our senses. The manner in which we process the gathered information is the manner in which we learn. This, in my opinion, is the method by which every learner learns.
However, it also raises the very important question on the interest of learning. I have two lovely children – a 13 year old girl and a son who turned 5 years last January. My daughter has grasped the nuances of English language very early in life. This has been because of the fact that she has been inherently attracted to the printed word ever since she was a small girl. An avid reader, she does not need parental prodding in order to read. While children of her age indulge in Nancy Drew books, my daughter has evolved to Oscar Wilde. My son, on the other hand, has so far displayed none of the readership affinities of his elder sibling. He is content with solving jigsaw puzzles and other tasks that require analytical skills. While, I have noticed, tasks requiring analysis disinterest my daughter, they push my son on an
overdrive. Therefore, in context, I consider it immensely important to recognise and pursue one’s interest in order to be an effective learner. He who adopts a path of knowledge in contradiction to his inherent interest has already sabotaged his journey. Such a learner will always remain a pretender, grossly incapable of helping himself learn, his herculean efforts to the effect notwithstanding.
While the stream of my thoughts continues to flow on this subject, I feel that the growth of an individual’s intellect is not limitless. In the real society that we live in, with all the burdens of our personal and social obligations, we can only receive this much information and no more in our everyday lives. However, how much of what we receive we actually assimilate and retain, is the index of how good or how poor a learner we are. In this, it is important to be a keen listener. Well, listener, metaphorically speaking. It would amount to training ourselves to utilise our senses to their fullest potentials. Once we succeed in stirring these receptors of information from their state of dormancy, that we seem to so easily relegate them to, we automatically start becoming better learners. And, if the learner is able to marry this keenness of his senses with a burning desire to learn, he will have doubtless discovered the magic potion of learning effectively.
Another very important aspect that is a pre-requisite to being a good learner, in my opinion, is the absence of ego. I have spent over fourteen years of my professional career at Haldia Refinery. Haldia hosts a training institute called Indianoil Management Academy, a very impressive establishment. I have walked its portals countless times in those fourteen years. I do not remember all the instances of my visits there, but what I have never been able to forget is the very apt sign at the entrance – “Leave your ego outside this door”. Ego is easily the biggest impediment to the process of learning. Inquisitiveness and the urge to query are the worst casualties on the face of one’s ego. The people who have made the biggest difference to mankind have been the ones who have never ceased to question – some of whom have even not refrained from questioning the very existence of God. A learner who queries incessantly is the learner who teaches himself best.
Thus, a person learns slowly and surely. The product of one’s efficacy of learning is that enigmatic term – knowledge. A very vital constituent of this knowledge is experience. However, one lifetime is too short a span of time to gather all the experiences that life has to offer. Neither is it desirable. Life would be too difficult to deal with if one had to undergo every conceivable experience in order to take lessons from them. Here, nature has bestowed man with an invaluable attribute – that of living in and being a part of society. Through our gregariousness, we must enrich our knowledge from the experiences of others. An individual who has learnt the art of being sociable has already opened the door to his receptacle of knowledge into which wisdom acquired by others will ceaselessly flow in. Our family, friends, acquaintances and society at large are a veritable repository of experience from which an able learner will always draw his enlightenment. It is in this context that working in teams not only assists in quicker and better accomplishment of tasks, but also enriches one’s learning and understanding of various facets of work and indeed, of life in general.
I would like to narrate a small incident that involved my grandfather and I more than thirty years ago. I had seen a chess board at a friend’s house and had pestered by father into buying me one. Armed with the preconceived notion that chess was just another game like carrom or scrabble, I laid out the board on the table and requested my grandfather to teach me the game. My grandfather sat patiently and
taught me the moves of individual chessmen. Once I thought I had learnt the moves, I arranged the black & white chessmen on either side of the chessboard as directed by my grandfather. Then I asked him to teach me the method of playing the game. The old man smiled and told me something that has always stayed with me, although my grandfather has long been gone. He said, “There are things in life that can be taught and there are things in life that must be learnt. Chess has to be learnt, it can never be taught.”
"Fine weather we're having," said Mortimer, who was a capital conversationalist.
"Yes," said the girl.
"I like fine weather."
"So do I."
"There's something about fine weather!"
"It's - it's - well, fine weather's so much finer than weather that isn't fine," said Mortimer.
He looked at the girl a little anxiously, fearing he might be taking her out of her depth, but she seemed to have followed his train of thought perfectly.
"Yes, isn't it?" she said. "It's so - so fine."
"That's just what I meant," said Mortimer. "So fine. You've just hit it."
He was charmed. The combination of beauty with intelligence is so rare.
This is just one of the thousands of comic dialogues written by the author in his 95 books. Every time that I read his books, or excerpts from his books, I marvel at his supreme sense of humour. But at the same time I have to also admit that it is a queer ambivalence that I feel. It is a weird combination of admiration and jealousy alloyed together that runs through my mind whenever I read his stories. As a pretender in the art of writing, stumbling across gems as excerpted above can only result in undiluted jealousy. It is also a reason for much frustration considering that I shall never succeed in creating imagery, concocting hilariously funny dialogues and conjuring stunning hyperboles, regardless of however hard or long I might endeavour. It is not for nothing that PG Wodehouse is often called the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare. But for me, Wodehouse surpasses Shakespeare by a long distance. Who else - just who else - has ever had the ability to spin a yarn out of absolutely nothing? His stories did not have plots worth mentioning, were non-consequential in their outcomes, talked dramatically about servants, aunts, pigs and dimwits in the same breath and yet, kept the reader glued to the words through the sheer beauty of language. Such ability requires the mind of a genius and the pen of a master. Wodehouse was precisely this.
Another author who evokes a similar (although not identical) sublime reaction in me is undoubtedly Bill Bryson. I had never heard of him until 2008, which is something that I am now rather embarrassed to reveal. In the early days of a friendship through correspondence after we had discovered that there was one string that bound us together - our mutual love for literature – a friend and I started exchanging letters on our favourite books and authors. In was during the course of one such correspondence that the friend mentioned the writings of one Bill Bryson and enquired if I might have read any of his books. I remember admitting that not only had I not read his books, I had not even heard his name! The friend suggested that I try reading Bryson for I might quite enjoy his style. I did not immediately take up on the recommendation and it wasn't until the November of 2008 when I was presented with a copy of A Walk In The Woods. That was the first Bryson book that I read and promptly became his fan. After that, of course, I read most of his other books and thoroughly enjoyed each one of them. However, A Walk In The Woods remains my favourite. It is my favourite not just because of the humorous use of language but because it talks about what is arguably the finest hiking experience in the world. Not to forget, of course, the inimitable Stephen Katz, Bryson's friend and co-hiker on the Appalachian Trail. At Home is yet another classic that talks about the few centuries of human history bottled up inside houses, rooms, constructions, articles of everyday use, etc. It is a highly informative book, quite like A Short History of Nearly Everything.
The third in the haloed list of my favourite authors is Roald Dahl. I chanced upon Dahl rather by accident many years ago. One day, when I was visiting friend, I found a Dahl omnibus resting on the table in the living room of his house. He had borrowed it from one of his colleagues to read. Over the next hour that I was at his house, I sat and read some pages from the book. The book was a collection of short stories written by Roald Dahl and by the time I had got up to leave, I had decided to take the book with me. I told my friend that he could postpone reading the book because I was taking it with me. And, I took the book home. That night and over the following day, I finished reading the entire book, which was a good 600 pages, if I remember correctly. Although I had read the book, I later purchased a copy of it from Calcutta just for keeps.
Dahl is a terrific author. For a writer of children's books to write such masterly adult stories is indeed a fine act. Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, The Visitor, Switcheroo, etc have a brilliant storyline and an equally brilliant endgame. Until I had read Dahl, I always held the opinion that nobody could master the craft of a twist in the tale as well as Jeffrey Archer. After reading Dahl, I quietly relegated Archer to the second position. Dahl's macabre sense of humour was something that made me both cringe and laugh at the same time. Unlike Wodehouse who had quipped that sex was too serious a subject to be dealt with trivially (and of which he did not know much), Dahl was generous in the use of sexual imagery and indeed, innuendos. My Uncle Oswald is a story that could leave the reader blushing at every page!
These are some of the authors who have filled my life with numerous moments of happiness and satisfaction. I cannot imagine how much poorer my life would have been if my path had not crossed with Wodehouse, Bryson or Dahl. I wish I could write like them, but in the absence of any talent of such exalted standards, I have chosen the next best option - to be entertained by the books written by these authors. If you do decide to take up on my recommendation and read these authors, trust me your reading days will be spent well.
The aspect of human psychology which gives rise to religious beliefs has been a subject that has interested me for a long time. What sustains this interest is the fact that, as I have read about and acquired knowledge of religions and their evolution over the millennia, I have become less and less convinced about religion having anything to do with either the truth of creation or about the morality with which we conduct ourselves as a species. I cannot think of any other feature of human lives that claims so much for itself with so little evidence to support its claims, as religion does. While religion may have been man’s first attempt at trying to explain the unknown with whatever knowledge was available, the aspect of religion having morphed into a dictatorship with a vice-like grip on our beliefs and conduct is an extremely dangerous situation in which the world finds itself today.
Can we really afford to base our life, lifestyle, beliefs, thoughts and mindsets on bronze-age ideology despite the light of today’s knowledge, is a question that every educated intelligent human being must ask himself (or herself).
As human beings, we are affected by both truth as well as by falsehood. The mere fact that an individual or a community of people are affected deeply by an idea or philosophy does not, by default, assign the honour of truth to the said idea or philosophy. Truth always triumphs the test of being verifiable. And, if a theory is not falsifiable with currently available means, we should be able to concede that we do not know rather than turn the argument on its head and declare that since a theory cannot be disproved, therefore it must be true. The burden of proof always lies on the claimant of a theory or a postulate.
Having said this, I have to mention that despite my complete lack of belief in the matters of religion, I am deeply moved by the soulful rendition of a bhajan, a Hindu devotional song, sung by my favourite singer, Mohd Rafi, arguably the finest singer that India has ever produced - “Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj...” (The mind thirsts for a glimpse of Krishna...) This bhajan is unique in the sense that the lyrics were written by Shakeel Badayuni, the music was composed by Naushad and the song was sung by Mohd Rafi, all three of whom belonged to the Islamic faith. Yet, when one hears Mohd Rafi sing this song, one is transported to an ethereal realm of bliss and ecstasy. I have had tears in my eyes many a time when I have heard, and been moved, by the sheer beauty of the music. Yet, it would be facile for anyone to suggest that since a song about Lord Krishna has such power to evoke intense emotions, therefore it should automatically be construed as sufficient proof for the existence of Lord Krishna. Clearly the argument is a non sequitur. But, amazingly, it is precisely this kind of arguments that religion seems to rely heavily on, and get away with.
There is a story of Umar ibn al-Khattab - the Caliph - an expert in Arabian poetry and a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad, who was devoted to the old paganism and was passionately opposed to Muhammad’s message. Al-Khattab was determined to wipe out Muhammad’s new sect. In fact, he had schemed to murder Muhammad and put an end to his preaching. But when he first heard the words of the Quran, he was overcome by their extraordinary eloquence. He reported that the language broke through all his reservations. “When I heard the Quran, my heart was softened and I wept, and Islam entered into me.”
The noted polemicist and atheist, Christopher Hitchens, writes the following in his book, God Is Not Great – “I have been to innumerable gatherings, from Friday prayers in Tehran to mosques in Damascus and Jerusalem and Doha and Istanbul and Washington, D.C., and I can attest that "the recitation" in Arabic does indeed have the apparent power to create bliss and also rage among those who hear it.”
The famous religious historian Karen Armstrong, who was herself once a nun before leaving the order to turn into a scholar of comparative religious studies, says in her book, A History of God – “The more I read about the raptures of the saints, the more of a failure I felt. I was unhappily aware that what little religious experience I had, had somehow been manufactured by myself as I worked upon my own feelings and imagination. Sometimes a sense of devotion was an aesthetic response to the beauty of the Gregorian chant and the liturgy.”
Therefore, for religious apologists to conclude that the sometimes-salubrious-sometimes-agitating effect which the tonal quality of scriptural recitation, or the aesthetic beauty of the verses, brings upon on the mind of a human being is, by implication, proof of the apparent ineffable truth of the scriptures, is no different from stating that Mozart’s 40th Symphony is a composition by god because it inspires similar emotions. As we can see, such arguments are illogical and carry little merit. Yet these are precisely the arguments which millions, even billions, of human beings swear by.
Herein enters the issue of beliefs via understanding vis-à-vis beliefs via indoctrination. Only a small percentage of Hindus know the language of the scriptures – Sanskrit. It will not be a wrong estimate to state that there will be hardly any scholar of Sanskrit left in this world by the turn of the next century. In terms of extinction of language, this would be a sad event. But, in terms of a language as a means of communication, Sanskrit has long outlived its utility. Yet, all Hindu weddings and religious offerings are administered in Sanskrit, with the faithful being made to repeat verses, the meanings of which are clearly lost on them. Millions of Muslims around the world recite Quranic verses in Arabic. The majority of them are utterly clueless about the language. Yet, these same people wax eloquent about the apparent allure and beauty of the Quranic verses. It should not fail to register in even the slowest of minds that this praise for the greatness of the Quran is merely a statement that has been passed down from generation to generation more as an act of solidarity than of any real admiration, per se, of the verses. The reality is that, for most Muslims, the recitation of the Quran is an exercise in phonetics rather than of understanding. Exactly the same is the case with Hindus reciting scriptures in Sanskrit. And, I suspect it would also be the case with most religions of the world. I recall my visit to the Alchi Monastery in Ladakh last year where I witnessed young Lamas (Buddhist monks), all of them under twelve years of age I would estimate, swaying from side to side in the rhythm of the incantations by senior monks. Most of the kids were visibly disinterested.
The stories of how the holy books came to be are expected, nay demanded, to be accepted without questioning. Chattelhood is what seems to constitute good religious behaviour. Do we really need to continue our unquestioned allegiance to the doctrines contained in medieval books in an era when science has better answered all the questions that the religious texts once laboured to explain, and more? What sort of wisdom (or absence of it!) could possibly lead an educated human being of the twenty first century, versed in the theories of Copernicus, to seek knowledge of the planets and stars in texts belonging to the Ptolemaic era? And, to term such books as the perfect word of god is essentially setting the standard of perfection too low for even a person of moderate intellect.
Karen Armstrong candidly confesses in her book, “The more I learned about the history of religion, the more my earlier misgivings were justified. The doctrines that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period of time. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be divine. As an epileptic, I had flashes of vision that I knew to be a mere neurological defect: had the visions and raptures of the saints also been a mere mental quirk? Increasingly, God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown.”
Dr V S Ramachandran, neurologist par excellence (whom Prof Richard Dawkins has admiringly named “The Marco Polo of Neuroscience”) and author of the very interesting books: “The Tell-Tale Brain” and “Phantoms in the Brain” writes in his book, “A man wearing an enormous bejewelled cross dangling on a gold chain sits in my office, telling me about his conversations with God, the "real meaning" of the cosmos and the deeper truth behind all surface appearances. “The universe is suffused with spiritual messages,” he says, “if you just allow yourself to tune in”. I glance at his medical chart, noting that he has suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy since early adolescence, and that is when "God began talking" to him. Do his religious experiences have anything to do with his temporal lobe seizures?”
An examination of the histories of religions, more specifically the histories of prophets, will reveal a striking similarity in the manner in which god is purported to have revealed himself through his messengers. And, almost all of these hint at having been cases of epileptic afflictions. If not, then god surely comes across as a sadist who revels in torturing his messengers.
In 752 BCE, at around the time of Isaiah’s prophetic vision, a shepherd named Amos who lived in Tekoa became suddenly overwhelmed by an urge that led him to descend upon the shrine of Beth-El in Israel and pronounce a spell of doom. Despite the priest Amaziah’s efforts to send Amos away, he drew himself to his full height and declared that he had been plucked out by Yahweh from herding sheep and commanded to prophesise to the people of Israel. As was very common in that age, god was at his pernicious worst, delivering oracles through Amos. This was apparently something that Amos had not chosen of his own volition, but was undergoing a forced behavioural alteration that left him with no control over his own consciousness. He was compelled to prophesise regardless of his own desire or feelings.
The lion roars; who can help feeling afraid?
The Lord Yahweh speaks: who can refuse to prophesy?
In 604 BCE, Jeremiah revived Isaiah’s perspective (which essentially was a battle between Israel and Babylon). Again, like Amos, Jeremiah was an unwilling prophet and when the call came to him, he protested that he was an unlettered man. Yahweh touched his lips and put words in his mouth. Jeremiah experienced God as a pain that convulsed his limbs, broke his heart and made him stagger about like a drunk.
From 610 to 632 CE, the Quran was “revealed” to Muhammad, verse by verse. The Hadiths state that never once did Muhammad receive a revelation “without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.” The process was so frightening that “his body convulsed; he would sweat profusely even on cool days; experience great heaviness; or hear strange sounds and voices” (Armstrong).
Closer to home, I grew up on the stories of Swami Vivekananda and his spiritual master Ramakrishna. I still remember a coloured pictorial book on the life of Ramakrishna that was gifted to me by my uncle. A picture in the book was of a young Ramakrishna looking upwards at a wedge of swans in the sky. The next picture was of the same young lad, fallen to the ground, with worried friends rushing to revive him. The adjoining text waxed eloquent about how Ramakrishna had been overwhelmed by the sight of the white birds in a blue sky and had experienced a spiritual rapture. The same book also contained the anecdote of how Ramakrishna had touched his disciple, Swami Vivekananda (then Narendranath Dutta), with his feet and lo and behold, Vivekananda instantaneously received a glimpse of the divine!
It seems to appear that we have historically been inclined to associate seizures and abnormalities of the human brain with spirituality.
To state that the aforementioned prophets displayed classic signs of epileptic afflictions would be heresy, but this is probably the closest assessment of what such behaviour would seem to suggest. The fact that each prophetic experience in the texts seems to have been plagiarised in such an unabashed manner from previous experiences (compare Muhammad with Jeremiah), should also arouse suspicion in every thinking mind.
A trans-cranial magnetic stimulator is a device which, when applied to the scalp, shoots a rapidly fluctuating and extremely powerful magnetic field onto a small patch of brain tissue, thereby activating it and providing hints about its function. A Canadian psychologist Dr Michael Persinger applied such a device on himself and used it to stimulate parts of the temporal lobes in his brain. To his amazement, he reported that he experienced “God” for the first time in his life. It is a standard teaching in medical curricula that patients suffering from epileptic seizures originating from the temporal lobes can have intense spiritual experiences during episodes of seizure and become overly occupied with moral issues during healthy periods. Hippocrates wrote the earliest text on epilepsy 2500 years ago and named it “On The Sacred Disease”. Dr V S Ramachandran wonders in “The Phantoms in the Brain” – “Does this syndrome imply that our brains contain some sort of circuitry that is actually specialized for religious experience? Is there a "God module" in our heads? And if such a circuit exists, where did it come from? Could it be a product of natural selection, a human trait as natural in the biological sense as language or stereoscopic vision?” One cannot help but wonder if Ramakrishna had managed to excite Vivekananda’s temporal lobes by some method!
It is amply clear that religious belief in the majority of human population is as a result of the accident of birth, upbringing and childhood indoctrination, and survives only in a domain that is bereft of inquiry, scrutiny and criticism. Even a cursory reading of the scriptures will reveal why inquiry is so strongly discouraged. It is because even a careless skim-and-scan of the scriptures leaves contradictions and discrepancies screaming at the reader. Scrutiny is the death knell of religion and is, therefore, threatened with an eternity in hellfire in order to deter the fainthearted majority from pursuing any line of doubt or inquiry.
The Quran is declared to be the perfect word of Allah. Perfection is a certificate that the book is quite undeserving of. I am no scholar of the Quran, but I had to go no further than just the fourth out of the one hundred and fourteen chapters to detect the following elementary flaw that would not pass the test of scrutiny by even a primary school student with the barest knowledge of fractions.
Surah 4:11 and 4:12 state that in the event of a man’s demise, who has left behind three daughters, two parents and a wife, the daughters’ share of the inheritance shall be 2/3, the parents’ shall be 1/3 (ie, 1/6 for each parent) and the wife’s shall be 1/8. Together they add up to more than the available estate! Similarly, when these two verses are read in conjunction with 4:176, which is also a verse for inheritance, in the case of a deceased man who leaves behind his mother, wife and two sisters, their respective shares shall be 1/3 for mother, 1/4 for wife and 2/3 for two sisters. Yet again, the sum of these shares exceeds the size of the property! Surely, these are not allegorical verses. These are very clear verses that indulge in simple numerical diktats, albeit arithmetically incorrect. Imperfection doesn’t get more obvious than this!
I am sure that there is going to be no shortage of religious defenders who will invent contorted explanations to prove that there is no mathematical error in these verses. Surah 44:58 states clearly that the Allah has made the Quran very clear, simple, easy and written in Arabic. 3:7 states that some parts of the Quran are clear to understand and some parts are allegorical. The allegorical parts nobody should endeavour to understand as none save Allah is aware of their meaning. Clearly, there is nothing allegorical in 4:11, 4:12 and 4:176 and must therefore be taken at face value, in the manner stated, without attempting any circuitous interpretations. The verses in the book are scattered without any logical link among them. Therefore, detecting discrepancies is not an easy job. It would not have been possible for a layman reader like me to have detected the above contradiction had they not been placed in the same chapter (chapter 4). What I find even more amusing is that the same chapter number 4 contains the following verse (4:82) – “Do they not then consider the Quran carefully? Had it been from other than Allah, they would have surely found therein many a contradiction.”
Well, I have detected and explained an obvious contradiction. What, then, does it say about the authorship of the book? The incoherent scattering of verses and the contradictions among them (the number of days that Allah took to create the earth and heavens are reported differently at different places of the book is one of many other such examples), seem to suggest that the book was scripted by a committee with little coordination among its members.
The explanation regarding the origin and development of any religion becomes a very simple one to understand if we merely accept the fact that religion is man-made, and so is god, was born out of man’s primordial urge to understand the unknown and has gradually evolved into the form it is today. A simple narration of the story of the prophet Elijah puts things in perspective.
The ancient Jews were pagans and polytheists. There were various Gods like Baal and Marduk who were worshipped, besides Yahweh. In the 9th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ahab (a believer in Yahweh), his wife Jezebel, a keen pagan, began proselytising to convert the masses into following Baal and Asherah. During this period, the land was struck by drought and a prophet named Elijah walked into the kingdom. At Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged the subjects of Ahab to a contest between his god Yahweh and their god Baal. He arranged for two bulls to be placed on altars and set the condition that whichever god was able to send down fire from heaven would prevail. The followers of Baal invoked their god all day, to no avail. At dusk, Elijah took centre-stage, dug a trench around the bull and filled it with water, for effect. Then he called out to Yahweh and immediately Yahweh sent fire from the sky that at once consumed the bull and all the water in the trench. Having proven the superiority of his god, Yahweh, Elijah hounded the followers of Baal to a valley and slaughtered them all. The road to heaven has historically been paved with the corpses of men!
In ancient times, it was victory of one tribe in battle over another which determined whose god was more powerful. Defeat in a temporal battle often meant having to accept the superiority of the god of the valiant army, and converting to the other party’s beliefs. The frequent battles that followed Muhammad’s establishment of the Islamic dispensation, and the victory of the Muslims over neighbouring tribes, were essentially what ensured the furthering of the Islamic faith. Muhammad’s battles with neighbouring tribes over land and food must be viewed in context of the 7th Century. They were typical of the era and the society that he lived in, wherein pillaging and murder were the norm. And, as in the illustration of the story of Elijah, these conquests meant that the vanquished were brought into the fold of the newly established religious system.
In this world that we live in, where religion has set its rotten roots in every affair of our daily lives, we would do our mammalian species a great service if we were to teach ourselves about the history of religion and its dubious origins, thereby setting the stage for curing ourselves of this god delusion that we suffer so seriously from. Enlightenment involves looking forward towards a realm of knowledge and development, not backwards at primitive cult rituals and delusional beliefs. Enlightenment can come only from quest and inquiry, not from forcing men to undergo orchestrated religious rigmaroles, while looking heavenwards to chant in unison like tamed parrots, “Ameen!”
Where would we get our morality from if it were not for religion?
This is a question that is often posed by the faithful in any discussion or debate involving religion.
To me, the question is one of the finest examples of utter fatuousness masquerading as immense profundity. And, I shall argue my case in the following paragraphs as to why I think that religion assigns too much credit to itself about virtues that are not attributable to it in reality. Human morality is exclusive of religion, always has been and always will be.
But, before that, it is important to understand from where religion gets the self-appointed authority to assign to itself the role of the giver of human morality. It comes from presupposing that religion has God on its side. Even if for a moment we concede that this could be a true claim, it throws up two very distinct problems. One, there is no way of either proving or disproving that a God or Gods exist. Two, there is no way of proving that God, if he/they exist, is/are actually bothered about concurring with what human beings presuppose. Therefore, when the basis of a claim is suspect and cannot be supported by evidence that rises above the level of empty dogmas, leave alone be proven conclusively, the entire premise of the case falls apart.
When organised religion came into being in the human society about 5000 years ago, in India and Egypt, the exponents of religion realised this flaw. Therefore, a very clever instrument was devised to eliminate all doubts regarding the authority of religion to act on behalf of God on earth. It was by declaring that scriptures were dictated by God to humans and could not be questioned. Not just that, the declaration arrived with riders. Any attempt to question the authenticity of either the origin or the content of the holy writ would be punishable by an eternity in Hades once the party on earth got over. Unquestioning compliance, on the other hand, would earn eternal bliss in Heaven. Punishments for heresy became even more dangerously pronounced with the advent of the Abrahamic religions. Curiously, in all of these 5000 odd years, nobody has ever returned to report from either of these two destinations, heaven or hell. It must be said that no other case in human history has continued to claim a winning argument on the basis of zero evidence as religion has. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in any of the holy books that could not have been written by the people who lived in the age in which those books were “revealed”. The greatest pointer to the fact that all these books and scriptures are of human authorship is the fact that they contain statements about the earth and the universe that was common knowledge at that point of time – the Ptolemaic universe - but have been proven wrong in the subsequent centuries. Therefore, we have to either conclude that the holy books were indeed written by men, or the concept of God as an omniscient being is erroneous. I leave it to the believers to choose which. Interestingly, even in this age of enlightenment, we are witnessing the birth of a new religion – Mormonism. So, the preying continues unabated!
Religion bases its authority on these dubious scriptures and yet, makes tall claims for itself, including on the issue of morality. It is an utterly false theory that ceasing to believe is ceasing to behave. Having stated this, the first thing we must realise is that morality is innate in us. It has not been planted in us by a celestial super-being, of whom religion claims to be the earthly agent. Morality has developed in us by the process of evolution, the same mechanism by which all species on earth have evolved. The only reason for morality in us is human solidarity and indeed the solidarity with fellow members of the animal kingdom. If we did not have solidarity, we would not have evolved thus far as a species. The divisiveness of religion acts in contrast to this solidarity.
To argue my case, I would like to draw upon something that neurologist Dr Sam Harris mentioned in his TED lecture on science and morality. Why is it that we, human beings, have no qualms about spraying insecticide from an aerosol canister and killing cockroaches en-masse and yet are gravely affected when a fellow human being is killed? At the same time, we are more perturbed by the death of a fellow mammalian, say for example a cow, than we are by that of a garden lizard; but the sorrow would be substantially less than what would befall us occasioned by the death of a fellow human being. The reason for this, besides the obvious aspect of solidarity with our fellow beings, lies in the sense of “happiness potential” of each species as perceived by us, Dr Harris explains in his lecture. When a human child dies, the sense of sorrow and empathy that we feel for the child’s parents arises out of the knowledge that not just has a life been truncated but a full life of potential happiness has been snuffed out prematurely. We do not hold the same logic while feeling for a dead rodent or an annihilated termite. We feel more for our fellow human beings and less for other members of the animal kingdom in varying degrees. With advancement in knowledge, we have become more keenly aware of how this moral-empathy emotion works inside our brains. Renowned neuroscientist V S Ramachandran's brilliant book, The Tell-Tale Brain, beautifully explains the mechanism of synaptic firings in the mirror neurons in our brains that excite the empathy-morality mechanism within us. This is how our morality operates within our minds. And, nothing in any of this is even remotely concerned with religion.
If one were to get up and offer his seat to an old lady in a bus, or to a pregnant woman, it would be purely out of a sense of morality. If a person donates a pint of blood every three months, he does it purely out of the understanding that his blood would be useful to another human being who might need it. This is morality. This is human solidarity. Nothing in either of the above moral acts is dictated by religion. These acts could be carried out identically by a believer or a non-believer, with an observer having not the slightest clue about the religious orientation of the actors involved.
I am an inveterate non-vegetarian and relish chicken wings on my plate, both fried and roasted. The crispier the better! But, I personally know many people who have given up eating meat after being appalled by a visit to an abattoir. The sight of spilled blood and disembowelled gut, and the sense of moral outrage that comes about upon witnessing an animal being slaughtered for satisfying our gastronomic desires, led them to give up meat. Such a decision has to count as one that is brought about by a sense of morality. But, what exactly in such a moral decision has religion any role to play? Quite simply, nothing! By adopting a very high moral position, it can perhaps even be argued that killing an animal by a human being for the sake of food is highly immoral. But, we know that this is not the case with other animals. We would, by no stretch of imagination, categorise the hunting of a deer by a tiger as an immoral act. We reserve morality purely for human beings. This is understandable. Morality is a part of our intellect. And, intellect has evolved with the species.
In fact, religion abets killing. And, we are not talking about pilots crashing their airplanes into skyscrapers in Manhattan. Some faiths actually consider it a scared duty to sacrifice animals in the name of religion. An angry, blood thirsty goddess Kali is propitiated by slaughtering goats – sometimes as many as one hundred and eight goats in front of one deity. It is unfathomable that we still choose to call such a God benevolent, whose pleasure rests on a bed of carcass and blood. Until a few centuries ago, human sacrifice was common to please Kali. Eid-ul-adha is a holy festival in Islam, wherein a believer must contribute to the goodness of his/her religion by means of a slaughter. It is a curious event that has its origins back to Abraham and his attempt at sacrificing his son Ishmael (the Jews believe it was Isaac) that was eventually aborted by divine intervention. I say curious, because the act of prevention of the sacrifice by God (through his representative, an Angel) has been turned on its head over the centuries into a custom of animal slaughter by the followers of Abraham and of the many derivative religions. This is beside the fact that only a pernicious being could demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test his loyalty. Why an omniscient God, who obviously already knew the outcome of the test in advance, would ever need to go through this charade is anybody’s guess!
Then, what is it that separates the morality of the habitual meat eater, who pays to get an animal slaughtered at the abattoir and the believer who does it in the name of God. The answer, actually, is quite simple. It is hypocrisy. The gourmet kills and eats, with or without remorse, but does not pretend that he has been given the license to do so by some supreme celestial being. The believer kills and considers it to be an act of piety that has the approval of God. What gives a human being the license to be so self-righteous about an act of murder? What drives a human being into believing that shedding the blood of a fellow member of the animal kingdom will earn praise from a benevolent God? What gives man such grand ideas of delusion about acts that are downright immoral? Why, religion, of course! As Robert G Ingersoll said, “Religion supports nobody. It has to be supported. It produces no wheat, no corn; it ploughs no land; it fells no forests. It is a perpetual mendicant. It lives on the labours of others, and then has the arrogance to pretend that it supports the giver.”
It is naïve to imagine that until the time the Jews reached the base of Mount Sinai after their wandering and were taught the commandments, they had considered theft, perjury, rape and murder to be kosher. This is what religion pretends to tell us. It pretends that it was only after the revelation did human beings come to realise that theft, perjury, rape and murder were immoral. It is facile to be told that it was religion that taught us the wisdom of the precept “thou shalt not kill”. It is plain common sense. We did not need religion to teach us common sense and then vainly boast for many millennia of giving us morality. How much more ludicrous can suppositions possibly be! Human beings did not get this far on the evolutionary chart by not knowing that all these aforementioned acts were indeed immoral and were to be eschewed. Neither did human beings survive sans religion for more than a hundred thousand years since developing cognitive skills by being immoral. Such morality, as I have said earlier, is innate in us. Such morality, as I have also said earlier, has arisen out of human solidarity, not religion.
Christianity is based on the premise that Jesus, the only begotten son of God, came on earth to deliver us from the original sin. Without going into the argument of the fact than an entire religion is based upon the story of Adam’s sin and the fall of man, a proposition that is impossible to defend in the face of the theory of the Origin of Species, and the utter hollowness of the theory of creation, there could be nothing more immoral than to teach our little children that they are born of sin. There could be nothing more immoral than to teach our children that they are depraved creations of God and that they must learn to embrace serfdom and propitiate a demanding God if they desire salvation. There is nothing more immoral than to tell our women that they were born of a dirty clot of blood and that their perfectly normal physiological cycle of menstruation rendered them unworthy of respect and made them ineligible to worship the same God who they swore by. Hindu women are prohibited from entering temples and Muslim women are barred from praying during their menstrual cycles. All such proclamations are degrading to human dignity.
The Hadith is a set of texts that contains stories from the life and teachings of the seventh century preacher, Muhammed. It is meant to be a code of conduct for the followers of Islam. Muhammed married Aisha when she was all of six years. It does not require one to possess the intelligence of a genius to recognise that child marriage and paedophilia are not exactly what constitute good moral behaviour. Neither can a cowherd god whose main pastime appeared to be leading a promiscuous life, cavorting with the pretty damsels of Vrindavan, be termed as the paragon of morality. The political machinations of such a god are evidenced through the entire course of The Mahabharata. The Qur’an suborns the followers to kill non-believers and apostates. Surely, these are not meant to be metaphorical or allegorical hints towards inviting a philosophical discourse. These are direct orders for murder. So much for “thou shalt not kill”! Leave aside morality, religion has been pretty active in preaching the opposite.
Is polygamy immoral? Is it moral to chop off a man’s hand to punish theft? It really depends on which religion one subscribes to. It could be moral or immoral depending on one’s religion, an aspect that is purely an accident of birth.
The conflict in Palestine has its provenance in the promised land of the Jews, as ordained in the scriptures. I wonder how God, if there is one, must be feeling at being reduced to a measly real estate agent by his followers on earth! The Israelites and Arabs continue to kill each other over a piece of land that is too small to draw even on a school map. All in the name of religion!
Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens challenges – “Name one morally correct statement or action that a believer could make or undertake that a non-believer couldn’t. I am sure you wouldn’t find one even if you scratched your head all night. But, if I were to ask you to name an evil act that a believer would commit because of his beliefs but a non-believer would not, you wouldn’t have to wait even a moment to rattle off an entire list”. Well, this is how religion, the proud claimant of mankind’s morality actually precipitates immorality in our society.
What is it that compels one to admire the beauty and innocence of a newborn male baby and contemplate in the same breath to clip off the baby’s foreskin? There are various arguments that indicate the advantage that a circumcised adult has in protection against HIV AIDS. There is some medical evidence to suggest that it could indeed be the case. But, such arguments are poor attempts at squaring a circle when proffered as justifications in the context of religion. In bronze-age Palestine, when Abraham circumcised himself as a covenant with the Almighty, AIDS was unheard of. Surely, it could not have been a device to save his promiscuous progeny from contracting the fatal disease thousands of years later. Surely, generations of male homo sapiens did not need to have their male organ mutilated, and have their sexual sensations numbed, in order to protect themselves against a twentieth century disease. It is only sadism that can cause a human being to inflict such a wicked act on a baby. Noted physicist Steven Weinberg sums it up beautifully – “With or without religion, good people would always do good things and evil people would always do evil things; but for a good person to do a wicked thing, that takes religion”
It is religion that claims to provide succour to AIDS patients in Africa, but condemns the use of condoms and brands it as sinful. Organisations like Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres carry out equally effective charity work all over the world, but without the covert mission to proselytise. It is the same religion that has gone on an overdrive in influencing decision makers towards preventing the funding of stem cell research. The list is endless!
Religion is the antithesis of enlightenment. A progressive human society does not need it. It may have once been mankind’s first attempt at philosophy, science and medicine. But, since it was the first, it was also the worst. It preyed on human ignorance when knowledge was scarce – when we had no idea about earthquakes and tides, eclipses and diseases; we did not know of the germ theory; we thought that Earth was at the centre of the universe and were told that the universe was just six thousand years old. We believed in Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus and Thor – all of who have since fallen out of favour and been buried in the graveyard of mythology. And, of course, we believed in the interesting story of Adam and Eve and their adventures with a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. This is an age when we need to learn to appreciate the transcendent and numinous universe as viewed through the Hubble telescope instead of believing in the medieval myth of a burning bush.
We would do well to rid ourselves of this savage burden. And, one could bet one’s life on it that human beings would still remain just as moral without religion.
* * *
Last weekend my friend Jishnu and his family visited us. He was reading The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, written by Amy Chua, and spoke quite animatedly about it. Jishnu is an eclectic reader and when he speaks as much about a book as he did about this one, it surely has to be a book worthy of reading. So, I downloaded an e-book version from the Internet and read it over the past two days.
This was the first time that I had read anything written by Amy Chua. I had heard of her when she shared the stage with a personal hero of mine, Richard Dawkins, at the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year. But, little beyond that.
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a book that will never be discussed for its literary merit. It is a book that is entirely about the zeitgeist of an immigrant ethnic group and its mindset in terms of child rearing. It is a book in which the theme overrides all other parametric considerations of a critique. Chua’s book has the capacity to evoke fury and awe in equal measure. Besides parenting techniques, it is also about the conflict between not just individuals but between societal principles.
The book is about creating successful products out of children the Chinese way. This is the most charitable I can get about Amy Chua’s parenting techniques that she writes so proudly about in her book. The book also has a cleverly veiled leitmotif – a personal glorification of herself by the authoress. She tries to deflect any overt signs of glorification that might slip through the lines by indulging in a fair amount of self-deprecation from time to time, but the glee (and often, the roar) of the tiger mom is omnipresent through the chapters.
Chua’s two daughters Sophia and Louisa are both accomplished musicians, the former a pianist who has performed at The Carnegie Hall and the latter a virtuoso violinist. Amy Chua is herself an accomplished academic, as is her husband Jed Rubenfeld. He parents were successful in their respective careers too. The family is clearly one of achievers. And, Amy Chua seems to be so drunk on this obsession with achieving success that the collateral price to be paid for such success be damned.
The major part of the book deals with Chua’s conflict with her younger daughter, Lulu (Louisa). Lulu is the rebel in the family, while the elder daughter Sophia is the obedient one. This emphasis is understandable because conformance of children to the dictatorial attitude of an overbearing parent does not really make for interesting reading. The contrary does. While Chua’s brutish methods pay rich dividends with Sophia, the chickens seem to come home to roost for Chuain the case of Lulu. Chua does succeed in producing a successful musician in Lulu, but loses a daughter in the process. Lulu’s rebellion and a public display of it during their family holiday in Russia, her constant declarations about hating violin (and also her mother) and eventually, her passionately taking up tennis – something that she actually loved – showcases very well the imperfectness of the Chinese parenting model. The Chinese model seems to have no provision for the alienation of children that often follows its implementation.
What Lulu’s story drives home very strongly is the fact that every child is a different individual with different skills, mentality, likes, character and indeed, a different degree of obedience. It is foolhardy of any parent to try to fit every child to a predetermined parenting model, simply because this was probably the model that the grandparents deployed while raising the parent, a generation ago. Chua’s book also makes one ponder on the usefulness (or the lack of it) of imposing the parents’ ambitions on the children and the effects that this has on an individual’s childhood.
While reading Chua’s book, one cannot help but amaze at the insensitivity of Chua as a mother. This comes across best when she rejects a handmade birthday greeting card that Lulu givers her simply because it does not come up to her exacting standards of quality. On other occasions, Chua undercuts the children’s happiness of vacationing as she drags them around to practice music first before partaking of the joys of the sights and sounds of the city. Clearly, Chuapaints herself as an obsessed mother without a sense of balance or proportion.
The book leaves the reader in no doubt about who wears the pants in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. It is Amy Chua all the way and her husband, Jed, comes across as a wimp who seems to have very little say in the upbringing of his kids, except for an occasional whimper of protest that is instantly shot down by his wife. Well, this may not be quite the truth in reality, but the impression that the reader gets after putting down the book is precisely this. As I have mentioned earlier, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother infuriates quite a lot, but it is also a book that is surely going to make every ambitious parent think hard about the manner of raising children.
As I put down the book one last time, the thought that crossed my mind was – Thank God, Amy Chua is not my mother!
When the limbs waste away in the twilight of my day,
And my mind ceases to know what it seeks to say.
When my foggy sights fail to trace the flight of the dove,
Let my soul recite to you its silent verses of love.
Keep me company in that cloudy sunset, my friend!
When my thoughts, dear, flow no more like the river clear,
And I sink on parched earth of the dry bed with a quiver.
When my words that once enchanted so, thrill you no more,
And your caring for me begins to appear like a daily chore.
Stay with me for a few fading moments, my friend!
When I lie lonely, heavenwards I feel the swan soar,
My colourful thoughts of fancy take flight, alas, no more.
When my words no longer decorate the pages in verse,
And the only sound that rings in my mind is of a hearse.
Lend me a few heartbeats one last time, my friend!
The Pearly Gates with gold and jewels are adorned I hear,
As I prepare to cross over with faith that knows no fear.
Another beautiful sunset shall come in a faraway land,
When I shall await you with my love adorned like a garland.
For that moment of true fulfilment, I wait, my friend!