I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My lamentation

I was sick from 7th of February for about a month, with a relentless cough, a fever and a multitude of body aches that lingered on like a foe who refused to be vanquished despite all possible bio-medical attempts: colorful pills, sugary syrups, inhaling steam mixed with unknown substances. But nothing spiritual was attempted; nor exorcism in case this was a demon with no name but a bad attitude. AAP's high drama in Delhi over the previous couple of weeks brought to an end of its first incarnation what initially seemed like an enlightened experiment with a new kind of politics. That end came through a realm of what can only be described as a politics fascist populism and shrill sloganeering that was no different from anyone else’s sloganeering rhetoric. This does not mean that the experiment is over. But it was a pitiful site and did not give any respite to the pains my body was feeling, which had soon begun to suffocate my mind as well.

And then, Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An alternate History was withdrawn by the publisher, Penguin India with an out of court deal to turn what remains of the book into pulp. That was the deal made with the Shiksha Bacho Andolan led by Mr Dina Nath Batra. Their contention of course was that the book hurt their religious sentiments. Mr Batra’s outfit has been variously called ‘fringe’, ‘rightwing’ and so on by opponents outraged over what had transpired. I know nothing of Mr Batra or his organization to call them any names. But I have no doubt that the book offended Mr Batra and many others who see the world as they do. There is no reason to question their hurt feelings. But then, it also did not offend many others who profess the same religious sensibilities but see the world somewhat differently. By all counts, it appears that their feelings too have been irrevocably hurt by the decision to destroy the book by its publisher as evidenced by numerous comments in the media. I thought I had bought Prof Doniger’s book sometime ago and had begun to read it very slowly. But in the midst of all this, I realized what I had bought was her more recent collection of essays, On Hinduism (2013), and remember marveling at the fact that only in India it would be possible to acquire such a tome of 660 pages for a measly Rs. 995.00. 

Obviously, I never had the time to read the book and my confusion of that book with the one that created the controversy was not helpful in my present predicament. Now, it was entirely possible that I might not be able to buy the book at all as it would soon be pulp. Besides, the latter book might also hurt someone else’s feelings and could end up as being pulp as well. But what about many others who would like to read and make up their own minds? For one, though I had read Wendy Doniger’s work initially as the work of Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, and admired her scholarship, I have not passed judgment on her work as a whole. In fact, my attempt to read On Hinduism did not work initially as it could not capture and keep my attention, which I cannot remember happening when I first read her Origins of Evil in Mythology (1976) and Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (1980). But even in this case, I would not hasten needlessly to pass judgment on her writing. It is entirely possible that all that time ago, as a graduate student I had more time and the urge to read her as opposed to now, when I have many other things to attend to as well, including concerns over the future of ideas and thoughts in our midst. 

The issue for me is quite simply this: in a world of extremely subjective sentiments such as ‘hurt feelings,’ what would the life trajectory of ideas be if we are moved to take extreme actions such as turning a book into pulp or turning them into bonfires rather than allowing for a plurality of ideas to emerge and take their own course? As we all know, this is not the first time that the issue of banning books have arisen in India or in South Asia more generally. Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, James Laine’s work of history, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India and more recently, the Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan and Paula Richman's Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia with a focus on Ramanujan's work had experienced the same plight in different institutional settings. Similarly, the novel Lejja by Tasleema Nasreen was banned in Bangladesh as soon as it was published while the Sri Lankan government banned Stanley J Tambiahs’s book, Buddhism Betrayed? In the US in my postgraduate years, Salman Rushdee’s Satanic Verses suddenly became unavailable in many Barnes and Noble bookstores after a few were firebombed. All these were banned or made unavailable on the grounds of hurt feeling.

Personally, I would prefer to read Wendy Doniger’s book or that of anyone else and see if they hurt my own feelings. I am quite sure that some books I am likely to read in times to come would hurt my feelings. But then, my intention would not be to litigate and ensure what I don’t like is not available or destroyed, but instead not take it too seriously and also voice my opinion on it if I think it necessary. Up to that point, I am sure Mr Batra’s campaign would have been fine. One thing that some belief systems in our part of the world such as Hinduism and Buddhism should have taught us by now is that the real world we live in is not so easily and simplistically black and white or right and wrong. It is precisely this non-binary grey area within which religious practices actually unfolds that has also attracted the attention of Wendy Doniger along with her interest in its esoteric practices which allowed for an interpretation that might be different from the more dominant and taken for granted definitions of Hinduism that have come about since its encounter with colonialism in much the same way Buddhism has in neighboring Sri Lanka. My belief is that great religious traditions in the region such as Hinduism and Buddhism that I am reasonably familiar with, have ensured their longevity and reach amongst our people and impacted their lives and helped evolve great civilizations precisely because of their flexibility in orientation and practice. Not being mindful of these is about not being mindful of ourselves or where we come from. 

This brings me back to the story of making pulp from Wendy Donniger’s book. Now that I do not have a copy of the book and it might not be readily available in the few books stores I could visit, what about my own feelings about the knowledge that a great Indologist and Sanskrit scholar has produced with which I may or may not yet agree. The book is now technically not accessible to me. This takes me back to the words of the Buddha which my early teachers tried to instill in me, but quite decidedly failed in instilling in many people of my generation who went to the same kind of schools. This is one of the obvious conclusions I could come to if I go by what my own citizens are up to these days in the name of the Buddha and what he preached. The Kalama Sutta, which the Buddha preached to the residents of Kesaputta known as the the Kalamas outlines what might be taken as the principles that could be adopted by anyone who seeks knowledge. In their meeting, it is reported that the Kalamas asked the Buddha: "There are some monks and brahmans, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Some other monks and brahmans too, venerable sir, come to Kesaputta. They also expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?"[1] Obviously, they were asking the Buddha whose word should be taken seriously in a context when competing ideas were preached and each was presented as the ultimate truth to the extent of expelling other ideas. 

In a somewhat long discourse, the crux of what the Buddha is supposed to have said can be outlined as follows: “"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”[2]

Without being simplistic, it seems to me that what the Buddha is credited with saying all those years ago, still make sense: accept what makes sense after reasonable consideration and discard what does not. Ideas that are discarded, be that of Wendy Doniger or someone else’s will simply not take root or will take root without consequence. Ideas that are worth pondering over will survive over time, sometimes forgotten but hopefully rediscovered at different times. We should leave things at this. Rather than making pulp of knowledge our times have produced, let they become irrelevant over time if that is the nature of things. If not, we will simply end up creating lapses in our collective stories and narratives, of our histories and our present. And future generations unable to fathom these silences and lapses will be all the more impoverished in their knowledge about our fears, our anxieties, our triumphs and the worlds in which we lived. 

At the beginning of March, I went to see the doctor yet again, drank more medicine, swallowed more pills, coughed even more before things got somewhat better about a week later. IN teh same week, I went to my class again and pretended to work in an enlightened world already fourteen years into the ‘new’ millennium, which we have now mostly forgotten had even arrived. Over the next few days, my body felt better after a few bouts of not feeling too great. But with certainty, my mind continued to be lost in the dark clouds that lack of enlightenment in our circumstances often brings forth. I also knew that the world I am passing through, needs far more medicine than I ever would to heal itself.

[1] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html

[2] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html

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