Religion: Scourge or Refuge

Part I: Questions on Religions

 

“I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way that you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying…I would point out, however, that billions of other human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of the nature…There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and Buddha weren’t talking non sense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.”

 

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris: P.89-90

 

 

I started off with the remarks by Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he accepts the importance of religion in the lives of the billions of people in this world, as a transformative factor and a force of good.  Although in the above statements, Sam seems to find goodness in religions and people of faith, in his book, he overwhelmingly presents arguments against the world’s leading Abrahamic traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Sam’s first argument is based on the presence of multiple Abrahamic traditions and their respective scriptures, each claiming to be the holy one and the only path to salvation while rejecting the followers of competing religions as nonbelievers. Sam writes, “Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.7). He further supports his case by attacking the scriptures and their teachings as contradictory to basic human moral and civic values that each traditions attempt to propagate. In his arguments against Christianity as the “unrivaled source of human goodness” and the Bible as the “only timeless book of compassion and love”, he selects various parts of the scripture and evaluates them against modern human societal and moral codes of conduct; concluding that Abrahamic scriptures fall short of providing evidence of teachings of love and compassion and do not meet the demands of a changing human society. While quoting parts of Deuteronomy, Exodus, Proverbs, John, Matthew, Leviticus, Sam writes, “The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, contents of the book.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.8). Citing Biblical teachings, he further writes, “We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.8). The author’s first argument concludes that standards of morality are objective and human society is capable of exploring and implementing on its own without any divine assistance and if one has to look for religion for such standards in structuring a better human society, Jainism provides a better roadmap of non-violence than the Bible or other Abrahamic religions. He cites the examples of many Christian saints and leaders who cherry picked the teachings of Bible in support of torture (Augustine), and killing (Aquinas) and others like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who took from the teachings of Jainism to follow the path of non-violence (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.12).

Harris’s second argument finds religion as a generator of selfish human behavior which is not only irrational but is also obsolete in the light of modern challenges to human society. He writes, “One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.25). While mentioning the epidemic of AIDS and HPV (human papillomavirus) in Africa and around the world, Sam cites the examples of selfish response of religious right against the use of contraception and vaccines. He writes, “The problem is that Christians like yourself are not principally concerned about the teen pregnancy and the spread of disease. That is, you are not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.28). He further provides examples of religious right wing’s opposition to issues like stem-cell research, a breakthrough in science that can provide cure to human diseases and injuries by creating tissues out of embryonic stem-cells. Sam notes, “The link between religion and morality – so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated- is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.32). This religious dogma, according to Sam, taints the good efforts by the people of faith like Mother Teresa and unlike atheist social movements, personal faith of the social workers overshadows their work. Extending his argument, Sam argues that such selfish behavior, in turn, increases the crime rate and violence against minorities. “Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality rate…. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of the United Nation’s human development index are unwaveringly religious.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.43-44)

The third strongest argument made by Sam Harris is that religious teachings are far from the scientific facts that we all have come to know in our lives. His view is based on the long-standing differences between science and religion. Questions about the beginning of the universe and our world, life on the planet and mysteries of afterlife, choice between evolution and intelligent design and many other similar questions are answered differently by science and religious traditions. Underlining this gap, Sam mentions the comments by the National Academy of Science, “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.”(Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.62-63), whereas science finds the answers through reasoning, according to Sam, and religion invokes faith to teach the same. He believes that contrary to religious scriptures and scholars, people of science try to provide answers to the questions posed by the mankind and if such answer is not available, it admits of its failure. According to him, the concept of Intelligent Design (ID), an argument commonly used by the religious mainstream, is not proven. “The problem with ID is that it is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science. Since a belief in the biblical God finds no support in our growing scientific understanding of the world, ID theorists invariably stake their claim on the areas of scientific ignorance.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.71-72).

Although Sam Harris makes strong arguments against religion, as I stated in the beginning of my paper, he also tends to find its importance in human society. My paper intends to underscore the positive value of the religions in human history; the paths that brought human society together and provided a framework of life when it was absent.

 

Part II: Positive Value of Abrahamic Religions

 

The idea from the Enlightenment Period that the light of the reason and advancement of science would dispel religions is proving to be wrong as we witness the spread of not only moderate religious teachings but also gaining foothold of right wing ideologies as the mankind continues to answer the complicated questions about life and our universe in the language of science. Gavin Flood writes, “While secularization has developed in the West, this has not heralded the demise of religion. Christianity may be in decline in northern Europe but is expanding in African and the Americas. Islam is expanding in Europe and it is not inconceivable that it will be the majority religion in Europe in the course of time.” (The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World Preface). Although some views of religion may sound illogical and absurd to people like Sam Harris, religions continue to thrive among the masses. For centuries, religions have been the bonding force bringing people of all races and ethnicities together under their flags, creating societies and providing them with much needed code of civil and moral conduct and in many instances stimulating the growth of arts and sciences. “What is intriguing about religion is that it has been linking people together while creating and preserving their cultures’ world views for thousands of years. Whether through institutions like Catholic Church, spiritual and social leader like the Buddha and Confucius, or the teachings of the Bible, Vedas, Koran, Torah, and I Ching, people have always felt a need to look outside themselves for the values they use to manage their lives.” (Communication Between Cultures By Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel. P. 103). Although Sam Harris cherry picks biblical scripture out of its context and points out to the weak moments in human history when actions of individuals, in the name of their respective religions, brought torture and destruction to many; To objectively depict the picture of religions, in this section, I will try to bring out the aspects of Abrahamic religions without the taint of human influence and error.

Sam’s first argument that all Abrahamic religions offer competing and contradictory teachings holds no ground as all three Abrahamic religions share their central monotheistic belief while referring back to Abraham. “In the West, the oldest of the major global religions is Judaism. It is in fact the seminal tradition for he two largest existing world religions: Christianity and Islam. They all share a central belief in monotheism; all also refer back to the first Hebrew patriarch: Abraham.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 8. P.198). Christian teachings also encompass wide range of teachings from Hebrew Bible as the Christian Bible includes a version of Tanakh, as the Old Testament. Born into a Jewish family in Israel, Jesus kept the essence of the Torah. “Himself a Jew, he upheld he spirit of the teachings of the Torah while pointing out their abuses by religious authorities.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 9. P.235). Moreover, a Muslim’s faith is not complete without having complete faith in the teachings of Torah and Bible. “Special respect is given in Muslim thought and law to people of other religions who have received scripture thought to be divinely revealed – primarily Jews and Christians. These are ‘People of the Book’.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 10. P.283). This leads to the distinction between true and similar teachings of each of Abrahamic traditions and the human differences between the clergy of each tradition, which Sam fails to recognize and therefore dwells on his argument based on human rhetoric.

Second part of Sam’s first argument speaks volume of his incomplete knowledge of the Abrahamic scriptures and their teachings in full context. His arguments against the Biblical and Quranic messages of love and compassion are only based on his out of context understanding of the scriptures and isolated historical events wherein individual human decisions or small group’s actions were labeled as the true teachings of these leading world religions. The reality, however, stands far from Sam’s negative depiction of Abrahamic traditions. If for a moment, we believe his argument that the human society, on its own and without any divine help, was fully capable of creating and implementing the finest moral and civil code of conduct a man kind would ever know then the need of The Ten Commandments (Mary Pat Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 8. P. 248) would not have been there in the first place. If religions are the response to human conditions (Gavin Flood. The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World. Preface), then human conditions, then and now, required the moral and civic code from the one who knew the conditions and the solution as well. Sam’s argument that Abrahamic traditions lack moral teachings is baseless, as a careful study of these religions would clearly show that each one of these traditions put the lesson of love and compassion on top of its teachings. “Jesus preached and lived by truly radical ethics. In contrast to the prevailing patriarchal society and extensive proscriptions against impurity, lepers, and the bleeding woman touched him and were healed. In his inclusive ‘table fellowship’, he ate with people of all sorts, including those designated as impure by Jewish law in order to preserve temple impurity.” (Mary Pat Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 306). Mary Fisher further quotes Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 308). Sam’s understanding of the scriptures in the literal way and his observation of the actions of a small group of people leads him astray from the real message which may have symbolic meaning. While discussing Islam, Sam states, “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.” (Sam Harris. Letter to Christian Nation. P.85). His statement clearly ignores the basic teachings of Islam and concentrates merely on the actions of extremely small group with a political agenda wrapped up in religious dogma. Islamic teachings do not condone acts of terror and suicide attack, one of the tenants of Sam’s arguments, and in fact requires Muslims to treat their enemies with mercy, ban torture, respect enemy’s dead, forbid attacking civilians and innocents as well as fellow Muslims, provide humanitarian aid to the enemy and finding war as the last resort (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 10. P.304-307). Islam, an Arabic word, means peace and life of Islamic Prophet is full of stories of compassion and love for all people. Islamic pillars of Fasting and Zakat teach self-restraint and compassion towards others as part of the faith (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 10. P. 399).

Sam’s second strongest argument against Abrahamic traditions is totally detached from the actual religion’s teachings and is completely based on human actions that claim to be associated with a certain faith. His argument that religious right does not seem interested in helping the people dying of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS may not be due to the biblical teachings as Jesus became the savior and a reformist for everyone around him regardless of their background and, according to the Bible, sacrificed himself to redeem people from their sins (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 348). Sam also seems to ignore the efforts of the Church of England in promoting the wide-reaching of UN Millennium Project which supports the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal primary education, promotion of gender equality and empower women, reduction in child mortality, improvement of maternal health, combating major diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and development of a global partnership for development (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 9. P.254-255). His argument that secular societies of western Europe seem to do better than the United States and other places where people are more religious is misleading and forgets the fact that having better per capita and health and education standards is closely related to the Europe’s socialistic form of government and politics. West (Europe and United States) in general has separation of the Church and State; however, United States as a market-based capitalistic economy has different political and government services structure than Europe where majority of the social services are provided to the populous at no cost.

Sam’s third argument against religion finds its foundations on the divide between religion and science but forgets the fact that Islamic tradition promoted arts, culture, and sciences during the Dark Ages in Europe. Islam’s heavy stress on education is evident from the first revelations to the prophet Mohammad (Mary Fisher. World Religions Chapter 10. P. 384). “In its great cities, Islam went through a period of intense intellectual and artistic activity, absorbing, transmitting, and expanding upon the highest traditions of other cultures…The new system of nine Arabic numerals and the zero derived from Indian numbers revolutionized mathematics by liberating from the clumsiness of Roman numerals. A love of geometry and spiritual understanding of numbers, from the One to infinite divisions, provided the basis for beautifully elaborated art and architectural forms. … Muslim scholars’ research into geography, history, astronomy, literature, and medicine lifted these disciplines to unprecedented heights.” (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 10. P. 414-415). Abrahamic traditions not only provide answers of complex questions about our universe, this planet and life through faith but also encourage their followers to seek answers through research and pursuing education. Research and learning is also a central part of Jewish traditions, quoting Job 12:7-10, “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, they will tell you, or speak to the earth it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 8. P.208).

 

Part III: Easing Tensions

 

We live in a multi-cultural and ethnically diverse world with people following different religious traditions. Interestingly the ideologies that divide us also provide the very fiber that connects us to each other. In the post 9/11 era religion has come to the forefront of public discourse as more people have started associating religion with violence and extremism. Executive Director of the Boston Research Center of the 21st Century, Virginia Benson writes, “Many young people now equate the religious impulse itself with violence.” (Subverting Hatred: Preface). This turn of events has provided grounds to individuals like Sam Harris to write about religion as the main cause of violence around the world. I understand that religious differences may have provided reasons to a small number of people to express their view through extreme ways but in a rapidly dividing world, religions kept billions of people under the umbrella of their ideologies and helped create harmonized communities that share the moral and civic code.

In this religiously and culturally dividing world, I think, The Four Noble Truths (Pali ariya sacca) of Buddhist tradition offer a great resource to mankind to knit the common fiber of peace and nonviolence. “Its cardinal moral percept, to refrain from harming living beings (ahisma); the practices of loving kindness; compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (brahmaviharas); the doctrines of selflessness (anatta), interdependence (paticcasamuppada), and non-dualism (sunyata); the paradigm of enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) who employ skillful devices (upaya) to liberate others from suffering; and the image of the great “wheel-turners” (cakravartin) and moral leaders (dhammaraja) who conquers hearts and minds – not enemies and territories-by their exceptional wisdom and kindness.” (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.15). Over the centuries these teachings have successfully found its way into various global cultures including India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan that shows the tradition’s capacity to be able to bond with the people from other global cultures and knit them in the common fiber of peace. When people from the largest religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are soul searching, trying to find out the peace in a highly integrated and depressed environment in which divine religions are under attack for their track record of igniting violence, The Four Noble Truths of Buddhist tradition provide inner peace, freedom from suffering and a true understanding of our existence. However,  the means to achieve these goals are provided by Buddhist Five Percepts (panca sila) which requires abstention from taking life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.18). Abstinence from killing in Buddhist tradition involves killing, hurting, butchering, military service while protecting other living beings like insects and animals. Since all Abrahamic traditions teach love and compassion, as explained in the above section, integration of The Four Noble Truths of Buddhist tradition further strengthens the notion of nonviolence and compassion without taking away the basic percepts of the leading religions. By attacking the three main roots of action – hatred, greed, and delusion through loving kindness, generosity and wisdom, Buddhist tradition augments the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which also promote the similar values. “The Buddhist approach to nonviolence, then, is grounded in a systematic ‘attitude adjustment’ in which negative, reactive states such as hatred, greed, and delusion are transformed into positive social orientations through meditative self-training.” (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.20). These meditative practices can substantially add to the lives of people from all backgrounds without giving up on following their particular tradition. Buddhist nonviolent activism provides a practical curriculum for transforming one’s mind, which in turn can help create a society, based on selfless behavior, love, and compassion.

Although Sam Harris makes strong arguments against all religions for inciting violence in the world, he tends to ignore the fact that peace may lie right within the same dogmas. With open minds and hearts, religions can learn from each other and today’s globalized world provides a golden opportunity for learning from each other in creating a more peaceful society. It is also important to note that all Abrahamic traditions offer a path of love and compassion while teaching peace through selfless behavior; however, individual and groups’ political motives have led them spread violence and destruction in the name of religions over the centuries. Can we hold all the followers of their respective traditions hostage of the actions of the few? Of course not! And neither can we blame God or religions for the actions of the few of us. Sam may be right in showing his dissatisfaction with the current world events but he should also not ignore the fact that religions have also been the force behind peace in this world. Referring to the opening paragraph of this paper, which cited an excerpt from Sam’s Letter to the Christian Nation, people from various religious traditions have been seeking peace and salvation through their traditions and diversification of these paths for the similar goal makes this world more beautiful and colorful.

Devotion to God

Part I: Saintly Teachings of the Bhakti Movement

 

There is but One God. He is obtained by the True Guru’s grace.

When there was egoism in me, Thou wert not with me.

Now that Thou art there, there is no egoism,

As huge waves are raised by the wind in the great ocean, but are only water in water.

O Lord of wealth, what should I say about this delusion?

What we deem a thing to be, in reality it is not like that.

 

It is like a king falling asleep on his throne and becoming a beggar in dream;

His kingdom is intact, but separating from it, he suffers pain. Such indeed, has been my condition, ….

Amidst all, the One Lord has assumed many forms

And He is enjoying within all hearts.

Says Ravi Das, the Lord is nearer to us than our hands and feet.

So let it happen as will naturally happen, …

 

The World of Illusion: Saint Song by Ravi Das

An Anthology of Living Religions: 3rd Edition Chapter Hinduism P. 81

 

The above excerpt is taken from a devotional saint song, The World of Illusion written by Shri Guru Ravi Das Maharaj Ji, a prominent North Indian saint and mystic of Bhakti Movement during the 15 century CE. Away from traditional Sanskrit scriptures and Brahman priests, the followers of bhakti tradition and saintly devotees of the Hindu deities began to sign their ecstatic realization of the Divine, in their own languages. This paper will concentrate on the universal nature of the Bhakti Movement, which not only expanded the spiritual reach to all people regardless of their background but also provided a more devotional approach of relationship between a devotee and the deity while seeking the presence of God inside and around us. Saints like Ravi Das, a shoemaker by profession and considered a low caste in traditional Indian society, took devotion to Hindu Deities at a whole new level by providing men and women of all classes a new devotional path. The Bhakti movement in Hinduism promoted intense devotion to a personal aspect of the deity between the periods of C.600-1800. The movement provided new approach to spirituality and religion especially to lower casts in a divided Indian culture by Brahmic teachings. New aspect of relationship between a Bhakti and the deity, as provided by the Bhakti Movement around 600 CE, has been the primary path for Indian masses especially for Shudras (a cast of manual labors and artisans) and women to enjoy their connection with their deities (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 85).  The Bhakti movement came at a time when the Indian society was heavily divided into classes and women and people of lower classes were kept away from Brahman Hindu religious paths as Brahmins controlled the Vedic religion and contact between castes was limited. The Vedas, other scriptures and historical customs have all conditioned the Indian people to accept their social roles (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 99). These were set out in religious-legal texts such as the Code of Manu, compiled during 100-300 CE. The path of bhakti yoga encourages a relationship of intense love between bhakta (devotee) and the deity. Bhakta Nam Dev describes his deep love in sweet metaphors:

Thy Name is beautiful, Thy form is beautify and very beautiful is Thy love, Oh my Omnipresent Lord.

As rain is dear to the earth, as the fragrance of flowers is dear to the blank bee, and as the mango is dear to the cuckoo, so is the Lord to my soul.

(Living Religions: Hinduism P. 84)

The selected saint song shows that God is understood to be present around us in every form by the Bhakti Movement and does not belong to any specific gender. His presence is rather personified through both physical and metaphysical forms, in human emotions and outcomes, and as the core of all forms of life as Ravi Das points out to the Deity’s presence in our hearts that also outlasts our lives. The use of the metaphor of “water in water” by Ravi Das shows that despite of the varying nature and role of various objects and beings, and regardless of any social class, we are one as living example of God’s presence in all of us and in everything around us. Ravi Das also highlights the importance of Deity in one’s life as the only driving factor towards welfare and the ultimate goal, without which nothing is meaningful, by using the analogies of a “king without his kingdom” and “bird perching on a tree”. This universal presence of deity provided more reasons and avenues to a devotee (Bhakti) to seek God.

 

Part II: Relationship Between a Bhakti and God

 

As I mentioned in my paper statement, Bhakti saint teachings provided a more integral and expanded relationship framework between a devotee and God, a connection that makes the deity the closest part of all life. Mary Pat Fisher states, “In the Bhakti path, even though the devotee may not transcend the ego in Samadhi, the devotee’s whole being is surrendered to the deity in love” (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 85). The strength of the relationship is guided by the intensity of a devotee (bhakti) with the goal of achieving “true knowledge” and “Liberation” by completely giving oneself up. According to the saint song, if God lives in a devotee’s heart and is closer than one’s hands and feet, the deity therefore should guide every feeling and action of the devotee. Ravi Das uses the metaphor of a King’s plight when he loses his wealth to underscore that a devotee should be in complete distress without deity’s presence in his/her life. Although the bhakti song and associated teachings bring forward the universal nature of the path by finding deity’s presence in all life, they also stress upon the unity of the deity and a devotee. Egoistic values separate one being from another; therefore, the absence of egoism is given by the bhakti movement as the precondition to forming a strongly bonded relationship between deity present in all forms and a devotee.

Reward in bhakti movement takes on many forms mostly associated with achieving spiritual, emotional, and metaphysical goals. Search and unification with deity requires complete understanding of the presence of God in its every form and a devotee can only reach that state if he/she transforms his/her life, decisions, and goals according to the deity’s will.  The act of complete devotion leads a devotee towards the stage wherein the self becomes absent and the assimilation of devotee with deity in all forms encourages him/her to take positive steps for others. Reward in turn is sought in the form of inner satisfaction. This in turn provides the level of satisfaction and happiness that is a reward in itself. Ravi Das points to such assimilation by using the metaphors of “association of a pilgrim to the place of pilgrim” which may require a tough journey by the pilgrim but in the end reward lies in making the pilgrimage. Therefore, according to the bhakti song reward for a devotee lies in the act of devotion itself, which includes the journey of a devotee in becoming one with deity. Since God is present inside and around a devotee in various forms, therefore, the presence of the One in all aspects of life is depicted by the song as “all knowing”, “source of welfare and prosperity”, “ultimate reality”, and “the light” which continue to empower the devotee’s life. While appreciating the rewarding aspects of God, devotee summons God’s guidance, as He is the guiding light and owner of the loftiest palaces and beauteous brides, in finding the right path that can help him/her in making the right decisions.  The term salvation (mukti) in bhakti movement, like other Hindu traditions, is also used for liberation. Once a devotee seeks salvation, he/she is liberated from suffering, desires, and may also achieve liberation from successive lives. According to the song, a devotee’s goal is to achieve sainthood (a state in which one achieves liberation) by purifying his/her mind through pure consciousness; therefore, achieving salvation or liberation.

 

Part III: Thought Comparison

 

South Asian saint movements have a great impact on my religious outlook, which finds the presence of God inside and around us. Kabir (c. 1440-1518), a Muslim-born weaver with Hindu guru wrote hymns that showed cross religious influence into Muslims and Sikhs as well as Hindus. Kabir writes,

O servant, where dost thou seek me?

Lo! I am beside thee.

I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash

Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation

If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time

Kabir says, “O Sadhu!” God is the breath of all the breath.”

 

The World of Illusion: Hymn by Kabir

An Anthology of Living Religions: 3rd Edition Chapter Hinduism P. 83

 

My understanding of religion originates from my religious belief that the Ultimate Reality exists and human responses to this Supreme Reality have been expressed and institutionalized as the structures of religions is further enriched by the ideology described in Ravi Das’s saint song which emphasizes on attaining the acceptance of the Ultimate Reality by completely giving oneself in as the only way to acquire true wealth and happiness in life. Like the Bhakti movement that promotes complete devotion between a devotee and deity who is present in many forms around us, my religious belief also finds the presence of God in every living being; however, differentiates in not worshipping its physical or exemplary forms. Therefore, my outlook of religion sits somewhat close to the religious ideology described in the saint’s song. In my view however, giving oneself in does not mean cutting off from the world and going into complete seclusion to seek the Ultimate Reality or the True Guru. By living a balanced life in which one understands and performs all his/her worldly duties with honesty and dedication and promotes the presence of good through actions and emotions, one can not only seek true happiness in this world but also can hope to have a rewarding after-life.  Ravi Das in his song takes the moral and ritual discourse to seek the divine, which is important yet completely ignores the physical and worldly side of religious ideology. The teachings of the bhakti movement in Hinduism explain the concept of salvation (mukti) as the liberation of the soul by completely alienating a devotee from the world and by seeking pure consciousness. My view of liberation, however, does not require a devotee’s alienation but provides salvation through a code of moral and religious conduct that is aligned with normal human life.

The teachings of Hinduism do exemplify my definition of religion. I think the teachings of Hinduism provide us with an essential code of life, outlining both social and economic dimensions, which is an essential part of my definition of a religion. The syllable of OM in Brahman and Bhakti Movements interpret individual human interaction and societal behavior, another part of my definition. OM connects humans to the metaphysical, a narrative aspect of a religion that provides a connection to divinity with a historical perspective. As one of the oldest world religions, Hinduism offers cognitive, practical and social elements through rich set of rituals and texts. Through Vedas, Upanishads and other mode of literature, the Belief Perspective of Hinduism provides us with an understanding of the beginning of the universe and life and answers to the associated questions, without which a religion may not hold much foundation. A set of symbols and acts presented by Hinduism help us answer the critical questions about our existence, which are an essential part of my definition of a religion.

The teachings of the bhakti movement expand to all people, regardless of their background, and develop a relationship of intense devotion and love between a devotee and a deity which provides it universal aspect and brings it into the forefront with other living religions in the world.

Mencius and Mozi on the Government

“Why must the king speak of profit? There are humaneness and rightness, that is all. If the king says, ‘How can I profit my state?’ the officers will say, ‘How can I profit my house?’ and the gentlemen and the common people will say, ‘How can I profit my person?’ Those above and those below will be competing with one another for profit, and the state will be imperiled…the king should speak of humanness and rightness. Why is it necessary to speak of profit?” (Sources of Chinese Traditions (Vol.1): Selections from the Mencius P.116, 1A:1)

“In caring for the people, presiding over the alters of the soil and the grain, and ordering the state, the ruler and high officials these days strive for stability and seek to avoid any error. But do they fail to perceive that honoring the worthy is the foundation of government?” (Sources of Chinese Traditions (Vol.1): Selections from the Mozi P. 66, Section 9)

Both Mencius and Mozi provide a roadmap for an efficient and effective state by putting the ‘worthy’ individuals and decisions as the foundation of a good governance. By honoring the worthy individuals in a close-knit and family oriented Chinese society of that time and encouraging selfless government policies provided effective policy framework to the Kings to manage a vast and diversified Chinese empires. Both Mozi and Mencius seek to establish selfless and worthy governance and seem to compliment each other’s views. Early philosophers of China like Mozi and Mencius played an essential role in forming then Chinese society. Its interesting to realize that their intellectual premises still hold a valid position in establishing a viable and good governance system anywhere in the world; however, the current Chinese governance policies may be far from these teachings.

 

On behalf of the Grand Lord Secretary …..

The Kingdom faces great security challenges on its borders that cannot be dealt with idealistic strategies as the Literati suggests; therefore, a strong military presence and campaigns are necessary to the Emperor’s rule. To financially support a sound military presence we need the system of equable marketing by keeping the monopolies on salt and iron and excise on liquor. Only through strong government control over the economic and business activities, the Kingdom can provide ample resources to defend its borders against any possible challenge and simple rural economy cannot provide for the resources the Kingdom needs at the moment.

Financial competition through equable marketing shall bring economic prosperity and valuable revenues for the Kingdom that it can use to protect and enhance its borders. The people of the Kingdom may live with Confucius ideologies but the people across our borders may not share our values; therefore, while we adhere to our principles in making the Kingdom attractive to the others, we can never ignore the importance of having a strong military to ensure that our values are secured for the next generations and I cannot support any plan that jeopardizes the resources needed for our Kingdom’s security.

The Literati may propose a highly idealistic view of the world but the Kingdom faces realistic challenges.

Book Review: Good Muslim – Bad Muslim- America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

The post 9/11 era has not only brought a new dimension to the world order but has also ignited a robust debate amongst intellectual and political circles about the identity of Muslims by drawing a line of distinction between Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. Good Muslims are normally described as those that have been westernized and are supportive of American policies whereas Bad Muslims are categorized as the fanatical bunch who are opposed to American objectives. This debate is also sketching the fault lines within Muslim communities worldwide as Muslims struggle to seek their identity as players in the modern world. Mahmood Mamdani, in his book Good Muslim-Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, explains the roots of terrorism and America’s “War against Terrorism” (Mamdani, Location 2844) from political and religious perspectives by carefully examining through the lens of history. He suggests that embattling modern and premodern cultures and not the religions or democracy that forms the current fault between civilizations which also further divides the Muslims. His book gathers all possible evidence, sometimes not correct, to link the current Islamic terrorist movement with American political objectives.

Mamdani begins by elaborating the history and definition of violence from Western perspective. European political theorists like Max Weber recognized the state monopolized violence as political modernity which in turn was defined in terms of culture and violence. Spanish state-led violence in 1492 first against its Jewish population and then targeted at Muslims was considered important towards establishing a modern Christian Spanish state. Violence later conducted on the wings of racism and imperial objectives led to near decimation of Native Americans, Tasmanian natives, Maoris of New Zealand, Herero of German South West Africa, and later in recent history gassing of Russians and Jews by German Nazis. All violence, he suggests, “is unfortunate response to tragedy” while feeling “self-righteousness” (Mamdani, Location 154). Mamdani bases his book on cultural interpretation of politics, Culture Talk, and suggests a different way of thinking about political Islam. He claims that terrorism, especially Islamic terrorism is rather a recent phenomenon and the tragedy of 9/11 finds its roots into the Cold War.

While questioning the common assumption that every religiously entrenched political movement is potentially a terrorist movement, he makes distinction between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘political’ Islamic movements. Historically, there has been a clear demarcation between the fundamental and political movements in Islam with later making the call for Muslims’ homeland in South Asia and in other Muslim countries. The foundations of current radical political Islamic movement were laid by political Islamists, Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Mawdudi in the Sub-continent (Mamdani, Locations 680, 714, 771), who set out to form a ‘truly Islamic’ society by persuasion and coercion. Mamdani makes a clear distinction between cultural and political Islam with former emerging out of the Cold War. He suggests that terrorism is born of a political encounter and especially the current Islamic terrorist movement is born when American political ambitions met political Islam during the Cold War.

At the height of Cold War, America was fighting many proxy wars against Soviet Union around the world. Nixon Doctrine had “Asian boys” fighting “Asian wars” (Mamdani, Location 905, 2512) in Laos and Vietnam with much of the proxy war funded through illicit drugs trade under the umbrella of CIA and USAID. Like Asian wars which led to the CIA led training of thousands of mercenaries, U.S., according to Mamdani, embraced the mercenaries in Congo (1960) and Angola (1975) by providing them both funds and training. Under the umbrella of Safari Club, as U.S. felt on its back foot in Africa (Congo, Egypt, and Somalia) against Soviet Union, then Reagan administration’s CIA chief William J. Casey started seeking the support for  “terrorist and proterrorist movements from Renamo in Mozambique to Unita in Angola, and from contras in Nicaragua to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan”(Mamdani, Location 1235). By recognizing the fact that U.S. strategic interests may not be under threat in Europe but in the Third World, through “constructive engagement” (Mamdani, Locations 190, 1232, 1296, 1300) and “Low Intensity Conflicts”(Mamdani, Locations 186, 1246, 1252, 1342) , U.S. tried to turn the tide on the Soviets in Africa and elsewhere.

Reagan’s “rollback” Doctrine (Mamdani, Location 1351) which was aimed at reversing the American defeats in the Third World led U.S. to openly embrace terror in Nicaragua (Central America), invasion of Grenada (1983), and later organizing and conducting a robust guerilla operation in Afghanistan by training and supporting mujahedeen from all over the world. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a golden opportunity for the U.S. to give Soviets their own Vietnam. During the same year, the Iranian Revolution had given a bitter taste of nationalist Islam. Therefore, to avail the opportunity to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, U.S. mustered active support from all over the Muslim world especially in the Middle East and Pakistan.  U.S. was ready to defeat Soviets in Afghanistan through armed insurgency for which radical Muslims were gathered from across and world and thousands were radicalized at madrassas in Pakistan. These mujahedeen were given training, weapons, and support at all levels through Pakistani intelligence agency ISI and through other governments. To fund this Low Intensity Conflict, once again U.S. relied on expanding the opium and drug production in the region. In 1985, President Reagan introduced a group of Afghan Mujahedeen leaders as “moral equivalents of American founding fathers” in the White House lawn  (Mamdani, Location 1454).

The CIA created Islamic Jihad, according to Mamdani, gave a new life of the teachings of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Mawdudi in the Sub-Continent. The Afghan war provided the necessary skills, confidence and weapons to a large number of radical Muslims who now had a political agenda i.e. rid Afghanistan of infidels, which after the Afghan war got transformed into the global agenda. Mamdani suggests that privatization of Afghan jihad was probably the vital mistake on U.S. part which led to the development of small fighting contingent without any supervision. Under this privatization, many Pakistani madrassas turned into military training camps and started graduating thousands of right-wing Islamic militants with a political agenda. These right-wing extremists later hijacked the movement at the end of Afghan War and started forming the basis of Al-Qaida, the base, with a goal of global jihad. Once the Afghan War was over, madrassas continued producing mujahedeen now under the new brand of Taliban which later controlled the ravaged and un-organized Afghanistan with brutality and savageness.

At the end of the Afghan War, the Afghan Mujahedeen from other countries later returned to their homelands but this time with terrorist training and ambition to bring down their respective “un-Islamic” governments and establish a truly Islamic state. Mamdani, however, suggests that there is a difference between Islamic terror and radical Islamism with later initiated against the imperial occupations of the 20th century and to help bring social reforms. Trained right-wing Islamic extremists, forming the ranks of terrorist activities, started organizing terrorist attacks in Islamic as well as western countries as we witness the tragedies in the Middle East and Africa and 9/11 in U.S.

9/11 also changed the rules of American engagement around the world. From low-intensity proxy wars United States quickly moved to high-intensity direct warfare as the world poured its support behind the U.S. “Regime Change”, and that became the new code word for extending American objectives around the world, according to Mamdani, which led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The spread of “democracy” through U.S. interventions also resulted in the spread of right-wing movements and terrorism. Mamdani states that, “the debate on terrorism revolves around two poles, the cultural and the political. Culture Talk seeks the explanation for a deed in the culture of the doer. In contrast, Political Talk tends to explain the deed as a response to issues, to a political context of unaddressed grievances”. (Mamdani, Location 3091) Terrorism can’t be dealt as a crime otherwise it won’t be a political problem, the writer states. U.S. policy of reconciliation between the rival groups including mending differences with terrorists changed after 9/11 as zero-tolerance policy against terrorists is installed by the Bush administration. Mamdani, controversially, equates U.S. and Al-Qaida ideologies as the outcome of the Cold War, highly ideological, self-righteous and power centric; where both parties are fighting terror with the means of terror.

Although many claims and suggestions by Mahmood Mamdani are questionable and controversial in his book, he makes a daring effort in explaining the roots of terrorism and the foundations of a Good and a Bad Muslim. Post 9/11 era has forced every Muslim to prove his/her innocence by choosing the pavilion of Good Muslims in comparison with the Muslims who chose the fundamentalist school of thought and were labeled as Bad Muslims. This burden of proof is heavy on the shoulders on all the Muslims especially in the presence of controversial U.S. foreign policies.

Note: All locations are cited from the Amazon’s Kindle version of the book

Right to Creative Education – Conforming our Education to the 21st Century

Our public education system’s concentration on the students’ academic rather than creative ability as a mean to satisfy employment goals has always kept my attention. The right to education which specifically talks about “educational freedom and institutional autonomy” states that “the right to education can only be enjoyed if accompanied by the academic freedom of staff and students” (The Right to Education,  Article 13, 12/08/1999)seems hard to achieve in the presence of our current creativity lacking educational system.  With no attention to offering creative education in the public schools, in my view, we continue to concentrate on ‘job’ based academic achievements designed after the 19th century industrial model. This in turn is producing an army of so called trained individuals in the professions that may no longer be there in the next five years resulting in economic stress on a limited business sectors.  Special Rapporteur on the right to education states that’s  “The origins of public schooling lie in the common school model of the nineteenth century, a concept initiated as a practical exercise in all-inclusive schooling and a promising means of promoting economic self-sufficiency” (Report submitted by Katarina Tomaševski, Special Rapporteur on the right to education -24 September-10 October 2001). The ‘promised mean to economic self-sufficiency’ is now severely challenged in the 21st century when occupational pathways are rapidly changing with the emergence of new and creative careers and businesses. Our focus on academic vs. creative ability of children and using academic achievement as a yardstick to one’s success in the job market has now proven wrong by the some of the great inventors and achievers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and recently by Mark Zuckerberg. Earlier, having  degrees were the guarantee for a job but now we see highly educated individuals with many degrees being unemployed. I think it is very important that we switch our focus toward promoting the right to creative education not only in the developed countries but also in the developing nations, as an answer to the rapid innovation and expansion of career pathways around the world. Otherwise, we may end up losing a great pool of very talented and creative children, to violence, because the current ‘academic achievement oriented’ education system does not find them smart enough to meet its standards.