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.

Small Business 2.0 : Taking Small Businesses in 21st Century

The backbone of any economy, small and medium size businesses (SMEs) comprise of almost 80% of the United States business horizon. Although the importance of small businesses is not bound to diminish anytime in the future, the dynamics that fuel their progress and long term sustainability have been changing with the advent of technology. In today’s rapidly flattening world, small businesses have seen increasingly flexible and expandable factors of production on their disposal. This shift in the operations and scope of small businesses has brought us to the era of small business 2.0, a next generation of SMEs.

Thanks to the growing internet platform, unlike in the past, SMEs today have more resources on their disposal to showcase their products to a larger market segment at a much lower cost. The Internet has truly brought the sense of global village to the SME world by offering lower cost of operations and higher profitability through greater market access.

SMEs from the exotic Caribbean region are also embracing the power of the internet and rapidly welcoming global visitors to both online and offline shores with welcoming smiles and beautiful local products. The high price of prime offline locations in the islands, and higher cost of business operations are other compelling factors behind this move from the brick and mortar marketplace to market-space on the World Wide Web.

If you are a tourist based jewelry business or a home based small enterprise specializing in handmade products inspired by Caribbean culture and history, you can access millions of visitors around the clock through your online store.  Of course being online is usually more demanding as you get more visitors on your online store and with greater market access sales volumes are higher. This challenge along with others can be dealt with careful planning and proper training.

Business 2.0 is not just a term to describe 21st century online businesses but can be one of the solutions to the challenge of improving the business sector and economic outlook of islands like St. Croix. Rich historical roots, culturally driven hand made products, an organized and well trained SME sector can be bring Caribbean economies to a new life with the proper integration of business 2.0.

In today’s increasingly shrinking world and flattening grounds, business success stories are no longer confined to one origin.  The answer to the challenges posed by the global village lies in joining the online business world by effectively training our SMEs and developing the infrastructure to continuously help grow in business 2.0.

By: Syed Gilani – President BIZVI LLC (Virgin Islands’ leading Marketing, Technology, Training and Research Company)

Re-Inventing the Virgin Islands’ Business Sector

Think Globally, Act Locally

The 21st century has not only brought us to the age of rapid technological advancements but also in doing so, has made us an ever so integral part of the global village phenomenon. The powers that brought all four corners of the world together are constantly working to flatten the playing field through rapid information dissemination and sharing. The recent gas and food price hikes due to global demand and supply fluctuations have brought the Virgin Islands’ business and consumer sectors to the realization that re-invention is the only means left for survival in this globally charged scene.

For a long time, we learned and did business and lived our lives as an American territory, surrounded by the beautiful Caribbean Sea. The re-invention of Virgin Islands businesses now demands a diversified portfolio augmented with a long term comprehensive economic plan. Attention to export-based, small and medium enterprise can not only help to compliment our tourism sector but can also help advance our islands’ product branding capability in the international marketplace. Supported by an integrated global marketing campaign and synchronized public and private efforts, our local product- recognition worldwide can help to support and develop our island communities.

Re-inventing does not only stop with our support to the islands’ small and medium enterprise sector; it demands a higher level of commitment and planning to attract large businesses to the islands. Our capability to leverage our small and big successes will help us to attract more investment to the territory. The strategic location of our beautiful islands in the Caribbean and our affiliation with the United States offer incredible opportunities for economic growth. However, to gain maximum advantage we would have to think globally, effectively position ourselves not only as a tourist destination but also as an investment paradise for global businesses. In doing so, we would be increasing the awareness and existence of the Virgin Islands as a tourist and business hub, while at the same time, our efforts will be reaping the benefits in the form of foreign investment, national interest and an increase in the standard of living among our citizens. In any way that we look at this, planning for long term economic stability is a good idea. All that is required is the ability to understand the present and carefully plan for the future.

It goes without saying, such changes across the board do not happen over night; nor should the responsibility to bring about these long term changes be given to any one sector. To expect institutional changes, everyone from business owners to the government must play their role. We can all contribute by ensuring that the small acts we perform in our capacity, help to project the Virgin Islands forward. After all, the future prosperity of our islands will determine what we will leave for our children to inherit. 

 Posted by: Syed Gilani

Looking for Jobs in the Virgin Islands

Job searching in the continental United States were made easy by the gigantic services of Monster, Career Builder, Hot Jobs and many other job searching portals. However, for decades job search in the Virgin Islands was highly dependant on the print media or the Virgin Islands Department of Labor. In 2008, BIZVI, a technology based business solutions provider, launhed Virgin Islands first Job Website, Career.VI. In a very short period of time this job portal became the most popular and the leading job website in the Virgin Islands capturing more than 90% of the market share. Now with thousands of registered job seekers and millions of visitors, Career.VI is the main resource for job search and hiring in the Virgin Islands.

According to Syed Gilani, Founder and CEO of Career.VI, Virgin Islands needed this change and with the provision of this robust service local job market’s efficiency has increased manifold. Under his vision, Career.VI continues to develop into a 360 Workforce Management System.

BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Is it really a Buzz that Google stepped into already buzzing social media arena or all i am hearing is annoying social media buzzing on my ears! Google has launched Google Buzz allowing its Gmail users to connect with their family and friends while staying in their emails. Yes it is not at all original from a company with originality its DNA! Facebook and Twitter, market leaders in the social networking systems are already buzzing about Google Buzz and calling it a cheat step by Google. Now we have to wait and see if users embrace this new feature by Google with open arms or Google Buzz may end up becoming their labo accident.

Posted by: Syed Gilani

More Work – Less Office

Tough economic times are on one side threatening millions of jobs across the world and on the other side pushing people and businesses to work harder and longer to live through these challenges. The real challenge is for everyone to manage the delicate balance between the work and their families especially when holidays call for long awaited family reunions and spending some quality family time together. There are ways that can help you stay in touch with your work while staying away from your office and closer to your family.

Document Sharing Tools

You don’t have to be in your office to manage your workspace. Document sharing tools like Google Docs allow you to manage your documents, presentations, spreadsheets and forms from the convenience of your own home. You can upload, access and share your office work with your colleagues and hierarchy without paying a dime! The powerful publishing and saving tools allow you to manage your workload form your home.

Remote Desktop Access

You have big family plans for this holiday season and extra time off may require you to work from home but you are afraid that too much information on you computer won’t allow you that flexibility. Technology again comes to your rescue by allowing you to access your office laptop remotely with the help of low cost desktop remote access software.

Online Faxing

If you don’t have access to a fax outside your office, you can always sign up with low cost online faxing services that allows you to send and receive faxes from anywhere in the world.  This allows you to meet any deadline you may have to submit your work or to simply stay in touch with your office.

Remote Meeting

Your boss really wants you to be in a very important meeting which happens to fall right in the middle of your holiday plans. Worry not! As online meeting services allow you to be in any meeting from any remote location. If you really don’t wish to spend any money then even a regular messenger services like Google Talk or MSN Messenger can help you conduct a video or voice chat with your boss or colleagues.

Personal Data Assistants

These days all cell phone providers are offering multi featured Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) to help you manage your business with greater flexibility. Packed with powerful communications and office management tools, you can not only access your emails but can also manage your documents. With the synchronization of global communication networks, its now much easier to stay in touch with your work than ever before.

Your holidays are meant to be for you and for your family and friends; however, should your work require you to be in your toes while enjoying your time, technology allows you to stay on course with your workload.

By: Syed Gilani

Find out more about Syed Gilani