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A matter of life and death

Having taught comparative religions in some foreign universities I am acquainted with the scriptures of most major religions of the world, be it superficially, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2007 06:53 IST

Having taught comparative religions in some foreign universities I am acquainted with the scriptures of most major religions of the world, be it superficially. I hoped to find answers to three questions: Where have we come from? Why are we here? What happens to us after we die? I did not find them in any sacred text. What answers there are fall in two broad categories: one which holds that an Almighty Power created us; He gave us a life-chance to prove ourselves; and on death we return to God to be rewarded or punished for our conduct in life.

The second group of religions believe in a continuous cycle of births, deaths and rebirths with our destinies dependent on how we led our lives. I found both sets of answers unacceptable to me, as neither adduce any concrete evidence in support of their contentions.

A friend in Mumbai sent me three books on religion by A Parthasarathy who has a formidable reputation as a scholar of Hinduism. I could well understand that as I read his best known work The Eternities: Vedanta Treatise — first published in 1978, now in its 13th edition. He writes lucid prose with apt quotations, poetry and anecdotes. It is as seductive an exposé of Vedanta as I have read. But when it came to answering the three questions which no one has yet answered, he gives traditional explanations. Why are we so different from each other ? Most of us would answer because of genes inherited from our parents and our upbringing. Parthasarathy discretely attributes them to the “past” when he means exactly what most of us refer to as our previous lives before this one. I do not dispute his views about what we should do in our lives. He says it should be devoted to self realisation through meditation. He censors drinking as “taking intoxicants” and indulging the senses as improper. For me, and the vast majority of my friends, drinking is different from addiction to alcohol or drunkenness and is a pleasant pastime. So is indulging in our senses given to us by nature. About life after death, he juggles with words which leave the reader utterly confused because he hesitates to say that he believes in re-incarnation because his scriptures say so. Even the Dalai Lama whose leadership of his sect of Buddhism is based on belief in re-incarnation denies its validity and has set up a council of elder monks to elect his successor.

Parthasarathy constantly talks of bliss of self-realisation. I have not met him but a lot of self-proclaimed teachers of religion who claim to have achieved sublime bliss. All of them have smug smiles of satisfaction on their faces, but I have never come across one who could laugh heartily. As for bamboozling readers with words, I quote just one example, a translation of a shloka, which runs: “Om. That is infinite. There is infinite. Infinite has come out of infinite. Take away infinite from infinite, what remains is infinite.”

Can you decipher what it means? Why is it so hard to be truthful, and admit I do not know?

Mohsin Hamid of Pakistan

He has two highly readable books Moth Smoke and Reluctant Fundamentalist which made the best sellers’ list in the United States under his belt. And a third one building up inside him. He was on his second or third visit to India but was somewhat uncertain of the reception he would get in a country, he was brought up to believe that was inimical towards his.

He was happy to see he had many Indian admirers and drew large crowds at his book launches in Delhi and Mumbai. He dropped in to see me a day before I left Delhi for my summer vacation in Kasauli.

He is a tall, balding young man in his mid-thirties, a bemused smile on his face, sparkling enquiring eyes and a way with words. I questioned his motives for defending religious fundamentalism. He corrected me: it was not Islamic fundamentalism he intended to defend but explain Muslim reaction to American bullying and meddling in affairs of the Muslim nations. I accepted his explanation. I also understood why he, who owed so much to America, has shifted residence from New York to London.

I asked him about resurgence of bigotry in his country, about Lal Masjid run madrassas in Islamabad; about burqa-clad women wielding lathis to enforce the Shariat code of conduct. “It is the lunatic fringe, no more than 10 per cent of the population. But it makes a lot of noise. To counterbalance we have 10 per cent who could not care less about Shariat laws, who never offer Namaz, never fast during Ramadan, eat anything, enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages. The majority of 80 per cent simply live their lives unconcerned with either Mullahs or the modernised elite.” It made sense to me. Women draped in black carrying staves and bearded mullahs punching the air with clenched fists, spouting hatred with mouths wide open make arresting videos for the media. We too have out kattarpanthis who run schools which preach hatred for Muslims and get a lot more coverage than their numbers would warrant. But I maintained that we had a much larger proportion of people than Pakistanis who subscribed to secularism and regarded religion as one’s private affair. He nodded in agreement. I went further: “I don’t suppose there is such a creature as an atheist or an agnostic to be found in Pakistan? He smiles and replied: “You would be surprised! Only you won’t hear much about them.”

Maya’s miracle

As an elephant strode into every town
Lotus withered and cycle tumbled down!
When Mayawati enticed Brahmins into her fold,
They gave her the UP Crown!

(Contributed by GC Bhandari, Meerut)