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God is make-believe

An intellectual inquiry by a father to understand his suffering.

books Updated: Jul 22, 2011 23:12 IST

Does He Know A Mother’s Heart?
Arun Shourie
Harper Collins india
Rs 599
pp 432

‘It is one of the questions that assail every parent who has to bring up a handicapped child. Why do such horrible things happen? Why did this happen to this innocent child?’

We were attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Time for questions. Arun Shourie got up and asked his question. The Dalai Lama, unaware of the root cause of the question, gave a generic answer — the doctrine of karma, that actions from previous lives determine what happens in your life today — that was disappointing to all who know Arun. Later, I told Arun, “Perhaps there are some questions to which there are no answers.” He smiled. His answer is this book.

Arun’s question stems from mindless clichés and platitudes any parent with a handicapped child is subjected to. You never get used to it. It is always repeated with a veneer of smug, good intentions. You live with a stone on your heart. Arun has used his tortured question to research and push sceptical inquiry into Christian, Muslim and Hindu texts to arrive at a functioning, action-based spirituality based on Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism requires no faith or belief in god. Its only requirement is that you practise, every moment of your life. Arun examines and questions religious texts that all have placed attributes to god who is full of revenge, egotism, mindless cruelty and pettiness. Yet, the majority of the world prays and relies on some form of ‘god’.

Arun quotes French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville: “The belief in God is so strikingly congruent with our longings that it seems to be invented to fulfill them.” God did not create man. Man created god. No, this is not a new discovery since the scientific proof, or rather lack of it, has been investigated by thousands of philosophers ranging from Epicurus to contemporary writers such as Christopher Hitchens.

It is a given that each person deals with personal tragedy in his or her own way. So it is natural that Arun would deal with his through intellectual inquiry. Arun’s understandable rage that one absorbs in every space between the words is turned into proving that god’s conversations, his orders, his revenge, his ego, his jealousy, his nonchalance of inflicted pain, his requirement of adulation, his expectation of gifts and sacrifice, his availability to make deals, expose the shallowness of the belief.

The lack of accountability — that god does not have to explain what he does since he ‘must have good reason’ — is something that mere mortals cannot perceive. Arun asks, “...alternatively, seeing everything, how does He still inflict such torment?” If god knows the future, Arun points out, then he would know that Pol Pot will exterminate a third of the population of Cambodia. Why did god then, when adding free will to humans, not add a little more intelligence so that Pol Pot or Hitler would not use that freedom to harm others? The old bogey, karma, which “‘is a convenient fiction’ thus, not just in explaining what has happened to an individual but also in getting God off the hook”.

Beyond inquiry, there are exercises for the reader to do and the book ends with a ‘path forward’. It concludes with startling humility: “I hope that no reader will think that I have learnt even a fraction of them [the lessons].”

Arun questions Gandhi’s views on Hitler’s extermination of Jews (‘They sinned.’ Little children? Gas chambers?) and the devastating 1934 earthquake in Bihar. Gandhi wrote that Bihar’s earthquake was god’s retribution for India’s failure to eradicate untouchability. “I believe that not a leaf moves but by His will,” he wrote. Clearly, this leaf — Does He Know A Mother’s Heart? — has moved on its own, by its own energy and by Arun Shourie. Alternatively, it means that Arun’s book, that objurgates a malevolent god, was moved by his will. Thank you, god.

Madhu Trehan is a Delhi-based journalist

First Published: Jul 22, 2011 23:11 IST