Book excerpt: The Freethinker's Prayer Book

Updated on Nov 30, 2012 05:25 PM IST

Poetry and philosophy in Khushwant Singh's latest work, The Freethinker's Prayer Book, outline the personal religion of India's longest-running columnist. Hindustan Times features exclusive excerpts from the introduction.

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Hindustan Times | By

The Freethinker's Prayer Book
Khushwant Singh
Rs 495 pp 189

By the time this book is published, I will be ninety-seven. I am a very old man. And there is one eternal truth I can tell you right away: Old age is not pleasant; it buggers up your life. I am not yet senile, but my memory, of which I was very proud, is failing. Though I can still read, my hands shake so much that it is difficult to write anything legible. I have been spared the indignity of shitting in bed pans and having nurses wipe my bottom, but I often need assistance to get to the toilet. I am on more pills than I can count. In short, my body is giving up. It is time to say alvida and depart...

But I should not complain. I have lived a reasonably contented life, and it will be easy to go. Sometimes, however, I wish I knew where to. I am not a man of faith. Since I do not believe in paradise or the possibility of rebirth, I have no idea where I will be after I die. It is like staring into an endless dark void...

I was born into an orthodox Sikh family in Hadali (now in Pakistan), and as a child I liked the rituals of my faith...

By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I had begun to question ritual and religious dogma. At Delhi's newly opened Modern School, I was learning how science, technology and the liberal arts were transforming the western world. There was nothing scientific or liberal about religion as I saw it practised around me. But I did not want to invite trouble at home and kept my doubts to myself...

In college, my conviction that religion was irrational and encouraged superstition and ignorance grew stronger. I also saw how it generated more prejudice and hatred than love and friendship. In Sikhism, for instance, the abhorrent practice of untouchability is forbidden, but I saw almost all my elders discriminate against converts from the 'low' castes...

It wasn't among the Sikhs alone that I noticed rituals which made a travesty of their faith - Hindus, Muslims and Christians were all alike in this. I gradually gave up on organized religion. Yet, I continued to retain the outward emblems of the Khalsa because it gave me a sense of belonging and social security, as it does to this day...

Eventually, I lost the habit of prayer as well. However, my interest in the Sikh faith and scriptures remained. I also became interested in the sacred texts of the other major religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and the Bahai faith. I studied the world's religions and met gurus, babas and matas with the curiosity of a dispassionate observer...

Even as a concept, God fails. Belief in God has little bearing on making a person good or bad. In our country alone, for every Mother Teresa and Baba Amte, there are thousands who have killed and raped in the name of their gods, as was done during Partition on both sides of the border, in Delhi in 1984 and in Gujarat in 2002. The masterminds of the 1984 and 2002 pogroms are ministers and party leaders. Neither the law nor God has made them pay for their crimes...

My personal religion set me free long ago. I am no respecter of any single faith in its totality. I pick and choose as I please. All religions were creatures of their times and evolved to meet prevailing social and economic needs. To describe them as eternal truths for all time to come is sheer bunkum. But alongside all that is irrational, absurd and dangerous in every religion, there is also some good sense and nobility.

Once you have decided not to bow to any gods, and if you have a good bullshit detector, it is possible to separate the sublime from the ridiculous and derive inspiration from the words of prophets and poets, gurus and rogues, grave men and clowns... I have done that nearly all my life and put down in my notebooks hundreds of lines from different sources that appealed to me... The best of these have been collected in the pages that follow. They are not all prayers; there are also precepts, advice, snatches of song and verse and some words to live by.

I offer them as life codes from an ancient and unrepentant agnostic. Read them with an open mind and an open heart.

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