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President and the pen-pusher

No rationalist can dispute Kalam’s vision of divinity. Some define God as truth; others as love. Kalam’s concept of godliness is compassion, writes Khushwant Singh.

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Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

In a few months Abdul Kalam, the eleventh President of our Republic will retire after serving a full term of five years. He is the third Muslim to have held the highest office: A fair record of our claim to be a secular democracy and a lesson to our neighbours.

I have no idea whether he will return to scientific research, teach in some university or take sanyas. He is in his 70s. I had the privilege of spending half an hour with him. He did the honour of visiting me in my apartment: The head of state calling on a common pen-pusher speaks well of his humility.

We have very little in common. He is Tamil. I know only two words of Tamil: Venakkam and ai-ai-yo. Though a scientist, Kalam is a deeply religious man. I am an agnostic and believe that science and religion cannot go together. One is based on reason, the other on faith. After talking to him and reading his writings, I found his religious beliefs are similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s. Despite my inability to accept all that Bapu stood for, I call myself a Gandhian. Kalam sees no conflict between science and religion. When I asked him if he believed in the Day of Judgement and rewards or penalties we might have to pay in life hereafter, he replied evasively “heaven and hell are in the mind.”

He is very clear about the dos and don’ts of conduct. His father, chairman of the Rameshwaran Panchayat Board, told him to never accept gifts from anyone: “Never receive a gift; a gift is always accompanied by some purpose,” he advised. He turned the paternal advice into verse:

“What did we plant and what are we reaping?
Fifty years gone by since my father was headman.
Flattering people brought heaps of fruits.
Throwing them out,
father taught me a lesson:
‘Bad seeds should not be allowed to grow,
Weeds like this will have to go.’
(The Life Tree, Penguin, Viking)

If you believe accepting gifts is venal, are you justified in giving gifts to others? Kalam would answer, ‘yes’, provided it is given without an ulterior motive. I quote:
“Selfish world, starves us in need,
Manipulative men
meaner in
Whenever I hear complaints of this breed,
Cosmic reality becomes my reply:
‘In give and take; give comes first.
Start with giving and receiving shall follow.’

So what is Kalam’s concept of God? It is not Allah versus Ishwar, Khuda versus Bhagwan; He is not to be looked for in a mosque or a temple. He is not to be fought over and sought in martyrdom as protagonists of different religions do in our country. After they have shed each other’s blood, comes the Voice of God like thunder:

“Suddenly a sound thundered from light,
‘I am none of yours! All ye hear!
Love was my mission and you spent it on hatred,
Killing my delight, stifling life.
‘Know ye all: Khuda and Ram
Both are one, blossoming in love:
Saying this the Lord thought for a while
Why did He make His creation so blind.”

No rationalist can dispute Kalam’s vision of divinity. Some define God as truth; others as love. Kalam’s concept of godliness is compassion.

I presented him a copy of my autobiography, Truth, Love & a Little Malice (Penguin, Viking) saying “Don’t bother to read all of it; just take a look at the chapter entitled “Wrestling with the Almighty”. It is an agnostic’s view of religion. It is not very different from his, minus the Khuda and Bhagwan.

Where will we find another rashtrapati like him?

Adi Shankaracharya

There are some lines attributed to Adi Shankaracharya which continue to baffle me and appear self-contradictory. I turn to my scholarly readers for enlightenment. These lines are:

Manobuddhi, Chittaanee, Ahangkaara, Nahaam

Chidananda roopa//Shivoham, Shivoham.

I am not sure what is the English equivalent of manobuddhi. Is it knowledge of oneself? Chitaanee is possibly mind or intellect and ahangkaara is arrogance. After the author asserts he has none of these (nahaam), he goes on to say he is chidananda roopa, which I presume means in the form of a mind in bliss. And finally, Shivoham — I am God (Shiva) — it is somewhat the same as a Sufi saint Sarmad’s assertion Anal Haq — I am the truth or reality). He was beheaded for blasphemy.

Please phrase your replies in simple, understandable language and not use a plethora of words scholars use to confuse readers.

Shilpa Shetty Hoo Haa

I haven’t got the hang of all the fuss created over the racist abuse flung at actress Shilpa Shetty in a TV programme in London.

Among the words used for her was Paki meaning Pakistani. How her being called Pakistani — or for that matter Hindustani—be construed as offensive? However, Shilpa was reduced to tears which earned her the top award and millions of pounds.

The incident gave the fortnightly magazine Private Eye material to mock racism in Britain. In the same issue it carried a cartoon depicting what is what in India. A radio programme producer is shown taking a microphone around a group of Indians soliciting their views on some issue.

The caption quoting one of the group reads: “Don’t bother about his opinion; he is an untouchable.” Touché!

First Published: Feb 24, 2007 03:02 IST