Monday, May 25, 2015

The Hammer of God

The Hammer of God is a short story by G. K. Chesterton about two brothers, Wilfred and Norman.  While Wilfred is an exceptionally devout priest, Norman is a retired colonel who finds his delight in wine and women.  Wilfred’s attempts to inject some fear of God or the divine morality into his brother’s soul are only met with ridicule from the latter.  Finally the priest kills his brother.  Worse, he tries to put the guilt on Joe, the village idiot.

The theme of Chesterton’s story is the potential devilishness of self-righteous morality.   The self-righteously religious people see themselves as superior to the normal people who have certain weaknesses like lust and gluttony.  The self-righteous people prefer to pray alone in some corner or niche of the church or the Satsang, away from the sinners.  They may even ascend some mountain in search of their superior aloofness.  Standing at a height, actual or metaphorical, they begin to see the normal people as too small.  One can only see “small things from the peak” when one looks down.  Standing on the top of the mountain, if he were to look up he would have seen infinity stretching far beyond him.  The ordinary sinners in the valley look up and see things big. The self-righteous person looks down and sees everything small.  Revulsion enters his devout soul.  The revulsion wants to destroy evil which is its perceived cause.

The irony is that the devout religious person commits much bigger crimes than the ordinary sinners whom he judges as immoral.  Terrorists and other religious extremists are motivated by this revulsion.  Women wearing the dress of their choice are thus seen as greater sinners than their murderers who commit their hideous crimes in the name of divine morality.  A young man kissing his beloved while enjoying a romantic evening in a park is a bigger criminal for the religious person who is the lovers’ potential murderer. 

This kind of divine morality will set limits to other people’s liberties.  The Wilfreds among us will decide what we can eat and drink, how we should dress, which books we may read, and so on. 

Father Brown is a priest who doubles as an amateur detective in Chesterton’s stories.  “I am a man,” says Father Brown in the story cited above,  “and therefore have all the devils in my heart.”  Father Brown is not self-righteous.  He does not see himself as separate from the normal men on the earth.  He is aware of his weaknesses, the weaknesses that haunt every human being including himself.  Just because one becomes a priest or a guru, godman, Satsangi or whatever, one does not become entitled to sit in judgment over his fellow human beings.  Religion without compassion for fellow human beings is terrorism, though of varying degrees.  Religion without compassion and understanding of fellow human beings soon ends as a hammer of god.  Wilfred had killed his brother with a hammer.  

At the end of the story, Father Brown tells Wilfred, “You tried to fix it (the murder) on the imbecile (Joe, the idiot) because you knew he could not suffer.  That was one of the gleams that it is my business to find in assassins.  And now come down into the village, and go your own way as free as the wind; for I have said my last word.”

Father Brown does not judge.  He does not condemn the sinner.  He understands.  He understands that a man who cannot accept suffering himself but can pass it on to an innocent person who won’t ever understand it can’t be redeemed.  Redemption does not lie in any religious ritual, not in prayers however devoutly they may be recited from whichever altitude, not in setting up oneself above others.  Redemption lies in the ability to feel the pain of one’s fellow beings. 

Though Father Brown refuses to reveal the truth to the police, Wilfred goes to the inspector and says, “I wish to give myself up; I have killed my brother.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Point, Counterpoint

Today’s Hindu newspaper carries a number of articles on the one year of Mr Modi as Prime Minister. Except the one BJP supporter, none of the other writers has anything good to say about the year that India passed through.  I found it an interesting exercise to take the major arguments of the BJP spokesman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and rebut them with the arguments given by the other writers.  Here’s a discussion I fabricated out of the views expressed by the four writers.
Ravi Shankar Prasad
R S Prasad: In just a span of 12 months, the NDA government has succeeded in restoring India’s image as a fast-growing economy.

Sitaram Yechuri: The statistical base year for national income accounts has been changed in order to project the GDP growth rate in better light.  Despite this, it is clear that the manufacturing and industrial growth are just not taking off.

Prasad: The government’s priority is the poor and the marginalised.
Sitaram Yechuri

Yechuri: The share of wages as a proportion of GDP now stands a little over 10 percent compared to over 25 percent in 1990-91.... The rich have become richer.  As per the Forbes list 2014, the 100 richest people in India are all U.S.$billionaires, i.e., 45 more than the figure of 55 in 2011.  The combined worth of these 100 billionaires comes to $346 billion. 

Prasad: The NDA government has restored governance and transparency in decision-making.

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra: I think one has to think of Mr Modi along with Suharto, Lee Kwan Yew, and the CCP provincial bosses... These are all control freaks supported by the corporate and technocratic classes who prefer top-down solutions and rapid decision-making, and have contempt for anything that doesn’t directly advance their interests.  So the rise of the middle class in Asia has assisted the growth of authoritarian populism rather than democracy.

Prasad: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, India has become a country of hope.  There is no gloom and despair, no apprehension...

Kapil Sibal
Kapil Sibal: Agriculture is in distress.  The growth rate in agriculture has come down to 1.1 percent from 3.7 percent in 2014.  More farmers are committing suicide than ever before. The average debt of 52 percent of all agricultural households is Rs 47,000 of which 26 percent is owed to private moneylenders – the root cause of farmer suicides.... The average price of select items consumed daily by people is higher than today than a year ago.... The promise to put Rs15 lakh in every citizen’s bank account from the recovered black money was an unethical and dishonest attempt to garner votes.... The Prime Minister appears to have forgotten about the issue of corruption and the Lokpal...

I would like to give the final words to:

Pankaj Mishra: Modi should learn from the Chinese their deliberate rejection of self-promotion. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lessons in Secularism for India

Lesson No. 1

Firoze Mohomed Shakir (left)
Firoze Mohomed Shakir lives in Mumbai.  I have been haunting him like a ghost in some vague quest for quite a time in the virtual places I was permitted access.  His photographs, for example.  What drew me to him initially was his poetry which I used to read via  The poems were entirely different from the ones I had ever come across.  They looked initially like prose broken into arbitrary lines.  As I focused more I realized that secularism has as much hope in India as Sufism. Below is his latest poem that I have copy-pasted from his status update in Facebook.  The postscript also belongs to him.

[Dear Firoze, I hope you don’t mind my using you as a lesson. Personally, I’d rather be a Hindu (to use your words) than be religious!]

I Would Rather Be a Hindu Than Be a Wahhabi
i would rather be called a kafir 
than be a wahabbi 
i would rather be a hindu 
than be a wahhabi 
both options 
close to humanity 
one with 
my cultural inheritance 
of peace and brotherhood 
mutual tolerance sanity 
no i distance myself 
from your hate filled 
a shia pandit 
i am 
is enough for me 
these are my thoughts 
you dont have to agree 
at least here in india 
my lord is not 
held in captivity

I say this with pride I am a good Muslim simply because my parentage , my country my friends made me so.. I distance myself from those adherents that allow one Muslim to kill another Muslim.. yes I am a Hindu Shia.. A kafir and proud of what I am.....

Friday, May 22, 2015


Historically the Enlightenment refers to a paradigm shift that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It was also called the Age of Reason because it emphasised the power of the human mind to liberate the individual and improve society.  It argued that knowledge can be derived only from experience, experiment and observation.  It encouraged people to use their own critical reasoning to free their minds from prejudice, unexamined authority, and oppression by their religion or the state.

The world made tremendous progress in science and technology because of the Enlightenment ideas.  Consequently human life was revolutionised.  Religion and the superstitions it generated took a backseat.  Priests lost most of their political clout.  Secular values spread considerably across the globe.  Science and technology gave us more leisure and luxury than we deserved.  More gadgets than we could handle with responsibility.  More individual liberty.  More selfishness too.

The Enlightenment is not merely a set of ideas, however.  It is a process.  Like all processes it has its dynamics.  Of late, we see that many values of Enlightenment are diluted by significant populations.  China, for example, is a country which embraced the scientific part of Enlightenment but rejected the individual rights.  There are far too many Islamic organisations which seldom accepted any value of the Enlightenment.  In the USA today, it would be impossible for any political party to come to power if it goes against the organised Christian religions there. 

In spite of all the corruption that had slowly eaten into the polity, India had remained loyal to the Enlightenment values from the time of its independence.  However, that’s changing too.  Right wing organisations are gaining strength weakening the secular fabric of the nation.  Minority rights are being suppressed in ways that are not always very subtle.  The history of the country is being rewritten with a view to lend a particular religious shade to the nation’s very foundations. 

The paradox is that while the Enlightenment secularism is trampled underfoot, the values related to science and technology are embraced with greater vigour.  This is a serious threat.  Science without scientific temper will produce technology that can be disastrous to the human race.  We are already witnessing the terrifying misuses of technology by people who never cared to understand science and the rational faculty that sustains it. 

In a recent book titled The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, author Vincenzo Ferrone argues that Enlightenment must be defended today as a tradition of critical thought rather than as a secular, political idea. Unless we learn once again to use our rational faculty, we are sure to land in a situation far worse than the human history ever witnessed.  Because we will have science as a weapon rather than as a way of understanding and enhancing life.  Weapons in the hands of people who don’t understand are the real threat we are faced with today.  One clear antidote is critical thinking.  Learning to question.  To question even the most persuasive speakers, the apparently charming ideologies, and even the sanctity portrayed on walls digital or concrete.

PS: I have not read Ferrone’s book.  Happened to read about it here.  The illustration is also adapted from the same site.