Killing for Belief

« One can’t take life too seriously at all times, there must be space for fun and humour, especially where beliefs are concerned. If an atomic scientist can do it, why can’t we too? Beliefs and superstitions must never be a matter for killing. But they must be punctured by rigorous logic and best: be a cause for fun at times. Otherwise we are less than human… »

The history of human beings killing each other for holding different beliefs or belief systems, commonly known as faith or religion, probably goes back to the beginnings of humanity. However, the more well-known examples of such conflicts that we were taught in our history lessons are the crusades in the Middle Ages, which opposed Christians and Muslims in a ‘holy’ war waged to obtain control over the ‘holy land.’ 

But as things go, the situation regarding the latter is ever more complicated and to this day is unresolved with an ongoing Palestinian-Israeli confrontation that undergoes periodic highs and lows. It is all too clear that there is also much politics involved in all these situations, and again as regards the Crusades, an opinion expressed is that ‘politics were often complicated and intra-faith competition also led to alliances between faiths against their coreligionist opponents,’ citing the Fifth Crusade when such an alliance took place.

There were ‘crusades’ launched against heretics and ‘pagans’ as well, exemplified by the notorious ‘Inquisition’ which we were taught about too and which involved France, Spain, Portugal and Rome. The use of torture was given official royal and papal sanction, and no means was spared to exterminate the lives of heretics – such as Cathars and Waldensians – who rebelled against orthodoxy.

A notorious case is that of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was given a death sentence because he subscribed to the Copernican view that it was the earth that revolved around the sun and not vice-versa. Here is what happened to him: ‘Immediately after the death sentence was handed down, Giordano Bruno’s jaw was clamped shut with an iron gag, his tongue was pierced with an iron spike and another iron spike was driven into his palate.

On February 19, 1600, he was driven through the streets of Rome, stripped of his clothes and burned at the stake.’ From there to the persecution of witches and sorcerers was but a step, a practice which went on from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.

Killing for belief continues to this day, with a heavy dose of politics thrown in as various groups are pitched against each other to wrest control of countries or parts of countries, or to force their adversaries to a unique belief system which is considered superior to the one being fought against. In the process, not only are innocent people – including, alas, children – losing their lives, but there are now millions who are either internal refugees in their own countries, or refugees on the run seeking asylum and survival in neighbouring states.

Unwanted by their own kind – in terms of ethnicity and religion – as well as by the peoples of countries forced to harbour them, a matter of interpretation by cloistered prelates well ensconced in comfort zones condemns them to a life of hell in squalid makeshift camps where there is a paucity of basic amenities such as water, sanitation and health facilities, not to speak of the precarious shelters which are all that relief agencies can afford. Their future is uncertain, and one can imagine the enormous social and psychological consequences of living in such pitiable conditions.

Carnage of subcontinental proportions

Asia has had its fair share of butchery too, though these had probably more to do with territorial conquest and establishment of political supremacy than with religion. Matters took a turn for the worse during the partition of India, when an explosive mix of politics and religion resulted in a frenzied carnage of subcontinental proportions. In the aftermath there was a period of relative but unsettling calm as the tortured countries tried to recover and construct themselves as nations, a task yet unfinished. In recent years, however, what with terrorism too having come on the scene, religio-communal conflicts have come to the fore again in the subcontinent, a truly unfortunate state of affairs when there are more pressing human needs to attend to.

On the whole, though, it can be said of India that it has accommodated multiple and diverse religions, accepting in antiquity Christians, Jews and Parsis among others. Different streams within individual religions have coexisted in a predominantly ‘jaw-jaw’ rather than ‘war-war’ social matrix. Specifically as far as Hinduism is concerned, several schools of thoughts have been in existence for centuries altogether, from the materialists (Charvaka) to practitioners of the highly abstract philosophy known as non-dualist or advaita (Adi Shankaracharya).

Discussions and dialogues, and critiques have never ceased to this day, all in a bid to make issues clearer and to gain a deeper understanding of human existence in the universe. The preferred mode of interaction has always been in the form of question-answer between the student and the teacher, a tradition referred to as guru-shishya parampara. The primacy of reason, with insights from advancing secular knowledge and human experience factored in, has always been given pride of place.

In modern times, some particularly active protagonists went on to set up the Indian Rationalist Association (in 1974), whose objective was to oppose superstition and pseudoscience in India. Since its foundation, it has led media and educational campaigns debunking several miracle-claims, doing away with superstitions related to solar eclipses, and countering the beliefs behind ritual human sacrifices.

They have sometimes been referred to as ‘guru busters’, as the group critiqued India’s culturally influential so-called ‘godmen’. But they also have taken things to unacceptable extremes, such as when, working with the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association, the Indian Rationalist Association opposed a 2009 proposal to make yoga a compulsory subject for high school and primary school students in Mangalore.

Yoga has been shown by carefully validated studies to confer a range of health benefits in normal people and has applications in various disease conditions, especially those of the chronic type such as bronchial asthma, hypertension, cancer, diabetes and so on. It is not claimed to be a panacea, but it certainly can be a valuable complement to the standard allopathic medicine that is practised, provided it is overseen by the accredited medical practitioner as part of an overall treatment package.

One of the main figures in the rationalist movement was Basava Premanand, who hailed from Tamil Nadu, where he was born in 1930. He passed away in October 2009, not without having busted a lot of spiritual fraudsters with his associate, Sri Lankan late Dr Koovoor. That is why, in a country with such a strong current of reflective and logical approach to religion and religious practices which need to be looked at afresh, it came as a big surprise to me to read about the gunning-down in cold blood of rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner Narendra Dabholkar in Pune.

Dabholkar had been campaigning for years to have the Maharashtra cabinet pass an Ordinance to make black magic and superstitious rituals illegal. A media comment was that ‘It’s a sad reflection of our democracy that reformists are being silenced with bullets and that it took his murder for the government to react. The anti-superstition Bill has been hanging fire for nearly 15 years. It’s also a tribute to Dabholkar’s relentless campaign to rid society of superstitious beliefs and black magic rituals and to instill a scientific temper.’

A doctor by profession, he is described as someone who ‘brought logic and reason to matters of belief and faith — a difficult task in any society, but more so in ours riddled as it is with superstitious rituals, blind devotion to caste-and-clan-determined practices, and god-men and women. His detractors flayed him for being against religiosity but Dabholkar was not anti-religion. He raised a flag against blind belief and exhorted people to question and criticize such beliefs, hold out against caste panchayats, and challenge tantriks and quacks.’

Irrational beliefs

Since we do not know what are the specific contents of the Ordinance, it is best not to venture to comment further on this incident. However, either way one must not go to extremes. There are hardcore, patently irrational beliefs that lead to harmful practices and hold people in hostage to all manner of exploiters and unscrupulous practitioners. These must be vigorously countered through education and widespread, intensive awareness campaigns. In this respect, every society and every religion must pursue its own internal critique and prune off whatever doesn’t stand up to the combination that is worth reiterating: reason, knowledge and human experience.

But there are some soft, innocuous superstitions that do not unduly disturb the individual or even society at large. To fight against all of them is a forgone task, so one must also learn to make do with certain non-rationalities in human behaviour. Here is an anecdote about the famous scientist Niels Bohr, who pioneered the model of the hydrogen atom, as reported in a science magazine:

‘Above the front door of his country cottage in Tisvilde he had nailed a horseshoe, which people believed to be instrumental in bringing good luck. Seeing it, a visitor exclaimed: “Dr Bohr, being a great scientist, do you really believe that a horseshoe above the entrance of your home brings good luck?” “No,” answered Bohr emphatically, I certainly do not believe in this superstition. But do you know?” he whispered in the visitor’s ears, “they say that it does bring luck even if you don’t believe in it!”’

This anecdote is said to illustrate that Niels Bohr was fun loving too. That’s it really: one can’t take life too seriously at all times, there must be space for fun and humour, especially where beliefs are concerned. If an atomic scientist can do it, why can’t we too? Beliefs and superstitions must never be a matter for killing. But they must be punctured by rigorous logic and best: be a cause for fun at times. Otherwise we are less than human.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2013

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