Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Little More Reason


Let me begin this article with the warning that half way down, it contains some graphic language. I am sorry if you decide not to read through this piece.

This past Holi I spent time with my daughter reading a story about the young, god-loving Prahlad and his father, the demon king Hiranyakasyapu. The questions my seven-year old asked after “the end” left me scratching my head: Isn’t it strange that the gods granted a demon the boon of immortality even when they knew he was unrighteous? How was it possible for a demon to rule over the gods? And how can we believe that a father tried to kill his own son?

My immediate instinct was to tell her those were banal scenes, for things in real life, as we can see for ourselves, can be nastier than in ancient times. Then the little rationalist in me agitated, almost inciting me to tell her not to believe what the story said since most of it, if not all, was far from verifiable facts.

But because narratives like this and a complex web of practices informed by them over the centuries are so irrefutably ingrained in our culture, I held back my spontaneous reaction. I told her that I thought the gods were the most generous of beings; they gave a chance even to low-lives like Hiranyakasyapu. The lesson, though, was that he met his rightful fate ultimately.

I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer, fearing that children are too susceptible to such graphic information, which further nourishes their credulity. Many young ones won’t stand you trying to convince them that tooth-fairies are not real, or that a boogeyman is not really lurking behind the door after sundown.

As media and technologies advance, cultural interest in such notions and mythic forms has resurged with new visual and auditory intensity. The miracles and superhuman powers of Krishna are real for kids today so long as the Hindi cartoon series Krishna & Balaram continues to animate them. I recall an unhappy child from a family friend. He had wept and wept when told that Buzz Lightyear was not real, it was only a sci-fi character. My younger son proclaimed recently that the only living creatures that could survive the Japanese earthquake were birds, Spiderman, and also Batman!

I tried to do some research on how to tackle such issues with children, how to detach myth from reality, but without much success. I needed some authentic, culture-specific official help and so I browsed the Web. Neither the Ministry of Education nor Culture offered any pointer; their policies and plans focus on administration and numbers. I could not locate any academic journal papers touching on or explaining such sensibilities in our context. Perhaps we are not yet ready for subtleties in content or for more nuanced knowledge.

So I had to fight this epistemological battle individually. Then I wondered how our schools teach children. Flipping through my daughter’s course book, there were more such ancient tales with anecdotes and episodes that defy our morals and logic. As expected, I did not find any room for a spirited contest on the “given” stories or an interpretative space for understanding the meaning and circumstances surrounding such seemingly inflated tales of ghosts, demons or gods.

I would say that we are doing too much of literal translation, reproducing or reinforcing our historical, cultural and even personal notions of our verities. If we are to build a liberal, evidence-based society—the foundation of any open, democratic order— I think we also need to embrace creative methods of contestation and interpretation based on evidence in order to restore rational sanity among at least our future generations. Let me instill in my child the courage to explain that this or that episode in the story she read is bunkum, if it is so.

Of course, I have nothing against the stories in themselves; they are part of our heritage, an important reference to where we all began and the path that led us to where we are today. However, given the striking rational-ethical incongruities inherent in many such tales as well as in their resultant practices, one cannot help wish things were more sensible, explicable.

But no, this tendency to be complacent about given facts and traditions manifests in more dangerous forms in our society. And it does not spare a large section of our adults, including educated ones. It has become an art form, a graffiti mindset capable of comfortably internalizing extremes of contradictions and assorted discrepancies. Science and shibboleths freely compete for space here at the same time. We don’t seem to like separating superstitions from sane traditions. Our atheists worship gods; infertile women are on a double-decker, consulting gynecologists and at the same time seeking the blessings of naked sadhus by touching and deifying their phalluses during Shiva Ratri at Pashupatinath temple. And even the most ungodly politicians rely on their gurus to tell their stars; doctors and professors brandish protective finger rings and energized pendants. The pull of the supernatural is tempting. An entire village gathers, as it happened recently in Kapilvastu, in reverence of a snake that happened to be coiled for days around a Shiva Linga. The child in us remains enchanted by the realm of mantras and magic.

It is commonplace to see unsuspecting crowds in our streets awed by magicians who surgically pull out (as they claim) the heart of a kid by sleight of hand or the use of chemicals. It is also not uncommon to come across supernatural charlatans who claim to levitate people, make them vanish in thin air or even cause rain just by wishing it. And there are also those so-called tantriks who boast they can spell black magic curse and help neutralize or even eliminate someone’s enemy.

A recent example from India, with whom we share this mystic tradition, helps to illustrate the trivial nature of such supernatural inclinations. We all saw on TV or heard how a guru failed to kill Sanal Edamaruku, a journalist and the head of Indian Rationalist Association. The prominent pundit had claimed he could kill anybody by simply using his mind. Edamaruku is convinced that superstition is the single most destructive force in people’s lives and India’s development today. He says that superanaturals, from fakirs to televangelists, are obstructing an Indian Enlightenment.

Without proper study, we cannot be sure about the scope of our mystic swings and their effects on our Enlightenment. But there is no doubt that we are a land of a million superstitions often in the guise of religion and culture. Rumors like the world is coming to an end this year or the next, that a mother with only one son may lose her child if she does not seek alms from a dozen or so women who each possesses two sons, that if you take penance, like our Little Buddha from Bara, you can live without food or water for months, that if you prostrate before a peepal tree it can cure your cancer, etc. and more are eating away the fabric of our rational-secular efforts and modern aspirations.

Most modern societies are where they are today because they employed science in the service of social reform. Our science has not intervened even in the gravest of superstitious and irrational situations. Every claim has to be falsified to prove its worth. Pseudo intellectualism pervades our academia, our society. We find little energy or support to really dissect cause and effects. Activists have little time to probe the “wrongs,” they only seem to be running after “rights.” Social science, a new object of curiosity in town, has much to do in probing our many social maladies in its pursuit of generating new knowledge to be called “social.”

An evidence-based belief system may help establish or reinstate our social sanity. It may ultimately lead us to a more reasoned, orderly and mature stage of our national development. In this interpretation, research and analysis, not rumors, blind beliefs and emotional outpourings, serve to guide our decisions and actions. Unfortunately, we remain insignificant in this area. The official country database by UN on research and development spending does not provide any spending by Nepal. In 2007, the US allocated 2.27 percept of its GDP for research work. China (1.49) and India (0.80) are also spending more.

Myths, inaccuracies or false beliefs pervade even the field of natural science economy and arts. Where are our skeptics and rationalists? They don’t have to deny god or be unreligious to lead a coalition against superstition or falsehoods. In fact, if we are to tear down the veil of ignorance and to identify a meeting point, collaboration between both the rationalists and culturalists is a must.

I hope I won’t have to live by continuing to scratch my head before children.

Published in the Republica, March 30, 2011