“Velicham Dukkham aanu unni / tamasallo sukha pradam”, meaning ‘light is woe my little one, darkness is comfortable’, figuratively denoting the pain linked to worldly knowledge and relative bliss in its ignorance. Simple, yet deeply philosophical, these lines from ‘Irupathaam Noottaandinte Ithihaasam’ (Epic of the 20th Century), a Malayalam poem written by Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri in 1952, are still relevant in the present day and age. The general rung of people are susceptible to play of egoistic pursuits and resultant pleasure and pain. The poet holds that, being illusory, it may be highly rewarding to maintain appropriate detachment from worldly knowledge continually defiled by complex ego-driven life of the sophisticated urbanite and gauche rustic haunted by identity born desires.
As compared to inner world of the self, the external world of forms, identities, dualities and divisiveness is bristling with sorrow and angst, increasingly becoming conflicted, fragmented, tense and polarized. “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the world is one family, proclaimed the Maha Upanishad. Regrettably, it remains a scriptural tenet largely used as a pious declaration sans intent, as communities, scattered around the face of planet earth, regressed into tribal, regional, religious and ethnic formations vying with one another for supremacy and thereby extending spheres of influence. As per recent turn of events, following the example of Assam, other Indian states are expected to consider a register of citizenship that will determine who is a native and who is an outsider. Across the globe, countries are facing waves of mass migration caused by prolonged civil strife, abject poverty and several other severe hardships. Scientists have inferred that these migratory movements are a case of proto-history repeating itself.
That the entire human race has sprung from a common root, located in what is today’s Africa, has long been established by geneticists who have followed the spoor of the DNA of the so-called ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, the mother of all humankind. A group of scientists have presently identified her precise location: the region that spans Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Now an arid zone, the area abounded in lush wetlands which 200,000 years ago gave rise to the earliest ancestors of homo sapiens. Between 120,000 and 110,000 years ago, two major migrations took place, one to the north-east, and the other to the south-west, leaving behind a residual population of indigenes. These findings give an entirely new mension as to what ought to be defined as ‘home’ and what as ‘outside’ for totality of the human species, and, prior to the designation of frontiers, nation states and setting up of travel-documentary control, provide the ‘inside’ story of humanity.
Is there no end to mankind’s obsessive propensity to create divisions and power structures based on partisan considerations in total disregard to overwhelming evidence of common ancestry? Are religions, specially the Semitic ones, only promoting vested interests, keen on institutionalizing themselves and expanding their base through rampant proselytization, euphemistically termed ‘harvesting of souls’ and thus causing discord in societies? The systematic and cleverly camouflaged religious conversions of today are reminiscent of the notorious Inquisitions of yore that swept Italy, France, Spain, Peru, Mexico, Portugal and Goa forcing Jewish anusim, Saracens, coastal inhabitants across India and other parts of Asia to Catholicism, revealing the real story of these exercises having hardly anything to do with genuine Christ-consciousness but stemming from the fear of being overpowered by the then growing Jewish population. The Jews were a threat to catholic monarchs who saw the Inquisition as a way to eliminate the source of one of their biggest problems. Furthermore, in the fifteenth century the territory of present-day Spain was at war with Italy and the catholic monarchs had recently re-conquered Granada, making poor economic conditions widespread among majority of the population. Since the Jewish community enjoyed a higher socio-economic status, the catholic monarchs feared a popular uprising; the expulsion or elimination of Jews helped to not only overcome the problem but also to gain access to their wealth. Religious missionaries and bigots perpetrated the same deception, loot and power-mongering extending to other regions in the past, continuing into the present.
The various religions can peacefully co-exist as long as there is respect and amity between them. The starting point of discord and unrest is the assertion of one god being the only true one to the exclusion of all other, deriding others as kafirs and heathens and spreading hatred; each religion consolidating itself into groups and, instead of remaining within confines of homes and places of worship, stretching uncouthly across social and political spheres to operate as power centers, scheming for growth by enlisting numbers through devious conversions and radicalization.
Religions have five distinctly different, though not watertight, domains: rituals, mythology, ethics, philosophy and spirituality. In terms of anatomical metaphor, the external body of any religion lies in rituals and dogma and its operating limbs are in mythology; while its backbone consists of ethical principles, its brain is in philosophy and its heart in spirituality. Rituals, dogma and mythology are dependent on faith of the followers; ethics and philosophy are based on reasoning and rationality, while spirituality flowers in esoteric and experiential wisdom. Hence religions are simultaneously based on faith, intellect and wisdom.
Mutually complementary rituals and mythology are confused by most people as the essence of religion and they rarely desire to venture beyond these two elementary means to an end, often sliding to fanaticism. Since these are based on faith of the followers, religious bigotry and fanaticism also emerge from same faith blinded by dogma and self-serving motives. It is here that Swami Vivekananda advocated that fanaticism be countered by open-mindedness progressing towards ultimate realization.
The backbone of religion lies in its ethical principles designed for self-development and peaceful co-existence in society, enabling followers to be better humans leading lives of honesty, humility, non-violence and benevolence. The philosophical brain of religion concerns existential enigma of creation and the creator, encompassing one’s eternal quest of origin, identity, destination and purpose, setting off queries such as who am I, where have I come from, where am I headed and what is the purpose of life?
The heart of religion is the home of spirituality which is experiential in nature, based as it is on esoteric experience. Spirituality is the culmination, not as much a process of knowing as becoming, attaining oneness with the singular cosmic identity, through infinite expansion of consciousness, merging individual self into cosmic, experiencing divine love, ecstasy and inner harmony amidst diversity of creation. These observations resonate in the Biblical, “I and my Father are One”, and Upanishadic “Aham Brahmasmi”, “Tat tvam asi”, “Prajnanam Brahma”, “Ayam Atma Brahma” expressing the ultimate oneness of the individual and supreme consciousness.
Given the strangle-hold of religions and religious divides plaguing most societies, it would appear that the eventual solution requires a new breed of evangelists to wean people away from the misleading light of ‘worldly knowledge’ doled out by religious dogmas, outdated customs and obscurantist forces. Such a drive cannot be expected from the powers that be aiming to preserve vested interests by somehow maintaining status quo. The young everywhere must take the initiative, in a spirit of ‘evangelism marketing’, explaining to the world how newer thought process can improve lives by ushering in the scientific approach to tackling life’s challenges on the personal and professional fronts. What does it mean to be scientific? The question is best answered by quoting Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, the 10th C Arab astronomer and physicist: “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and… attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency”.
The scientific method calls for inquisition, not the draconian measure of bygone era, but a neo-inquisition focused on delving deeply or searchingly into the nature of things. Critical examen that subjects everything to thorough analysis. Human emotions often compromise with objectivity in arriving at prudent decisions when it comes to matters of importance. The scientific bent of mind facilitates better decisions and provides a rational outlook towards life’s conundrums. A scientific person questions the status quo, leading to innovation both in technology as well as social sphere, serving as engine for social and economic growth. It runs contrary to the top-down edicts of conventional religions, charged with emotion and couched in rhetoric, and mindlessly applied “to everything in life, even to those things which are capable of intellectual inquiry and observation”. While religion tends to close the mind and produce intolerance, credulity, superstition, emotionalism, irrationalism and a “temper of a dependent, unfree person”, a scientific temper enables a free human being, steeped in objectivity and fostering creativity and progress. The spread of scientific approach would be accompanied by a shrinking of the domain of religion, and “the exciting adventure of fresh and never ceasing discoveries, of new panoramas opening out and new ways of living, adding to life’s fullness and ever making it richer and more complete”. Inculcating a scientific temper among citizens is a part of democratization of society. As Buddha expounded, “Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination”.
While political parties and religious groups are vociferous about rights of citizens under the Indian Constitution, there is a deafening silence all around when it comes to constitutional duties and responsibilities of citizens. Says Article 51A(h), “It shall be the duty of every citizen … to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” The term “scientific temper” is uniquely Indian, formulated by Jawaharlal Nehru. In his book The Discovery of India, Nehru says that scientific temper is “… the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory”. Science and scientific temper are not synonymous. Scientific temper is a way of thinking critically and rationally, the ability to question what is told to us, not being satisfied with an answer just because it is uttered by or with authority. Scientific temper is something that all of us possess and is as much a social and political tool as it is a scientific one. It is, as Nehru said, “… the spirit of the free man”, a thought that finds lyrical expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s oft-quoted poem: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, / where knowledge is free. / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. / Where words come out from the depth of truth, / where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection. / Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit. / Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action. / In to that heaven of freedom, my father, LET MY COUNTRY AWAKE!”