Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
The legacy of questioning faith
Ten centuries may be a substantial time-span in human reckoning, but in the cosmic scheme of Time it does not amount to much. Puranic literature describes the progression of the cosmos which passes through various yugas, each of which is measured in precise numerical terms. In that calculation, our millennium just over, does not form even a small fraction of the Kaliyuga, the last of the four cosmic cycles. It is, of course, obvious that no one getting ready to enter the 21st century will subscribe to such calculations of the history of our Time.
However, when we turn to the history of religious thought, it appears that the last ten centuries have not been any really substantial time-duration. There have been, of course, major shifts in established religious thought, new and powerful articulation of existing belief, and the rise and fall of numerous significant arguments pertaining to man's spirituality. Yet, god has remained an unshakeable presence in all forms of civilisation throughout the last millennium; and man's waiting for god has not come to an end yet.
During the nineteenth century. European thinkers used to debate on various issues taking sides between reason and religion. It was argued that as science develops, poetry and religion will decline, that reason and imagination will be at logger-heads, that the enlightenment will finish intuition for all time to come. In fact, this anxiety of opposition between religion and thought emanated more on the side of religion than on the side of thought; and thinkers like Galileo and Copernicus were treated by the custodians of religion as Satanic. And yet, in the millennium of monumental scientific advancement we see some of the most impressive monuments for the divine being created. It is a fact of human history that except for the ancient Egyptian places of worship and some of the Chinese memorials to Buddha, or the magnificent caves of Ajanta and Ellora, all major mosques, cathedrals, temples and such other structures of mass-worship, built in imposing stone, brick, glass and wood, were created during our own millennium. The most outstanding example of this tendency during the 20th century is Antonin Gaudi's Temple of the Sacred built in Barcelona. That Gaudi and Einstein were contemporaries, had both experienced the most gruesome war of all times, and had given their best creative time to come to terms with their immediate intellectual context, should show that the dichotomy proposed by the 19th century thinkers between science and religion was probably an error of philosophical judgment.
That the 19th century social context science and religion stood in suicidal confrontation cannot be denied; that this confrontation had started assuming serious proportions almost from the middle of the 17th century, and that it became intense with Darwin's challenge to the myth of the divinely ordained origin is also true. However, the source of opposition between the two was neither really in their method of cognition nor in their vision of the universe. The saint as well as the scientist will admit that the absolute and radical separation between the domain of intuition and the realm of intellect is conceptually impossible as well as methodologically untenable. Spirituality and science both need study and discipline, and both depend on the seeker's ability to observe the phenomena that he studies with ultimate detachment. The Bhagwad Gita describes this quality as nitya-yukta-eka-bhakti (7.17), "Constant steadfastness and one-pointed devotion", which makes a person jnani. For the Gita, jnana and vijnana are not two radically different fields of intellectual experience, science and spirituality being merely two different possibilities of consciousness.
Qur'an, Sultanate, Deccan, A.D.1483, Archaeological Museum, Bijapur.
The root of the 19th century opposition between Science and Religion was in the sphere of the political. Almost from the late medieval period in Europe, political states were made and controlled by the agencies that had come into being for looking after the spiritual well-being of people. Throughout the first four centuries of the millennium, the Church continued to be the source of political mobility and dynamism by virtue of being placed as the centre-stage theme in the crusades. And, though nowhere in the original Christian gospel god had much to bother about how kingdoms are made and run, the right and the responsibility to ordain monarchs fell in the lap of the Church authorities.
The convenience was mutual. As against this, the rising involvement of smaller centres of a real political power, and the increasing demand for people's participation in governance, implied that people's perceptions too could acquire the status of knowledge. The shift thus was from the knowledge of power that the Church claimed to the power of knowledge that people could acquire and develop. The conflict really was between god as the centre of power and the human intellect, it was not between god as the source and the scope of knowledge and the human intellect. Hence, the history of religious thought during the last ten centuries needs to be read in terms of man's increasing engagement with the concerns that have been religious and spiritual in nature rather than in terms of the decline of religious authorities that at one time controlled political power and functioned as the soldiers fighting in the cause of Truth.
The last millennium has been the millennium of the sacred text. The Bhagwad Gita, which had existed all along the previous fifteen hundred and odd years as a small and relatively obscure part of the Mahabharata, acquired a more specific textual form and a tremendously vital cultural function with Sankaracharya's bhashya, for which he used an edition of 700 verses. Throughout the last 1000 years, Indian thinkers, saints, activists have not ceased commenting on the text. Whether it was Jnaneshwar of the 13th century or Tilak and Aurobindo of the 20th century, every significant spiritual thinker had to turn to the Gita as a reference point in any attempt to connect individual spirituality and collective enlightenment.
The founder of Islam, as the tradition goes, saw Gabriel in his vision, and was told by the Angel, "Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from clots of blood. Recite, Your Lord in the most Bountiful One, who by pen taught man what he did not know." The Angel's revelations were inscribed in the heart of Muhammad, which he gave to the world as the Koran. Since the eighth century, this sacred text has spread over one-fifth of the humanity.
Martin Luther remembered the text that the Roman church had relegated to the margins of religious administration, and made the Bible the single point agenda for a powerful shift in Europe's civilisation. The rise of Protestant Christianity, the continuous wars between England and France, Prussia and the Italian states, and the creation of surplus naval armament which became the force behind the spread of colonialism, are only some of the results of the institutional sanctity and status that were returned to the Bible. That the commentaries of the Gita, the powerful prose style of the Koran and the vernacular translations of the Bible initiated the emergence of a large number of modern languages is yet another aspect of their pervasive influence on the millennium's thinking and intellectual development.
It is necessary, however, not to forget that the more significant growth in the philosophical content in the major streams of religious thought during the millennium was caused not by the assertion of the unifying central text of sacred status but by innumerable dissentious movements, rise of sects and spiritual questions raised by small, obscure groups ranging from fanatics to sceptics. The canonical sacred texts, being scriptures, inevitably behave as gospels, as revelations from the only and the one divine source. Therefore, even when presented in the form of dialogues, or questions answered, they leave no space for doubts and hesitations, reversals and waverings in one's faith. Their language is absolute. The need to explore the spiritual spaces away from the absolute, spaces that are more closely linked to the process of exploration than the final destination, gives rise to sects and movements limited to small groups of people, often marginalised.
The Bhakti movement that emerged in India, initially from the South, and ruled the hearts of the people for several centuries during the millennium was a collective of such sects created by groups that had been kept away from schools and deprived of ritual status. The saints and poets belonging to these groups wrote or composed in their own dialects, which formed the languages that people spoke, and therefore could combine the sacred and the profane in the universe of their thought. Thereby, they could challenge and change the established orthodoxies in religious philosophy. It was a similar movement in Europe during the 16th and the 17th centuries, in the early days of Protestant movements.
The initiative for original spiritual contribution was then taken over by poets and artists such as the Romantic William Blake and the Modernist Rilke. These poets and artists stood the traditional religious thought in Europe on its head, making god the arch-tyrant and satan the original poet. They saw their mission as divinely inspired and therefore truly spiritual. It is true that from the days of the Renaissance, there have been major religious philosophers in Europe such as Spinoza and Bacon, Bishop Berkley and Carlyle. But in terms of the impact on common people's thinking, it is poets, artists and the iconoclasts who should deserve a greater mention. Almost from the middle of the 18th century, that is from the times the effects of the industrial revolution began to be felt, the poets, playwrights, pop-singers, film actors and such others have expressed the West's spiritual ideas and desires more effectively than the official preacher and the institutionalised saints.
Dissention within the Islamic fold is difficult to understand and to assess. It is not to be measured in terms of major philosophical rebellions, or in terms of the multitude of splinter groups. Islam is a far more humanising faith than its chronological predecessors. Therefore, one must look at the small print of Islamic cultures rather than the headlines, which reveal an amazing wealth of folklore woven together with sainthood, manifesting itself in dargahs and pirs of an immensely varied hue. It is these localised procedures of worship that allow Muslims the spaces for dissention necessary within the overall structure of the faith.
When we enter the new millennium, the question to ask is not whether Kabir was a greater thinker than Tukaram, whether Sri Aurobindo is more profound than Thiliard de Chardin, whether Theosophy is more comprehensive than Kabbala. The question to ask is whether all the spiritual knowledge that the saints have brought to us and the religious conviction that the martyrs inspire in us, all the nihilism that modern science may offer and all agnosticism that the rootless existence invites, together make us any better as children of the divine than people were at the turn of the previous millennium. These and similar questions were raised by Luther, Mira, Vivekananda in their times.
That legacy of questioning Faith is probably the greatest achievement of the religious philosophy over the last thousand years.
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