Separation of Church and Estate

I’m talking about Sathya Sai Baba here (incidentally, in Kannada his name translates to “did you die? Die! Come, come!”), who recently “attained his own lotus feet”, to paraphrase what someone said on Twitter. Even Sachin Tendulkar’s prayers for his health didn’t help him, it seems.

So there are two sides to saibaba, and going forward it is important that the two be kept disjoint. On the one hand is the “NGO work” that his organization has undertaken – the super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, the drinking water project they’ve implemented in Rayalseema, and the like. On the other is the spiritual side, where you have thousands of “devotees” (I once called my aunt “Sai baba’s follower” and she got offended saying “I’m a devotee, not a follower”) singing bhajan and going delirious when Sai Baba produced Caramilk toffees out of thin air and threw them into the crowd (a long time ago, I was one of them, jumping up and down to catch these toffees).

I guess efforts are on to find his “spiritual successor” (and I hope China doesn’t step in to prevent his reincarnation), and there is already reportedly a huge fight among his “close devotees” regarding control of his estate. The estate is huge, and is supposed to get lots of donations, a large part of which at least (it appears) has been deployed in developmental projects. It is important that these developmental projects continue, and to ensure that they’re not hijacked by “devotees” who want to pursue a different agenda, it’s important to spin off this side of the organization into a registered NGO – recognized and regulated by the government, providing tax exemption to donations, publishing accounts regularly, and the like. You know how common it is that “spiritual NGOs” are hijacked for purposes of money laundering.

I don’t care what happens to the rest of the organization – with the delirious “devotees” who sing bhajans and give “global” speeches” and start TV and radio stations. Perhaps it is important for it to also continue – for its presence will mean people continue to be attached to the baba, which could help in fundraising efforts for the NGO. I’m sure they’re going to find a spiritual successor, but it needs to be seen how many of the baba’s “devotees” remain devoted to this successor.

On an unrelated note, I see in the papers that the baba is going to be buried. I don’t know what the rules of the caste he was born into (Raju) is, but I suppose this is a tactic so that there is no mad fight for his ashes, the “holiest of the holy vibhutis”, in case he is cremated. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if his body gets exhumed by some overzealous “devotee” sooner or later. They need to dig deeper.

Religion 1

I guess from my posts on religion you people know that I’m not the religious types. I don’t believe in rituals. I don’t believe that saying your prayers daily, or hourly, or monthly has any kind of impact on the orientation of the dice that life rolls out to you.

I believe in randomness. I believe that in every process there is a predictive component and a random component, and that you have no control over the latter. I believe that life can be approximated as a series of toin cosses, er. coin tosses, and some times the coins fall your way, and some times they don’t.

I was brought up in a strange household, in religious terms that is. My mother was crazily religious, spending an hour every day saying her prayers, and performing every conceivable ritual. My father was, for all practical purposes, atheist, and I never once saw him inside the prayer room in the house. I don’t ever remember having to make a conscious choice though, but I somehow ended up becoming like my father. Not believing in prayers or rituals (except for a brief period during my sophomore year at college), not believing that any actions of mine could bias the coin tosses of life.

A couple of years back I bought and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I found the book extremely boring and hard to get through. And it really shocked me to read that people actually believe that praying can change the bias of the coins of life. Or that there exist people (most of Americal, shockingly) who think there was a “God” who created the earth, and that evolution doesn’t make sense.

Anyway the point now is that the missus thinks that I’m atheist because it’s the convenient thing to be, and because I haven’t made that extra effort in “finding God”. She things I’m not religious because I’m too lazy to say my prayers, and light incense, and all such. The irony here is that she herself isn’t the ritual types, instead choosing to introspect in quiet temples.

Just want to mention that you might find me write a lot more about religion over the next few days, or weeks, or months, as I try find my bearings and convince myself, and the missus, of my beliefs.

For starters, I’d say that if there exists a god, he does play dice.

Axioms and fear

So it is around the time when I’m taking part in religious ceremonies that I question my religion, or lack of it. That’s when I need to interact with priests regularly, and sometimes talking to them is frightening. What is most frightening is their level of belief in certain things that I find absurd.

Every major religion is founded on a basic set of axioms. These axioms are designed in a way that they cannot be disproved scientifically.

Sure, there is no way to prove these axioms either, but then given that religion is the “defending champion” it has fallen upon the atheist to disprove the religious axioms. But the way these axioms are stated makes it extremely hard to disprove them. The best that most rational people can do is to call the axioms “absurd” and leave it at that, but that does nothing to convert people on the fence.

For example, take this concept of rebirth and reincarnation which forms the basis of a lot of Hindu thoughts. I find it absurd, and there is no scientific way to prove it (especially since the “universe” is so large since you could be reborn as any species). But there is no scientific way to disprove it either, which is what gives the proponents of this axiom more mileage.

The other thing I observe is that the easiest way to propagate religious thoughts is to create a sense of fear. Stuff like “say your prayers daily else god will punish you”. And then there are some selective examples (with heavy bias in selection) given of people who didn’t make the right religious noises and hence had to suffer. When faced with all this, the young child has no option but to comply with what the religious elders are telling him.

Then I realize that the way you are “taught” religion is extremely absurd. Growing up, you are simply taught a set of processes that you need to go through, without ever going to the significance of any of them. Even the axioms that form the basis of the religion are not exactly taught. In some cases, even the parents would have simply “mugged up the religious practices” and are in no position answer when kids ask them questions about these practices.

For example, when I read Dawkins’s book a couple of years back, I was shocked that there are people that actually believe that there was some “god” who created the universe. I’d always taken evolution as a given. Similarly while talking to priests yesterday (my mother’s first year death anniversary ceremonies are going on) I was shocked to find they actually believe in rebirth, and life after death. Of course, I do believe in Live After Death and think it’s an awesome album.

I just hope I’ll be able to inculcate a sense of questioning and rational reasoning in my kids, and help them protect themselves from blind faith.

Abou Ben Adhem

I’m a big fan of Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). I don’t particularly consider myself religious but I like his philosophy (as described in the poem) about being a lover of fellow-men (no pun intended) being superior to a lover of god. I get extremely irritated by people who cause inconvenience to others by way of their religious acts.

Recently I happed to read this excellent (in my opinion) article in Open by Manu Joseph (Udupa, who referred the article to me, thinks it was written in my style. I would take that as a major compliment (to me, of course). It’s been ages since I’ve made arguments like those). The article is about Islam and cricket betting but Joseph makes some important points about religion itself. To quote my favourite part of the essay,

A religious person, having done his pilgrimage, having done his prayers and fasts, has no further motivation to be good in a way that is more useful to the rest of humanity.

I think on similar lines every time I’m invited for some pooja-cum-lunch where the lunch gets delayed beyond reasonable time because the hosts (who are also doing the pooja) are taking too long with the pooja; giving too much attention to God at the cost of the felllow-men and women who they have invited. There are several such examples you come across in daily life.

Thinking more about it, I wonder if this statement (from Joseph’s article) actually applies to a religion such as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma, to be technically correct), given it’s Karma concept. The beauty of the Karma concept is that you accumulate points in God’s books (all well tabulated by the excellent Chitragupta) by being nice to your fellow men.

Now, with the Karma concept being around, and the efficient Chitragupta watching you, I’m not sure you need to “relax” and stop bothering to be nice just because you’ve said your prayers and generally been nice to God.

In this context, it surprises me further that supposedly deeply religious Hindus are nice to god at the cost of being nice to fellow men and women. Probably they just do some “religious things” blindly without really understanding what they are doing; mug up their prayers without understanding them properly. I think there’s a black swan risk in what they are doing!

In other news, during the Ganesha pooje today I tried my best to put my limited knowledge of Sanskrit to good use and actually understand the mantras that were being chanted while I was going through the motions. I’ll probably write in detail about that in another post.