These thoughts are occasioned by my most recent week-long embrace of the valley of Kashmir (March 22-28), among whose people I am, despite some five decades or more of living in metropolitan India. My visits and my engagement with Kashmir remain relentless, and my language, despite a half century of marriage outside the Kahmiri fold, still rolls from my tongue with accents of love and belonging, and I am owned there without the least subterfuge or qualification. My people are presciently brilliant of intellect and will question and research everything that may be questioned or researched barring one thing—god and religion therefrom. There are of course those who do so, but away from public notice, it must be said. And presumably many others who keep their cogitations to themselves altogether as they conform to everyday religious observance. Let me quickly add that such questioning has now becoming a hazardous enterprise across the world’s religions, differing only in degrees of accommodation and consequence.
This was not so until some three decades ago. During my years in the valley, and long after as well, it was common to hear Kashmiris of all hues spar about divinity, argue many dark corners, lovingly mock at God’s frailties, propagate godliness as human selflessness and a habit of non-doctrinal embrace of the other, to laud the rich treasures of sufi-rishi wisdom that transcended denominations, indeed that challenged denominations, to celebrate the lives of saints as emblems of all-encompassing love, and not to hold the definition of faith down to personal habits that may have been proscribed in a sacred text. As in the Slavic imagination and literature, the subject of divinity tended to receive the deepest enquiry and penetration among Kashmiri savants across communities who remained glued by a pool of sagacity that brooked no superficial, sectarian, or overtly political purpose. Through my years from birth to post-graduation, I cannot recall a single instance when anyone in my acquaintance was thwarted that he or she might hurt sentiments grievously, or breach a relationship past repair by uttering a critical thought about the god business. Indeed, among my mother’s close circle of long-held acquaintances across communities, a source of intellectual wonder was her veneration of an old film song that went as follows: “duniya banana vale, kya tere mann mei samaayi/ kahi ko duniya banayi” (Whatever, O Creator, got into your head? Why did you create the world?) And I recall interminable disputations that were held within the family and with eminent or not so eminent Muslim-Kashmiri friends on the oppressive injunctions of organized rituals and of the religious authorities who imposed them. Often the best humour was evoked at their expense. And none of these piquant interchanges made the least dent in the self-evident piety of those engaged in them.
As I approach my final hour, I have the regret that much of that has undergone a change. With education and prosperity, paradoxically, seem to have descended a rigidity and closure that belies the unmatched argumentative contributions of Kashmiri Shaivism and Kashmiri Islam to the treasure-house of the sub-continents’ inexhaustible philosophical attainments. Debate about god and religion seems now to have yielded to dogma that must be obeyed. I recall here a piece of coffee-time conversation with a batch-mate at the university of Wisconsin, a seventh day Baptist of great adherence. I put it to him that the one man in the twentieth century who carried the Bible with him wherever he went was Gandhi, and then asked if in his view the man would receive redemption or not; he took less than a second to say Gandhi would be damned because, of course, he wasn’t baptized. That instance remains for me the most telling example of the collapse of the human intelligence in the face of bookish religiosity, and, might I add, in contravention of what scripture seeks to teach us.
This sad thought has been with me over the last two decades or more, but finds expression now from a snatch of conversation with one of the unquestionably brilliant and sharp minds in contemporary Kashmiri academia.
Devastated by the relentless suffering that Kashmir and Kashmiris have been going through—I speak here more particularly of the natural disaster of flooding that has just returned after only some six months to ravage home and hearth—for seemingly no rhyme or reason, I found myself reminded of those piercing occasions in
Shakespeare when he seems to bark a bold question at the almighty as an agonized reprimand; recall what Macduff is heard to say in the play Macbeth when he is given the crushing news of the wholly gratuitous and revoltingly unjust murder of his wife and children at the hands of Macbeth: “Did the heavens look on and not take their part?” Or when in the play, King Lear, finding his one good daughter, Cordelia, dead in his arms just when he has come alive to her beautific virue, he hurls an imprecation at god thus: “Why should a dog, a horse, a cat have life and thou no breath at all?”
It was in that sort of frame of mind as I returned to Delhi on the 28th, guilt-ridden at having escaped the fury of the fresh deluge while behind me those that made my week unforgettable were yet again obliged to pack their belongings and head for safe places, that I wrote to that brilliant scholar and intellectual “why does this happen to a people who pray five times a day?” Sadly, only to receive the riposte that I was taking a “dig” at “Muslim irrationality,” and that “we submit to his will” come what may. Thankfully, as I clarified that my greater purpose was to question not “Muslim irrationality” or any form of human irrationality as to question god’s irrationality, and that I claimed my right as a skeptic to do so, my prized friend returned the more comforting answer that not only skeptics but believers as well ask such questions of god. If so, why then, alas, I asked myself, should so brilliant a friend have chosen to misread my poser as anti-Muslim, if you like? As I offered to extend the conversation, I received an educated discouragement. I would have wanted to share the fact that, after the Uttarakhand disaster which took hundreds of lives from around the plethora of temples in that territory of pilgrimage, I had expressed the very same conundrum. Indeed, referring to one dead pilgrim who was found at the feet of a deity with eyes open in horror, I had speculated that he indeed may have wanted to ask the very same question of the deity as he passed: why should such tragedy have overtaken those who had trudged hundreds of miles of impassable terrain to make their obeisance? And, pertaining to human rationality, I might have shared another thought which also I had then given voice to: if all that happens is indeed sourced in divine will, why should the believer then be heard to be complaining about this system or that government? As I wrote to my friend, I admire faith that then never allows a question altogether, whatever the circumstance. Clearly, it must seem odd that faith locates some forms of distress in god’s will and some others in social or political agencies that are contrary to one’s predilections. True faith must indeed then willingly attribute whatever comes, individually or collectively, to god’s inscrutable purposes in a love that denotes neither friend nor enemy, since all forms of human agency and their operations must be seen to be ordained by god as well—not just a natural disaster.
This is not how it used to be. I recall a much-retailed snatch of conversation long long years back between two Kashmiri intellectuals of great breadth of vision, and closest of friends who used to walk back to their residences from work most days of the month—Mirza Afzal Beg and Justice Kellam. Legend has it that one day Beg sahib saw a cow foraging a garbage dump, and remarked to his Pandit friend, “Kellam, look what your cow is eating:” at which Justice Kellam is said to have returned: What to do, Beg sahib, cows also have become Muslim.” The conjoint laughter of the friends, it is said, was heard askance by bystanders. Such transcendent humanism and faith in the “other” must seem murderously unthinkable in our day.
I ask, where and why has that time of catholicity and wisdom vanished? And, even if we understand why, should we simply submit, or acquiesce, or worse still, endorse, or should we as men and women of thought and humanist concern offer resistance and challenge to such tragic shrinkages of our souls? Indeed, I ask the larger question, should we be studying literature and the arts at all if our humanist inquiry and angst is always to be foreclosed by the demand that our allegiance to god’s will remain preeminent? Indeed, would the best of art and literature worldwide at all have happened if this precondition was imposed as an imperative—as it was prior to the Arabian/Persian and European Renaissance? And would the great debates on the nature of divinity and forms of faith thereof among all the world’s major religions have happened at all if the enquiring subject in history did not first have the widest humanist capacity of sifting and absorbing/rejecting concepts and formulations in accordance with—and here is the point—the best human reason, a faculty which by far must be the most distinguishing attribute that god gave to the race?
That there are now often real risks attendant upon freedom of thought and expression is of course a reality, and only the most exceptional among men and women put their lives at stake. But how depressing and tragic that even conversation among peers should now remain hostage to the zeitgeist. As technologies scale ever new magical heights, human thought seems to shrink to a midget. Perhaps this is what best suits those at the pinnacles of secular and religious authority who wish to remake us in their image at the pain of suffocation and death, claiming ever new warring pieces of earth in the name of a spurious idea here and a convenient god there.
The earth reverberates in anguish and prepares for another final flood.