Should Faith Be Certified by an Official Bureau, or Be a Felt Experience?

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Source: The Wire

Human history pretty much everywhere evidences periods of intellectual openness alternating with periods of closure and cultural shrinkage.

In passing, the shrinkage can happen within both right-wing and left-wing totalitarianism.

The Indian freedom movement caused an efflorescence of ideas and an unhindered expression of views, however antagonistic to any dominant influence – including that of Mahatma Gandhi.

Barring the 19 months of internal Emergency during the mid-seventies, that lumbering and often gauche and noisy openness continued to mark India’s admirable experiment with democracy.

The India of the last decade or so, however, clearly has been one of intellectual shrinkage.

As the philosopher of culture, Mikhail Bakhtin, who formulated his cultural theses during the Stalinist era, would have put it, our days are not those of heteroglossia (meaning a fearless flow of tongues characterised by a centrifugal abundance, such as inform a genuine democratic order) but of monologism (meaning a collapse into a centripetal dogma that forbids the effulgence of free human expression, a reduction that suits an authoritarian politics).

For example, when it comes to religions, we are coerced to say they are not dynamic formations but fixed things – fixed, that is, by the political authority of the day.

Thus, regardless of the fascinating history of the ideological nature of representations, be it in theological productions or in the archive of creative arts, the hegemony of closure requires us to see our gods and goddesses only in forms sanctioned by the political pulpit.

That’s not to speak of the content of religious contentions across the world. Only that which the Neros of the day certify to be so must pass for the truth, often on pain of death.

One has only to study the history of the Christian faith and of the Christian church (inter-alia, the history of all religions) from early times to the Puritan-driven US to recognise how religious things have been as prone to make and break as any other constructs of collective human existence.

The Mahua Moitra controversy

Apropos the controversy surrounding what Mahua Moitra has said of how the worship of goddess Kaali is performed in Sikkim, Bhutan, parts of Bengal, or indeed how devotees in various locations have through the ages envisaged the shape and contours of the deities they have worshipped, consider the following instructive vignette from Christian history.

At a time when the Catholic Church was the dominant ideological lawmaker in Europe, teaching chiefly how all of mankind had fallen into sin because of the “disobedience” of Adam and Eve in Paradise, a thirteenth century painter drew a picture of the creation of Adam in a way in which Adam is shown to be a miserable, dithering midget with God looming over him several fold.

Leap some two centuries or so into European history, and you find the same theme depicted by Michelangelo in his celebrated ‘The Creation of Adam’ across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This time God and Adam are drawn of equal stature with the height of their heads level with one another, and this Adam is muscular and bewitching.

So I ask the Bureau of Certification: which of the two Adams depicts the reality of his creation? And which of the two representations of God are we to think is the authentic one?

The analysable fact is that during those 200 years, Europe was to undergo a Renaissance – both of ideas and material productions – and human beings, in their effulgent creativity, could no longer be considered mere dithering midgets cowering for salvation under a forbiddingly looming god.

An era of colonial expansion and conquest, and developing capitalism had done the trick, thank you, obliging gods and men to appear in altered contours to the polity.

I once asked a Swamiji, a truly spiritual and wise humanist, whom I felt great affection for, as to how I could be certain that our gods and goddesses looked as they were depicted in photos, posters etc.

The Swamiji said to me that these representations had come down to us through time, that no saint, however ancient, had ever claimed to have actually seen our gods or goddesses, but that an imaginative consolidation of representations had made the images we see stand for their tangible persona.

The Swamiji, of course, went on to say that what matters is not the image we worship, but our seeking after a perfection that we call god. Our state of progress in that quest then dictates whether or not we need the images for our spiritual focus, or whether we are able to internalise that perfection as a felt reality.

As to what Mahua Moitra has said about the goddess Kaali, (importantly, far from endorsing it, she made no comment whatsoever on Leena Manimekalai’s depiction of the Kaali persona in her documentary) no one from the ruling BJP has yet contradicted the factual status of her averment – namely, of how Kaali is worshipped in specific locations.

Indeed, some knowledgeable commentators have bemoaned that in washing their hands off her, the Trinamool Congress has surrendered the truth of local culture to the clout of a central diktat.

I may, as a Kashmiri Pandit, share my memories of how we used to visit the Bhadrakali shrine up on a hill in a dense forest, some 10 kilometres form Handwara, on the ninth day of Durga Puja, conduct an animal sacrifice, twirl the lung and the trachea to shouts of “teelo taalo” for the kites to come and consume the oblation.

The shrine, now managed and protected by the army, is still there, and devotees continue to visit it.

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