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The Miraculous Draft of Sta-Fresh

Denis Solomon • 1,859 words

This piece was written in response to reports of murtis (images of Hindu deities) drinking milk. It earned me a telephone call of congratulation from the head of the Maha Sabha, who evidently didn’t understand that I was accusing him of behaving like a Catholic priest.

“A miracle”, says the Archbishop of Rheims in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, “is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles...The Church has to rule men for the good of their souls...Miracles are not frauds because they are often – I do not say always – very simple and innocent contrivances by which the priest fortifies the faith of his flock...If they feel the thrill of the supernatural, and forget their sinful clay in a sudden sense of the glory of God, it will be a miracle and a blessed one.”

Shaw’s play was set in the fifteenth century. Today, freed from the threat of the Inquisition, some of us – though not nearly enough – would laugh at the impertinence of the assumption that there must be a Church which must rule men for the good of something called their souls; and indeed part of Shaw’s theme in Saint Joan was precisely that – Joan of Arc as the first Protestant. Shaw’s Archbishop is also careful to put in a disclaimer (“I do not say always”) to guard against the suspicion of urging others to believe what he does not believe himself – a suspicion from which religious authorities have never been immune, in spite of the great human potential for self-delusion. And the word “supernatural” bespeaks the great trivialisation of the universe that has always been official Christianity’s Achilles heel. Nothing can be supernatural because everything that exists is by definition natural, whether we can discern a material cause for it or not. The crime of all priests at one time or another is to cultivate the unusual for the profit it brings in terms of blind “faith”, at the price of limiting the possible range of conceptions of the universe, that is, of the nature of God. For thinking people miracles are neither here nor there, but a Church that rests on miracles is difficult to swallow.

A recurring factor in the history of religions is that each of them becomes at some point a tool in the exercise of power, with dogma being manipulated with varying degrees of subtlety or blatancy for that purpose.

To realise this we do not even have to take account of the anthropological theory which speculates that all religion began as propitiation of the elements to ensure good harvests and the general welfare of the tribe, as a result of which a priestly caste came to dominate not only religious observance and medicine but politics, thereby making impiety equivalent to illegality. For the unbiased observer it is enough to study the documented history of the great religions to see the process actually at work.

The religion most guilty of this has been Christianity, and the one freest from it has been Hinduism. This is the same as saying that Hinduism is less of a religion and more of a system, or set of systems, of philosophy. In their reports of the Ganesh phenomenon the media have been at pains to avoid accusations of condescension by referring to the Christian “miracles” such as blood-weeping statues of saints, etc. They might have cited the daily “miracles” of healing by TV evangelists. But what they have not made clear is that metaphysically Christianity is entirely based on miracles: the miracles of incarnation, resurrection, transubstantiation. A miracle takes place at every mass, when bread and wine is changed into flesh and blood. Let no Catholic tell you this is just symbolic, for it is an article of faith (something the faithful are required to believe) and anyone who does not accept it as literally true is not a Catholic. Of the three great religions (I include Buddhism in Hinduism and Judaism in Christianity) Christianity is the only one whose officiants are magicians. The priest himself is a miracle. His consecration is the conferral of the power to perform the magic of transubstantiation, which is why, once consecrated, he remains a priest forever. He may keep a mistress on the parish funds or bugger the choir-boys, but his magic powers remain inviolate. He is a shaman, not a role-model.

Acceptance of the miraculous as the basis of belief entails the concept of heresy, the rejection of one interpretation of the miracle in favour of another. So the pagan Aristotle is practically a Father of the Church, while proponents of rival dogmas are burned at the stake. Islam too has its miracles – the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad; heaven, hell and angels – and its sectarian conflicts: not just Shiah versus Sunni but the atrocities of extremist Islamic governments and extremist Islamic sects.

The history of Hinduism has been characterised by few sectarian conflicts. It has not, of course, been free of the taint of power. The Vedic scriptures show the religion of the Aryan conquerors to have been sacrificial and propitiatory, animistic though containing the seeds of monotheism. The devotional, contemplative bhakti element, as well as the concept of a single God in various incarnations, was the result of syncretism with the beliefs of the indigenous peoples, and the elaborate Vedic sacrifices gradually gave way to the doctrine of the Brahman and the Atman to be found in the Upanishads. There is no doubt that the bhakti movement was long opposed by the Brahmins, who were annoyed by its indifference to caste divisions. Later, however, when the movement became more orthodox, it also became more acceptable to the Brahmins. It is tempting to see in the Bhagavad Gita, interpolated into the Mahabarata, a clever attempt by a “master race” to encourage quietism, and therefore social immobility, among the conquered while justifying conquest. Krishna tells Arjuna that a man does not attain freedom from action by merely refraining from action, nor perfection by mere renunciation. Action must be performed, but it should be prescribed action, devotion in the form of action, and the devotion of the warrior is conquest. Renunciation must not be of action, but of attachment to the fruits of action. It is better to do one’s own work badly than another’s work well – the opposite of the modern Western idea that what you are capable of doing well should be your work. What gives the game away is that the evil repeatedly attributed by Krishna to infringement of this concept is “the intermingling of castes”.

However, this does not rob the Bhagavad Gita of its profundity as a discourse on selfless dedication and the immortality of the soul. The sequence of hymns, poems and epics that constitute the Hindu canon incorporates all metaphysical systems imaginable – monistic, dualistic, pantheistic, even agnostic, and all possible cosmologies, as well as all other universal concerns of philosophy such as the theory of knowledge and the nature of space and time. A parallel compilation in Western systems of thought would have to include not only the testaments and the works of churchmen but much secular philosophic writing as well, not to mention literary works such as those of Dante and Milton, or even Eliot and Joyce. Shakespeare’s King Lear deals with the theme of renunciation that is central to the Bhagavad Gita, and Spinoza’s work can be read as an attempt to demonstrate in theorems the identity of Brahman and Atman propounded in the Upanishads. But much of this would be, and has been, rejected by the churches. Hinduism, on the other hand, easily accommodates trends that in Christianity would be heresies.

Buddhism, for example, is not only an outgrowth of Hinduism but has, in its turn, immensely influenced Hinduism, for most of its tenets have come to be accepted by many Hindus. And the devotional currents of Hinduism also owe something to Sufiism, the non-militant school of Islamic thought. In contrast, for Catholics Protestantism is, quite simply, heresy.

The all-embracing nature of Hinduism means not only that it finds all paths to enlightenment permissible and compatible, but that within it sophisticated thought is not, as in Christianity, an increasing barrier to orthodoxy, for there is little orthodoxy. The educated Christian or Muslim must either severely compartmentalise his thinking or undergo a crisis of belief; the educated Hindu is in no such bind. Synchronically, the same range of forms of worship and belief are to be found as can be seen, diachronically, in the evolution from the animism of the Vedas to the abstraction of the Upanishads and the ethical symbolism of the Mahabarata. The simple and uneducated may focus their devotion on images of gods, as the pre-Vedic Indus Valley peoples did, but in any branch of the Hindu system of thought these represent nothing more than imaginative pictures of an all-pervading, omnipresent deity, conceived in varying degrees of abstraction according to the temperament and sophistication of the believer. What they certainly are not is the equivalent of saints or angels, and any supposed supernatural behaviour on their part is alien to Hindu thought.

It is significant therefore that the earliest, perhaps the only, outcry against the authenticity of the milk-drinking phenomenon was heard in India, where “moderate” Hindus protested that it was a trick by the right-wing Hindu political party to win electoral support. It was in the diaspora, where Hindus see themselves as politically beleaguered, that acceptance was most unquestioning. Official response in this country was strongly reminiscent of a Vatican pronouncement on the authenticity of a miracle. The statement by the head of the Maha Sabha that “we do not sell Hinduism on the basis of miracles...nobody in the Hindu world has added the tag miracle to it” was somewhat vitiated by his claim that inherent in the phenomenon was a “direct message” to be decoded. The implication that Hinduism must be “sold”, and the assertion that the happenings must be interpreted on the basis of Hinduism’s “new dynamism” worldwide, can only have a political meaning.

Of late we have seen much evidence of ethnic rivalries being hung on the peg of religion, in the shape of demands for public holidays, protests at the nomenclature of national awards, and other superficialities. It would be very unfortunate if this were now being extended to the substance of belief itself. If it is true that all religions lead to the same goal, it must follow that the more their adherents are freed from dogmatic constraints the more likely they are to be eclectic in their faith. In other words, an intelligent person should only be comfortable with a religion that allows him to embrace another. The religion that is closest to such genuine ecumenism is Hinduism. We pride ourselves on the variety of our cultural heritage; let us use it fruitfully by approaching our religions as paths to the realisation of our own dharma, our own civilisation, not as tools to be manipulated for partisan advantage.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top