Posts tagged ‘india’

January 9, 2008

why religion is indispensable (transforming people)

UPDATE 2008/1/10: Dave rightly points out in the comments that this post was VERY BAD and i apologize for that. I’ve now cut down the argument to what i had unknowingly already pointed to in my note (*), namely that tradition and a community are very good tools to effect radical moral change in a given individual. It is now patently obvious to me that the tradition and community need not be religious. Original, edited post follows.

Only religion can transform a person completely, because to do so requires both thanks to a deep tradition able to inform that transformation and also a strong community to effect and nurture it.

Religious transformation is a reshaping of someone’s moral, psychological and behavioral self that is both complete and permanent. It produces a new person, someone whose identity has been re-established and fundamentally improved.

Of course, there have been many great people who had little if anything to do with religion. But i would argue that though they were perhaps geniuses who contributed greatly to humanity, they had not been themselves transformed. To produce a Mother Theresa*, a Gandhi, or a Jesus and a Gautama Buddha requires religion and a lot of it. Furthermore, to produce those people able to help others strive towards this complete transformation also requires a strong religion tradition and community. The following text, taken from the last paragraph of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching, derives its power precisely because it is so thoroughly informed by a specific religious tradition and because its authors in completely immersed in a buddhist community:

The heart of the Buddha has been touched by our being wonderfully together. Please practice as an individual, a family, a city, a nation, and a worldwide community. Please take good care of the happiness of everyone around you. Enjoy your breathing, your smiling, your shining the light of mindfulness on each thing you do. Please practice transformation at the base through deep looking and deep touching. The teachings of the Buddha on transformation and healing are very deep. They are not theoretical. They can be practiced every day. Please practice them and realize them. Have courage. I am confident that you can do it.

And to successfully put such suggestions into practice also requires immersing oneself in this religious tradition and belonging to its community. Without that your good-will would quickly wane, i should think.

*I know that Mother Theresa didn’t believe in God, but my argument never refers to god, only to tradition and community.

December 22, 2007

McDonald’s River of Gods (AI)

As noted in my previous post, Ian McDonald’s book River of Gods deals with a number of religious topics. One is that of the intersection, and in fact concurrence of Artificial Intelligence and Divinity. This is nothing new in Science Fiction, but McDonald gives the topos a special and particularly interesting treatment.

In the book humans have developed AIs (he calls them aeais, which gives them further numinous character) that so far surpass humans that they are for all intents and purposes gods. The only difference is that they are so different in nature from human beings (being without bodies and being able to copy themselves at will) that they can hardly understand them.  Of course, humans get scared of their creations, outlaw them and hunt them down. So much for the plot.

What is most interesting from a religious (as opposed to IT) perspective is that the concept of a “god” can be so easily shifted onto what is in the end a computer program. And this says much more, i think, about our idea of a god than it does about AI. A god is (at least for McDonald, but he is obviously using widely held views) whatever is much bigger and stronger than we are, regardless if we created it ourselves or not. (Note that this is not the christian definition of a god as whatever we worship/serve.)

So what does this mean about the future of our concept of a god? I think we can learn from McDonald that a god is not actually what we might think it is. We might sooner than later want to call “god” some things that we might never have imagined – i.e. we might need to go from looking for something that fits our idea of a god (the standard proofs of gods existence do this) to calling a god something that fits our idea of what one is like. In the first case god is nothing new (he was there all along waiting for us to find him); in the second case, he might well be brand-spanking new.

A second thought about these AI gods is that they fit much better into a polytheistic worldview than a theistic one. In effect McDonald sees the future as polytheistic. Granted, his new god are not as transcendent as the old ones used to be, but a polytheistic world always is monist anyhow (the gods are part of the world, not external to it). River of Gods offers us a bunch of more or less mortal, very un-human gods that neither create worlds nor mess around with humans (overly much). But the concept of a god remains very useful though much modified, and in that at least i presume McDonald is right on the (future’s) money.

December 21, 2007

McDonald’s River of Gods (emotions)

Ian McDonald’s science fiction novel River of Gods takes place in India on the Ganges in 2046. There are two interesting features of the novel pertaining to religion and ethics with which i would like to deal. The first is has to do with emotions and controlling them. In the novel a new genre of human beings appears called nutes, people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to remake them into asexual beings of immense beauty and accordingly short lifespans. (Btw, the idea seems most appropriate for a futuristic India inasmuch as there currently are scores of males castrated at birth running around dressed like women forcing money out of people for all sorts of reasons – though they usually leave westerners alone, especially if they are pretending to sleep in a third class sleeper train.)

What is interesting about these nutes is that the emotions associated with sexuality among others have been rerouted from their now nonexistent sexual organs to a set of controls on their arm. They can thus program in whatever emotions they would like to feel at any given moment.

This reminds me of both stoicism among other greek philosophies as well as hindu and buddhist meditation techniques. Stoicism wanted us to gain control of our emotions, though in order to eventually get rid of them. This meets half of what a nute can do (control yts emotions). Meditation, however, as far as i have understood it so far, actually seeks (among many other things, of course) to do exactly what these nutes have been fixed to do: a buddhist is supposed to learn through meditation to distance him or herself from his or her thoughts and emotions, though not in order to destroy them; rather in order to gain control over them. The point of meditation is to create a self that is no longer lost in its emotions and thoughts, but can view and thus direct them from a higher vantage point.

McDonald does not portray his nutes as superior versions of a human being, but just different types of people. Nor does he ever compare a nutes relation to yts emotions to how a woman or a man relates to emotion. I cannot however but help thinking that these nutes are somehow “more adapted” humans, something that some humans at least have aspired to becoming. I still think though that the meditation route is far superior to the plastic surgery route, if only for pecuniary reasons.

December 9, 2007

indian gods going to court

From Religion News Blog

An Indian judge has summoned two Hindu gods to help resolve a 20-year-old property dispute.

Sunil Kumar Singh has placed notices in newspapers in the coal mining town of Dhanbad, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, asking gods Ram and Hanuman to appear in his court next week to present their arguments.

“You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a messenger and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally,” Judge Singh’s notice stated.

The newspaper notices were published, in keeping with accepted Indian legal practice, after two summons dispatched to the plaintiff deities were returned because their addresses were “incomplete”.


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November 16, 2007

the future of religion: how McDonald and Gibson describe new religiosities

I’m starting Ian McDonald’s no longer new book River of Gods about a futuristic India in 2047. I find it interesting that scifi is getting back into religion – and not to debunk or lash away at it. The new science(fiction) of religion is positive and encouraging, and it certainly sees a great future for this oldest of human cultural activities – though not quite in ways theologians might approve of (except perhaps Graham Ward, but that is for another post).

In this post i want to compare the last two bits of scifi i’ve read, namely William Gibson’s marvelous Spook Country and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, in order to tease out their views of what religion is/might become. There are a number of striking similarities in their views:

  1. Religion is closely associated with computers/the internet/IT/technology. In Gibson this works out (narratively) as a parallelism, that might not even be quite intentional: the gods of the imported cuban religion and virtual art are both geographically locatable, though invisible, realities. Religion is not mediated by technology for Gibson, but it seems to have the same structure, the same hermeneutical framework, whatever that might mean.
    For McDonald on the other hand, religion fuses completely with computer programming, specifically with getting rid of artificially intelligent and autonomous software. Exorcism is redefined as getting rid of computer viruses: the protagonist calls on programs called Kali, Ganesh or Shiva to get rid of aeai that have gone bad. The warfare of the Mahabharata has been transfered into the electronic world.
  2. Religion is foreign. Gibson’s two religions are heretical medieval sects and cuban pre-christian religion. McDonald deals with Indian religion (shiva, kali, ganesha, etc.). Christianity or Buddhism are apparently much too simple and boring. The new religion has to be able to compete with the excitement of the internets, the iPod and whatever new craze has escaped from Japan. New Testament allegories just won’t cut it. We need weird, powerful and otherwise fancy gods now. Kali, not Jesus, can p0wn n00bs out there on teh internets.
  3. Religious realities exist on non-human levels (in this they both maintain a very traditional view of religion, much more traditional than what most professors of theology are currently teaching in their western universities). The other-worldliness of religion seems the attractive bit. I think this has to do with the fact that our world has become itself such a (virtual but also very real) multiverse that the ‘invisible realm’ that has so long been associated with religion, but that modernity tried to do away with, is actually the only bit that the new world is ready to keep more or less as is. This is suddenly what makes religion credible again.
  4. Religion is eminently useful and practical. In Gibson, the gods are always helping the protagonist, though the author leaves it open how exactly this is to be understood. What is clear is that the heros religion gives him an edge on the others. Its good religion. In McDonald religion is what you have to use to get rid of possessed robots and other hardware. It is a tool.

The take home for me is this: Dawkins and co. are old school: they don’t realize that they are beating a dead horse, one which has already re-incarnated (probably without the chinese government’s approval) into something much more powerful. Religion doesn’t die. It just changes. At times so radically that many refuse to see the new incarnation as a religion at all (Judaism, Christianity, and afaik Buddhism, were all first branded atheisms). What is new about the new religiosity that Gibson and McDonald envision is that it has adopted the language of the new webbified world to express itself, but to do this it had to give up a lot. Namely all those things that the fundamentalists (be they pro or anti religion) find so essential to religion. What is left, of course, is the (new) true essence of religion: the fact that it doesn’t have one!

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October 9, 2007

google trends on religion and morality

In honor of the pew report on religion and morality of a previous post, i decided to do a little more google science. Pew reported that Europe didn’t see any need for god or religion to uphold morality, whereas the rest of the world did, the US being (as usual) divided on the subject matter. So here is how Europe (acutally France) googles religion and morality (“religion, morale”):

As you can see, even in secular France religion and morality are closely tied in people’s minds (or fingers at least). In the US the correlation (“religion, ethics”) is, however, much stronger:

 The correlation on the US graph is quite incredible. Though of course it does not allow us to tell if the googlers think ethics and religion are positively or negatively linked.

But India, my representant of “the rest of the world”, displays surprisingly no obvious correlation at all:

To explain the India graph, we could assume either that Indians do not worry about the question themselves (and therefore don’t google it) but are willing to answer our Western surveyors and tell them the two are inseparable, or the concepts of “religion” and “morality” don’t really correspond to standard ideas in their culture. I gather it is a bit of both, the second reason causing the first: in india the distinction is simply not made. The first explanation is supported by the non-correlation of the graphs; the second explanation is supported by the almost random-walk nature of the two graphs.

June 9, 2007

leaving calcutta

here is a poem i wrote upon leaving india, and which i have now given up on. hence i can publish it. it’s not good by shakespearean standards, but it’s probably better than most of the other things i’ve stuck up here for public consumption:

leaving calcutta

the stench of
naked men shoveling whet shit out of sewers
as emaciated mongrels the size of untouchable
rats tossed back into hell from the high rack of life’s tortures
ignore them and
loud wretched rickshaws displace overgrown mamijis,
splashing urine-colored seepage into
the blaring and fetid air that strong-arms its way into
your naked nostrils.

… in the street too many people come and go,
shouting at michael`s baffled toe …

young-bosomed girls fair as ginger-scented chai
saunter in small posies over secret lotus leaves
under the migrating shadows of ingratiating trees
as they giggle in light saris that embolden the wind
to carry them off
to non-resident spouses
in swell-sounding places.

chinese-indian restaurants serve swet and sour pork
or something cho mane to fatherless families of two
or raucous families of ten as himanshu
and i imbibe the same old future talk of past meals
with suspicious waters and blood-spattered forks
invariably re-assigned to the same old receptacle
for here, we recycle.

… where the roads diverge many cars come and go
honking an unwitted marc polo …

empty men in godawful temples
hand out cakes and red petals
to the masses for a bribe
as holey politicians preach peace,
prosperity and fuck
with everyone on the side
during friday bandhs when pretty boys
worship cricket in empty streets
deserted by communist pride.

… through the ‘mortal sun i came and went
gasping in the arms of mother india’s scent …

tomorrow or yesterday ganesha
found me and vice versa
at the tourist’s store as i pressed him
to my sole
heart with a fistful of bucks.
We strolled down proud streets, raising envy
and dust, our hands impossibly mixed
and dripping to the tune
of mythological rhythms ‘vented in bollywood.
His large ears flapped
and i,
feverish mosquito or sadist rat,
leaned over his bosom
and bit them.


books and brushes
only will conquer
(the wretchedness of)
this continent.


who am i
to open my mouth and
speak disparaging sounds
to you, india, the greatest of mothers
and divine of nations,
to point out your failings with a splinter in my left eye
(and desire your women with a throb in my sinister heart)?
i am ashamed at my truths & yours –
and what has become of us:
in your vast indifference you
spurned my advances and left me to rot
in a putrescent suburb;
and i died the death of the foreigner,
the death of unbearable truth
and unrequited hope. India! you
kill your own and then some,
you despise your poor and me,
orating lofty towers with shit on your boots.
you beckoned, i came, and you bruised me;
so i whine and whimper and soon
scamper away, india!

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May 5, 2007

indian and chinese religion vs. the three monotheisms

Religion is a vague term. Hinduism, buddhism, confucianism, daoism share a large set of family resemblances; the three religions of the book (judaism, christianity, & islam) also look very much alike; these two super-groups of religions are as similar as poodle and a german shepherd.

The most important and defining difference seems to be the presence or absence of communitarian aspects. The east-asian religions are individualistic at the family level: in hinduism and buddhism religion takes place in the family, either in front of the shrines in people’s houses or when some family members go to the temple, do what needs to be done, and leave – without speaking to another soul during the process. The monotheisms wouldn’t survive without the chit-chat among believers after friday, staurday or sunday morning services: judaism and its younger brothers cut through families, proudly sundering fathers and sons or mothers and daughters because of religious differences. If honoring ancestors is essential to one type of religion, it is anathema to the other.

Monotheism wants to redefine the concept of the family: by making all believers brothers and sisters, it excludes ‘real’ siblings who don’t believe. Monotheism is violent with existing social structures, believing them to be often detrimental to god’s purposes. (In this sense, Rousseau was a good christian.)

Hinduism and its child, buddhism are built upon the idea of the family and on the whole work to preserve existing social structures. You cannot convert to hinduism because there is no sense in being hindu if your whole family, including your dead ancestors, were not already good hindus.

In this pair of religious types, monotheism is the odd one out. It is monotheism that seems to go against the grain and it is thus monotheism that tends more often towards violence. Mohamed can encourage forced conversions without contradicting the fundamentals of his religion; and Jesus can preach the destruction of the family in order to foster love!

And yet, monotheism was on to something. If we learnt anything from jesus, it is that all men are brothers – or rather that all people are siblings. It is surely neither necessary nor good to fear your dead ancestors or to turn against your living parents. What is good and necessary is, of course, to be kind to all people (including your parents) and to need fear none (including your prospective benefactors).

April 16, 2007

taking care of the gods

Don’t tell my parents, but the maid from upstairs dropped by the downstairs office with a little plastic bag containing a garland and two cookies for Ganesh (our corporate deity). Since my friend and big boss, being the boss, was not planing on coming down to work today, he asked me to take care of the god. This involves kindly placing the orange, white and yellow garland around the god’s effigy, lighting incense and twirling it in front of his face a few times, and finally offering the couple of egg-less, no-bake cookies to him (from Tewari Confectioners); this i dutifully carried out.

The fact that a (post) christian who spends his time deriding the gods can be conferred this religious task, obviously calls for a number of important observations. I shall make a few unimportant ones.

  1. Obviously, i am now irreparably damned to burn in the everlasting fires of hell (probably being fed nothing but “egg-less, no-bake cookies” for all of eternity). But i already knew that.
  2. There was no mystery or ‘specialness’ about the ceremony that required a bona-fide, believing hindu. It just needed to be done, and anyone would do.
  3. This is the very antithesis of christianity: it is religion stripped down to its barest practical and material features. No faith, only deeds.

If anyone happens upon some of the ‘important’ observations that should be made, i’d be most appreciative.

April 16, 2007

the hindu religion

Given the right perspective, the hindu religion of india is, in contradistinction to the three monotheisms, much more:

  • individualistic (as opposed to communal). When hindus go to the temple they  crowd up to the priest, get a bit of consecrated food, offer a prayer and quickly leave, elbowing their way through the crowd; otherwise, they will stop by one of the empty, local shrines on their way to the market, offer a prayer and some incense and leave without having met or talked to anyone. There is no ‘congregation of believers’.
  • private. Whereas my parents would have us pray before meals, but performed all other religious functions in the public building of the church on sundays, ceremonies are, in india, mostly carried out in the home: the family (or at least the women) gather ’round the house’s shrine and perform the puja appropriate to that day. Worship is not displayed in public, usually.
  • pluralistic, by which i mean that run of the mill hindus are not particularly concerned about the Truth of their religion and are, moreover, very willing to accept all other religions as compatible with or instances of their own. There is no felt need to stake out a better-than-thou position.

Not to belabor the obvious, but i will point out that all three of these features are, of course, fundamental virtues of liberal western societies, but not of their religions.