Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The first Muslim

A few days ago, I came across an FB post with a Wikipedia link stating the "fact" that "Hinduism" accepts "atheism". Although the post was apparently intended to educate people, in the comments that followed, a discussion about believers and non-believers ensued. In that, the author mentioned how there is no equivalent word for non-believer in Sanskrit (synonymous to Kafir) and how, the priests in Kashi would never issue Fatwas against various anti-Hindu acts. 

Religious facts can be obtained from various sources with little or no perspective, or worse, with the wrong perspective. The inclusion of atheism in the Hindu philosophy has been explained beautifully by Prof. Amartya Sen in the Argumentative Indian. It is also true that there was a time when education of women was not only accepted in the Hindu society, but also appreciated. Women were allowed to perform religious rituals along with men. The concept of  "Swayamwar" (where a woman chooses her husband) was accepted. For that matter, there are people who are now going back to those principles. The Dnyan Prabodhini foundation in Pune has ordained female priests. Their weddings are a far cry from the mainstream Hindu weddings. All the vows are explained to the audience in their language of choice and the girl can choose the "Swayamwar" ritual instead of the Kanyadan (where her father gives her away). 

BUT there was a time not very long ago (compared to the age of Hindu civilization) where women were married off at the age of under ten years, without education, without any means to support themselves, to men much older than them. Usually, these girls ended up being widowed at a very young age. Their heads were shaved, they had to give up all earthly pleasures (ornaments, sweets, flowers) and were reduced to maid servants of the house. It was not long ago, that we actively practiced untouchability. It was not long ago,   that women were burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husbands. Changing these customs was considered the hobby of the "ultra liberal", educated men, and was always met with strong opposition from the contemporary Hindu society, especially by the higher castes. One of the most fortunate outcomes of the evolution of the Hindu society is that we think of women as well as men, when we think of feminism and emancipation of women. The shoulders that we stand on belong to both genders. 

The point I am trying to make is that religion is just like language. It is open to influence.There is always a spectrum of followers in every religion. I heard this talk on NPR the other day about a book titled  'The first Muslim" by Lesley Hazleton. It is a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad -- the first Muslim. Ms. Hazelton is an agnostic, born into a Jewish family. She went in "search" of the first Muslim and found something that contradicts the image of modern "sword/bomb-wielding" Muslims. She talks about how Islamic fundamentalists follow a "highlighted" version of Quran, where everything is taken out of context. Prophet Muhammad was in a happy monogamous marriage for twenty four years. For most part of his life, he was an active proponent of non-violence. He tried to make common people aware of the exploitation they faced at the hands of the rich. He advocated respect towards women. He shared his early thoughts about Islam (which was not really labeled Islam yet) with his wife.

Her TED video (above) has over 700,000 views (please watch it till the end). It makes me wonder why some of the most eloquent and thought provoking religious commentaries I have read/heard have been made by agnostics.

Radicalization of any religion comes with its institutionalization. Gautama Buddha never wanted to label his journey as "Buddhism". In fact, attaching an "ism" to Buddha's philosophy is its greatest defeat. Buddha walked along alone to realize the "truth" for what it was for him. It is HIS realization. And his teaching is not as much in the eight fold path as it is in following the source of your suffering, detaching yourself from the causes of suffering and attaining happiness that does not cling to your circumstances. The guiding principles of Buddhism may help this process, but it can also be done without thinking of Buddha, by just being honest with oneself. For every radical, there is always a reformer. Sometimes, the reformer comes in the body of a fifteen year old Afghan girl

If you think about it, we can talk about everything that religions stand for without talking about religion. We can talk about compassion. We can talk about respecting each other as human beings. We can talk about non-violence. We can talk about charity, kindness towards all living beings and protecting the environment. We can also appreciate what religions have given us (apart from faith and messiahs) without fastidiously attaching it to the religion it comes from. Anyone can practice meditation, anyone can appreciate Sufi music and poetry, anyone can appreciate the wide range of art, music and culture that emerged out of religious devotion. We can believe in God without believing in religion. Going further, we can create our source of divinity. It doesn't have to come from the "menu" that has been passed on to us. 

But it is a grave disservice to any religion when its teachings are used to proclaim its superiority to other religions. It only creates more polarization and hatred. 


Abhijit Bhave said...

Great Blog !

Random Thoughts said...

I have always thought that religion deides more than it unites.
Nice post!

Meera Rao said...

Great post! i will go watch the TED talk now :)