War of political manipulation
by Bhaskar Menon on 04 Aug 2008 0 Comment

Now that the promos for God Tussi Great Ho showing Amitabh Bachchan as the almighty in a white Western suit have been replaced with a less culturally offensive mix of song and dance, perhaps it is time to meditate on a few things Bollywood directors need to keep in mind.

We’re Indians, guys! We take God seriously.

And that means more than Rumy Jaffrey wetting himself publicly about how important God is to him. He told one interviewer: “There is nothing greater than God. God is the basic truth of the life. There is no one greater then God. I don’t understand how some people live without believing in the greatness of God who has been created by them (sic). But I must tell you my film is not a religious or emotional film as the title may sound. It is a wholesome entertainer with a powerful message I hope will live with people all their lives.”

Methinks the man doth protest too much.

Jaffrey, who told interviewers his film is not a copy of Jim Carrey’s “Bruce Almighty,” which it most certainly is, right down to Morgan Freeman’s white suit for Amitabh Bachchan, sounds like a guy in desperate need of an integrity transplant. But perhaps I’m being too harsh; perhaps all he needs is a history lesson. God isn’t just a matter of devotion these days. It’s about politics, economics, and the manipulation of backward societies by the dominant West.

To understand how God got into this predicament, let’s step back a few thousand years, to the time when the great Indian rishis were composing the Upanishads. Some of them (Upanishad means literally ‘sitting near,’ as in a group discussion), came up with the idea that the ever-changing world we see around us is only the outer garment of a deeper reality. That unseen reality they called the ‘Parmatma’ or Supreme Soul. That was the beginning of the human perception of One God. The rishis decided that since the Parmatma was everywhere and in all things, including human beings, we could access Universal Reality in each and every one of its manifestations. That was the beginning of Hinduism.

From these great insights there emerged three other concepts that were used to order the life of Hindus. One was Dharma (Law), Karma (the moral causality of action), and reincarnation (the endless recycling of the ego-imprinted soul till it achieves the purity of the Parmatma itself and melds into it). These are not metaphysical concepts as Westerners have dubbed them; each was rooted in experience.

Dharma was obvious in everything about the physical universe, from the movements of the sun and stars to the changing seasons and the cycles of life and death. Hindus perceived the entire universe as based on natural and ageless law, a subset of which applied to human beings.

Karma was equally obvious. Every action had a cause and an effect. In an orderly universe, the chains of causality were guided by their nature. Destructive and negative actions had evil chains of causality. Positive and constructive actions set in motion beneficial and good streams. The workings of individual karma were/are hard to figure out because so many causal chains intersect at any given moment. But there is no doubt that everything that happened was the result of previous actions.

Reincarnation was also obvious in everyday life. At its simplest, it could be seen in the continuous passage of the life force through many generations. It could also be seen in the passage of bodies after death into air, earth and water, each the progenitor of other lives. All life, traced into the past, comes to a common point of creation; each separate stream of life evolves into the future towards extinction in the Parmatma.  

In the Hindu scheme of things, each person’s perception of and relationship to the Parmatma is all-important. ‘Even a single leaf offered to me by a true devotee is precious’ says Krishna in the Gita. Preceptors of the law can advice. Fortune tellers can warn and guide. But the ultimate responsibility for good or bad karma rests with each person. There is no absolution, no forgiveness; each one of us must find the way and walk it to salvation.

Passage from India

The idea of a universal spirit went from India to Greece, where it appeared first in the philosophy of Plato. From Plato it entered Judaism, when the first five books of the Old Testament were translated into Greek under Ptolemy II in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE (Before Current Era). From Judaism it flowed into Christianity and then Islam.  

In the migration of the idea of the One God from India to the West, the interlinked concepts of Dharma/Karma/Reincarnation were discarded. That proved a great mistake for it demolished the concept of individual’s moral and legal responsibility for finding his or her own way to God.

Instead, the One God was grafted to the tribal sensibility that had shaped the earlier Semitic gods. The jealous god whose commandments Moses brought down from the Mountain became the universal God of Genesis. Al-Lah, the tribal god of Mohammed’s tribe in Mecca became the Allah of Islam. (Mohammed had accepted also Al-Lat as the female version of Al-Lah, but then discarded her saying he had been misguided by Shaitan.)

Among the Jews, who believed they were the ‘Chosen People,’ the change from god to God did no great harm. But with Christianity and Islam, which believe they are Chosen Religions, the damage was great. Both religions became intensely intolerant. Individual differences on matters of faith became unacceptable, for they threatened the group. Both Christianity and Islam became obsessed with the idea of ‘heresy.’ Nothing was viler than an individual’s proclamation that he or she had found a way to God different from the prescribed one.

Intolerance led easily to violence, both to convert those of other faiths, and to maintain group rules. Christianity was by far the more violent of the two. As soon as Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (three centuries after Jesus), the Bishops of the Church turned to the most rampant violence against Pagans. Inquisitions began early, the first directed against those who questioned whether people who had recanted their faith under pagan torture should be allowed to become leaders of the flock.

The trail of iniquity and blood that began in the persecution of the pagans continued into the murderous campaigns of various Christian rulers to convert the northern tribes of Europe, then to fight Islam in the Holy Land, then to maintain the power of the Church in Western Europe through inquisitions and wars, and finally, after the Reformation, into the ‘religious’ wars of Catholic versus Protestants.

By the time the Protestant-Catholic wars were brought to an end by the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia, Europe had had enough of Christianity. Although the forms of devotion were kept up, the corruptions and narrow-mindedness of the Church made it impossible for intelligent and cultured people to invest their energies in a system of belief that had thoroughly discredited itself. Society as a whole began a transition that led to a new form of worship: of the new nation-state.

As the spiritual passions of the people were redirected to patriotism, Europe’s intelligentsia channelled its energies into rationalism and Science. By the time Nietzsche declared in the 19th century that ‘God is dead,’ he was only recognizing a Western European reality. Today, public opinion polls show that Western Europe has entered a ‘post-Christian’ phase; fewer than five percent of predominantly ‘Christian’ nations regularly go to church. In the United States the figure is higher, but in the entire Western world, God is not just dead but a joke, a la Bruce Almighty.

But the world fashioned by a Godless Europe is no joke. Under the slick exterior of Western modernity is a level of feral corruption utterly without match in even the most benighted of developing countries. The slave trade, slavery, the opium trade, genocide and colonial oppression laid the foundations for Western prosperity, and it has been maintained with the most brutal violence. In the post-colonial world, that violence is not, in most cases, the result of a direct confrontation of the West and the Rest. It is the result of proxy wars, with ‘religion’ playing a major role in the manipulation of combatants.

In West Asia, Israel and the Arab States savage each other over a religious divide as the region’s oil resources are siphoned off with minimal benefit to the locals. India and Pakistan have been kept at each other’s throats so that our hard-earned money can keep foreign arms suppliers fully occupied. The ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ in Uganda, the dusty struggles of Sudan’s Islamic north with its animist south, Christians and Muslims of Nigeria, Buddhists and Hindus of Sri Lanka, Muslims and Buddhists of Thailand, Christians and Muslims of the Philippines ... the list of meaningless proxy conflicts is long. What they all have in common is that local interests are ill served; those who produce guns and consume resources in distant lands are the beneficiaries.

To bring it all back to Jaffrey and his aping of Hollywood: we’re engaged in a war of subtle cultural messages and massive political manipulations. The violation of the line between the sacred and the profane is always costly. In India God isn’t a joke. Yet.

The author is a journalist in New York

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