Friday, May 22, 2009

The question of religions

Whenever one attempts to discuss the question of religion, a very common confusion arises between institutionalized religions and Religion as a whole, it obviously leads to many fallacies (the same is true for discussion about Marxism which is often confused with and reduced to Stalinism and Maoism). Many, especially in US (where the debate is more extremely polarized, but such a tendency has existed and still exists elsewhere), do often make this confusion, and this leads to a sterile debate which eventually strengthens the extremism of both parties.
A more productive stance can be found in a lecture given by Rabindranath Tagore in 1933 at Andhra University (published in Selected Essays as "Man"):
I have stated before that we must remove all impurities and disturbances of the environment and all individual idiosyncrasies if we want to see physical truth in all its purity. This applies even more to spiritual truths. It is when we attribute to spiritual truths the perversions arising out of our lower nature that our mistakes become most dangerous. We can understand how much more ruinous than mistakes in knowledge are our mistakes in being when we find that the very force we have brought under our control through science become our medium of the hatred and avarice of man and extend the sphere of his self-destruction from one end of the earth to the other. It is for this reason that perversion of the nature of some particular individual or group in the name of community or religion incites man's will to evil far more than scientific mistakes or conflicts of material interest. The communal god thus becomes the receptacle of hatred, vanity, snobbishness and stupidity. Insulted Godhead degrades man and keeps him in constant fear of his own fellows. The calamity strikes at the very root of power and fortune in our country.
There are instances of this in other countries as well. The traditional Christians express their contempt for the degradation and cruelty of the traditional gods and modes of worship of some Indian communities. On account of habit they cannot, however, see that their own conception of God is equally possessed by the evil genius of man. The community whose sacred books condemn to eternal hell a child that has died before its baptism, has attributed to God a degree of cruelty that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In fact, the conception of eternal hell, for any sin, however heinous, is the most potent invention of human cruelty. Herein lies the explanation of the anti-scientific and anti-religious persecution practised in mediaeval Europe in order to preserve intact the faith in scriptural religion. Even to-day that conception of hell pervades with horror the prisons of civilized man, where there is no principle of reformation, but only the ferocity of punishment.

In this passage, Tagore clearly distinguishes between a genuine spiritual Religion, and the existing institutionalized religions that are merely there as gaolers of some political order. Further in the lecture, Tagore makes this aspect even clearer:
All that we have said so far about the good and evil is not from the point of view of the preservation of society. The code based on the solid foundation of praise and blame, which society promulgates though commands and precepts for its own preservation, gives but a secondary importance to the eternal principle of Truth: The preservation of the traditional society is its primary object. We are therefore told that it is harmful to introduce into society the Religion of Truth in all its purity. It is often said that there is a great deal of stupidity in the common man. To keep him away from evil, he must therefore, if need be, be kept engaged with delusions, frightened or comforted with false fears or hopes, in short, treated as eternally a child or a brute...

It is indeed often said that "there is a great deal of stupidity in the common man". I want to stop at this sentence. We all heard this assertion, some of us may even have believed it at some point of time (I think I did, as a teenager), but there is much more behind it than its apparent casualness. Whenever one utters this judgment, he clearly places himself outside of the community of the common man, and by doing so, he's actually denying humanity to the others, by affirming himself and therefore his humanity, as essentially different from them: I judge others authoritatively, I am ontologically distinct from them, as representative of a higher power, and am thereby assured in the truth of my judgment. And so do most cults coming from institutionalized religions, by placing the Godhead as fundamentally above humanity, in a remote supernatural realm, forever separated from human reason.
However, most religions have teachings that contradict directly such a conception:
"The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within(or among) you." Luke 17:20-21

"He is the humanity in Men" The Gita

"I am that unique soul that possesses a hundred thousand bodies
But what to do? My mouth is sealed
I saw a crowd of men: All of them were myself
But among them, I didn't find the one that I am.

There exists in the worlds no other than the Lord of the world
Neither above nor below, neither manifest nor hidden
All shot arrows come from this powerful bow,
All existing fineness come from this eloquent orator."

Djalal-od-Din Rumi/Rubai'Yat

The Religion of Truth that is defended by Tagore and that he opposed to most of the institutionalized religions is not Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any other such well-known faith, but it has a name, and is simply called Humanism.
That name is problematic though, especially in anglosaxon countries where it is currently abused by many groups, and is often considered as a rejection of all spiritual dimension to the point of being reduced to a materialistic positivism. Such is the "humanism" of atheistic criticisms of religion that can be seen in the works from Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens and many other thinkers, who, in this instance, have made a rather mediocre analysis. All these people clearly missed the point, by confusing the existing religions (and quite exclusively the more fanatic part of them) with the idea of the religious, their culture seems limited and while focusing their attacks on Christianity and sometimes on Islam, they've been lacking the subtlety of differentiating between the various currents of these faiths, and were either unwilling or unable to acknowledge a space for a Religion of Truth in the sense of Tagore (but comparable ideas can also be found in Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Hassan Hanafi or Nishida Kitaro). By their radicalism, many criticisms of religion coming from analytic philosophy are advocating an anti-faith, which is just another kind of faith. By attacking frontally an extremism, they simply define another extremism.
Clearly different is the Humanism of Tagore, which is closer to the Renaissance Humanism that was historically defined by Pico Della Mirandola, Erasmus and others. It is one that advocates a dynamic faith (borrowing the term from Paul Tillich), one that is open to doubt, to rational analysis, and not the definition of a static faith (in scientific methodology as the only valid episteme) that rejects another static faith (in a dogmatic set of beliefs). But it is, above all, the first school that opposed Scholasticism, the first attitude to deny the ontological distinction posited by the established religion, the first to eventually refuse the stupidity of the common man. It thereby is a Humanism that opens up a world of possibilities for human beings, that does not confine Men into a predefined nature, but rather endows him with a power to define himself and judge for himself. It does not either posit limits to this power of self-definition, and it also asserts the complementarity of dynamic faith and rational doubt.

Eventually, it is only within such a Humanistic conception of reality and man that democracy can exist, because indeed democracy is fundamentally the political translation of the essential non-definition of human beings, of their ever-changing nature; it also rejects all higher supernatural power from which human society could inherit a sacred and unalterable hierarchy.
Within a democracy, hierarchies can be altered, they are part of the public debate, nothing actually is excluded from the public debate a priori, as such, democracy is the only form of political organization that can deny itself, and far from being a weakness, this feature is the foundation of its legitimacy.
It is of paramount importance to recognize that at the heart of any political human organization, there must be a religious conception, which really comes down to acknowledge the connectedness of all entities, what the Buddhists call dependent origination. It is this empathy we feel to others and the world that justifies the community. And this empathy is spiritual, it must not be reduced to mere utility.
The danger of an overtly utilitarian conception of society is that the community is only tolerated as a lesser evil, it becomes the locus of individual conflicts, only regulated by explicit prohibitions from the laws. Individuals are denied any intimate connections with others, they are encouraged to make themselves up. As such, many become easy preys for the most fanatically communitarian groups that will provide them with an ersatz of communal spirituality, albeit an extremely poor one; others, more "lucky", who succeeded as self-made men, will come to believe in their own lies and die as Charles Foster Kane, in the loneliness and meaninglessness of their material wealth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


As far as I can remember, I always felt the bookshop to be a most uplifting and fascinating place. The long bookshelves weighed down by books seem to endure such exertion that could only be explained by the invisible treasures nested in those volumes. On the contrary, I found half-empty shelves as a rather desolate sight.
It must have started from a very early age, one of these times secluded from remembrance. I recall, however, as a young child, being taken and having great enjoyment to go to the small bookshop of the neighborhood (when such place still existed everywhere in France).

Then came the time when I could genuinely explore the nature of these riches, when I could break open the treasure-troves and see beyond the shine of covers and images. There may have been some disillusionment, but nothing radical. Books were more than a texture and a smell, there was more in their pages than the crisp sound of rubbing them against each others; there was lives and worlds within them, at least as potentialities, and as their reader, I could make them real.
We often heard that people who read "too much" lives away from the "true reality" of everyday life, I heard it again a few days ago. Assiduous readers would somehow spend their life in an "ivory tower". I feel a mixture of sadness and pity for these people, they clearly never read a proper book in their life, or they did not understand it, which amounts to the same. The lives told in Flaubert, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, DH Lawrence or Lu Xun are unarguably more intense and enlightening than the ones we can perceive in most of our mundane existence, with the exception of being genuinely in love (which may be the last authenticity left in our consumerist societies, and many don't even have an idea of what being in love means). Everyday life is mostly made of social codes, affected attitudes and deceptive postures; none of these provide with an actual knowledge of what life fundamentally is; rather, it prevents any such inquiry about the cogency of these forms of human relationships, by positing them as necessary for social interactions.

Bookshops have changed however. And I changed with them. My enjoyment of these places have evolved and I still feel elated whenever I go to those modern book-malls: Barnes&Nobles, FNAC, Kinokuniya,....
Small bookshops still exist, sometimes as touristic landmarks: 'Shakespeare and Company' and the bookshops around St Michel in Paris, those in the Kanda-Jimbosho area in Tokyo, those in India,...etc. In the case of large book-malls however, more and more often, the first transports get quickly chidden and are replaced by a mixture of irritation and disgust, as if a beautiful sanctuary had been defiled and infected with an irreconcilable faith: Entire sections (and they keep expanding as a contagious disease) are now covered with self-help books, finance books, management books,...etc.
I am not suggesting here that nothing interesting can be written about management, finance or self-help, some of these books are actually good, it's just the proportion of the good to the bad ones that I find alarming. Bad books have always existed, there are bad novels, bad philosophy books, bad history books,...etc, but when we consider any of the three above-cited category, we found that 90% (if not more) of the books are just very very bad, and even in the case of the good ones, most of the time, the truly interesting part could have been written, without any loss (and actually a great gain of time and intensity), in the fifth or even the tenth of the length of the actual book. In addition, those books are often written in a dreadfully poor style, which makes their reading a painful experience.
The causes for this intellectual plague are multiple: While a small bookshop owner was individually responsible for the choice of the books he proposed to his customers, today's book-malls are flooded with any trash, amoral, and therefore irresponsible, editors may find opportune to propose to the public.
And this public, indeed, often consists in a bunch of schizoid individuals, conditioned from an early age to avoid any constructive introspection, and who grew so alienated to their very own emotional self, that they have to rely on an external guidance to know that it's only by considering others point of view that you can achieve an harmonious social life (this principle already covers most of what all self-help books have ever said, in one way or another), that's otherwise called empathy, and is a fundamental trait of human beings.

But, so is our world that economic structures are now determining the mental framework of human existence. We may however be reaching an extremum of this trend. Schizophrenia is ultimately destructive, at an individual or at a social level. The redefinition of human nature as being essentially selfish, so popular in contemporary thought, is clearly absurd: If it was so, human beings would simply have never evolved into civilizations. At some point of time, this fallacious idea would have to be exposed and rejected. We are not selfish individuals and should not leave our social organization to utilitarian considerations, this is the primary condition for us to create a more harmonious and livable society. And it will save all the trees wasted to publish volumes full of useless advices, which reduce the infinite diversity of human emotions to simplistic analytical categories.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Congress-led UPA victorious in Lok Sabha elections

The Indian general elections (Lok Sabha) are over and the results are out today, while the final count is still to come, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party has already been declared the winner. This is a good news for anybody believing that consensus and integration are the necessary requirement for a peaceful and harmonious society. A belief that is not shared by the direct opponent of the Congress: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose stance against non-Hindus and particularly Muslims is clearly antagonistic, and only supported by an historical revisionism and negationism about the Muslim contribution to the Indian culture.

But beyond the winner and the loser, this election is of the utmost importance for anybody interested in democracy.
India is the largest existing democracy, and this election is expected to have an overall turn-out of 60%, from a number of eligible voters of 714 millions. Considering that only 66% of the population is literate, this simple fact already shatters the assumption that a wide-spread formal education is a necessary prerequisite for democracy. While it is desirable, it is not necessary, because the concept of democracy, its practice, rests deeper in an individual psychology than what a formal education provides with. India and its popular culture actually have a long tradition of democracy, that can be readily seen in the many arguments of the past between schools of thought, but that also has its equivalent in daily mundane practices. It is a mindset, and this mindset predates any formal education.

On such a fertile ground however, formal education can only blossom more powerfully, and that is seen by the consensual forms inherent to Indian politics. It may seem chaotic, unproductive from an external point of view, and it certainly can be improved tremendously from its current state (especially with regard to the corrupted bureaucracy), but problems are not denied, and improvement are constantly made. The pervasive culture of consensus is not the cause of the current problems, on the contrary, it is the solution, even a party like the BJP was forced, when in power (1998-2004), to move towards relatively moderate positions, because of it.
Not only consensus is the antidote to extremism, it is also the condition of success for radical reforms by ensuring everybody genuinely work towards it.

Lastly, consensus has its own requirement to be fully successful, and it is human empathy, the ability to adopt others point of view, and not to get stiffened in the blind protection of direct self-interest. In that, it is of no surprise that India, as the cradle of many no-self philosophies (anatman), should also be the place of the revival and necessary evolution for modern democracy.

A few links where to follow up with the elections:
The Times of India
Hindustan Times
The Hindu

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra

In 1922, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, in "Creative Unity" (do a search on the author name from "", a direct link does not seem to work):
The characters of two eminent sages have been described in our mythology. One was Vashishtha and another Vishvâmitra. Both of them were great, but they represented two different types of wisdom; and there was conflict between them. Vishvâmitra sought to achieve power and was proud of it; Vashishtha was rudely smitten by that power. But his hurt and his loss could not touch the illumination of his soul; for he rose above them and could forgive. Râmachandra, the great hero of our epic, had his initiation to the spiritual life from Vashishtha, the life of inner peace and perfection. But he had his initiation to war from Vishvâmitra, who called him to kill the demons and gave him weapons that were irresistible.

Those two sages symbolise in themselves the two guiding spirits of civilisation. Can it be true that they shall never be reconciled? If so, can ever the age of peace and co-operation dawn upon the human world? Creation is the harmony of contrary forces—the forces of attraction and repulsion. When they join hands, all the fire and fight are changed into the smile of flowers and the songs of birds. When there is only one of them triumphant and the other defeated, then either there is the death of cold rigidity or that of suicidal explosion.

Humanity, for ages, has been busy with the one great creation of spiritual life. Its best wisdom, its discipline, its literature and art, all the teachings and self-sacrifice of its noblest teachers, have been for this. But the harmony of contrary forces, which give their rhythm to all creation, has not yet been perfected by man in his civilisation, and the Creator in him is baffled over and over again. He comes back to his work, however, and makes himself busy, building his world in the midst of desolation and ruins. His history is the history of his aspiration interrupted and renewed. And one truth of which he must be reminded, therefore, is that the power which accomplishes the miracle of creation, by bringing conflicting forces into the harmony of the One, is no passion, but a love which accepts the bonds of self-control from the joy of its own immensity—a love whose sacrifice is the manifestation of its endless wealth within itself.[1]

And, a few pages afterward:
Lately I went to visit some battlefields of France which had been devastated by war. The awful calm of desolation, which still bore wrinkles of pain—death-struggles stiffened into ugly ridges—brought before my mind the vision of a huge demon, which had no shape, no meaning, yet had two arms that could strike and break and tear, a gaping mouth that could devour, and bulging brains that could conspire and plan. It was a purpose, which had a living body, but no complete humanity to temper it. Because it was passion—belonging to life, and yet not having the wholeness of life—it was the most terrible of life's enemies.

Something of the same sense of oppression in a different degree, the same desolation in a different aspect, is produced in my mind when I realise the effect of the West upon Eastern life—the West which, in its relation to us, is all plan and purpose incarnate, without any superfluous humanity.

I feel the contrast very strongly in Japan. In that country the old world presents itself with some ideal of perfection, in which man has his varied opportunities of self-revelation in art, in ceremonial, in religious faith, and in customs expressing the poetry of social relationship. There one feels that deep delight of hospitality which life offers to life. And side by side, in the same soil, stands the modern world, which is stupendously big and powerful, but inhospitable. It has no simple-hearted welcome for man. It is living; yet the incompleteness of life's ideal within it cannot but hurt humanity.[2]

While Tagore wrote these words, the West was falling into Stalinism and Fascism, and later Neo-Conservatism (the watered-down heir of the two formers). We are just emerging from this era, and it is, more than ever, urgent to clarify what has been at play during the 20th century.
All these ideologies (along with all their variations) rest on a common view of reality, one of dualism between emotion and reason, or in the words of Tagore, between Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra, but this view is ultimately part of the wisdom of Vishvâmitra, of its utilitarianism, and Fascism is properly the enslavement of emotions in order to serve the ends of power and domination defined by Vishvâmitra. Zeev Sternhell identifies the origins of Fascism in the Sorelian revision of Marxism:
Sorel is going to use the myth as a true working tool, an engine for action, and to provide it with an absolute value[...]The mythical thinking is opposed to the rational and discursive thinking[...]Because of this opposition, the myth constitute a social force, by galvanizing the masses, it allows to overcome the hurdle made by the social and economic reality of the beginning of the century[3]

By means of propaganda, the people's emotions become channeled, as a raw energy, to support, feed and propel the most rational objective of power and domination over reality at large. By this means, fraternity becomes degenerated into nationalistic pride, patriotic fanaticism, the individual existence is reduced to that of a canon fodder at the service of the collective (which is similar to what was done in Stalinism, even though some clear differences of modalities prevent the confusion between the two).

Nowadays, this relationship has been exactly reversed, but this reversal only constitutes a new instance of the same old fallacy of dualism. The wisdoms of Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra are not to be opposed, one has no prevalence over the other (even though Vishvâmitra clearly has the ambition to assert such a prevalence, because of its nature), they are both complementary. Similarly, the individual and the collective should not be opposed: The fascistic and stalinist fallacy of asserting a domination of the collective over the individual, is neither more nor less absurd than the thatcherian, neoconservative assertion of a primacy of the individual over the collective. There is no survival, no freedom, no self of an individual outside a society; both the collective and the individual can only exist and thrive in the conjunction of empathy and reason that is the creative unity Tagore is talking about.

[1]: Rabindranath Tagore. Creative Unity/The religion of the Forest/IV
[2]: Rabindranath Tagore. Creative Unity/East and West/II
[3]: Zeev Sternhell/David Maisel. The Birth of Fascist Ideology, Chapter 1: Georges Sorel and the Antimaterialist Revision of Marxism/Antirationalism and Activism: The Social Myths