Most of us
believe that most of what we believe is absolutely true. In other words, we
read before we believe and we believe only what we read. That is one of the
basic premises of our lives. One of the reasons for that is the power of the
written word, whether printed or online. It can still compel obedience though
it’s been shown again and again that much of what we read may be only partially
accurate and some outright untrue. It is also possible, of course, that much of
the time we read what we believe so it reinforces our convictions and
prejudices with the ring of cold truth even though it may be false. That is one
of the reasons the subject of truth is such a vexing business even when we’re
only talking about the everyday version, not the ultimate verities.
The consequences can be curious, to say the least. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)
This passage from the New Testament is the foundation of the Christian dogma of marriage as sacrament, a vow that cannot be broken once spoken. That is why it is spoken in church, “in sight of God” and, incidentally, witnesses. Whether God bears witness or not, men and women do. They help to keep each other honest. For the first thousand years or so of Christianity no one, not even kings and emperors, dared to defy the edict. Until someone did and things have never been the same since.
Now we have at least two schools on Christian marriage, sacrament and not. One insists marriage is a life-long bond only death can break, the other permits divorce and multiple marriages. Christianity is all about second chances, but if you’re a Catholic and miserably married you don’t rate one. Both swear by the Good Book, both are equally fervent in their faith and until recently both equally despised the other. Many wars, massacres and excommunications later they have learned to at least abide in the same space. They continue to read the same book but seem to follow different creeds in separate churches. And the Truth and the Word is in all of them, at least according to their own accounts. Neither has a flawless case but they seem sublimely unaware of the contradictions. Only one sees the light, only one can be right but they’re wise enough not to let the facts gum up the works. In this scheme, faith trumps reality.
It’s an attitude that is far more widespread than we think. Take, for instance, the Sabarimala temple entry case for women who haven’t reached menopause. There’s really no rational argument to be made against women in the temple so opponents have fallen back on tradition, citing the old chestnut of the presiding deity being a confirmed bachelor and avoiding women, perhaps implying that it would be cruel to subject him to the temptations of hordes of nubile females. Why a deity should be subject to torments of the flesh has never been satisfactorily explained. It is widely believed, however.
Also, apart from the fact that “confirmed bachelor” is a code for closet homosexuals this argument revives a host of spectres that had been safely exorcised. The same could be said for discarded traditions like untouchability, sati, child marriage (still prevalent in many parts of India), polygamy, even temple entry for all regardless of caste. What is so special about this particular tradition that it should be preserved? Why should change be all right for all other traditions but not for this one? And this is before we ask who knows the mind of God and how they know He hasn’t changed it because He doesn’t feel threatened anymore. How can anyone even presume to know His Immortal will, living as they do in this wretched, fleeting temporality?
The majority of Ayyappan devotees, however, would have no truck with this high falutin babble. They’ve been brought up in the old truth so long that any supersession would be heretical, even perhaps subvert one of the cornerstones of their world. That is probably the reason not even a communist government in Kerala ever attempted to introduce equality in Sabarimala though universal temple entry in the old Travancore state became a reality in the 1930s. Left or right, there is a political consensus on this one subject: leave the fog of faith to itself. If it doesn’t dissipate use it to manipulate.
Trust in me,
the serpent Kaa tells Mowgli in The Jungle Book. We do that far more often than
we realise, whether we’re scientists or priests. Trust is especially
unquestioning if it involves an expert like a doctor, teacher or engineer.
Large parts of our lives are really an exercise in faith, even for an atheist.
The simple adage “feed a cold, starve a fever” has a surprisingly strong hold
even though there is little evidence that it is useful. In parts of the north,
doctors might tell you not to eat rice if you have a cold because rice has a
cooling effect on the body. It’s a thing they probably learnt from their grandmothers,
not in medical college, but follow all the same. Cures for homosexuality abound
around the world, even in the enlightened west, despite increasing evidence
that it could be genetic in nature.
Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru—one of our aspiring billionaires who made his fortune in the Ayurvedic therapy and medicine trade—is certain that homosexuality can be “cured”. It is unnatural, “against the order of nature”, and his Patanjali Chikitsalaya doctors diagnose it as a mental disorder that can be treated “by adopting a spiritual life, gaining knowledge of our culture, along with yoga exercises” (The Quint, June 13). Nor is he alone in this. There is a lot more understanding, even acceptance of, homosexuality (principally in the west) but for a great many people the bottom line is that it is against the order of God. It’s a non-negotiable part of their world view and no ponce will ever persuade them that it’s any different.
One of the reasons for our reluctance to accept a new proposition is that the old one provided certainty. The new may come with the authority of science but it could be superseded when a better explanation comes along. By contrast the world in the scriptures is clearly laid out, easy to understand and has divine sanction. The backdrop is constant and our ephemeral lives play out against it. There’s something solid about this arrangement. Until the middle of the 18th century it was possible for an individual of average education to describe the universe pretty exactly, from inception onwards. But the last 300 years have seen science triumphant, an exponential expansion of knowledge and information but also the destruction of several conceptual universes. New explanations are constantly advanced that could overturn older worlds.
At the same time our individual capacities to make sense of this bewildering complexity have clearly not kept up. So while most of us can function in practical mode as drivers, clerks, traders, technicians and engineers, making ultimate sense of the universe is a more hopeless task than ever before. It seems more and more like a Mandelbrot Set. The more you learn, the more you need to learn, like an infinite regress series. Even the wisest can give us no certainty, only conditional probabilities. The Truth is not with them.
Certainty is what we seem to crave above everything and that the scriptures provide in spades. Whether it’s the Gita, the Bible, or any other book, their statements are declarative, admitting of no doubt and full of a moral clarity that nothing can match. Moreover, we are the central concern on every page, in every word. Do this and damnation is sure to follow. Do that and salvation is ensured. The world is a dangerous place but this book, this set of instructions, will show you the straight and narrow. If you abide by them faithfully you will have an afterlife of eternal bliss.
In gross terms this is what all the good books offer and we try to avoid the snares and traps of maya by paying attention both to the prohibited and the permitted. As an insurance policy this is about as good as it gets. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know if the ultimate payoff is guaranteed but that is where faith comes to the rescue. It’s the bridge between hope and despair.
Compare this to the works of science and the attractions of a creed become fairly obvious. One of the iconic works of this Age of Environmental Degradation is The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock. He considers the evidence for global warming, shows the various ways in which human activity has disrupted several vital natural cycles thus reducing the planet’s capacity to neutralise solar heat output. There is a certain anger at human carelessness but little comfort or hope for the individual. Hardly anything that you or I can do at our level is going to make things better, at least not in the short term. And what is the longer term? Perhaps 100,000 years, perhaps more. That is at least twice as long as our entire life as a species, if we accept the science.
This interplay of vast, impersonal forces beyond our control is acutely depressing, if we compare it with our cosy personal relationship with the Creator whose intervention makes the difference between death and life at a personal level. It’s no wonder so many of us prefer the certainties of magical thinking to the truth (that could be) out there.
fter the deity, the person with whom we enjoy the closest public relationship is the neta who is also an indispensable feature of our personal worldview. This is a person on whom we rely for the validation of our opinions about the state of the nation, even the world. What he may or may not say makes a difference. We don’t always trust the neta but his influence is undeniable, however indirect. In a democracy the neta is the face of our aspirations as well as of authority, irrespective of whether he is in government or opposition.
On the question of Kashmir, for instance, we all have our views and feelings but to hear the Prime Minister say his piece is important because he speaks for the greater multitude and also because we want to know what the government thinks about it and is doing to resolve the situation. So home minister Rajnath Singh’s enunciation of “Jamhooriyat, Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat” as the basic conditions for negotiations with the rebels had the sound of something reassuring as well as being soothingly familiar. No one can argue with such fine sentiments. But the separatists probably see it differently.
In the first place, they might wonder how much “jamhooriyat” they have in their own state, with even schoolchildren having to submit to multiple checks by police and paramilitary pickets. Males in the 16-35 age group are of particular interest in this connection, whether or not they have anything to do with the troubles in the Valley. They are automatically suspect. The daily humiliations of such an existence make talk of “jamhooriyat” ring particularly hollow. As for “Insaniyat”, the government’s approach to their demonstrations against the killing of Burhan Wani has so far left over 80 people, many of them teenagers, dead and scores more blinded by pellets. If the rebels question Rajnath Singh’s and, by extension the Centre’s, commitment to “Insaniyat”, who can blame them?
Searching for the truth on Kashmir is like an endless journey through the rabbit hole and you don’t know where you’ll come out. The one thing that can be said, without taking sides, is that there is probably no real solution. There is more than one truth here and reconciliation probably requires that we take account of each one. Moreover, it is a subject so fraught with fear, loss, loathing, longing and wishful thinking that nothing seems real or even in context. Indeed, the truth has little traction because everyone wants only their version to prevail.
n election campaign is probably the best place to observe this partisan presentation of facts. One of the major issues in the US is the loss of American jobs to globalisation, with employers shifting plants and machinery to cheaper destinations overseas, taking advantage of lower wage rates and government incentives. One of the major talking points is the gutting of the steel industry. Both candidates lament the state of the so-called Rust Belt states, strewn with the skeletal remains of dozens of shuttered steel plants. They’ve promised to bring back the good old days when American steel was king and stop the Chinese from undercutting prices so catastrophically. But Robert J. Samuelson writing in The Washington Post has a different story:
“In the public imagination, no industry better symbolizes the downfall of U.S. manufacturing than steel. Shuttered plants dot the Midwest. Since 1973, steel employment has dropped 76 percent, from 610,700 to 147,300 in 2015.
“Globalisation seems guilty as charged — except that the popular indictment is wildly misleading.
“Despite plummeting industry employment, US steel production is roughly where it’s been for decades, between 90 million and 120 million tons a year. Imports generally represent 20 per cent to 25 per cent of domestic consumption. True, dozens of steel plants have closed. But dozens of more efficient plants have opened. Productivity (a.k.a., efficiency) has increased dramatically.
“In a recent study, economists Allan Collard-Wexler of Duke University and Jan De Loecker of Princeton University found that the spread of mini-mills — with their greater efficiency — explained most of the industry’s job loss. Put differently: If there were no foreign trade in steel, most of those jobs would have vanished anyway. The decisive competition has been domestic.
“The standard story about the fate of U.S. manufacturing blames the loss of factory jobs mainly on foreign imports and the move of American firms abroad. That’s part of the problem, but a larger cause is better manufacturing methods and technologies. Fewer workers can produce the same output.”
Higher productivity (in other words, automation) has swallowed up more jobs than dislocations caused by outsourcing, though that too is responsible. There’s a long-standing complaint about jobless economic growth in India, which could be partly true because fewer jobs than expected are added as automation rises. Construction sites across the country sprout more and more equipment that increases productivity and efficiency but also reduces the number of jobs available. It is equally true of industry where robotisation raises quality, productivity and wages in the longer term.
It does imply, however, that fewer people will do the same job in future. And there is worse to come as online commerce increases and ever more powerful algorithms become ever more ubiquitous. Apps take care of even highly skilled tasks such as translation. Back in the day you had to look for a translator and pay them by the page. Now you just hand the job to the app which does it free of cost in a fraction of the time. We may even be facing a “world without work”, to use an increasingly popular phrase.
Few of us are willing or able to contemplate a world in constant flux, where adaptation is the golden rule. Today I’m a radiologist, a highly skilled profession, whose presence is indispensable to a hospital. Tomorrow a machine might rule my space, informed by a series of complex algorithms that replicate every possible diagnosis in a fraction of the time I usually take. So I become redundant. I retain all my skills but something better and cheaper is available. This is survival of the fittest at its most basic.
Adapt or perish in the Darwinian style sounds great in the abstract, but when I lose my job as a turner or welder because my factory is shipped overseas it is difficult to retain a sense of optimism. I couldn’t be blamed for thinking the times are out of joint, or that there is a massive conspiracy to favour the rich at the expense of the honest worker.
In this context, the retreat into mid-20th century or mid-19th century or ancient (as in Vedic) verities of life is understandable, but it is an exercise in futility. Other things being equal, today is usually better than yesterday, but our excessive reverence for ancient parchment prevents us from seeing that, just as our addiction to the Great Truth makes it hard for us to appreciate the truth in front of us.