Why The ‘Word of God’ To Us Seems Odd

Merger of Church and State?

The teachings of a recently deceased Indian preacher have been hailed as ‘inspirational to millions’, by spokespersons of the State as well as the mainstream media, and he has been encomiastically credited with being an advocate of ‘universal values’. Sympathizers of the deceased preacher find it unthinkable that a teaching that goes, “Love all. Serve all. Help ever. Hurt never. Be good. Do good. See good. That is the way to God” could cause any sort of objection to any right-thinking person. Here is why some of us are not convinced that the wisdom of life is fully contained is these oft-chanted platitudes, and think that while these may have the appeal of nursery rhymes, they do not constitute a sound moral code to organize our private and public lives around.

‘Love all, serve all’

It is one thing to say that our dealings with all must be based on trust (that is earned) and devoid of prejudice (that is unfounded). It is quite another to say that we must extend unquestioning and unconditional approval, claiming to ‘love all’ irrespective of the merits of their claims and the strengths of their cases. Another quote attributed to Mother Teresa which is bandied about in this context is “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” A counsel to ‘love all’, suspending all judgment and discernment, apparently suits religious preachers of all hues fine, and such a dismissal of reasoned judgment in social life is a counsel that society can take seriously only to its own detriment. Scientific enterprise owes the maintenance of standards to the judgment of peer review, corporate governance must adhere to the judgment of audits and democratic governments must submit to the judgment of the electorate. A society that values ingratiating approval over discerning judgment imperils its own progress and prosperity and eventually its prospects of peace and love prevailing.
Ingratiating approval is the beginning of the indiscreet acquiescence when confronted with Might, irrespective of whether it is allied to Right. The culture of indiscreet acquiescence which the dictum ‘Serve all’ seems to promote, tends to result in a society that is servile and is available to be pressed in the service of any vested interests that are powerful enough. To the question of, “In the service of whose interests should we offer our services?”, a reasonable and pragmatic standard for individuals and nations is, in the words of President Barack Obama, “mutual interest and mutual respect”. Service is warranted when it is with the consent and in the interest of all concerned, and in the absence of either it is no longer service but slavery and exploitation. Disobedience is considered a moral duty in some situations and hence a disposition to ‘serve all’ is a moral failing in the opinion of thinkers such as Henry Thoreau who coined the term ‘Civil Disobedience’ and Mohandas Gandhi, who put it into practice.

“Help ever. Hurt never.”

Some obvious facts of life which this jingle ignores are that there are types of help that grievously hurt and that sometimes hurting is indispensable to helping. Paranoia about causing the mildest discomfort is a debilitating trait which leaves societies overdosed on palliatives and addicted to freebies. In public life, this takes the form of short-sighted populism, a damning illustration of which is the Andhra Pradesh state government’s indiscriminate electoral promise of ‘free power’ ostensibly to ‘help ever’ the agrarian economy in distress, which on the ground ends up hurting ecosystems and rural development, which Dr. Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar issued an impassioned warning against in his article ‘Free Power is not free‘.

Help ever, hurt never?

The dictum of ‘Hurt never’ is selectively and zealously invoked by Indian governments, especially when it comes to books purportedly hurting religious sentiments, sentiments whose most egregious variants governments feel obliged to coddle.  Any shield which a paternalistic state may foist upon citizens to shield it from the seeming hurt caused by the challenging of tightly held beliefs and by the shock of unfamiliar worldviews, is a shield that also weighs down and blinds. ‘Hurt never’ while sounding innocently like a call for a gentler society, can easily be distorted to promote a culture of risk aversion and tongue-tied tolerance of extremism, which no modern society can afford to encourage.

“Be good. Do good. See good. That is the way to God”

An obvious fact of life which this jingle ignores is that to do any sort of good, one must keep an eye on all the related goings-on which may well fall short of being good. An example of insistence to ‘see good’ and nothing else is the jingoistic acceptance of an ‘Indian Shining‘ narrative as a historical inevitability, and thus failing to see that the same India also beats the world, in the words of Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, in ‘ unfulfilled potential and avoidable suffering’. While citizens should not lose sight of a shared vision of a just society, they also cannot afford to look away from prevalent, and remediable, injustice in the here and now. In his magisterial work, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Prof. Amartya Sen says that the French revolutionaries or Gandhi or Martin Luther King were “not trying to achieve a perfectly just world (even if there were any agreement on what that would be like), but they did want to remove clear injustices to the extent they could.”

But what is ‘good’?

The enthusiasm to step out into the world and ‘do good’ is not one that is universally shared even in religious circles. Within religious circles, the so-called Golden Rule, which seems to be a license to impose our version of good on others, is often argued against, in favour of the ‘Silver Rule‘ which simply counsels refraining from doing unto others what is hateful to us. It is the sort of dilemma forced by questions like, “How does one deal with a fundamentalist who is ‘well-meaning’ in that imposition of Shariah is his way of ‘doing good’ to humanity?”. Dr. Amartya Sen doubts if there can be ‘any agreement at all on what that (a perfectly just world) would be like’. The only ones free from doubt when faced with questions like “What is justice? What is truth? What is it to ‘be good’?”, are, expectedly, self-proclaimed prophets and their fawning followers. Their’s is a child-like trust and acceptance, playing to perfection their assigned role of ‘children of God’.

We have evolved to be obedient during infancy and implicitly trust parental authority because no species whose infants insisted on trying to experiment crawling over the edge of a cliff to ‘see for themselves’, or touch fire to ‘try it out’ would have survived biological evolution. Persisting in such obedience well after infancy, which is the project of much of organized religion, is an impediment to our cultural evolution. It is high time our society came of age and grew up into an Age of Reason, with its people not clutching like infants the hands any preacher holds out promising to walk them along ‘the way to God’. Without crawling into and cowering within the cave of delusion and its seeming safety, it is time to step out and witness the Universe’s marvels, and its miseries, with the awe and the attention they deserve, and without squinting against the sunlight of Reason.