'In Arun Shourie's imagination, God has to offer explanations'
How can extreme suffering be so commonplace if there is a God who knows everything, who is all-powerful and also compassionate? Respected mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik offers answers that intrigue and surprise.
In his book, Does He Know a Mother's Heart?, Arun Shourie raises the question, "How can extreme suffering be so commonplace if there is a God who knows everything, who is all-powerful and also compassionate?" He argues that answers offered by religious texts lead inevitably to a conception of God who is all-powerful yet punitive, arbitrary, and tyrannical. A better solution may lie instead in embracing a life of devotion and service that isn't reliant on divine will.
On Tuesday, we published an excerpt from Shourie's book that pointed out troubling flaws in Gandhi's faith-based explanations for the Bihar earthquake in 1934 and the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Today, we present two contrasting views on the broader questions raised by Shourie's book. Below is our email interview with mythologist and the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, Devdutt Pattanaik.
You can also read the views of renowned spiritual scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan here.
In his latest book, Arun Shourie makes the case that suffering, especially suffering of the innocent and children, negates the idea of all religions. All religions say suffering has a purpose, and try to rationalise it — as punishment of God for something wrong we did, in this life or the past. Or by saying that the suffering was necessary for us to learn something — patience or forbearance — from it. But if God is all-knowing, wasn't there a better way to teach us these things without suffering?
Nature has no favourites. In the animal world, the fit survive. In the human world, we call ourselves cultured if we take care of the unfit. When a predator catches a prey, the prey does not cry foul. Even if it did, there is no one to hear its cry. In the human world, we cry foul when life does not go our way because we can imagine a better world. This imagination of a better world makes us suffer as it forms the benchmark against which we compare our lives. In Arun Shourie’s imagination there is a God out there who has to offer explanations and happiness. And he is angry with that imagination for not transforming into reality. Righteous indignation transforms into a book.
The concept of an omniscient, omniscient God in almost all religions flies against the concept of free will. If He/She knows all, is He just watching the fun as a we blunder along? What kind of God is that?
God is a complex idea, each a product of different cultures. In some cultures, God is a third person father-figure or mother-figure. In Vedanta, God is first person, an internal potential, within every human being. God is a concept. Every human being sees him differently to cope with the human condition. Often the idea of God helps us do intellectual gymnastics — "if he is all-knowing then is there free will?" The God I imagine suits my needs, the God you imagine suits your needs, the same scripture presents God differently to different people — in some he insists on a veil, in others he does not care. Conversations on the nature of God are often a revelation on the nature of man.
Gandhi, when confronted with a terrible Bihar earthquake in 1934, says it must have been divine retribution for Indians tolerating the evil of untouchability. More recently, in 2009, Indonesia’s Communication Minister Tifatul Sembiring said the country was racked by quakes because of the immorality of watching TV shows. Televangelist Pat Robertson said the devastating earthquake in Haiti was sent by god to teach them a lesson. Iranian cleric Hojatosalem Sedighi said quakes came because women did not dress modestly. What's the linkage between a calamity that strikes everyone — and not just sinners — and wanton acts of god?
Humans need explanations. Animals don't. When a predator catches a prey, the prey does not demand explanation. And when it fails to catch one, the predator does not complain. Animals do not have the cognitive neural tissues that will allow it to do that. But humans have the capacity to imagine and speculate and so we seek explanations. That is the human condition. For that we construct 'karma' and 'divine retribution.' It is as true as we make it. Truth here is a function of belief, not logic.
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As man has created God in his own image, why should he not be held to the same ethical and moral standards we expect of humans? Why should his deeds and creation not require evidence or justification?
Ask the man who created God and wanted him to be perfect. No one else can answer this question.
Why is proof required in every field outside religion but not in matters of blind faith?
What is the difference between faith and blind faith? Science does not need faith. Religion is based on faith. Therein lies the difference. No one is obliged to believe. No mother can prove she 'loves' her child. We simply believe our mothers. And we can spend all our lives asking our husbands and wives to 'prove' fidelity. Faith has value in life. But we have the option to reject it.
Events that till recently were held to be God's work — rainbows or eclipses — and which were subsequently explained by science. What is the guarantee that the remaining claims of religion will not be solved by science and greater human knowledge?
There is no guarantee. So one day, we will realise there is no God. Will that be a better place to live in? Arun Shourie will not be able to write any book. We will have no one to blame or be angry with when children are born with deformities. We will have no one to vent our rage on when earthquakes and tsunamis destroy our homes. I wonder if that is a better place to live in?
When it comes to scriptures and holy books, the plain meanings are often awful. A passage that asks you to kill for a holy purpose would not be tolerated anywhere except in a holy book. But preachers ask you to look beyond the obvious to hidden meanings? Isn't this a fraud on believers?
Language and communication is complex. Everyone uses allegory, metaphors, figures of speech to communicate ideas. Why do religious texts have to be different? They are not computer manuals that have to be idiot-proof. They are instruments to stir reflection.
What is the use of godmen, preachers, priests and other clergy when they make us depend on God when what matters are the choices we make — whether it is the decisions we take or the attitude we bring to our suffering or lot in life?
Preachers and gurus are facilitators who aid our own introspection and internal growth. But since most of us do not want to take responsibility for our lives, and the trouble to introspect, and speculate on God and our own lives, we surrender all decision-making to preachers, and they are more than eager to act like pack leaders.
Dr Devdutt Pattanaik is a mythologist and the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group. Trained in medicine, he worked for 14 years in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry and had a brief stint with Ernst and Young as Business Advisor before joining Kishore Biyani who persuaded him to turn his hobby into a vocation. He has written many books and lectures extensively on the relevance of myth and mythology in modern management. His bestseller books include "Jaya: an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata", and "7 Secrets of Hindu Calendar Art".
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