Muslims, Yoga and the Empty Heart of Fanaticism: Kaif Mahmood

Guest post by KAIF MAHMOOD

As a Muslim, a student of Comparative Religion and a practitioner of yoga for over a decade, I believe that both those Muslims who object to the practice of yoga on religious grounds and those others who force the practice on the unwilling, trivialise their own traditions in the service of power and identity politics. Neither is Islam an inane system of punishments and rewards, nor is yoga an ancient version of a modern gym. Both groups are a parody of what their traditions were meant to be, and pose to us the question of how to be culturally rooted without assuming an isolationist, chest thumping fanaticism of the religious kind on the one hand, and of a culturally deracinated, materialistic kind on the other – two sides of the same coin. I attempt here a reading of both the religious traditions involved in a manner that is both philosophical and personal.

The recent objections by certain Muslims over compulsory yoga in schools brings to mind a scene from Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi.

A group of RSS workers, waving black flags, stop Gandhi’s car and request him to not meet with Jinnah. Gandhi replies with a sorrowful agitation: “What do you want me not to do? Not to meet with Mr. Jinnah? I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want. Stop it, for god’s sake, stop it.” The car moves on, leaving the protestors, including Nathuram Godse, in anger and incomprehension.

The difference between one who breaks down walls of separation and one who creates them could not have been clearer. In the controversy about Muslims practising yoga, the destruction and creation of the same walls is at the heart of the issue. I am a Muslim who has practised yoga for 11 years, and this practice is one of the most important aspects of my life. I have no problems doing the surya namaskar or reciting a mantra. From this position, I offer some reflections on the topic.

First, in the worldview of those Muslims who object to practising yoga, god appears to be a being whose chief concern is which way your torso bends, rather than what lies in your heart when you perform that action, or any other action. If god is such, I would rather not worship such a petty god.  Such a worldview is the trivialisation of a profound idea regarding the nature of reality – namely, the absolute uniqueness of the divine principle.

Those who object to the practice of yoga – and to chanting mantras, singing vande mataram, attending temple services, or even saying namaste – seem to be utterly unfamiliar with the idea that a human being has a conscience which is solely her own. For those of us who are religious, the judge of that conscience is ultimately not a self-appointed religious authority but god. The spiritual and intellectual poverty of fanaticism makes it unable to comprehend that religion is primarily a way of cultivating an inner life rather than fighting battles of identity. The transition of religion from a matter of the inner life to an ideological construct played to strengthen identity and power in the last four centuries is now a well-documented phenomenon in the academic study of religion.

Second, I am yet to meet anyone – Hindu, Muslim, atheist or of any other persuasion – who does the surya namaskar thinking that the sun is the religious absolute, or god in the sense of the Abrahamic religions. Anyone with even the smallest capacity for reflection knows that the deities of what we today call Hinduism are not the same category of beings as god in the Abrahamic religions. Most of us who perform the surya namaskar do it just as any other asana. The few who may have any philosophical thoughts while performing this asana think of the sun as an astounding element of nature, terrible in its beauty, a spectacle of fire worthy of our awe and reverence. This attitude is profoundly Islamic. One of the most palpable features of the Quran is its immense reverence for nature and its stirring, poetic descriptions of the vast skies that envelop the solitary traveler in the desert, the alteration of night and day, of the cooling rains and the blazing heat, and of the sun and the moon – all as signs meant to make us reflect on the nature of our existence. Unfortunately, for the objectors to yoga, the core of their religion seems to lie not in its openness of being and inclination towards reflection, but in the norms of blasphemy and punishment that may be derived from it to make us feel better about our own self-esteem.

Third, those who make yoga compulsory for school children, such as those running the government of Rajasthan, only trivialise their own tradition. Nobody who holds something precious and close to her heart would force it upon another. This trivialisation comes primarily from a moral bankruptcy, but also from an intellectual ignorance of one’s own tradition. For Patanjali, the ancient codifier of yoga from c. 200 CE, ahimsa is the first and absolutely fundamental precondition for anyone wanting to practise yoga. In the Yoga Sutras (2:35), Patanjali says, “In the presence of one rooted in ahimsa, all others abandon their hostility.” Forcing people to practise yoga, or telling those who do not want to practise it to drown in the ocean – a new alternative to migration to Pakistan – is anything but ahimsa and quite unbecoming of one who prefaces his name with the title ‘yogi’.

Fourth, yoga as a matter of physical exercise would be unrecognisable to the ancient writers on yoga. Nobody in the Upanishads or in the Yoga Sutras and their ancient and medieval commentaries thought of yoga as physical exercise. Yoga – as far as it has a bodily aspect, which incidentally, is not its most important aspect – is, and always was, a method of knowing oneself through a subtle, experiential, intimate awareness of one’s musculature, breath and emotions, and the links between them. Other religions have developed tai chi and qigong for similar purposes. By its very nature, yoga cannot be taught to one uninterested in it, and certainly not to hundreds of people over a loudspeaker or television. Patanjali’s text is so terse that, for the most part, it remains incomprehensible without the aid of an oral explanation by a teacher rooted in a living tradition. The reason for this is not primarily the lack of writing technology in Patanjali’s time, but the fact that yoga is a personal experience meant to be handed from one human being to another. To make it a compulsory form of physical exercise for masses of people is to rob it of all it has meant over the ages. The notion that our ancients used yoga for physical fitness and taught it en masse has as much historical evidence to support it as the notion that they flew around in pushpak vimanas. The use of yoga for physical fitness is largely inspired by modern western ideas in the last two centuries, like much in Hindutva – from its dress codes to its ideas of nationhood. Of course, the true roots of these traditions are lost – like much else in Hinduism – to those for who it becomes an instrument of chest-thumping nationalism.

Fifth, coming back to the Muslims protesting against their children being made to perform yoga, what impact is this going to have on those children for whose sake this battle is purportedly being fought? Is it going deepen their faith, to enhance their capacity for compassion, creativity, understanding and reflection? It is difficult to see how it would ever have such a result. It is easy, however, to see that these protests will give the children a particular image to grow up with and for the adolescents to base their identities around – the image of the other who is not just different from us, but also ignorant and dangerous. It will tell the children that we are swamped, in small numbers, in the midst of hordes of this dangerous other, we must continuously be afraid and alert, and build walls to keep the other and his traditions out of our lives. A good Muslim is one who stays away from all things Hindu.

Sixth, the Quran (25:1) calls itself ­al-Furqan, that is, “the Criterion”. Like a sword of gnosis, it cuts through the mass of people who receive it and makes clear the distinction between those with a good heart and those without it. Hence, what one takes from it is more a reflection of one’s own consciousness than of the scripture itself. Like many scriptures, one can interpret the Quran to live a life permeated with compassion, and one can also interpret it to become a mass murderer. Clearly, there are examples of both. The Bhagavad Gita has been interpreted in the same way. Godse cited the Gita as his inspiration to murder the man who lived by the Gita all his years a life of nonviolence. The interpretations of their scripture and their religion by those who object to yoga are only one kind of interpretation and they tell us much about the inner lives of those who make it. The interpreters remain unaware of the riches their own tradition holds in showing a path of openness and engagement with the other. The Quran (49: 13) says, “O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The entire purpose of diversity, from this perspective, is its appreciation. In a hadith qudsi, God speaks, “I was a hidden treasure, and I wished to be known. Hence, I created the world.” To know, in the Quranic understanding, also means to appreciate, understand, and indeed, to become the other. The Sufi mystics were in agreement with Plato that ultimately, to know means to be one with the known. For the creators of walls, these words mean little, if anything at all. The words of reward and punishment mean everything.

The Quran also has much to say about those who call themselves Muslims for social and political reasons, but their hearts are empty of faith. Islamic scholars have written with passion and insight that the central characteristic of Muslim fanaticism is that it entirely misses the inward element of this spiritual tradition and that its hearts are empty. With silly quarrels like the one over yoga, we are likely to become such Muslims, if we haven’t already. We are becoming Muslim versions of Godse who from all authentic purposes was Hindu only for social and political reasons, like his mentor and inspirer for the murder, Vinayak Savarkar who many now seem to regard as ‘Hindu hero’. That the two fanaticisms are mirror images of each other in more ways than one is no surprise to anyone who has studied them.

Finally, the controversy about yoga makes us ask if it is possible that we may understand our indigenous traditions without falling into the two usual traps. One of demeaning them by making them instruments of power and identity politics, and the other, of ridiculing them as idiocies, which is often the inclination of the culturally deracinated intellectual. Both sides feed on each other, providing each other the fuel of antagonism to live on in a never-ending battle. Several among us today attribute the rise of Hindutva partly to the shunning of our traditions as backward superstition by the intellectual elite.

Perhaps there is a way to be rooted in our cultures without being a fanatic, either of the religious or the modernist kind. This article and the film scene cited at the beginning of it offer some possible paths.

Kaif Mahmood teaches at the Centre for Study of Comparative Religion and Civilisations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of study are the psychology of religion and the comparative study of religion. 

24 thoughts on “Muslims, Yoga and the Empty Heart of Fanaticism: Kaif Mahmood

  1. sonika

    Thank you for a most empathetic and reasoned piece on this contrived controversy. I wish our leaders both political and religious had one tenth of the reflective capabilty that your writing is rooted in. I fear that if we let these leaders take over our public space , we are heading towards a world of exclusion and fear. Therefore, voices against this polarisation such as this piece have an important part to play in reclaiming our public spaces.

  2. rajnath g

    Well Fascism is progressing fast and the country is becoming unbearable to live in! I suppose everyone needs to protest against democracy being bartered off to modi

  3. obaid imtiyaz mir

    Abrahamic faiths teach that polytheism is MOST sensitive issue in eyes of God. So any practice even remotely suggestive of worshipping something/somebody other than God has been prohibited by all His prophets. Last prophet advised against praying during ‘zawal’ i.e sun-rise and sun-set bcoz Arab polytheists worshipped the Sun at these times and he did not want any resemblance to be drawn and avoid polytheistic influences.

    1. Kaif

      Obaid, your sole focus on ‘prohibition’ and ‘avoidance’ only illustrates what I have tried to write about. I wish you also used words like compassion and understanding.

      The last prophet also invited Christians to offer mass in his own mosque, and told Muslims to seek knowledge – both secular and religious – wherever they find it, including as far as China, China being a metaphor for ‘wherever’. I am quite sure that when he said China, he did not mean “only China and not India”. He also told Muslims that in times of war hermits and monks of Christian, Jewish and other persuasions must be protected, because in their solitude they are honouring Allah. I can go on with such examples. As I said in my article, we will take from the Quran and hadith what resonates with the quality of our own consciousness.

      Regarding the polytheists and their practices, it is far too simplistic to equate the people of pre-Islamic Arabia with our Hindu friends. Such a supposition only reveals our own proclivity to focus on superficial externalities rather than on the heart of the matter. I really think that any deeply spiritual Muslim who has read the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28, or the Gita, or much else of Hindu scripture, cannot go away from it untouched, leave alone think of it as prohibited.

      Also, there is much to say about reading Islamic history, theology and scripture through a contextualisation of it – a contextualisation that draws from an understanding of the psychological, spiritual and socio-historical climate of the times. Polytheists of jahilia = Hindus is just pure bad logic, devoid of any nuance and caution.

      Life would be much simpler and happier if we didn’t think of it as a dangerous game where the smallest wrong step will lead us to eternal damnation, or that the only way to be a good person is to condemn everyone who is different from us.

      I must say I am not a scholar of Islam and speak as a lay person and as someone who has studied different religions for many years. I would be happy to be corrected if those corrections make sense to my own conscience and intelligence.

  4. obaid imtiyaz mir

    Kaif Sahab, how does avoiding polytheism which even Hindu religious reformers see as evil negate the compassion of prophets. Prophets’ sole duty is to make the concept of divinity crystal clear before man i.e an unadulterated version of religion. And they performed it for love of their people under divine guidance. Sun is still seen by millions as an object of worship. it is naive to think otherwise.
    As for an education it can be ofcourse got in India, China and beyond.

    1. kaif

      Obaid, I think I would be repeating myself needlessly if I said more. I respect your right to believe what you believe but also you believed differently. Thanks for your honest feedback, it was enriching.

    2. Obaid, isn’t niyath or the intention the essence of what an individual does be it the daily prayers, hajj or sadaqa or jihad… Therefore if a Muslim performs Surya namaskar or taichi with the niyath of fitness or anything apart from praying to the sun god, does it still qualify as polytheism?

  5. Thank you for your article. As a confirmed atheist (and a sedantarist both by choice and profession), and an occasional practitioner of yoga (as exercise) I find the practice wonderful and relaxing – sun salutation, et. al. I also concur that ‘modern’ yoga – as practiced globally – has been tailored for non-South Asian participants (which may not necessarily be a bad thing).It is however more vigorous – the ‘hatha yoga’ being successfully marketed as ‘hot’ yoga by Mr. Bikram and his acolytes to name only one instance. I suppose the exercise part has to be made more ‘vigorous’ for the western/non-Asian practitioners for whom exercise is focused on building strength and stamina and predicated upon heart rates and copious amounts of sweat. Anyway, I digress: I also concur that it is dangerous to equate our traditional practices of postures and breathing processes which have been somewhat proven to be beneficial for humans, to this or that ‘religion’ – as by that logic the current government should ban the far eastern martial arts which are located within the Buddhist tradition and Greko-Roman wrestling (to name just two) which too is located within ‘non-Hindu’ cultures!

  6. obaid imtiyaz mir

    Kaif sahab, I only wished to highlight the sensitivities which are involved regarding the debate of ‘shirk’ in Muslim societies. those opposing some pagan rituals in Yoga only wish to be on the safer side. its not that Yoga is something explicitly polytheistic but u never know how influences work. Thnx.

    1. What is so wrong with polytheism that is not equally wrong with monotheism?

      I am an atheist, but I must say that praising the sun is one of the only kinds of worship that actually “rings true” in the light of our modern scientific knowledge of the world. No one has seen any of the myriads gods and goddesses of the various polytheistic and monotheistic religions around the world, but everybody has seen the glorious sun, the giver of live, the giver of rain, the giver of light. Note that the last line is not mere hyperbole, it is also the cold hard scientific truth: if there is one object we can give those titles to, it is the sun. No wonder the various cultures of the world differ in what gods they created for themselves later on, but the Sun is one object of worship that has permeated almost every known civilization in world history.

      1. Kaif

        I think the atheist and agnostic perspective is an important one to consider. I don’t think a religious person can seriously understand and discuss the world, in our times, without respectfully and empathically considering the atheist perspective, even if he/she may disagree with it. To adopt any other attitude would mean not just being ignorant but also insulated, and the religious cannot expect such an attitude to survive down the generations. Eventually, such religiosity will fade away in the face of something else that satisfies the human desire for knowledge and experience rather than prohibiting every other thing.

        Another nuance is that one can be atheist without being a materialist, such as is the case with Buddhism and certain mystics independent of religious traditions.

        1. Interestingly, the idea that it is not possible to discuss religion without considering atheism was known even to devout Vaishnav philosophers (c.f. the Vaishnav text Sarvadarshanasangraha, where the first chapter discusses all the arguments in favor of atheism). But mention it to any religious person today and what you would get a tirade of abuse. It is a bit strange how religious thought, in almost all religions in the world, becomes less and less flexible as time goes on.

          Regarding “materialism” I am also actually not sure what is wrong with it. The problem is that it has come to mean “hedonism” these days, when some of the first “materialists” were actually the most ascetic of people (c.f. Ajita Keshakambali, and even the Epicureans). “Materialism” merely means acknowledging that events happen due to causes relating to matter, which can be studied using the senses, and not due to supernatural causes.

          Also, Buddhism is, technically speaking, not atheistic but non-theistic and agnostic, as are many branches of what is these days called “Hindu” philosophy (Even the ritualistic Rigveda takes a few potshots at theism, e.g., the famous ‘Of whom they ask where is he, of him they also say “he is not”‘, but again, mention that to a religious person today, and you are quite likely to get a tirade of abuse in return). Jainism, though, strictly speaking is atheistic.

          However, more than atheism and theism, I think the most important message of Buddhism was the importance of rational thought even when thinking about the supernatural, encoded for example in the Kalama Sutta, which I personally think is the best religious teaching ever given in this world:

          The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now.

          ‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.

          ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him.

          ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him.

          ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.

          The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.

          1. kaif

            I agree with most of what you say.

            Regarding materialism, what to me is disagreeable about it is not primarily its ethics but its ontology. That the phenomenal world proceeds from material causes is an axiom derived from a particular epistemology which only admits empirical data and reasoning as valid sources of knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, admits other ways of knowing reality, which has traditionally been the distinction between the intellect and the mind, the buddhi and the manas in the Indian tradition. Through this epistemology the roots of the phenomenal world can possibly be traced to a non-material source. A world where most people live with an implicit worldview that is non-materialistic would be very different from one where most people are materialists.

            I am not sure if this is the right forum for this particular discussion. If you would like to continue, do contact me at kaifmahmood@gmail.com

  7. Pingback: Muslims, Yoga and the Empty Heart of Fanaticism | Rethinking Islam With Sultan Shahin

  8. This is great, well written and reflective article. I could feel that most of the anti attitude that emerges toward religion whether Hindu, or Muslim, and the choice of atheism emerges from the present or our current religious ideologies which are very political and violent. As i read your article, I begin to understand that the meaning and essence of any religion, hindu or any, is not political but deeply rooted in living collectively and peacefully with personal choice with no division between of any kind (as Gandhi says I am Muslim, I am HIndu. I am Jew) I think I have a lot to learn from Gandhi who reflects on the essence of religious life which is non-violent and peaceful, and respecting one’s personal choice, but sadly has been lost in present circumstances. I think religious labels have become deeply polluted and my up bringing in such circumstances makes me skeptical about belonging to any religion or all religion.

  9. The business of the state is to govern and regulate, not to propagate yoga or writing school text books by Marxists and their rewriting by the right wingers. Moreover, one doesn’t cease to be a Hindu if one doesn’t practice yoga and one doesn’t become a Hindu if one practices yoga. It is a marketing game by TV televangelists

  10. Vipul

    I think we need to urgently reconsider what Akbar thought about syllabus of madarsaas in India in the context of Modi, Muslims and Patanjali.

    ” In every country, but especially in Hindústán, boys are kept for years at school, where they learn the consonants and vowels. A great portion of the life of the students is wasted by making them read many books. His Majesty orders that every school boy should first learn to write the letters of the Alphabet, and also learn to trace their several forms.* He ought to learn the shape and name of each letter, which may be done in two days, when the boy should proceed to write the joined letters. They may be practised for a week, after which the boy should learn some prose and poetry by heart, and then commit to memory some verses to the praise of God, or moral sentences, each written separately. Care is to be taken that he learns to understand everything himself; but the teacher may assist him a little. He then ought for some time be daily practised in writing a hemistich or a verse, and will soon acquire a current hand. The teacher ought especially to look after five things: knowledge of the letters; meanings of words; the hemistich; the verse; the former lesson. If this method of teaching be adopted, a boy will learn in a month, or even in a day, what it took others years to understand, so much so that people will get quite astonished. Every boy ought to read books on morals, arithmetic, the notation peculiar to arithmetic, agriculture, mensuration, geometry, astronomy, physiognomy, household matters, the rules of government, medicine, logic, the ṭabí’í, riyází, and iláhí, sciences,* and history; all of which may be gradually acquired.

    In studying Sanscrit, students ought to learn the Bayákaran, Niyáí, Bedanta, and Pátanjal. No one should be allowed to neglect those things which the present time requires.

    These regulations shed a new light on schools, and cast a bright lustre over Madrasahs.”

    Ain-i-Akbari, Volume 1, chpt. 202, REGULATIONS REGARDING EDUCATION.

  11. Kaleem Kawaja

    Surya Namaskar and Yoga-with-Chants are Hindu religious rituals

    Some people have erroneously said that in Surya Namaskar “there is no religion”.
    The reputed Wikipedia encyclopedia states that, “the origin of Surya Namaskar lies in India where its large Hindu population worships Surya, the Hindu Solar deity”.

    The Valmiki Ramayana’s Yuddha Kannda mentions that the sage Agastya taught the procedure of Surya Namaskar, saluting the sun, to Lord Rama. Also 12 Hindu religious mantras specific to each Surya Namaskar asana (posture) are chanted while performing each asana.

    Also some people have erroneously said that “Yoga is not a religious thing”. Wikipedia states that “Yoga’s origin is from one of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism, is closely related to Hindu religion’s Sankhya philosophy, and is very frequently mentioned in the Hindu religion’s sacred scripture, the Katha Upanishad”.

    While performing yoga many people often use the common Hindu religious chants like Om and other chants. It is erroneous to say that these chants are not religious. The syllable Om is a basic mantra in Hinduism (and Jainism). It is a sacred Hindu religious incantation that is very frequently chanted before and during the recitation of most Hindu religious prayer texts.

    However, if Yoga is performed without any chants it becomes a physical exercise, bereft of religious meaning.

    It is because of the above mentioned inherent Hindu religious nature of Surya Namaskar and Yoga–with- chants that major organizations of Muslims and Christians in India have protested against making them compulsory in all schools there. They have not objected to Yoga without chants.

    Since Muslims do not accept any deity other than God; and Christians do not accept any deity other than God and Jesus Christ, the government in India should not impose the above Hindu religious practices on them.

  12. Obaid

    Jassim, there are million other ways to keep fit. Why insist on imitating pagan rituals? Of course no thinking individual can ever worship forces of nature but they often invent an aqeeda to support their belief. My advice : Stay away. Jisko ho deen-o-dil azeez, uski gali mein Jaye kyun.
    I m not being alarmist. Just sensitive.

    1. VInay Kamath

      “Of course no thinking individual can ever worship forces of nature but they often invent an aqeeda to support their belief.”

      I wonder how this bigoted comment made it past the Kafila moderators ? Having a monothesitic religious experience is one thing, but deriding nature worshippers as being “unthinking” is pure bigotry. Or perhaps Mr. Obaid has confused intuition with discursive thought.
      Not only putting his bigotry on display, Mr Obaid also accuses Jassim of bidah and implies the accusation of takfir on him. Seems we have a Salafi in our midst. What else then could be inferred about Mr. Obaid ? That he considers Shias to be rejectors, Ahmadiyyas to be apostates and sufis to be heretics ? One wonders whether he supports the present “Khilafah” and what he thinks about the means they have employed to establish their reign (of terror). one wonders whether between the Salafis and the Hindutvavadis and big capital ordinary people like me can have a peaceful, secure life.

  13. kaif

    I don’t think I will ever convince Obaid or others of that worldview, but to contribute to this discussion I would like to take some thoughts from the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, especially two books of his – The Meaning and End of Religion, and Faith and Belief: The Difference between Them.

    The idea that a religion is primarily a system of beliefs has not existed for the majority of human history. The very word religion, as we know it today, has also not existed for the majority of human history. Indeed, there is no translation for it in Sanskrit or Chinese and even in Latin, its root ‘religio’ means something quite different. It is only post the European Enlightenment that religions were turned into ‘isms’ which were distinct from each other. In China, often the same person was Buddhist on the philosophical level, Taoist on the ritualistic level, and Confucian on the social level, at the same time. In India too, the early census reports record significant number of people who could not clearly tell whether they are Hindu or Muslim. The more we have adopted the thought patterns of modernity, the more we have separated ourselves from our neighbours.

    What I am trying to get at is that what we today call religion was initially, and for a long course of time, primarily an inner relationship to the transcendent rather than an intellectual concept – a belief – that one holds allegiance to. So, as Smith writes eloquently, Jesus never spoke of ‘Christianity’. He never spoke of the theological casuistries over which later Christians argued, separating ‘Christian’ from ‘pagan’, ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretic’, and so on. Jesus taught that we are all brothers, all sons of the same divine being, and that our primary relation is love, beneath all our bickering. These were lived realities for him, for those who followed him, and even for those who hated him, for they hated him because these lived realities scared them. These were not concepts. Jesus Christ never knew of something like Christianity and its network of beliefs. His followers today, often never know of anything other than Christianity and its network of beliefs.

    Similarly, the Buddha never preached Buddhism. The term never existed in his lifetime and he had no consciousness whatsoever that he was inaugurating a religion. He spoke that the core of every single human life is suffering, and that there can be a way out of suffering which he had experienced. That was a way of paying attention, every moment, to the movements of our consciousness. Much like Jesus, he had no interest in making an ‘ism’ of which some would be inside and some outside. He used the same terms as his Vedic ancestors – dharma, karma, dukkha, nirvana.

    And similarly, one may say, the Quran and the prophet of Islam were interested not in a system of beliefs but in a certain way of being. When you read the Quran, the word ‘Islam’ does not mean a system that differs from Christianity and ‘pagan rituals’ and other systems, it simply connotes an attitude of surrender and humble submission to a greater law. Hence, before there were the scrupulous rules of eating, dressing and living that Muslims identify themselves with today, there was Islam. Adam and Abraham practised Islam without ever having heard of haram and halal and shirk. In the Quran the term Islam has little to do with being a member of a particular group or another. For so many of us today, it has everything to do with being a member of a particular group, performing certain rituals rather than ‘pagan rituals’, eating this and not eating that, and wearing this and not wearing that. It has very little to do with humility, a surrender of one’s desires for self-aggrandisement, and a dedication to something greater than ourselves. If anything, it furthers our projects of self-aggrandisement and of demeaning of those who live in the same country, same culture as us.

    At the core of all this is the idea that history has witnessed a transformation of faith, which is an individual, inner, psychological attitude towards a transcendent entity (putative or real), to something called a religion – a fixed system of beliefs which some follow and others do not. The latter inevitably leads to separation. Smith calls this transformation ‘reification’ and attributes it to our adoption of the Enlightenment emphasis on rational thought and aversion to subjective, non-rational ways of being.

    I have tried to summarise the work of a man’s lifetime in a few paragraphs and perhaps it is not adequately clear. But I hope I have offered some ideas to think about, not so much to those who are convinced of the fallenness of ‘pagan rituals’ – a truly saddening and insensitive term, but to others who might read this page and still have some curiosity about new aspects of life.

  14. Omer Elmagboul

    The article reflects succinctly, all that is good when we endeavour to expand our intellectual horizons; perhaps more importantly, underlines the need for rigour in education and learning. “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer” – a loose translation of a Hadith. Now this Hadith is considered weak by the fundamentalists, but I bask in its delicious freedom.

    Bahut Khub, Kaif sahaab.

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