By Amit Chaudhuri
January 2, 2016
The year that’s ended has been busy with a word: ‘intolerance’. Its recurrence implies the radical need for its opposite, ‘tolerance’, a word which is in the air by default. Most people are agreed on the fatal dangers of intolerance. But there’s no consensus on whether tolerance is anything but a tepid quality or virtue.
If we dwell here on the experience of tolerance and look at its provenance in spiritual, even poetic, experience, we encounter it as a gently disruptive and challenging form of expression. These are thoughts that have been with me since i discovered the devotional songs of the bhakti poets when i was seventeen and began to learn Hindustani classical music. Oddly, the tolerance of those poets seems not to be so much a multicultural piety, an advocacy of cohabitation and ‘communal harmony’, as it is a subtle but astringent response to God, or whatever they call the deity they adore.
The assumption that spiritual experience seems to make, whether it’s in ‘our’ tradition or in others’, is that God, like all objects of adoration, disappoints. Divinity is not there to fulfil our wishes, to ‘be there’ for us, any more than, say, Vronsky was, in the end, a support and crutch to Anna Karenina. To be worthy of love is to be not entirely fathomable or accountable; it’s to inhabit a different frame of justice – by which behaviour might be judged and assessed – from the one who adores and loves. To be in love, then, is to be in a state of bewilderment, and of having to justify one’s love to others and to oneself.
Here’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest, possibly a homosexual, and one of the great Victorian poets, who lived his life in near-complete obscurity; these lines open one of his sonnets, and are a direct translation from Latin of the prophet Jeremiah’s exhortation to God in the Bible: ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend/With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. / Why do sinners’ ways prosper? And why must/ Disappointment all I endeavour end?/ Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,/ How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost/Defeat, thwart me?’
At the core of the complaint are Hopkins’s feelings of creative (and maybe sexual) sterility – his failure to ‘breed one work that wakes.’ It ends by asking for rejuvenation: ‘Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.’ But the sonnet’s main concern is not only to express straightforwardly to a beloved and all-powerful party a sense almost of outrage with the latter’s notion of justice – the latter’s allocation of rewards and punishments – but to do so without it sounding like an accusation.
From Jeremiah, the poet borrows a tactful back and forth movement of tone, of praise – ‘Thou are indeed just, Lord’ – and confrontation – ‘Why do sinners’ ways prosper?’ A charge is being made, but it can’t sound like one. After all, one has chosen to believe in someone, and love them (perhaps belief and love happen simultaneously). God may be fictional, but so are other objects of love: we are responsible for inventing them. This subterranean knowledge of the beloved’s fictionality doesn’t deter our sense of expectation, or our disappointment when those expectations aren’t met.
To love is to be vulnerable to hurt, to be blind to the beloved’s shortcomings, to delude oneself, to complain but also to be indulgent and plangent at once: ‘Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,/ How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost/ Defeat, thwart me?’ The history of religious expression is the history of man repeatedly, exasperatingly, forgiving God his indifference – even apologising for his poor sense of fairness. Love makes you tolerant.
This species of tolerance defines man’s relationship to God in much religious poetry. Take the song by Ramprasad, Sakali tomari ichha, roughly translatable as ‘Everything is your will./ You are the pole star of all wishes,/ It’s your desire that decides all,/ Though others might believe I decide for myself.’ So far, so good; especially if the divine ichha leads to a just universe.
But Ramprasad continues: ‘You make the elephant flounder in the mud,/ You cause the cripple to cross mountains,/ You give sacred wisdom to one,/ Another you cast into the abyss.’ Ramprasad is restating Hopkins’s sense of divinity’s bewildering, even alienating, frame of justice – but doing so, again, with remarkable equanimity. Calm delineation (a feature of tolerance) marks such lyrics; no recriminations, no aspersions cast. So Tulsidas, in the song Tu dayal, deen hau, arranges his perspective in pairs: selfdeprecation for the worshipper; unstinting praise for the worshipped: ‘You’re the compassionate one, I’m the one who has nothing,/ You’re the giver, I’m the destitute.’
Over centuries, a picture begins to emerge about this relationship. God is powerful, much-loved, unfathomable, occasionally unjust, sometimes remote; man is indulgent, delusional, at once clear-eyed and blind, always generous, always forgiving of God’s weird distribution and withholding of rewards. Man is tolerant.
Tolerance, in devotional poetry, is not a substitute for love; it’s a crucial outcome of it. Tolerance is man’s way of declaring his superiority to God, or to the unfathomable loved one – by not arraigning the latter, man transcends his complete dependence on the beloved. The divine has many attributes, enumerated by religious poets themselves, but tolerance doesn’t appear to be among them. Tolerance is a specifically human, and humane, quality.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi