By Devdutt Pattanaik
January 14, 2015
Emotional violence is not measurable. Physical violence is, which makes it a crime that can be proven and hence a greater crime, especially when emotional violence is directed at something as notional as religion
When the Pandavas invited Krishna to be the chief guest at the coronation of Yudhishtira, Shishupala felt insulted and began abusing Krishna. Everyone became upset, but not Krishna who was listening calmly. However, after the hundredth insult, Krishna hurled his razor-sharp discus and beheaded Shishupala. For the limit of forgiveness was up.
Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, published cartoons; offensive cartoons that I have never seen, and would never have, had someone not killed its staff. With that Charlie became a person, a victim, a martyr to the cause of the freedom of expression. We became heroes by condemning the killing. And so millions have walked in Paris to declare that they are Charlie.
Will there be a march where people identify themselves with Charlie’s killers? Is that allowed? Who are the killers? Muslim, bad Muslim, mad Muslim, un-Islamic Muslim? The editorials are undecided, as in the attack in Peshawar on schoolchildren. The victims there did not even provoke; their parents probably did.
The provocation in Charlie’s case was this: perceived insult to the Prophet Muhammad, hence Islam. Charlie, however, was functioning within the laws of a land renowned for the phrase, “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood!” Islam is also about brotherhood (Ummah, in Arabic) and equality, though not so much about liberty since Islam does mean submission, a submission to the word of god that brings peace.
Managing the Measurable
The two siblings, believers in equality and their own version of liberty decided to hurt each other, one emotionally, the other physically. Emotional violence is not measurable. Physical violence is. That makes the latter a crime that can be proven, hence a greater crime, especially when emotional violence is directed at something as notional as religion. Because we are scientific, you see.
And here is the problem — measurement, that cornerstone of science and objectivity.
We can manage the measurable. But what about the non-measurable? Does it matter at all? Emotions cannot be measured. The mind cannot be measured, which is why purists refer to psychology and behavioural science as pseudoscience. God cannot be measured. For the scientist, god is therefore not fact. It is at best a notion. This annoys the Muslim, for he/she believes in god, and for him/her god is fact, not measurable fact, but fact nevertheless. It is subjective truth. My truth. Does it matter?
Where do we locate subjective truth: as fact or fiction? Some people have given themselves the “Freedom of Expression” and others have given themselves a “God, who is the one True God.” Both are subjective truths. They shape our reality. They matter. But we just do not know how to locate them, for they are not measurable.
We cannot measure the hurt Charlie’s cartoons caused the Muslim community. We cannot measure the Muslim community’s sensitivity or over-sensitivity. But we can measure the outcome of the actions of the killers. We can therefore easily condemn violence. That it caused hurt, rage, humiliation, enough for some people to grab guns, is a non-measurable assumption, a belief. Belief is a joke for the rational atheist.
The intellectual can hurt with his/her words. The soldier can hurt with his/her weapons. We live in the world where the former is acceptable, even encouraged. The latter is not. It is a neo-Brahminism that the global village has adopted. Those who think and speak are superior to those who beat and kill, even if the wounds created by word-missiles can be deeper, last longer and fester forever. Gandhi, the non-violent sage, is thus pitted against Godse, the violent brute. I, the intellectual, have the right to provoke; but you, the barbarian who only knows to wield violence, have no right to get provoked and respond the only way you know how to. If you do get provoked, you have to respond in my language, not yours, brain not brawn, because the brain is superior. I, the intellectual Brahmin, make the rules. Did you not know that?
Non-violence is the new god, the one true god. When we say violence, we are actually referring only to the physical violence of the barbarian. The mental violence of the intellectual elite is not considered violence. So, one has sanction to mock Hinduism intellectually on film (PK by Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan) and in books (The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger), but those who demand the film be banned and the books be pulped are brutes, barbarians, enemies of civic discourse, who resort to violence. They are not as bad as the Charlie killers, but seem to be on the same path.
Role of the Thinker
We refuse to see arguments as brutal bloodless warfare, mental warfare. We don’t see debating societies as battlegrounds. Mental torture, we are told, is merely a concept, not truth: difficult to measure hence prove. The husband who mentally tortures can never be caught; the husband who strikes the wife can be caught. We empathise with the latter, not the former (she is over-sensitive, we rationalise). Should the mentally tortured wife kill her husband, it is she who will be hauled to jail, not the husband. Her crime can be proved. Not his.
The thinker we are told is not a doer. The killings provoked by the thinker thus go unnoticed. The thinker — the seed of the violence — chuckles as the barbarian, whose only vocabulary is physical, will be caught and punished while mental warfare will go on with brutal precision. When the ill-equipped barbarian even attempts to fight back using words, we mock him as the troll.
In Sanskrit, the root of the world Maya is ma, to measure. We translate the word as illusion or delusion but it technically means a world constructed through measurement. Thus, the scientific word, the rational world, based on measurement, is Maya. And that is neither a good or bad thing. It is not a judgement. It is an observation. A world based on measurement will focus on the tangible and lose perspective of the intangible. It will assume measured truth as Truth, rather than limited truth.
Those who felt gleeful self-righteousness in mocking the Prophet are in Maya. So are those who took such serious offence to it. The killer is in Maya and so is the killed. Those who judge one as the victim and the other as the villain are also in Maya. We all live in our constructed realities, some based on measurement, some indifferent to measurement, each one eager to dismiss the other, rendering them irrelevant: The other is the barbarian who needs to be educated. The other is also the intellectual who is best killed.
Essentially, Maya makes us to judge. For when we measure, we wonder which is small and what is big, what is up and what is down, what is right and what is wrong, what matters and what does not matter. Different measuring scales lead to different judgments. Wendy Doniger is convinced she is the hero, and martyr, who fights for the subaltern Indian in her writings. Dinanath Batra is convinced he is the hero who opposes her wilful misunderstanding of Sanatan dharma. Baba Ramdev feels he has a right to demand the banning of PK. And the producers of the film respond predictably about the freedom of speech and rationality, as they laugh their way to the bank. Everyone is right, in his or her Maya.
Every action has consequences. And consequences are good and bad only in hindsight. The age of Enlightenment was also the age of Colonisation. The most brutal wars of the 20th century, from the world wars to the Cold Wars, were secular. Non-violent thought manifests itself in non-violent words which give rise to violent action. The fruit is measurable, not the seed. To separate seed from fruit, thought from action, is like separating stimulus from response. It results in a wrong diagnosis and a wrong prescription. The killer does not kill thought. The thought creates more killers.
What goes around always comes around. Outrage over violence feeds outrage over cartoons. Hindu philosophy (not Hindutva philosophy) calls this karma. We don’t want to break the cycle by letting go of either non-violent outrage or violent protests. Ideas such as maya and karma annoy the westernised mind for they disempower them: they who are determined to save the world with measuring tools dismiss astute observation of the human condition as fatalism.
In his past life, Shishupala was the doorkeeper Jaya of Vaikuntha who was cursed by the Sanat Rishis that he would be born on earth, away from Vishnu, for daring to block their entry. The doorkeeper Jaya argued that he was doing his job but the curse stuck and Jaya was reborn as Shishupala. Vishnu had promised to liberate him and to expedite his departure, Shishupala practised viparit-bhakti, reverse-devotion, displaying love through abuse. So he insulted Krishna, knowing full well that Krishna was Vishnu and would be forced to act. There is a limit to forgiveness. But there should be no limit to love.
Devdutt Pattanaik writes and lectures on mythology in modern times.