By Yoginder Sikand for New Age Islam
I suspect that it might have had much to do with my frightfully painful inner traumas that began at a very young age, but I’ve been obsessed with religion for almost as long as I can recall. As a child, I was fascinated by Mira Bai and Krishna and, for a while, Zarathushtra as well, but that was a short phase till I was sent to a strict Christian school, where the Bible was thrust down our throats and we were forced to sing hymns to Jesus every morning at ‘Assembly’. And so, even without my being quite aware of it, I turned into a Christian of some sort, my understanding of the divine being indelibly shaped by Christian beliefs and prejudices. Then, when I went to college, I began to study Islam. As I look back now, this interest in Islam was, in part, my way of revolting against my family, which, since childhood itself, I had desperately sought to escape from. What more potent way for an adolescent from a Hindu/Sikh family to defy an insensitive father, a hyper-tense mother and a pair of uncaring siblings than by identifying with a religion whose followers are viewed by many Hindus/Sikhs with visceral hatred? And, then, there was that youthful longing for Jamal, a handsome, hooked-nose Afghan Muslim man. Recently, after years of dabbling in God-centric religions, I began reading up on Buddhism, in the hope that a human-centric religion might perhaps make more sense. Yet, as before, I remain a skeptic, not quite willing to allow myself to whole-heartedly believe in any religion or ism whatsoever.
As I look back from the vantage point of well past mid-life (I’m going to complete 45 this year), what, I ask myself, have I gained from the many years that I’ve spent studying various religions? To be sure, I’ve totted up a neat bank balance by doing so—enough to have allowed me to quit working for money for good. I’ve made, I have to confess, quite a little fortune from long years of writing on religion, wangling well-funded fellowships to study religion abroad and working on projects dealing with religion at several foreign and Indian academic institutions. Religion, for me, served as a well-paid profession and a lucrative source of livelihood. Working on religion as a journalist and academic also enabled me to travel across the world, to attend seminars and conferences, where ‘experts’ pontificated and pretended to sound wise while thoroughly enjoying what were paid holidays at exotic locales.
So, yes, in the ‘worldly’ sense, you might say that I’ve ‘gained’ much from religion—from my ‘career’ as a religious ‘specialist’ I mean. But I have to be honest with you here. All those many years I spent working on religion have miserably failed to make me a better human being. And so, in a very fundamental sense, I’ve gained nothing at all from my long involvement with the subject. And, what is more, all the many books I’ve written on religion and the many more that I’ve read on it have left me even more confused than I was before I began my ‘religion trip’ about the reality of the cosmos, the origins and purpose of life, the existence or otherwise of God, the truth or otherwise of heaven and hell and all those other fundamental questions which religions claim to answer.
Now, I don’t want to create the impression that I was into the business of reading and writing on religion all those years simply to make money and travel around and have a good time. No, that’s not quite the case. You might not believe it but I had also been searching—sometimes seriously, and, at other times, not quite so—for answers to the perplexing questions about ultimate realities that human beings have been asking themselves probably ever since they landed on earth. That explains, in part, why I’ve been hopping from one religion to another in the hope of finding answers that will finally convince me and put an end to what seems a ceaseless search.
But now I’ve quite decided, or so I must insist to myself, to stop religion-hopping, and I have to tell you why: I am totally fed up of it all! Just yesterday, while strolling in the neighbourhood park, it forcefully struck me that there is, honestly speaking, absolutely no way for me to know the truth of, and to decide between, the conflicting truth claims of the different religions about a host of questions of ultimate concern that cannot be proved through reason, logic or the sense organs. (I am amazed that it took me so many years to discover this simple fact!) That means that I have no rational way of verifying if a particular such claim made by a particular religion is really true or not. Since I refuse to accept any answer on blind faith, or because it was the view of a person who lived a thousand or two thousand years ago and is considered ‘holy’ by many or because it is what a certain ‘holy’ book says or simply out of fear (as most believers do), I must necessarily remain skeptical while also being open to the possibility that either all the conflicting claims of the various religions about a particular issue that cannot be verified by reason and the sense organs are false or else that one is true and the rest erroneous. I would necessarily have to suspend belief in all the answers provided by the different religions to these questions unless it so happens that the answer provided by one or the other religion becomes, through my own personal experience, certain knowledge for me. In that case, there would no longer be any need for me to be skeptical, on the one hand, or to ‘believe’, as ‘believers’ do (for you only believe in something that you don’t really know), on the other.
So, if you were to ask me if I believe that a creator, omnipotent God exists, as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism claim, or if I think it’s simply a fanciful idea and a product of delusion, as Buddhism insists, honestly, I cannot reply. I’ve never seen or heard or felt or experienced (as opposed to imagined) such a God, and so I have to admit that I am not sure if She/It/He is indeed a reality. That means that I do not know for a fact that this God exists. But, equally, and using that very logic, nor can I deny the possibility that this God might actually exist. In other words, then, if I have to be honest to myself I simply can’t accept the claims of both the religions that insist that an omnipotent creator God exists and of those that deny such a God. I’m thus neither a ‘believer’ nor a ‘disbeliever’ in this sort of God. You might find that silly, to put it mildly, but that is really what I am!
Now, it may be that in the future I might actually experience this sort of God as a reality, which would make me know (as opposed to blindly believe) in His/Her/Its existence. Equally possibly, it may be that I will go through an experience which leads me to know (rather than merely believe) that the Buddhists are right about their views on the non-existence of a creator God. In either case, I would then willingly abandon my earlier stance of refusing to choose between the claims of the God-affirmers and the God-deniers. But, till that happens (if at all), I am forced to remain uncommitted to either position if I am to be honest to myself.
The same argument holds true with regard to a great many conflicting claims that divide the various religions on issues that cannot be verified by reason or the sense organs. So, if you ask me whether hell or heaven exist, I simply cannot say. I know that different religions have different claims about heaven and hell, but why should I believe any of them if I have not experienced or seen heaven and/or hell myself? How can I be expected to convince myself that hell and heaven exist simply because some book, which is widely revered by some people, insists that they do? Conversely, how can I deny the possibility that hell and heaven might exist just because someone else believes these are just fanciful creations invented to instill fear in people and to force them into conformity? All I can really do, if I am to be honest to myself, is to know, on the one hand, that hell and heaven might truly exist, and, at the same time, to also know that there is an equal possibility that they may not exist at all.
I bet you’ve asked yourself this question I don’t know how many times, as I have myself—if hell really does exist, who is it, or will it be, populated by? By all non-Muslims, no matter how goodly and kind, and perhaps by some ‘sinful’ Muslims, too, especially women, as many Muslims insist? By all who don’t believe that Jesus was Son of God, as born-again Christians aver? By ‘polluted’ Shudras and Mlecchas, as some orthodox Brahmins might think?
I am sure the same sort of questions have puzzled you about heaven, too, as they have never ceased to trouble me. Does heaven really exist, or is it the creation of a fanciful imagination? If it does exist, who will its inhabitants be? ‘Saintly’ Christian and winged angels, housed in palaces made of precious stones, as the Bible relates? Or by ‘pious’ Muslim men and their doe-eyed female companions, as Muslims think? Or by ‘upper’ caste Hindus, with a bevy of dazzling apsaras to entertain them, as some Brahminical texts might teach? Is heaven a state of mind, as some argue, or a physical space, dotted with enormous palaces and rivers of wine and honey, where one can revel in perpetual luxury, including sex, as others would like to imagine?
My honest answer is this: Since I’ve been neither to heaven nor hell and nor have I seen them I have not the faintest idea if they do really exist and if the claims that the different religions make about them are true or false. Since I don’t have any confirmed knowledge, based on my own experience (as opposed to hearsay or what might be written about them in different ‘holy’ scriptures or claimed about them by ‘holy’ figures) at all about these matters—and it is unlikely that I ever will till I die—I cannot affirm or deny the conflicting claims that the different religions make about them. So, here, too, I’m neither a ‘believer’ nor a ‘disbeliever’. You might accuse me of being awfully confused, but, really, mine is the only honest position for me to take on the matter. Certainly, you wouldn’t want me to be a hypocrite and claim that I believe in something that I really cannot be sure of in the absence of adequate proof and personal experience. That’s my answer to folks who might insist that I should blindly believe in the things that they do.
Similarly, you’ve been confronted with claims about religious figures that you can spend your whole life agonizing about and yet fail to come to any conclusion. Was Krishna really an avatar of Vishnu, as most Hindus think? Did he really have all those many miraculous powers that the Hindu scriptures attribute to him? Was Mohammad really a genuine prophet of God, as the Quran insists? Did an angel called Gabriel truly visit him with revelations from heaven, as Muslims believe? Was Jesus really the Son of God, as Christians imagine? Did he truly walk on water and die on the cross? Will he really return to rule the whole world at the End of Times, as the Bible relates? Was Buddha truly enlightened, as Buddhists claim? Was Mahavir really the Jina or ‘Liberator’, as the Jains say he was?
Honestly, I have no idea at all about the claims that are made on behalf about these figures, both by those who believe them and by those who doubt or deny them. Of course, and needless to say, I never had the chance to meet any of these persons, and that is why I honestly cannot be expected to affirm or deny the myriad and conflicting claims made about them by their followers and their critics which I cannot empirically verify myself.
Now, with regard to all these and other such claims (which are at the root of the ceaseless conflicts between the different religions and their adherents) I have decided that all I can do, if I have to be honest to myself, is to remain silent. There being no empirically reliable method for me to confirm or deny these various claims, and because I refuse to blindly believe in any claim in the absence of firm, undeniable proof based on my own personal insight and experience, all I can do is to say: Frankly, I have not the faintest idea! Being neither a believer nor a disbeliever in the conflicting claims of the different religions on matters that I cannot presently personally verify is perhaps the only way to honestly face questions that I cannot presently answer. And maybe that’s the only way I can finally stop the religion-hopping that’s been driving me bonkers all these years!
Phew! What a wonderful relief!
But does that mean that I’ve come to the end of my search for meaning? Not really. What it simply means is that I’ve now decided to try to stop obsessing about questions whose answers I presently can’t really know for sure and to focus, instead, on those that I can! And what or who can I know better than my own self? Fed up of searching for answers to questions related to ultimate realities outside—in scriptures and ‘holy’ men and contending religions and sects—and utterly tired of trying to force myself to believe in them without knowledge based on personal experience (as opposed to blind belief), discovering the reality of myself is the most that I can manage—and, really, if you ask, me, all that I need to be bothered about.
Presently, I don’t honestly know the reality of the God that the God-centric religions speak about, or the Nirvana that the Buddhists who deny such a God believe in. I admit I am not sure if a creator God exists or not, or if hell and heaven are true, and so on, and I know that, as of now, I cannot gain firm knowledge about such matters. Why, then, continue to obsess about things that I have not a clue about, and about which I might never learn the truth based on personal experience (as opposed to blind belief)? Why subject myself to endless torture searching for answers when there are none (outside the realm of blind belief)?
That said, I also know that there is something equally important that I certainly can—and should—know: the reality of myself. Am I a good or bad person? A loving or a wrathful person? Are my thoughts and emotions positive or negative? Why do I harbor ill-will and hatred? Is the way I relate to myself and others helpful or harmful? These are questions whose answers I can acquire on my own, without having to rely on any external source—a god, a scripture or a priest. And, if you ask me, these answers are all that I really need to know!
So, yes, I admit I don’t honestly know if a creator God exists or not, but what I do know is that I harbor a whole load of negativity within me. I have no idea if heaven exists, but I do know I can be an awful person much of the time. I can’t say if the founder of a particular religion or cult was a sincere and honest man and not deluded or a cheat, but I am aware that I can be very mean at times. I have not the faintest clues if angels and demons really fly about in the sky but what I do know is that I can be loving and kind, if I want to—on rare occasions. And I also do know that I need to expend effort in trying to become a better person, day by day, minute by minute—not for the greed for heaven or for fear of hell (even supposing they exist, of which I am not sure), but simply because I know that this is better for me—and for other creatures, too.
That’s a major shift in perspective, you will agree! Who knows, maybe, as some mystics claim, that’s also the only way to find answers to the questions of ultimate import, including about God and no-God and life after death and so on, which the religionists, goaded by blind belief, never seek squabbling over and which I have wasted so many years fruitlessly agonizing about.
Yoginder Sikand works with the CSSE at the National Law School, Bangalore