By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
(The Bible [New International Version]; Matthew 19:14)
There are some things in the Bible that I do not—and simply cannot—accept or believe in, but this is one statement from this text with which I couldn’t more heartily agree. I have no idea of exactly how Christian theologians interpret this passage, and I suppose different Christian denominations might disagree among themselves, as they do on other issues, on its precise meaning. But I’ve developed a tentative meaning of it of my own—and, who knows, it might just be right!
I don’t expect many Christian (and other) theologians to at all concur with me on my understanding of the word ‘heaven’ that is used in this passage. Frankly, I have not the faintest idea if heaven, as they imagine it, really exists—as a place, with pearly gates and enormous palaces, inhabited by winged angels, who blow trumpets and sing “Hallelujah!” day-in and day-out, and so on. Nor do I believe, as many Christian theologians insist, that ‘heaven’ is the monopoly of folks who believe in Jesus as ‘the one and only begotten son of God’. But, on the other hand, I would readily agree, at least partly, with them if they interpret the passage to mean that only those who truly become like little children—loving, non-judgmental, utterly joyful beings, shorn of all the masks that we almost constantly stick onto our faces—will be admitted to ‘heaven’ (whatever that might mean or wherever it might be). (If I may add in passing, judging by this very sensible criterion, almost no adults I know of—including myself, of course—would even remotely qualify for admission to paradise. The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ must, then, definitely be a sparsely-populated realm!)
But just being a loving, joyful, innocent person, uncorrupted by the world and its complications, is not all what being child-like is about, as far as I can think. There’s definitely more to it than just that. An infant is uncontaminated by all sense of distinction from the rest of the cosmos. A newly-born child is completely free from the delusion—that adults possess and desperately cling to—of being a separate, individual being, a person different from other persons, of possessing an individual self. The infant and the rest of the cosmos are one, seamless whole. As far as the infant is concerned, there’s simply no duality of any sort between itself and its surroundings. Could this be what the Buddha referred to as anatta, or ‘no-self’? Could the ‘no-self’, this seamless, non-dualistic union with the cosmos, that the newborn infant experiences be in line with what Jesus might have meant in the passage quoted above? Is this in line with what the Buddha meant when he talked of Nirvana, and what some Sufis mean when they describe the spiritual path as leading to fana, or extinguishment, of the ana, the ego, the sense of individuality? Frankly, I’m not at all sure—I’ve never met Jesus, nor the Buddha, nor, too, have I encountered a genuine Sufi, but, who knows, I may not quite be wrong!
There’s even more to being like a little child than this. An infant, being one with the entire cosmos (or what you could call “God” if you want to give it a personal name and see it as a personal being), is blissfully free from the many identities that will soon be imposed on it by its parents, by society, by priests and politicians—identities with which it will be made to so closely identify itself with and cling to that it will begin to see itself only in their terms.
The first of these identities that come to be imposed on the infant is a sense of individuality, or ‘I’-ness. The infant has no name when it is born. It doesn’t need one, because it doesn’t distinguish itself from its surroundings, from other people. A name is simply a means to distinguish a person from the rest, and to enforce in a person a sense of separate individuality. Ordinarily, once a child is given a name, it comes to identify itself completely with it. This fusion with the name that is given to it helps engender and reinforce in the child a sense of ego—the idea of being an individual and of being distinct from other individuals. As long as the child is unaware of possessing a separate self and till it is made to identify itself with the particular name that is given to it by its parents, it remains in its seamless unity with the rest of the cosmos. It is immersed in the bliss of unity with all that is, with Existence, with the All—which, if you want, you could call “God”, although the child doesn’t need to give it any name. And if this is God, the infant certainly doesn’t need to “believe” in “Him” or in doctrines and dogmas about “Him” or to practice any rituals that are believed by adults necessary to propitiate “Him”, for by being completely immersed in “Him”, it knows “Him” and is in “Him” from its own experience, at every single moment. Is this oneness with the All what Jesus also meant in the passage under discussion? Is attaining this oneness with Existence/ the All/ the Cosmos/ God what ‘entry’ into ‘heaven’ is all about? I could be talking absolute nonsense here, but, who knows, maybe I’m not!
Then, again, just as a little child knows no distinction between itself and the cosmos, it has no idea at all of the numerous other distinctions that adult folks think they can discern in the cosmos. Everything that the infant experiences is fundamentally one and the same—the wind and the fragrance of flowers, animals and human beings, men and women, rich and poor, good and bad. An infant is also blissfully unaware of the numerous distinctions that other human beings have constructed among themselves—distinctions of caste, class, ideology, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality and so on. It has no conception of “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Jew”, “Christian”, “Communist” and “Atheist”; of “Brahmin” and “Dalit”; of “American”, “Indian”, “Saudi”, “Israeli” and “Congolese”; of “rich”, “middle-class” and “poor”; of “male”, “female” and “transgender”; of “white”, “brown” and “black”; of “straight”, “gay”, “bisexual” and “asexual”; of “friend” and “foe”. It has no idea whatsoever of “God” and the “Devil”, “devas” and “asuras”, “belief” and “disbelief”, “life” and “death”, “heaven” and “hell”, this or that religion or ideology. The infant comes into the world untouched and unsullied by all these numerous beliefs, identities and notions—which are imposed on it only later, by its parents and others, who collectively conspire to trap the child into these suffocating cages. As far as the infant is concerned, all these absurdities have no significance or meaning whatsoever.
Is this pure infant-like state, a state of liberation from all dogmas, beliefs and identities that society is desperate to impose on the infant as soon as it can, what Jesus also means when he indicates that only those who become child-like can ever enter the ‘Kingdom of Heaven”? Is the way to ‘heaven’, returning to the state of infant innocence, thus also about becoming completely innocent of all these impositions, so much so that one no longer identifies with and clings to this or that religion, belief-system, ideology, class, caste, community, gender, race, nation and so on and even goes so far as to abandon the very notion of self—the ego or the ‘I’-feeling, the sense of an individual self, distinct from and opposed to the rest of the cosmos? Is ‘entry’ into ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ possibly only after you shed all the beliefs and identities that have been imposed on you or that you have developed and clung on to ever since you passed out of infancy? Is this ‘entry’ into ‘heaven’ just another way of describing self-realisation, when you finally discover what you truly are—not even a self without any identities and labels, but, even, perhaps, ‘no-self’, just one with Existence, the way you were when you were an infant? Is this a necessary, or even perhaps the final, stage on the “Path”, which not just Jesus, but all other mystics and wise men and women, no matter what religious tradition they emerged from, have talked about over the centuries? Honestly, I have not the slightest clue—after all, I’m no mystic or wise one myself. And so, maybe I’m absolutely wrong, though I should like to hope that I’m not!