Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The problem of evil - I

I don't know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn't. -Jules Renard, writer

I knew that Arun Shourie has a handicapped son who is confined to a wheelchair but I didn't know anything else about this. So when a neighbour gave me a book that Shourie has written about this, Does He Know A Mother's Heart?, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was also intrigued by the subtitle - 'How suffering refutes religions'. It turned out to be somewhat different from what I had expected. It is the first book I have read that has mostly to do with religion.

In the first chapter, he describes the struggles of his son, now 35, who has cerebral palsy. He cannot walk or stand and cannot use his right hand. He has vision problems which have been exacerbated by the rupture of the membrane of his right eye which has caused tremendous pain. Some months back, he had convulsions necessitating a stay in the ICU. He has managed to retain his joie de vivre inspite of all these problems. I once read that Gary Sobers has a sixth finger on his left hand and the article said that the good Lord didn't know when to stop while pouring the goodies down that gifted left side. In the case of Shourie's son the bad Lord didn't know when to stop when buffeting him with various ailments.

Shourie says that if you see a father ill-treat his helpless, handicapped child, you will be aghast and will try your best to separate the two. You will want the father thrown into jail. But what happens if that father is The Father - God?
Why does the perspective of so many of us change at once? Suddenly, they exclaim, ‘There must be some reason God has done this.’ Suddenly, they shift the blame to that poor child: ‘Must have done something terrible in his previous life to deserve such hardship...’

And yet the child loves. He laughs. He is filled with joy at the littlest things – a tape of Talat Mahmood, lunch at a restaurant, the visit of an aunt or a cousin..... What are we to conclude? That the cruelties rained upon him by his father have ‘built his character’? That they have instilled forbearance? Are we to infer, ‘See, while to us the father seems cruel, in fact he never inflicts more hardship on the son than the son can bear'?

Were we to say and infer as much, that would be not just obnoxious, it would be perverse. And yet those are the exact things that , as we shall see, a revered religious text says about God: He inflicts hardship upon us to build our character; He never imposes more hardship on a person than the latter can bear.
Having heard such 'explanations' after my stroke, I know where Shourie is coming from. Bertrand Russell was right - “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.” They trivialise the hammer-blows that people receive on a regular basis.

The benevolent god then gave Shourie another of those 'one in ten million' blows - his wife was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's disease. She has had it for 22 years now.Her symptoms have worsened over the years, she finds it difficult to eat by herself now and has suffered a few falls but has luckily escaped serious injuries. (Believers will say that god helped her to avoid injuries! You can't win.) It is a wonder that in spite of all this Shourie has had the mental fortitude to be editor of the Indian Express and Times of India, a minister in the government of India and write 26 books. He also mentions the trials and tribulations of some near and dear ones.

All this is in a heart-rending first chapter and a brief epilogue. The rest of the book is devoted to examining various texts - Bible, Koran, Hindu scriptures, Gandhi's writings etc. - to determine what they say about the question of suffering. It is instructive how often those who know what dress god wants you to wear ascribe everything to 'the inscrutable will of god' or, as Shourie quotes Indian televangelists as saying, 'sab maya hai.' I found myself skimming rapidly through the parts quoting passages from these texts. Reading whacky tales, sophistry, circumlocutions, deepities etc. is not my cup of tea. You know, sentences like

-She abides in the Self as the Self.
-All illusion is suffering.
-Only the Real Self is happiness.
-Killing the jiva is to abide in the Self.
-Being Brahman he goes to Brahman.

Boy, give me animal camouflage any day. When I see sentences with all sorts of combinations of I, You, Inner, Outer, Self, Karma, Brahman, Atman, etc., I doze off. Shourie has the patience of Job to wade through these texts. If I was asked to read one of these books, I wouldn't have got past the first page before I started thinking like Jerry Coyne.

All scriptures had weird tales and I kept asking myself, 'Do people really believe these things?' If pushed, believers will say they are metaphors but one person's metaphor is another person's reality. As it says in this article, 'For goodness sake, people, the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is more plausible.' I am not surprised that some clergymen eventually get tired of making stuff up. Shourie writes:
But how is one to bring oneself to believe all this? The way to do so is not to reason. Not to ask too many questions! Think of His bounties, we are told, not of His reasons, not of His essence.
God keeps demanding absolute, unconditional, abject surrender from his devotees, reminding me of one of Christopher Hitchens' most evocative phrases - surrendering to the will of god would be like living in 'a Divine North Korea'. God seems to have an incredible appetite for violence, often for the grave misdemeanor of not ego- massaging him properly. Quote from a friend of Shourie's who recites Persian poetry: "I do evil and You punish me with evil / Pray what is the difference between You and me?'

I was surprised to find religion being criticised by a member of the BJP, one who thinks man made god and that even dumb animals who have no conception of god show levels of self-sacrifice equivalent to the best of humans, indicating as an example this famous video. After looking at the scriptures of various religions, Shourie inclines towards Buddhism (as Ambedkar had done). I had read that in the Sangh Parivar's version of Indian history, people like Buddha, Ashoka, Kabir and Akbar don't exist because they are not Hindus. I wonder what they think of this book. (Shourie himself seems to be a complex character and some views he expresses in the book don't square with some statements he seems to have made in the past.)

You can watch interviews with Arun Shourie about his book and other issues on NDTV and CNN-IBN.

PS: The book mentions Gandhi as saying that Indians are by nature non-violent. I wonder where he got the idea from.Every day T.V. news has reports of horrific violence from some
part of the country. One of the most revered texts of Hindus, the Gita, is a call for militaristic action.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Suresh, read this with interest - particularly the final statement 'the Gita, is a call for militaristic action.' Suppose that you have thoroughly read and analysed the Gita, before saying this. :)

  3. Gopal,

    No, I haven't.:) I know only the general outline.

  4. QUOTE It is instructive how often those who know what dress god wants you to wear ascribe everything to 'the inscrutable will of god' or, as Shourie quotes Indian televangelists as saying, 'sab maya hai.' UNQUOTE

    Paisa vasool for the trouble I take to check your blog every now and then!

    ps: my (completely unscientific) theory is that Gandhi had to say and do a lot of things to project a certain image. Appreciate him for his strategic brilliance; don't take his statements THAT seriously.

    ps2: Shourie is a personal favourite - the best PM that India will never have, in my view.

  5. It's interesting you mention this now, since I am witnessing so many varied responses to my father's death. There's my grandmother - his mother - who has taken this frighteningly calmly. It has broken her, but it seems so right when she says my father has returned to where he came from - God. She has always been a very philosophical person, and Father took much inspiration from her.

    My mother has steadfastly hung on to her belief in God, despite the cruel hands that fate has dealt her. Her father died when I was just two years old, and now she loses her husband, but she says she refuses to let the negativity get to her. I think she finds solace in believing that he is in a better place now…

    As for me, I spent the first few weeks in denial, so I really didn’t have time to rail against God. Now that I can, I find myself facing a dilemma. If I do blame it on God, it means I believe in Him (or Her), which I don’t want to. Time will resolve it, perhaps…

    1. Anjali,
      Different strokes for different folks.
      Take the case of my mother- she lost her husband when I was around 20 years, both her children are handicapped and she is one medical emergency away from disaster. But she firmly believes in God. And I am exactly the opposite but this has never caused any problems between us. I don't know how this works!

  6. KES

    I once read that Gary Sobers has a sixth finger on his left hand and the article said that the good Lord didn't know when to stop while pouring the goodies down that gifted left side. In the case of Shourie's son the bad Lord didn't know when to stop when buffeting him with various ailments.

    wonderful words: We suffer as we feel we are suffering; when we disregard problems and look at the sweet things around, we don't suffer. In the case of guys with brain problems such as cerebral palsy; I don't know if they would be suffering as much as their near and dear must be! this situations show transmission of trauma to others though the guy concerned might not be feeling the suffering at all! would that not mean that the GOD, if any, has punished not that guy but those to whom pains have been transmitted!