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.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Much obliged, Plum

“[He] saw that a peculiar expression had come into his nephew's face; an expression a little like that of a young hindu fakir who having settled himself on his first bed of spikes is beginning to wish that he had chosen one of the easier religions.”
- P.G. Wodehouse

The first thing that comes to my mind when someone mentions Valentine's Day is that P.G.Wodehouse died on this day in 1975.He is widely considered to be the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century. I have no trouble agreeing with that. Consider this sentence from 'Carry On, Jeeves':
“I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”
Or this in 'Joy in the Morning':
I don’t say I’ve got much of a soul, but, such as it is, I’m perfectly satisfied with the little chap. I don’t want people fooling about with it. ‘Leave it alone,’ I say. ‘Don’t touch it. I like it the way it is.’
If you are immune to such writing, you are fit, to use one of Wodehouse's favourite Shakespearean quotations, only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. You don't analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.
You don't read Wodehouse for the plot which, in many cases for example, would consist of goofy, upper class gents getting into an improbable mess from which they would be extricated by a Spinoza-reading 'gentleman's gentleman'. In the hands of other authors, this would soon become boring. But Wodehouse plays with the words in such a way that age neither withers nor custom stales the hilarity of his descriptions. And those names! How did he think up names like Gerald Anstruther Vail. George Cyril Wellbeloved. Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe (of Matchingham Hall in Much Matcingham no less), Major Wilfred "Plug" Basham, Pongo Twistleton, Dame Daphne Winkworth...

It is said that it is best to avoid reading Wodehouse in a public place because you are liable to sudden bursts of laughter which might make people think that you are off your rocker. I have this problem even at home. I will be lying quietly on the bed staring at the ceiling when I will start cackling like a demented kookaburra on thinking of some absurd situation in some Wodehouse novel and folks at home will think I have lost it. I am a fan of anything by Wodehouse like 'the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all'. As Lynne Truss says:
“You should read Wodehouse when you’re well, and when you’re poorly; when you’re travelling, and when you’re not; when you’re feeling clever, and when you’re feeling utterly dim. Wodehouse always lifts your spirits, no matter how high they happen to be already.”
Wodehouse has put me in some ticklish situations. I couldn't resist quoting a passage from this article (I remember reading this conversation but I can't recall which book it was in):
At the start of his book, McCrum can't resist quoting a passage that once again shows how beautifully Wodehouse can puncture sententious and over-serious opinions. I can't resist it either. It goes like this. " 'I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said: "Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web."'
I breathed a bit stertorously. 'He said that, did he?'
'Yes, sir.
'Well, you can tell him from me he's an ass."

Friday, February 3, 2012


It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future", said Yogi Berra (or Neils Bohr or Mark Twain depending on the source). Ask the experts. Learning from the Heart is a book written by Daniel Gottlieb who suffered a spinal cord injury that left him quadriplegic at the age of thirty-three. He writes:
"People look at me and imagine themselves in my position and feel fear. I certainly did that when I was younger. Because of my disability, I have already experienced what most people will as they age. I consider myself very lucky as I listen to my middle-aged fellow humans worry about their losses. All the stuff they fret about now, I already have endured, so I don't have to be concerned. That frees my mind up to worry about all sorts of other things!"
He was right when he said that you can't predict your future very well. If someone had told me before my stroke that I will be a quadriplegic , will not be able to speak, but will not go mad, will read a lot of astronomy and evolution and find them interesting, become more rational, I would have said they were nuts. But that is precisely what has happened.

Of course, I would first have felt a stab of fear at the thought of being locked-in. I would never have thought that instead of keeping on lamenting, I would have preferred to live in the moment. Jaya also never imagined that she would have been able to deal successfully with all the challenges since my stroke. Many people who have known her since childhood have been surprised by her resilience. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says:
Able-bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to become able-bodied again because able-bodied people under-estimate how happy disabled people are. As one group of researchers noted, “chronically ill and disabled patients generally rate the value of their lives in a given health state more highly than do hypothetical patients [who are] imagining themselves to be in such states.” Indeed, healthy people imagine that eighty-three states of illness would be “worse than death,” and yet, people who are actually in those states rarely taken their own lives.
How we interpret ambiguous stimuli depend on factors like context, frequency, recency, etc. The biggest sources of exploitable ambiguities are the varied experiences in life. As soon as an imagined experience becomes an actual experience, the brain looks for ways to interpret it in a way that allows us to appreciate it. As Gilbert says:
Consumers evaluate kitchen appliances positively after they buy them, job seekers evaluate jobs more positively after they accept them, and high school students evaluate colleges more positively after they get into them. Racetrack gamblers evaluate their horses more positively when they are leaving the betting window than when they are approaching it, and voters evaluate their candidates more positively when they are exiting the voting booth than when they are entering it. A toaster, a firm, a university, a horse, and a senator are all just fine and dandy, but when they become our toaster, firm, university, horse, and senator they are instantly finer and dandier.
Although our brains are very good at putting a positive spin on things, it doesn't mean that we have a Panglossian view of every experiences. Rather, we have a psychological immune system that defends our minds against unhappiness, functioning in a similar way to the physical immune system.
... when we face the pain of rejection, loss, misfortune, and failure, the psychological immune system must not defend us too well (“I’m perfect and everyone is against me”) and must not fail to defend us well enough (“I’m a loser and I ought to be dead”). A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it (“Yeah, that was a lousy performance and I feel crummy about it, but I’ve got confidence to give it a second shot”). We need to be defended – not defenceless or defensive - and thus our minds naturally look for the best view of things while simultaneously insisting that those views stick reasonably closely to the facts.
When we are stuck with an experience and cannot change it, we begin to change our views of the experience. In Gilbert's words - "We just can't make the best of a fate until it is inescapably, inevitably, and irrevocably ours." There is more but for that you will have to read the book. Edge once asked many public personalities to give their favourite equation and Gilbert gave this equation for why it is so hard to predict how we will feel in the future.

PS: In his blog, Gilbert gives a psychologist's take on The Vagaries of Religious Experience.