Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Early evolution of religion ushered the dawn of scientific research

Gupi (name changed) was born in a typical conservative Hindu family in India. He visited us for few weeks. It seemed that Gupi presented some tough challenges for his traditional Hindu parents. I think the same challenges are there for many parents and their beloved children who are now preparing to face the world with increasingly higher connectivity, both in terms of personal interactions and digital (in cyber space), in India and abroad. The chance to encounter people with different or even totally opposite tradition and religious beliefs is becoming higher in this era of higher mobility, rapidly expanding communication technology and shrinking personal space. Problems for Gupi and his parents mainly started with religion. The issues became more acute as both Gupi and his parents wanted him to be either a scientist or an engineer.

Many eminent personalities believe that the chance of success of our future generation will largely depend on their understanding of different cultures, which mainly comes from upbringing in multicultural societies as in this country, America. But to get the benefits from the diversity of a multicultural society people need to understand some very basics of human evolution; not only to succeed but sometimes even to survive. It becomes more important in foreign countries where one’s religion and/or traditions are among the minorities. Gupi is one of such kids, growing up abroad where his religion is among the minorities.

Religion has a huge impact on our tradition and culture, the way we like to live. It is also a very sensitive issue. I urge my readers not to take this article personally, but objectively. The purpose of this article is not to hurt anyone’s faith, not to conclude on the issue but to provoke higher level of debate and consolidation of logical thinking. It is believed that both religious and political allegiances are mostly hereditary than rational. These two are also the most important sources for conflict (and both social and political corruption) since ages and remain so till today. In this article I’ll try to deal with the religious issues and leave the political part to our Anna Hazare and his team. In fact, I was encouraged to write this piece after my brief encounter with that 11 year old boy, Gupi’s dilemma and Anna Hazare’s fast to fight corruption.

Let’s start with the very early period of human civilization. During that time humans felt insecure and helpless in front of natural calamities and search for food. They gradually tried to adjust, understand and overcome the problems when possible. Their main strategy was to organize people and act as a group. It increased their chance of success. That gave rise to community living and group activities like hunting, cultivation etc. During the process people gradually understood the problems more critically and also became aware of their limitations. That awareness provoked some to conceive the existence of supernatural powers, which they thought were behind all those forces that they cannot control. They also started believing that such supernatural forces strike when they are not happy, just like they do. They tried to keep the spirits happy, developed a set of rituals, later known as “worship”. Each group of people tried to conceive the supernatural powers according to their own experiences. If they liked any particular food or drink, they used to offer those to their Gods. Gods also started looking like them, physically. The same God is not exactly the same in southern India as compared to that of northern India. Our current, but totally misleading, perception about Jesus Christ with blue eyes and blond hair is just another fascinating story in that regard.

Even the definition of God varies from region to region. Ravana may be a demon in most of India but many people in Sri Lanka and southern India consider him as God. Many believe that Ravana was a better king or administrator, if one compares prosperity of his kingdom with that of Ram. Ajodhya was not “golden” but Lanka was! Of course the package (for Ravana) came with the characteristics that were so common among king-class, elite people (even today), which ultimately caused his defeat and death, just like many other great kings in history.

Now coming back from Satya yuga to our Kali yuga, which started on 18th February 3102 BC as per Brahma Vaivarta Purana and Wikipedia. As most of the natural calamities used to be the same i.e. rain, flood, storm-wind, draught-sun, wild beasts etc, many of such supernatural powers had high similarities (though not identical) world over. Gradually all such concepts and activities gave rise to religion. To cut the long story short, religion was developed to make societies more organized and to involve majority population to participate in different activities or rituals for betterment of the society. Religion made implementing the rules much easier. Both remuneration and punishment was introduced. It gave rise to the concept of virtue and vice. Breaking the rules was equated to sin or vice while obeying those became virtues. Here we should keep in mind that all such rules were made by human, most probably the pack leaders of the groups. During early phase of human evolution and initial days of religion, almost everyone was busy to ensure their survival and growth. They all were interested to search reasons (to solve problems), in other words, the truth (mainly behind natural calamities, food supply and reproduction). Later life became a bit easier due to many innovations and inventions. Then the main evolution of religion started, as we see it today.

Ancient religions are more inclined to have idol worshipping. They have many Gods to take care of natural causes like wind, rain, flood, life threatening animals, birth, death etc. Examples of such religion are Hinduism, religions in ancient Egypt, Greece etc. Many tribes in India and abroad practice this type of religion with many Gods and idol worshipping. More recent religions like Islam, Christianity are more like ideology. Almost all of such recent religions conceive a single God. The person who introduced that ideology became the prophet, mostly the “last” prophet. Such differences indicate the motive behind introduction of such religions. It's like establishing an ideology than to motivate survival of a group of people. The same analogy can be drawn to other non-religious socio-political evolutions, e.g Marxism. It’s the same psychology with which a king rules his subjects and advertises his supremacy. Evolution of recent religions was possible as life became easier. Creation and spread of such recent religions also affected more ancient religions. Leaders of those ancient religions tried to invent new rituals to strengthen their grips over power, and wealth associated with power. “Satidaha” (burning of brides), caste division, no beef eating, many marriages by men but not by women etc by Hindus are some of this type of new rituals. As people from different religions came closer, competition to prove ones’ supremacy became more intense.

Historians and anthropologists widely accept that beef was widely eaten in ancient India. Cow got its holy status around 500 AD, coinciding with an agricultural boom on the subcontinent. The people, whom we consider as the creator of Hinduism, not only used to eat beef but also prescribed beef for many health reasons and illnesses. An ancient Hindu text, Manusmriti (200BC to 200AD), lists cow as one of several animals whose meat can be eaten. One of the two great Indian epics - the Mahabharata - speaks of beef being a delicacy served to esteemed guests. For a quick reference one can read an article published in BBC on 9th August 2001. It was published after few fundamentalists, claiming to be Hindu, started law and order problems and threatening author, Prof D N Jha, for his book “Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions”.

Even the languages, which were only the means of expression, became associated with specific religions. Arabic became Islamic, Latin became Christian, and Sanskrit became a Hindu language. Many Hindus started believing that anything written in Sanskrit must be true and (mostly) holy. Here we should keep in mind that Sanskrit was not the language of common people but of socio-political elites of ancient India.

To maintain the social order and supremacy, group-leaders did not encourage asking question. They started implementing their own version of “truth” in the name of religion. It became the norm. Gradually every religion started demanding un-questionable faith. “Search for truth” soon became the fight to establish one’s own version of truth. Now we see the fight among human beings to prove that their version of “truth” is more “true” than that of others! This deformed version of “religion” allegedly is the single most important reason for human sufferings, conflicts and death in the past and remains so even today. Religion took a massive blow to serve its original intended purpose as we invented constitution, laws and lately democracy to maintain social discipline. This presented a great dilemma for many, particularly for those who live in secular democracies like India and the USA.

Many cannot stop the temptation to cite famous people, mainly famous scientists like Einstein to “prove” religion. Let me quote a letter written by no other but older, more matured Albert Einstein on January 3rd 1954, a year before his death. It says (as published in many newspapers, including “The Telegraph” of UK on 13th May 2008)- “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this”. Einstein, who died the following year aged 76, did not spare Judaism from his criticism, believing Jewish people were in no way “chosen” by God. He wrote: “For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.”

Our own Achariya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the noted chemist and among the first few Indian entrepreneurs to set up knowledge based Industry, Bengal Chemical, in India on 12th April, 1901, once tried to identify “since when and why India cannot undertake objective scientific research” (my own translation from Bengali texts). After a long investigation he wrote a book, “History of Hindu Chemistry”. There he identified distorted interpretation and practice of religion (more specifically the Hindu religion) and heinous caste system as the root cause. In an article titled, “knowledge of technical arts and decline of scientific spirit”, he was more elaborate. He specifically identified two people – first one is Saint Shankaracharaya and then saint Manu (who introduced stricter caste based social division and marriage among Hindus). For a quick reference one can check the short article published in reputed Bengali magazine, “Desh” (2nd February 2011 issue). The sad state of affairs of Hindus (and Bengalis) becomes clear when we find madness to celebrate 150 years of Rabindranath Tagore but not even a fraction to remember this great Indian scientist and entrepreneur (1861-1944).

There are many people who consider themselves Hindu yet totally deny existence of God. One such group of Hindu sites the ancient Sanskrit scripture, Sankhya- tattva-kaumudi. It argues that a perfect God can have no need to create a world, and if God's motive is kindness, Samkhya questions whether it is reasonable to call into existence beings who while non-existent had no suffering. Samkhya postulates that a benevolent deity ought to create only happy creatures, not an imperfect world like the real world!

Now let’s come out of such controversies and share the good news. A recent survey by PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, a part of the famous American think-tank Pew Research Center, concluded that atheists and agnostics are among the highest-scoring groups in a survey of religious knowledge, outperforming “believers”. If we re-frame that statement, we can safely say that those people who know more about religion believe less in it. Another PEW survey concluded that, “America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten US adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives”. The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) of USA concluded in 2002 that, “the influence of religion is decreasing in all the developed countries surveyed so far. In USA, about 51.6% of people think that it is decreasing and about 37.5% believe that it is increasing”. A recent article in BBC pointed out that, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says”. These nine countries include mostly developed ones- Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. It's reported in 1998 that about 93% of "great" scientists of USA (members of National Academy of Sciences) expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God.

I personally think there is no conflict between science and religion, as many believe or might expect. It will not be right to say that Achariya PC Roy was less Hindu (to do excellent “objective scientific research”). But that will only be true if we keep in mind the real meaning of religion and can logically follow its gradual evolution. The people whom we think are the founding fathers, invented “religion” to seek truth, as I indicated before. I could not include “founding mothers” simply because almost all mainstream religions are male dominated and follow policies mostly biased against women. It is almost unimaginable to see a woman as the Pope (the head of Catholic Church) or a Shankaracharya in Kanchipuram or the Imam of any great mosque. Nevertheless, all those father figures and many great women scholars used to seek truth with the tools and techniques available to them. They very effectively used the best tools they had, i.e. their brain. They developed the ability to ask questions and seek answers, not for monetary gain or fame. Are these not the same very basic requirements to become a true scientist even today? If you do not have those, no degree or job designation can make anyone a scientist. Science is not just learning few techniques, following protocols, rote memorization of some information/data or even publications and getting awards. To me science is nothing but searching the truth and solving problems.

During the course of evolution we lost the focus and forgot the real meaning of religion. We started following some (mostly) meaningless rituals in the name of either religion or tradition. There comes the conflict. Meditation is not just sitting idle in a specific posture for a period of time to watch soap operas or movies or sports on TV later. It was to prepare our mind to be able to concentrate on more challenging problems. A true religious person will not undertake any sort of corruption or dishonesty using some mundane rituals as shield. The same is true for a scientist. Eating beef does not make anyone less Hindu. Not eating beef also does not make the highly corrupt, dishonest person a Hindu or a religious entity either. To me, spirituality indicates purification of one’s own mind by achieving the ability to think clearly and logically towards making the world a better place. Unless we can do that, there is no way that following some rituals or traditions will make us either spiritual or religious. It is immaterial to me if you gather strength by thinking some real (e.g. our own parents, spouses, children, friends etc) or imaginary (God, Goddess etc) figures or from personal conviction of logic and facts (as atheists do) if you are an honest person with the ability to think clearly and the courage to talk straight. If we follow Vivekananda we should understand that one does not need to pray to God or offer pujas all the time to become religious, if we are honest and have the ability to fight for it.

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