Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Search of a Peaceful and Non-violent Secular Society

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part three

N P Chekkutty: Reading Sachi daa’s introduction to Myth and Literature, I was intrigued by one comment about the myths: That Marx thought it would disappear once science and rational thinking gets deep roots. Perhaps that he was proved wrong tells much not only about our failure in building socialism and a rational society, as he had hoped we would; but also about human nature. As even evolutionary biologists seem to agree, the irrational and mythical has a much deeper role to play in human affairs.

That takes me to another thought: The idea of the (im)possibility of changing the hegemonic ideology. With deep and biological roots for the irrational, religious, and superstitious we may never be able to think of a human society that is free from suicide bombers, thought police and bigots...

That ends up with another, very gloomy thought: That all efforts, all hopes for change is hopeless.

John Samuel: Chekkutty, I don't think so. If so we cease to be human!
Human beings are rational and irrational at the same time; can smile at one moment and get depressed the next; can laugh as well as cry; hug and get angry; floating between sweet dreams and nightmares; hope and hopelessness; memories and amnesia, revenge and forgiveness, create and destroy, procreate and die...there is no full stops, there are only commas and semicolon in this never ending coalescence, making and unmaking...

It is such contradictions that make life and this world move...may be forward, side ways and backward at the same a swing-- make this an exciting movement within and without. So isn't it also exciting to see the world with a sense of wonder, and curiosity of a six-year-old? Society is always driven by the tension between the desire for freedom and tendencies to dominate. The very act of challenging dominations is the most significant aspect. ‘Freedom’ is not an end product-- it is on the one hand a constant sense of desire and on the other, a human urge to find our space, time, joy, existence, and survival in a given context. One of the important tensions in the modern world is the tension between the notions of liberty and equality. Every alternative may end up becoming an establishment tomorrow. But the very politics of dissent and resistance would force us to find another alternative...This sense of resisting and engaging at the same time is what actually makes the world change. And most of the change has occurred in a cumulative manner.

The problem is when we are all driven by the myth of ‘Progress’ -- graduating from one stage of history to another-- in a sort of apocalyptic progression. That sense of certainty, derived from Joachim, Darwin, Marx, etc, are a part of the problem.
The art of discovering and rekindling hope in the midst of hopelessness is what made us human-- that is what gave us poetry, science, and politics. It seems we are a part of the never ending cycle of creativity and destruction: Shristi, sththi and samhara! We are also victims and villains of the hell and heaven among us and within us.
It is the hope of change and the will to transform the conditions within and among us what makes life worth living, worth dreaming and worth doing. So let us not get too much confused by the whirlpools in this river of life as there are also very good soothing ripples beyond such whirlpools of history and human perplexities.

Sajan: Dear Chekkutty, I am an avid reader of all your writings. But I am getting slightly disturbed by your pessimism which seems to be growing day by day.
I would love to think that with all the problems in the world it is
eventually becoming a better place to live.

M P Chandrasekharan: I am afraid that "hegemony" is built into every biological system. Look at a group of elephants, spotted deer or a pack of wolves in the forest. Good or bad, they have a system of electing a leader. Communists also adopted the same model except that they called one another "Comrade". One of the greatest spiritual gurus, Jesus Christ is called "the king of kings" although he had no kingdom to rule. Perhaps hegemonic model is the only stable model that works. All that we can do is to build in methods of changing the leader when we don't need him/her. This could be called democracy, which is practiced by all parties in India except the Congress.

K P Aravindan: Hear is a quote fro Stephen J Gould: (Sorry for
harking back to biology. It is the only thing I know.)

Gould SJ. From Sociobiology debate -1978:

"The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the
major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by
specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brain. Size
itself is a major determinant of the function and structure of any
object. The large and the small cannot work in the same way. We know
best the structural changes that compensate for the decrease of
surface area in relation to volume of large creatures, for example,
thick legs and convoluted surfaces such as lungs and villi of the
small intestine. But markedly increased brain size in human evolution
may have had the most profound consequences of all. The increase added
enough neural connections to convert an inflexible and rigidly
programmed device into a labile organ. Endowed with sufficient logic
and memory, the brain may have substituted non-programmed learning for
direct specification as the ground of social behavior. Flexibility may
well be the most important determinant of human consciousness; the
direct programming of behavior has probably become inadaptive.

Why imagine that specific genes for aggression, dominance, or spite
have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility
permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive,
spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are
biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of
behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as
biological - and we may see their influence increase if we can create
social structures that permit them to flourish. Thus, my criticism
does not invoke a non-biological 'environmentalism'; it merely pits the
concept of biological potentiality, with a brain capable of the full
range of human behaviors and predisposed towards none, against the
idea of biological determinism, with specific genes for specific
behavioral traits.

The protracted and intense debate surrounding biological determinism
has arisen as a function of its social and political message.
Biological determinism has always been used to defend existing social
arrangements as biological inevitable - from 'for ye have the poor
always with you' to nineteenth-century imperialism to modern sexism.
Why else would a set of ideas so devoid of factual support gain such a
consistently good press from established media throughout the
centuries? This usage is quite out the control of individual
scientists who propose deterministic theories for a host of reasons,
often benevolent. I make no attribution of motive in Wilson's (the
founder of sociobiology - JV) or anyone else's case. Neither do I
reject determinism because I dislike its political usage. Scientific
truth, as we understand it, must be our primary criterion. We live
with several unpleasant biological truths, death being the most
undeniable and ineluctable. If genetic determinism is true, we will
learn to live with it as well. But I reiterate my statement that no
evidence exists to support it, that the crude versions of past
centuries have been conclusively disproved, and that its continued
popularity is a function of social prejudice among those who benefit
most from the status quo.

We are both similar to and different from other animals. In different
cultural contexts, emphasis upon one side or the other of this
fundamental truth plays a useful social role. In Darwin's day, an
assertion of our similarity broke through centuries of harmful
superstition. Now we may need to emphasize our difference as flexible
animals with a vast range of potential behavior. Our biological nature
does not stand in the way of social reform. We are, as Simone de
Beauvoir said, "l'être dont l'être est de n'être pas" - the being
whose essence lies in having no essence"

Satchidanandan: There are enough reasons around to be pessimistic; but I would go with Gramsci's motto for his journal, "Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"- so that we are aware of dangers and pitfalls and the presence of evil and obstacles, but nothing prevents us from acting and hoping.

Dear NPC,
I have also written in the article on the subversive and revolutionary potential of myths, in Mahasweta Devi (stories like Stanadayini and Douloti and Draupadi), in Dalit writers and adivasi writers who subvert the Ekalavya and Sambooka stories, and the feminists who question Rama on what he did to Sita (Remember Sara Joseph's Ramayana stories- I have written a study on that as intro to the OUP book of English translations of those stories. So myths can be used in reactionary ways as RSS does or in radical ways as our Kadammanitta did or many others do.(Saramago,-'Gospel as Told by Jesus Christ'; Kazantsakis-'The Last Temptation of Christ'; Senghor-'Chaakaa'; C N Sreekantan Nair-'The Ramayana Plays'; Basheer-the story on Manzoor al Hallaj-...) So nothing to be disappointed about. Marx was wrong on many counts, he too was a product of his times, but that does not reduce his value to us even today as he showed us a way of thinking and acting-even of finding he was sometimes wrong- that remains relevant whatever the errors in details.

B R P Bhaskar: The problem is that people are in a hurry to reach the DESTINATION. There is no reason to give up hope because there is plenty of evidence to prove that human effort has resulted in changes. Of course, the changes may not all have been of the kind we were looking for. Even when we succeed in making the kind of changes we desire, we may not be in a position to say we have reached the destination, because by then our concept of destination would have changed. There will always be a new manzil ahead, and so the journey must go on.

Sanil V: This discussion on martyrdom has touched the very foundations of our civil society and political existence. Thanks to Chekkuty, John Samuelm Sachida and others for guiding us to these depths.

As someone said, the tyrant's rule ends when he dies whereas the martyr's rule begins after his death!

Power has two responses to the martyr-to-be. First it kills him. Then it builds memorials for him, celebrates his self-less sacrifice, commitment to his beliefs, his courage, his ideas, his cause. Once the man is dead we are happy to valorize his cause. We are ready to remember him, if he is a mere symbol. Hence a study on martyrdom should not start with its moralistic and symbolic values.

The martyr is neither a hero nor a victim. One who gets killed while killing others could be a war hero, not a martyr. The martyr is a fighter who lets his life be taken instead of killing the evil enemy. He is a substitute for the enemy and not its victim.
As it has been already pointed out here, martyrdom has two important aspects. The martyr remembers and is remembered. He is a memory recording device. He is also a witness. The Malayalam word rakthasakshi captures it well. Martyr is a blood-witness. How do we understand this bloody-remembering -witnessing? What does he remembers and witnesses? It is wrong to think that he witnesses the truth of his beliefs or the injustice of the power which strikes him down. What does blood remember? It remembers blood, blood ties. The martyr preserves the memory of a future social bond - a new sociality which is yet to come. This blood-tie binds us together in a way unimaginable within the statist civil society and its family ethos.

We must be careful in linking martyrdom to sacrifice. The idea of martyrdom as a self-less giving up of life for the sake of faith must be a recent Christian invention. The martyrdom of Christ trans-substantiated the blood and flesh into the pure symbolic values of the Eucharist. With this, Christianity made the daddy-mummy-me family drama the basis of all social bonds. Perhaps Islam hasn't yet yielded fully to this patriarchal drama and hence its fascination for martyrdom, Its prophet was not the son of a virgin mom but an orphan. One would expect a tradition of martyrdom to value the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood over mom-hood and dad-hood. In India the Sikhs learned martyrdom from Islam which in turn claimed the heads of Sikh gurus.

We should look for the link between martyrdom and sacrifice in their common root in a violence, which is constitutive of the sacred. The economic calculations of propitiating gods and giving up goods come much later. Even asceticism had a meaning different from "self sacrifice" in early Christianity. The ascetics declared themselves as outsiders of society. Once persecution lost its edge, the true believer declared himself as an evil outsider to the society. Raktha-snathanaya Buddhan - our poet saw the truth which social sciences often missed.

Sachida's observations on Kayyuur martyrs contain an undeniable truth. Most or all martyrdom is fabricated or forced upon. However, this does not touch its essence. Substitution or vicariousness is the very core of sacrifice. A goat or a first born is killed in lieu of the real target of violence in order to avoid collective death or uncontrollable violence. The very idea of self- sacrifice is incoherent. No martyr wants to die. The Palestine film Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad brings out martyr's love for life.

What is the relevance of martyrs in contemporary society? In the age of digital technology do we need the bloody recording device of martyrdom? A lot of home work is needed before we get to this question. First of all, social sciences should give up their wishy-washy notions like competition, calculation and instrumentality and look at violence in its face. They should learn to acknowledge that violence is constitutive of the good and society. Our political discourse should begin to think about blood ties beyond racism and humanism. This would demand a politics which goes beyond moral schooling in marriage and family. Feminism, in so far as it questions only the symbolic power of the father without challenging the power of the symbol ends up as nothing more than a ripple in the patriarchal cup.

Is a suicide bomber a martyr? Yes, only if he is MORE than a war hero, self sacrificer, victim of injustice and a symbol. I do think that Islam has something to teach us about this "more". Perhaps Islam still witnesses and remembers something which Christianity has taught itself to conceal and forget. To understand this, we urgently need an encounter between religions that goes beyond the secular assertions of vacuous unity and universality of all religions.

Sureshkumar: And where do we place self immolations as a way of protest? Compared to suicidal killings which have been happening in only certain specific regions of the World, self immolations seems to be more diffused more widely. What surprised me when I saw the statistics for the period 1962 - 2002 in a recent book (chapter by Michael Biggs in the book 'Making Sense of suicide Missions' edited by Diego Gambetta) was the fact that though it shows reports of fatal self immolation from from 22 countries, almost 50% are from India and reports from India, Vietnam and South Korea form three quarters of all self immolations.

N P Chekkutty: I am overwhelmed by the kind of response I received. Thanks to all.
I find this inquiry has a metaphysical and political dimension. It has a direct bearing on our day to day life too. A few months ago, I had occasion to see the body of a comrade who committed suicide with the red flag tied onto his wrist. It was in Thalassery where the party took its birth. It was also a kind of message, a gruesome message that we, thinking people who are aware of these complexities, can ignore at great risk.

Another aspect, a positive one for a change, is that we are in a position to enlarge this inquiry, from a purely individual pursuit as it used to be from the days of Upanishads till the other day, to a collective and communal effort to seek truth. You need not go to the woods to seek truth, you do it here and now.

And we need to be ever more urgent too. If Sajan finds a kind of pessimism in my words, it is not a personal trait. It is the expression of a generation of those who put faith in some great ideals and now find themselves lost, and they desperately seek some way out in these chaotic situation.

As I said about the other comrade, he has not been able to. Perhaps we as conscience-keepers of the society, are all answerable to his tragedy.


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