Sunday, June 22, 2008

Science, Metaphysics and the Concept of Martyrdom

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part two

John Samuel: This is an interesting issue. Because the questions raised have philosophical (beginning with the question: What is "Self"?"), anthropological and historical significance.

1. ‘Sacrifices' has got a whole range of historical, anthropological and theological interpretations. This must have begun as fertility practice- as human beings began to tame nature. Many such fertility rituals are also linked with menstrual cycle (symbolizing cycle of fertility and cleansing). When religions got institutionalized, such practices have acquired political dimensions (of knowledge, privileges, legitimacy, etc). In more evolved Vedic as well as Semitic religions one can see this.

2. In fact the very notion of Martyrdom is the art of constructing Myth. Though John the Baptist was beheaded, he was not a made so much of a myth. The death and crucifixion of Jesus was indeed made a myth through knowledge (the compilation and editing of the 66 books of Bible), theological interpretations and political process.

3. Every powerful intuition works partly on symbolism and myths. Actually the most popular perceptions of institutions are through signs and symbols (where knowledge and interpretative dynamics are in the background). So the Cross, Om the Crescent, sickle and hammer, etc, become the defining symbols. Apart from this each powerful institution also survive on myths. Such myths get expressed in the form of stories, martyrdom, sacrifices and icons. So Gandhi is more of a myth to the Indian establishment (the very identity of the "nations"- this also convey many things - particularly a whole idea about "tolerant and status-quoist" Hinduism.) Marx is indeed one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century. This art of making myth is a historical, political and institutional process. For example, EMS is now being made a myth. Che is probably one of the most celebrated myths. Martyrdom gives a chance to construct and maintain ‘local myths’. So even the Communist parties have got a hierarchy of martyrs, at global, national, state and local levels.
The Church too survived on sacraments, myths, and festivals- which have global and local dimensions. The entire circus of Sainthood is the most evident form of Institutionalized myth making in the Catholic Church. So Mother Teresa is a social-political construction, which serves the institutional purpose of the Church. She will be made a myth. In fact RSS too follows some of these things. Osama bin Laden has already become a myth.

N P Chekkutty: Now I think the only way we can rationally explain this phenomenon of martyrs and their hold on society is through economic motivation. What they serve is the self-interest of themselves (a wonderful after-life) or their own society (economic well-being, eradication of enemies through divine intervention, social peace, etc, etc, or whatever thing be that you make this sacrifice for.)

But the point is that this thing works only in a kind mythical atmosphere, as John pointed out. What proof do you have that the persons who take upon themselves the role of the sacrificial goat, did get the benefit in after-life or in the case of our own secular ‘sacrificers’, in social well being? We know many people went to gallows with the intention of bringing in a classless, exploitation-less society, but where are we now?

That takes us back to the fundamental question, why do we need to keep this elaborate hoax? Why can't we admit that there is no interest other than self-interest in society and all this talk about making sacrifices, taking the world into a wonderful new age, etc, are simply hogwash?

As a child, reading Dickens' Christmas Story, I was angry with Mr. Scrooge. But he said the truth. There can't be any free lunch and there can't be celebrations without the cost. And there can't be any sacrifices without some real hard, shrewd calculations about the benefits behind it.

Santhakumar: Agree that we must rethink the need for martyrdom in the current context. We do not see much dependence on this practice even among communists these days. But one group, which depends on this now, is the fundamentalists including Islamists. So whether martyrdom is good or not for some specific group (say, Islamists) is a different question. But for the society as a whole, such extreme sacrifices are not needed now. We can have other forms of communicating signals that we are not `free riders' (of the prisoner's dilemma kind).
But some sacrifice and signals of that kind may be necessary. For example, in international treaties, there are genuine arguments that some important players should signal that they are ready to take pro-active actions (including the bearing some others' cost) to motivate others. There are many situations when people do not take up the self-interest option even when they can, and are aware of it. This serves some important coordinating function. There is a substantial set of literature, including experiments, to show that normal people behave more nicely than the predictions of self-interest make out. (A famous experiment is the dividing the pie game - where two people are dividing say Rs.10 given to them by some external agency. If one is designated as the first mover, and only one division is allowed, FM can offer any amount to the other, since the other has no other option. But it is shown that if FM gives say only 50 paise, the second person do not take it, even though it is rational for him to accept it. Thus he is willing to sacrifice the 50 paise to signal something. In many such experiments, the equilibrium seems to be somewhere around 6:4, the first mover taking 6 and giving 4 to the other. This is strictly beyond the self-interest based predictions.

But in our writings, we argue for designing institutions based on the assumption of self-interest. This is for another reason. An institution designed with self-interest assumption works well, in most cases, even if some are not self-interested. However, an institution designed with the assumption that people are altruistic collapses, even if one behaves in a self-interested manner. Thus assumption of self-interest is very much useful in designing institutions, even though many people behave in a not so strictly self-interested manner on many occasions.

Satchidanandan: How much distance from Martyrdom to Suicide? What is the relationship between Chance and Martyrdom? What if someone becomes a martyr without even wanting to be one? What if martyrdom is thrust upon someone?

Some years back, while trying to understand the famous Kayyur revolt and the martyrdom of those young rebels that glorified it, a group of people engaged in writing the script for a John Abraham film on Kayyur, collecting all possible data and information from the survivors and books, confronted these questions; it was a blind alley; it choked them; they could not move forward without solving these existential questions. It was not only a financial crisis that stopped the film, but also this philosophical crisis that caught those unfortunate people- now let me say 'us'- between laughter and tears.

M P Chandrasekharan: Chekkutty's point that there is nothing other than self interest comes very close to the truth. Self interest begins from the person, extends to the spouse, children, parents, and the circle widens including friends, neighbours, community, caste, religion, nation, etc. There is a continuum of self interest around every one of us, with decreasing intensity as the point moves away from the person. When many individuals are put together, these self interests of different intensities work 'for or against' one another and create a ‘field’ similar to the electromagnetic field. It should be interesting to develop a field theory and a mathematical model.

I don't think martyrs come up on their own. The society around them works them to a frenzy until they are ready to annihilate themselves. Potti Sriramulu who died in his hunger strike to get statehood for Andhra Pradesh asked for food at the end which his followers promptly refused. Nehru conceded, Andhra became a State and Sriramulu a statue in the town centre.

N P Chekkutty: Here is a very interesting quote about martyrs, which we can extend to the suicide bombers too:

Tertullian boasted to one Roman magistrate in North Africa that killing Christians only increases fervor while inspiring more people to join them: "The more you mow us down, the more we multiply; the blood of the martyrs is seed" for the church. When certain Christians questioned the value of martyrdom, Irenaeus denounced them as "heretics," while Tertullian mocked them as cowards...

Hope you will remember these gentlemen: They were the two important bishops of the Church in the second century who pushed ahead with martyrdom and violence of a self-inflicted kind, on which they built up the Church. In the process, they brushed aside and even decimated those who asked questions, those Doubting Thomases who wanted an alternative path, a path that could lead to a more humane church. In fact reading about these suppressed texts, like the Nag Hammadi texts that include the Gospel of Judas, one comes across a very lively intellectual debate within the Church in those early days immediately after the crucifixion of Christ.

But it took the Church about 1500 years for coming to grips with the problem, through the process of Reformation and a fierce soul-searching that was violent and painful often. But that helped the Church to face up to its past and made it a more modern and open institution which has, more or less, exorcised its own ghosts.

But what about the other practitioners of this martyrdom business? In the case of Islam, I feel it would take a very serious inner battle within the community to grapple with this question. It is fact the community, more or less, is on the brink of such a process and that could take many forms but the ultimate result would be a parting of ways between those who believe in violence and those who trust in peace.

But you see, what Tertullion said is eerily reminiscent of what our secular people say here. Every day we listen to slogans like "Martyrs are not dead, they will continue to live through us" from such secular platforms. I am worried about them because I do not see any possibility of a Reformation-like process within this secular myth-making apparatus.

RVG Menon: In the Gita, Krishna presents all kinds of arguments before Arjuna, to convince him why he should pursue his Dharma.

One very interesting line of argument is this:
"Hatho vaa prapsyasi swargam
Jithvaa vaa bhokshyasae maheem"
If you are killed (in battle) you shall attain the heaven,
and if you win, you shall enjoy this earth(ly benefits).
I think that all the martyrs are fed on this kind of indoctrination, even today.
But in reality, the martyrs are the victims rather than the victors.

As General Patton said:
"No SOB ever won a battle by dying for his country.
Battles are won by letting the other SOBs die for their country!"

As MPC has put it, the potential martyrs are driven into a frenzy by the society, who needs martyrs, at various times. War is the biggest example of mass martyrdom.
Religion, politics, family, caste, gothra, individual honour all call for martyrdom, in various subtle ways.
They are like the gladiators, the chaevakars.
The society wants them, but is also suspicious of them, and hence, is afraid of them.
Because they are different. They are destined for the ultimate sacrifice.
The society is not sure what price they might ask, for this sacrifice!

N P Chekkutty: John says:This art of making "Myth" is a historical, political and institutional process...

Agreed. But what purpose does it serve in the world today, when we have means of communication, means of overcoming them? Don't you think that in this brave new world, there is a real possibility for the rise of a more rational, more intelligent, more level headed behaviour on the part of human beings? Do we need the new myths, do we have to live by such myth-making even today? And is it not proving to be very very harmful? Do we have to be captive of our own illusions, myths and ghosts as in the past when there were some legitimate reasons for it but what prevents the new world of global instant communication from being a more informed society?

John Samuel: I think myths do serve a purpose- in terms of building collective memories, collective identity and collective narratives. In one ways myths are one of the key markers of identity. Though modes of communications and technology changed, basic human instincts and the dynamics of power, society and political process do have some recurring themes.
Even now many of the Institutions invest a lots on brand-building-- using methods of advertising, communications, etc. For instance, the King of Thailand is a perfect example of constructing a myth making using of the most modern forms of communications, technology and media.

Satchidanandan: In T S Eliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to yield to all temptations, but the temptation of martyrdom and the immortality it brings was too much even for him to resist. Even in courting martyrdom--if it is willfully courted and not an accident as it happened at Kayyur (the attack on the policeman was just by chance and impulse of the crowd in the procession) there is a self-interest, but I would call it the noblest of self-interests, the same that Christ must have had while being on the cross to save humanity. It also depends on two other things: the response of the contemporaries to the cause and the consequence as felt by the posterity. This applies to the crusaders and suicide bombers as much as to the communist revolutionaries.

N P Chekkutty: Yesterday I read a very interesting article in the science and technology section of the Economist (March 22,2008) which explains the effort being made by a few scientists the phenomenon of religion.(The Science of Religion: Where angels no longer fear to tread.)

It was very interesting because it touches upon most of the issues that we were discussing here. In fact, as part of the Explaining Religion project, they did undertake a number of statistical experiments like the dictator game, something quite similar to the one Santhakumar explained here.

One highlight of the study seems to be that like language, religion too has a biological, quite Darwinian, basis. It would even explain the phenomenon of suicide-bombers if you look at it from point of view of the concept of group selection, which seems to have been abandoned by Darwinians themselves earlier.

Dr David Sloan Wilson of Bringhamton University, New York, says that evolution of human morality could be explained in the context of inter tribal warfare. Such warfare can be so murderous that groups whose members fail to collaborate in an individually self sacrificial way may be wiped out entirely. So in order to protect the group, you get into suicide pacts. So survival of the fittest takes some new form, through a group identity.

There are so many such interesting insights in this article. Hope some biologists here would explain the full impact on social and religious life.

M P Chandrasekharan: In the case of Jesus Christ the crucifixion was not with his co-operation and connivance. It was Jonathan Annas's (the High priest of Judaism) collusion with the Romans that really resulted in the murder (martyrdom). The sacrifice element was introduced later (by St. Paul and others) in order to make the Christian ideology as close as possible to the Judaic religion practiced those days. St Paul pictured Christ's crucifixion as a sacrifice at the behest of Jehova in lieu of goats and cattle sacrificed thitherto, thus making further sacrifices unnecessary in the Christian religion. It was this sacrifice element that brought practitioners of Judaism in their millions to Christianity after the fall of Roman Empire, rather than the teachings of Jesus.

K P Aravindan: Yes, there is a lot of biological literature on the subject starting
with Kropotkin's 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. A
recent example is Marc Heuser (Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a
Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, 2006.)
Martyrdom is the most extreme form of altruism which means the
behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of other
individuals while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Such tendency
for altruism may be good for survival of the group, though not
necessarily to the individual concerned.
The problem and controversy among biologists is regarding the degree
to which human altruism is genetically determined. The stream called
Sociobiology tends to give narrow genetic explanations for all such
behavioral traits in human societies. I would tend to disagree with
this. For one, Darwinian evolution works at the level of individuals
rather than groups. Furthermore, Homo Sapiens is a very young species,
less than 200000 years old. There would not have been enough time for
the multiple genes required for such complex behaviors like altruism
to have been selected.
Another simple explanation would be cultural selection. Cultures that
celebrate altruistic acts for example through their grandmother's
tales and epics and ballads would have a selective advantage against
a warring tribe that does not have such traditions. Such cultural
characteristics and (moral(?) traits) thus tend to be preserved in
human societies.

What use is this all in modern societies? Very difficult to tell.
Maybe it would have more value in Socialist societies (survival of the
nicest) than in capitalist societies (survival of the fittest).
Martyrdom maybe passe once we erect other moral edifices (equality,
love, nonviolence etc.) which makes it redundant.

(To be continued. Courtesy:

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