Religion and Culture

Written by  //  August 18, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  5 Comments


Given that this is the first piece, it would make some sense to dwell for a bit on why we need to have a section on religion and culture in a blog that is confessedly to do with young people in India. It seems relatively uncontroversial to assert that a blog for young Indians should, ideally speaking, deal with issues that young Indians worry or think about. However, were we to draw a rough pie chart of what young people in India (alright for the sake of clarity and political correctness let me disambiguate this demography before I proceed– urban educated, English speaking, upper middle class Indians aged between 16 and 30) spend their days worrying about, I strongly suspect we would come to the conclusion that religion and culture occupy a very tiny piece of the pie- if they do occupy any space at all. Of course I am aware of the inherent dangers of deciding what the concerns of this blog should be on the basis of what young people in India spend their time thinking about- for if that were the sole deciding factor, this blog should immediately become a pornographic website and be done with it.  But even on those rare occasions that the mind of a young person turns to other issues, one finds that religion and culture figure miserably down the list of things that keep him or her awake at night. The question this piece will address itself to is: Why is this case?

Relying on that time tested scientific statistical tool called gut instinct – I am going to put forth two possible reasons that might explain this lack of interest. One is that the subject is useless and the other is that it is boring.

  1. It is useless:

On this allegation, there is not much to defend. In modern society, for any activity to be deemed ‘useful’, there only seem to be two benefits that count towards evaluating the activity. The potential that such activity provides for either making money or attracting mates.

It is pretty self evident that an intimate knowledge of the merits of the Jaipur- Atrauli Gharana is not going to make you very rich. In fact, statistically speaking, it is most certainly going to make you extremely poor. Nor is it going to be a clincher on your first date. It could be possibly ruinous to any romantic potential if you break out into a noisy throaty exploration of the peaks and depths of Raag Marwa during dinner. Not cool.

We have to agree. It is almost completely ‘useless’ in this sense.

2. It is boring:

    On this allegation, we do have something to say.

    Let’s admit it, there are very few people who will be turned on by the below passage:[1]

    Some indeed define the term ‘superimposition’ as the superimposition of the attributes of one thing on another thing. Others, again, define superimposition as the error founded on the non-apprehension of the difference of that which is superimposed from that on which it is superimposed. Others, again, define it as the fictitious assumption of attributes contrary to the nature of that thing on which something else is superimposed. But all these definitions agree in so far as they represent superimposition as the apparent presentation of the attributes of one thing in another thing. And therewith agrees also the popular view which is exemplified by expressions such as the following: ‘Mother-of-pearl appears like silver,’ ‘The moon although one only appears as if she were double.’ But how is it possible that on the interior Self which itself is not an object there should be superimposed objects and their attributes? For every one superimposes an object only on such other objects as are placed before him (i.e. in contact with his sense-organs), and you have said before that the interior Self which is entirely disconnected from the idea of the Thou (the Non-Ego) is never an object. It is not, we reply, non-object in the absolute sense. For it is the object of the notion of the Ego, and the interior Self is well known to exist on account of its immediate (intuitive) presentation. Nor is it an exceptionless rule that objects can be superimposed only on such other objects as are before us, i.e. in contact with our sense-organs; for non-discerning men superimpose on the ether, which is not the object of sensuous perception, dark-blue colour.

    Hence it follows that the assumption of the Non-Self being superimposed on the interior Self is not unreasonable.

    The quote is from the Brahmasutra Bhasya by Adi Sankara, considered one of the greatest accomplishments of Indian Philosophy. It is impressive if you did not yawn more than five times while reading that.

    The previous passage notwithstanding, this allegation – that Indian religion and culture is boring – we feel is entirely misplaced and unjustified. For those who persist there is reward. The body may be pleased easily but the spirit is more demanding. Anything that is a source of lasting engagement and pleasure is always daunting at first and a little boring at the beginning. It would be almost impossible to completely or universally demonstrate that Indian religion and culture as pursuits are not boring. This is because boredom is the most subjective experience that human kind is cursed to undergo. However, we believe, with a couple of illustrations we can possibly throw some light on what a fascinating and engaging subject it really is. Illustrations that will of their own, kindle the interest, whet the appetite and convince a section of readers that this is possibly the most fascinating of all subjects areas that this blog concerns itself with.

    1. Gauhar Jan:

    Read the below extract from the biography of Gauhar Jan. She was one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm records in India. You can also listen to her voice here for some flavour:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWuuHdf0ssg&NR=1

    Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, of Armenian descent. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, worked as an engineer in a dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, and married her mother, Allen Victoria Hemming, around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

    Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Benaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, ‘Khursheed’, who appreciated Victoria’s music more than her husband.

    Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina’s name to ‘Gauhar Jaan’ and hers to ‘Malka Jaan’….”[2]

    The mind boggles at the life that an Aremnian Jew, married to an Indian Muslim in Benaras in the 1800’s learning Indian Classical music as a courtesan would have led. It must have been incomparably complicated and rich and the story becomes all the more striking and personal when you listen to the voice.

    2. Sándor Kőrösi Csoma

      Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (March 27, 1784– April 11, 1842), born Csoma Sándor, also known as Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, was a Hungarian philologist and orientalist, author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book. He was born in Kőrös, Transylvania.

      Hoping that he would be able to trace the origin of the Magyar ethnic group, he set out for the East in 1820, and after much hardship along the way, arrived in Ladakh. Under great privation there, despite being aided by the British government, he devoted himself to the study of the Tibetan language. He made the first English-Tibetian Dictionary while living at Zangla Monastery in Zanskar in 1823. The dictionary was published a year later in 1824

      In 1831, he settled in Calcutta, where he compiled his Tibetan Grammar and Dictionary and catalogued the Tibetan works in the library of the Asiatic Society. He died in Darjeeling just as he was setting out for fresh discoveries. He is said to have been able to read in seventeen languages. De Kőrös is widely seen as the founder of Tibetology….”[3]

      Going to Ladakh now in 2010 seems to be an adventure. Imagine a Hungarian Scholar walking to Ladakh and there being so impressed with the Tibetan language and culture so as to spend his entire life engaged in analyzing it. It says something about the sincerity with which people used to approach their vocations.

      Indian culture, music, religion, philosophy, literature and poetry abound with personalities and people like Gauhar Jan and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös. People who above all valued the expression of the deepest yearnings of their spirit. People who have led immeasurably colorful lives. We hope to share with our readers some of these exciting personalities and their stories. We would consider ourselves successful if we convince even a minute section of our readership that Indian culture and religion are far from boring.


      [1] For that strange specie of readers who actually want to read the entire thing: http://www.bharatadesam.com/spiritual/brahma_sutra/brahma_sutra_sankara_index.php

      [2] For  the remaining biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gauhar_Jan

      [3] For  the remaining biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Csoma_de_K%C5%91r%C3%B6s

      5 Comments on "Religion and Culture"

      1. Vipul August 18, 2010 at 10:34 pm ·

        I think the most important is: “the metaphysical claims made by religious texts are hard for people to swallow.”

        If religious doctrines were believed to be true, then it would be very much in the interest of self-interested persons to read the doctrines and apply them to daily life. If, for instance, those who did not adhere to the faith of Islam had to spend an eternity in Hell, even the most philosophically disinclined individual would have a vested interested in believing Islam. If “Give and ye shall receive” (Luke 6-38) were believed to be an accurate claim, then India’s money-obsessed youth would be falling over each other to give money to others. The “Kingdom of Heaven” is enticing for the materialistic, yet how many people strive to be poor in spirit in order to be eligible for that kingdom? (Matthew 5:3) . The Bhagvad Gita’s most famous piece is as clear as it gets — yet few are convinced by this deep metaphysical claim. People do want to be happy and avoid suffering. The Buddha claimed that “desire is the root of all suffering” ( http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/btg/btg46.htm ) and offered an eight-fold path — if people believed that the Buddha was spot on in his diagnosis and prescription, they’d follow his approach, or at least try hard.

        Moving from the general philosophical claims to the more concrete and down-to-earth, many religions offer detailed instruction on mundane topics such as the rules for selling slaves, conducting trade, bequeathing money for after one’s death, etc. This is very concrete instruction, much of it tied to material rewards both in the here and now and in the afterlife. Self-interested individuals who believed in the accuracy of these claims would have a vested interest in following the rules.

      2. Prabha Prakash October 5, 2010 at 3:54 pm ·

        Not that I have ever considered Indian culture and religion boring; far from it. Yet your introduction – the manner and style of writing – has stirred up the dormant interest. Keep blogging.

      3. Subramanian October 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm ·

        Dear Ms. Prabha-

        Many thanks for your comment! Really appreciate it.

        Subra

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