Sunday, February 11, 2007

Liberation Theology

This is an interesting essay by K. Satchidanandan that is quite long but well worth the read. I have pulled out excerpts that I hope do justice to whole post, it is over four pages long.

I found it informative and in many ways it reflects my belief that certain religious or spiritual movements, such as paganism, Gnosticism, the spiritualist reformers and occult revival of the fin de sicle 19th Century as well as their heirs; the 20th century magickal movements, reflect a true liberation theology. In fact a theology of libertarianism.

Satchidanandan says in the Indian context they are movements of the Sramana.

Satchidananda's critique of communalism is similar to that of Habermas though he is clearly critical of western positivism, Hegelianism and Marxism.

He deconstructs in a devastating way the fascist statist elements of Brahmanism and its modern revivalist incarnation in political Hinduism.

He ends with a reflection on the champion of libertarian spirituality, Ghandi, whom his Canadian biographer; George Woodcock called 'the gentle anarchist', and influenced a whole generation of intellectuals to become active anarchist pacifists.

For a critique of Woodcock's view of Ghandi's liberation theology see;Indian Spirituality and the Mythic Gandhi

Which should be contrasted with Woodcocks
Who Killed the British Empire? that observes: "Undoubtedly if one had to choose any individual as more responsible than others for the death of the Empire, it will be Gandhi.''

All in all I found this an enlightening essay , if you pardon the pun, so I thought I would share with you.

Between saints and secularists

K. Satchidanandan is Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.
A major Indian poet
writing in Malayalam, he lives in New Delhi

We need a secularism that is not merely ‘tolerant’ of our pluralist traditions of religion but is inspired and motivated by them and fully takes into account the creative, positive, contributions of different religions to the moulding of our subjectivity as well as to the evolution of our civilisation. By dismissing religiosity and spiritualism as fundamentally flawed, superstitious and illusory, our communist friends have foreclosed any possibility of a dialogue with the majority of our people who have faith in one religion or another. They have also entirely failed to understand the radical significance of spiritual leaders from Buddha and Mahavira to Vivekananda and Gandhi, and of subaltern religious movements like the Bhakti and the Sufi traditions.

Communalism being the worst form of materialism, divorced from everything that is sacred and oriented towards worldly wealth and power, can truly be combated only by a higher form of the sacred that combines the secular ideal of human equality, democratic awareness, identification with the suffering, alleviation of poverty and resistance to oppression with a deep inner inquiry and belief in the holiness of all forms of life. Those who turn religion into a means to attain state power and worldly status are indeed the most irreligious of all, for they profane the most hallowed and usurp even the last refuge of the spirit from a world where ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity’ by joining the ‘ignorant armies’ that ‘clash by night’.

It is possible, at the risk of some simplification, to characterise the struggle within religions as one between Brahmanas and Sramanas. I am using these words more as oppositional metaphors than as historical categories. Of course, the terms do have historical sanction: there are references to them in Buddhist and Jain literature, Ashoka’s edicts and the travelogues of Megasthenes and Chinese pilgrims. Patanjali records that the two were born rivals "like the cat and the mouse, like the snake and the mongoose". The Arab documents of the second millennium AD also speak of two religious traditions they call Brahmanam (also Brahimam) and Samanyam. The Brahmana stream represents emphasis on ritual, belief in hierarchisation and priesthood and the resulting inequality, the unquestioning faith in the Vedas as repositories of eternal truth, the monopolisation of certain knowledges through a language seldom known to the majority and the linking of those knowledges to power, secrecy, deformation, mystifying representations and divisive practices imposed on people that are later legitimised and rationalised to seem almost natural or divinely created.

In short, it is the religion of hegemony that believes in subjection and domination that splits up community life, forces the individual into himself/herself and ties him/her to his/her own identity in a constraining manner. In this way, it always has had links with state power, even when it does not directly rule, by being more than the rulers, making rules for them, by being advisers in court in the past or as lawyers, managers and bureaucrats in the present, creating and sustaining mechanisms of subjection and determining the forms of subjectivity. Michel Foucault calls this ‘pastoral power’ in the context of the Western State, which has integrated the old power-techniques of the Church in a new political format. Originally, it was a form of power that guaranteed individual salvation in the next world, but it differed from royal power in that it not only commanded but was also prepared to sacrifice itself for the flock. It was a power that looked after not only the whole community but also each individual in particular during his entire life-span, a power that could not be exercised without exploring their ‘souls’, without making them reveal their innermost secrets. The concept of such a form of power applies equally well to the power the Brahmins enjoyed —and to some extent continue to enjoy in Indian society, the growing power of the Papacy and the Church in the Western states and the power of the mullahs in monoreligious Islamic states.

Sramanas by definition are beggars — those who have chosen poverty. They do not approve of the domination of the Brahmanas or accept the authenticity of their texts. Rituals are secondary in their practice: self-realisation and service are primary. They would prefer to speak in popular tongues rather than in Sanskrit or Latin, abhor the idea of hierarchisation through divisive practices like caste, look down upon earthly power and riches and demystify religion by taking it to the people. They interrogate traditional customs, rituals and taboos including, at times, the very idea of temples and idol-worship, not to speak of untouchability and other spatial strategies of distance and differentiation, and believe in basic human equality, or even go beyond it to believe in the equality of all created beings.

While for the Brahmana tradition religion is an instrument of hegemony, for the Sramana tradition, it is an instrument of spiritual enquiry, social justice and revolt against forms of oppressive subjectivisation.

The disappearance of women priests and the conversion of fertility cults dominated by women into celebrations dominated by men, like Ganesh Chaturthi, are all signs of similar patriarchalisation of society. Ancient Indian texts abound with legitimising narratives where the caste system is shown to have divine sanction. The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda, probably a later interpolation into the Vedic canon, says that the mouth of the divine became the Brahmin, his arms the Kshatriya, his legs the Vaisya and his feet the Sudra. The Bhagavad Gita, again considered by historians like D.D. Kosambi to be a later Brahminical interpolation in the Mahabharata, brackets Vaisyas, Sudras and women together and calls them the ‘base-born’. The Vishnu Purana, the Padma Purana and Satapatha Brahmana are full of similar narratives and situations that glorify the Brahmin at the cost of other segments of society.

The Sramana tradition, on the other hand, is counter-hegemonic, often to the degree of being subversive. The Buddha and Mahavira, who interrogated the Varna system, questioned the priesthood, spurned rituals, upheld the equality of beings and hence condemned violence, whose victims in those days were mostly the Sudras and the animals useful for the peasants, may be said to belong to this tradition. The Bhakti-Sufi movement was another major pan-Indian articulation of this stream of subaltern dissent.

The spokesmen/women of the movement mostly came from the subaltern or marginalised sections of society and were workers, women or Mulsims. Namdeo the tailor, Kabir the weaver, Tukaram the peddler, Chokamela the bricklayer and Gora the potter were some of them. Bulhe Shah, Baba Farid, Mir Dard, Shah Abdul Latif, Sultan Bahu, Madho Lal Husain, Sheikh Ibrahim Farid Sani, Ali Haidar, Fard Faqir, Hashim Shah, Karam Ali and other Sufi poets were Muslims by birth. And there were women saints from Lal Ded and Meerabai to Andal, Ouvaiar and Akkamahadevi, who transcended their gender and whose stories are also often tales of emancipation from the oppression and subordination they experienced as women. The Sahaja cult of Chandidas and the cult of Chaitanya also did not recognise caste and creed and hence provided moments of liberation for the Sudras.

Tukaram, Kabir, Namdeo, Meera and the South Indian saints like Allamaprabhu and Basaveswara did not accept the authority of the Bhagavad Gita. Even the Sikh credo, that received its elements from various religious sources including bhaktas like Jayadev and Namdeo, has been little influenced by the Gita. Jnaneswar quarrelled with Brahmin beliefs in Alandi and hence had to seek refuge on the southern banks of the Godavari to write his popular version of the Gita. The Manbhavs (or Mahanubhavas), who belonged to the sect established by Chakradhara in Maharashtra in the twelfth century AD, also would have nothing to do with Brahminism; they practised a kind of primitive communism, sharing everything equally and denounced the idea of caste. Even Eknath, who was born a Brahmin, fell victim to the displeasure of his priestly class for opposing the caste system. The Varkari pilgrims of Maharashtra also renounced caste and refused to follow rituals.

The Hindu revivalist ideology practised in contemporary India deliberately ignores this second Sramana tradition of revolt and reform within Indian religion, or blurs the distinctions between the two traditions in order to absorb some of the populist aspects of Bhakti into its strategies of propagation. It is Bhakti vulgarised and emptied of its profound, egalitarian, radical content. The hidden agenda of this neo–Hinduism, what Romila Thapar calls ‘Syndicated Hinduism’, is a reassertion of the hegemony of the Dharmasastras and, through it, the retrieval of Brahmin ideology, now under threat from the awakening Dalit sections of society. The latter have very different traditions and practices of spirituality, a different iconography, and an alternative religion now half-submerged in the ruling rhetoric of the dominant religious discourse and marginalised by the conscious and unconscious processes of history. We know very well that a denomination called ‘Hindu’ did not exist until recently and the word merely denoted the people on the banks of the Indus. The Persians called the Sindhu river Hindu, the Greeks called it Indos and the Arabs, Al Hind. Muslim rulers and Christian missionaries used it as a blanket term to cover all those who did not belong to the Judaic religions, even while recognising the multi-religious nature of that population. The orientalist historians gave it a kind of theoretical legitimation by speaking about a Hindu civilisation and culture.

At the heart of this homogenising Hindutva lies the myth of a continuous and primordial struggle of ‘Hindus’ against Muslims as the structuring principle of Indian history. In this running construction of ‘otherness’, both the communities are to have been homogeneous blocs, though this myth has been entirely demolished by historians. Not the logic of religion but the logic of power had decided the nature of those struggles where Hindus have fought against Hindus (e.g., Saiva-Vaishnava) and Muslims against Muslims (e.g. Shia-Sunni). Both have also very often joined hands to crush someone perceived as a threat to sovereignty or royal power, whether Hindu or Muslim. And if Muslim kings had been invaders, let us remember, so were the Aryans. Only the communicational and economic integration of the last quarter of the nineteenth century provided sharply-defined identities and animosities with a larger expanse of space to spread across, and the forces of neo-Hinduism have managed to develop a wide-based institutional framework and strategic network to make full political use of this facility. Pride in the national past invoked during the anti-colonial struggle, the empowerment of the ‘other backward castes’ in search of new pastures of power and prestige, the growth of an aggressive middle class that seeks to manage society, the desire of the disempowered orthodoxy to retrieve their lost centrality in the power-grid: all these have in different ways strengthened the forces of revivalism and helped them expand their base. They are equipped now with a neo-Brahminical ideology well adapted to modern statecraft and in collusion with the forces of exploitation. This calls for new ways of perceiving ground realities, forging new alliances and reinforcing alternative forms of spirituality.

The Brahmana-Sramana paradigm is not confined to Indian religions alone. Christianity has its own brand of the Brahmana concept: the Vatican has been a major power centre whose growth has been over-determined by the power-systems of civil society from time to time. Hierarchy, priesthood, censorship against free enquiries and radical thought from those of Bruno and Galileo to Leonard Boff and Kazantzakis, alliances with the forces of oppression, with the Whites against the Coloured, with the Spaniards and Portuguese against the Indians in South America to hunt them down like beasts, inquisitions and crusades, the imposition of Western values and thought-systems on vast populations in the so-called ‘Third World’ who were forced to discard their own belief systems and traditions, support to colonialism of every kind and tacit support even to the Nazis, dictators like Somoza and to the CIA, as in destabilising the Arbens government in Guatemala: all these reveal the Brahmana streak of institutionalised Christianity.

I shall conclude this brief monologue with some comments on Gandhi’s attitude to the whole question, which I consider to be in the best of our Sramana traditions and to be valid even today as an alternative to Western touch–me–not secularism, which is completely divorced from the moral and spiritual insights of religion in fighting communalism.

He aspired towards God as an Absolute Truth while admitting that he was able to know only the relative truth. His shift from ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’ in 1928-29 was strategic in that he wanted to appeal to the atheists as well. He claimed that sat (that which exists) the Sanskrit word for Truth, came closest to expressing the belief affirmed both in Hindu philosophy and the Kalma of Islam that ‘God alone is and nothing else exists’. He can be called Rama or Allah, Khuda or Ahura Mazda. Naming is a historical act, while God Himself is above Time. ‘There are many religions’, he said, ‘but Religion is only one’. ‘I do not differentiate between the sweeper and the Brahmin. My mind finds no difference between a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian’. He denounced yajnas like most of the Sramana saints and said that the only true yajna is self-sacrifice for a higher cause. He refused to consider any prophet superior to any other. ‘To say Jesus was 99 per cent divine, and Muhammad 50 per cent and Krishna 10 per cent is to arrogate to oneself a function which does not really ‘belong to man’ — a simple argument, yet strong enough to refute all claims to superiority put forward by the fundamentalists. He considered the Koran, the Bible, the Zend Avesta, the Vedas and other religious texts as equally ‘divinely inspired’. He loathed monolithic categories and believed there were always many interpretations of Truth, many names for God, and many manifestations as scripture.

Truth, non-violence, abstinence, poverty and non-possession were the five vows he advocated; each was well thought-out and reasoned about. He never claimed, as fundamentalists do, that he spoke for truth or as truth, but only that he was ‘in search of truth’. He did not trust the shastras since they often offended his moral sense. ‘If Hinduism sanctioned untouchability,’ he once said, ‘I should denounce it’. Still, he was not prepared to give up his faith altogether; he held on to it even in the worst days of partition. He qualified Truth subjectively. ‘I represent no new truths, I endeavour to follow Truth as I know it.’ This is where he differs from the fundamentalists who always objectify Truth as something external to them and ask everyone to follow it. Gandhi also separated his notions of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ from caste: "Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to the spiritual and national good."

Gandhi belongs to that great tradition of critical insiders within religion, and to invoke his image and to liberate it from the disuse into which it has fallen in the hands of the state and his self-proclaimed followers is, I believe, a moral-political act of great significance today, when the country is once again being asked to defend its sovereignty and its traditions of amity in plurality. I will consider my argument wasted if anyone feels that he/she is being persuaded to follow the footsteps of Kabir or Vivekananda, Sree Narayana or Gandhi. My essential plea is for a paradigm shift in our understanding of politics as well as philosophy. I have been looking at some of the positive aspects, the dimension of resistance within the idealist/spiritual traditions in India. In historical and practical terms, the materialist-idealist opposition does not work, at least in India. It has to be urgently replaced by the opposition between the hegemonic and the subaltern or the governing and the subversive. For this, one has to look at the internal critique that religions have developed, if we ever want to relate to the believing majority in the country. Arguments external to religion might appeal to an intellectual minority; but reformers like Sree Narayana, Vivekananda or Gandhi were forced to develop a spiritual idiom to persuade the people to fight the orthodoxy. It is wishful to think that religious revivalism and fundamentalism can be fought with philosophical materialism. One has to look at the history of struggle within and draw one’s energies for the contemporary combat against communalism from the strategies of the critical insiders within religions, especially the majority religion in India.

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1 comment:

MIRABAI said...

Just a note to let you know you can read lots of Mirabai bhajans/poetry and their english translations at and