Monday, February 18, 2013

'Vishwaroopam' And The Need For Religion.

Would the world be a better place sans religion? Would humanity be served better if we all woke up as rational atheists with no shred of religion in us? Without religion there would be no religious fundamentalism, there would be no crusade, no jihad, no theology, no wars over theological hair splitting, no Taliban, no finger wagging evangelicals, so say atheists disgusted by all that goes in the name of religion.

When the Tamil movie 'Vishwaroopam' was made a football amidst religious groups, a suspect government and a strange acting judiciary a self-styled social commentator, Gnani, wrote in Facebook "I don't care for religious sentiments being hurt, I'd rather see the world of religion. I'll never defend any religious person from any hurt he/she suffers from arguments of other religions or atheists". Tamil Nadu's patron saint E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (in short E.V.R) made it his raison-de-etre in life to rid Tamils of religions. He felt religion was the root cause of a horrendously iniquitous social structure where the very touch or even sight of another human being was considered 'polluting'. Ayn Rand railed against the 'zombies of zen Buddhism' and every one who looked up to the skies.

During Crusades the Christians, riding out in the name of a man who preached love, killed Jews, the chosen race, saying 'God wills it'. White Americans could find verses in the Bible to prove that God willed Blacks into slavery. A Brahmin (and every other upper caste in the ladder) would consider the shadow of a Dalit to be polluting. Osama Bin Laden clothed himself and his act of terror in religion finding verses in Koran to justify his ends. Protestants and Catholics went to war with each other all over Europe killing thousands of each other until this very day. A Sikh guru who refused to convert to Islam was tortured and killed by an Islam king. Ziegenbalg learned Tamil in order to convert the 'heathen' by speaking in vernacular.

India, home to all three major religions and tens of others, superstitious beliefs about what causes small pox, a girl's zodiac signs, the time of birth and so much more have caused the death of millions. In one day, in the very modern age of the recent 90's, millions believed that a stone idol could 'drink' milk (it was just capillarity). In ancient India Saivaites and Vaishnavites killed each other simply because they worshipped variants of the same god and smeared ash differently (horizontal vs vertical) on their foreheads. A modern Indian politician made a career out of promising to build a temple for a mythical god who, he and millions others, believed was born in the very spot where a mosque stood. Of course the mosque itself stood on the place where a temple had stood. India, born out of orgiastic religious violence, convulsed every now and then in riots between Hindus and Muslims.

All the above is but a very brief survey of the ills attributed to what Karl Marx called 'the opiate of the masses'. Seeking to rid the masses of their opium Marx's followers, the world over, instituted their own opium and proved that one can kill one's own citizens by the millions in the name of another god, 'Communism'. The modern world's most monstrous savages, Hitler and Stalin, who industrialized savagery in concentration camps and Gulags were atheists. How come we never hear Stalin or Hitler's killings attributed to their atheism? I think it should be.

EVR's followers, particularly, Annathurai, would often speak of Voltaire without having ever read Voltaire. Voltaire, it should be crucially noted, revolted against, ecclesiastical organized religion and superstition, not against 'God' himself. Voltaire spoke of superstition as "a serpent which chokes religion in its embrace; we must crush its head without wounding the mother whom it devours". Will Durant is categorical in stating that Voltaire rejected atheism. Asked by Bayle "if a society of atheists could subsist?-Voltaire answers, 'Yes, if they are also philosophers".

Not everyone is a philosopher. The common man in his simplicity gets his ideas of morals from the New Testament or Hadith or Sura or Gita. In a striking manner religions mostly agree on what is good and moral. From the illiterate villager in India to a farmer in Idaho religion gives a compass to what might be otherwise a rudderless life with nothing to fear or aspire for.

What have atheists given to the world of literature or art or music or painting that would match the scope of religious outpouring. There is poetry in the defiance of Thyagaraja telling a king that he will not sing of a man as he sings of his lord Rama. Milton reconciling to his blindness saying 'they also serve who only stand and wait' elevates religion from an emotional crutch to a philosophical wondering of meaning of suffering.

Harold Khushner, grieving from the loss of his young boy who died of progeria, wrote his heartfelt 'When bad things happen to good people'. John Gunther, also grieving of his son, wrote 'Death be not proud'. Everyone who has faced strife in life has cleaved to books like those or to passages within religious texts to understand or at least to console one's own suffering. The atheist looks at all those with a smugness. Would the atheist rather have a world gone mad with people unable to suffer stoically? What a monied rich man can gain from fancy psychiatry to address grief the common man gains from religion or the local priest.

Unlike atheism, which is flat and barren, religion exists at different levels. There is Einstein who loved the idea of an abstract God that was beyond any conventional idea of labels. A Hindu steeped in Vedas can understand that the Brahman is to be searched within and is an individual journey. A Christian can boil down all of Bible to loving one's neighbor.

Voltaire, Will Durant tells us, does not believe in miracles or that prayers can change what has happened or about to happen. Asked by his apostle to teach how to pray Christ gives the Lord's prayer which, in all its simplicity, does not ask for anything to be changed by the very act of prayer. Acceptance of what has happened and not to expect miracles is a very cardinal principle of religion.

What of the atheists themselves who put so much store in rationalism and logic. In a strange irony that only life can offer both EVR and Ayn Rand, tied at the hip by their strident opposition to religion and exultation of individual reasoning, lived a life that was anything but rational. Of course I am insulting Ayn Rand, a far greater and subtler intellect, by comparing her to EVR who had no instruction in anything classical.

Both EVR and Ayn Rand demanded absolute unquestioning loyalty from their followers. And oh yes they loved to have people they could call 'followers'. Both left behinds stewards of their fame, Leonard Peikoff and Veeramani, who are extremely intolerant of any openminded justifiable critique by any one of their idols.

Ayn Rand's untrammeled individualism shocked many on the right wing even. William F. Buckley who was fashioning himself as the intellectual vanguard of America's right wing, rejected her atheism as dangerous. An individualism not circumscribed within a limit subject to divine authority was too fearsome to an American who had just battled Hitler and was locked in a mortal combat with Stalin.
EVR's bete-noire and famous Tamil writer Jeyakanthan wryly noted 'Veeramni and his DK partymen are not atheists, their god is EVR'.

Imagine Martin Luther King and hundreds of blacks standing at the bridge in Selma facing baton wielding horse mounted cops ready to strike down. They stood arrayed against brute force. In the front was what force in its visible form, behind them, if they retreated, was the yawning chasm of dark racist present day waiting to devour them invisibly. If they thought of Jews standing in front of Red sea pursued by the Pharoah's chariots I'd not be surprised. In that moment when hope is far away and suffering is at hand they found succor in religion and God.

Malcolm X decried Christianity as the religion of the oppressor. Yet MLK Jr saw that it is not Christianity that was the problem but the perversion of its message by racist bigots. MLK Jr, like Ganhdi, rooted his struggle in religious overtones. What can a leader do when they are fighting against the greatest empires of their day?

Cast out in the night from a train Gandhi 'clings' to his beloved Gita. Is this 'clinging' morally inferior to a stoic? Not in any way. This is clinging as a creeper clings only to rise and grow. Religion is often a tool. Gandhi and Jinnah both used religion as a tool. Gandhi was more heartfelt and sincere in using the tool to integrate an inchoate mass and even to reform the ills of Hinduism. Jinnah used religion as a wedge.

For the striking workers in Gdansk shipyard the message of a Polish pope gave hope. The Nikolai Church in Leipzig was the refuge of those who chafed against communist suppression for decades. The Nikolai church was the epicenter for a people without hope. When there is no hope in mankind and one has to keep struggling where does one go but to a divine omnipresence. In blighted neighborhoods in America it is the local church that still does what no government can ever hope to do.

I've seen crucial differences between how religion is practiced in India compared to America. A key aspect of the difference is Hinduism, the majority religion in India, is not organized religion unlike Christianity, which is the majority religion in America. The philosophical differences and the lack of organizational structure has its pros and cons. Indians have not seen religion as a force for good and societal change at a level beyond the local. Not at least since Gandhi. Churches are vehicles of philanthropy and service in America. To be fair, churches in India are not similar to churches in America.

Religions, particularly Christianity and Hinduism have continually thrown up reformers who re-interpreted, revitalized and reformed them from within. EVR, with his simplistic understanding of caste structure and penchant for scapegoating Brahmins could not see beyond destroying religion as a panacea. Gandhi wanted to reform Hinduism from within. EVR mistook being a bull in a china shop for iconoclasm. By focusing on Brahmins in a Neo-nazi manner EVR gave every other upper caste a pass to institutionalize casteism. In fact Dalits in recent times have argued that EVR was no friend of Muslims or Dalits. A free India, Gandhi's India, banished untouchability and institutionalized the reforms that Gandhi and many other fought for. Of course, as always, much remains to be done. But the foundation is there.

In Tamil Nadu the so called rational movement spear headed by EVR and later carried forward by Annathurai and his cohorts played mischief upon the ignorance of the ordinary Tamil. Annathurai would lecture tamils that Americans, devoid of superstition, progressed in science and technology. Nothing was or is further from truth. EVR, given that he did not read much, never understood the role of Christian theology in unleashing scientific curiosity and America's capitalism. The West owes a lot to Islam for geometry and algebra. It is not an accident that EVR's message of hate took root more easily than his atheism which floundered pathetically even amongst his own followers. Seeking political office and broad based acceptance the first principle of EVR that Annathurai abandoned was atheism.

Religion is not just about power and race. There is am indefinable beauty in the traditions and rituals that forms an envelope for religion. The harvest festival in Tamil Nadu where the Sun god is worshipped brings joy in a simple manner to a village of farmers. It is silly to question if a demon lived and if his death should be celebrated as Diwali. Even a villager in India can instruct an atheist that such a story is but a symbolism. Metaphors and symbolic constructs abound in religious rituals and festivals. Those festivals give a meaning to daily life. Ridiculing them by taking the stories literally only shows the impoverished mind of a smug atheist who preens that he is an intellectual while in reality he/she is a boor.

Much is made of sex scandals involving priests or the church. The abuse of boys by catholic priests in US is a despicable blot on the church. In Tamil Nadu Veeramani and his acolytes incessantly point to scandalous hindu priests (never from other religions for fear of being seen as anti-minority). The common man does not profess a religion based on the conduct of the local priest. Let it be noted that atheist Annathurai and Karunanidhi, self-styled ideological heirs of EVR, were scandalous in private life. Yet their private life is not taken as a yardstick to judge every atheist including EVR, who actually, was a more sincere person.

Scientists are prone to their own obduracies. Let not any man or woman of science think too superior of themselves compared to a farmer who prays for rains. The history of science is replete with examples of men (rarely women) failing to see the mistakes of their proofs or for entertaining the most basic principle of science, 'falsifiability'.

Hamlet tells his friend Horatio, "the world has much more to offer than what is dreamt of in your philosophies". Since not everyone is a philosopher Voltaire concedes "if God did not exist we would have to invent him". Religion has a place in human life. To deny it or to ridicule it is useless. Nothing in human life along the stretch of history is good for all time to come. Governments and markets and social mores evolve constantly. So does religion. So should it be. But to wish for the demise of religion is a death wish.

Friday, February 8, 2013

From Parasakthi to Vishwaroopam: Fascism In Tamil Nadu

More than 50 years ago it was possible for a movie character to ask  a temple priest "when did your god speak?", "you worship a goddess and yet molested my sister". The dialogues in that movie, Parasakthi, were penned by upcoming screenplay writer and atheist ideologue M.Karunanidhi. It was possible only because the god he mocked was Hindu and the priest he scolded was Hindu too. To be sure, where the hero says that the god is 'stone' the word 'stone' is muted but it is clearly apparent given the context of the rest of the dialogues. Karunanidhi's mentor E.V.Ramasamy, more stridently atheist and self-styled iconoclast, took a rally with a picture of Lord Rama garlanded with slippers. Again, it was possible only because he chose a Hindu god.

In 2013 Kamal's magnum-opus (at least in his mind) Vishwaroopam became a political football between radical Islamist groups , vengeful government and a supine judiciary. Radical Islamist groups raised a ruckus and wanted a total ban on the movie on the pretext that it injured the sentiments of Tamil Nadu Muslims by portraying all Muslims as terrorists. They took further offense to how some Islamic habits, like praying, were used by terrorists.

There is nothing demeaning to Islam or muslims in Kamal Hassan's 'Vishwaroopam'. Yes the story revolves around terrorism and yes the perpetrators happen to be muslims. To be specific, they are Afghan Taliban. The protagonist who stops them is muslim too. In a telling scene where FBI agents and Kamal, playing an undercover RAW agent who is muslim, wait outside the door of a terrorist who is about to detonate a dirty bomb. As the agents peer through a camera suddenly an agent exclaims "what is he doing" pointing to Kamal who is offering prayers. Another FBI agent answers "he is praying, for you too". In that one frame Kamal, the director, deftly shows the divide that is often frustrating in this debate about terrorism. Unfortunately his depiction of the protagonist as an observant muslim is brushed aside as tokenism but his depiction of terrorists as muslims is taken as an indictment against a religion.

The depiction of Taliban is pretty accurate and in fact tame compared to what the Taliban really inflicted on the people of Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan. Some muslim organizations that have taken to the streets to get the movie banned were silent when the Taliban shot at point blank range, Malala Yousufzazi, a 15 year old girl. When Tamil poet and commentator Manushyaputhiran, who is muslim, condemned the brutal beheading of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl, he was threatened by one muslim organization which is now openly calling for Sharia law in Tamil Nadu, India.

In a contrived sequence to convince viewers of a Tamil speaking Taliban there is reference to Kovai and Madurai. This is made in the passing with no reference to actual terrorist events that took place in Kovai. In 1998 a string of bomb blasts ripped the industrial town of Kovai and one location included an ICU in the local government hospital. Supposedly tensions between Hindutva and Muslim organizations had simmered there for a while. Later raids in Muslim neighborhood unearthed a huge cache of explosives sufficient to wreck the entire city. The docile state was stunned.

The depictions of beheading with religious overtones and a hanging that is preceded by religious intonations of justice etc are exactly what transpired in Afghanistan. Let us not forget how American journalist and a Jew, Daniel Pearl, was lured in the pretext of giving an interview and later beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. KSM, master mind of 9/11, recorded the gruesome beheading and mailed it to Pearl's wife who was pregnant at that time. Today KSM is rotting in Guantanamo. Videos recovered, by CNN, in Afghanistan showed terrorists being trained on inflicting sheer terror on innocent populations. The instructions included textbooks, video tutoring etc , for instance, poisoning community water storage with botulinum.

Jihadi videos regularly use, with telling effect, religious symbols and religious texts. They, unfailingly, situate their depraved acts within a religious context. A documentary that traced 9/11 plotters to Hamburg shows how places of worship became beehives of terror plots. This is fact. To take offense to movie depictions that show a man praying before detonating a bomb is silly and whitewashes what happens.

Intellectuals who love to be politically correct recoil with horror at the term 'clash of civilizations' when referring to the conflict between the West and Islam. Yet that is exactly what is happening.

If Christian west can put up with Martin Scorsese's 'Last temptation of christ' that shows Christ fornicating with Mary Magdalene or a New York City art exhibit that shows a crucifix in a jar of urine or a pop star denigrating the cross then it is silly to expect the same Western countries to ban anything critical of Islam including any intentional insult.

Philip Pullman publishes a book titled 'Good man Jesus and scoundrel Christ' with the back flap saying, cheekily, 'this is only a story'. So why not Salman Rushdie publish 'Satanic Verses'? I also object that Rushdie is to be defended because his work is art. Even if it is trashy his freedom to trash is to be protected. If one can trash Rama or Christ why not another god? Free speech is a rare commodity in India. Press Freedom Index rates India lower than Afghanistan on free speech. Pulitzer finalist author Suketu Mehta wrote in New York Times "in India today, it seems, free speech is itself an atrocity".

The radical group Towheet Jamat and its fiery leader used the hypocrisies of Indian democracy deftly to further his agenda in banning the movie. Every political party and every religion and every caste has stifled free speech when it suited them. The speech is at . Apart from a very unsavory remark on Kamal's daughter it is a speech that puts to shame everyone and tells 'don't throw stones from a glass house'. Every religion has flexed its muscle seeking to ban critical opinion. No Bollywood film maker would dare to make a movie on Mumbai riots that the Sri Krishna committee squarely blamed on Bal Thackeray. 'Da Vinci Code' was banned by Tamil Nadu to placate a publicity hungry bishop.

Whether it is Afghanistan or Kashmir or Iran or Saudi, oppression of women, trampling of human rights across the board, lack of liberal democracy etc are hallmarks of those Islamic societies. When a mullah declares that new born babies need a burqa or that a women only music band should be banned the rest of the world lets out a collective gasp. In India Muslims enjoy many concessions like being able to run their educational institutions as they  please, yet their womenfolk are the least educated. That Rajiv Gandhi, in order to appease Islamic fundamentalists, robbed a destitute Muslim woman, Shah Bano, of her right to alimony, stands as a shameful chapter in India's record on human rights. 

Discrimination is another bogey that is raised by Muslims. I say its a 'bogey' in as much as discrimination was not invented by Tamils of other religions as an exclusive weapon against fellow citizens. Discrimination in housing, places of work, schools etc are a shameful, despicable yet pervasive part of Indian life. It is not only a Muslim who is discriminated against when they try to rent a home. A Dalit trying to rent in Mambalam, a Hindu trying to rent in a Christian enclave, vice-versa are all discriminated against. Can a Hindu open a shop in Burma Bazaar? How many non-Muslim students study in Islamic educational institutions? 

Islamic terrorism is a fact of life. If words like Saffron terror and Christian fundamentalism can be used to refer to extremism in those religions I see no reason why we should shy away from 'Islamic terrorism'. A simple listing of terrorist activities over the past few years would illustrate that almost all were Islamic terrorism. Talking of 'look at the context, look at the bigger picture' etc is pure sham. Britain gave refuge to thousands of muslims fleeing persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan and yet that is where innocent people were killed because……British army was in Afghanistan and Iraq. What can one say when a Pakistani immigrant, whom the US had the grace to allow to become a citizen, plots to blow up tourists and innocent citizens in New York City Time Square? What can one say when an organization plots, in the name of religion, to blow up tens of airplanes killing innocents by the planeloads? 

If Towheet Jamat wants to stop stereotyping I'd love to see them protest against every such incident. I'd love to hear from the so called 'Arab street' loud denunciations of such heinousness. Let us remember that unlike North India Tamil Nadu has been relatively more secular and more peaceful towards its Muslim citizenry. The only protests we hear from the Islamic world are violent bloody protests against a cartoon, a Papal quote, a mediocre movie, a despicable youtube video. 

That a movie certified, under Indian laws, can be stopped by a lumpen organization on the sheer power of threats is chilling. Now any fundamentalist organization will feel emboldened to flex its muscle just to gain political mileage. The High court should have put its foot down on the case and yet they were mere spectators in this shenanigans. Once a movie has been certified by a censor board what is the need for a judge to have a screening. That a court would nullify its own ruling issued barely the night before and let a film maker run from pillar to post portrays the law and order situation in a bad light. The government's vindictiveness was merely capitalizing on the situation for reasons that are not just speculative. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Towheet Jamat has done a disservice to Tamil Muslims because the general population has only re-affirmed its stereotypes and a climate of "this is what they are" has come about. Given today's social media many a Tamil has watched the incendiary speeches of the Jamat speakers and has drawn his or her own conclusion. That the movie is Taliban centric made many to wonder on social media comments: 'so are those who protest against the movie support Taliban'? 

A parting word on the movie. There is much talk of whether or not the movie measures up to Hollywood standards. What is 'Hollywood standard'?

Terrorism is a difficult subject to deal with in a movie as Spielberg learned in 'Munich'. 'Munich' depicted how Israel sought and killed Palestinians who murdered Israeli athletes in Sep 1968 at Munich Olympics. Spielberg who is Jewish sought to explore the minds of those Mossad agents who were on a trail of vengeance. Charles Krauthammer, Jewish conservative columnist, ripped into Spielberg in a withering op-ed in Washington Post (Read it here 'Munich:The Travesty')

"...the Israeli athletes are not only theatrical but historical extras, stick figures. Spielberg dutifully gives us their names -- Spielberg's List -- and nothing more: no history, no context, no relationships, nothing. They are there to die.

The Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given -- with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman -- texture, humanity, depth, history. The first Palestinian we meet is the erudite translator of poetry giving a public reading, then acting kindly toward an Italian shopkeeper -- before he is shot in cold blood by Jews." 

Even Spielberg's much revered 'Schindler's List' had its share of critics who felt that Spielberg trivialized Amon Goeth's brutal sport killings. Kamal Hassan, with no Tony Kushner by his side, and no Spielberg himself might have been incompetent to stage even a modicum of a discussion. It could also be the fear of how it would be received by an audience benumbed by inane mindless entertainment and a populace where mischief mongers are a dozen a dime. However Kamal had no compunction in his usual snide tasteless jokes about Brahmins and Hindu religion.

Kamal is no serious intellectual. He dabbles in a lot and is a power house of talent. He is a wonderful actor. Social commentary, intellectual analyses is not his forte. In an interview, possibly rattled by the protests, he made stupid claims and plainly idiotic assertions. 

Kamal opined "if Jews who had lived for just 60 years in Israel feel patriotic about Israel then what would a Muslim feel about a country he has lived in for 500 years". When actor pretend to be intellectual such stupidities happen. His ignorance of Jewish history and Israel is appalling. He goes on to claim that Muslims feel dispossessed today because "they have suffered so much injustice. They have ruled this country for centuries and where are they today. They chose to live and die in this country". Bollocks. Muslims in India are far better than any non-Muslim in Saudi or Pakistan. I do not mean to say that there is no injustice or nothing bad has happened to Muslims. Yes Babri Masjid, Bombay riots have happened. But that is not all there is to Muslims in India. Violent Islamic conquests cannot be swept under the carpet either. Islam did not enter India peacefully. It is stupid to claim so.

The movie shows Taliban indoctrination of children, how schools were closed, treatment of women (just hinted upon). All of that is fleeting and is not dwelled upon or dissected intelligently. Everything is captured only fleetingly as the movie slides into classic hero versus villain in a spy caper. Context is dead. Incidentally Kamal, in an interview, proudly said that when the US embassy read the script they were impressed by the details. The details include scenes of Taliban target practicing on Bush photographs.

Kamal has indeed slogged. Some, like the Kathak dance, are self-indulgent. The character could very well have been a Bharathanatyam dancer but Kamal chose to do Kathak. It is admirable that he did so in order to slog hard under Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj just so it does not come off as cheesy.

I've always felt Kamal tries to do a lot like a glutton and is finally weighed down by what he brings on himself. He is not a good director or a screen play writer. He needs, for his own good, to have a third person to do those just so he is reined in. The screen play is muddled, many characters just flit by. I am not too bothered about loopholes in some logic. After my staple diet of Rambo and Bond movies I know that logic is for the naive.

Kamal has accomplished a decent movie that is 'Hollywood' class if one considers Vin Diesel and Rambo and 'Die Hard' as 'Hollywood'. Also to be charitable let us remember that Kamal has to be mindful of political sensibilities and he does not have a free creative hand as in Hollywood.