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Faith : September 23, 2001
Seeing in the dark
"As I watched my child die in the hospital, I couldn't pray or hope for divine intervention. I only wanted to cry with my arms around the people I love," said my friend. She was a rare exception.
Most people turn to their reserves of faith in moments of distress and stress, expecting some meta-logical cure of their problems. We know that Dr.Annie Besant, a key figure in the early phase of the freedom struggle, came to India because she found a "credible" explanation in the karma theory for the death of her innocent child. Yes, faith may not work miracles, but it can be therapeutic in providing consolation and reconciliation.
The ancient Greeks knew that faith is linked to the emotional circuits of our being. However, their logicians wondered whether it was quite "manly" to latch on to this kind of Unreason. They settled on Blind Destiny, and on capricious gods who may or may not answer your prayers.
Come to the Middle Ages, and St.Augustine offers a perfect case study, struggling to give up belief in Self, in favour of belief in God. We know how many of the devout have endured the dark night of the soul, stumbling from "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods" to "There is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow".
Doubt is not the prerogative of saints as we see in this tongue-in-cheek epitaph: "Here lies Martin Eldinbrode,/ Have mercy on my soul Lord God./ As I would, if I were Lord God,/ And thou wert Martin Eldinbrodde."
Closer to our times, the Existentialists were convinced that life is an accident stretching from void to void. If you wanted meaning in life and a protective God, you made the Leap of Faith. There were consolation prizes for those who couldn't jump: fortitude-resignation, as in King Sisyphus, condemned forever to push the rock up the mountain, knowing that it would roll back to the bottom after each attempt. Or compassion in the midst of calamities.
But what IS faith? This Sphinxian riddle haunts the cave painter as much as the computer animator. Answers zigzag through a mindboggling spectrum of experience - from paltry specificities and concrete images to metaphysical abstractions. Some conclusions satisfy individuals, never collective humanity.
In today's standardised world, faith marks our essential separateness. As science accents universality, philosophy strives for cumulative theorisation, and religion stresses uniformity - faith remains a matter of the individual spirit.
That is why faith cannot be a simple matter of neurotic outbursts. Or the mass hysteria of Dionysian rites, serpentine hissings in Delphi, voodoo witchery, human sacrifices at Chichen Itza, frenzied crusades, savage jehads, and all the carnage that has reddened human civilisation.
In India, when faith manifests itself as bhakti, organised religion is forced to reform, caste-creed-gender inequalities break down. Mahadeviyakka adopts nudity in her disregard for the flesh, Meerabai laughs at the guru who shuns women. "How silly, when the only Male is the Godhead with all human beings for his feminine consorts!"
Faith is iconoclastic. It makes you ignore all decrees that run contrary to that insistent voice inside you. That was why both women broke every norm of wifely, queenly, womanly behaviour in their time. Ram and Rahim are one to Nanak, Kabir is amused by ritual fetishes, Ramanuja and Gnaneshwar denounce class distinctions, Chaitanya dismisses the outer world, Tukaram declares everyone is equal before the Ultimate Being.
The credo of mystics and saint poets the world over has been one of love - between all living creatures - and the Omniscient Being which animates them. To meld with the universal pulse, you have to get rid of that same selfhood which troubled St.Augustine, no less than a Basavanna or Purandaradasa.
Remember Emperor Akbar's attempts to establish a universal faith in Din Ilahi? He invited wise men from all religions to create the perfect amalgam of all belief systems. He reckoned this would banish creed wars. The great dream never got above ground. How could it? Faith is not something you arrive at through deliberation and consensus. For the Mughal monarch the new-crafted religion was not blinding epiphany, but of expediency. He himself could not bring to it that self surrender, which made him march to Ajmer on foot, year after year, to the tomb of saint Moinuddin Chisti, beseeching that he be granted a son and heir.
Faith demands unrelenting strength, unshakeable, stubborn conviction. You hear it in Tyagaraja's plaints (I don't know the path of devotion, O Rama) in Syama Sastri's pleas (Can't you speak to me when I call upon you in pain?) Or in the lyrics of the Alwars and Nayanmars who actualised their personal God with tender devotion. The intensity of human love inflames Jayadeva when he sublimates it in throbbing metres.
Indian art history shows that all the arts and crafts of this land have evolved within the matrix of faith. The radiant, sinuous energy of the Nataraja testifies to aesthetic excellence as well as devotion. From Bhavabhuti to Subramania Bharati, the poet has been as stimulated by faith as by the creative impulse. Can they flourish in a secular milieu? Of postmodern scepticism?
Perhaps the most fascinating experiences in faith come through the spontaneous expressions of music.
Sometimes an Indian musician will image the melody in the anthropomorphic form of a divinity. ("Durbari Kanada is a deity - all diamonds and brocades, in a courtly parade".) Another will transcend imagery to reach the transcendent "light of a thousand suns". ("I saw a yellow blaze when I heard raag Basant".) To the artistes of the old school, the abstract had to be concretised, the raag and taal had to be individuated in distinct images. The method demands not only technical proficiency, but a faith that knew the tangible aspects of ritual and bordered on the mystic. They needed (and tried to create) the sacred ambience of the temple, of a place of selfless worship.
This was mandatory in Carnatic music where the compositions are invariably full of devotional content, where the composer is a supplicant before a personal God. Even songs of erotic intent tend to focus on some divine being, or on the king who represents God on earth.
Many musicians past and present, see the practice of their art as sacral performance. It may be pursued as a career, but it is still their surrender and homage to God.
Things may be different today. "I surrender to the aesthetic experience, not some mythical godhead. My homage is to the spirit of art. The Bhairavi moves me, not the lyric," a young Carnatic musician once shrugged as we discussed a refulgent composition in that raga. An agnostic, he believes that classical music must be freed from the devotion quotient to progress unhampered. Another is looking for songs of secular content for contemporary appeal.
There are listeners though to say, "Her Kalyani made me see the Goddess Kamakshi with eyes full of compassion." Or "He sings well, but it is lifeless. He has not internalised the musical and lyrical content." The comments may (and do) come from rasikas who rarely visit temples, and are themselves indifferent to ritual practices. But they expect the classical arts to fulfil some deep felt need to get connected to "the beyond". Didn't the scholar-poet Matthew Arnold predict that, as sterility mounts in our lives, we shall look more and more to the arts to fulfil the functions of (defunct) religion? So you say (like I do) I am not a theist, I am inspired by Shakespeare and Sahana, Avvai and Ajanta. Balasaraswati's Bharatanatyam is all the ritual I need, and Subbulakshmi's voice is my epiphany.
How then do you explain moments out of time? Like this one at a tiny, unknown temple hidden in the wilderness, when you recognise the Pallava lions in its derelict architecture, haunted by shadows and kuyil calls? Three or four supplicants have found their way in before you and are chanting verses you cognise as born of Andal's passion. The bell rings - redolent with flower fragrance, the image in the sanctum springs to life in a circle of camphor light, spells of an ancient diction daze you... Suddenly, a song in Saranga resonates in the cloistered space, every word breathing ardour, surrender, concretising the abstract...Stop world, I want to get off...you HAVE got off...until the song ends, light dims, forms dissolve, sounds fade...
Finally, take a look at this sci-fi picture of Isaac Asimov. In a future regulated by the colossal Univac Computer, humans have evolved into globs of consciousness drifting through space. When even the globs lose their spark, and all life becomes extinct, in the vast silence of the universe, Univac intones, "Let there be Light!"
A parody? Yes, but can we see it as a parable?
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