Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Temple of Hanuman-Excerpt

The boy said, “I do not ask you to turn your back upon Islam, for it is the religion of God. I ask only that you look with clear vision, with a dilated heart, upon the way of Rama, King of Ayodhya, and you will see within his life and his works signs of God made living. God reveals Himself to all peoples through many prophets and teachings; tawhid requires that you acknowledge not only the unity of God but also the unity of His messengers.

“O lord, fear and desire, attachment and short-sightedness and illusion prevent men from obtaining what is best for them. Look through the lens of perception, with the eye of detachment, and see to those distant shores before you hastily deny that such shores exist. The world is far greater than our feeble minds perceive. Acknowledge that greatness while you are alive, though your denial will have no effect on its existence. Look, brave king of nations, and you will see clearly and perceive the beauty of God’s design and the operation of His will and the work He performs among all men, not just among your own tribe.

“Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, fathered four sons who were loved by the people. They were the noblest sons ever given to a father. But the king loved nothing in the world more than Rama, his oldest boy. Even in his youth, Rama was handsome, wise, and strong, more even than his noble brothers. Rama possessed every virtue, loved and obeyed his father, and was a wise exponent of dharma. Rama was just and merciful and performed every duty and fulfilled every obligation. Rama knew no other path and was unacquainted with fault or failure, but was quick to forgive the faults of others. He sought no pleasure except to honor and serve his family, his teachers and elders, and tirelessly looked after the welfare of the people of Ayodhya.

“In looks, Rama was a vision to every eye. His hair was the color of the raven’s wing, his eyes bright and lotus-shaped, his face shining, lighting up the eyes of others as the sun and moon light the sky. He was so handsome that, upon seeing him, the people of Ayodhya neglected their precious idols. They said, ‘Rama is, in every way, more worthy of veneration than any work of art, than any worldly masterpiece. We will pray to Mahavishnu through remembrance of Rama, for he is truly the face of God on Earth.’

“In warfare he had no equal. His skill with the bow was unrivalled and he could ride horses and elephants with ease and grace. Had the gods and demons banded together to overcome him, they would have failed, for Rama was the strength of God on Earth.

“But Rama was most loved by his father. Dasaratha could not imagine the world without Rama and was overcome sometimes with fear that Rama might leave Ayodhya. Kausalya, the king’s wisest wife and the mother of Rama, consoled her husband saying, ‘Rama will never leave you unless you ask him to go. He is completely devoted to you and would do whatever you command, no matter how difficult and painful.’ Dasaratha replied, ‘I will never let him go.’

“One day, while Rama was still a young man, Viswamithra came to Ayodhya and sought an audience with the king. When Dasaratha heard the name of that venerable sage, his heart filled with joy. Viswamithra was no common ascetic. Once he had been a mighty king, possessed of great wealth and power. But because he sought inexhaustible wealth and irresistible power, he threw off the mantle of kingship and the yoke of worldly possessions and became an ascetic, performing fearful austerities to gain the favor of the gods. He gave up the couch of repose for the cold ground and a stone pillow. He traded his beautiful consorts and their sweet caresses for scraps of bark that scratched his flesh. He swapped an army for the strength only of his own arms and legs. He said, ‘I have given up all things that many men spend lifetimes to acquire. But what they seek leads only to suffering and blindness. What I have gained is far more precious than all the treasures of every king and all the conquests of every army. I have communed with Mahavishnu, the One God absolute from Whom all things have sprung and to Whom all things revert and upon Whom every god and demon is utterly reliant. God has shown me why I was born among mortal men and what duty I must perform. I am in God’s service. This is my single desire: to conform to His dharma, for there is no other dharma but His.’

“With his ministers and courtiers in attendance, Dasaratha greeted Viswamithra in his audience chamber. The king pressed his palms together in greeting and offered the sage water to refresh himself. Viswamithra thanked the king but turned away the water with his hand. He said, ‘Noble king, I do not come on my own account, but because God has sent me. I prefer my austerities and my solitude. I have come to ask a favor of you.’

“Dasaratha said, ‘I am honored by your presence and am blessed among men to have spoken with you. You are famous among the wise and I will personally fulfill your request, whatever it is. Who could refuse the request of one so holy and so pure?’

“Viswamithra said, ‘I have purified myself to make a sacrifice in the wilderness. However, before I can complete this sacrifice, I must perform certain rites upon the altar. Yet two demons have obstructed these rites by their presence. I am, of course, sufficiently strong to cast out these demons, but cannot do so in my state of ritual purity, for violence is unclean.’

“The king said, ‘I understand you completely. I will lead my army to the place where you are performing this sacrifice. We will destroy these demons for you and you may complete your sacrifice.’

“Viswamithra said, ‘No, you do not need to trouble yourself to assist me, nor do I wish to keep your army from their duties here in Ayodhya. I need only the assistance of one.’

“Dasaratha said, ‘Then I shall come myself and will defend your sacrifice personally. I am old, but will risk my life to assist you.’

“Viswamithra said, “No, I cannot keep you from your duties here as king.”

“Dasaratha said, ‘Then who shall I send?” But the king’s face blanched. He suddenly knew what the sage desired. When the name of Rama fell from Viswamithra’s lips, Dasaratha lost consciousness. After his ministers revived the king, Dasaratha pleaded with the sage. “No, O brahmin. Take me instead. Rama is still so young and I cannot bear that any harm should come to him.’

“Viswamithra became angry at this refusal. He said, ‘You have given your word!’

“Dasaratha said, ‘Rama is too young and inexperienced. He cannot face these demons. Take me in his place and I will put these demons to flight.’

“Viswamithra stood up from his seat beside the king and said, ‘Enough. I had expected the promise of Dasaratha to be worth something. Since it is not, and since I have failed in my mission, I will leave you and your family in peace.’

“The king, recognizing his duty, stood up and said, 'Master of dharma, I will fulfill my oath and will entrust Rama into your care. I ask only that his devoted brother, Lakshmana, accompany him.'

“Viswamithra smiled and agreed to this, saying, ‘Your love for Rama is honorable. No harm will come to him and he will return to you. You’re wise to follow dharma, for His way is irresistible. It is better to swim with the current, than flail and drown, for in either case the river has its way. But one day you shall be parted from Rama again and he will not return to this city while you live. Beware your attachment. See that separation from him as the illusion that it is. Break the wheel of samsara and you will be reunited with Rama forever.’

“O emperor, see in Viswamithra’s austerities and his sacrifice of all things to follow the way of God a clear path for you. You need not give up crown and throne, but you must give up your most precious notions if you are to see through the illusion. See in the fulfillment of Dasaratha’s promise the straight way and a road to true understanding. You have caught a scent of salt air, but this is not the same as a view of the ocean.

“O king of the world, surrender the thing you most cherish and abandon fear. Give up your narrow view of Islam; it is the view of a student. You have overcome many enemies and obstacles and have mastered the world. Your strength of will is famous and your name will be remembered. Now you must choose how it will be remembered, with pride among your descendents or with regret. Master yourself and you will see the truth of Rama’s station through the true prism of Islam. If your pride prevents you, then you will persist in error and your works will be to no good end and you will be a prisoner in the wheel, a victim of samsara.”

Aurangzeb said, “Your pretty stories are wasted on me, child. I have no more to do with samsara than I do with dharma. What did Muhammad, peace be upon him, ever say of these things? He said nothing; therefore they have no meaning to me.”

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Parsing the Shahadah

I wrote “The End of Reason” to understand the unity of God. I was attempting to reconcile the contradictions inherent in monotheistic faith. I focused primarily on theodicy. How I dealt with that question is already described in the book itself, and I won’t bother to repeat it here. I was attempting to vindicate the absolute “Oneness” of God with the existence of evil. My understanding of that “oneness” or “unity” of God and how I chose to define such unity and address it in “The End of Reason” were strongly influenced by “tawhid.” “Tawhid” is a core belief in Islam that “there is no god but God.” It forms the first of two parts of the Muslim “shahadah” (declaration of faith). The second part of the “shahadah” is the statement that “Muhammad is His prophet.” Only recently did I discover that the idea of God’s unity actually extends to both parts of the Muslim “shahadah.” The second part, while often overlooked, is the key to fuller understanding not only of Semitic faiths, but Indo-aryan ones as well.

The second part of the “shahadah” is not a mirror of the first. While there is unquestionably no god but God, the second part is not a declaration that there is no prophet but Muhammad. It is simply an acknowledgement that Muhammad is to be counted among the prophets of God. In some cases, the second part of the “shahadah” can be more precise and explicit and might include not only the statement that Muhammad is God’s prophet, but that Jesus is God’s prophet and that Moses is God’s prophet. While the first part of the Muslim declaration of faith absolutely precludes the existence of any god except God, the second part does not disclaim founders of prior religious traditions. If one takes “tawhid” seriously, the “shahadah” requires an acknowledgement that there are more prophets than Muhammad. It is an implicit declaration of the unity of God’s chosen ones—His prophets.

This unity of God’s prophets is not to be dismissed as one more interpretation of the significance of the “shahadah.” The Quran makes it clearer still. “Verily His ways differ every day” (Quran 55:29). At all times and in all places, God is engaged in some labor among men, though that labor may seem, to mortal eyes, very different from time to time and from place to place. What God has wrought among the Semites may have a different appearance than what He has wrought among Indo-aryans. Yet this is God’s work nevertheless. Consider the evident differences between Judaism and Christianity or between Christianity and Islam. These closely related faiths are born out of the same history in the same part of the world among peoples with closely related cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Yet there are times when these faiths seem to diverge significantly from one another in their focus, in their commandments, in their practice. Given this, one should expect a truly radical difference between these faiths and Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism, where the linguistic, cultural, and historical links to Semitic civilization are far more tenuous, not to mention geographic distance and isolation. Yet this is God’s work nevertheless.

In the second surah of the Quran, Muhammad reveals that, “Of all these apostles We have favored some over others. God has addressed some of them, and the stations of some have been exalted over the others” (Quran 2:253). This, of course, explains why we know so much of Jesus and Muhammad and comparatively little of Adam or Salih. However, this statement does not mean that some prophets are “better” than others, for in the second surah only thirty verses later Muhammad reveals that, “We make no distinction between any of His apostles” (Quran 2:285). Thus, while some are better known to us than others, and unquestionably some are not known at all to us, they equally represent God as His messengers. Through them, He performs His work and this work appears to differ among them. Yet they are all God’s messengers and this is all God’s work nevertheless.

Until I came to this realization, more than a decade ago, I was not able to accept the validity of Islam or the station of Muhammad as God’s prophet among the Arabs. I was born into a culture with little understanding or appreciation of Islam and where libelous comments about Muhammad are circulated as though they were facts. Ironically, those who would deny Muhammad because of some action he undertook or some judgment he made never worry much about the striking consistency Islam has with Judaism, at least in terms of scripture. God is capable of wrath and is to be feared. Those who would deny Muhammad’s station on this basis likewise must renounce many of the Old Testament prophets who acted similarly. Jesus did not seem to act as Moses did or as Muhammad did. Yet Christians embrace Moses and deny Muhammad. It must be remembered that the people among whom Moses and Muhammad arose were very similar culturally—they were barbarous tribes of semi-nomads who regularly practiced child sacrifice in the first case and female infanticide in the second. No surprise then that Moses and Muhammad dealt severely with them. Had Jesus arisen among people at that state of civilization, I suspect he would have acted no differently.

Once I understood and could reconcile the seeming differences among His messengers with the unity of His messengers, then Muhammad’s station became very clear to me and I emerged from the wilderness of my many doubts. Nowhere in the Quran, in the Torah, or in the Gospel is this reconciliation impossible. These faiths possess enough depth to embrace one another and likewise to embrace the Indo-aryan faiths with which I am concerned in “The Temple of Hanuman.”

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Temple of Hanuman

I’ve come to some conclusions about both the content and the organization of the work tentatively titled “Breaking the Wheel.” My intention remains to reconcile, as far as this is even possible, the indigenous religious faiths of the Asian subcontinent with the semitic faiths of the West, which are endemic to the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. More specifically, I plan to address the question of Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha as incarnations of Mahavishnu (also known as Ishvara or, alternately, as the trinity of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva), the one God and the ultimate reality of Indo-aryan religious belief. My assumption is that Mahavishnu is God as we understand Him through semitic faith.

An aside: I have hesitated to refer to these different religious cultures as semitic or aryan respectively, only because the use of such terms is bound to concepts of racial “purity” and cultural “superiority” which have no real substance or support. I certainly do not subscribe to the belief, on one side, of a “master race” nor on the other to the notion of a “chosen people.” Such ideas of racial superiority are flatly wrong; they are repugnant and deserve our contempt. I refer to semitic faith or aryan faith only in terms of cultural, linguistic and geographical differences, not in terms of racial differences, which exist primarily in the imaginations of lunatics and imbeciles.

Because Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha emerge from the fog of history at different times and in different circumstances, I plan to treat each of them independently of one another. In other words, the work will be broken, like the End of Reason, into three parts. The first part will deal with Rama, the second with Krishna, and the third with the Buddha. I also plan to use this organization to build arguments about the meaning of exclusively Indo-aryan concepts of moksha, karma, nirvana, et al. But I will do so chronologically. Thus, the section on Rama will not touch upon Krishna or the Buddha. The section on Krishna may touch upon Rama as a point of reference, but not upon the Buddha. And finally the section on the Buddha may make reference to Krishna and Rama as a means of tying up the loose ends of these religious traditions; to bind them more closely together while acknowledging the unique lives and missions of these messengers of God. I do this partly for convenience, partly for narrative structure, and partly because I believe that individually they did not have a universal message for all mankind, but had specific missions in their times and places. While many of the truths that they espouse are universal, their missions were nevertheless focused on the times and places in which they lived.

Much the same can be said of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. For example, Moses betrayed no wish to convert the people of Egypt to the Hebrew faith; Jesus was clear that his mission was to gather the lost sheep of Israel; and Muhammad taught a broad tolerance for other faiths, despite the reality that Islam had superseded all prior religious revelation. Of these three, Muhammad clearly anticipates universality of faith, but he is, not coincidentally, more recent than Moses, Jesus, Rama, Krishna, or the Buddha. Moreover, Muhammad’s mission was to the descendents of Ishmael, who had fallen into idolatry and infanticide and who would not have responded at all to discussions of moksha or the symbolic possibilities underlying belief in reincarnation. These were not issues among the Arabs. If Muhammad had a message for believers in Indo-aryan faiths, he certainly would have delivered one. So, one can either believe that Muhammad had a universal message that inadvertently omits any reference to the religious faiths of more than half the rest of the world, or one can believe that Muhammad was simply unaware of such faiths and thus the oversight was God’s, or one can acknowledge that Muhammad’s mission was to believers in the semitic faiths (i.e, that his message, while filled with universal truths was local in intention and application). In fact, converting huge swaths of humanity was no more on Muhammad’s mind than it was on Moses’.

This would all seem to argue against my attempt to reconcile varying religious traditions, particularly the semitic faiths with the Indo-aryan faiths. But I am not arguing that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity lack the possibility of being universal in application. Certainly it is possible, though not necessarily desirable. But, to take Islam as an example, successful conversion of Indo-aryan believers can only take place with the application of a universal outlook on religious belief. Sufis had such an outlook and their message had a greater impact in the Indian subcontinent than all the armies of Aurangzeb.

Actually, Aurangzeb is on my mind for a particular reason. The first part of Breaking the Wheel will be the conversation between Aurangzeb and a priest at a temple devoted to Hanuman. Much like The Men Who Have the Elephant, the third and final part of The End of Reason, Aurangzeb’s determination to destroy this temple will be the cause of the conversation, as a Brahmin priest attempts to explain to the emperor the essential compatibility of their beliefs, despite the apparent differences in doctrine, dogma and practice. Because this is a temple devoted to Hanuman, a key player in the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, the focus will be on Rama and his position as a messenger of God. Here the first part of Breaking the Wheel begins. The title of this first part is, tentatively, The Temple of Hanuman.

Aurangzeb would surely put me to death for even imagining such a conversation and I hope that he will forgive my use of him as a literary device. In any case, it is good that the tyranny of one man, like his ignorance, lasts only a little while.