Is it okay to ban beef in a secular country like India on religious grounds?

My answer to Is it okay to ban beef in a secular country like India on religious grounds?

Answer by Vijayendra Mohanty:

I had a discussion regarding respecting the Koran with a friend once. She said respect it because it is God's word. I said I will respect it because it is important to you. I do not believe it is God's word. And even if I did, the guidelines contained in the Koran are for Muslims. No person who does not follow the religion is required to abide by them.

In other words, Muslims can’t expect non-Muslims to follow the rules that their god has set out for them in their holy book.

Matters of respect are an issue for ethos, not the law. You can't enforce a law that forces me to respect you. Well technically you can, but it wouldn't be real respect in that case. I would secretly still think you are a dick.

Why has the consumption of beef been banned?

To protect cows? To protect the feelings of those who love and respect cows? To enforce the religious / cultural belief that cows are important / sacred?

I would argue that it is none of the above. Instead, it is an unthinking and impulsive decision on part of the powers that be. It will not create respect for Hindu customs in the minds of people. It will not reduce the slaughter of cows (just as prohibition did nothing to reduce alcohol consumption). It will not do anything to make cows safer.

Any move by the (allegedly) secular government of a country to accommodate the religious or cultural beliefs of a section of the population (no matter what their numbers) will only push the system down a slippery slope where every group starts demanding special provisions.

What’s next? A pork ban because Muslims consider the pig unclean? An onion ban, courtesy the Jains? A ban on all meat because Vegans are displeased?

If your answer is that this kind of legislation only applies to religious beliefs, I would ask what makes religious beliefs more important than non-religious ones? Why aren’t the sentiments of comic book fans worth a law so that the publishing industry can have a field day at the government’s expense? Why can’t rationalists get a law that puts a limit on how many times astrologers can appear on TV channels pretending to know things nobody can know?

The government has no business deciding what people are allowed to consume.

Is it okay to ban beef in a secular country like India on religious grounds?

When will the Hindus unite and remove Muslims from India?

My answer to When will the Hindus unite and remove Muslims from India?

Answer by Vijayendra Mohanty:

Let me translate this question into a different configuration — one that makes its absurdity more evident.

“When will Indians who call themselves Hindu unite and remove Indians who call themselves Muslim from India?”

or, more simply;

“When will Indians remove Indians from India?”

My answer: I hope it never happens.

There is a certain kind of Hindu that I think is better described as a Wannabe Islamist. This person says he hates Islam because Islam is a hateful and exclusivist ideology. He says Islam stands in direct contradiction to everything that Hinduism stands for at its pluralist, accepting best.

And then, in the very next breath, this person says he wants Hinduism to turn into Islam. He says he wants Hinduism to become a hateful and exclusivist ideology that seeks to exclude people on the basis of nothing more than a cultural label.

Needless to say, such people are missing a brain cell or two and routinely make the mistake of projecting their personal insecurities on the population of an entire country.

When will the Hindus unite and remove Muslims from India?

Are all Hindu rituals and traditions based on scientific principles?

Yes. But perhaps not in the way we sometimes think. There is a reason human beings engage in rituals and it applies to all rituals across all religions and even secular rituals. I have written about this before[1].

The sense in which this question was perhaps asked reveals a somewhat disturbing tendency that has prevailed for some time now — the seeming inability to distinguish between the scientific method and specific scientific findings.

When a proud Hindu claims that Hindu rituals are scientific, he or she is usually just drawing a parallel between the ritual and a certain known scientific fact. This parallel is often forced and a result of wishful thinking.

Science is not a position. It is a method. It is an ongoing sequence of experiments and deductions through observation that reveals truths about the world we live in. If these truths had been revealed without using these methods, they would not deserve to be called scientific. And it is for this exact same reason that Hindu rituals cannot be called scientific, no matter how strong the parallel drawn.

Every argument defending a ritual on the basis of what “the ancients knew” can be readily dismissed on account of there being no experimental data to justify the practice.

There is real danger in such behaviour too. Once we begin considering a body of knowledge as valid because it corresponds with modern scientific findings, there is no end to the evils that such an intellectual surrender can be put to.

If you care to look, “scientific” justification of female genital mutilation (of the Islamic variety) are available. As are “scientific” reasons for drinking cow urine and “scientific” explanations of how the Biblical flood actually occurred.

Falling in love with the “science” label without engaging in critical thinking and understanding how the scientific method works is a slippery slope. Are we really going to leap off that cliff?

The next time someone makes a claim like this — “Hindu rituals are based in science” — please ask them to justify that claim. And if they can’t tell them that they cannot expect to be taken seriously. If they persist, tell them they are doing a disservice to Indian culture and are the reason behind its downfall.

Footnotes

[1] Vijayendra Mohanty’s answer to What is a ritual?

Why did only humans make such great progress when no other species has managed to do so?

Have we really made “great progress”? Feeling rather pleased with ourselves, are we? It’s not as if a council of species gathered around a large table and declared human beings as the only ones who have made “great progress”. It is humans themselves who have declared themselves the masters of the universe.

Imagine an ant somewhere out there, looking over the vastness of its anthill and then logging on to ant-quora to ask, “Why did only ants make such great progress since their existence and no other species has managed to do so?”

You might argue that the ant really has no understanding of the scale on which human society operates. Ideas such as economics, philosophy, and cosmology will make no sense to it. I accept that objection. But my point is that human beings don’t have the ant’s frame of reference either, or the giraffes, or a bird’s, or a dolphins. The only lens through which we might look at the world is the human lens. And so wedded are we to the idea of being human that we have convinced ourselves that our way of being is superior.

What we consider to be progress may not even feature on another species’ priority list. A bird might look at all we have built and consider it less valuable than the ability to just stretch its wings and fly. An elephant might scoff at human achievements and decide that it is better off travelling freely without the need for settlements. Dolphins, when faced with human civilisation, may scratch their heads wondering why any of it is necessary.

The question about why nobody else did what we did has no meaning. Just as the question about why we did not do what birds and dolphins did has no meaning. We went one way, they went another way. There is no why. It’s just the way things happened. There are physical explanations for these paths of course, and these are available in science. But the idea of progress is a human invention and is useful only in the context of comparing human societies.

Source: Why did only humans make such great progress when no other species has managed to do so?

Why is modern Indian literature obsessed with elements of mythology and history?

India is, for the most part, a conservative country.

The conservative impulse causes people to look at the world through the lens of our past. The liberal impulse is more future-oriented and fuels exploration and innovation.

Because India is past-oriented, even liberal narratives find themselves going through the past-lens in order to be heard and to find public acceptance. Politicians who want to rebuild a city have to talk about restoring the place’s ancient glory. Doctors talk about how the science of India was way more advanced than anything we have today. Even philosophers and freethinkers have to put on semi-religious labels in order to make sense.

Creators and writers do the same. Their message travels in the envelope made of old messages. It is easier for audiences that way. Novelty has mostly not worked in Indian markets.

Whether you want to put forth an empowering narrative about India, or chastise it for its social ills, most books of influence have done it by calling upon the past. I personally find it disappointing that almost the entire body of Indian speculative fiction is fantasy (mythological) and not science fiction.

I am not really dissing the way things are. Just saying we are like this only.

There is however, plenty of scope within mythological and historical narratives to present new stories and ideas. Indian storytellers have been doing it for a long time and failing less and less as time passes.

Maybe in the years to come, we will see genuinely new stories.

Are Ramayana and Mahabharata real?

No story is ever just a story — especially mythological epics. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata evolved over long periods of time. You might even say they are as organic as you are (you are organic, right?).

A story becomes a myth over generations, after being told and retold many times over. With each retelling, details get added — local flavours, sub-plots, embellishments etc. The ones telling the story sprinkle the narratives with their own biases while telling the story. Sometimes, other local myths get attached to the main plot and grow alongside it. Historical events get fictionalised and become core parts of the growing epics, with special effects and magic added.

Through no particular individual’s efforts, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata became the cultural foundations of India. So great is their influence that even today, major Indian movies use their plots. In everyday conversations, people compare fights within a family as a Mahabharata and a pair of loving brothers as a Ram-Lakhan duo. I once had a Muslim colleague in tech support who , in moments of exasperation, used to say, “Sab Ram bharose chal raha hai!” This kind of pervasive cultural relevance makes the epics more than just objects of affection — it turns them into items of faith. As a result, when anyone expresses a view suggesting that the epics are anything less than absolutely true accounts of past events, it is taken as a personal offence.

No evidence, except for descriptions within the narrative of the epics, has ever been found to prove that supernatural events and beings are real. Those who believe them to be real do so because they want to, not because they have valid reason to do so. See my answer to Why does science consider Ramayan and Mahabharat as myths? If these are not myths, then where are the buildings of that time? for more on this tendency.

Why does science consider Ramayana and Mahabharata myths? If these are not myths, then where are the buildings of that time?

I am not sure it is correct to say that science says Ramayana and the Mahabharata are myths (meaning not real and only made-up stories). It is just that from the scientific point of view, there isn’t sufficient evidence to treat the narrative of the epics as historical accounts.

Of course, historicity is not established with direct evidence alone. There can be demonstrable correlations of the linguistic variety, archaeological findings, popular oral traditions which can together form the basis of what might have been an actual historical Ramayana and Mahabharata.

But as things stand, even establishing such a basis seems difficult. As per Puranic chronology, the events of the Mahabharata — the more recent of the two epics — are dated to roughly 5000 BC. This alone puts the events of the epic farther back in time than anything else known to present-day historians, to whom the birth of the Buddha itself is “ancient”. The oldest imaginable times in terms of human civilisation don’t go further back than ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

What little we know about the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation tells us that these were contemporary to Mesopotamia and Egypt — existing somewhere between 3000 BC and 1500 BC.

This conflicts with the view held among some in India who believe that the events and people of the epics happened as far back as 15,000 BC (some even say 30,000 BC). These ridiculous estimates do two things — they make Indians look monumentally stupid, and they place the epics so far beyond the pale of recorded history that the only way any conclusion about them can be reached is through faith. Last I checked, faith was not a tool in the historian’s kit.

It is highly unlikely that anything resembling archaeological evidence could have survived from seven thousand years ago, especially in tropical climates as unforgiving as India’s. Things don’t get frozen here, they wither away.

I would like nothing better than to find evidence that India’s antiquity extends farther back in time than we think right now. It will blow my mind to bits if and when it happens. But I think we do a disservice to this country’s intellectual traditions when we treat every fallen bottle cap and dry leaf as reason to scream that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are historical accounts of events that happened in ages past.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will realise that there are people in many countries who have similar views about their culture’s antiquity. We need to be humble enough to realise that the reason we put our claims above theirs has nothing to do with objective scholarship — it is instead a matter of national pride.

There is no shame in admitting that we might never know some things. We should keep trying to uncover the past of course, but if we don’t find what we would like to be true, we should not take that to mean that somehow India and its civilisation is less because of it.

Why is everyone looking for Moksha? Doesn’t it contradict god’s will?

Moksha is an idea found predominantly in Indian philosophy. And Indian philosophy is largely atheistic — it has very little to do with god.

Let us define Moksha. It is the idea that an individual’s consciousness survives death and takes physical shape again and again until all our dealings with the physical plane are over. When a soul is no longer required to take physical form, it disappears into a greater consciousness — the Paramatma. This release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, is known as attaining Moksha or Nirvana.

If we are going to wrestle with the idea of Moksha, we might start by throwing god (and his will) out of the window. We have thus solved half the problem. Nobody is going against god’s will by “looking for Moksha”. The greater consciousness that the individual soul is said to disappear into is not a person. It is, at best, the idea of an impersonal god who does not care about the happenings on the physical plane.

But is anyone really “looking for Moksha”?

I am not. And I am reasonably sure most people aren’t. We are all just going about our lives, buying stuff, eating, writing angry tweets, proving each other wrong, celebrating existence, and occasionally passing out after drinking too much. Freedom from the physical plane isn’t high on anyone’s priority list.

Except for priests and monks — people who have made Moksha and its attainment their life’s work. If you ask them, many will ask you to read the scriptures, the Bhagwad Gita in particular.

Reading the Gita is not a bad idea.

In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that all people everywhere are on their way to the same end — becoming one with the universe. All paths lead to this same destination. If we take an atheistic view of the Gita, discount the mythological aspect of this narrative, and see Krishna as simply a personification of the universe (a character created to express a philosophic world view), we might interpret Moksha as death. After death, we all do become part of the universe — our conscious self dissolves and we decompose and become part of nature.

So Moksha is not something you need to look for. It is something that will happen to you inevitably. You can look, but you don’t have to.

How does your religion justify the suffering of innocents? Is it justified?

In my experience as a Hindu, usually Karma is brought in to explain the suffering of innocents. Of course, this is actually a non-explanation because by saying that the suffering of an innocent is a result of their own past actions, we are implying that the said person is not actually innocent.

This always used to make me wonder: Is saying that someone deserves what happened to them count as good action? Will we suffer for saying so? One day, when we suffer for no mistake of ours, will someone else say that we deserved it? Will we say it to ourselves?

These explanations can be offered, but they do not appear to have anything to do with logic. They build on the idea that justice exists. And there is absolutely no evidence, I think, that justice exists outside of human society. Within human society, justice is a construct that has been put in place to maintain order. I have written about this previously in my answer to Why do people believe in an afterlife when there is and has never been any evidence? Who created the idea?

But anyway, I think the function of religion is to comfort people by offering them some kind of explanation for the things that happen around them. The alternative — saying that we do not know — is scary.

On the whole, members of every civilisation and followers of every religion have had to contend with the fact that bad things happen and suffering is something we all go through. Indians came up with the doctrine of Karma to explain it away just as Christians came up with the idea of Original Sin. Neither makes sense, but believing in them keeps our greatest illusion alive — that our existence matters to the universe.

Is evolution a process or the result of a process?

The inanimate aspect of the world we see around us, as far as it is about life, has nothing to do with evolution by natural selection. Evolution by natural selection applies only to life — specifically the variety of life that is made of DNA and genes, which is pretty much the only kind of life human beings know about.

The inanimate world — rocks, weather, celestial phenomena — can be explained using other theories like cosmology and geology.

Now, to answer the question — every process is a result of another process. The problem is when we assume that something is done — that it is over, that the result has come out and what we have in front of us is the final version.

In this context, the unspoken assumption is that evolution is a thing — something that has come into being and is done. While the theory of evolution is one of the most robust scientific frameworks we have to explain the world, evolution by natural selection isn’t really a final version of anything.

Is a flowing river a result of the mountain or is it the result of the processes that formed the mountain? Is the mountain a mountain, or is it a stepping stone in the process that will one day create a new continent? Is a continent the final step of a process?

Evolution happens because some forms of matter react in certain ways in the presence of certain natural laws. It is a process as well as a small part of a much larger process. There are no results except those we label as such.

Do Indian gods also have castes?

The caste system, or the Varna Vyavastha, is a function of human society and does not always apply to non-human beings.

It might help to understand that there are classes of Hindu gods. Here is a brief video I made some time ago to explain the many worlds in which gods and celestial beings of Hindu mythology live.

There are the high gods like the trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). These are cosmic gods who are said to reside on a level that even lower gods hardly ever access. These gods (the trinity) have no caste.

Then there are the devas, the elemental gods of Swargaloka. These are Indra (rain and storms and thunderbolt etc), Agni (fires), Vayu (wind). These gods also don’t have any caste as they are not part of human society.

On the human level, there are beings and persons who have been worshipped as gods. These are avatars and sages.

  • Rama was a Kshatriya who was banished from a royal palace and lived in the forest as a hermit with his wife and brother.
  • Krishna was a Yadava who moved on from being a cow-herder and became a king-slayer as well as a king-maker.
  • Parashurama was a Brahmin who took up weapons for revenge and fought Kshatriyas.
  • Valmiki (the composer of the Ramayana) was a forest bandit who is worshipped as a sage.
  • Ved Vyasa (the composer of the Mahabharata), was the son of a sage and a fisherwoman who later became a queen.
  • The five Pandava princes — the sons of Kshatriya king Pandu — where not actually his biological sons.
  • Hanuman the vanara god did not have a caste as he was not part of human society.

Examples such as this abound and it is really a mixed bag at the end of the day. Here is a video which goes into how almost all of the Hindu epic narrative is about how castes relate with each other.

How do karma and reincarnation fit into the theory of evolution?

Let me start this answer by assuming that these two ways of looking at the world are equally valid and that it does indeed make sense to compare and contrast them. In reality, they are nothing alike. Evolution is a scientific theory. Karma is a philosophical worldview that necessarily pushes boundaries of the human condition towards idea like afterlife and cosmic justice and is patently unverifiable as a result. Therefore, this answer is pure mental masturbation on my part.

The Differences

Evolution does not work on individuals. It works on populations as they live in and interact with their surroundings. When members of the species develop new traits by way of random genetic mutation, they either get better at propagating or they get worse and die out. Evolution thus proceeds in directions chosen by organised chaos.

Karma on the other hand, is said to work on the individual soul. It is essentially the physical manifestation of an invisible record of a person’s actions. It happens when consequences of your actions spread out into the world around you as ripples that eventually make their way back to you.

The Similarities

Evolution is amoral. It does not reward what is known as moral behaviour in human societies. It has little or no relevance for any existing religious philosophy (except for the ones which insist on reading direction and meaning into it).

Karma, similarly, is without judgment. Even though there is a tendency among some to talk about “good karma” and “bad karma”, the philosophy has nothing to say about rightness and wrongness. It is simply a matter of action and reaction.

The Meeting Point?

I am afraid there isn’t one unless we choose to manufacture it by force fitting the two phenomena into each other.

For example, we may say that the species which die out as a result of their inability to cope with their surroundings actually die because of the consequences of their actions. But there is no evidence to support this assertion. In fact, Karma cannot be proven. It can only be taken on faith.

Another way we can try to put evolution and Karma on the same table is by suggesting the existence of the individual soul. We may say for example that the organisms which die out in the evolutionary storm are reborn to face the consequences of their actions while they were alive. But again, there is no evidence to support reincarnation among humans, let alone in species that existed when present-day human beings were nowhere to be seen.

It is important, I think, to remember the difference between what we know to be true and what we want to be true.

Why are Sacred writings of every religion other than Christianity considered mythology while Christian writings are considered history?

There is a Christian bias in most writing done by Christians about non-Christian religions. This applies even when seemingly secular scholars analyse religions like Hinduism, presumably because the Christian bias is still somehow a part of their mental make-up.

Christianity is treated as a sort of default value against which all other traditions must be judged. Thus, unwittingly Christianity becomes a domestic entity while the other cultures becomes exoticised.

The other culture becomes all magic and mysticism. It’s history becomes imaginary. All this, of course, in the backdrop of Christianity, which has certain inescapable truth claims at its foundation — the divinity of Jesus Christ, the crucification and the resurrection, the prophesied second coming. These are things that even vastly different Christian denominations take seriously to different degrees.

The problem with these truth claims is more than just the fact that there is little or no evidence to validate them. The problem is that in order to be take seriously, these truth claims must necessarily negate known historical facts as well as the claims other religions make about reality.

  • Jesus cannot be the “one true way” if any other religion is to be even considered as valid.
  • Biblical chronology cannot be accurate if we are to take modern scientific understanding of the age of the Earth and the universe seriously.
  • Christianity’s claims about god’s existence and nature cannot be true if our understanding of natural phenomena is true.

It is for these reasons that there remain strains in modern Christianity which are scarcely distinguishable from the most primitive tribal belief systems. And these schools of thought get routinely pummeled from rational and reasonable quarters in the secular world as well as certain parts of the Christian world. The upsurge of atheism in the Western world in recent times can be attributed in large part to the ridiculousness of Christian truth claims. And this upsurge has been met with a counter-movement as well, wherein Christian dogma has sought to survive by infiltrating science classrooms (Creationism and the so-called “Intelligent Design” movement).

Atheists in America have built their arguments to work against Christianity. This doesn’t always work when they face off against religions as different from Christianity as Hinduism. There are many ways that the dogmatic side of Hinduism can be addressed / debunked. However, the methods that are usually used to debunk Christian stupidity don’t quite cut it with Hinduism.

Atheists therefore, fall upon using arguments fueled by a Christian bias against Hinduism. Hence, the emphasis on “mythology” and the relative strangeness of Hinduism compared to what they understand religion to be.

What is the possibility of a new major religion forming in the next few centuries?

A lot depends on geopolitics of the next few centuries of course, but it is definitely possible.

New religions grow mostly by playing the upgrade card (we are new and correct version of truth that is better than the old ones) or the underdog card (help help all these big and established old religions are beating up on us because they are threatened by us). A third way for them to emerge and prosper is by pretending to be an old religion which was lost and has now been found (Mormons[1] anyone?).

It is also possible that a new religion might emerge from the ashes of an old dead religion. There has been a rise in European paganism[2] for a number of years now powered mostly by an anti-Christian sentiment.

At the end of the day, how major a religion ends up being, depends on how close to power its adherents are. Islam’s power comes predominantly from Saudi influence. Christianity grew in power by attaching itself to imperial Rome.

Hinduism is to India what Christianity is to the world on the other side of the Mediterranean. It got to where it is today by becoming the shell that defined Indian-ness when religions of the faith arrived in the sub-continent. It was once a defence mechanism, now it is the whole machine.

Having said all this, it is also possible that the next few centuries will not be anything like the last few centuries. Perhaps large parts of the world will be forced to come to terms with the facts of life and growing secularism will engulf the nations of the world. Perhaps Islam will die in the fire it has started, perhaps Christianity will simply stop being relevant, perhaps Hinduism will no longer be a label people use to define themselves.

Footnotes

[1] Mormonism – Wikipedia

[2] Modern Paganism – Wikipedia

How did so many religions originate in the world instead of there being only one religion?

When we ask why there isn’t a certain something or why there is something that is a certain way, what we neglect to remember is that everything is a work in progress. Things aren’t something — they are always changing and becoming something new.

So let me answer by throwing some light on what we were and the changes we are going through as a world.


On the whole, there is not much variation among human beings. We all pretty much look alike, we behave in similar ways. An smart enough outside observer can perhaps even predict how any one of us will react to situations involving danger, hunger, loss, fear etc. We are, on the whole, fairly predictable.

Perhaps this is why, despite the fact that early human tribes travelled a lot and were separated from each other by continents (and even seas eventually), our reactions to our surroundings were pretty similar. We felt afraid, grateful, happy, sad, and curious. Out of these general feelings emerged a way of living — a set of guidelines that implied that surviving together was better than dying alone. This emergent set of guidelines was morality. Mixed with tribal storytelling[1], it turned into religion.

When different tribes met, they either fought, or looked at each other with a flicker of recognition.

“These other guys are not that different from us,” they thought.

“Perhaps we should talk,” someone said.

“Hey, that guy looks like he is about to die,” someone pointed out. “We should get him medical help.”

“Maybe you are right,” said his friend. “But we don’t know what their bodies are like. Maybe they have four hearts. Maybe our herbs won’t work on them.”

“He looks like us,” said the first guy. “Let’s at least try”

So they tried. It worked. Turns out, the other tribe was just like them. Their vague feeling, that this other tribe was like them is confirmed. Human recognises human. Some are confused. Some are happy. Some say this is wrong — their “ways” are so different.

“They tell strange stories about animal spirits we have never heard of. They worship that other tree, which we consider evil. They actually eat this animal that we don’t touch because my grandfather was killed by one.”


By and large however, tribes mixed. It took time, fighting, and plenty of storytelling at nighttime around fires. The storytellers, who were holy men in all tribes, will be known as religious figures later. They remix the stories of different tribes and come up with unique mythologies. These mythologies change over time as well, as more and more tribes combine.

To the followers of any one mythology, it always looks like the stories they have heard are set in stone and unchanging. But that is never the case. Stories are hardly ever the same century from century. New versions emerge, become mainstream (depending on social factors) and become the default value for the next generation. The assimilation of Jagannath[2] into the Hindu pantheon is one example. The assimilation of Buddhism[3] is another. Christianity has also assimilated tons of pagan[4] rituals and practices. There are also examples of how Indian Islam[5] assimilated elements of Hindu culture.

After each assimilation however, comes denial. The generations that follow say that the shape their religion is in right now is “eternal” (as opposed to every other religion of course, which are passing fads).

There came a time when most of the human world was dominated by similar gods and deities. They wielded similar powers, occupied similar domains, and even had similar origin stories. Zeus and Indra are a case in point. It was a time when almost all humanity could be called pagan. Tribes met but did not fight over religious beliefs. Instead, they pointed at each other’s gods and said, “Hey. Nice. We have one just like that. We call him something else of course, but he does pretty much the same things. Can I sit and watch while you pray?”

Encounters such as this were common in the ancient world. People understood what was happening in a general sense. They knew that people were just people and that the religious impulse was the same everywhere even though it appeared to take different shapes.


But then came monotheism. Its gods were different from those already existing in other cultures. Monothesists were exclusivist[6] by nature. When they pointed at the strange gods (from their perspective) of another culture, they did not express recognition and understanding. They said, “This is a false god. There can’t be so many gods. There can only be one god. We have that one god. You must abandon your gods and join us and worship that one god.”

Needless to say, some people said, “What the F!”

To this day, the two main exclusivist monotheisms of the world — Christianity and Islam are causing people to say “What the F!” with their authoritarian claims and their desire to convert everyone into ONE religion. Christianity’s zeal takes the form of conversion. Islam gets more warlike and violent in its enthusiasm. Both these religions have split away from Judaism, which first presented the idea of ONE unforgiving god, but their respective mythologies have evolved to become so different from each other that they look like different faiths.

Thing is, religions merge. They have done so since the beginning of civilisation. Their merging is not about to stop. The religious impulse is strong and people will always believe. But the way for a religion to prosper and grow is, in all likelihood, not going to be the complete overthrow of others. Arthur C. Clarke, in his science fiction novel, suggested a future religion called Chrislam[7] — a merging of the monotheisms. It’s still nutty, but now they are trying to communicate with aliens.

I think there will one day be one religion. But it seems unlikely that it will be one that is in existence right now. It may in fact not be a religion at all. The whole history of humankind has been the process of this one religion. Through hits and misses, through trials and errors, we have been moving towards it.

Footnotes

[1] Vijayendra Mohanty’s answer to Why do we like stories, and why is it that we always have the urge to know how a story ends?

[2] Jagannath – Wikipedia

[3] Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India During the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D.

[4] “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”

[5] part1_09

[6] Buy God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism Book Online at Low Prices in India

[7] The Hammer of God (Clarke novel) – Wikipedia

How has religion shaped the way in which people perceive the natural world around them?

The natural world is the natural world. We all have access to it through our senses and we can all use its resources for our own purposes. What religion promises (often, but not always) is that there is an aspect to the natural world that is beyond our senses and our ability to understand.

Science can be said to do this too, but the difference is that science makes those hidden aspects available to all of us and tells us how we can access them too. Religion does not do this.

For the most part, religion — led by religious teachers and guided by holy books — asks us to take things on faith. It tells us to believe that justice will be done, believe that there are higher powers who care about us, believe that the guilty will suffer and the virtuous will be rewarded. Religion asks us to believe all these things and more. Some of these beliefs may seem harmless. Some may even seem uplifting and empowering. But the damage that they do is to our way of thinking.

When you believe in an aspect of reality that is imperceptible and beyond your ability to see at all, what is to stop someone from coming along and stuffing all manner of nonsense into that aspect? So the space that god occupies can also be occupied by telepathy, astrology, the afterlife, mystical powers, faith healing, and even claims about what you are required to do by orders of divine authorities.

What religion has done to our understanding of the natural world therefore is twofold. Human beings need to know, and in ages past, when we didn’t know much, it saved us from the madness of not knowing. It allowed us to live inside a framework of made-up answers about the natural world. It gave us the comfort of thinking that the natural world was made for us and we were allowed to use it for our benefit.

More recently however, religion has done little more than muddle our understanding of the natural world. The framework that once protected us from madness, is now suffocating us because we have outgrown it. We understand the natural world better than we did before, but our religious understanding of it is preventing us from accepting this newfound understanding completely.

Why is an atheist a Hindutva icon?

For the simple reason that Hindutva is not a religious movement. It is a cultural one.

It might come as a surprise to many people who have gotten used to seeing Hindutva proponents described as “religious fanatics”, but the Hindutva movement actually has more to do with culture than religion.

Hinduism is described as a religion by many. Many others say that it is not a religion and is, in fact, a “way of life”. The way the conversation about religion has been had in recent decades has turned present-day cultural discourse into a soup of labels and assumptions. The reason is that patently non-Indian categories are being used to classify Indian cultural phenomena. This atheism / theism / fanaticism confusion is just one case in point.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, when he was young, was as moved by the Indian freedom movement as any other young man his age. And like many Indians back then (and even now) he had opinions about the society he lived in as well. Like everyone else, he focused his efforts towards achievement of a singular goal — a free India.

The goal of a free India has nothing to do with religion. It never has. What it does have to do with is a cultural construct. In order for India to be free, it was important for freedom fighters to believe in an ideal. In Mohandas Gandhi’s case, this ideal took the form of a country that had the village as the seat of power and he used religion and god as motivating elements. Nehru similarly, used a vision of a scientific and peaceful nation as his ideal.

Savarkar’s ideal was rooted in the culture he belonged to. And that too, a sanitised and cleaned up version. He did not believe in a higher power the way most Abrahamic religions describe it. He did not believe in the philosophical constructs that formed the foundations of popular Hinduism — Karma, reincarnation, and bhakti etc.

Savarkar’s Hindutva was based on the cultural unity of the Indian sub-continent. The foundation of his ideal was that which, in his view, all Indians shared. In his view, god played no part in forming this ideal.

Is an ape a person?

Personhood does not exist. It is a social construct that human societies use to include and exclude people. Once, women weren’t persons. Now they are (to most of us). The same goes for people with skin of a different colour, people who worship relatively strange gods, and other similar “aliens”.

Societies start including a class of people into the folder they reserve for persons when their general knowledge base expands and causes them to look upon those people with empathy. When you see your own experiences reflected in someone else’s life, it is difficult to think of them as anything lesser than you. Think of any movie you have ever seen where two enemies bond over shared experiences of pain and happiness. You get my point.

In addition to this, we are the only species who bother with such classifications. A crow does not care if you are a person because crow society has no need of you. Dolphins — which may have recently been classified[1] as non-human persons (or have they[2]?)— can care about your well-being without putting a label on you.

We do language. That’s who we are. And in doing language, we come across category issues such as this one. The way out is realising that the category is made up, and we can always make up new ones if we like.

Footnotes

[1] Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists – BBC News

[2] No, India did not just grant dolphins the status of humans

What can we learn from the Mahabharata?

The Mahabharata is a many-faceted narrative that can teach you anything you want to learn. Depending on the way you see the world, you may find in it nihilism, devotion, everyday practicality, or even justification for mass murder.

I submit therefore that my answer to this question says more about me than it does about the Mahabharata. My view is no more and no less important than the many views on the epic that have come before me.

The fundamental lesson I have learnt from the Mahabharata is that justice is an illusion. It simply does not exist. I have written about this before in my answer to Why do people believe in an afterlife when there is and has never been any evidence? But that was in the context of how the idea of justice pushes us towards belief in an afterlife.

In the epic, we see good men make honourable decisions that end in tragedy. We see noble beings stand by in silence while injustice is happening in front of them. We see good people suffer and bad people prosper. We see god orchestrating war and justifying the killing of family. We see innocent children dying for no fault of their own and we find that the divine justifications offered to justify these tragedies fall woefully short of doing so.

At the end of the day, human beings are leaves flying about in a merciless storm that is reality. Things happen, people die, and life sucks. Nowhere else is this more evident than it is in the Mahabharata.

It’s not all bad though. The Mahabharata also tells me that though there may be no gods in the sky that will make sure I do not suffer, it is within my power to make the best of what I have and try. Sometimes… not often but sometimes, I just might get the thing I want. Ekalavya is the most prominent example of this. He won some (through his own effort) and he lost some (out of a misplaced sense of loyalty).

The Pandavas too, because they were wedded to the idea of doing the right thing, brought suffering after suffering upon themselves. In the end, what worked out for them was getting a hint and standing up for themselves. However, it took god to convince them.

Every one of us can have views on what characters in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata should have done differently. But we all would also agree perhaps that the Mahabharata would be a far lesser story if it wasn’t steeped in the kind of realism that defines it. The Mahabharata has survived as a cultural artifact for thousands of years and may even be called India’s spiritual spine.

In modern times, despite devotion having become pretty much our default approach to spirituality, the Mahabharata’s stark message of realism can serve as a robust alternative. If we take heed that is.

What are some of experienced Quorans’ tips to newbie Quorans?

Understand a few things about this platform. Remember, there are places on the internet where there are no rules. Quora is not one of them.

Quora is not Twitter. It is also not your blog or your Facebook profile or a place to dump every mass forward you receive on Whatsapp. It is a platform for sharing knowledge.

You can only share knowledge that you do have. You can’t answer questions on topics that you know nothing about. Be honest about where you are getting your facts from. Hyperlink and annotate the fuck out of your answers. It will make you look smarter, not dumber.

As a writer as well as a reader/upvoter on Quora, understand the fact that an answer is supposed to be useful first and foremost. It has to satisfy the conditions of the question. When you answer, you are not entering a popularity contest. You are engaging in an act of helpfulness.

Grammar matters. It really does matter. If you are unsure about the correct spelling of a word or the proper usage of a phrase, ask someone. And if someone edits your question to make it clearer to understand, don’t take that as an insult. They are doing you a favour, as well as everyone else who might come across it.

Learn the art of framing a neutral question. This means that your question should not be loaded with meaning. It should not presume an unverified state of affairs. Doing a little bit of research before asking a question might help with this.

  • Example of a loaded question: Why do all apples hate bananas?
  • Example of a neutral question: Do all apples hate bananas? If yes, why?

Lastly, assume that everyone you deal with on Quora is sincere and has the best intentions. I know this can be difficult often because more and more people are being just plain obnoxious in their answers, but it helps keep you cool and objective.

BNBR and prosper!