A vein in my head starts to throb each time I hear Zakir Naik described as a scholar and an expert on comparative religion. He has been featured on at least one major Indian TV news channel as some sort of Indian Muslim icon. I wonder if those propping him up as a champion of modern Islamic thought are completely unaware of his subversive worldview and the barbaric and medieval set of values that he peddles during his talks worldwide. Naik brings a bad name, not only to scholars of religion, but also to Indian Muslims everywhere.
Be it his defence of wife-beating, his various calls to Islam (many of which border on hate speech), or his juvenile approach to religious debate in general, Naik is anything but ‘modern’ and ‘scholarly’. His talks do make for interesting listening, but his arguments are little more than skillful manipulation of lines from religious texts that he draws upon from his phenomenal memory. Naik’s entire operation is aimed at being the soft, intellectual arm of the global Islamic Ummah dream.
To this end, Naik, in his sermons, issues some most amusing challenges to religions other than Islam. One among these is a demand to prove that Ganesha is god. It was issued some years ago by Naik, but finds itself doing the rounds of online social networks during the Ganesha festival every year in the form of photo memes and video clips. In this challenge, Naik says that in order to invite a Hindu to Islam, all one has to do is question the claim that Lord Ganesha (or his father Lord Shiva) is a god and then watch in amusement as the entire edifice of Hinduism collapses. Apparently, no self-respecting god can ever fail to recognise his own son (like Shiva did) or keep his head from being cut off (like Ganesha did).
What is most amusing about Naik’s challenge is the call for “proof”. One might be forgiven for thinking that there is some kind of scientific and rational basis to this whole conversation. There isn’t. Indeed, a large part of the modern conflict between science and religion owes its origin to this very pretense on part of Abrahamic religions. Religions are subjective ways of looking at the world. They use imagination, speculation, and storytelling to define a human being’s place in the universe. The only common ground among different religions is this imaginative drive towards seeking meaning. In contrast, science is an objective way of looking at the world. It involves facts and methods and uses them to arrive at conclusions that may be verified by multiple observers.
Naik is questioning Lord Ganesha’s godhood on the basis of assumptions out of Islamic doctrine. True, Hindus assign omnipotence and omniscience to their deities just as followers of Islam do, but a Hindu god is much more than the idea of God as understood in Islam. The doctrine of karma is a universal one, and applies to all beings, and this includes the gods. Even the highest beings in the Hindu pantheon of deities routinely suffer the consequences of their acts and are no different from their devotees on this front. Every avatar of Vishnu has suffered loss and pain like a normal human being. Hindu epics are full of tales where heroes die, suffer grievous injuries, or are helpless before fate.
Naik’s challenge exemplifies the tendency to judge all religious traditions on the basis of assumptions lifted from monotheistic / Abrahamic religious texts. The reason Lord Ganesha does not fit Zakir Naik’s ideas of what God should be like is that he is judging Hinduism according to Islamic standards. He wants Hinduism to measure up to the standards that Islam has set. Many might say there is nothing out of the ordinary about this approach to comparing religions, but that is only because we have all grown accustomed to being questioned. If one were to reverse the gaze on Islam and have it measure up to the standards that Hinduism sets, a good number of amusing challenges might be presented.
Why do Muslims worship only one God? Why can’t a Hindu worship his or her many gods without having to to justify his way of worship? Why can’t there be more than one true God? Why can’t all gods be true? After all, throughout history, Hindus, and by extension Indian culture in general, have thrived in a pluralist universe — one where multiple cultures, multiple religions, and multiple ways of being have coexisted without necessarily annihilating or converting each other. In short, why can’t Zakir Naik not accept me as I am? Why must I become what he is in order to be accepted by him as an equal?
To this, Naik might react by saying that he is merely putting me on the correct path — the one true path shown by the one true god fpr the betterment of all mankind. Some of Naik’s more militant cousins might add that if I don’t get on the right path right away, I forfeit my right to life as well, but I digress.
One distinguishing factor between Dharma — a loose label applied to the various Indic streams of philosophical thought that constitute Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. — from Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity is the truth claim. Naik demands proof of Lord Ganesha’s truth. Lord Ganesha, oddly enough, offers no truth. At least not the variety that would satisfy the history-centric Naik. To Naik, miracles need to have actually happened, people need to have actually existed, and events need to have actually taken place in order to be true.
Lord Ganesha does not draw the strength of his existence from history. He draws it from an open outlook on part of his devotees — the belief that the universe is a diverse place full of rich differences and multiple answers to each question. When devotees touch their books to Lord Ganesha’s feet, they are in fact paying homage to an ideal — the pursuit of knowledge and the promise of enlightenment through that pursuit.
So when a Hindu says Lord Ganesha exists, he is most assuredly not talking about an actual elephant-headed deity that sits somewhere high up in the sky and issues directives to be followed to the word. When a Hindu pays homage to Lord Ganesha, he is approaching the divine through imagination.
The Hindu is imagining Ganesha, and as a result, is letting himself be imagined by Ganesha in return.