Saturday, May 23, 2009

Imagined Interpretations

Reading scripture for its own sake is one thing and reading it for what one
wants to find in it is entirely different. But traditionally
'systemization' and 'interpretation' have been tools for 'text torture.' As
a (sincere) student of scriptures, while it always amuses me when I read or
hear speakers impose their own message on certain texts of scripture, yet it
also always causes concern for those who read or listen to such teachers
without any critical spirit. Without interpretation we cannot understand the
scriptures, but if we ignore the context and impose our personal views it
become more an 'imagined interpretation' than real exegesis.

This morning (May 15th, 2009) I heard an interview with a Vaishnavite
speaker about Divyaprabandam (Sri Varadhacharyiyar on Jaya T.V.) He, as
others also do, claimed that everything that other religious scriptures say
is already found in the Bhagavadgita. Then he quoted the Gita, saying
'Krishna is fire (agni)', and suggested that 'this is what Jesus says in
Geneses 1:14, "let there be light"'. At the end of the programme he
expressed his desire to write comparing other religious scriptures with
Divyaprabandam also.

Well, he is not the first and won't be the last in such an endeavor. Such
people are there in every religion. For example, in a television talk a
Tamil Christian went to the extent of saying that Adam was a Tamilian (Dr.
Daivanayagam's speech in Podigai channel, April 16th, 2007, 11.00 pm to
11.15 pm). He was not the only Tamil Christians as there are a few like
him. What is really shocking is that during the time of Ram sethu
controversy (see for details)
one Tamil Christian went to the extent of saying that 'Ram sethu is another
evidence to show that Adam was from South (Tamil) India as his descendant is
also called "Seth".' (I either read or heard this, but I don't have the
evidence at hand.) But he forgot the fact that 'sethu' in Hindi means
'bridge'. So 'Ramsethu' is actually what we call in Tamil 'Ramar Paalam'
and has nothing to do with Seth, the descendant of Adam.

When through Arjuna the Gita says that Krishna is 'fire' (11:39) it has
nothing to do with the Bible saying 'let there be light' (as per
Varadhachariyar, Jesus said this!) What Arjuna says after seeing Krishna's
vishvarupa (universal form) is part of worship, whereas what is said in
Genesis 1:14 is in the context of the creation story. Similarity of
'words', '(ethical and moral) teaching', 'terms', 'doctrines', even
'philosophies' doesn't mean that one scripture borrowed from another or one
influenced the other. When even within one scripture a single word can mean
different things according to the context, it is over simplistic to say that
one particular scripture is the foundational from which other people
borrowed all views. As there are several similarities to the longing and
need of humanity, irrespective of place and time, we expect to find several
parallel expressions through terms and words. But reading one's own message
into them merely exposes our limitation in understanding other scriptures
rather than serving any positive purpose. The following one will
demonstrate this even more clearly:

'Oak is best known, perhaps, for his continued efforts to prove that the Taj
Mahal was originally a Siva temple. Oak's books attempt to argue that
everything of value in the world originally came from India or was part of a
greater India. His etymologizing and general level of scholarship are
astounding, even in the context of this genre of literature; for example,
(Oak, p.343) England was originally pronounced as Angulisthan, since
"ancient Hindu explorers and administrators who fanned over a virgin Europe
looked across the English channel and called the British isles 'Anguli'
('sthan' or 'desh') i.e. a finger-size, finger-length land. If one imagines
Europe to be a palm-size, palm-shaped continent Great Britain appears to be
'anguli' namely the (extended) finger" (Oak P.N. 1984. World Vedic Heritage.
New Delhi 984, p. 842). I was informed by a professor of history at
Jawarhal Lal Nehru University that even the RSS, which previously had
cultivated Oak, has since completely distanced itself from his views. Oak's
insistence that all other cultures from all over the world in all historical
epochs ultimately originated in Vedic India, however, does parallel some of
the scholarship of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in
Europe. Attempts were made to accommodate the newly discovered Eastern
traditions within a biblical narrative by suggesting etymologies such as
Brahman being the Sanskrit for Abraham and Sarasvati for Sarah.'

--Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration
, Oxford University Press (2001) 2002 Indian edition, notes 6,
pp. 343-44.

Gurukulam, May 21, 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

Giving Thanks

When I was staying with an American family for few days at Varanasi, it amused me a bit whenever they said thanks to each other in the family. For example when they sit for breakfast, they will say thanks to each other for everything they have done for each other. Even when one needs a spoon, then she has to ask, ‘a spoon please’ and when it is given then ‘thanks’ will automatically come on her lips.

After a day or two, when we were talking on various cultural and social issues of both India and America, I asked why they behave so formally by often giving thanks to each other. Even the husband will says ‘thanks honey’ when he receives a glass of water, etc. For this my friend’s wife said, ‘in our culture, only very close people say thanks to each other. By saying such a word we appreciate their service and love for us. But when one’s boss give instruction to do a work and when his subordinates does it, the latter won’t expect any thanks and the former often won’t say thanks for it. Whereas among close relatives and friends when we say “thanks” it is not a word of formality, but an expression of closeness’. This really surprised me. Because in India rarely a husband will say thanks for the wonderful food served by his wife, or wife for the best gifts given by her husband.

But in our culture we use difference means to express our love and affection. Though nowadays in the city children have begun to say thanks to parents, and even husband and wife to each other (and even good morning in the homes), yet in our traditional culture we express our love and affection through our actions and reactions. For example, a husband (or the guests or others) to appreciate good food says, ‘today my stomach is really filled; I ate up to my nose (in Tamil) etc.’ In the same way, instead of asking whether the food is tasty or not most of the time the women will say, ‘is there enough salt; I hope it is not too hot, etc’. In response, the guest (or family members) will say, ‘perfect. The food is very tasty today. How did you cook it? What is the masala that you added today, etc.’ (Immediately the woman/cook will start to give the recipe as well as the method of cooking).

So, though there is nothing wrong for us to offer ‘thanks’ to others and even to God to ‘appreciate the here and now,’ yet as Vaswani rightly said, ‘Some people even say "thanks" automatically, without so much as looking up at the person they are giving thanks to, or even meeting her eyes’. Because ‘Normally, the act of saying "Thank you" puts a certain distance between the giver and the receiver.’ (“Appreciate the Here and Now,” 18 Feb 2009, 0800 hrs IST, J P VASWANI, ‘Speaking Tree,’ Times of India, from website.)

There is nothing wrong with learning new manners which we think good for us. But instead of preserving the best (old) values which we have we began to imitate others just for the sake of aping some aspect of their culture which best serves their purposes, then artificiality cannot be avoided. At the same time, considering the influence of multiple cultures in our global village, even if we don’t like it we cannot avoid the influence of other cultures on us. So at least when we try to imitate certain new manners let also understand the ‘value’ which is behind them.

For example, I have observed that most westerners look into each others’ eyes when they exchange their love, care and concern, while we Indians rarely do so. Even while we talk (or argue and fight) we most of the time avoid eye contact. I think this is part of our Indian mannerisms. Rarely will a doctor look at a patient while checking her. She will mostly look at the report or old prescription rather than having eye to eye contact with the patient. When we go to the temple to worship, most of the time we close our eyes while stand before the deity (thankfully in our iconography, the eyes of the deities will remain wide open as ‘darshan’ means not only that we see the deity, but also that we are seen by the deity). Even in romantic scenes in films after some initial eye contact both the boy and will girl will talk (mostly sing and dance) without looking at each other very much. Even in romance the girl is expected to be shy (and not directly look at the boy), whereas the boy can express his love openly. This is even endorsed by Tirukkural, as the boy (man) says, ‘Yaan nookunkaal nilam nokuum; nokkakaal thaan noki mella nahum’ (when I see her she will look at the earth and when I don’t see she will see me and laugh gently).

As the life of the people cannot be divided in water tight compartments like cultural, social and religious, etc., what Vaswani says about the historical background for Thanksgiving Day in America make sense for us to understand their social world view (of thanksgiving). This could also be one of the reasons for the lack of such practices in our civilization. Though there might be several bhajans and poems of thanksgiving in our religious and secular literature, I cannot remember any of them immediately. Whereas in the Bible one can see several poems (particularly in the book of Psalm) and prayers of ‘thanksgiving’ to God. It would be interesting to collect all the ‘thanksgiving’ poems and bhajans in our Indian literature.

Though Vaswani has written with a positive note that, ‘Every day in India is a Thanksgiving Day for we have to thank God for all that we are and all that we have, every day of our lives!’, yet considering the corruption, lack of civic sense, lawlessness in every level, ‘We cannot, indeed, confine our thanksgiving to any single day. Ideally every day, every moment of every day should be an occasion of thanksgiving. The spirit of thanksgiving should so infuse our life that it should transform our life into a constant remembrance of His infinite mercy on us.’

In spite of all the shortcomings that we have, yet I am thankful to God that I was born in India. But if we Indians begin to adopt all the best things from other cultures, it is also important for us to understand the ‘value’ behind them. In the same way, not giving up the best traditions among us will help us to ‘appreciate the here and now’ in our life, too.

Gurukulam, May 13, 2009.