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Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”

Robert Frost

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Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, fresco on Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, one of the most admired paintings of all time. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia). Michelangelo got the inspiration for the fresco from a cloud formation he noticed one late night, when he was stoned. This has nothing ta do with the subject of this piece, though. I have always wondered why famous renaissance artists and sculptors liked to draw such tiny richards. Noticed his sculpture, ‘David’, in Florence? David’s twidledeedum is even tinier than Adam’s. Maybe Mikey had a midget richard himself and tried to feel good by sculpting even tinier richards.

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There is no question left in my mind that we need a new God. The old one isn’t working anymore. We have developed a God-resistance, like you get antibiotic-resistant.

Quite early in my life, I took pains to see that I had very little to do with any holy scriptures. Most holy books fall over each other trying to tell us what evil really is. I was born a Hindu and as I grew, the concept of goddesses with ten arms and gods with elephants’ torsos began to seem laughable to me. I grew to know yet other gods whom our epics themselves depict as fallible and petty, with just as many human frailties as us humans.

Over the years, Hinduism has begun to seem more like an Asian version of a JRR Tolkien series, than a religion. While a billion of my compatriots in India have chosen to go nuts over it, I have decided not to. When they sat mesmerized in front of their TV sets for two hours every Sunday morning in the 80s, tears streaming down their faces watching the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the roads would be devoid of traffic and the city took on the look of a ghost town. While they sat glued to their TV sets, I biked to the park, rolled a joint and listened to ‘shine on, you crazy diamond’ on my Walkman.

At one point, my late mother – a pious Hindu – told me that I had to make the effort to become a believer and I asked her why. Then, when I met my wife, who is a Shia Muslim, I was curious. To please her, I tried to adopt her faith but I realized that it went one step further. It combined Hinduism’s ludicrousness with it’s own single-minded murderous zeal. My wife felt my disenchantment and never mentioned it further. Amen.

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There is a belief that the world really began to grow less and less violent after the 6th century BC and it was due to the advent of organized religion and philosophical study.

To the east, Gautama Buddha first set the ball rolling, around the 500 BC. Buddha held that true moral purity arises from freeing oneself from material desires and petty squabbles through meditation and living an ethical life without being hurtful and resisting the temptation of coveting what does not belong.

Around the same time, 2300 miles to the north-east, the Chinese teacher, politician and philosopher, Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, humility in social relationships, justice and sincerity.

Buddha and Confucius were followed a few centuries later, by Jesus Christ. While the two Asians were low-key and stayed under the radar most of the time, Jesus arrived with a bang. (Oops, actually without a bang. His mommy, Mary, was a virgin). Be that as it may, Jesus came with bells and whistles, shooting stars, frankincense and myrrh. And a luminescent disc behind his head that he couldn’t ever shake off. When he turned his head it bobbed, momentarily caught off guard, but settled back behind his head once he stopped moving it.

When Jesus moved from Galilee to Judea, it was not the most oppressed region in the world at the time, by any means. Rome had been brutally crushing revolt and enslaving thousands in North Africa around then. At that very moment in time, 7000kms to the east, ethnic cleansings, torture, enslavement, rape and murder of commoners by officials of Qin and Han Dynasty China were the norm. 4000kms to the north-west, conquering Norse hordes were making landfall on the Suffolk coast, raping and looting, grabbing women and children for slave labor.

And yet, we didn’t see a Swahili-speaking mahdi in Luxor or a Mandarin-speaking wise one at Tianjin, or a blonde Gaelic prophet preaching to the masses in Northumbria. God chose a small postage-stamp sized region with a combined population of just 15000, to send in his messiah. Why?

The conquering Romans were willing to let the residents of Judea live their lives the way they wanted, as long as they submitted to the authority of Rome. They did not burn their temples and neither did they murder their rabbis. In fact, during Emperor Tiberius’s occupation of Judea, trade and commerce improved vastly, spurred by the stability brought on by the security that the mighty Roman military provided. In an otherwise arid land organized agriculture flourished, thanks to the Romans’ ingenuity with irrigation aqueducts.

The Roman empire lasted 700 years because they built secure societies in captured territories and instilled law and order for the first time. We like to curse the Americans for encircling the world in a choke hold of 800 military bases, but we do not realize how much stability that has brought and how big a boost global commerce has received from it. Imagine land grabs like the annexation of Crimea happening every other month and you would imagine a world without the American omnipresence.

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Now, I am not suggesting that there was no persecution under the Romans or under the rich Meccan Merchant kings. Of course there was persecution and there was slavery. Heck, slavery at the time was the norm, like owning a Toyota Corolla. Everybody had one. Kids got slaves for their birthdays. Toys-R-Us must have been called Nubians-R-Us. Even those nice, curly-haired beacons of western civilization, the Greeks, had slaves. Even slaves knew they had to be slaves. I swear even slaves had their own slaves, somewhat like Tier-2 suppliers.

But given the violent times in which much of the world lived those days, the people of Judea were probably better off under the Romans than they would have been under the Mithradatans, the Scythians, the Bythnians, the Greeks and the omnipresent and vicious nomadic tribes that roamed the grasslands, burning and pillaging everything in their way.

Judea was by no stretch the hot spot, as regards persecution and yet the Lord chose it for the prophet Jesus Christ to deliver the wretched masses. In any case, Jesus began to spread this altogether new concept called ‘love thy enemies’. Initially everyone thought he was nuts. The ‘civilized’ world till then, had known only wars, subjugation and misery. Boy, he must have sounded exotic, like Steve Jobs and his first Ipod.

Be that as it may, I doubt that the world is now less violent because of organized religions. Rather, I think it is less violent in spite of organized religion.

I think the reason why we have more order and less violence today, in terms of percentage violent deaths, is the awareness that has emerged out of scientific progress. I don’t have the data but Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, does and he has quite eloquently expressed his arguments in his The Better Angels of our Nature.

We have all had the experience of reading about a bloody conflict, a suicide bombing or a shocking crime and saying, “What is the world coming to?” But Steven Pinker asks, “Wasn’t the world far worse in the past?”

Here’s my understanding of what Pinker’s book says…

Pinker’s research shows that neolithic humans killed each other with much greater frequency than today. At least 25% of all deaths those days were through violent conflict. Tribal warfare around the third millennium BC was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. In Medieval times, the murder rate in Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadism in incarceration and frivolous executions were mundane daily phenomena of life for millennia. Fucking hell, those days you were born with PTSD.

Developed nations no longer wage wars between themselves, the last time that happened being 70 years back. And in the developing world, wars kill just a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Statistically genocide, rape, hate crimes, deadly riots and child abuse are all substantially down.

Today, deaths caused by violence amount to just .03% of all deaths worldwide (As per Pinker. I haven’t checked the stats).

What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, burning cats, drawing and quartering criminals alive as forms of mass entertainment and even eating each other? The key to explaining the decline of violence is understanding the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels within us that steer us away.

Those better angels led us toward the spread of government, literacy, trade, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Increasingly, we have grown to control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

Pinker, in short, says that we always had it in us to be good. We just didn’t know it.

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Things have however taken a turn for the worse. Physical violence might have lessened but there are other forms of violence in the world today, pernicious forms of evil such as ‘economic violence’, the evil that is perpetrated by the rich over the poor, by organized crime through untaxed wealth, through corruption and embezzlement. Involuntary negligent violence like politicizing a pandemic.

Oh yeah, the world is not only in need of a new God but it is in the need of a new messiah as well. Let him be a wise, good-looking Bengali messiah. There is only one and I happen to know him intimately……..