“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”
Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, fresco on Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, one of the most replicated paintings of all time. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
Michelangelo got the inspiration for the Sistine Chapel ceiling form a cloud formation he once saw when he was stoned. I wonder why famous renaissance artists and sculptors liked to draw such tiny richards. Same thing with his sculpture, David, in Florence. David’s twidledeedum is even tinier than Adam’s. Maybe the artist has a midget richard himself and he wants to take it out on the subject in the painting so he can sit back and gloat, “I’m bigger’n you.” This would have interested Masters and Johnson.
But I digress.
I have been trying to understand evil all my life but as the days go by it gets harder and harder. Goodness, on the other hand, is easy to understand but it is growing increasingly difficult to find.
We need a new God. The old one isn’t working anymore. We have developed a God-resistance, like you get antibiotic-resistant.
In Michelangelo’s fresco above, Adam appears stoned out of his mind and the Lord is about to take off with at least one naked broad and lots of babies. He is tired of having Adam slouch around naked all day and seems to be telling him, “See you around, kid. I would take you on but I have too many on this flying carpet and we have ta split before it gives. Besides you have body odor. The last time you bathed was before I created a broad for you. Say Hi to Eve and tell her I said ‘you’re welcome’. And where’s the fig leaf I gave you on your birthday? Put it on, for my son’s sakes. You look gross.”
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. As a Hindu, I grew to know yet other gods whom our epics themselves depicted as fallible and petty, with just as many human frailties as we humans have.
Over the years, Hinduism began to seem more like an Asian version of a JRR Tolkien series, than a religion. While a billion of my compatriots in India chose to go nuts over it, I decided not to. 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, while I went for a bike ride. While those serials were on air, the roads would be devoid of traffic and the city took on the look of a ghost town.
When I met my wife, who is a Shia Muslim, I tried to adopt her faith because I was told that, in order to marry her, I had to convert and so I did. It was easy to convert since I did not have any deep-seated desire to either remain a Hindu or become a Muslim. But in a short while, I began to question Islam too much and then finally, I refused to remain associated with a faith that seemed stuck in the 6th century.
My wife and I have never spoken about my cutting loose from Islam but we are together and I think she realizes that in matters of faith (or the lack of it), every human is an individual and should be allowed to chart his own course so long as what he believes in does not harm anyone else.
When I turned my back on Islam, initially I was confused. Neither being a Hindu nor being a Muslim had given me any sense of fulfillment. Elders told me that I had to make the effort to become a believer and I asked them why. I began to feel like the proverbial ship that had been condemned to never reach a port.
Then, one day, it hit me. It dawned on me that I was wasting my time trying to be either. Ever since that day, I have chosen to neither believe nor disbelieve, to keep all options open, as an agnostic. It has helped me to look at evil dispassionately, ‘from the outside’.
Clueless. (It is great to remain clueless, actually).
There is a belief that the world really began to grow less and less violent after the 6th century BC, due to the advent of organized religion and philosophical study.
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 really stirred things up.
Like his Jewish predecessor and his Muslim successor, Jesus was an ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ guy. Thus, the second of the three aggressive, war-like religions was born.
I doubt however, if Judea was the most oppressed region in the world at the time. Rome was crushing revolt way more brutally in North Africa in the two decades prior to Jesus’s birth. Mass ethnic cleansings, torture, enslavement, rape and murder of commoners by officials of Qin and Han Dynasty China during the same period, are well documented. Judging by the way that the Norse conquerors treated farm folk in England around the same time, someone who was PTSD-free must have been seen as a freak.
Yet we didn’t see a Swahili-speaking prophet or a Mandarin-speaking one, or a blonde guttural Germanic Swede. In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, prophets ‘ardly appened’.
If God was facing a resource crunch and had only one messiah in stock, why would he pick a joint with a population of only 15000?
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. In fact, during the Roman occupation of Judea, trade and commerce improved overall, spurred by the stability brought on by the security that the mighty Roman military provided. The Roman empire lasted 700 years because they built secure societies in captured lands and instilled law and order and justice for the first time across the land.
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 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.
Perhaps the people of Judea, a vibrant and wealthy commercial hub in the middle-east then, started feeling persecuted under Rome only after Jesus Christ lit the fire. Perhaps the Meccans, arguably the richest society in the 6th century Arab world, felt persecuted only after Mohammad began making them feel they were persecuted.
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 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. Or was the appearance of Jesus in Judea a sort of a targeted trial marketing exercise prior to product launch? Why then did product have a finite shelf-life? But then, ‘the Lord has his ways’, as Christians the world over like to say, with a resigned sigh.
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. Both, the Christians and the Muslims (and the Jews prior to them) tried to keep it simple. They wanted a monotheistic world. I ask them this, ‘why should there be only one God?’ Why can’t the heavens have Gods who are skilled in different traditions? Don’t the management books preach decentralization and delegation of authority? Won’t things get done faster that way? If heaven had a CEO-European Affairs, there would never have been a Third Reich.
I think the reason why we have more order and less violence today, in terms of percentage violent deaths, is networking and awareness that grew, first through trade and then through the thirst for scientific knowledge.
Hold on, you must be wondering if I am crazy, suggesting that violence has actually decreased over the past 8000 years. I don’t have the data but Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, does and he has quite eloquently expressed his arguments in his bestseller, The Better Angels of our Nature.
Gathering data from forensic archeologists, ethnographers, historians, political scientists, ‘atrocitologists’, pollsters, governmental agencies and social scientists, Pinker has fused a mass of information into a coherent page-turner that is a treat to read. In a nutshell this is what his book says……
We’ve 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 we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?”
Steven 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 almost mundane features of life for millennia.
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%.
How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, burning cats, disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment and even eating each other? The key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand 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 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 has restricted his analysis to only physical violence but maybe even violence has not really decreased but just morphed into other 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. Coveting what the other guy has and trying to snatch it by any means, can be achieved through not only physical violence but through economic violence as well.
The world is in the need of a new messiah. Let him be a Bengali messiah. There is one I happen to know……..