Thursday, December 31, 2020


As a Kulin Brahmin in the service of the Muslim rulers of Bengal, Ram Mohan Roy was well versed not only with the classical-cum-offical languages of his era, i.e., Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic, but also with the prevalent religious ideas of the time. As a teenager, he had already rebelled against the system of idolatry; and contact with Islamic thought fuelled his monotheistic fervour further. 

His brush with Europeans of Bengal, including both Unitarians and Serampore missionaries, opened for him a new vista of religious experience and vocabulary. Like Mahatma Gandhi many decades later, who found succor in Sermon on the Mount, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was deeply impressed by the saying of Jesus in the New Testament. He wrote a tract called The Precepts of Jesus: A Guide to Peace and Happiness in 1820. In the preface he refers to the foundational nature of the teachings of Jesus  when he notes "that law which teaches that man should do unto others as he would wish to be done by, reconcile us to human nature, and render our existence agreeable to ourselves and profitable to the rest of mankind".  He further states that although this idea "is partially taught also in every system of religion with which I am acquainted," it "is principally inculcated by Christianity". The tract, the small booklet, then presents the compilation of Roy's selections from the sayings of Jesus, which he thinks are essential to mankind's happiness and peace. 

However, a major controversy erupted after the publication of this tract. Joshua Marshman, one of the Baptist missionaries in Serampore castigated Roy for doing violence to the teachings by disengaging the words from the person. Roy had presented teachings as important and not the man who said them. In that he was influenced by European Unitarians who did not believe in the divinity of Christ. 

A lot can be said about the Roy–Marshman controversy. The heart of the matter perhaps lay in Roy's contention that human reason, through careful observation can find, recognise and worship God, whereas Marshman contended that God's true self cannot be observed, it can only be revealed by God himself, which He, in fact, did in his Son. 

Roy believed in his faculty of reasoning. Marshman proposed submitting to God's revelation.

The controversy is alive even today. In popular culture, it was  last seen in the Raj Kumar Hirani's Aamir Khan–starred 2014 film PK. The film does not deny the existence of God, but says that none of the religions can tell us anything about God. Religions themselves are corrupted. Using our reason, we need to find some universal principle or principles operating in all religions, and live by that code. 

But this kind of universalism has a problem. A principle that belongs to all may belong to none—"the pitfall of universalism."

If religions are corrupted, what guarantees our reason’s escape from corruption. 

Our present postmodern milieu has exposed the limits and corruption of reason. How should we recognise the truth then? How should we gain the true knowledge of God?

The Roy–Marshman debate is still relevant. 

The Precepts of Jesus is an important book for the 21st-century Indians.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Deafening Silence on Lohia

It is the birth centenary of Ram Manohar Lohia today. Not many newspapers, print or online, carry opinion pieces or reminiscences of the man. He himself apparently never celebrated his birthday citing the reason that it’s the day Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged by the British in 1931. He’s often  called  the most original democratic thinker of independent India but the silence about him in the mainstream academic and public sphere is almost deafening. The popular chronicles of modern India’s political history ignore him almost completely. India After Gandhi, the ‘magisterial’ tome by Ramachandra Guha, mentions him only in passing. Even though Guha’s book is not on Gandhian legacy, the title has an ironic ring to it because Lohia understood Gandhi more seriously than most Gandhians. In India After Independence by Bipin Chandra Pal and others, Lohia does claim a paragraph or so more, but even there he is chided for his anti-Congress and anti-Nehru sentiments, which, of course, were very strong. In books such as these, the authors apparently grudge his ‘goongi gudiya’ comment the most, and it seems that this alone disqualifies Lohia from any
Pic: India Post, GoI, Wikipedia
attempt towards a disinterested assessment. Lohia was not known for restraint when he targeted his political opponents and in any case he must not be wide off the mark when Indira Gandhi appeared on the political scene riding largely on her father’s wings. But there must be a very tender and honest aspect to his personality that even though his friends acknowledged him to be hot-headed, they did indeed respect him. Kishan Pattnayak in his book of collected essays Vikalpaheen Nahin Hai Duniya recognizes that it was betrayal of principles, Gandhian and others, that infuriated Lohia, but there were also times when he remembered his former colleagues, like Nehru, with particular fondness.
Personal issues aside, what makes Lohia a formidable thinker is the felicity with which he combined the spiritual and the social. He is able to raise questions of traditional oppression using traditional idiom. His insightful essays about Indian godhead, the conflict within Hindu society, the material tensions in Indian culture, and the challenges of technology must go down as essential texts for young Indian students. The impact of his ideas is felt four decades after his death and beyond ideological camps. Megnad Desai in his piece (Indian Express, March 7) that he wrote as an obituary to British labour politician Michael Foot, and in which Lohia is mentioned just as a footnote, could not but acknowledge Lohia’s contribution in making caste struggle an important ingredient of political movements. With electoral fortunes of Left parties plummeting, there is already a new openness for Lohia. This also points towards emergence of a reconfigured centrist position in Indian politics.
It can be expected that a renewed conversation between Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lohia will open up promising political horizons for India.

[Originally published under the same title in 2010 in Herald of India. Another blog post can be read here]

Monday, March 16, 2020

Allegations of Forcible Conversions: Weekly Harassment

I don’t particularly follow the news of religious persecution in India. I am a teacher and not a social activist, nor a human rights crusader. But if you are on social media, you cannot avoid such news for too long. Just yesterday, March 15, 2020, I got to hear about four cases where communal groups assaulted Sunday prayer services—two in Uttar Pradesh and one each in Bihar and Goa. Last Sunday, (March 8, 2020) two other cases of communal assault in UP had come to light. Attacks on Sunday worship, especially, in mofussil towns and villages have become a weekly affair. Every Sunday afternoon you can be almost sure that a WhatsApp message to that effect is coming—and it does come.

A well-planned campaign is being run to harass Christian prayer groups and small independent churches across the country. Unfortunately, the communal groups are manipulating and pressurizing even the local police against the worshippers.

I wonder who these people are and what grouse they have against religious meetings.  
The attacks are made not by local people. Locals have no problems with prayer meetings in their neighbourhood. Many of the assailants come from “outside”. This is something similar to what happens in cases of riots. In recent Delhi riots, it has been found that most of the goons came from neighbouring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. So this allegation that conversions are opposed by local people is completely false. These attacks are engineered by communal organisations that often serve the interests of political parties.

The spiritual phenomenon of conversion is ... changed into a religio-cultural battle fought on a political turf.

Attacks on churches, as we know, are a result of deadly blend of religion and politics. Parties founded on religious nationalist ideology such as the BJP often attack the rival political parties for appeasing the minorities and indulging in “vote-bank” politics. To counter that, these parties have created a fear psychosis in the Hindu community that it is in danger and the only way to survive is to rally behind the politicians. The party and its affiliates continue to fan the communal fire by various means. Recently, an advocate in Delhi, a BJP leader, filed a public-interest litigation in the Delhi High Court to control religious conversion. On the grassroots, the party directs its cadres to attack the churches. This is done to keep the pot of communal polarization boiling.

There is something deeper at work, too. Religious conversions upset the social structure, which, in India, is the outcome of the caste system. Numerically speaking, Indian population is largely composed of people from the so-called backward classes. Hence, conversion among them is far more visible, even though people from the upper castes are also converting. The slipping away of the “lower castes” from their grip is behind the rage of India’s upper castes. The spiritual phenomenon of conversion is thus changed into a religio-cultural battle fought on a political turf.

The false allegation that poor are forced to convert is absurd. As a matter of fact, force is being used to stop people from exercising their freedom of conscience, their right to convert. Week after week, force and intimidation is employed to put fear in people. Week after week, Christian pastors are being harassed and bullied. Week after week false cases are being filed against innocent people. This is what we must be challenged by every fair-minded Indian.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

ROBINSON CRUSOE @ 300; Or, an Epic of Freedom of Conscience Out of a Parable

We all must learn life’s deep lessons by reflecting on our experiences in the light of God’s revelation.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe turned 300 in 2019. The book’s pervasive influence on the English-speaking literary world can be seen in various adaptations, movies, references in other literary works. 

Nearly 150 years after its publication, Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins published his detective novel, The Moonstone (1868). In that novel, one character swears by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe saying that that book taught him almost everything about life. That’s one example of the lasting impact this book has had on other writers and books. 

Robinson Crusoe when it appeared in 1719, was a literary sensation. Nothing like that had ever been written.

The “first novel” in the English novel, however, was an outgrowth of the parable of the Prodigal Son told in the New Testament (Luke 15: 11–32), and the whole book is the retelling of the parable from the prodigal son’s perspective. Just as the younger son the parable told by Jesus rebelled against his father and left home, Robinson Crusoe too disregarded his parents’ advice and went seafaring. Like the prodigal son, he too repents and returns. 

Critics and scholars who love theories, systems and ideologies, said a lot about this book. From Marx to Max Weber, everyone had an opinion on the book, it’s protagonist, it’s setting, etc. For simple readers, it’s quite a riveting piece of writing, where the writer has you in his grip even when he is writing—for the most part—about a single shipwrecked man trying to survive on an uninhabited island. And when he is not working, he is coming to terms with his own past and realigning his inner life with the will and purpose of God, or as the biblical text says, “comes to his senses”.

At one point he says:
“It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming, or, indeed, for the two years past.”

A spoilt young brat turns into a hard working artisan; a mason, a potter, a carpenter, a tailor—all rolled into one. 

The gradual conversion of his heart is the heart of the book. Just as the prodigal son was given the liberty to rebel, and was then given the opportunity to repent, Robinson Crusoe learnt a basic lesson about liberty of conscience. You cannot force any man to do your bidding. We all must learn life’s deep lessons by reflecting on our experiences in the light of God’s revelation. Even a prodigal must be given the freedom to disobey. 

Later in the book, when three more people join Crusoe on his island, he, in a moment of vanity, considers himself the monarch of his island and the three people his subjects. But he grants them liberty of conscience—one Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one animist, all living together. 

A lesson, indeed, for our times. 

Defoe has certainly created a modern epic out of a short parable about human condition.

Sunday, December 29, 2019


This year we had the 200th birth anniversary of one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman (1819–1892). The poet who sang “of himself” and of democracy, sought to balance  two apparently conflicting ideas—individual freedom and social responsibility. These two inseparable concerns have shaped modern literature. These perennial concerns are, as a matter of fact, common to philosophy, politics as well as religion.

In one of his poems (“As I Ponder’d in Silence”), Whitman says he encountered the spirit of the ancient poets who told him that great poetry is about great wars. Whitman responds by saying, he too, writes about a war; in fact, the greatest of wars, the war that goes on in the human soul. He is echoing what John Bunyan  (1628–1688) had said in his 1682 book THE HOLY WAR, the war for the soul of man. Conventionally, Whitman is seen as a Transcendentalist, but he is basically shaped by biblical conceptions of man and society. 

With Dutch and English ancestry, he embodies the Protestant ethos of individualism and communitarian responsibilities. He is no anarchist, in the usual sense. He moves away from rules and statutes of the society because he looks forward to the day when the divine law will be indelibly written on the human heart and we will instinctively do what is right (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 10:16). His idea of human camaraderie is straight out of Psalm 133 and reflects the New Testament idea of the church. 

His admiration for Abraham Lincoln (subject of his popular poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”) affirms that democracy doesn’t mean merely the will of the majority but upholding of the principles of justice, and fighting for what is morally right. Personally, Lincoln’s individual greatness was his ability to unite a nation under the banner of justice and righteousness. That was biblical individualism that Whitman admired and promoted. 

He wanted cities, states and nations to “Resist much, obey little” (“To the States”) because institutional and collective liberty is far more important than merely self-centric individual freedom. Ironically, the strength of American democracy is that people do not want to be patronised by the government. Americans don’t consider their government their master, because in their collective unconscious all Americans are subjects of one great authority. 

The implication of this?

Democracy does not mean that everything goes. Whitman sings for the “freest action form’d under the laws divine”. There is no doubt in his mind that there were higher principles that we must recognize, if we want to safeguard our liberties and our democracy. 

He did flirt with Deism, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Eastern religions, etc., but 127 years after his death we know that Whitman’s fundamental orientation—in fact, the USA’s fundamental orientation—remained firmly tied to the faith of the Pilgrim Fathers. That faith not only refused to sacrifice the individual’s conscience at the altar of tradition and tyranny but also sought to create a new order for communal living based on equality, justice and brotherhood. Whitman scholars often overlook this aspect but perhaps even Whitman wasn’t aware of that invisible bond. However, without first appreciating that, it is not possible to understand American literature, American nation and American democracy—and, of course, Walt Whitman!

Saturday, December 28, 2019


Now that our democratically elected government has decided to use perfectly legal ways to destroy the idea of India, we must celebrate that idea in whatever time is left before it is flattened like the Bamiyan Buddha.

Muslims—orthodox, moderate, radical—are an inextricable part of the idea of India. You cannot conceive modern India without Muslims, without their multifarious contributions to the society, their sacrifices for the country, their service to the nation.

Mirza Ghalib (1797–1869), one of our greatest poets, an irreverent Muslim, and a genuine “Indian” (born before India took birth) occupies a central place in the idea of India.

This year we have 150th death anniversary of the great Urdu poet.

And, today, 27 December, is his birth anniversary.

Ghalib, arguably, perfected the Urdu tongue, which, thanks to Bollywood, has become the nation’s lingua franca.

One culturally illiterate MP of the ruling party had suggested that we must wipe out Urdu influences from the Bollywood movies and songs, and replace them with Sanskrit.

This may happen soon.

Reading Ghalib may soon be outlawed. (I hope I’m wrong.)

So while you can, read and enjoy Ghalib, who was born in Agra, and died in Delhi. But since his parents were born before 1987, he may soon be out of NRC. 

(Facebook post on 27.12.2019)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019


It would have been unimaginable a few years ago that 150th anniversary of the man considered Father of the Nation will also be almost the last nail in his coffin.

By 1947, Gandhi was the biggest symbol of communal harmony. On question of caste his position was contested, but he was the undisputed leader of Hindu–Muslim unity.

When a bullet from a misguided fanatic’s gun felled the frail mahatma, the nation consoled itself by saying that his ideas would outlive him and would be a “kindly light” for the newly formed country.

However, in 2014, the “government of Hindus was made after 800 years”. We stopped talking about Hindu–Muslim unity. But what do we do with Gandhi?

We emptied him out of any meaning he may have had for our times. Non-violence and Truth were outdated ideas in the era of mob lynching and fake news.

The only way to keep the Gandhi brand available for political gain was to make him a mascot of a national cleanliness drive—Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign)!

Gandhi for cleanliness drive? Sure!
Gandhi for communal harmony? No way!

Gandhian ideal of Hindu–Muslim unity was made irrelevant because we want to build a Hindu Rashtra. Gandhian idea of non-violence was abandoned because it was drawn from the Christian Bible (Sermon on the Mount). Gandhian idea of Truth was given up because power must be grabbed at any cost, even falsehood.

All that was left of Gandhi was photo ops for politicians sweeping the already swept streets. Or killing little children relieving themselves in the open.

A great man dies not when he stops breathing but when his memory is manipulated to suit our convenience. This is what is being done to Gandhi. Our current generation is growing up with Gandhi being a man who inspires us to pick up the broom—and not as someone who urges us to arm ourselves with weapons like truth and non-violence.

Gandhi has been like a proverbial snake that was killed while the stick remained intact.

Godse did not kill Gandhi. The current dispensation has killed him!