Bu­rari and the non-pur­suit of rea­son

Why In­dia needs a badh tapasya to pro­mote sci­en­tific tem­per

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - S.B. Easwaran

Bu­rari, a lo­cal­ity in north delhi, has be­come synony­mous with the bizarre af­ter 11 mem­bers of a fam­ily liv­ing there com­mit­ted rit­ual sui­cide. in­ves­ti­ga­tors cite notes writ­ten by one mem­ber, 45-year-old lalit Bha­tia, to show that he led them into a pact to hang them­selves, limbs tied, eyes and mouth bound or taped, as a route to sal­va­tion. The fam­ily did not ap­pear to be un­der any fi­nan­cial dis­tress, suf­fer­ing from ill-health, or fac­ing other trou­ble. as de­tail af­ter freak­ish de­tail emerged, it seemed lalit had con­vinced the oth­ers to fol­low step-by-step in­struc­tions for a ‘badh tapasya’: their bod­ies were to hang like the roots of a banyan tree (bar­gad in Hindi, of­ten short­ened to badh). Their obe­di­ence was not won in a few days or even months. since the death of his fa­ther, gopal­das

It is sur­pris­ing that for more than a decade, none of the Bha­tia fam­ily mem­bers, who com­mit­ted sui­cide to­gether, thought of alert­ing friends or rel­a­tives to Lalit’s patently delu­sional be­hav­iour. Or of seek­ing med­i­cal help. Even the teenaged boys, at an age when re­bel­lion is the norm, ac­qui­esced.

Bha­tia, in 2007, lalit had lit­er­ally taken on the role of pa­ter fa­mil­ias de­spite hav­ing an elder brother. He claimed he was com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his dead fa­ther and re­ceiv­ing in­struc­tions on fam­ily mat­ters. on at least two oc­ca­sions, he at­trib­uted de­vel­op­ments to his fa­ther’s in­ter­ven­tion: he said his late fa­ther mirac­u­lously helped him re­gain his voice, which he had lost for a long pe­riod, and that his fa­ther’s in­struc­tions helped him take de­ci­sions that im­proved the fam­ily’s lot. The elab­o­rate ‘re­al­i­sa­tion’ of his delu­sion was the reg­is­ters and co­pi­ous notes po­lice have found about in­struc­tions from the dead man.

There’s an el­e­ment of pa­tri­archy at work here, as well as a crafty chan­nel­ing of fam­ily mem­bers’ rev­er­ence for the de­parted gopal­das into rev­er­ence for the one to whom his soul talks. lalit also im­posed seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant dis­ci­plines, such as fol­low­ing a time-ta­ble, stand­ing at at­ten­tion af­ter prayer, re­count­ing mis­takes and aton­ing for them. such com­pli­ance rit­u­als, com­mon to var­i­ous sects and in­doc­tri­na­tion meth­ods, may have helped in push­ing the fam­ily into shar­ing his delu­sion.

This went so far that the whole fam­ily – right from lalit’s 77-year-old mother to two teenaged boys – came to be­lieve that the floun­der­ing souls of Gopal­das and four other rel­a­tives would achieve sal­va­tion only if they per­formed the so-called badh tapasya. one of lalit’s notes, which they be­lieved was a mes­sage from his fa­ther, pre­dicts doom. it says that if they per­form the rit­ual, chant­ing a mantra to ward off fear as the earth shakes and the skies are torn apart, he would save them all. The fam­ily ap­par­ently re­hearsed the hangings over a week be­fore car­ry­ing it out fa­tally. none of the fam­ily mem­bers raised any ob­jec­tions – even the teenaged ones, of an age when ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions and re­belling is the norm. in all the years since gopal­das’s death, no one seems to have thought of alert­ing rel­a­tives or friends to the ab­nor­mal and patently delu­sional be­hav­iour of lalit, and later, the rest. or of seek­ing med­i­cal help.

Bu­rari in­deed is outre and one of its kind. it’s our own minia­ture Jon­estown, where in 1978, more than 900 amer­i­cans be­long­ing to the Rev­erend Jim Jones’s Peo­ple Tem­ple cult com­mit­ted sui­cide by poi­son at his urg­ing. egre­gious as Bu­rari is, it should force a so­ci­ety that prides it­self on chan­drayaan and Man­galyaan mis­sions to ask if it has done enough to in­cul­cate the spirit of science even among the ed­u­cated. For the Bha­tias have been de­scribed as an ed­u­cated fam­ily, though ed­u­ca­tion it­self is no guar­an­tee against muddy think­ing and su­per­sti­tion. si­mul­ta­ne­ously, so­ci­ety needs to ask if its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has been broad enough to ex­plain the role re­li­gion has played down the ages.

For athe­ist-hu­man­ists who swear by science, re­li­gion and cul­ture are by-prod­ucts of fear of the un­known and what an­thro­pol­o­gist Yu­val noah Harari calls the fic­tive imag­i­na­tion. This hu­man fac­ulty must be ac­knowl­edged as an im­por­tant tool of sur­vival: it al­lowed the cre­ation of groups and identities through sto­ries we told our­selves about us and the world we in­habit. as co­op­er­a­tive groups bound in identities cre­ated by these fic­tions, we have sur­vived bet­ter the va­garies of na­ture and ma­raud­ing ri­val groups. Power struc­tures in so­ci­ety, too, for good or bad, are the prod­ucts of such fic­tions com­bin­ing with the rel­a­tive eco­nomic val­ues cre­ated by var­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tions, as the in­dian caste sys­tem demon­strates. Re­li­gion and cul­ture brought psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits, such as a sense of com­mu­nity, a sense of char­ity, a sense of grat­i­tude. They also be­came a source of in­ner strength. if re­li­gion has in­spired hu­mankind to strive for no­ble ideals, it has also sent peo­ple into fren­zies of vi­o­lence, blood­shed, and war.

it must also be ac­knowl­edged that re­li­gions have given us some of our most sub­lime po­etry, mu­sic, paint­ing, ar­chi­tec­ture and cos­mo­ge­nies. and there’s no deny­ing the won­drous works of cre­ativ­ity that have been at­trib­uted by their cre­ators to de­vo­tion and di­vine in­spi­ra­tion. in mu­sic, math­e­mat­ics, and po­etry, many have claimed that what they wrote was dic­tated to them by god or per­sonal de­ity. srini­vas Ra­manu­jan said many of his results were di­rectly con­veyed to him by na­m­a­giri Tha­yar, a form of the god­dess lak­shmi wor­shipped in na­makkal, Tamil nadu. Jo­hann se­bas­tian Bach spoke of his works as soli Deo glo­ria, or only for god’s glory. Mys­te­ri­ous and hum­bling as that is, works of equiv­a­lent im­por­tance or great­ness can and have been wrought by those who merely worked away and al­lowed the cre­ative process of in­cu­ba­tion fol­lowed by sud­den in­sight to take ef­fect. No amount of prayer to the na­makkal de­ity will yield the kind of results Ra­manu­jan achieved in num­ber the­ory to a fel­low with­out the rudi­ments of math­e­mat­ics. and Bach averred that any­one who was as in­dus­tri­ous as he was would suc­ceed equally well.

sundry prophets con­jure up whole be­lief sys­tems

It is the task of science and ed­u­ca­tion to con­vince peo­ple that re­li­gion, even in its most be­nign form, is noth­ing more than a daedalian sus­per­sti­tion, one with some ben­e­fits per­haps, but ul­ti­mately noth­ing more than that.

in dreams and trances, drug-in­duced or oth­er­wise; med­i­ta­tors feel united with ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse; and the de­vout ex­pe­ri­ence vis­i­ta­tions from gods, god­desses, or saints. dreams and trances are very of­ten the source of artis­tic and sci­en­tific cre­ativ­ity: Co­leridge’s hyp­notic poem Kubla Khan or film­maker Christo­pher Nolan’s In­cep­tion, Kekule’s in­spi­ra­tion for the ring structure of ben­zene from a dream about a snake swal­low­ing its tail, Men­deleyev’s in­sight that the el­e­ments could be ar­ranged into col­umns with sim­i­lar prop­er­ties. Till phys­i­ol­ogy fully ex­plains these al­tered states of con­scious­ness, they must be ac­knowl­edged as un­de­ni­ably hu­man – but per­haps de­nied, in most cir­cum­stances, to non-be­liev­ers. go­ing by de­scrip­tions given by those who have ex­pe­ri­enced them, there seems to be lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween the trances of in­spired artists, crazed mad­men who go on bomb­ing or stab­bing or ma­chine-gun­ning sprees, or sim­ple but dis­turbed per­sons like lalit who bind a whole fam­ily into their hal­lu­ci­na­tions of doom and in­ter­ven­tion from the other-world.

it is the task of science and ed­u­ca­tion to con­vince peo­ple that re­li­gion, even in its most be­nign form, is noth­ing more than a daedalian su­per­sti­tion. A su­per­sti­tion with some ben­e­fits per­haps, but ul­ti­mately noth­ing more than that, and hence some­thing to be worn lightly, if at all, like an ath­lete’s favourite wrist­band, be­lief in which will not let her slack off from her six hours’ daily prac­tice at the tracks or keep her from run­ning to win if she for­gets to wear it. as for astrol­ogy and oc­cult be­liefs and prac­tices, they should be mer­ci­lessly shown up as hum­bug, what­ever their form and what­ever the iden­tity of the group that sub­scribes to them. Ad­mit­tedly, it is dif­fi­cult for that to hap­pen in a coun­try as var­ie­gated as in­dia, where nu­mer­ous identities have been forged over sev­eral cen­turies, where pol­i­tics is so in­tri­cately bound up with iden­tity, re­li­gious, re­gional, lan­guage- and caste-based, and where ed­u­ca­tion lev­els are dis­mal ex­cept in ur­ban pock­ets. even so, it wouldn’t be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that so­ci­ety – and, more im­por­tantly, the state – have failed abysmally in what should have been their fore­most task, for in­dia was con­ceived as a

The de­vel­op­ment of sci­en­tific tem­per is listed in the Con­sti­tu­tion as a fundamental duty, ab­solv­ing the sec­u­lar state of the task. Set against that is the right and free­dom to prac­tise and prop­a­gate a re­li­gion of one’s choice. In this right vs duty bat­tle, the right is vi­o­lently as­serted; the duty goes ig­nored.

mod­ern, sec­u­lar state.

The an­tag­o­nism that has caused this is built right into the con­sti­tu­tion of in­dia. The de­vel­op­ment of “sci­en­tific tem­per, hu­man­ism and the spirit of re­form” is listed, in ar­ti­cle 51 a, as a fundamental duty of all cit­i­zens. That neatly ab­solves the state, which is by def­i­ni­tion sec­u­lar, of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of cul­ti­vat­ing in its cit­i­zens that mod­ern, pro­gres­sive spirit of hu­man­ism and in­quiry. set against that is ar­ti­cle 25, the right and free­dom “to pro­fess, prac­tise and prop­a­gate” the re­li­gion of one’s choice. in the right ver­sus duty bat­tle, the right has been more vo­cally, and even vi­o­lently, as­serted; the duty goes ig­nored with­out con­se­quence.

at least one for­mer supreme court judge, jus­tice KT Thomas, known for his mav­er­ick views, brought up this con­flict, al­beit in a lec­ture de­liv­ered post-re­tire­ment in 2004 at the Kan­nur univer­sity in Ker­ala. as re­ported by The Hindu (March 16, 2004), jus­tice Thomas said, “it is our fundamental duty to de­velop the sci­en­tific tem­per and a spirit of in­quiry. But now look at ar­ti­cle 25. it is the fundamental right to pro­fess, prac­tise and prop­a­gate re­li­gion. as all re­li­gions are averse to science and sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies, no re­li­gious prop­a­ga­tor would en­cour­age the sci­en­tific tem­per among fol­low­ers,” he said. “But it is a stark re­al­ity that when the fundamental right en­vis­aged in ar­ti­cle 25 is zeal­ously ad­hered to by the pro­tec­tors of re­li­gions, they are prone to op­pose new sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies as well as so­cial re­forms. Un­for­tu­nately, most of our re­li­gions flour­ished in prim­i­tiv­ity. For them or­tho­doxy is the fer­tile ground for growth.” given a choice, he said, he would pre­fer the fundamental duty of de­vel­op­ing sci­en­tific tem­per over the fundamental right to re­li­gion.

But has any­one heard of a cit­i­zen be­ing chided for non-per­for­mance of any fundamental duty? More of­ten than not, rather than per­form the duty of pro­mot­ing sci­en­tific tem­per, our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers – cit­i­zens of em­i­nence, all! – go about do­ing its very op­po­site, in­vok­ing the bo­gus emo­tional appeal of re­li­gious pride or ut­ter­ing sheer non­sense. Ban or no ban, as­trologers, babas and tantriks ad­ver­tise their tal­ents with au­dac­ity and aplomb. The courts treat with in­dul­gent hu­mour pe­ti­tions from earnest (if a trifle com­i­cal) lit­i­gants seek­ing or­ders that would make peo­ple per­form their fundamental du­ties. More ju­di­cial sweat has flowed over mat­ters such as the Babri masjid-ram­jan­mab­hoomi is­sue, the Makara­jyothi (a ‘di­vine’ light sighted from the sabari­mala tem­ple, which was later shown to be man-made), and the pros and cons of the pro­hi­bi­tion of al­co­hol, which hap­pens to be, how­ever ir­ra­tionally, a di­rec­tive prin­ci­ple of state pol­icy.

im­ple­men­ta­tion-wise, di­rec­tive prin­ci­ples of state pol­icy have had a bet­ter run, ex­cept per­haps the one on hav­ing a uni­form civil code. Free le­gal aid for all, stip­u­lated as a di­rec­tive prin­ci­ple, is now man­dated by law. ditto with free ed­u­ca­tion, now en­acted and ac­tively help­ing thou­sands of poor chil­dren get qual­ity school­ing. Per­haps the pro­mo­tion of sci­en­tific tem­per would have sim­i­larly fared bet­ter as a di­rec­tive prin­ci­ple of state pol­icy, though few politi­cians would want it to hap­pen till the time they are in the game.

Mean­while, our schools and col­leges could make crit­i­cal think­ing skills a com­pul­sory sub­ject. The study of log­i­cal fal­la­cies has a right­ful place in the ar­mory of ra­tio­nal liv­ing, but equally im­por­tant is the study of our cog­ni­tive dis­tor­tions. in chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales, the Par­doner’s Pro­logue gives a brief ros­ter of de­vi­ous ruses the rogu­ish char­la­tan uses to keep the gullible in his thrall and their sil­ver in his pock­ets. a de­tailed in­ven­tory of such tricks, taught with hu­mour, would do more good than musty ‘mo­ral science’ lessons. it would also be

im­por­tant, in this age of in­for­ma­tion over­load, to arm stu­dents against the per­sua­sive meth­ods used by ad­ver­tis­ers and in­doc­tri­na­tors. self-rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of lone wolves via the in­ter­net is a clear and present dan­ger that so­ci­eties need to work to pre­vent. Early ed­u­ca­tion is the most ef­fec­tive solution.

The scan­di­na­vian coun­tries have rightly been held up as ex­am­ples of so­cial progress, high qual­ity of life, and all that comes from a ra­tio­nal and eq­ui­table pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. They have also been in the fore­front of rea­soned de­bate over pas­sive and ac­tive euthana­sia, and there is high pub­lic ac­cep­tance of the au­ton­omy of the in­di­vid­ual in med­i­cal end-of-life de­ci­sions. in those coun­tries, life and pol­i­tics have for ages been marked by a ro­bust prag­ma­tism. True, they were ad­van­taged in hav­ing small and by and large ho­moge­nous pop­u­la­tions for many decades if not cen­turies. But there’s one leaf worth tak­ing from their so­ci­eties: a “be­nign in­dif­fer­ence” and even “ut­ter obliv­i­ous­ness” to re­li­gion. Those words are from so­ci­ol­o­gist Phil Zuck­er­man, quoted in the New York Times, af­ter he spent about a year in den­mark and swe­den. “Re­li­gion wasn’t re­ally so much a pri­vate, per­sonal is­sue, but rather, a non-is­sue,” he found. How sweet an ideal! How far re­moved from Bu­rari!

in the Upan­ishads, the banyan tree sym­bol­ises the pur­suit of knowl­edge. sage af­ter sage is said to have ob­tained and passed on knowl­edge in its shade. it is also the na­tional tree of in­dia. as a so­ci­ety and a state, in­dia must work to­ward un­do­ing the bizarre twist the Bu­rari fam­ily gave to this rich sym­bol of learning. We need to un­der­take a dif­fer­ent kind of badh tapasya – a badh tapasya for rea­son, which would be more ap­pro­pri­ate to what the banyan tree stands for.

We need to learn from the Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, where re­li­gion is a ‘non-is­sue’ and peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to­wards it is one of ‘be­nign in­dif­fer­ence’, even ‘ut­ter obliv­i­ous­ness’. How sweet an ideal! What we need is a badh tapasya for rea­son – to re­store to the banyan, our na­tional tree, its Upan­ishadic sym­bol­ism of in­quiry.

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