16 Jul Reflections: Shaped by the Times
By Viswam Kumar
When I look back to see what shaped me – I can see how much I am shaped by serendipitous circumstances and encounters with people.
Mental Discipline is perhaps the foundational trait behind all my meager achievements. I have the discipline required in focusing, concentrating and working hard to achieve a goal. This goal can be anything from finishing a project at work successfully to sticking with a fitness regime. This discipline has been a result of the grooming from my parents. They have always spoken highly about hard work and discipline and extolled these virtues. Over time, I have learnt that Discipline is something that adds to the quality of life, even if it is not materially rewarding – which was the initial motive for adopting discipline. I have learnt that it can give the courage needed to pursue goals that seem difficult to others. This foundational quality has enabled me to diligently pursue interests that have also contributed to shaping my life. I have been challenged about the merit of this virtue in a world where the mantras ‘work smart’ and ‘Enjoy life as life is short’ are used to justify quick and easy ways to “success” and without the protection of my parents, I must admit that the quality has eroded from the days when it was carefully nurtured under their shade. Even today, in their old age their discipline is far superior to mine and I look at them with awe.
Born in a time when India was gradually opening itself to the outside world and developing its own post-independence cities (like mine – Bangalore), my parents and I got to live among and meet middle-class Indians from diverse cultures in India. The compromises to live in such diversity and the middle class cultural values that we were surrounded with subtly but surely affected the traditional Brahmin identity and compartmentalized religious tradition to a few private or quasi-private rituals and occasions. I got fully comfortable with performing ‘Sandhyavandhanam’ in the house and being the son of an executive and a student outside the house. There were no problems in suspending the mandatory rituals of a Brahmin that fall within hours when I was not at home. Modernity demanded discarding of traditional dresses, an emphasis on the Indian national identity, speaking of English in school and the residential neighborhood and academic excellence as the yardstick of success.
The growing emphasis on the scientific spirit and enquiry in school added to the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Religious rituals began to be seen as meaningless. I tried to search for meaning in the Vedas and Upanishads through the few books that my father had with him. My English was too immature to follow those books and my mind was unprepared for philosophy. What I did get from that enquiry was recognition of what materialism was and a strong dislike for it. Again, this went a long way in the kind of company I chose to befriend. I recognized shallowness instantly: those who decorated themselves with material accolades and took pride in them.
Quite sadly, the meaninglessness in the practice of traditions was evident in the way it was practiced by my parents and relatives. Nobody cared what it stood for and what he or she was reciting. Nobody derived any spiritual lessons from it. Life lessons were being drawn from the gurus of modernity – TV, movies and the middle class sentiment of honor derived from prestigious jobs and career. Very soon I gave up on this quest and stayed focused on studies. I worked hard to get an admission into premier technical institutes in India. The focus on mathematics and physics sharpened my analytical skills. Sadly, like most Indians I considered the humanities to be reserved for “losers”. This was perpetrated through the schools where the well performing were cajoled into the science stream and the poor performers into Commerce and Arts. I had no qualms in pooh-poohing artistic pursuits as debauchery!! I had whole-heartedly adopted academic excellence in the technical fields as the measure of a man. This arrogance was to stay with me a long time into the future. As for the quest for meaning in traditions, it was suspended as of then. In this first phase of enquiry, the aforementioned lesson of materialism was the only take away.
After pre-university in India, I got a chance to study in Singapore pursuing, as expected, an engineering degree. The arrival in Singapore, at the age of 18, brought me into conflict with a culture that was very different from the one I grew in. In my pursuit of academic excellence, I had cut myself off from even the trends in India. The first shock I received was actually from the culture of my North Indian peers. They came across as a loud, pretentious, status-anxious, tradition-mocking and modernity-infatuated. I was repulsed and felt a growing threat to my values of hard work, simple living and honest speech. I clamored for grounding in my traditions from where I could tackle the rational discourse of my modernist peers. I could not but look for answers in my tradition once again.
This time it was under the aegis of the Hare Krishna movement – a cult of Hinduism that seems to attract many from the premier institutions in India and the world, more a cult of the disillusioned upwardly mobile Indian middle class. I managed to get some explanations of some of my questions about God, life and morality. This is when, in the company of a Muslim classmate and friend, I was introduced to Islam. A day-night dialogue for a month transpired between him and me. This discussion moved me away from the Hare Krishna movement. But what I did take away from it was the need for God’s communication to man in a direct address (Bhagvad Gita As It Is) in first person and the idea of a ‘Book’ in which these words were preserved. From Islam, I got the idea of strict monotheism, the simple idea of God and an affirmation of many of my traditions in the life of its Prophet Muhammad. Its basic doctrines of faith were easily graspable by the common man, quite unlike the philosophical Upanishads. I had finally found the answer against modernity’s challenge to traditional values – it was Faith. This exploration of faith made me even more aware of the various worldviews that shaped the world I was in. It also gave me the courage and moral certainty to go against the modernist ideas of what a measure of a man was. I was finally able to anchor my source of happiness in a communion with God having uprooted it from the minds of the society around me. I had, for the first time, developed an identity that I was confident about. Faith became my criteria for measuring a man. As it rose in significance in my heart, it had the positive effect of bringing down academic excellence as criteria of success. Interestingly having been thrown in the tumultuous ocean of relativism I found the absoluteness of Islam refreshing. I expected it to dictate every aspect of life and Islamic orthodoxy was more than happy to indulge me.
But this newfound faith in God in a religion that I had so far had prejudicial ideas about was not without its fault lines. Fault lines ran through many of the laws and regulations in Islam and through some of the incidents of the Prophet and his companions. The injustice in many of these could not be easily ignored. I crushed these doubts because I did not want to get back to the relativism of the past. I clung to faith. But the doubts refused to go away. They lay there and festered. In trying to deal with them I encountered the rich literature of Islamic jurisprudence. The first book I read on this subject was that of Hisham Kamali’s Islamic jurisprudence. I relished this book and decided to pursue a degree in secular law so that I could challenge it. It was not just law that I encountered, but also morality and philosophy. The latter still continues to interest me deeply. Questions about the nature of man introduced me to the fields of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and anthropology.
I also encountered beautiful personalities from around the globe who were on the same quest. Their compassionate and humble outlook in searching for the truth and engaging those who claimed to have it gripped me and I still derive my inspiration from them. It was difficult not to see the incongruence in the idea of these “infidels” going to hell or being granted merely a doubtful status. These individuals also taught me about everyday life, particularly the patriarchal nature of this world. I even recognized how much patriarchy had influenced me and how much of patriarchy was actually being perpetrated by Big Religion. From these individuals, I also learnt how to disagree respectfully and how to express my doubts and how to challenge without being confrontational. The combined effect of these was to make me aware that one leg of faith was not based on reason alone. It was of a different foundation, a foundation that to this day I know little about. I lost faith in Faith representing truth and reality. It was a peaceful departure from faith in God. While it once again threw me into the sea of relativism, I had by then developed confidence in the rather rough “truth compass” in me. Even if I did not have all the answers or even a majority of them, I now knew that while one need not have Grand Truths, it was more important to have a truth-seeking attitude. It was more important to be willing to battle one’s ego and its opinions throughout life and lay it to the test of reason and doubt at all times. Faith did embolden me greatly to face adversities. Now, I no longer have the pretty and poetic promise of paradise to inspire me; but I do have the stark reality of ageing, death and being forgotten eternally as hard facts to sift through what matters in life.
Viswam Kumar works in Singapore and is looking for a mentor in the field of human rights with experience in India and abroad to help make an entry in the field, specifically related to legal work.