Dialogue  April-June 2007 , Volume 8 No. 4

Reason, Faith and Religious Beliefstc

Ashok Vohra

Let me begin with a description of a Hindu rite in Bindu Madhav temple – a temple which was demolished by Aurangzeb and was never rebuilt on the old foundation – given by a French traveler called Jean Baptiste Tavernier who visited Banaras around the year 1668 CE. His description goes as under:

As soon as the door of the pagoda was opened, and after a large curtain had been drawn, and the people present had seen the idol, all threw themselves upon the ground, placing their hands upon their heads and prostrating themselves three times; then having risen they threw a quantity of bouquets and chains in the form of chaplets, which the Brahmin placed in contact with the idol, and then returned to the people. An old Brahmin who was in the front of the altar, held in his hand a lamp with nine lighted wicks, upon which, from time to time, he threw a kind of incense when approaching the lamp towards the idol”1.

Tavernier’s is a faithful account of one of the most common Hindu rituals of arati or puja. It is couched in the most value neutral terms. It has no cultural overtones or value underpinnings. The value neutrality is there because there is no attempt at understanding the phenomenon, nor is there any comparison. It is just plain description of a particular activity.

But when it comes to the description of the idols of Hindu gods most of the western travelers – from the earliest times to the present – find them repugnant because of their panoply. Ralph Fitch one of the earliest visitors to the city of Banaras wrote in 1584, “. . . they have their images standing, which be evil favoured, made of stone and wood, some like lions, some like leopards, and monkies; some like men and women, and peacocks; and some like the devil with foure armes and 4 hands”2 Describing the chief idols of Hindus he wrote, “Their chiefe idols bee blacke and evil favoured, their mouths monstrous, their ears gilded and full of jewels, their teeth and eyes of gold, silver, and glasse, some having one thing in their hands and some another”.3 

This perception of Hindu images marginally changed over the years. Norman Macleod in 1800s referred to them as “the ugly looking monster called God”4. MA Sherring called them “the worship of uncouth idols, of monsters, of the linga and other indecent figures, and a multitude of grotesque, ill shapen, and hideous objects”5. Mark Twain ridicules the presence of Hindu idols and images in the city thus: “And what a swarm of them there is! The town is a vast museum of idols – and all of them crude, and ugly. They flock through ones dreams at night, a wild mob of nightmares”6. Revd. James Kennedy found fault with everything in Banaras. According to him, “”everything you see is wild, grotesque, unnatural, forbidding, utterly wanting in verisimilitude and refinement, with nothing to purify and raise the people, with everything fitted to pervert their taste and lower their character…”7.

This perception was not limited just to the form of idols and images but extended to the nature of worship itself. While Revd. Kennedy expressed his angst thus: “The whole scene is repulsive. The place is sloppy with the water poured out by the worshippers, and littered by the flowers they present. The ear is assailed with harsh sounds”8. Miss Emma Roberts also felt very uncomfortable with the Hindu way of worship. She expressed her discomfort thus: “The too abundant supply of water, the dirty throng of religious beggars, and the incessant vociferations of “Ram! Ram!” compel all save determined antiquaries to make a speedy exit from the noise and crowd of these places”9. Commenting on the state of mind of a pilgrim who visits Banaras Revd. Sherring, says, “he is at once cheered and comforted with the treacherous lie that his sins are forgiven and his soul is saved”10.

The above mentioned reactions of the foreigners varied from neutral descriptions to such value laden expressions as “treacherous lie”, “idolatrous worship”, They saw sacred water of the Ganges ‘stagnant’, ‘unsufferably foul’, and loathsome not cleansing at all. They saw Hindus as ‘deeply perverted’, not religious, ‘superstitious’, and not faithful.

In a different context David Kinsley at the beginning of his book Tantrik Vision of the Divine Feminine asks about the different forms, images, idols and worshipping methods of the Goddess: “What is one to make of a group of goddesses that includes a goddess who cuts her own head off, another who prefers to be offered polluted items by devotees who themselves are in a state of pollution, one who sits on a corpse while pulling the tongue of a demon, another who has sex astride a male consort who is lying on a cremation pyre, another whose couch has as its legs four great male gods of the Hindu pantheon, another who prefers to be worshipped in a cremation ground with offerings of semen, and yet another who is a hog like widow?”

This question, like the above mentioned reactions shows the sense of wonder and perplexity of a person who belongs to an alien culture and sees for the first time the images of several gods and goddesses of the Hindus and observes their religious practices. He is unable to comprehend their significance and their place in the Hindu religion and religious beliefs. These descriptions bring into sharp focus what the foreigners saw in the Hindu temples and what the Hindus themselves see there. The above descriptions and the vocabulary used there express the Christian sensibilities and Christian form of life.

The Hindus on the other hand on their visit to a Church may find the whole idea of entering a Church with empty hands and without water or flowers and with shoes on, or without making appropriate sounds quite repugnant and strange. He may also have a sense of discomfort because of the silence. It is because hushed silence which is regarded as an important component of worship in other religions is not a Hindu mode of reverence. Infact he may find the silence quite oppressive. For the Hindu the sights, the smells, the sloppy floors, the milling crowds, the clanging of bells, the clapping and loudly chanting the mantras or the names of the deities, shouting the praises associated with the deity in question like Gobinda, Har Har Mahadeva, Jai Shri Ram, Radhey Radhey, Hare Krishna, Jai Mata Di, etc contribute to the aura of sanctity and are an integral part of the Hindu religious experience.

Likewise while the Christian Missionaries who visited Banaras in the 18th and 19th century could not understand how a reasonable and learned person could uphold the view that Mt Meru is the center of the world, and the water of the Ganges as the liquid of the divine grace, a Hindu considers it unreasonable to uphold Jesus as the center of the world and, if there were such a thing, the wine of his blood as the liquid from the grace.

Though the above vivid and impassioned descriptive accounts are from the Christian perspective the same would be true of a description given by anyone who belongs to an alien culture, religion and what Wittgenstein calls different ‘form of life’. Each of such descriptions is based on one’s understanding of the meaning of purity and impurity, sacred and the profane, clean or dirty. Each of these terms is a cultural construct. None of them has an intrinsic meaning or value. According to Mary Douglas, “Dirt” is disorder, “matter out of place” and what is considered to be out of place depends upon one’s notion of order. The bacterial understanding of ‘purity’ which is scientific view of order, may contrast markedly with social and religious understanding of purity even in the modern cultures of the West. In any religious situation the rapport, rather identity of the individual with the object of worship or the deity is of prime importance. It is this identity which lends credence to the religious experience itself. It is because of this identity, because of this participation in the attendant form of life that we have a certain group of religious beliefs. These beliefs are not grounded solely in intellectual certitude and rational capacities, or have evidence, proof, or grounds for their basis. Rather, they are partly psychological, partly moral, and are the outcome of how we mirror ourselves, or how we live our life, better still how we think we ought to live it. This ‘unshakeable faith’ in the values that one upholds is shown, according to Wittgenstein, not in arguments or reasoning, nor ‘by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief’ but ‘by regulating for all in his life’. According to him, “the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life”11. It is through his lived life that one is able to show his commitment to the religious beliefs and the accompanying form of life.

That is why what is ‘unsufferably foul’, ‘loathsome’ and the cause of ‘making a quick and hurried exit’ for some is ‘cleansing’, ‘purifying’ and ‘source of attraction’ for the droves of other people. The doubts and questions about sacred and the profane et al cannot be solved or resolved from outside. One has to share and live the life in order to understand their depth grammar and real significance for the believers. As Wittgenstein says in Culture and Value, “only if I were able to submerge in religion could these doubts be silenced. For only religion could destroy vanity and penetrate all crevices”12.

Wittgenstein supports the view that religious belief is not a matter of intellectual speculation. It is a matter of heart and soul, of love and trust. According to him, talking is not essential to religion because one can “imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather: when people talk this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory”. The truth and validity of one’s religious beliefs is not established by what he says, or the dogma, or the theological speculation but is demonstrated by the praxis, the attitudes and the lived life. That is why “it also does not matter at all if the words used are true or false or nonsense”13.

But this does not mean that the believer has no reasons for his belief or faith. There are many overwhelming reasons for upholding what he upholds. But they are not what we call scientific reasons or grounds or evidence or rational argument. As Durkheim says, “There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious; an irreligious interpretation of religion would be an interpretation which denied the phenomenon it was trying to explain”14.

The terms ‘reason’, ‘evidence’ ‘certainty’, ‘conclusion’ etc. when used in a religious discourse or language game have a meaning which is radically different from their use in a scientific discourse or language game. Wittgenstein puts this difference in the usage of ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ in the religious and scientific discourse and language game thus: “You could also say that where we are reasonable, they are not reasonable – meaning they don’t reason here”15. Wittgenstein talking about a religious narrative says, “now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, - but rather believe through thick and thin & you can do this only as the outcome of a life. Here you have a message! – don’t treat it as you would another historical message! Make a quite different place for it in your life. – there is no paradox about that!16 Likewise, there are many terms, according to Wittgenstein, which have no use in a religious discourse or language game. Some of these are: ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘not sure’, and ‘opinion’.

It is because of this differential meaning in the usage of key concepts applied in a religious language game and our ordinary language game or our scientific language game that there is no meaningful discourse or dialogue between a believer and a non-believer. An unbeliever neither believes nor disbelieves what the believer believes. The agreements, the disagreements and the misunderstandings between the two are only superficial. Infact the apparent controversies and the apparent contradictions are pseudo controversies and contradictions. It is because there are no common grounds between the two. The two operate at entirely different planes. The terms used by them through their surface similarity bewitch us of our intelligence and create an illusion of differences.

In what follows I shall prove that there is not just one notion of rationality but there are varieties of rationality. In the recently held conclave of distinguished leaders in their respective areas of work, a leading poet, activist said, “I am not willing to accept anything under the sun, even at my own loss, which sounds irrational”. This reflects the typical attitude of all those who claim themselves to be the products of the modern scientific age and paradigms of rational thinkers.

What these rationalists mistakenly believe is that there is just one model of rationality and that is the one presented by either mathematics or the empirical sciences. They also presume that the model of rationality that they have in their mind is final, all comprehensive and complete in itself.

The fact that even mathematics is not a complete system was proved by Kurt Godel. Godel’s first incompleteness theorem proved that in mathematics as well as in any other consistent system, there have to be certain statements which cannot be proved. In his second theorem he conclusively proved that no system including mathematics can show its own consistency.

Even in empirical sciences there are broadly speaking two models of explanation or rationality. These are the Newtonian model and the Einsteinian model. While the former insists that it is possible for us to give a completely deterministic account of the phenomenon around us, the latter upholds that our account of reality cannot be the final account. Which of these models of explanation or rationality should one choose is hard to decide.

The difficulty is confounded by the fact that even Newton believed in the existence of some forces other than the mechanical ones for which no explanation could be given. Newton confessed in his book Principia that how “mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions” is beyond explanation. He goes on to add that he has “not been able to discover the causes” of the several phenomena.

It was David Hume who taking the clue from Newton showed that science and scientific method, and the rationality embedded in these, serves only a limited purpose. He argued that the events in nature are in themselves ‘loose and separate’. There is apparent chaos in the natural system. All that scientific investigation can ever do is to place the events of nature into law like orders and patterns. He proclaimed that the order and the notion of causality on which our notion of order is based is nothing else but just a habit of the mind.

As far as the issue of completeness is concerned Einstein – Podolsky – Rosen thought experiment established that the quantum mechanical description of physical reality is not complete. Bell’s Interconnectedness theorem also shows that any local model of reality leaves aside many unexplained brute facts.

Whether one is rational or not, would depend on the context of discourse. In a film when the unarmed hero beats the hell out of more than a dozen well-armed opponents and emerges victorious one does not say that it is irrational. One enjoys it. When asked how we could enjoy such an irrational act, we do reply by saying that it is perfectly rational in the context of the make believe world of cinema.

Looking at different systems of medicine one can see that there are varieties of rationality. The rationality governing the allopathic system of medicine is curing the illness in isolation by the administration of chemical compounds; that of Homeopathy is based on holistic treatment taking into account the nature of the person, his background etc. and administration of chemical compounds. The rationality underlying Ayurveda is the imbalance of pitta, kafa and vata and administration of natural herbs. While the rationality underlying the naturopathy system is based only on natural living. Can we regard any one of these models of rationality to be higher than the other?

Once the rationalist realizes that there can be, and infact there are, different notions of rationality, and each one of them depends on the context, he would stop questioning the logic of the spiritual discourse. He would refrain from judging it with the paradigm of rationality which is alien to the spiritual discourse. Just as one who fails to accept the conclusion in science is regarded as either incompetent in that mode of reasoning, or irrational, the one who is unable to grasp the religious mode of thinking, practice and the conclusions arrived at by their use can also be termed as incompetent and irrational.

Once one realizes this, he would realize that looking for experimental proof in the realm of religion is as irrational as looking for revelation in the realm of science. Like Wittgenstein he would also say, “”The urge towards the mystical comes of the non-satisfaction of our wishes by science. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions are answered our problem is not touched at all. Of course, in that case there are no questions any more; and that is the answer.” (NB, p.51) From this it follows that neither ‘pure reason’ nor ‘absolute faith’ form the grounds of a religious belief but the form of life that one leads is the foundation of a religious belief. And that form of life determines what is religious and what is irreligious; what is sacred and what is profane; what is purifying and what is polluting.

References & Notes

        1.   Travels in India, Vol.II, p.236.

        2.   William Foster, ed., Early Travels in India, p.20

     3.   ibid., p.23

     4.   Days in North India, p.23

     5.   Sacred City of the Hindus, p.37

     6.   Following the Equator, p.504

     7.   Life and Work in Benaras and Kumaon, p. p.68.

     8.   ibid., p. 66

     9.   Scenes and characteristics of Hindostan, p. 177.

   10.   Op.cit., p. 17

   11.   Culture and Value, p. 85

   12.   p.48

   13.   Wiener Kries, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, p.117.

   14.   Emile Durkheim, quoted in “Translator’ Introduction”, The Elementary Form of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, translated by Karen E. Fields, The Free Press, New York, 1995, p. xvii.

   15.   Lectures and Conversations on Ethics, Aesthetics and Religion, p.59.

   16.   Culture and Value, p.37.