Ghandhi & Terrorism: Tackling the “Mad Idea”

With globalization being so popular an idea these days, we often seem to forget that nations do have sovereignty over their own territory.  That sovereignty comes with the ability to live in ways that don’t necessarily agree with our own values, expectations or religion and to create law systems that have a foundation on something other than a mirror of our (US) constitution.  One example that comes to mind right away is the shocked reaction that everyone had when Egyptians decided they wanted to replace Mubarak’s tyranny with a government based on Islamic values.

I mention sovereignty because it seems to me that most of the world’s problems come from unrealistic expectations that ones’ own way is not only the best way, but the only way.  If anyone doesn’t want our way, we use it as an excuse to force it on them for their own good while exploiting them for economic gain.  In India, that behavior led to a revolution that, thankfully, wound up being more peaceful than it would have been due to the hard work of a man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma.  In the Middle East, Western meddling planted the seeds that would eventually grow into global terrorism on a grand scale.

Tying Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent non-cooperation into modern day problems with terrorism was the focus of a class I took over Winter Session.  It was 3 weeks of class, 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, that culminated in an oral presentation and a 10 page paper after having read 3 books on Gandhi’s philosophy and 1 on the rise of religious terrorism.  It was difficult, but educational.  Looking at the paper now, I wish I’d had more time to directly compare Gandhi’s goals with bin Laden’s goals, and to compare their use of religion as a tool to achieve an end.  Instead, I tried to explain the mentality of religious violence and how meeting that violence with more violence only perpetuates the cycle and, even worse, justifies and empowers the terrorist ideology of hatred.  In a way, meeting violence with violence is cooperating with the terrorists, and after you read this you might have a better understanding of why.

[Sources and footnotes are listed at the bottom.]

The Gandhi Memorial Statue in Union Square, New York City

The Gandhi Memorial Statue in Union Square, New York City

On August 15, 1947, India acquired independence from the British Empire. The country’s road to freedom was paved not with violence, but with Satyagraha, a method of non-violent non-cooperation employed and promulgated by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian Mahatma (Great Soul) who expanded on this unique style of civil disobedience in South Africa.[1] The word Satyagraha is a Sanskrit composite formed from satya and agraha. Satya implies love and agraha firmness, which is synonymous with force in terms of the force born of “Truth and Love or Non-Violence…”[2] Gandhi didn’t claim to have invented Satyagraha. Rather, he just named it. Gandhi was certain of the existence of Satyagraha prior to his use of it by the very fact that the world still lived on, despite the constant warfare. He cited Satyagraha as the force that amiably dissolves the quarrels of millions of families daily and emphasized that the only reason it’s not mentioned in history books is because history itself is a record of the disruptions of Satyagraha, or ahimsa, which is the natural course of nature.[3]

Mahatma Gandhi successfully used Satyagraha to fight for Indian rights in South Africa. He used it again to win independence from the British Empire for India. Dr. Martin Luther King adapted Gandhi’s ideology to his own movement and successfully fought for equal rights for African Americans. Without using weapons, Gandhi’s Satyagraha has been proven to work. So, does that mean it has applications for today’s modern war on terrorism? And how would we go about making the changes necessary to effectively employ this force against the ‘enemy’ and bring about a peaceful resolution of conflicts?

Gandhi with a spinning wheel in India

Gandhi with a spinning wheel in India

Gandhi said, “…if we are Satyagrahis and offer Satyagraha, believing ourselves to be strong…we grow stronger and stronger every day.”[4] Satyagraha is an ideology of empowerment that places emphasis on maintaining the moral high ground through “self-help, self-sacrifice and faith in God…”[5] Naturally, this is something one must do oneself for it to work properly, which is why Gandhi said that Satyagraha is for self-help and declined the assistance of foreigners in fighting for India’s freedom, except insomuch as he wanted their attention and sympathy.

Gandhi believed that the process of Satyagraha could only happen if one maintained a total absence of violence, both in one’s actions and one’s thoughts. For Gandhi, a “struggle could be forceful…but it could not be violent,” so willing self-sacrifice played a key role in achieving one’s goal.[6] Through non-violent self-sacrifice a movement gains both public sympathy and the admiration and respect of the aggressor, eventually inducing a change of heart and an amiable resolution to conflicts.

Most importantly, by not using violence, Satyagraha creates solutions that break the cycle of violence. Gandhi said, “A non-co-operationist strives to compel attention and set an example not by his violence but by his unobtrusive humility.”[7] The moment violence is used the means become corrupted, which invariably leads to a corrupted end. Gandhi used this argument to counter the call for violent revolution against the British in India. He said that “by using similar means we can get only the same thing that [the British] got” and compared gaining morally pure rule through violence to planting weeds to grow roses.[8]

A violent response escalates the level of violence used. Gandhi believed that winning independence through violence would leave India just as bad off as it already was, because it would mean that violent people would be assuming control of the country.[9] He did agree that he would rather have bad home rule rather than suffer under a foreign master, but Gandhi’s goal was to achieve a free India that could initiate a new government with clean hands.[10] To do this, Gandhi believed that India had to break with modern secular Western society. He described the materialism of Western civilization as a sickness.[11] Britain’s industrialization, and all industrialization, relies on the exploitation of other countries. Engaging in industrialization would pollute India and India would become no better than the former masters’ whose yoke she had thrown off.[12]

1993 World Trade Center Bombers

1993 World Trade Center Bombers

According to Mark Juergensmeyer, the advent of modern Western society has devalued religious belief, replacing theology with secular morality and the Church with the nation state. Social identity has shifted from religious affiliation to national citizenship. Some religious activists believe that “secular society and modern nationalism can [not] provide the moral fiber that unites national communities or the ideological strength to sustain states buffeted by ethical, economic, and military failures.”[13]

In an interview with Mahmud Abouhalima, convicted of participating in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Mark Juergensmeyer asked him what it was that secular America was missing that caused it to not understand him and others like him. Abouhalima answered, “the soul of religion.”[14] He went on to compare secular life to an ink pen that was missing its ink. He said, “An ink pen, a pen worth two thousand dollars, gold and everything in it, it’s useless if there’s no ink in it. That’s the thing that gives life…”[15]

Western societies may see secularization as a positive process, a freeing of the population from archaic dogmas, but people like Abouhalima and even Gandhi were adamantly opposed to separating religion from life.[16] Without religion, Abouhalima would have no meaning in his life, and Gandhi would not have had the strength to free India. Thinking in those terms, any encroachment of Western society in the modern Middle East may be viewed by the locals as not only unbeneficial but harmful, and potentially as an attack on fundamental values and religion itself, which for Muslims constitutes a large portion of their everyday life and culture.[17] Gandhi believed that all change has to come from within to be lasting. It cannot be forced upon people, and attempting to use violence through sanctions that cause hardships or through rhetoric and demonizing will have no effect but to draw sympathy to the victimized, even if their cause is wrong.[18]

2001 attack and destruction of World Trade Center in New York City

2001 attack and destruction of World Trade Center in New York City

In today’s War on Terror, responding to terrorism with acts of violence empowers the terrorists by cooperating with their ideology of hatred, by affirming that the secular West is indeed evil and intent on destroying the religion and culture of the average person. Mark Juergensmeyer wrote that “many secular political leaders have described [the War on Terror] as a war that must be won—not only to avenge savage acts as the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, but also to allow civilization as the modern West has known it to survive.”[19] In a war between civilizations where the existence of each civilization’s future is at stake, only one can remain at the end of the conflict. The sort of rhetoric being used to promote the War on Terror is one of absolutes and only further justifies the teachings of terrorists: that the US must be defeated for Islam and Islamic culture to survive. The immediate response after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City was to launch a retaliatory attack, but has that attack actually solved anything? Did we not in fact validate the terrorists’ ideology of hatred by destroying the lives of the innocent along with the accused through long-term warfare?

Madanlal Dhingra

Madanlal Dhingra

In 1909, Madanlal Dhingra, an Indian student in England, assassinated Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, a political aide to Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India. According to Sankar Ghose, “Winston Churchill regarded Dhingra’s last words “as the finest made in the name of patriotism…”[20] Gandhi had a completely different opinion of Dhingra: “It is not merely wine or bhang that makes one drunk, a mad idea can also do so… Dhingra was a patriot, but his love was blind. He gave his body in a wrong way, its ultimate result can only be mischevious.”[21] Gandhi, a man so religious that his last words after being shot by an assassin were “Hē Ram (Oh God),”[22] was absolutely opposed to violence in any form, for any objective, which makes it all the more surprising that terrorism today is most often tied to extreme religious views. In his own way, Gandhi was an extremist, but he was an extremist who used and advocated extremes of peace and love to achieve what he considered just ends. Today’s religious extremists are not so different from Gandhi, in that they go to extremes to ensure that their views are made known. In fact, Osama bin Laden’s goals were not that different from Gandhi’s.

In 1991, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, prompting a coalition force of Middle Eastern and Western nations (including the United States) to engage in military operations in defense of Kuwait. Military operations began on January 16th, 1991 with air and missile attacks on targets in both Kuwait and Iraq. After an unavoidable ground war, Iraqi forces were put into full retreat. On February 27th, 43 days later, President Bush declared a suspension of offensive combat. During the war, Saudi Arabia was used as a launching point for allied offensives against Iraq.[23] After the war ended, the US presence in Saudi Arabia remained, further outraging some religious conservatives that consider Saudi Arabia to be the holiest of Islamic lands, being home to both Mecca, where the Ka’aba resides, and Medina where the Prophet Muhammad established the first Muslim community. The Ka’aba is the center of the Muslim world. Muslims believe that the Ka’aba was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. One of the five pillars of Islam is pilgrimage to Mecca, to circumambulate the Ka’aba.[24]

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

Among those angered by the continued presence of US troops on Saudi soil was Osama bin Laden, head of the Al Qaeda network. On August 3rd, 1995, he issued a message called “an Open Letter to King Fahd,” outlining grievances against the Saudi monarchy, notably calling for a guerilla campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia. In July 10, 1996, a British newspaper (The Independent) quoted bin Laden as saying that Saudi Arabia had become an American colony. He also stated that the real enemy of the Saudi people is America. In August of 1996, bin Laden issued a document known as the “Declaration of War Against the Americans Who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” The two holy mosques he references are Mecca’s Ka’aba in Saudi Arabia, where US troops were stationed, and Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. Osama bin Laden considered Israel to be a US puppet regime, so fault for occupying Jerusalem was transferred to the United States. In a CNN interview in 1997, bin Laden began to solidify his message with demands that may sound familiar to anyone familiar with India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. He said:

We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation…. For this and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the US, because in our religion it is our duty to make jihad so that God’s word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries…. The country of the Two Holy Places has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country.[25]

Almost a year later, he goes on to make the following demands:

For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. We–with God’s help–call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it… in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.[26]

Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi both had similar goals. Both felt oppressed by foreign powers who meddled in local affairs, to the detriment of the native populations, and in both cases as a result of something Gandhi warned of: the need to exploit other countries to support the industrialization of modern Western culture.

The implied conflict for the survival of civilizations and the perceived attack on religion causes some religious activists to use violence to try to bring attention to their stated goals. From Gandhi’s teachings, we know that he could have in no way supported the terrorism of today to attain independence from foreign oppression, but it is reasonable to believe that he would have empathized with Osama bin Laden’s goal.[27] When Gandhi condemned Dhingra, the Indian student who assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie, he didn’t condemn his goal; he instead called him a patriot and condemned the means he used. This is where terrorists like Osama bin Laden differ from Gandhi, in the means they use to reach their ends. The results of the two methods have been drastically different. Where India gained the sympathy of the world and won her independence through Satyagraha, Osama bin Laden’s use of violence has escalated out of control. Osama bin Laden himself has met a foul end and the Middle East has not been freed of foreign influence.

Gandhi believed that violence created a cycle, saying “Who lives by the sword must perish by the sword, and if the Asiatic peoples take up the sword, they in their turn will succumb to a more powerful adversary.”[28] That teaching is just as applicable today as it was during his fight with the British. In 1998, when the US launched retaliatory missile strikes on Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, the attack “provoked a new round of terrorist bombing plots.”[29] The attacks also increased bin Laden’s image as an underdog and damaged the United States’ international reputation. In July of 2002, an Israeli plane bombed the home of Hamas leader Sheik Salah Shehada, wounding 140 people and killing 11 people, 7 of which were children. Another Hamas leader, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, responded by opening up targeting of terrorist attacks to all Israelis, including women and children.[30] Violent actions only led to an escalation of the level of violence employed by each side. The only way to ‘win’ is by breaking the chain of violence. An example is the 1998 Omagh bombing by a fringe element called the “Real IRA”. The bombing occurred during peace talks that would stop the violence in Northern Ireland. Rather than retaliate with more acts of violence, the guilty parties were arrested and tried using the existing legal system.[31]

So, what is the solution for stopping violence in the Middle East today? Rather than dealing with the symptoms of terrorism, the violent actions, the US should instead tackle the source of the problem. Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005 understood this and “spoke about the necessity of dealing with the social and economic grievances that fueled the anti-American disaffection in the Middle East and elsewhere as a way of undercutting al Qaeda support.”[32] Colin Powell was expressing an idea that Gandhi emphasized himself, in regards to responding to terrorism. Gandhi described Dhingra, the Indian student who assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie as being like a drunkard, caught in a “mad idea.” It’s that mad idea that we need to tackle: the belief in the Middle East that the United States is incapable of good and morally unambiguous behavior.

The first step is to stop responding to violence with violence. Violent action only succeeds in causing the conflict to escalate. That’s not to say that nothing should be done in the face of violent terrorist attacks. Even Gandhi didn’t believe in inaction.[33] Gandhi believed that no one had a complete view of the truth and the very existence of a conflict was the proof. He believed that every conflict was an “encounter between differing “angles of vision” illuminating the same truth.”[34] The key, then, is to take the moral high ground and understand that a response of violence will be satisfying in the short term, but will yield no real results.

The second step to solving the problem would be to address the problem of public opinion of the United States in the Islamic countries. After many years of duplicitous behavior on the part of the United States, finding a way to positively engage the Islamic community may be difficult without inciting suspicion and distrust, so it would be a gradual progress, in much the same way that Satyagraha was a gradual progress. The first efforts would have to be in areas that are politically and religiously neutral, such as providing medical care, basic literacy education in English and Arabic, building homes for the homeless, and acting in advisory capacities for social programs that would address other needs of the country. It’s a small step, but small steps add up and 30 years of providing education to the poor will mean more to them than bombing their fields to smoke out suspected terrorists. Additionally, we could take the biggest step towards having a friendly relationship with Islamic countries by respecting their sovereignty and allowing the people to determine their own futures through their own elected governments. Additionally, we could remove the US troop presence from Islamic countries and allow the people to fight for and affect their own social reforms. That would mean more to them than having the reforms handed to them with the help of Westerners. As Gandhi said, lasting change has to come from within.

One of Gandhi’s favorite quotes from Tolstoy sums up this policy best:

…if we would but get off the backs of our neighbours the world would be quite all right without any further help from us. And if we can only serve our immediate neighbors by ceasing to prey upon them, the circle of unities thus grouped in the right fashion will ever grow in circumference till at last it is conterminous with that of the whole world.[35]

 


[1] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 1, p. 3.
[2] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 6, p. 77.
[3] Ibid., p. 79.
[4] Ibid., p. 78.
[5] Ibid., p. 81.
[6] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[7] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 15, p. 59.
[8] Ibid., Chapter 4, p. 10.
[9] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[10] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 7, p. 102.
[11] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[12] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 22, p. 249.
[13] Ibid., Terror in the Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 229.
[14] Ibid., Chapter 4, p. 70.
[15] Ibid.
[16] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 171, pp. 364-365.
[17] “Introduction to Islam”, describes Islam as a comprehensive way of life.
[18] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 18, p. 220.
[19] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror In The Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 233.
[20] Sankar Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Chapter 10, p. 98.
[21] Ibid.
[22] “Gandhi’s last words not ‘Hey Ram’: book”.
[23] “1991 Gulf War chronology”.
[24] Rosemary Pennington, “What Is The Ka’aba?”.
[25] Osama bin Laden, “Osama bin Laden v. the U.S.”.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 10, pp. 132-134.
[28] Ibid., Chapter 5, p. 71.
[29] Barbara Elias, “1998 Missile Strikes on Bin Laden May Have Backfired”.
[30] James Bennet, “A Hamas Chieftain Dies When Israelis Attack His Home”.
[31] Henry McDonald, “Four Real IRA leaders found liable for Omagh bombing”.
[32] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 234.
[33] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[34] Ibid., p. 3.
[35] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 46, p. 112.

 

Works Cited

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>”1991 Gulf War chronology.” 3 September 1996. USA Today World. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Bennet, James. “A Hamas Chieftain Dies When Israelis Attack His Home.” 23 July 2002. The New York Times: World. Web. 23 January 2012. .
bin Laden, Osama. “Osama Bin Laden V. The U.S.: Edicts And Statements.” n.d. PBS Frontline. Web. 17 January 2012.
Elias, Barbara. “1998 Missile Strikes on Bin Laden May Have Backfired.” 20 August 2008. The George Washington University: The National Security Archive. Web. 22 January 2012.
Gandhi, M. K. Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). New York: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
Gandhi, Mahatma. The Essential Gandhi. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2002. Print.
“Gandhi’s last words not ‘Hey Ram’:book.” 29 January 2008. hindustantimes: news. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Ghose, Sankar. Mahatma Gandhi. Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1991. Print.
“Introduction to Islam.” 2000. islam.com. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Juergensmeyer, Mark. “Gandhi vs. Terrorism.” 2007. Mark Juergensmeyer: Global Studies, UCSB. Web. 16 January 2012. .
—. Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.
McDonald, Henry. “Four Real IRA leaders found liable for Omagh bombing.” 8 June 2009. The Guardian. Web. 23 January 2012.
Pennington, Rosemary. “What Is The Ka’aba?” 22 October 2008. MuslimVoices.org. Web. 22 January 2012. .

Samskara: How To Bury An Un-Brahminical Brahmin

The following is a book review I had to write for a history course titled, “Traditional Civilizations of India.”  The book is fictional, but deals with issues that helped to explain and give a starting point for research into the Vedic religion of India.  Essentially, a very un-religious person dies in a very religious village, and no one knows quite what to do with him.  The book focuses on the conflict between religious obligations and temptation and how to navigate between the two to do what’s right.  In the end, it leads to a spiritual awakening for the main character, going out into the world and seeing first-hand how the people actually live, which is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.  I have no idea what my grade was for this paper, because it was turned in on the last day of class, but my final grade for the course was an A+.

 

Samskara book cover.

“Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance” (Murthy 3).  The central issue of the book Samskara, by U. R. Anantha Murthy, revolves around the death of a Brahmin who broke all the rules and flaunted it.  In Durvasapura, a village of supposedly orthodox Brahmin, Naranappa stood out as the exact opposite of everything a Brahmin should be.  He was wild, partied, socialized and had sexual encounters with people outside of his caste, destroyed holy relics and ate sacred fish.  In other words, he broke every taboo associated with being a Brahman.  His behavior while alive seriously complicated the means of disposing of his body after death for all those around him.  The fact that he died from plague and his corpse was a health hazard to the rest of the group seems to have gone completely unnoticed in this story.  The focus, instead, is on the spiritual ramifications of dealing with Naranappa’s remains.  Who is responsible for performing the rites, and should the rites be performed at all?

According to the leader of the Durvasapura Brahmin, Praneshacharya, the “Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning,” a deceased Brahmin’s funeral rites should be performed by a relative or, in the absence of a relative, any Brahmin will do (Murthy 5-6).  This would seem to solve the problem, since Naranappa has living relatives in the village.  Unfortunately, he managed to alienate them all before dying.  Naranappa and Garuda shared a common ancestor, but Garuda had quarreled with Naranappa’s father over ownership of an orchard.  When Naranappa’s father died, Garuda attempted to gain possession of the orchard by receiving a ruling in his favor from a guru.  Naranappa ignored the ruling and, according to Garuda, they swore they’d have nothing to do with each other for many generations after that.  Lakshmana, Naranappa’s other relative, is married to the sister of Naranappa’s deceased wife.  Lakshmana argues that Naranappa’s abandonment of the woman, and her subsequent insanity and death are things that he just cannot condone (Murthy 7).  So, there are no relatives willing to perform the funeral rites.  This causes the responsibility to shift to the Brahmin community as a whole.

Rather than create an easy opportunity to get Naranappa’s funeral rites done, this does nothing to solve the problem.  Naranappa’s behavior has caused him to become polluted in the eyes of the Brahmin.  Having anything to do with him would cause them to become polluted and lower their social and spiritual standing in society.  According to Jonathan Haidt:

Hinduism very explicitly places all creatures onto a vertical dimension, running from the gods above, to the demons below.  People rise and fall on this vertical dimension based on the degree to which they behave like gods or demons in this life. [1]

For high caste Hindus, proper behavior is regulated by The Laws of Manu.  It tells them how to avoid becoming polluted and part of avoiding pollution is avoiding people who are lower on the vertical dimension, those who are impure.  This is made evident at the very beginning of Samskara, when Praneshacharya mentally debates whether or not to answer the door for Chandri, since even speaking to her would pollute him and he’d have to wash again before dinner (Murthy 2).  If speaking to someone from a lesser caste causes pollution, then certainly handling the dead body of a Brahmin who spit in the eye of Brahminism would be excessively polluting.

The Brahmin in Durvasapura are aware of the risks of pollution involved with performing funeral rites for Naranappa, and rather than take on that burden, they are intent on finding a way to avoid it, even at the cost of slightly tarnishing their Brahminism.  Obviously, performing the funeral rites would be the greater evil, and the more polluting option.  With that in mind, one of the Brahmin, Dasa, proposes that they ask the Bramin of Parijatapura to perform the funeral rites, on the grounds that they were friends with Naranappa and shared meals together (Murthy 12-13).  This is important, because a person wouldn’t eat meals with someone that they consider polluting.  Unfortunately for the Durvasapura Brahmin, the Parijatapura Brahmin understand the precariousness of their social standing and are unwilling to perform the rites.  Praneshacharya says that “friendship is as strong a bond as blood,” but obviously the fear of pollution is the stronger force in society (Murthy 13).

With Naranappa’s body still lying unattended and no one volunteering to take responsibility for the funeral rites, the question of his status as a Brahmin is raised, perhaps in the hopes of pushing him off onto a lower caste.  If Naranappa were declared to not be a Brahman, then it wouldn’t be required that a Brahmin perform his rites.  Naranappa managed to break all the rules.  He drank liquor, ate meat, socialized with Muslims, engaged in sexual relations with low caste women and destroyed sacred objects and animals.  He completely threw out the concept of purity and pollution and even made remarks like, “If I were still a Brahmin…,” that indicate he clearly considered himself to be outside of the Brahmin caste (Murthy 23).  But, was it enough to remove him from the caste system in the eyes of the greater Indian community?  There is some social mobility in the caste system, in moving from one to the other, but is it possible to be removed from the Brahmin caste posthumously?  According to Praneshacharya:

…he may have rejected brahminhood, but brahminhood never left him.  No one ever excommunicated him officially.  He didn’t die an outcaste; so he remains a brahmin in his death.  Only another brahmin has any right to touch his body. (Murthy 9)

So, this brings things back around to the original problem.  Naranappa died a Brahmin and must be given rites as a Brahmin, but because he’s extremely polluted, no one wants to perform them.

Despite the fact that Praneshacharya is a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning, he is unable to come to a conclusion regarding the disposal of Naranappa’s body, which is all the while rotting and literally polluting the entire agrahara with plague and a horrible stench.  Without debating the reasons for Praneshacharya’s inability to make a decision, there are several options that were available to him, most of which he was aware of, and all of which he should have been aware of.

The first solution is one that is introduced at the beginning of the story, when the Brahmin first gather to discuss the funeral rites.  Praneshacharya says:

Garuda said: an oath stands between him and Naranappa.  Yet the Books of Law have ways of absolving such oaths—you can perform a rite of absolution, give away a cow, make a pilgrimage.  But this is an expensive matter and I’ve no right to ask anyone to spend his money. (Murthy 9)

Immediately after saying this, Chandri offered up the gold that Naranappa had given her to pay for the expenses of the funeral rites.  Why did Praneshacharya not state that the gold should be used to absolve the oath, as well as perform the rite?  It would have remedied the situation immediately, and since the gold was freely given for that express purpose, then there was no harm in it, only inconvenience to Garuda.  Would it have been polluting?  Perhaps, but on the other hand, if Praneshacharya had given the advice, then Garuda could have rested easy in the knowledge that the best learned person in the community had told him it was right.

Another option available to Praneshacharya would have been to take the gold and perform the rites himself.  As the head of the community, Praneshacharya is ultimately responsible for the well-being of all the agrahara’s inhabitants.  To leave a rotting corpse lying unattended, spreading disease, while people bicker over fine points of doctrine is wholly irresponsible.  Despite the pollution, he should have made the sacrifice for the greater good of the community.  To balance out the pollution of performing the rites, he would have restored the normal flow of life in the agrahara, including the worship.  Surely that counts as good.  Additionally, he could have donated the rest of the gold to a temple.

Outside the context of the story, the translator indicates in the afterword that as a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning the answer to the problem should have been obvious to Praneshacharya.  The translator says that the answer to the problem is found in a text called the Dharmasindhu.  He says that “certain simple ritual modifications and offerings would have solved the problem, as the guru of Dharmasthala clearly suggests” (Murthy 145).  In the story, Chandri’s gold made the funds that would likely be necessary for such ritual modifications available to Praneshacharya.  Why didn’t he know about the Dharmasindhu?  Well, the most likely answer is that Samskara wouldn’t have made for a very good story if he had known how to solve the problem before it began.  Besides, the real conflict of Samskara isn’t so much about the inability to find a solution to performing the funeral rites for Naranappa as it is about a conflict between traditional religion and modern life, but that is not the topic of this essay.

In the sort of situation presented by the story, some amount of pollution was unavoidable.  Praneshacharya should have realized this right from the start, and instead of trying to find a perfect way to solve the problem, he should instead have been looking for the least polluting solution.  Resolving the problem would have saved the agrahara from the stench and complete disruption of their lives.  It’s hard to believe that none of the villagers knew the danger of having a plague-killed corpse sitting in their village.  Removing the body would have likely saved the lives of some of the brahmin as well.  Taken together with providing the brahmin a way to resume their prayers, the pollution caused by performing the funeral rites would likely have been balanced out, whether the person that performed them was Praneshacharya or another brahmin.


[1] J. Haidt’s work is on a single web page.  As such, no page numbers are available.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan. “Elevation and the positive psychology of morality.” 10 May 2001. University of Virginia: Faculty. Web. 13 November 2011.
Murthy, U.R. Anantha. Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

A Taste of India at Newport Centre

Taste of India, Authentic Indian Cuisine at Newport Centre Mall.

I went up to the food court at the Newport Centre Mall for the first time last weekend.  I saw some old favorites that I hadn’t been to since before I left the US for Kuwait in 2007 and I was pretty sure I was going to wind up eating at Sarku Japan.  It’s not real Japanese food, but it tastes pretty good.  Then I saw a place called A Taste of India: Authentic Indian Cuisine.  I went over and they were handing out free samples of chicken.  It tasted pretty good, but I wasn’t really convinced.  Then I saw that they had chicken biryani, and I wondered if it was anything like the nasi briyani I’d had in Singapore.  I asked for a sample and while it wasn’t exactly the same, it was really close and really good.  It was really spicy too!

Chicken biryani from A Taste of India at Newport Centre Mall.

I wound up getting a bowl of it, with spicy curry on top.  It doesn’t look too appealing in this photo, but most of the foods I ate in Asia tasted better than they looked anyway.

Something about the restaurant was kind of jarring.  They all seemed to be first generation immigrants, judging by their accents, possibly from the same family.  The way they were working the crowd and cajoling people into taking samples and then buying food from them reminded me of street vendors in the Asian countries I’d visited.  They could have just as easily been on a street in Kuala Lumpur or a food court in Singapore.  The weird part is that they were all wearing cheesy looking, brightly colored, standard uniforms.  I guess it was something about the authentic taste of the food and the authentic behavior of the employees clashing with the American franchise store and uniform designs that threw me off.  I suppose it doesn’t matter though.  I paid for good food and that’s what I got.

Discovering What Halal Really Means

I recently came across an article about an ongoing problem in a town called Colne in the UK.  According to the article, the KFC there has switched to serving halal foods as part of a trial.  A KFC representative said this was done because there have been quite a few requests in the UK for halal restaurants.

So… what does that mean?  The article explained that halal meat is meat that has been prayed over and blessed by a Muslim cleric at the point of slaughter.  Also, for a restaurant to have a halal rating, all food products served in the establishment must be halal, and the establishment can also no longer serve pork products, which were on KFC’s menu previous to this trial.

This has angered a lot of non-Muslim local residents who don’t appreciate having food blessed by another religion forced on them.

The first time I ever ate something that was ‘halal’ was at a Hardee’s on a US military installation in Kuwait.  When I saw the phrase ‘halal certified’ on the outside of the restaurant I thought it was amusing, but didn’t give it a lot of thought.  I assumed that it just had something to do with how the food was prepared but I had no idea that it was being blessed by a Muslim cleric.  Thinking about it now, I suppose that was set up to cater to the Muslim foreign workers that were employed on the camp.

I’ve been living in Singapore for almost two years now and I’ve never given much thought to halal food at all.  I always figured that hey… halal, kosher, whatever.  It’s just prepared a special way and not mixed with what those people find ‘unclean’ right?

Now that I understand the true significance behind the meaning of food being halal… I suppose I still don’t really care all that much.  It does bother me a bit that the food is being blessed by another religion, because it reminds me so much of the rite of Communion, which is considered holy and something only Christians should take part in.  On the other hand, if I’m right and they’re wrong then the blessing isn’t going to amount to anything in the long run, is it?  Besides, halal or not it’s still just a piece of chicken.  A fried chicken leg isn’t going to jump off my plate and try to convert me.

I feel bad for the people in Colne, though, because in switching over the restaurant to halal to suit the needs of the Muslim minority, they’ve effectively alienated the Christian (minority?) who may not want to bend their religious principles to eat food blessed by another religion.  Depending on the size of the town, those people may have just lost their only KFC.  I also feel bad for them because people are labeling them as bigots just for standing up for their religious beliefs.  People from one religion not wanting to eat food blessed or ritually killed by another religion is nothing new.  According to AsianCook.co.uk, sikhs will not eat kosher or halal foods either.

What’s most interesting about the situation to me, though, is KFC’s religious insensitivity in the matter.  When confronted about the issue, they replied that the food they’re serving is “still made from the same great ingredients”, effectively dodging the primary issue.

[Note: Keep in mind that I don’t personally know the people in Colne that are protesting this.  All I know is what’s in the article I read. They may certainly be bigots that are using this as a platform for grandstanding.  Regardless, I believe in letting people believe in whatever they want, without putting undue restrictions on their religious rights, insomuch that it doesn’t cause harm to others.]