8 Christianity and Islam: Ideologies Of Imperialism
8 - Christianity and Islam: Ideologies of Imperialism
The story which I an now going to tell is true. I remember it word by word, although it happened twenty-five years ago.1
A young Muslim sufi from Kashmir was telling us about the teachings of his guru (this was the word he used for his teacher) who had died some years earlier. Praayama was a prominent part of these teachings. This again was the term he used, though he did not know even the Hindi language, not to speak of Sanskrit.
The sufi was a very simple and unassuming person. He had had no schooling. And he made his living by the humble occupation of a tailor. But we were fascinated by what he told us about the techniques used by his guru for his spiritual training. His language was straightforward without the slightest touch of pedantry.
As the conversation drew to a close someone from among us started to play a record of padavali kirtan by one of the few famous female specialists from Bengal. The sufi was visibly moved by the pathos in Radha’s pining for Sri Krishna who had left Vrindavana for Mathura. Soon after the music stopped, he exclaimed, “Aisa gana hamne ek hazar baras bad suna (I have heard this sort of music after a thousand years).” His eyes were brimming with tears which he was trying to hide.
We were amazed. He was in his thirties. He could not have been in this world a thousand years ago. What did he mean by that statement? We requested him to explain. He said in a voice full of innocence: “Pahle janam meñ suna hoga (I must have heard it in an earlier life).”
I became agog with curiosity. He was talking of transmigration. So I asked him, “Ãp kya is zindgi se pahle janam ki bat manate hain (Do you believe in a birth before this present life)?”
The sufi seemed to be somewhat annoyed. He asked a counter-question in a tone which had a touch of temper: “Ãp mazhab ka sawal kyoñ uThate hain (Why are you raising a theological controversy)?”
I was puzzled by his reply, as was everybody else. I had not the slightest intention to annoy him. He was our guest. I had asked the question out of sheer curiosity. So I came forward with a clarification, and said, “Sufiji, ap musalman hain. Islam ek hi janam manata hai. Ãpne pahle janam ki bat kahi, isliye sawal uThaya tha (You are a Muslim. Islam recognises only one life. You talk about an earlier life. That is why I had asked the question).”
He relaxed and explained: “Mazhab to wahi bat kahta hai. Lekin maiñ to raz ki bat kah raha tha (It is true that theology says that. But I was talking of the esoteric way).”
We were surprised by this distinction. This was a new revelation to us - this separation of esoterism from theology. The sufi continued: “Raz ki bat ham sab ke samane nahiñ kahte. Yeh to maiñ ap logoñ se kah raha tha (We do not talk of the esoteric way before everybody. It is only to you people that I was talking about it).”
All of us asked simultaneously: “Kyoñ (Why)?”
The sufi said, “Woh log (those people)” and without completing the sentence he put the edge of his outstretched palm on his throat and moved it across. He was trying to convey that “those people” would cut his throat.
We asked him about “those people”. Who were they? He did not name any. But he became gloomy. It was obvious that he did not like to continue the dialogue, which we dropped immediately.
I was sure in my mind that nobody was going to cut his throat these days even if he proclaimed publicly what he believed privately. Times had changed. Moreover, he was a citizen of India, not of an Islamic theocracy. Yet the alarm in his voice was unmistakable.
I knew how Mansur al-Hallaj had been tortured to death by an Islamic state prompted by Islamic theologians for saying that he himself was the Haqq (Truth). But that was all. I had not yet read any detailed history of Sufism, nor compared or contrasted the doctrines of Sufism with the dogmas of prophetic Islam. It was years later when I made such a study and came to know of the rishi tradition in Kashmir Sufism, that I was suddenly reminded of that talk with the young sufi that day. He was obviously referring to the tradition of terror which had silenced the sups of the rishi tradition, and forced them to keep in their breasts the best of their knowledge. The memory of that terror, it seemed, was still intact in the mind of this sufi.
The Sufi as a Fanatic
My studies in Sufism also brought back to my mind another encounter with another sufi at about the same time. He was an elderly man. He was quite learned in his own way, and could discuss various religious and philosophical doctrines with some knowledge. He could also manage some English in which language he also wrote an occasional pamphlet. The incident which I shall now relate took place when I met him for the first time, though I had heard a lot about him from a close friend.
I was staying by myself in the house of this friend when this sufi dropped in one day. I requested him to stay with me for a few days and give me the benefit of his company. He agreed and we had quite a few fruitful sessions during which we talked about mysticism and the rest, without touching the subject of Islam or Hinduism. I was impressed. His language was quite forceful, particularly when he made fun of atheists, materialists, and mere philosophers.
One day I was reading an Urdu translation of Sarmad’s Persian poems when the sufi came into my room and sat down by my side. I put away the book and had another long talk with him. Then I left the room because I had a few other things to do. When I returned after about half an hour, I found the sufi reading the same book by Sarmad. A few days earlier I had heard him talking about Sarmad with reverence and in a language of fulsome praise. So I sat down quietly in a corner and waited for him to read out and explain some significant lines from that book.
But I was taken aback when he suddenly threw the book against the opposite wall with some violence and shouted, “Haramzada kafir hi tha (The bastard was an infidel indeed)!” I picked up the book, brought it back to the sufi, and asked him to show me the lines that had enraged him so uncontrollably. He leafed through the book and finally put his finger on two lines almost towards the end. I cannot recall the exact words of the couplet but I remember very well the message that was conveyed. Sarmad had addressed himself as follows: “O Sarmad! What is it that goes on happening to you? You started as a follower of Moses. Next you put your faith in Muhammad. And now at last you have become a devotee of Ram and Lachhman.”
I could see nothing wrong or improper in this couplet. Sarmad was only telling the story of his seeking which had led him from Moses to Muhammad to Rama and LakshmaNa. I had not read the book as fast and as far as the sufi had done. Nor did I know the real reason for which Sarmad had been beheaded in Delhi by the order of Aurangzeb. All I had heard was that Sarmad used to roam about naked on the roads of this imperial city. I had supposed that he had been punished for his impudence in the midst of a polished society which placed immense importance on being properly dressed. It was years later that I learnt the real nature of Sarmad’s “crime”. It was apostasy which is punishable with death according to the law of Islam laid down by the Prophet himself during the days of his tussle with the polytheists of Mecca.
I have never lost my respect for this second sufi. He is a man of character endowed with a keen mind and a good knowledge of what passes for mysticism in Islam. But he becomes absolutely impregnable, indeed an insufferable fanatic, when it comes to the dogmas of prophetic Islam. His contempt for everything Hindu comes through clearly whenever he publishes a pamphlet. Hindus, he says, are worshippers of kankhajuras (scorpions), khaTmals (bugs), gay ka gobar (cowdung), and Kali. How he has worked out this combination of four “filthy” things has always defied my imagination. But one thing becomes obvious whenever he opens him mouth, namely, that he derives immense satisfaction by portraying Hinduism in this picturesque manner. Sometimes I feel that the very vehemence of his language against Hinduism helps him keep the fire of his fanaticism burning. Whenever he is in this mood, it is impossible to have a word edgewise with him, or make him realize that he is being downright ridiculous.2
The Christian Missionary and the Mystic
I had the same experience an year earlier with a Catholic missionary who was trying to convert me to his own creed. He had taken me to a monastery in a mountainous region, and put me into what the Christians call a retreat. The very first sentence he uttered in his very first lecture was that I should not expect him to give “some funny feeling inside you”. I did not get the point at that time. Later on I learnt that he was referring to the mystic experience for which we Hindus are supposed to have a special weakness. The Father failed to give me any feeling, funny or otherwise, and the retreat was a total failure. I had started as an ordinary Hindu and came out of it in the same condition. The dogmas of Christianity he had dished out sounded to me, to say that least, rather infantile. But what pained me the most in my meetings with this otherwise lovable man was his contempt for Hinduism which he always equated with the “worship of every bug that bites and every cockroach that crawls around”.
In later years I met another Christian missionary who made it a point to call on me whenever he visited Delhi. His first fascination in India (he was a foreigner) was for Raman Maharshi. That led him to Vedanta and the Upanishads which fascinated him still more. Finally, he gave up his missionary station in the south and moved to the Himalayas for a quiet life of study and meditation. He was a prolific writer. He died a few years ago.
In my first encounter with him I made him feel somewhat uncomfortable by asking him some unconventional questions about Christian theology, particularly about Jesus being the only saviour. Next time we met, he asked me to avoid doctrinal disputation and join him in a deeper communion of minds in meditation. I agreed with him very gladly, and we never discussed theology again. Most of the time I listened to him as he as spoke about the Upanishads, particularly about the experience of Advaita. He had made a very deep study of the subject, and I was nowhere near him in my own knowledge of it.
But I was puzzled when I read some of his writings. Here he was trying very heard to reconcile the experience of Advaita with what he called the Christian experience. I referred the matter to Ram Swarup. He told me that Christian experience was the new name which they were now giving to Christian theology.
I knew nothing about any experience, advaitic or Christian. Nor do I know it now. But one thing I know for certain is that human experience, whatever its level, is human experience. There is nothing Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian about it as such. The fact that Advaita is a Sanskrit word - a language which flourished in India and is now honoured by Hindus - as also the fact that it has been discussed most exhaustively in the Upanishads, which are now known as Hindu shastras, does not make it a national or sectarian word. For the word only refers to a state of human consciousness which Kabir has described so aptly as bahar bhitar ekai jano, yeh guru gyan batai (it is the same everywhere, whether without or within; this is the secret taught by the teacher).
Here was a man who was moved so sincerely and so deeply by his seeking for Advaita. Why could he not concentrate on the experience itself, and forget Christianity for the time being? Why could he not throw his theological luggage out of the window and travel straight to the station towards which the train of his own experience was heading? Why should he look out every now and then to find out if the stations on the way had their nameplates inscribed in a language which he had inherited by the accident of his birth? I could not find at that time any satisfactory answers to these questions.
The young sufi was afraid of being slaughtered for saying what he believed to be true. The sincere Christian seeker was trying to stick a label where it failed to stick. Their plight was pathetic.
On the other hand, the old sufi was so sure about himself, about his Islam, and about the abomination that was Hinduism in his eyes. So was the Catholic missionary who had tried to save me from perdition. They seemed to know what was wrong, and where. They seemed to know what was right, and how. What was it that made them feel so secure in their beliefs, and so self-righteous in their swearing against Hinduism?
Politics Masquerading as Religion
The questions remained unanswered till I had a chance to read the life of prophet Muhammad and the history of the rise of Christianity. I knew a lot of Muslim history in this country, and also abroad. I knew how blood-soaked it was in all its chapters. I also knew a lot of Christian history in Europe, and America, and elsewhere. I knew what a horrible story it was in terms of death and destruction it brought to many lands. What I did not know for a long time was the genesis of these creeds which had inflicted so much sufferings on mankind.
It was only when I looked into the source books of these ‘religions’, and examined the character of their founders that I discovered the asurika roots from which they had sprung. It was only then that I realized the grave error in recognizing these creeds as religions in any sense of the term. I could see quite clearly that what we were faced with were purely political ideologies inspired by imperialist ambitions. It was only then that all pieces of the puzzle fell into a pattern - the theologies, the histories, the swearologies, and the rest.
Before I take up the genesis of these creeds I should like to make one point very clear. There are no non-Christian records available about the birth, rise, and spread of Christianity till it captured state power in the Roman empire. Whatever I write below about the genesis of Christianity is based entirely on early Christian records. Similarly, no non-Muslim records have survived about the rise and spread of Islam in Arabia. What I write below about the genesis of Islam is based entirely on Islamic records.
Genesis and Character of Christianity
Some historians in the West have serious doubts about the very existence of a man called Jesus Christ.3 And almost all historians agree that if he existed at all, nothing can be known about his person or teaching because all contemporary sources, Christian and non-Christian, are either silent or unreliable regarding the subject. Thus all we have is the Jesus of the Gospels which are now regarded as theological statements rather than a record of historical events. And Jesus of the Gospels is a questionable character. He makes tall claims about himself, and curses all those who do not accept those claims. He denounces his own people as sons of the Devil and killers of prophets.
In due course, Christian theology came to proclaim that Jesus was the only-begotten son of the only true god; that he had been sent down in order to wash with his own blood the sins of mankind by mounting the cross; that he had risen from the dead on the third day and appeared to his apostles in flesh and bones; that he was the same as his father whose divinity he shared in full; that those who accepted him as the only saviour had all their sins washed by his blood; that he had entered his apostles as the holy ghost and entrusted them with the mission of saving all mankind from eternal hell-fire; that the Church founded by the apostles and joined by the converts was his body and bride; and that the whole world had been mandated to the Church by the father and the son and the holy ghost.
What one finds striking about these ridiculous statements is that none of them can stand the test of human reason or experience. The Church declares them to be mysteries beyond the reach of human understanding. The apostles had tried to sell these ‘mysteries’ to the Jews in Jerusalem. The only response they met was dismissal with contempt. Next, they tried these ‘mysteries’ on Jewish communities settled in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. They had some small success but most of the time met with considerable resistance. Finally, they took this merchandise to the metropolitan mart at Rome where their business found some firm footing for the first time. It was in Rome that the methods of missionary salesmanship were matured over a period of time. The structure of the Roman empire provided a model for the structure of the Church. The missionaries got busy building a state within the state.
In the next two centuries, the Church became a rich and powerful organisation with members in many leading families of Rome. It found many adherents among politicians who wielded power, among military commanders who were superstitious or in need of political support, and among merchants who had money but no brains for philosophical questions. The mother of emperor Severus (222-235 AD) became a Christian. So did emperor Philip the Arabian (244-249 AD). Helena, the mother of Constantine, was also a Christian convert. Now the Church extended the Divine Right to rule as a despot to anyone who was prepared to declare Christianity as the sole state religion and suppress all pagan religions. Constantine who wanted to secure a dynastic succession for his family - a practice unknown to Roman politics so far - saw his opportunity in this new doctrine, and proclaimed in favour of the Church. The common people in Rome resisted this royal renegade. So he removed his capital from Rome to Byzantium which was renamed Constantinople.
The precedent set by Constantine in consolidating a dynastic despotism with the help of the Church was copied by many crowned heads all over Europe in subsequent centuries. The king in pagan societies was only the first among equals. The Church enabled him to become an unbridled autocrat who derived his authority not from the community over which he ruled but from God Almighty. The conflicts which developed between these autocrats and the powerful Church with a Pope at its head, came much later, after the common people all over Europe had been enslaved and deprived of their traditional institutions which safeguarded their fundamental freedoms. For quite some time, the Church cooperated with the kings to convert the common people everywhere into hewers of wood and drawers of water.
This was one part of the story. Another was a large-scale destruction of ancient religions all over Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa where the Church spread its tentacles with the help of despotic rulers. All pagan schools were closed, all pagan temples were demolished or converted into churches, and all pagan images were publicly defiled and destroyed. Pagan books were burnt and pagan priests were killed, mostly by Christian monks who led Christian mobs after lecturing them into fevered frenzy. That is how Christianity triumphed over pagan religions and societies - not by the power of its moral or spiritual superiority or the logic of its doctrines, but by the power of the sword wielded by despicable despots.
Genesis and Character of Islam
Muhammad followed in the footsteps of Jesus in making the same sort of claims for himself, cursing his own people in the choicest language of monotheism, and threatening them with slaughter. He, however, did not have to struggle against a centralized state when he found that his prophethood had no attraction for the people of Mecca. He migrated to Medina which was more receptive to monotheism because of a large presence of Jews in that town, and emerged as a powerful potentate. He ended by exiling or killing en masse the Jewish population which resisted him as soon as he came out in his true colours. Meanwhile, he had amassed much wealth by plundering merchant caravans and scattered Arab settlements. He created the nucleus of a standing army out of the toughs and desperados who flocked to him in increasing numbers for committing crimes and sharing the loot. In short, he built the apparatus of a military state in Medina and used it for imposing his closed creed on the tribal settlements of Arabia by means of armed force. The doctrines of Islam were tailored to the needs of this galloping tyranny, and sold with the help of the sword. And the sword was stamped with the name of an almighty Allah in whose service the ancient religion and culture of Arabia were destroyed root and branch.
The Mistake Made by Hindu Society
Hindu society has to understand very clearly that what it is faced with in the form of Christianity and Islam are not religions but imperialist ideologies whose appetite has been whetted by running roughshod over a large part of the world. Hindu society is making a serious, almost a fatal mistake, in appealing to these ideologies in the name of reason and morality which are supposed to accompany religion. This sort of appeal is bound to fail because it falls on deaf ears. The menace has to be met by methods and means which are suited to the nature and magnitude of the menace. Hitler had said that “if the chicken and geese pass a resolution about peace, the wolf is not convinced”. There is little chance that Hindu society will ever be able to contain Christianity or Islam if it continues to regard these aggressive and imperialist ideologies as religions, and extend tolerance to them.