| Freedom to be
There is a strong element of the killjoy in all religions except Hinduism. Most religions laud abstinence from pleasures like good food and wine, making and seeing beautiful things like paintings, sculpture and women, listening to good music and dancing. Just about everything that gives pleasure, men of religion denounce as sinful. They have more don’ts than dos in their code of conduct. Hinduism leaves people alone. Though it also has its ascetics who are celibate and practice austerities (tapasya), for most of its adherents religion is fun with a succession of joyous festivals like Holi, Dussehra and Diwali, singing bhajans, dancing with abandon and generally having a good time.
It does not have a rigid code of comandments. Its motto is “do as you like without hurting other people”. So its gods and goddesses are closer to human beings — they make love, cheat on each other, steal, lie, squabble and yet manage to maintain their divinity in peoples’ eyes. Hence many non-Hindus question Hinduism’s claim to be called a religion. It is a way of life where everyone is allowed to do as they like, but it is not a religion like Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Sikhism.
These thoughts occurred to me while reading Counsels on the Spiritual Life by Thomas A. Kempis. Kempis (1380-1471) was a German monk who spent most of the 92 years of his life in a Dutch monastery reading, writing and leading a life of austerity. He is know for his seminal work The Imitation of Christ, of which Counsels is a part.
“Man’s life on earth is a warfare,” he says, quoting Job. “The source of temptation lies within your own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil.” And continues, “If you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, remember always that you are in exile and pilgrim on this earth.”
Besides exhorting people to control their senses, he was obsessed with death. He writes: “Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares to die. Death is the end of all men; and the life of man passes away suddenly as a shadow…Keep yourself a stranger and a pilgrim upon earth, to whom affairs of the world are of no concern.” It is certainly not a cheerful message for he also lauds sorrow as a “cleanser of the soul”.
One may well ask these men of faith, why did our maker give us eyes, ears, tongue, noses and a sense of feeling if he did not want us to use them' And though we all know death is inevitable, does thinking about it all the time help overcome the fear of it and make the passage from life to lifelessness any smoother' The answer to both questions is “No”. Enjoy your life by indulging your senses to the full; and when death comes, it comes whether or not you have thought about it all your life.
The stars have it wrong
It is my impression that a large number of Hindus of north India subscribe to the Arya Samaj and look upon Swami Dayanand Saraswati as the avatar of modern India. So I find it baffling that so many of them believe in astrology which, by no stretch of the imagination, can be called a science (Murli Manohar Joshi and Ashok Singhal notwithstanding). Quite a few also practise it as a profession and read horoscopes on television channels.
I am beholden to Rajpal Agarwal of Faridabad for sending me relevant passages from swamiji’s Satyarth Prakash in which he spelt out his views on the subject:
“When these ignorant people go to an astrologer and say ‘O Sir! What is wrong with this person'’, He replies ‘The sun and other stars are maleficent to him...’
“Inquirer — ‘Well, Mr Astrologer, you know, the sun and other stars are but inanimate things...They can do nothing but give light, heat, etc like this earth of ours...’
“Astrologer — ‘Is it not through the influence of stars, then, that some people are rich and others poor, some are rulers, whilst others are their subjects'’
“Inq. — ‘No, it is all the result of their deeds…good or bad.’
“Ast. — ‘Is the Science of stars untrue then'’
“Inq. — ‘No, that part of it...which goes by the name of astronomy is true; but the other part that treats the influence of stars on human beings and their actions and goes by the name of astrology is all false.”
“Ast. — ‘Is then the horoscope of no value'’
“Inq. — ‘No, and it should be named not horoscope, but the death knell of happiness because the birth of a child gladdens every heart...but this happiness lasts only so long as the horoscope is not cast, and the aspect of the planets is not read out to the parents.’
“When the priest, after the birth of the child, suggests the casting of a horoscope, his parents say to him. ‘Oh, Sir! Cast a very good horoscope.’ Then the astrologer brings the horoscope...They ask him if the aspect is beneficent. He answers, ‘I will read it out to you as it is; his stars of nativity are good, and so are the stars that govern...social relations. He will be rich and respectable, have good health; and be a ruler among men.’
“Upon hearing this, the parents say, ‘Well done, Sir! Well done! You are a very nice man.’
“The astrologer thinks it would not pay him to say nice things only, so he adds, ‘These are all his lucky stars, but there are others that are maleficent. On account of the position of such and such stars he will meet with his death in his 8th year.’ On hearing this, all their happiness is converted into great distress, and they say to the astrologer, ‘Oh Sir, what shall we do...now'’ The astrologer answers, ‘Propitiate the stars....Do such and such an act of charity, have the hymns relating to the stars chanted, feed the priests, and it is very likely that the maleficence of the stars will be warded off.’
“The qualifying words very likely have been used by way of precaution, because, if the child died he could say, ‘How could I help it' I cannot override the will of God. I did my utmost and so did you, but it was so ordained from the first on account of his misdeeds in the previous life.’ But if the child lived, he could say ‘Behold the power of our incantations, gods and priests; I have saved the life of your child.’
“But really, if their incantations and prayers fail, and the child dies, these rogues should be made to pay double or treble the money given to them, and if the child lives, they should still be made to pay because, as they themselves say, there is no soul living that can undo the law of God or evade the consequences of one’s deeds...
“The same answer should be given to gurus...who prescribe certain acts of charity to their dupes and then appropriate the gifts themselves, as has been given to the astrologers above.
“Lastly, a word about Shitla and charms. These are nothing but downright frauds and quackery. Should any one say: ‘If I were to give a charmed bangle or locket to any person, my god or saint would ward off all evils from him through the power of the charm or of incantations.’ To such a person the following questions should be put: ‘Can you by your charms evade death, or the laws of God, or the consequences of your deeds' Many a child dies in spite of your charms and incantations; ay, even your own children die; why can’t you save them' Will you be able to save yourself from death'’ These questions, that rascal and his fraternity can never answer, and they soon find that the game is not worth the candle.”