Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Human Epistemology

With the evolution of human species over the past tens of thousands of years from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens to Modern Humans, human intelligence and skill continued to develop sequentially through the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and then on to Industrial Revolution.

At the earliest of times, human beings were subservient to some presumed superior intelligence or powers and that subservience was based on pure belief. That belief gradually transformed itself to faith. The faith is a collective, communal mental undertaking. Faith, once established, is difficult to root out as it comes as a joint undertaking, although each one individually holds the strands of that faith. The ownership of the faith is then taken up individually as well as collectively and it becomes part of their collective identity. A ‘faith’ can then easily transmute to a ‘religion’. When the group size becomes large enough or a significant number of groups coalesce together to form a community, the ‘faith’ becomes truly a ‘religion’. 

The German historian of religion, Rudolf Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, stated that the feeling of ‘numinous’ was the basis of religion of devotion. This ‘numinous’ feeling placed human beings to subservient position and at the same time uplifted the mystical powers of the unknown to higher levels. This feeling predated the period of human knowledge and understanding and hence, any attempt to explain things such as the beginning of life on Earth and everything on Earth had been passed on to the superior, unknown powers.

Religions of bewildering varieties started to evolve in various parts of the world. Shinto in Japan, Daoism in China, Buddhism in India, Hinduism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Paganism in Europe and other places, Abrahamic religions (all three mono-theistic religions) in the Middle East, the Sky-God in Africa and many more evolved at various times on Earth. It is estimated that altogether more than 10,000 religions evolved on Earth, but most of them went extinct or merged with the more dominant religion.  

The main point here is that there is virtually no substantiation that any of these religions originated from the presumed creator. However, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism and few more religions do not rely on single creator or divine authority as the source of the religion. Buddhism believes in eternal cycle of life and death until terminated by nirvana.

On the other hand, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a bewildering variety of sects within these religions believe in Yahweh, God or Allah as the creator who is assumed to be all-powerful, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient and incomprehensible. God is ineffable, beyond any query, and any aspersion or derision of this powerful creator is blasphemous. All knowledge derives from Him and all praise to Him. However, Judaism and Christianity have gradually moved away from blind adherence to such theological doctrines. But Islam or more particularly the Sunnis have maintained total reliance of such narrative. Allah created human beings, there is a day of judgement, heaven and hell awaits life after death etc. Human beings are composed of body and soul – body perishes on death but soul returns to God!

As mentioned above, Judaism, the originator of monotheism through Abraham, had moved away from strict submission to scripture dealing with life after death. Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, said in a speech in 2012 that the question of life after death is non-sensical. But he believed that soul is a living thing which goes back to where it came from, probably to heaven; but body perishes and goes back to soil. He also held the view that heaven and hell don’t exist, but if someone wants to believe in these things, he has the right to do so.

The Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and Islam, both Shia and Sunni, believe strongly in life after death; because without it the whole edifice of the religion incorporating the final day of judgement; existence of heaven and hell etc would collapse. The question may be raised that how the body of the dead person would be revived, at what age and in what condition etc would that revival be and it remained unanswered in these religions. 

These two religions along with Judaism proclaim that the creator created the vast universe, made every animate and inanimate thing follow certain orders etc. The traditional creator had been assigned in these religions essential attributes – He must be present right from or even before the beginning and will last until or beyond the end of creation. He is all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent and He is not accountable to anybody; He can see past, present and future. Any derogatory or disrespectful remark or any question about God’s authority is blasphemous.

The Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza’s (1632 – 1677), view of God was totally dismissive of all these gobbledegook. He showed through the power of logic that God and Nature are one and the same thing. He started from the fundamental logic that there must be a single self-subsistent entity that must be the creator and the creation. This unity of cause (source) and the consequence (creation) must be there to remove the inexplicable question that if creator created everything, then who created the creator? The creator and creation must be merged into one.

Thus, in one big swoop Baruch Spinoza dismissed the fundamental basis of monotheistic religions that there is a transcendent creator who created everything. He argued that the creator and the creation is one in Nature and it is infinite in its expanse and immanence. He held the view that human being is a composite entity of body and mind; body being the material object in space. The movement of the body is due to physical laws of motion whereas thought is a mental state.

Some years previously, French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) advocated mind-body dualism. Descartes’ (pronounced as Dekorta) philosophical view was that mind and body have separate existence within the body. This led to the belief that whereas body was material in character and would eventually decay away on Earth, the soul is subliminal and lives on eternally! It chimed or had been made to chime with the religious views. This philosophical basis remained extant until Spinoza vigorously opposed such un-scientific epistemology.

The most prominent German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, produced his most important contributions to phenomenology and existentialism in his book called ‘Being and Time’. In that book, he argued that ‘Das Sein’ meaning ‘Being’ is the reality of our existence here. After being ‘thrown’ into the world, we strive to move from inauthenticity to authenticity. We strive to gain freedom from social milieu, freedom from archaic prejudices and practical necessities that are not our own making and move away from ‘they-self’ into ‘our-self’. Getting the freedom of ‘our-self’ releases us to attain our ‘Being’ here. But all Beings are inter-connected and there is the ‘unity of Being’. Our authenticity arises from ‘unity of Being’ with all things, making the ‘common Being’ with the universe. So, Heidegger was saying effectively that the ontology (the sense of being that exists as self-contained individual) encompasses the ‘unity of Being’.

One may find a strong resemblance, almost an echo, of Tagore’s philosophical discourse, which he argued when he met Einstein in July, 1930 in Berlin that as individual atoms or molecules join up to form a smooth congruous substance, so does the humanity of individuals form the universal humanity and human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth; without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Where does the religion fit in the epistemology of existentialism and human truth? Religion, any religion for that matter, is fundamentally dogmatic, sectarian and divisive. The edifice of religion is based on unproven axiomatic assumptions and social provincialism. It is no wonder that when Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he answered that he believed in Spinoza’s God “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”.

Thus, he upheld the belief of God as the Nature itself that provides universal humanity.

– Dr Anisur Rahman is an author and columnist.

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Tagore’s and Einstein’s views on Science and Spirituality

On July 14, 1930, Albert Einstein,the most prominent physicist of the 20th century and a Nobel Laureate, welcomed at his home at the outskirts of Berlin, Germany the most prominent Indian philosopher, musician, poet and a Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The two proceeded to have one of the most stimulating, intellectually challenging conversations in the history of science and philosophy exploring the age-old divergence between scientific views and religious perception. This conversation took place at the juncture when a new Renaissance was sweeping across India and a brutal reality was knocking on the door in Europe. The two intellectual giants from two continents representing two different human achievements slogged it out.

A part of the conversation which is modified here a bit was as follow:

EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the universe is Human Truth.

Let me take a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may feel continuous and solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to human world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

EINSTEIN: There are two different perceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity; (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.

EINSTEIN: This is the purely human perception of the universe.

TAGORE: There can be no other perception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.

EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.

TAGORE: Yes, one of eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this perception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.

TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through Man.

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my perception is right, but that is my religion.

TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how else could we know Truth?

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.

TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity (সীমার মাঝে অসীম তুমি). But such a Truth cannot belong to science only. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.

EINSTEIN: So according to your perception, which may be the Indian perception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.

TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore, the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.

EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.

TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.

EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.

TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.

EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.

TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the Universal Mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.

EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.

TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time, it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.

In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper, literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.

EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.

Although it may outwardly seem that these two great intellectual giants of the 20th century held divergent and sometimes conflicting views on science and spirituality, truth and beauty, but following deeper inspection, one would find that their views were remarkably similar and almost convergent.

For example, when Einstein was asked some years later whether he believed in God, Einstein replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God. His full answer was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world; not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.”

Compare that with Tagore’s view on spiritual being. He said that as atoms join up to form a continuous solid substance, so do individual humans join up to form the universal humanity in human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth. Without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Thus, Einstein’s God (God of Spinoza) and Tagore’ God (God of human universe in harmony) are remarkably similar.

(This article is an adaptation of the write-up by Maria Popova on ‘When Einstein met Tagore’, dated 27 April 2012 )

Dr A Rahman is an author and a blogger.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Sister, my Sister

My sister: Your departure from this Earth on 25th April 2021 was a great shock and deeply painful to everybody who knew you. You touched the hearts and minds of not only your near and dear ones, but also everybody who happened to come across you.

But why did you have to leave Earth on the day I was born? Was there a sublime message you were leaving behind for me? Couldn’t we stay together, as we had been doing for many, many years now? A few more years together, happy care-free lives, wouldn’t have caused anybody any harm. So, why did you have to go now? Life is undoubtedly brutal and Tagore expressed that very succinctly in one of his songs:

আমি তোমারি মাটির কন্যা        

জননী বসুন্ধরা !!

তবে আমার মানব জন্ম

কেন বঞ্চিত করো ?

Translated in English, it may read like this:

I am the product of your soil, Mother Earth,

then why do you deprive me of my human life?

Your life and my life, as your younger brother, kept flashing in front of my eyes now. The days when I was just a tiny tot, I used to trail you, follow you, copy you, do everything you did. In my childhood years in Hemnagar, Mymensingh you were my guide, my mentor. Although I was not of schooling age, but you showed me the English alphabet and taught me very gently and lovingly how to write my name in English. I used to wonder how on Earth you can read English and even understand it! You used to tell me stories from your books.  You told me the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, which I liked very much and asked you to tell me over and over again. Years later in Dhaka, you told me in simple Bengali language the story of The Merchant of Venice, and I developed a deep dislike for Shylock who asked for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for non-payment of debt!

As our father was the Manager of the Hemnagar Zamindari – appointed by the government of Pakistan in the absence of Hindu Zamindar after the partition of India – we had all the trappings and social privileges of zamindari life style. Although we did not live in the Zamindar’s palace, our home was quite spacious and very comfortable. At the crack of dawn, you used to wake me up, put a flower bucket (ফুলের ডালা) in my hand and asked me to go and collect ‘bokulful’ (a very fragrant flower of jasmine genus). There were two or three bokulful trees just outside our house. Bokulful opens up its buds and becomes extremely fragrant in the early morning and drops on the ground. When I used to bring back bucket full of ‘bokulful’, you used to make garlands. The perfume was simply divine. The habit of rising in the early morning that you induced in me stayed with me almost all my life.

In the tin-roof bungalow type of house where you used to stay while in Hemnagar, there were two tiger cages at one side, each about 3ft high. You used to have one tiger cage and I had the other. There were four mango trees behind the bungalow you had been staying. During the seasonal fruit time, at the slightest of breeze, the ripe mangoes would fall on the ground and that was the time when you and I would compete. Although I was much smaller, I managed to fill my ‘tiger cage’ almost to half of its height, whereas your cage was no more than third full. The reason was that I was more persistent in collecting mangoes than you were. Eating mangoes was not the purpose, filling the cages was.  

When we came back to Dhaka to live permanently and you were in Kamrunnesa Girls school, I was your outside arm. You used to ask me to take your sarees to the laundry that was good 15 minutes’ walk and then a day or two later I had to go and collect the sarees. You used to give me your letters to post at the post office, which was more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. All these things I used to do for a little cuddle and a praise from you. When I learnt how to ride bicycle, one day I borrowed an almost dilapidated bike from my cousin next door and as I was going out, you gave me a letter to post. So, I headed for the post office. On the way there, through the bumpy road, bicycle chain fell off and it took me quite a while to put the chain back, post the letter and come back home. Seeing me back, you said, “You came back quite quickly”. Although that was not exactly true, but that pleased me quite a lot.

Years later, after the death of our father, when within a few months your marriage had been arranged, it was a big occasion. However, the arrangement of this wedding was bit dramatic. In the summer of 1958, you and I went to Boro Khalamma’s (eldest auntie) house in Boiyder Bazaar for a holiday. After about three days, we saw that our Mum had sent a man to Boiyder Bazaar to bring us back to Dhaka immediately. As per instructions, we came back to Dhaka cutting short our holiday and found that your marriage had been arranged. The groom’s side needed no meeting with the bride, no background check of our family etc, as the groom’s side had surreptitiously been fact finding for months and just waited for the opportune moment to propose to our family.

The wedding was on 27th June. I do remember the date because many of the wedding presents came with the inscription, 27th June, Zu-un’s wedding (২৭ জুন , জুনের বিয়েতে). The large gathering, the glitch and the glamour of the wedding party were all very enjoyable to us all. I was at the centre of attraction in the party as the younger brother of the bride. But within a month, Dulabhai took you away to Karachi, his place of work. When after three or four months, you did not come back, I got impatient. I asked my mum, “Mum, why Chhoto Apa is not coming back?”. Mum said, “She is married now.”, I said, “So what? Pay back all the money Dulabhai had spent on Chhoto Apa and bring her back”. That did not go down well with Dulabhai! I was only 12.

About ten years later, in February 1968, after my M.Sc. exam I went to visit you and our other siblings in Karachi. Probably realising that 10 years earlier I had to endure the agony of losing you to Dulabhai, he made up for everything. He treated me as if I was the most precious person in the whole world! I had the most fantastic time with you in your house at the Karachi University campus. After coming back, when I got the M.Sc. result and immediately got the University Lecturer’s job; you and Dulabhai were the first persons to congratulate me.   

Just after a short four years, after the liberation of Bangladesh, all of you came back to Bangladesh and Dulabhai took the teaching position at Jahangirnagar University Bengali Department. By that time, I came to England to do my Ph.D. However, I visited your place at Jahangirnagar University every time I went to Bangladesh and found you so happy in the academic atmosphere of the University. After Dulabhai’s retirement from University, you did come back to our parental home in late 1980s(?), with Dulabhai of course, from where you left with Dulabhai over 30 years earlier. Of course, our parental home had changed into a multi-storied apartment block and my apartment was right next to your apartment and then I would have no grounds to complain that you were not with me.

I visited your apartment many times. In fact, most of the times when I visited Bangladesh, I stayed with you. Years earlier when I was staying with you, on the second or third day, you wanted me to make sure that I dine with you. Not knowing what was going on, I stayed home to dine with you and you brought duck meat. I said, “Oh, my God, this is my most favourite meat”. You said, you knew and that’s why you had cooked it by yourself. And then you brought Bhuna Khichuri. I was taken completely aback. I thought, only my Mum knew about my most favourite dish. But you knew too and entertained me with such a dish. You took the role of our Mum.

You were the glue to the whole of our family. You always treated everybody with love, care and affection. Even if someone misbehaved with you, you never fought back. When you told me many of such instances, I used to ask you, why didn’t you reply back? You used to say, what was the point in hurting the feeling of that person. You were always compromising to maintain amity within the family. 

You were very proud of all of us. When I wrote a text book about 10 years ago on “Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management” for graduate and post-graduate studies in British and European Universities, you asked me to give you a copy. I said, I wouldn’t expect you to read it. You said, “No, but I would show others that my brother had written it.” So, I gave you a copy.

Your love and affection to all our relations, even to strangers, were legendary. When you were in the ICU with Covid infection only a few days ago, a doctor came to see you; after his visit, you asked the doctor whether he had his lunch yet. The doctor was stunned, no patient ever enquired about doctor’s well-being or his lunch. The doctor said that she was like his mother. You loved and empathised with anybody who came in contact with you. That is why, the helpers in your apartment building were so very distraught at your demise.

We all love life and despise death. It is definitely very painful to see someone gone forever. But to create a false narrative that heaven and hell are all waiting (somewhere) is just misleading and delusional. The poet, D L Roy expressed the ultimate truth in more realistic and mundane way when he said:

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

আলোর মতন, হাসির মতন

কুসুমগন্ধ রাশির মতন

হাওয়ার মতন, নেশার মতন

ঢেউয়ের মতন ভেসে যাই

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

Translated in English, it may look like:

“We just come and float away

            like the ray of light, like a smile,

            like the sweet smell of a fragrant flower,

            like a breeze, like an intoxication,

like the crest of a wave,

            We just come and float away.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist