Friday, 17 October 2014

Floods, and the Meaning of Suffering

A question among questions, after the floods, is how we respond to suffering at the personal level after we have debated how it was caused. Let there be no doubt that suffering is somehow caused, or invited, by people, and God lets sins punish us (rather than punish us Himself as a revengeful being), especially when these are sins against fellow-beings or the environment (huqooq-ul-ibaad or muamlaat) . What we need now is motivation to rehabilitate, to fight depression, to stop regretting what couldn’t be avoided. Let us note that suffering can help nations be reborn. It can act as a providential mechanism for infusing a new spirit in us. In fact, there are signs that we are getting spiritually primed. The disaster brought our compassion to the fore; friendship and relationships have not died; we are a community, not merely a society; our religious and social organizations and activism are our great asset; and so many other qualities. We have seen how the hearts of Kashmiris anywhere beat for fellow Kashmiris at home. What is it that helped collect so much aid, be it across the country, or in universities?
At the more personal level, we can also see how suffering can help us rebuild our relationship with God and with fellow humans. Let me quote some important sources on the alchemy of suffering:
This is my last message to you; in sorrow seek happiness  -Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of countenance the heart is made better
Every soul is wretched that is bound to affections of mortal things; it is tormented to lose them, and in their loss becomes aware of the wretchedness which in reality it had even before it lost them  -St. Augustine
        Finally, two passages from Frithjof Schuon, the Messenger of the Perennial Philosophy, and arguably the greatest metaphysician and sage of the twentieth century who systematically wrote on the meaning of suffering and justifying God’s ways to men. It touches almost every important question that flood victims have asked, that preachers have been emphasizing, that we have found hard to understand:
-There is in every man a tendency to attach himself too much to this or that element of passing life or to worry about it too much, and the adversary takes advantage of this in order to cause troubles for us. There is also the desire to be happier than one is, or the desire not to suffer any injustices, even harmless ones, or the desire always to understand everything, or the desire never to be disappointed; all of this is of the domain of subtle worldliness, which must be countered by serene detachment, by the principal and initial certainty of That which alone matters, then by patience and confidence. When no help comes from Heaven, this is because it is a question of a difficulty which we can and must resolve with the means which Heaven has placed at our disposal. In an absolute way, it is necessary to find our happiness in Prayer; that is to say that it is necessary to find therein sufficient happiness so as not to allow ourselves to be excessively troubled by the things of the world, seeing that dissonances cannot but exist, the world being what it is.
-There is the desire not to suffer any injustices, or even simply not to be placed at a disadvantage. Now one of two things: either the injustices are the result of our past faults, and in this case our trials exhaust this causal mass; or the injustices result from our character, and in this case our trials bear witness to it; in both cases, we must thank God and pray to Him with all the more fervor, without preoccupying ourselves with worldly chaff. One must also say to oneself that the grace of the Remembrance of God compensates infinitely for every dissonance from which we can suffer, and that in relation to this grace, the inequality of terrestrial favors is a pure nothingness. Let us never forget that an infinite grace compels us to an infinite gratitude, and that the first stage of gratitude is the sense of proportion.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Fighting Flood with Humour

Only man laughs in the whole animal world because only he is subject to sorrow, says Nietzsche

One unsung heroic virtue that has helped us to fight is the Kashmiri’s sense of humour. If fortune laughs on us, why can’t we laugh in turn on it? Some deaths in floods occurred because of heart attack or fright or we can say lack of sense of humour. Creation itself is ultimately nothing but God’s play and we are advised to play our part in a drama staged by God. No jokes! Creation (and destruction as well) is a joke ( for  a consciousness that witnesses rather than judges) that can be enjoyed best as a play of God, or divine joke and that explains rather than contradicts the Quranic statement that all things are created in truth. It is all God’s play and our job here on earth is to dance on understanding the motiveless process of creation and joy that wells up from depths of heart for no reason. Shakespeare said that all life is a stage and let us play the part as flood victims in the drama that ultimately expresses pure joy of the Creator. Heaven is reserved for those who can be like children till death. And we know children would play even in the boat that was rescuing them with great difficulty. 
Humour is the best anti-depressant and anti-stress medicine that is never in short supply in Kashmir. We are, arguably, one of the most humourous communities. We see lighter mood and jokes being shared even in death ceremonies, especially if it is not a tragic death of young ones. can help resist mountains of frustrations.  Perhaps centuries long occupation has taught us to laugh or to perish. Beaten, dragged to baygaar, humiliated, imprisoned, deceived what could we do if not at least laugh at others and ourselves? We can’t live without hope and how much hope we have is seen by how capable we are of treating things in aesthetic or light hearted or humourous way. Even when all is lost the capacity to laugh at misfortune and thus the spirit of joy that no disaster can affect remains with us and this is what laughing saints and philosophers master to fight the bitter things in life. People invented stories, jokes and outlandish theses to escape mental agony that losses in flood could inflict. One recalls why the first response of many saints to any troubling incident or tale narrated to them is a smile and why we are required as believers to greet death – the ultimate terror or disaster from ordinary self centric viewpoint – with a smile. Although I am aware that it may be difficult for us to think humorously about disaster in the present scenario and it may even strike some readers as a completely distasteful suggestion, I still bat for it as a student of religion, philosophy and poetry. Ghalib again comes handy: Mushkilaen muj pae padaen itni ki aasaan ho gayeen. If the genre of comedy (Kashmiris have been brilliant with more comic - ladishahs and bandipathers – than tragic art forms) that is universally popular has any value it is this lesson: the best response to tragic predicament is humour. Beckett, the greatest modern writer of the tragic, was a master of comic. Shakespeare’s comedies are no less great works than his tragedies. To laugh at misfortune is the ultimate weapon God has given us and it doesn’t mean not taking lessons home from a given disaster. That is a separate issue. The first question is how we survive disaster and mobilize resources to fight it with a light heart.
 Can we extend the attitude of greeting death – the ultimate calamity – with a smile to lesser calamities like loss of possessions?  Beyond any gunah and sawab calculus lies at higher and deeper level the interplay of Divine Names. Humans as such don’t come into the picture. And the greatest wisdom lies in taking all this aesthetically. It is the judgment of great thinkers, Eastern and Western, that life or existence can’t be justified except in aesthetic terms. A humourist will note that as many mouths so many theses on why of flood and why it has spared some and none of them standing to rigourous scrutiny or strictly generalizable. He would note so many conflicting views with amusement. One of the strongest evidences of God, according to a famous sociologist, is existence of humour because it presupposes the intelligent or divine order that has been breached. Humour is a royal road to God (possibly because it requires drowning ego and vanity), said no less a personality than Rumi. So humour can’t be lightly taken. It is the best relief to victims caught up in such works as cleaning inundated belongings. Laughing we can heal wounds. Tears and grief would not help. Let us, at least for few days we need to rebuild, take affairs of worldly life non-seriously as Plato advised . 
I am reminded of laughing saints who used to search for any occasion of mourning and make a party of laughter there. On their death, they sought to continue this exercise and stuffed coffin with crackers and as they were ignited a great show of cracking sounds delighted all who were present.  In Orissa there is a tribe that laughs while accompanying corpses to graves as they believe that the deceased will now be free from bondage of body to be with God or the kingdom of Spirit. Muslims also do this but only annually and that too after some time of death of a saint and call it urs. Urs which is the day of death of Sufis is celebrated with great festivity. If we could do this in our case as well – dying before we die – what else would be required to enjoy eternal life?
We all know how jokes eased suffering of people during floods. All of us have heard some special jokes. While visiting some affected families I was amazed at their capacity to laugh away tragedy. I wish we teach courses in humour as part of rehabilitating strategy. 
As Walter Kaufman has pointed out, “The difference between tragedy and comedy is not in essence one of subject matter, but depends upon our point of view.” So with a Shakespearean character let me say that flood mayn’t be evil in itself but thinking makes it so. I hope it becomes a prelude to experience of drowning our attachments, vanity and pride and  soften hardened hearts so that we can laugh on our way to the real, fuller and joyful life that awaits us.  
Tail piece: Hunger is not a joke. Facing cold in winter isn’t a joke. But humour can sweeten our meals and warm our hearts. Flood too will pass. And what will remain is a memory of how we entertained flood victims, not how we fed them. The essence of relationship is delight of spirit to which sense of humour contributes significantly.

Houses that Invite Disaster

Houses to show off and not to live in – this sums up the essence of ‘modern’ Kashmiri architecture.  Houses for others, for puffing up our social egos, are against divine logic and invite disasters. It is inconceivable to claim nationhood, a regional identity, a religion, a culture and forget indigenous architecture. What constitutes traditional architecture, Islamic architecture, Kashmiri architecture is almost unknown to modern Kashmiris. And we build houses and other buildings – the State builds – in total ignorance of time-honoured cultural and technical considerations.
If for no other sin, we deserved drowning for this sin of ignoring or rejecting Divine Principles that architecture needs to embody. It is a moment to wake up, to hold collective repentance, and turn to timeless wisdom in designing our living space, our houses, our government establishments. The spiritual, psychological and health costs of the architecture we employ today are enormous and we are too callous even to notice them. And we keep suffering for these sins of cultural murder of which we are collectively guilty.
Traditionally houses are built not just to shield us from cold and heat, or to provide us rest, but to glorify God or serve the needs of the spirit as well. They are ideally moulded on the patterns revealed to prophets and saints and designers capable of contemplating essences or archetypes. Beauty is there to transport us to heaven, to create an ambience that helps us contemplate God. Traditionally, a house is a replica of the heavenly model that is also embodied in mosques or temples. It is built with a cosmology in mind that reflects Divine Principles. There are traditional sciences that help determine its best design or construction at almost every point. A house houses souls that need heavenly manna for right orientation and fulfillment and that is why beauty and art objects are important in this regard.
In Islamic culture, houses ideally had a free space inside them as is the case in certain mosques like the historical Jamia Masjid of Srinagar. It was in this space that privacy was enjoyed by women and not through the current trend of large walls between houses that only help to divide neighours and complicate flood situations and suffocate minds and souls.  Privacy as a value has almost been forgotten in an age of mass media and market. Traditionally, all houses are in a way houses of God as well. Isn’t prayer offered in houses? Aren’t they required to keep in consideration the qibla? Aren’t they used to conduct all kinds of religious ceremonies?
Traditionally, houses are designed for comfort and in keeping with climatic conditions. In Kashmir flood resistant houses were in vogue till recently. From the design of braer keni to the use of elastic wood-crosses in walls, and thick walls, and a number of measures including medium or low height as compared to the current large-heighted rooms or walls, all helped fight extreme weather, resist certain disasters better, and reduce costs. We also used to have mostly indigenous materials for houses. It meant local employment was taken care of. Today hardly anything used in house construction is indigenous.
The shift to concrete houses comes at huge costs in comfort and environment, and in many cases, in the ability to resist earthquakes. From labour to craftsmenship to roof material we were almost independent of outside resources. And older the houses we today see, the more beautiful they are. We have a great number of refined craftsmen who would pour their soul into decorating them. And in fact, from the design of traditional carpets to wood carving we could decipher underlying metaphysics that has descended from the Heaven.  Nothing was arbitrary, nothing unconnected to deeper principles of traditional or religious architectural principles.
As floods have exposed our posh colony-wisdom that promotes big concrete houses, using costly paneling in all rooms, advertizing one’s wealth or status through houses rather than keeping simplicity, comfort and symbolism in view, houses that hardly use anything local in them, houses that seem to be designed to honour the devil rather than God, houses that take almost a life-time to build and “decorate” with all kinds of vanities and that are so ill equipped to fight not only occasional disasters but also routine cold and heat despite huge investment, houses that beggars and friends or relatives find impenetrable not only because of huge walls and iron gates but also because so few people now live in them (nuclearization and abandoning parents to their fate), I suggest we muster the will to design new colonies or reconstruct  damaged houses keeping traditional religious symbolism and principles in mind in addition to local climatic conditions.
Houses built in defiance of the Divine Order are without foundations and cursed, and perhaps invite disasters.

Friday, 3 October 2014

KASHMIR FLOODS: Live Small to Be Big

Floods were invited, and future floods can be more devastating. If we know what caused and precipitated floods, why can’t we take care now? But the question is whether we have the vision and the will to make the difference and avoid future disasters? Experts agree that the floods were caused by the following factors:
  • Unplanned urbanization
  • Encroaching agricultural and low lying/marshy lands
  • Blocking normal routes and not maintaining flood channels
  • Squeezing the space of water bodies
It has been observed that during the floods, waters have roughly retaken their original space or reclaimed rights lost to land. Now it needs no rocket science to see the solution in following measures that will restore the original state. We see technological solutions being proposed. We submit this theory, that project, to undo the damage we have already done. We dredge, build new flood channels, and other such solutions are currently being debated. What is not being discussed is the moral problem which is the culprit. We have increased our population, thanks to technological measures, and then propose other technological solutions to house it, and provide for its sustenance. We have made it an unwritten law that houses constitute a fundamental need. Do they? Thoreau famously argued that they don’t. In any case, we don’t have enough land to house all in the manner of small nuclear families seeking to build big houses on as much land as possible. We construct big walls between houses. We have multiplied our needs and our carbon footprint. All of us contribute every day to environmental pollution in numerous ways. We have encouraged tourism as a policy matter. We have been financing housing loans and car loans so liberally. We have been following the policy of more and more development and have been fooled by the slogan that sustainable development is possible. It is not, according to the best thinkers on development both from the Left and the Right. We have been depriving villagers of means to survive in villages, and forced urbanization. We have thought it expedient to declare certain zones commercial zones so that land prices soar, and we increase our money supply through means capitalists call for.
The question is can we ban all new constructions especially in marshy areas? Can’t we shift to vertical instead of horizontal expansion by adopting flat system as a policy? Can’t we tax walls between houses which look so ugly, so inhuman? Doesn’t our city look less suffocating after walls have been washed away? We can do without so many shops and commercial establishments by adopting a policy that concentrates them in small areas only. We must question the development discourse that is official policy today. We must not harp on tourism and other sectors that are ultimately too costly for the environment and long term survival. We must learn from our ancestors who lived better lives though their standard of living was not comparable to ours. We must question war against poverty and the craze for “improving” the “standards” of living. We must learn to use public transport more and more. We must ban transfers to distant places that increases the carbon footprint. We must decide what we want – development as understood today or living life according to Tradition.

Let me hazard a prediction: we will succumb to various pressures not to implement radical measures needed. We, as a community, are not ready to change lifestyles. We are not ready to listen to Gandhi who opposed urbanization, the development discourse and everything that costs us long term survival. We can’t say no to illegitimate colonies and thousands of encroachments.   We will not consider to restore the Dal, the Wular and many other water bodies to their original dimensions. We will soon build more lavish and bigger houses than we lost. We will spend more and more on paneling and all kinds of accessories. We will use cement and imported roofing material. We will not question the mushroom growth of all kinds of small industrial centres that ultimately lead to floods even if they absorb a few youth in the job market. We will soon debate only the extent of relief or compensation, and not the legitimacy of markets, houses, roads etc., that have led to the current tragedy.
We need the will to dream big, to think about future generations, and be ready for a profound transformation of the current value system. But I don’t think we will do anything except a few cosmetic measures. And there is no guarantee against future man-made flood disasters. The current flood fury was more than 90 per cent man made, or invited. And we are inviting more by our complacency. Our political and bureaucratic elite is itself a party, which has a stake in opposing long term solutions, like evacuating posh areas that have come up against environmental or flood control logic or making war against wrong policies that have led to disaster.
We are debating Disaster Management Systems rather than Disaster Prevention Systems. Floods, if not earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, can be largely prevented – or at least the damage minimized.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Floods Fury: Natural or Supernatural

All this is not in anyway absolving those who are guilty of massive planning blunders in designing our urbanizatioin, housing, roads, and flood control measures
It can never be asserted that a given suffering has been imposed because of victim’s sins. The Biblical account of the Book of Job clearly states that even righteous people can suffer and suffering could well be a trial or result of laws that constitute the world defined in terms of disequilibrium. The thesis that all suffering is necessarily because of sin is refuted by the existence of suffering of innocent children. Flood washed away children as well. However it is to be noted that evils that befall us are in a sense invited or deserved because God attributes goodness to Himself and evil to our nafs.
The current flood can be in principle attributed to such collective sins as destruction of environment, love of vanity, wrong planning etc. and the widespread perception that it was targeted operation of flood mokals, a warning or retribution can’t be dismissed on the naturalist rationalist grounds. Huxley exemplifies this modern prejudice thus: “if events have natural causes, they don’t have supernatural causes.” Traditions assert that everything is first decided in heavens. Amr belongs to God. Naturalist thesis is refuted by eyewitness accounts and strange pattern of flood waters that seems more targeted than random sparing some lives, some properties and damaging some more than others. Although it would be absurd to judge people on the basis of extent of flood fury inflicted on them – none knows for whom it is a trial and for whom a punishment and in any case children of even the sinners are innocent – all of us can agree that a merely naturalist account that takes no consideration of moral and spiritual factors is hard to maintain. The Prophet used to hurry to mosque on seeing impending natural calamity. Here we make some sadaqa after seeing fearful dreams to counter their ill effects. There are many reports of dreams much before flood date that clearly saw Srinagar etc submerging.  It means things had been decided much before in the higher world. There are no accidents, no mere coincidences in nature according to the best of thinkers. We have great number of accounts of rescue and that people best describe as miraculous. The Quran has a supernatural genesis for even such routine occurrences as meteors. Every event is a message for those who can read it. Everything is a symbol. There are no merely natural things or events according to every religion.  Our tradition narrates that with every drop of rain is accompanied by an angel and everything is sent in a measured quantity. All this is not in anyway absolving those who are guilty of massive planning blunders in designing our urbanizatioin, housing, roads, flood control measures etc.

The fact that collectively (and usually individually as well) we are guilty of transgressions against moral law, against divine order can be shown by analyzing how people responded to threat of imminent death.  People cried and screamed not just for help for rescue but also from fear of death. Death must be welcome with dignity, calm and composure. The way Socrates died and the way he has argued why death has to be welcome and we need to celebrate it in some sense rather than only mourn it in Apology needed to be considered by every person who has suffered close encounter with death. We believe death has an appointed time and still could not sleep for nights while being stranded and possibly facing death – Ghalib lamented this.
About thefts I wish to make one point only. Isn’t a system that allows so much disparity in wealth, that creates an elite culture distinguished by among other things pride, possessive spirit, hoarding, vain glory of bigger and bigger and lavish houses, that tolerates so much unemployment, so much deprivation, so much squalor and rat race for getting higher standard of living worth drowning?  Without legitimizing theft let us not forget that much of private property constitutes a theft according to most economists.It is only by looting community resources that a lavish wazwaan can be served or a house costing many millions of rupees constructed or decorated. This can be understood by analyzing capitalism and vestiges of feudalism that have created it in the first place. “ No man is willfully bad” said Socrates and we can add no culture is. Kashmiris are capable of greatest heroism, nobility and compassion. If there are some stinking reports about exploitation of fellows we must blame the system and not the people en masse. We have failed to educate people despite mushrooming of elite schools. We have failed to give fundamental rights to people. We have not done enough to dent class divisions that have wrecked havoc on social moral fabric of our society. As humans made in divine image we still love justice, goodness and truth. If we see some perversion it is mostly because of faulty system – sponsored corruption and political and economic disaster that constitutes our destiny today. We love Good above everything and that alone explains sacrifices of volunteers.
Modern Srinagar has fast buried time honoured traditions and looks like any other sinful city like those of the West and not a pir waer. Scholars of city culture and urbanization report about moral and spiritual costs of modern developments that we as a community hardly care about. The land of Shah Hamdaan and Makhdoom Sahib is not just like any other land. It has a sanctity of its own that can’t be allowed to be desecrated.
A few points that may help some of us including flood victims to better face the losses we incurred. Meister Eckhart, one of the greatest saints about whom it has been remarked that God hid nothing from him, says that we suffer because we invite it. To quote him: “if I am sad for passing things, not loving God with all my heart nor even giving him the love he might justly expect to meet in me, what wonder if God ordained that I should still suffer loss and pain”. Eckhart’s argument is simple and straight forward that if one is good and believes God to be good and in control there is absolutely no ground for getting sad and troubled. By definition there can be no good man who doesn’t want what God wants, “because it is not possible that God should not want anything but goodness, and just because of this, when God does want something, it must be not only for the good but for the best.” We have been taught to pray that God’s will be done. From this it follows that we have no ground for complaint for whatever happens by the will of God. Seneca when asked what comfort might be best for those in misery has expressed this Christian-Islamic insight thus: “It is for man to take everything that comes as if he had asked for it, nay, as if he had prayed for it.” Those who have truly surrendered or submitted to the will of Allah seek only to glorify, to please God. Their prayer is ‘God! Grant us the will to will whatsoever You will.’ This is a corollary of the station of raza that Sufis seek. Eckhart has quoted a prayer from a non-Christian authority in this connection: “Lord, supreme Father and only Master of high heaven, I am ready for anything you will; only give me the will to want what you will.” One can quote dozens of Sufi sayings in this connection. Just one will suffice from Ba Yazid: “I only will not to will.”

University of Kashmir: Debating the Future

Today KU is not the dream destination of above average students, not to speak of the best!

Every institution becomes compromised in a war zone. No wonder KU has been decaying in many respects especially in terms of quality human resource, top leadership, publications and seminar culture.  UGC also has had a negative role in planning certain issues that impacted.  When Vice Chancellors are increasingly perceived as failures compared to erstwhile illustrious ones especially prior to 1989; what can be expected from academicians or administrators down the scale? Where a perception remains that academics is subservient to political expediency and excellence perceived as threat to status quo, how can we expect things to be different in future? Huge expectations from our own university are currently focused on next VC’s credentials and let us hope we will not be disappointed. We have many reasons for current state of alienation and one reason is sick educational system epitomized by KU. 
Although developments in infrastructure, library network, some individual success stories of faculty or departments are quite impressive, none denies need for thorough examination of sickness that has been especially manifested after 90s.  Admitting NAAC grades we, however, can’t dismiss people’s accrediting system that ultimately reflects truer picture and must prepare to engage with a host of challenges.
The first challenge is proving attractive to best students. Today KU is not first or dream destination of above average students, not to speak of the best. According to many insiders it is one’s misfortune that a great talent is caught up in KU either as a student or a teacher. If we survey either teachers' or students' satisfaction with current scenario and views of teachers about one another, one can get a good idea of real index or health of the institution. We need not quarrel over perceptions or speculate regarding health of this institution – that is no secret.
The second challenge is to make classes interesting so that students would pine for them ( currently teachers pine for student attendance and need to resort to wasteful and terrorizing actions to ensure the same), record them or even upload them on Youtube for benefit of wider international audience and their later reference in life.
The third challenge is to produce think tanks, to produce intellectual leadership. We wouldn’t have leadership accused of almost all kinds of charges if the university had played its role. Kashmir badly needs its own Arundhatis and Chomskys and where else can they be produced? Although we know about inherent structural limitations of State institutions with regard to production of its critics but people need them. I imagine one day people will be able to run bigger institutions on their own outside sarkari system – I would argue for delinking waqf from political control (Islamic Univeristy at Awantipura can’t be called people’s university) and evolution of mechanisms that people could utilize its sources for academics. That is required for a society to be conscious of itself, to escape reign of Ideological State Apparatus. 
The fourth challenge is to downsize KU scholars’ or teachers’ book manufacturing industry. Barring few books that can be counted on fingers, we don’t see quality stuff being produced. It would be better if the very idea of linking more books to promotions is dropped. Often it is quality papers that constitute real contribution. One can write a great book in a life time. However it requires likes of Toynbee and Will Durant to write world class multivolume books or good number of books that are all worth the business. Currently we have books produced mostly from poorly written theses that  are full of errors, typographical, grammatical and factual or interpretational, more googled than written, tissues of quotations than author’s original statements or understanding.
I would suggest replacing, as far as possible, traditional method of lecturing or note dictating by carefully supervised e-content based classes in which every topic has been thoroughly researched and attractively presented by the concerned teacher or ideally the best teacher available nationally or internationally. In fact quality work is being done by EMMRC in this connection and it needs to  be applied to every subject on every topic presented in any class in the university. For further improvement and for satisfying parents or civil society which has been raising questions, live or prerecorded private television coverage of any class at any time so that teachers could shun complacency and students be assured of better quality. Student feedback must be made absolutely mandatory for promotions/release of increment of teachers as we see otherwise brilliant academics may fail to take sufficient interest in classes. Current examination system be scrapped and replaced by more creative alternatives like assignments, group discussions etc. that depend less and less on memory. 
I think one important step that nobody considers seriously is introducing philosophy not just as a separate department but as part of curriculum in every department.  Why has KU so far vetoed philosophy department? Even so-called visionary VCs have been exemplary in their blindness to this issue. Philosophy teaches no abstractions, no opinions, no logic chopping, no abstruse doctrines, but how  and why to think, to doubt, to search, to test, to deconstruct. And we are not ready for all this. None of the subjects in arts or humanities is really mastered without clarifying philosophical foundations of these disciplines. It means KU can’t excel in arts or humanities. Even sciences are not complete without teaching in depth scientific method which is what constitutes subject matter of philosophy. Critical intelligence is key to moral and intellectual integrity. And  if we corrupt this faculty we corrupt everything. Thus introducing some dose of philosophy in general curriculum at all levels for all students including those for professional courses in all schools, colleges and departments of universities will help sharpen critical intelligence and every ill we are suffering (from corruption to inefficiency to no accountability to lobbyism to leg pulling or building empires of ego) could be addressed.  Without some dose of philosophy in a world ruled by academic elite that mostly uses the idiom of philosophy we can’t be called properly educated. In the case of Kashmir that was once the land of great philosophy and is today remembered as a land of seers (who appropriate traditional philosopher’s role) we can say that philosophy education is vital component of identity of educated Kashmiri.  Philosophy is part of our cultural history, our heritage, our shared traditional spaces, our claim to recognition in the world as a great vibrant culture which contributed so much top world culture of philosophy and aesthetics. In fact such things that we are proud of, such as mystic poetry, can’t be understood except by having some understanding of background philosophy.  Will present authorities in KU take steps  for introducing philosophy? This is one question that will determine future of KU.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Disowning or Rediscovering Sufism?

As we see the world of Islam shaken to its foundations by rising fundamentalism, one wonders if it is forgetting its Sufi tradition that we need to think about as a counter. However, the rise of fundamentalism has been linked to doubts about Sufism, and towering figures who have been coopted by fundamentalists have also seconded some of these doubts. Some suspect Sufism to be a politically complacent ideology that helps dilute resistance to oppression. Some think it is sponsored to serve the interests of a particular nationalist discourse. Some say it is simply business. Some emerging schools, both Salafi and modernist, have been successful in spreading the notion that Sufism is a deviation from pristine Islam. Advocates of Sufism can’t dismiss these criticisms without conceding abuses of Sufism throughout history.
Let us note that critics (though not rejectors of its spirit) of institutional Sufism include in recent history such important names as Iqbal, Shariati, Syed Moududi, Syed Qutb, G A Pervez, Dr Israr, Fazlur Rahman, Javed Ahmed Ghamedhi etc. All of them have a point, and that can be stated in these words: Institutional Sufism today suffers from serious problems. Mizaj-e-Khanqahi has done great damage. Quietism, recourse to abstractions and philosophization  in place of living experience of God, beggary in shrines, loss of faith in oneself, degenerate occultism, faith healing business instead of healing souls by faith, fatalism, political servitude are, among others, elements of a syndrome somehow legitimized from Sufism, that is eating the vitals of the Muslim world.
None of these charges can be ignored and none of them can be shown to be integral to Sufism and all of them can be shown to be abuse of it. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A few comments to clarify the charge sheet against Sufism:
It is no secret that Sufism has been part of the establishment in certain places in history. It is also no secret that colonialism has been attempting to co-opt Sufism to further its agenda. It is also easily demonstrable that Sufism has mostly been misused or misappropriated especially in later times in its history – so much so that a Sufi went to the extent of saying Sufism existed only in name, without there being any reality or spirit of it. And incidentally, this remark has been made many centuries ago, when Sufism was far more productive for Islamic culture than it is today. Today, when everything traditional is in decadence, how could Sufism escape this effect of time?
Let us not forget that just as we can’t relinquish Islam because it has been, or is being, abused, we can’t relinquish Sufism for the same reasons, as, without it, we can’t understand Islam’s deeper spiritual or metaphysical ground and the glorious heritage of traditional sciences, arts, crafts (try to imagine history of  Islam minus Persian mystical poetry, minus Ghalib and Iqbal, minus the Taj and the Mosque of Cordova)  and in fact the beauty that has been the hallmark of Islam as a civilizational force. Nothing in Islam makes sense except in light of this spiritual dimension. Anti-Sufi rhetoric is modernist heresy. It is good to censure excesses and perversions and misuses of Sufism in Kashmir but to reject the esoteric in the name of literalism and supposed fidelity to scripture is quite unacceptable. Sufism is the metaphysical face, or even the basis, of Islam. The history of Islam is largely the history of its saints and philosophers and mystically oriented ulama. The most illustrious thinkers of Islam have been influenced by Sufism. Islamic art and architecture is incomprehensible without the knowledge of Sufi symbolism.
Sufism is the best antidote to communalism and sectarianism. Communal violence does flare up occasionally. But it is ironic to note that the religious group playing the card of mysticism (Barelvis) is also the most dogmatic in certain issues and highly rejectionist and exclusivist.
Mysticism is a million dollar industry, according to critics. Of course, abuse of mysticism is a huge industry in itself, but we need to note that mysticism contributes significantly to the Muslim world’s, including Kashmir’s, economy. Shrines are amongst the most visited tourist spots. Local tourism is largely concentrated on shrines. Much donation money is with the Awqaf. The Awqaf has other resources as well. It could finance thousands of welfare projects if steps are taken in this direction. Prayer food culture is a huge industry in Kashmir that contributes to cohesion of social bonds as well.
There is a pir class, an occultist class and the class of so-called majzoobs that largely exploit the name of mysticism and contribute to discrediting it in the eyes of many. A large number of social drop-outs and parasites support their living by masquerading as mystics. The Salafi onslaught against the abuses of mysticism is not quite unwarranted. Illiteracy and gullibility of local people contributes to their exploitation at the hands of many dabblers in the spirit business, black magic and the like.
We may conclude that a lot of issues are muddled up in dismissing Sufism (and in dismissing Islam by its critics). We need to distinguish, in Socratic fashion, between opinion and truth to clearly see the issue.

In the Name of Religion

Syed Abul A’la Moududi was once asked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto why he indulged in politics, generally considered to be a dirty game. He answered in his characteristic style:  ’Do you think it should be left to dirty people alone or not be cleaned?’ I think the argument can be invoked to apply in every sphere. Religion is a territory of saints and today it has been appropriated for more murky games such as dividing communities, creating new nations. Philosophers of religion ask some hard questions from those who deem themselves to be the advocates of God. We know that the Quran explicitly says that God has hired no advocate.   The moment man becomes judgmental one might suspect something fishy. “Judge not,” said the Christ(Hazrat Eesa A.S).
What is religion? Why is it too important to let a certain class usurp the role of its sole interpreter? How come religion is monopolized and, even against its tenets, people fight over trivial legal issues? How come in the name of religion we find competition between moizzins or among loudspeakers of neighbouring mosques? Ego games drive out angels from our worship places. Religion has degenerated into ‘sawaab’ calculus. The fact that it is ecstasy, it is God- consciousness, it is ihsaan, it is self- negation, it is contemplation, it is joy of the highest order,  is forgotten. Let us keep the ideal set before us by prophets, saints or mystics and traditional scholars or thinkers and judge what we see around in its name.
Religion is what binds people. It is what binds us to God as the ground of everything. Religion is what we do with our solitude as Whitehead said. And ideally religion would be the greatest business in a classless society. Capitalism smothers human spirit and man will bloom only and god will be born in him (God is the ideal pole of man in Sufism and other mystical traditions), when he is free to pursue his higher needs that Maslow has so well classified. A classless society, it is hoped, will allow man to pursue this dream better. We are all mystics, rather privileged (or condemned) to be mystics. “The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss” as Carlyle said. And the only reason that I think that religion to be respectfully heard by a humanist or secular Marxist is that we miss much if we miss God and that is tragic. Hell is not physical fire but painful realization that we have missed so much. Religion is only an invitation, an open invitation to all of us to Freedom, to Heaven here and now, to Eternity of this Moment. If these things are illusions we must remember that mankind in all climes and ages has entertained these illusions and we owe some of the most beautiful things to these illusions. The greatest thinkers, artists, philosophers, sages and prophets of all civilizations have been cherishing these delusions and have attributed everything grand and noble to them. If delusions, the products of “false” consciousness can be so fruitful for the betterment of man, why opt for reality that produces nausea, despair and horror (which mark modern literature)?   Life resists all attempts at its devaluation and negation by those who deem it to be futile and without any significance or meaning. Did Jesus(Eesa A.S) ask for anything more than choosing life and are religions commandments amounting to anything more than not harming life? Esoteric commentaries of scriptural commandments show that in the last analysis all these boil down to affirming and celebrating life. Man is condemned to choose life. Choosing death is relinquishing human status.  And man is not prepared to be a stone as otherwise he would not proceed to scan God and judge his creation as absurd.
Men will continue as they have been ever doing to find meaning and fulfillment in love. In a world without illusions, without props, without consolations, there is still the still small voice of love in the depths of our being that allows us to say yes to life with all its disappointments and tragedies, not all of which can be attributed to the misdeeds of capitalism. Even the absurdist Camus lives by this faith in love, the love of relationships. The proposition that ‘love is eternal’ will hardly be questioned by people who have experienced it and fortunately most people have experienced though to most only a few glimpses of it have been given.
So taking religion as pyar kae do boal, as mantra for beautifying life, for connecting people (tu barayi wasl kerdem aamdi) let us contest theologies of killing, of despair and exclusion.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Chronicles without Connecting Threads

The question of Kashmir conflict is largely a question of history, memory and desire. And the tragic part of the tale is that we don’t have scholarly texts that we can call comprehensive histories. Contours and interpretations of almost every important event shaping our recent history is disputed. Before turning to recent events we note certain points regarding our ancient and medieval past as these are to be considered while questioning Kashmir identity.
Our collective loss extends to medieval times as local Tantric cults made sophisticated philosophical and aesthetic systems of magisterial thinkers suspect. Ritualism and decadence into occultism and magic took a heavy toll of Kashmiri Saivia tradition. Buddhism had already been marginalized. Economically too Kashmir needed a boost. It is in this scenario where vacuum was created that providence sent Islam that appropriated the best of indigenous traditions and Kashmir moved forward on almost all fronts.
Rishi movement and Kashmiri mystic poetry provided fresh blood into Kashmiri culture. During Islamic period magnificent progress was made in arts and crafts and then on, Kashmir economy got a  more solid plank. Kashmiri scholars contributed not insignificantly to development of Persian literature. The fact that we produced likes of Yaqoob Sarfi and Ghani Kashmiri shows vibrancy of intellectual and spiritual tradition in post-Islamic period. Even Kashmir Saivism lived in different incarnations not only in Kashmiri Sufi poetry but mystic poetry that appropriated more explicitly Saivite influences.
The fact that Kashmir could produce Lakshman Joo shows how Saivitte tradition could survive in certain sense for centuries. All this shows how problematic is the assertion of radical break supposedly introduced by Islam, a myth perpetuated by many scholars who are little aware of as evidence of rich multi-ethnic multi-religious culture. Seeing relative neglect of philosophy in post-Islamic period as evidence of Islam’s hostility to indigenous tradition is simply blindness.
In the Islamic period intellectual heritage was developed in its own way and Sufi poets appropriated the best of local indigenous traditions. Dense works on Islamic intellectual-spiritual sciences were written and if we note that it is the same tradition that under grids the Saivite, Buddhist and Islamic metaphysics and esotericisms, the argument of any violence to local tradition and forced privileging of any other gets deconstructed because it fails to explain so much and excludes so much that we all see around us the tradition that grounds all religions and proposes certain communalist interpretations.
Any exclusivist interpretation that builds on husk or exoteric content of pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions must be corrected or we have a communalist vandalization project to contend with.
We may broadly divide approaches to Kashmir history into traditionalist religious and modernist rationalist. From Kalhana to Didmeri to Hassan Khuyhami, we have traditional religious – Hindu or Islamic – approach in which one can easily identify prejudices and sympathies of these chroniclers. After Hassan Khuyhami to the present day, we have historians which are modernist rationalist in sensibility though this is not so strong as to justify clubbing them with mainstream secular historians of India or the West.
Though the only great name in historians of medieval India belongs to Kashmir, today we have no less confusing or contradictory accounts than are found elsewhere. And it is unfortunate that our history begins and ends with the Kalhana to be revived rather late and never becoming quite professional and still largely immune or not responsive to major thought currents that have affected history writing elsewhere. So far no approach has been consistently or comprehensively used by historians in the specific case of Kashmir. We have primarily Brahmanical account bequeathed from Kalhana. Muslim scholars too have bequeathed us accounts that can’t be called comprehensive intellectual accounts. Narrating few reigns, lives of saints and related material without helping us to explain clearly the historical order, our current condition and failing to connect to pre-Islamic past is what describes these histories.
Various approaches have been used by isolated individuals – we can identify no schools as such – on certain selected issues in Kashmir history. Our indigenous histories are mostly chronicles without any connecting thread of definable perspective or standpoint of their authors though one can broadly identify some elements of underlying worldview of the author. A good number of works have lately been published that attempt to bridge a few of the gaps and what is needed is a megaproject on History of Kashmir that would take cognizance of these individual attempts and provide encyclopaedic account that would help us better define our past and present.
We have yet to write a comprehensive history of Kashmir’s religious, philosophical, aesthetic, literary thought. We suffer from basic absence of comprehensive review of historical material and therefore the problem of divergent interpretations is far from soluble. We have now some studies focusing on the questions of ethnicity, gender and identity. Most of the recent studies have focused on political dimension of its history. We have far too little material on ancient Kashmir or studies on it to warrant any general comment. Medieval period has been approached from mostly communalist perspectives.
Modern Kashmir is a contested category for political historians. Ambitious attempt of capturing the essence of thousands of years of history are being made. Writing our history is not unconnected with the question of sovereignty we today struggle to articulate.

Absurdities of our Academic System

Our examination system is simply an academic terrorism
People complain about disappearance of reading culture;  of disrespect for the Word. I think reasons are not difficult to seek. One important reason is irrational academic system. I asked a friend what book he recently read he said, do exams spare us the time for reading books? Unless we question and reform academic system, there will be no culture for books, for readings, for thinking.  
There are thousand and one absurdities in current academic arrangements in our State and the implication of them is a crippled academic system geared to promotion of mediocrity, wastage of human and other resources, stress on students and overall disaster in terms of development of State. Examination system is simply academic terrorism – a point I wish to target separately in future.  Admission and Recruitment systems are simply at cross purposes and result in such a colossal loss that I wonder why all this is not in news. How our minds and souls are destroyed, how new generation and brilliant students are pushed to depression if not to suicide is an untold story of Kashmiri’s enslavement and a massive academic corruption. Let me recount a few facts and ask why we don’t seek change.
Students are enrolled in such numbers in both professional and other academic courses that most of them must end up sitting idle, cursing their fate or the day they got selected. To illustrate let me cite the case of Veterinary sciences where around 100 students are admitted annually and now more than 800 are sitting idle despite many of them having invested 6-7 years for BVSc and MVSc courses. It was the sweet will of the then CM, Mufti Sahib, that number of seats was almost quadrupled in a single day. More than 30 students can’t be ideally taught in a class. And there is a discrepancy even in this distribution of seats. Jammu veterinary college is relatively less burdened. Kashmir is discriminated against as facilities for teaching so many students are not forthcoming. 
Aspiring students for some professional courses are in thousands while the seats are in dozens only. It means huge energy of thousands of students (from applying to preparing) goes waste. Sometimes a student has to appear for the same exams number of times and ironically the more attempts he makes, slimmer get the chances to qualify, as fresh students have better touch and more recent memory that gives them an edge. Why not replicate the pattern in some other States of India where students are entertained only batch wise or seniority wise. The fact that a student has invested 5 or 7 years in earning particular certificate means he need not be judged again. Were teachers, who have examined them, fools? In professional  courses scores if not hundreds of exams are to be cleared to complete the degree.
What need is there to force students to apply time and again for the same post? Why wouldn't  one-time process of submitting the form do? A nation that has time for filling so many forms is better  suited for digging  pits and filling them again. Why  require SKUAST to conduct special exam for agriculture and BVSc, and force students to apply again? 

There are many ways of looting aspiring candidates. Would the authorities, for God’ s sake, spare the way of collecting form fee? Whose fault is to overproduce eligible candidates, to disconnect education from jobs? Why follow disastrous laissez faire logic in a State governed by article 370? Why can’t one’s SMS be enough that mention’s Marks Percentage, DoB, Residence or any other important information?  No fees, no submission at particular place, no time wasted in downloading and filling long forms, no paper pollution in this digital age. If the State needs money from more than 90% of aspiring candidates who are not going to be selected anyway, let it try such measures as collect some prefixed niyaz from successful candidates to meet expenses for conducting exams etc.  Today PSC, SSRB etc. are realizing revenue through proxy. No need to call too many candidates and waste countless men-days that students spend in revising the content for entrances and interviews. No task is more soul killing than revising what has been revised many times previously. We can devise ways to shortlist (in the first place why can’t we not overproduce candidates so that no need to short-list and then further humiliate and waste resources by dropping majority in interviews. Most interviews are mechanical exercises that can judge nothing worthwhile in few minutes and only check memory of certain useful and useless items of information. More productive suggestion is requiring one day’s manual work for all aspiring candidates as application  fee  - this would be only a fraction of time misspent on preparing for exam/interview. Can one ask to get guarantee of job at the time of getting admission in professional course after its successful completion? If not, why not? How come we afford wasting resources for teaching or training students for years if no certainty of making use of the same for community?  Currently our academic/recruitment system is like a huge poultry farm that produces more than 90% of chicken not for market but for just fattening or feeding for dogs ; wasting feed, labour and other resources. 
We needlessly hype some small scandals in our system. The very system built on the pranks of universal literacy (Coomaraswamy  razes to ground the idea of requiring all to read and not get skilled in particular vacation or craft) examination system that primarily tests memory, curriculum not in mother tongue especially in earlier classes, producing students who are generally alienated from studies and hardly read a book later in life, a system where thousands apply for few posts time and again, where majority are not tailored for academic courses but forced to take up and then end up mostly just wasting precious years of life are elements of a mega-scandal that costs us souls and minds. 
Will authorities, including the Chief Minister, take note of such crass absurdities? Education sector suffered a death blow under Bakshi, and the decline continues. Reforms suggested by our educationists have not been carried out. Why, is not difficult to guess. We need radical reforms in examination system,  proper rationing in number of students that get admitted, correcting discrepancy between Jammu, and the Kashmir (I used to wonder why isn’t  our State called JK instead of J & K and then I see all kinds of discriminations and I understand why!); scrap the need to separately apply for admissions in SKUAST, not require applying for the same course again and again, give seniority its due and devise mechanisms to decrease wastage of human and State resources, seek a report on all round failure of current examination system to bring forth excellence and creativity or critical thinking etc.?