September 16, 2007

Rama, Jehovah, Zeus, Whatever

Six times out of ten when I write here about fundamentalism and ignorance, I'm writing about the Christian flavor because I live in the USA and that's the kind we encounter here most often. Another three times out of ten, I suppose, I'm writing about Islamic fundamentalism because we read and hear so much about it here and even encounter it (LL works with East African women's health issues, too, so it comes from that angle as well). Once in awhile, though, a little variety needs to be thrown into the mix, and so today our flavor is South Asian.

In particular, it has to do with Hindu fundamentalists in India who insist that their religious texts are literally true. Part of the Indian government wants to dredge a passage between the south and Sri Lanka to provide a continuous shipping lane. The fundies don't like this because they believe that the area was sacred... because an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who went by the name Ram, got an army of monkeys under the command of a monkey-god named Hanuman to build a bridge across the same area in order to rescue his wife, Sita.

There is a sort of bridge there, and just to be certain it wasn't actually designed and constructed by an army of monkeys, geologists applied scientific methods to investigating its origins. No surprise, it turned out to be a natural sandstone bridge. That isn't enough for the fundamentalists, though, because they find it impossible that it couldn't have been built by monkeys... because it says so in a book they consider sacred, and infallible, Ramayana.

I admit to having a particular fondness for the old Indian religious texts myself. They're full of wonderful stories and insights that were often far ahead of what was going on in Europe at the same period in history. I've read Ramayana, Mahabharata, several of the Puranas, many of the Tantras, all of the Vedas, and some really obscure stuff (Grahanamandana, anybody?) For all of that, it makes no more sense to take any of that stuff literally than it does to take the Old Testament literally. In fact, both the Puranas and Tantras teach that the stories can be wrong, not that they're infallible. Most of the Puranas contain multiple creation stories and at least one that I can recall (Lingapurana, I think) concludes that nobody knows and we have to keep investigating if we ever want to know how it all began. It seems to me that these fundies are missing the point of the teachings of their own religion, and I'm always surprised when that happens in a faith that's normally as syncretistic and mutable as the various religions that are collectively known as Hinduism.

Well, surprise surprise!

Gods row minister offers to quit
India's culture minister has offered to resign in a row over whether Hindu gods are mythological figures.

Officials had presented the argument in court to support construction plans for an area devotees believe has remnants of a bridge built by the Hindu god Ram.

Minister Ambika Soni said she would quit if asked to by the prime minister.

She also confirmed that two directors of the Archaeological Survey of India, which prepared the court affidavit, had been suspended.

Hindu devotees believe the area between India and Sri Lanka - now known as Adam's Bridge - was built millions of years ago by Lord Ram, supported by an army of monkeys.

But scientists and archaeologists say Adam's Bridge, or Ram Setu, is a natural formation of sand and stones.

On Wednesday the Archaeological Survey of India told the Supreme Court that the religious texts were not evidence that Lord Ram ever existed.

Hardline Hindu opponents of the government accused the administration of blasphemy and protesters carried out demonstrations in the area and in Delhi, Bhopal, and on a number of key highways.

The next day the report was withdrawn...

The government wants to build a canal to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar by dredging a canal through the shallow sea.

The $560m Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project is expected to provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula.
As far as I'm aware, there is no evidence that Lord Ram ever existed. Even if there were, that wouldn't constitute evidence that the story in the Ramayana was true and that Ram was a corporeal manifestation of a god named Vishnu, nor that any man has ever been assisted in building a gigantic stone bridge by an army of monkeys. But this, you see, is faith. Faith is an active choice to cling to the implausible in the face of all the facts in the world.

Christian fundamentalists would no doubt ridicule this, and that's ironic. It's more nor less ridiculous than stories of resurrected sons of Jehovah and virgin births and laying on hands to cure leprosy. They're all just stories, whether we're talking about stonemason monkeys or unbowing jin or sword-wielding angels. There's no evidence for a bit of it. The stories may be great fun, but that's all they are. There comes a point where one must let go of the fairy tales and get on with the business of dealing with the world as it is.

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