@CNN Belief Blog’s recent coverage

Just this morning I visited CNN’s Belief Blog to see if there were any interesting matters of faith being discussed. I was not surprised to find that recent featured blogs dealt with the recent shooting at a Sikh Gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.

What I was surprised with was the discussion taking place in the comments of most of those blogs. People just going back and forth ruthlessly with personal attacks and ill-supported claims about whether or not God exists, whether or not Hindus are violent or peaceful, whether or not India is a democracy, whether or not violence is a part of religion, etc. It was sad because here’s a moment for a nation to reflect on the unfortunate incidents that occurred in Wisconsin and maybe discuss why that is wrong and can be avoided in the future and yet here is a sampling of the nation that is just taking part in more mud-slinging – mud-slinging that is done vociferously by faithful and atheists alike so if one thinks religion makes people extreme, the lack of one seems to do just the same.

But putting those emotions aside, I wanted to think about some of the points that were coming up in the blogs themselves and in some of the comments.

1. Turbans – outwards signs of a faith that causes extreme reaction because it’s personal. This article made me think once again about outward religious symbols. A person commented on this blog by saying that no sign or religious mark is really a part of a religion and does not truly signify faith:


Wearing a turban doesn’t make anyone any more Sikh than wearing a cross makes someone a Christian, carrying a rosary around makes someone a Catholic, wearing a hijab makes a woman a Muslim, wearing a beard and avoiding non-animal powered machinery makes anyone Amish…those are all earthly doo-dads and bangles and have nothing to do with religion. You can be a member of your religion without practicing any of these affectations.

I think Dal4cats has a point. The mark itself cannot always speak for one’s true, internalized faith. People who are not as religious, who do not truly believe or truly act according to one’s beliefs may still wear outward religious marks. However, that does not mean those symbols cannot stand for someone’s faith (though it may be imperfect and still in formation). Just think about the battle that a Sikh who wears a turban goes through internally. Every time he wraps on that piece of cloth, every time he looks in the mirror, every time he sees someone else’s eyes stare, when he’s called names or “randomly” chosen for a security check, he goes through a reaffirmation battle of remaining faithful to his faith. How can that not signify some level of faith? And just because you are Sikh and don’t wear a turban doesn’t mean that you have a true faith that does not need external show – you can simply be afraid of the tests that external sign will place you in or that constant reminder of who you are. So let’s not attack the use of symbols because they can and cannot mean something and we really can’t be the judge since we can’t truly test the faith of anyone else.

What we should be addressing is why we should or should not accept people’s public and personal representations of who they are. In particular, I want to address those people who believe that for all of us to get along and accept each other it is necessary to ban such external religious symbols – the French surely fall into this category with their laws against public exhibition of faith but so do some of the people who are quoted in the above linked blog and their commenters. My point is this: if you only accept a uniform and cleansed image of people in society and relegate things that make them unique or form their individual or subgroup identity into their personal homes or other spheres, are you really accepting those individuals? Or are you just forcing them to limit themselves to socially accepted, sterilized personalities? I think the answer is clear that if you really are a heterogeneous, pluralistic society you would allow for individual expression – only limiting it when it impedes on another’s expression or safety.

We live in a country where there was a successful movement to allow men and women in the armed forces to be open about their sexuality; this week there are people celebrating that the U.S. Army has its first homosexual General. We tolerate and in some ways even support transgender and homosexual parades with the most outrageous displays because we believe it is a part of their right to live as they wish and express their sexuality. Wear a Boston Red Sox jersey and no cop in New York will give you a ticket and no one will question your right to support any team you want. Cut your hair in outrageous fashion, wear clothes how you want, and tattoo your body wherever and however you please, but please do not wear your religion on your shoulder, head, or around your neck. That seems funny doesn’t it? To Turban or not is a not a debate that should be alive today. No one wearing a turban should feel compelled to change. The debate should not exist because it should be a settled debate, in this country at the very least, that we accept individuals entirely – not with their religion relegated as a private embarrassment.

2. Violence in Religion – I don’t think there is anyone who should claim that their religion does not sanction violence. Any follower of a religion which believes in justice or self-defense will find permissible violence in their faith (and those who do not have a religion find permissible violence in their justice systems).  The problem really is with religions that accept violence to a greater degree and allow it to be committed outside causes of justice and defense. When violence becomes an accepted tool for submission and conversion or when a religion preaches beliefs that strongly propagate an expanded role for violence, the religion can be said to be a violent religion.

That is a general point I think everyone should remember. Now a lot of the name-calling and bad-mouthing that goes around confuses me because I feel there are a number of underlying questions that are not yet answered. I hope someone can help me with these: How much do the people doing the arguing really not about the other religion and its practitioners? So many YouTube videos and articles are quotes to support claims, but are YouTube and articles of any kind (academic or journalistic) accurate and/or complete representations of the truth? There is a whole discussion about how objective or truthful media is in that previous question. What is an extremist? Is there a percentile definition of “fringe group” or “extremist”? Can a religion be judged by incidental actions of its practitioners? If yes, any practitioners, some practitioners, loyal practitioners, official members? What is more valuable in judging a faith – the direct reading of scripture or the currently accepted interpretation of the scripture? I feel that anyone who is going to on about which religion is peace loving and which is not should first squarely address these questions. It would really clear the air and allow for real conversation as opposed to the mud-slinging that originates from false-pride, hatred, and ignorance.

Well, now there’s some food for thought. If you want to read about outward expression of religion in India, check out a blog I wrote a while back: Mumbai’s Religiously Oppressive School Uniforms.


Indian Education

Some 200 years ago Bhagwan Swaminarayan took a highly progressive path by making educational service (teaching or sharing knowledge) a spiritual duty in the Shikshapatri. It’s good to see the current Government and the Supreme Court finally share and propagate this value by making education a right and providing it compulsory and free. They even forced private schools to keep 25% seat open for less privileged students. Well done!

With those kudos, though, I do want to share some more foundational/systemic problems in the education system – with the prayers that they too may be addressed some day soon.

The first thing to note about the Indian system is that is based off the English educational system and still retains a similar format of board examinations at the tenth and twelth standards. What is frustrating about this system from an American perspective is that students are forced from as early as tenth grade to choose which lines they will take in the future. For example if I want to be a doctor, engineer, computer programmer, etc. I have to score a certain grade on my tenth grade math and science examinations or else all scientific study at the university level is closed to me. This forces children to deal with a lot of stress at those grade levels. Coming from a system that allows students a lot more flexibility and having experienced the benefits of being able to choose and change amongst career lines or majors, I find the Indian system very frustrating and unfair. Fortunately, in Gujarat atleast, there are changes being made. The tenth grade examination is being removed next year. Another move has been made to change the format of the examination from being one annual exam to being two semester exams. Of course they also added examinations to the eleventh grade and have made it so that the final twelth grade result is a cumulative of the four exams you take over the four semesters of 11th and 12th grade.
The fact that one must score high in the math and science exams to leave open avenues for lucrative careers in the future also has an effect on the perception of which subjects are worth studying and which are not. It has become a common bias in India that smart children should study science and only lazy or unintelligent children would enter the arts or social sciences. I see a direct link between this supposition and the poor level of governance and public policy in the entire nation. In India there’s very little true political discourse because there is little study of true public policy or research of social and psychological and anthropological and historical realities that that would inform intelligent public discourse.
Another thing that is detrimental to the education system and social welfare of the entire nation is the affirmative action system which is called the quota system here in India.  Affirmative action is not a concept that is alien to me but what was surprising to see was how far overdone it is here in India.  This is a dangerous thing to say as a middle class Hindu becuase automatically a stereotype is attached to my frustration with the system. I think however you will better understand my frustration that most people here share when you find out that in many institutions more than 50 percent of the available seats are kept for members of selected casts and tribes. this not only solidifies the perception that these people are from lower castes and classes but it also increases the divide between these people by making it difficult for middle class Indians to get a good education.  The same seat that a middle class Hindu would have to get 95 percent or higher to receive is given to lower caste and tribal students for as low as 40 or 50 percent. I would not believe these numbers if I had not seen them with my own eyes.  Affirmative action is necessary to assist people when they have been historically oppressed. However in India affirmative action has gone just too far because it is not planned or assessed as a social policy tool but is used as a political bargaining chip or bribe to gain or retain votes.
Another thing often mentioned by intelligent students is the lack of opportunity for higher study not just because of the lack of universities but also from the lack of study disciplines available at those universities. The academic prospectus of any major Indian university is bound to be many pages less than any prospectus of a major university in North America or Europe.
Two things that India seems to be very good at his math and science education and occupational education. These are the very strengths that are supporting the international competitiveness and economic success that India enjoys today.
One thing that I would like to mention for Gujarati in particular is that the language of education in this state is very poor. Every child here wants to study English. However the teachers themselves are not proficient enough in the language to teach it properly. So you end up with students who believe they are good in English but in fact are mediocre to poor. Because they love English (for sexiness, status, and occupational outlook) and study in that language the same children also lose grip of their native languages – Gujarati and Hindi. In the end you’re left with children who are masters of no language.
Another thing to mention, though I’m not sure if this is national or just a trend in Gujarat, is the poor standard of teachers. These people, for the most part, are lazy public servants. They attend school as much as they have to and have very little care for how and what they teach. Many of them run private classes at home in their free time and so have even less motivation to teach during school. If the kids are lost in class then they’re bound to come to the tuition and pay prime ruppees to learn properly. This way the teachers make double profit – one from the public salary get and the second from lucrative tutoring sessions that they don’t report as income. That most are not intelligent in their own area of expertise, forget having good teaching skills, is not surprising since they too have been passed through the same system themselves.
That is really what is troublesome here. This is a messed up, very politicized system that is inevitably a self-preserving and self-propelling system.
Speaking of politicization, this is interesting. You would be correct to assume that the largest universities are public universities recognized and funded, at least in part, by the University Grants Commission. The UGC is a government body and is a political appointment like any other so that the government gets to decided what programs are funded and how many professors are hired where and who gets what job and what research is promoted and which is cancelled. Each public institution’s chancellor and vice chancellor are also political appointments. The Chancellor is usually the governor or chief minister of the state and the Vice Chancellors are his appointments.

In short, the system in India is not the worst in the world. It is producing obviously. And there are the world famed IITs and IIMs. But it would be wrong to take the IITs and IIMs excellence and let them stand for the system underneath them. Out of a billion people, you’re bound to have a few hundred thousand who are just gifted by God with brains and so simple probabilities allow for alot of the success at India’s highest levels. The system that is supposed to serve everyone and move them all forward, maybe not with equal results but with equal opportunity, is in pretty sad shape.

These are some of my thoughts but sound back your thoughts as well.

The Economy of Suicide in India

In the few years I have lived in India I can’t remember a month having gone by without a news story about a gruesome suicide. Of course, the papers gladly included graphic images of the suicide, often placing them on the front page, in color. More than once I’ve read special stories in magazines like Indian Today about teen and other suicides. They have an interesting take on people’s mental health, about social pressures, economic pressures, etc. But I think there is something more obvious that is missing from most of these articles. But before we get to that, take a quick look at the following stats about suicide in India:

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB – a department of the Home Ministry of India) features this “snapshot of suicide” for the year 2008:

♦ 14 Suicides took place every hour.

♦ More than one lakh persons (1,25,017) in the country lost their lives by committing suicide during the year 2008.

♦ 1 each in every 3 suicide victims was a youth (15-29 years) and middle aged (30-44years)

♦ The overall male:female ratio of suicide victims for the year 2008 was 64:36, however,the proportion of Boys : Girls suicide victims (upto 14 years of age) was 49:51.

♦ 70.3% of the suicide victims were married while 22.1% were un-married.

(source: http://ncrb.nic.in/ADSI2008/snapshots.pdf)

Take a look at what Maithri has to say:

It is estimated that over 100,000 people die by suicide in India every year. India alone contributes to more than 10% of suicides in the world.

The point is suicide is no small matter in India. It is a major social problem that has not been ebbed by an number of different policies that have been tried so far. There are advocacy groups that are out there working hard to get people counseling and make psychological counseling seem less taboo.

What I think is generally being missed in the larger conversation is a serious look at the economy of suicide in India. To put it simply I think that suicides have been made to carry value in this country; they’ve been made meaningful acts of protest or revenge. And this has occurred in at least two ways: 1. through the media and 2. through the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

1. The Media – While India itself maybe be well along its way on its development agenda, one industry that is still “developing” and not “developed” is the media. Yellow journalism is the norm in India and any bit of sensationalism is welcome as long as it sells the papers. From fact-checking to basic things like spelling and grammar, even the best papers would get low grades. Papers will eagerly put completely random images of scantly clad women on their first and last pages to increase sales. Murders or beatings are graphically imaged throughout the paper and so it comes as no surprise to anyone when suicides are covered in the same way. Just a month ago in a Gujarati paper I clearly remember a picture on the front page that showed a man hanging from a telephone tower in some rural village. Half-charred bodies of attempted self-burnings are also not beyond the lines of acceptability in Indian media. Of course the stories, in an effort to be compassionate, tell the painful stories of the man or woman, sometimes even a child, who committed suicide. It’s always an act of desperation under horrendous social or economic pressure; the victim had no other way out. The fault is squarely placed on either parents, spouses, in-laws, or the whole of society and then there is a report about a criminal investigation.

Now what does this say to a person contemplating suicide? It says, go for it, because this is how we’ll cover you. You’ll be front page news. Your tormentors will be publicly humiliated and your last act will be seen as social martyrdom. The whole world will be on your side. Instead of making suicide tragic, fruitless, and wrong, the coverage of suicides turns them into unfortunate but legitimate and effective acts of protest. Economically, you just increased the value of suicide in the minds of potential suicide victims.

2. The tragic thing is that the laws in India only add to that value. Particularly problematic are IPC 498A, 406, and 306. These were laws written for a noble cause – the protection of women against dowry harrassment, torture, sexual harassment, etc. However, they were written atrociously and without restraint and so they have become more problematic that useful. The exact problem with these chapters is nicely given by Bharat Chugh:

The heinous nature of these laws (498-a, 406) does nothing but to help the unlawful implementation. As these laws are non compoundable & non bailable, the chances of reconciliation between the spouses after litigation are next to nil.

The biased nature of this laws is evident from that fact that unlike almost all laws in INDIA the burden to prove innocence lies on the accused……this means as soon as the complaint is made..whichever persons are named in the complaint are accused in the eyes of law…

IPC-498a is
• Cognizable – The accused can be arrested and jailed without warrant or investigation
• Non-Compoundable – The complaint cannot be withdrawn by the petitioner (chances of living together again are lost)
• Non-Bailable – The accused must appear in the court to request bail
On a single complaint of the wife, the husband and his entire family can be packed off to behind the bars, with an estimated 40,000 such accusations per year and an average of 5 members of the husband’s family implicated in each of these 498-a cases, about 200,000/- people are directly affected by these cases.

So in essence, if someone simply states that they have been driven to the point of suicide by so and so parties, all of the people indicated are automatically held guilty until proven innocent. And if the person actually commits suicide and mentions people in his/her note as the cause of suicide, then all of those parties would be charged under IPC 306, which is the law against abetting suicide – a greater crime with greater punishments. The question one has to ask is does this law devalue suicide or, under the attempt of bringing justice, actually increase the value of suicide by essentially making it a more attractive means of revenge or protest? If a woman doesn’t like her in-laws all she has to do is name them in a police report as psychologically torturing her and automatically her in-laws are landed into a years-long judicial process and social humiliation. If she actually commits the suicide, then all of the mentioned parties are now seen as murderers. That sounds like great and effective revenge. The case being made is not that there are no legitimate women victims; what I’m trying to say is that right now we have a law that is not written or applied correctly, a law that in fact adds to social ill by promoting suicide as a means to justice. Instead, there should be an effort to get women justice by leaving them and the people they wish to prosecute alive.

There is another suicide-related issue here as well. When women can so easily bring their wrath (sometimes justified, sometimes not) down upon their in-laws with the brutal force of law, there is bound to be misuse. And in those cases, what happens to the wrongfully accused spouse or in-laws? Let’s not forget that according to the NCRB the majority of suicides occurs in males and of all suicides 23% occur from “family problems” (that number increases to around 33% if you include all the listed causes that related to marital relations and social problems). It does not seem far-fetched that men who are socially defamed and abused just by an accusation by their spouses might be driven to suicide themselves.

(for more information on Indian laws against domestic violence visit: http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue137/laws.htm and its sister article: http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue120/domestic.htm)

The question then is whether or not we’re serious about addressing suicide in India. If we are, then we must take a serious look at all the causes of suicide not just the normal poster-child causes of mental illness, depression, social pressure, etc. We must also squarely face the fact that we live in a society that, through its media and laws, increases the value of suicide and makes it an attractive option for those pressured, mentally ill, or depressed people to choose. We need to somehow devalue suicide. The media can surely cover the ills of suicide with social policy articles instead of using suicidal tragedies to sell more stock. Laws can surely be altered to allow both for the protection of women and for adequate due process and checks that decrease if not prevent those from being abused to further promote suicide and suicide attempts.

Mumbai’s Religiously Oppresive School Uniforms

During a recent visit to India’s greatest city, Mumbai, I had the chance to speak to a few Swaminarayan devotees in an area commonly referred to as “Proper Mumbai”. In the course of conversation I came to learn that their elementary-school-aged children were being harassed by a teacher because they wore their tilak-chandalo* to schools. They were being hit over the head and ridiculed among other things. Once, during an exam, a teacher even walked over to take a swipe at a kids forehead hoping to smudge or spread the mark of his faith. I was appauled that teachers in such a supposedly civilized city and at a respectable private school would act in such a way.

Of course, I soon discovered that the reason for such rash actions was that the school, like many private secular schools in Mumbai, has a uniform code which prohibits students from wearing any religious symbols in public. Meaning if you’re a Christian you can’t have your cross on the outside of your shirt, if you’re a Sikh you can’t have your hair tied up in a pagh or bun, if you’re a Muslim you can’t wear a hat or headscarf. In essence, you should cleanse yourself of your faith’s marks before entering school. I was a bit stunned to say the least. As I tried to understand the policy and my reaction my mind focused on the following thoughts:

1. What is the purpose of a school uniform? I’ve always heard it’s to assure an environment focused on learning. It stops the genders from peacocking themselves to each other with unspoken contests about who has the coolest, most expensive, or most revealing clothes. It stops people from wearing gang symbols that lead to battles on school grounds. So maybe this policy was also meant to make sure that there were no fights in school over student’s religions. I can see how one might wish to do that. But the fact is, I’ve yet to come across any epidemic of fights caused by religious hatred in Mumbai’s schools – including those without such policies. Is it really necessary to make religious symbols the equivalent of gang signs in private schools? And isn’t taking the idea of uniformity to such an extreme of erasing any traces of personal identity just another form of zealotry (albeit nonreligous)? This position makes even less sense when one considers that institutions that value discipline alot more that elementary schools, institutions like the military in which discipline is the difference between life and death, don’t ban such benign marks like the tilak chandalo. Members of the BAPS fellowship are well aware of the example of Prakash Mehta – a satsangi who was supported by a military court in wearing his tilak-chandalo while serving in the Ameican Army. Interestingly the school’s policy only applies to students. I asked a man who teaches at the school where those kids studied what he would do if Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, came to visit his school. He said, of course Mr. Singh would be allowed to wear his turban. The rules are only for kids. Why is that? If religious symbols are so potent and distracting, why shouldn’t anyone who enters the school grounds be stripped of their religious identity as well? On the one hand, we accept as a fact of life, if not with pride, that our nation’s Prime Minister is a conspicuous Sikh and on the other hand we insist our children should not have to deal with conspicuous faith. That doesn’t sound like good policy; it sounds like hypocrisy.

2. There is also the question of what such a policy teaches children about faith. It is hard not to see such policies as overt efforts to promote the lack of faith in children. Schools are institutions of learning. They hold a place of respect and honour in our communities. When schools ban religion from their compounds, they essentially send a message the religion is not a thing welcome in respectable and honourable society. They implicitly teach children to be ashamed of their faith and practice it only in hiding away from the public eye. Some people may just call this secularism, but I disagree. This flavour of secularism, as practiced in nations like France, has lot led to more and more segregation and hostility. On the other hand, I grew up in a secular nation, in America, and I wore my tilak chandalo proudly and was often encouraged by my Caucasian Christian peers to do so. So this isn’t just a secular effort to bring peace and goodwill; it’s a dangerous policy because…

3. It means the school is not serving it’s purpose – to educate the future citizens of the world; it shows that the school is failing at one of its main missions – to prepare these children for the “real world”. The communities these child citizens and future leaders live in will certainly be pluralistic societies. They will see and interact with Prime Ministers who are overtly Sikhs and businessmen who are conspicuously Muslim. They will be dealing with people from different cultures from around the globe and if they can’t learn to tolerate each other, understand each other, and cooperate with each other, you will have created just a new order of extremists.

The long and short of it is this. There is a trend in private education in Mumbai that is working against the religious freedom that true secularism includes; there is a rising tide trying to relegate religion to shameful recesses away from society. And something must be done. People with means and minds should be talking about this policy in a real open debate and working to expunge this policy. And for people without means but with minds: they should use their hearts and minds to make powerful decisions like changing schools and enrolling their children in their fellowship’s version of Sunday school or bal mandal to assure that while receiving a “world-class education” their children are not falling prey to the false-secularist who wish to wash them of their moral and spiritual values.

*the tilak-chandalo is a religious mark applied by Swaminarayan devotees ont heir forehead. It consists of a large U made from sandalwood paste with a filled red circle in the center made from vermillion.