Thursday, August 30, 2007

I am sick of Mr. Hitchens

Although I sincerely try to believe that pluralism is the way of being an Indian and that as a born Indian I should be tolerant of the sensibilities and opinions of everyone, off late I am feeling terribly pissed with Mr. Christopher Hitchens. The guy is just unbearable. Hear him talk about Mother Teresa here.

This guy has made a career by being the extreme atheist - not just denouncing god but going around the world trying to convince others. Good, for him - he has the right to do so in a world of ideas and his idea will have to compete with everything else that is out there - including religious fundamentalism. I believe that in a free market his ideas will get their share of attention and will win, if indeed they are good.

I feel uncomfortable, however, when he launches on his tirades against people like Mother Teresa in the name of atheism. Faith or not, impostor or not, she was a woman who had dedicated her entire life for serving the poorest of poor in India. Mr. Hitchens should probably visit the slums of Calcutta before passing character remarks on people who have served lepers and people dying with disease.

It is wonderful to know that DNA is the blueprint of human life and not god's hand, it is wonderful to know that earth is a small rock that revolves around the sun and was not created in five days, it is wonderful to understand the scientific method and to be able to apply it to physical world's problems. However, if being able to practice the scientific method makes you apathetic to human suffering, and turns you into a rational monster, one who questions the motives of people who empathize with the needy, is unforgivable.

I do not believe in questioning the motives of people who have dedicated their lives for the betterment of the underprivileged. If their objective is mass-conversion, then so be it. If people are being cured of leprosy in exchange for their forced belief in a construct called God, I have no problems. However, I do object when rationalist, liberal individuals such as Mr. Hitchens who have done nothing for the betterment of slum dwellers and the needy, and walk around denouncing god, probably for the only purpose of intellectual snobbery.

I am not a believer. Neither am an atheist. As I always acknowledge, I sincerely do not know what my belief structures are when it comes to religion. However, I believe in a moral basis for empathizing with those in need and this has nothing to do with religion. Hinduism or not, I know that my world-view of what I ought to be doing as a human being has a strong basis in my upbringing. Mr. Hitchens and off late Mr.Dawkins have called this inheritance "cultural genes", some sort of a virus that plagues mankind. I have to say that what I inherited from my religious minded family was not blind faith in an omnipresent God, but an unquenchable thirst for trying to understand who I am, and what my existence is meant to be. when I look back at what has happened in the last twenty or so years of my life is that I have developed a comfortable model of doing this without believing in dogmatic religion and neither being overly rationalistic. That is my model - everyone needs to have their own. What I know is that all the science courses that I have taken in my life have not taught me how to develop the moral code that I practice. I also know that I did not learn this from any religious text or some dogmatic beliefs.

Mr.Hitchens and others ignore the good that has come to our world through religious beliefs and choose to focus on the evils that extremist practice of faith has brought upon us. By doing so, they are not being any different from the fundamentalist extremists who kill others in the name of religion. The debate between science and religion is no debate at all. These two pillars of modern society answer different questions dealing with mankind and they exist for serving different purposes. Just as religion should not have a say on how the earth was created, science should not encroach upon what forms the moral code. These two should be tools, for us humans, to achieve our objectives and should not be the masters of our destiny.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Charity begins at home

Almost all Indians whom I have met in the US love to pontificate on what India should do to counter various evils and problems? Almost all of us love to complain about everyday hurdles that people face in India and our own pet solutions to these issues. While some like to blog, some just talk about it to their friends, some contribute money and some work at grass-root level organizations. I belong to the first and the third groups. I will try to explain my rationale as to why monetary contributions are the best way to make a difference.

My first stint with charity contributions started in 2001 - CRY was the first organization to which I had contributed. I feel that if you are that individual who would like to make a difference in a poor kid's life, CRY is the best way to do it. CRY has an established presence in India, has some very good initiatives, and it is is very easy to donate money online. The way I go about doing this is that I make a commitment to that I will give away a certain percentage of my annual income to such organizations. I know I have made a difference in someone's life and that it is not just talk when I say something about the problems that a developing country like India faces. Charity begins at home. If you are one of those interested in empowerment rather than feeding the poor, I am sure there are organizations that do that as well, for example AID is one such entity.

If you are looking out for organizations that do some good work - the good news is that there are many out there.
My favorites are:

1) Kiva.org - has a micro-finance model running in various countries. Currently it does not have anything in India. The money you donate is not exactly a donation; it is an interest-free "loan". You get back the amount that you donate over a period of time. For those, who are not very keen on parting with their money but obtain solace in helping others who need the money, Kiva is a great place. You can pick projects to which you would like to loan your money. Kiva was featured on CNN Heroes series.

2) Cry.org - my favorite. You can choose to sponsor a kid's education or health or any other such combination. For example, sponsoring a child's education for a year would cost you about 800 rupees - roughly about 20 USD. I have mostly donated money to this particular option.

3) Children's heartlink - They facilitate heart operations for kids suffering from congenital heart disease in poor countries.

4) Doctors without Borders - read about what they do here.

These organizations are organized well and although they have different objectives - they are all involved in meeting the needs of underprivileged. They are good avenues to help out the needy in India and elsewhere. My opinion is that above and beyond having a general feeling of wanting to help, it would be good if at least some of us are involved in the actual giving process.

Happy giving people! It is a great feeling to earn a lot of money and to see our 401(k)'s growing. I am sure it would be a lot more fulfilling if we also know we helped educate a dozen kids every year.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What troubles me

Of course, apart from working on my thesis papers - recent discussions with a few friends and a few blog posts that I had read in the past have come back to haunt me.  As the consequences of the recent terrorist acts in Hyderabad, unfolded, I couldn't help wonder if Islamic fundamentalism was at the core of these blasts.  Honestly, I am not sure.  However, many I have talked with expressed the view that right wing islamist militants were at work behind the blasts.  The truth, I hope will probably see the light of the day.

It might probably be insightful to examine some beliefs of what is happening in India with respect to terrorism and how the public has changed its perceptions of militant Islam over the years.

First, I have met many educated folks who have a disrespected Mahatma Gandhi - saying that he he done a great deal of harm to independent India by following the route of Secularism and by not throwing out all muslims to Pakistan, just like the Pakistanis had done Hindus living in their country, during partition.  I have one thing to say to this mob - you have no right to questions the means with which freedom was obtained, when you yourself are protected by the very freedom that is allowing you to express such opinions.

Second, when Pakistan chose to become an Islamic state, it was their right to do so.  Just like India, a secular country expresses its right to choose not to sponsor a particular religion, Pakistan had the right to choose Islam.  However, that does not justify the reason that we should have done to them what they did to us.  The concept of being an Indian - is much larger than the "Hindutva" concept that is so widely prevalent in the masses today.  before, we run around saying that muslims are responsible for the current situation of th country and that they should never have been a part of Independent India, we need to remember that muslims are as much Indian as hindus are.  Some of the great Indian kings were muslims and in fact that largest land mass ever governed in the sub-continent (which would probably define modern day India and Pakistan), was ruled by a muslim king - Aurangazeb, and not any hindu king.  Harsha was probably the last known Hindu king who ruled a large territory.  My argument is that, we are doing ourselves great disservice by culturing a notion that "Indian" does not involve being "Islamic" - based on false conceptions of history.  Second, if muslims are still a socially underprivileged group, it is because, the majority has not done enough to integrate them into modern India -  not because, they are inherently prone to violence and anarchy as we would imagine them to. For all the misplaced views that many right wing hindu extemist groups have furthered in our country, India is still largely peaceful with communal tensions quite low on average.  There are a few hotspots that flare up now and then, causing unwarranted deaths, but largely, the hindu and muslim communities in India have made their peace.  It is more often the political establishment which flares up riots than the people themselves.

Further, it is a fact that India has suffered the maximum number of civilian deaths due to acts of terrorism - setting aside 9/11 in the last five years.  I am not counting the deaths due to occupation in Iraq - as I see them as a result of the occupation itself rather than terrorism.  India is silently bearing the brunt of terrorism - probably not doing enough to counter it, while people living in Kansas City feel threatened everyday about the potential of terrorist acts.  The US likes to search for a nail where there is light, rather than look for it in the shade where it actually dropped it.

Is militant Islam a reason for the terrorist deaths in India - to a great extent yes.  But do we need to be suspicious of muslims - definitely no!  We just need to call upon history, to remind ourselves that hindus and muslims have lived peacefully for quite long that we can now stand together to curb terrorism in India. I don't know how I can contribute to stopping terrorism directly, however, I do know how to keep my faith in the system - trust the ideals of the Mahatma and do the best we can in our small worlds.  We can probably start by not losing faith in being righteous, not developing biases based on unproven facts and ignorance and keeping an open mind.  And all those intellectuals, who run around calling the Mahatma, undeserving of his name - no one is going to remember them or pay them any attention.

India's legacy as a peaceloving nation will continue and we shall remain a tolerant, understanding culture for a long time.