Sunday, August 07, 2011

Does He Know a Mother's Heart? Arun Shourie on the suffering of innocents

[Did a version of this for The Sunday Guardian]

In his many roles – as economist, politician, author and newspaper editor – Arun Shourie has been a high-profile figure for decades, but one important aspect of his life has been comparatively shielded from the public gaze. For thirty-four years, Shourie and his wife Anita have been parents to a child suffering from cerebral palsy. Their son Aditya cannot stand or use his right arm; his vision is impaired and he speaks haltingly; he has the mind of a child. Looking after him has been a major preoccupation of Shourie’s life, and the passage of time has not been kind: new complications – including Anita Shourie’s own painful bout with Parkinson’s disease – have continually arisen over the years.

Now in his 70th year, and faced with such questions as “Who will lift Adit out of bed as I weaken with age?” and “Who will look after him when we are gone?”, Shourie has written arguably his most personal book – an attempt to understand and deal with the phenomenon of suffering by examining religious texts as well as modern knowledge. Long-winded and repetitive but also candid and moving, Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? is a difficult book to review; it evokes admiration, sympathy and exasperation in almost equal measure.

When he (briefly) recounts Aditya’s life and struggles, Shourie’s writing is so raw and vulnerable that you almost want to look away. I was particularly affected by his remark that his son’s condition helps him keep his own life in perspective. “I am dismissed from The Indian Express? But he hasn’t had and isn’t going to have a job at all. Another award? A new post? Another book published? That none of these is of the slightest significance to Adit keeps the head from swelling.”

The prose here – unstructured, with half-sentences and ellipses – reflects the inner state of a tormented father. It reads like the transcription of an impromptu, hesitant talk Shourie is making to a small group of acquaintances; the need to tell the story, as directly and honestly as possible, supersedes the need to be “writerly”. (The sub-head for the section where he describes meeting his wife and the early years of their marriage is simply “Anita Comes”. The next section, about the birth of their child, is sub-headed “Adit Comes”.)

But soon the book moves into the terrain of laborious scriptural analysis, with Shourie quoting entire passages from the books of the Abrahamic religions – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran. He analyses the stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Lot and his unfortunate daughters, of the resurrected Lazarus, and points out numerous contradictions and logical fallacies. He comments on the most readily identifiable traits of the Biblical Creator: vindictive jealousy and insecurity (the biggest “sin” of all being the worship of any other God). And he discusses the many casuistries and self-deceptions of the religious stance, such as hailing the survivor of a natural calamity as “God-blessed” when, by exactly the same reasoning, God has whimsically murdered hundreds of others.

Like other sceptical readers before him, Shourie is essentially noting that entire chunks of these “revealed” books read exactly like things that would be written by self-serving men when they want to exercise power through fear. (It seems to have worked well enough if you consider the countless examples of religious hegemony and persecution throughout recorded history.)

But then, the texts of the monotheistic religions are soft targets anyway: only the most blinkered fundamentalist would deny the existence of numerous passages that are embarrassing when read in the light of our modern ideas about (for example) individual freedoms or gender equality. Things get a little more interesting when Shourie turns his gaze on Hinduism, a religion that doesn’t have a book of rigid “fundamentals”. But here too, he reminds us, there are concepts – like karma and divine chastisement – that can create a fatalistic apathy to suffering and prevent people from dealing with the here and now.

A quote from Mahatma Gandhi opens this section. On being told that the shastras endorsed Untouchability (a horrific practice that he fought all his life), Gandhi replied that a shastra contrary to reason ought to be burnt. “I have so much faith in the correctness of the position I have taken up that, if my taking up that position results in weakening Hinduism, I cannot help it and I must not care.”

These are wise words, worthy of one of the great men of his age (and they were given even more lucid form, decades later, by the Dalai Lama’s observation that “if the new discoveries of science contradict what some ancient scripture says, the scripture must make way”). But some of Gandhi’s other pronouncements on the subject of divinity show how religion can muddy the minds of even clear-sighted and well-intentioned people. When an earthquake devastated Bihar in 1934, he famously attributed the disaster to divine punishment for Untouchability. Later, he maintained the ludicrous position that if the Jews of Europe showed faith in non-violence – and placed themselves
completely in the hands of God – it would eventually lead to the melting of Hitler’s heart. (And if this didn’t immediately happen and they ended up in the gas chambers, well, it would eventually happen and the benefits would be borne by subsequent generations.)

As Shourie rightly points out, Gandhi’s absolute faith in non-violence (even in a context where it would certainly not have worked) rested on his religious faith that God would eventually come to the aid of the pure-hearted. This roundabout line of reasoning has the effect of placing responsibility on the victims of injustice: if you’re suffering, it can only mean you did something to deserve it. Perhaps the sins of a previous life are still being accounted for, or perhaps your prayers aren’t strong enough yet. God is always fair and just – He has to be – so the problem must be with you.

By this point, Shourie has made a case for religion’s inability to meaningfully deal with the suffering of innocents, but the analysis continues. He explores the teachings of such mystics as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Raman Maharshi. He turns to a more general discussion of rationalist thought – such as what neuroscience reveals about the complex workings of the human brain – and suggests prescriptive “exercises” that don’t rely on the props of inerrant scriptures and godmen. And finally, he returns to his stricken son as the ultimate teacher, who has taught him more about life’s challenges than any book could have.

If all this makes Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? sound like a meandering, episodic work, it is. It tries to be too many things at once – personal epiphany, theological history, philosophical treatise – and achieves some success in each of these areas, but at the cost of conciseness. Shourie often makes the same points over and over again, and his relating of old stories – such as the parable of Gautami and the snake – is unnecessarily stretched out. As a reviewer trying to be attentive to economy of expression, I can’t unreservedly endorse this book. But there’s no question that Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? is also a transparently honest and probing work, with much food for thought for anyone who wants to grapple with the big questions of existence. For all its unevenness, it contains more practical wisdom, compassion – and a lot more humility – than some of those old bestsellers that have been marketed for centuries with the daunting blurb “This is the Word of God.”


P.S. Reading Shourie’s meticulous analyses of passages from the Old Testament and other old texts, I was reminded of a popular wisecrack: “The people who take religion most seriously are atheists.”

That sounds flippant or even arrogant, but it’s worth thinking about. In essence, it can mean this: believers don’t have to be closely familiar with the books of their (much less anyone else’s) religion; all that’s really needed is for them to cling to the things that were put in their heads in childhood, by people whose every word they were taught to respect. (Note: I’m not suggesting that ALL religious people are like this.) But to be an atheist in a world dominated by religious faith (and I’m talking here about a serious atheist, not someone who adopts the position just to look radical or "cool"), you must by definition have the questioning spirit, the willingness to read and think about various arguments and positions, and come to your own conclusions.

In any case it’s widely held that one of the “virtues” of Faith – and its biggest demonstration – is that you don’t ask too many questions. And so, the conscientious sceptic can spend a lifetime grappling with the many conundrums of existence (e.g. how is the suffering of innocents compatible with a benevolent and all-powerful God?), but the truly religious mind doesn’t have to worry about any of this at all: any question, no matter how reasonable or incisive, can be dismissed with a simple “God’s ways are inscrutable” or “Our minds aren’t evolved enough to understand His higher purpose” or “All will be made clear at the End of Days”. It’s a win-win position; little wonder the majority of humankind clings to it.

[A few old posts on related subjects: "Down with atheist values"; "Our common mortality..." and Tales from the crematorium. Also see this post by Great Bong, and the comments discussion]


  1. The introduction is poignant. It made me think how some intelligent philosophical commentary on religion/God can be the product of personal suffering. Will pick up the book ASAP.

  2. Does he talk about Buddhism at all? (Since it is specifically focused on suffering.)

  3. Rahul: yes, he does - towards the end.

  4. Re - your last point about atheist's taking religion seriously. You may want to see this excellent discussion between an agnostic Dr. Michael Krasny, a Eng lit prof and radio host in an NPR station in the Bay Area and another famous host Tavis Smiley (a believer). Krasny wrote a book called 'Spiritual Envy' in which he expressed admiration for the simple beliefs of men of faith and how he being rational occasionally misses that simplicity.

  5. I have known about Shourie's son for a long time. And always marveled how he could still do so much. I have also often wondered (and I don't have a child, will probably never have one and am not married) why people decide to continue with a child that has an illness/condition that would make it incapable of living without another person's help. Wouldn't putting the child to sleep be better for the child itself snd the parents? I know this is a thought many would feel horrified by, but only a logical question. Liked that post on the Kerala story. I have never understood why religion overpowers more logical reasoning in otherwise sane people. Maybe the option of not having to ask any questions is the reason.

    1. Illness can fall upon anybody and at anytime making the person completely dependent on others. So should all such ill-fated persons be put to sleep? So that we the abled ones could live a comfortable life.

  6. A very thoughtful review.Thank You.

  7. IMHO the theme of the book warrants a comprehensive engagement of Buddhism, firstly, because it does not conform to any of the cliches associated with religion (belief in a higher power , requirement of faith etc.) and secondly as I have already mentioned , its specific aim is to eradicate suffering.

    On another note, recently saw Paisan; it has a beautiful segment about Roman Catholic monks conflicted between a matter of faith and act of natural human kindness.

  8. I have always been interested in reading something like Russell's 'Why I am not a Christian' with emphasis on Hindu philosophy. I have not read Kancha Ilaiah's 'Why I am not a Hindu', though I would like to.

    This sounds promising, but I don't like reading Shourie (I hate his writing style.)

    Any other recommendations (for a Hindu take on 'Why I am not a Christian')?

  9. This seems like a very interesting read. Shourie is one of the few intellectuals among the editors in India who really have an opinion on things and in a society as backward and as religious, am sure his book will be a relief. Thanks Jai for sharing that this book is out else I wouldnt have known

  10. Is it easier to live as a truly religious person?It depends on how one holds one's beliefs.if one views God as an all powerful being who will intervene to get us the latest Honda,then there is exactitude-either He agreed or didn't.but for someone has experienced grace,a consciousness of divinity(but doesn't hold some kind of patron-client relationship with God)life will be full of doubt and perplexity- are his beliefs rational or not?

  11. I read a few other reviews of the book as well. Though I must confess, this one does more justice than the others. They more or less approach the book like it were another text meant to be critically analysed. As you have made it clear, that is somehow not possible for a book as personal as this.

  12. Marvin: well, I have made it clear that the book is a heavy-handed read and I can't give it a blanket endorsement (especially for someone who has to spend money on it - which I didn't). It definitely wasn't my intention to forego critical analysis altogether.

    And the couple of other reviews I've read haven't engaged with it critically at all - they've simply provided a gist of the content in a meek, even deferential way. Which other reviews are you talking about?

  13. I did not suggest that you ignored the critical analysis altogether. What I had meant was that this particular review appears to have paid equal attention to the two aspects that a review of a book like this warrants - personal anguish of the author and its literary expression.

    Focusing on just one part has the downside of turning the review into a mawkish piece or an impersonal account of the writing style. In a book like this, these two elements must come together to tell us a story that not only enables to empathize with the author but also see the reasoning behind his conclusions.

    I read two other reivews - one by MJ Akbar and one in Tehelka by Tridip Suhrud.

  14. Marvin: thanks for those links. Interesting to see Akbar's review, especially since I did my review for his newspaper. (Btw, the two comments under that review are classic examples of religious arrogance disguised as humility!)

  15. Your review brilliantly captures the essence of the book - don't know if I will have the enthusiasm to buy and read the tome. This post(and the links you have provided) by themselves are a great read for someone trying to understand issues relating to faith & atheism. I am beginning to have conversations around these topics with my kids, also blogged yesterday about it ( Have linked your review there too. Thanks for continuing to write a superb blog.

  16. Satish: thanks, glad you liked the posts! And I thoroughly approve of your having conversations with your kids about this subject - so many parents I know (even the agnostic ones) prefer to turn a blind eye to such "sensitive" matters, even though we the repercussions of religious intolerance are all around us.

  17. Jai, had visited your blog to catch your views on Tejpal's 'Valley of Masks', but nevermind, this review was well worth my while. Thanks. Mr Shourie evokes my sympathy. What piques my interest, though, is your bit about atheism, on which you appear to hold a discerning/nuanced position, the sort that recognises Richard Dawkins as an intellectual and dismisses Christopher Hitchens as a hate-monger (even if they are both nominally 'atheists').

    That being the case (if indeed it is), perhaps you are open to the argument that misinterpretation of a text in print is a common human failing, fallible as the best specimens of the species are, especially in the case of what you amusingly call 'bestsellers' with divine promotional blurbs.

    Almost always, the big interpretational failing results from a silly/childish anthropomorphisation of the 'author' of the 'bestsellers', done frequently by their most ardent 'fans', but done least delicately by those who fail to grasp the 'USP' (the negation of any conceivable divinity) that ought to form the intellectual paradigm for any further reading.

    Poetry is a memorable mind-kick.Interpreting poetry, you will agree, demands a nuanced approach, one that's sorta loopy below and open above, and once you get the point, what you 'read' might make you do exactly what an intellectual must: question everything conceivable.

  18. our bit about atheism, on which you appear to hold a discerning/nuanced position, the sort that recognises Richard Dawkins as an intellectual and dismisses Christopher Hitchens as a hate-monger (even if they are both nominally 'atheists').

    egg style: can't imagine where you got the last bit from. I'm a big fan of Hitchens, and haven't found myself in disagreement with anything he's written on the subject of religion.

    I tend to hold nuanced positions about most things, but religious faith is one of the subjects where I'm sometimes quite happy not to be nuanced! One of the funniest sights I can think of is that of people swaying their heads piously in a prayer room - all I have to do is mentally substitute their deity of choice with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the grand humour in the situation reveals itself. I also find it hilarious (and exasperating) when I'm talking to someone and they go on and on referring to God, not in abstract terms but as if it's a third person sitting in the room, whose presence I would be completely expected to acknowledge too.

  19. "The people who take religion most seriously are atheists."
    Its not just flippant/arrogant, but quite ignorant of facts and history. All we have to do is look into the last 2000 years of history, and its full of bloodshed in the name of religion (and it hasnt stopped). Maybe some of them used religion as a front for political/economic gains, but a significant number of believers of all religions have taken it way too seriously and committed heinous crimes against humanity.

  20. Prakash: in the subsequent para, I've explained what that line can be taken to mean - which is diffferent from the meaning you're focusing on. And of course I do know all about the bloody history of religion.

  21. I did read that para. I only expressed opinion on that line which is flippantly and wrongly used. As far as the "positive" manner it can be perceived, it is wrong to assume that atheists are either serious in the shourie manner or radical/cool. There are enough atheists out there, who dont have to go through the passages of torah/bible to find the "third person in the room" way of talking to be irrational. Just like religious group has both kinds, the lakeer-ke-fakeer and the kind who just follow rituals/practices as cultural practices handed out to them by family, there is a middle group of atheists as well. They are questioning all right, but dont really have to go through life grappling the issue, it comes fairly easily to them. Some of course feel the need to articulate it a lot more (say,authors like hitchens) but a lot of them dont feel the need to do that kinda research.

  22. Nice review. Actually i read MJ's review last night (!) and searched for this book. because my life is on same path as Mr Shourie's as young father. I am only worried that once me or wife read it, we are going to be much more saddened for our future then have some positive insight. Any thoughts from you? thanks lot.

  23. Had completely missed this review.

    Yes, Shourie is a very interesting person.

    He analyses the stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Lot and his unfortunate daughters, of the resurrected Lazarus, and points out numerous contradictions and logical fallacies. He comments on the most readily identifiable traits of the Biblical Creator: vindictive jealousy and insecurity

    Does Shourie talk about the crucial role played by Christianity in the abolition of slavery? Does he have anything to say about the crucial role played by the Protestant missionary zeal in driving colonialism and bringing European civilization and Enlightenment values to very large parts of the world over the past 400 years?

    And what about Christian values of universal brotherhood and concepts like "do unto others as you'd have others do unto you" forming the bedrock of our modern democratic ideals of equality before law.

    The civilization we live in is not one based as much on reason as it is based on morals. And it is religion (especially Christianity) which has made the modern world what it is.

    The one thing I often cringe at is the way intellectuals like Shourie club all "Abrahamic" religions together! Barring a common place of origin in the Middle East there is not a lot in common between the three Abrahamic religions.

    In my book, Christianity and Judaism have been major constructive forces in the history of civilization. Yes, there's violence in the Old testament, but the violence in it is more of a narrative as opposed to scriptural instruction.

    Islam is fundamentally different. It was a religion which spread by the sword right from its earliest days. An imperial religion in the truest sense of the term. More political than most religions. A religion that greatly encouraged hate towards the "other".

    Few people want to call this out. Instead they cloak their criticisms of Islam by using the broader umbrella of "Abrahamic religions". But I'm sorry. This is borne out of a deep seated fear of Islam thanks to its menacing history of 1400 years.

  24. This roundabout line of reasoning has the effect of placing responsibility on the victims of injustice: if you’re suffering, it can only mean you did something to deserve it. Perhaps the sins of a previous life are still being accounted for, or perhaps your prayers aren’t strong enough yet. God is always fair and just – He has to be – so the problem must be with you

    Just read this extract. It's interesting how Shourie again misses the wood for the trees. Gandhi never "blamed" the victim as Shourie puts it. Gandhi was a man of the world. A participant in the Boer War. Nevertheless he did believe in the rule of law - that most English of all concepts. He said nothing new. Gandhi's views here are no different from that of Edmund Burke on the evil nature of the French revolution. This has nothing to do with religion. It's plain old morality and common decency.

    And in fact, Jews did pretty much follow Gandhi's seemingly idiotic advice, barring the stray resistance movements in self defence. They suffered mostly quietly under Hitler just as they had done under numerous dispensations (both Muslim and Christian) over the past 2000 years. They survived the ordeal, carved out a state in their homeland with the help of the West and today rank among the most successful communities on earth! Their survival is a testament to their genius, discipline and enterprise. Not their brawn or powers of retaliation.

  25. When an earthquake devastated Bihar in 1934, he famously attributed the disaster to divine punishment for Untouchability

    It may sound nonsensical. But the Christian missionaries used very similar language to denounce slavery! There was nothing "religious" or "Hindu" about untouchability. It was an institution that came about in this part of the world because of the racial heterogeneity of the land and people wanting to preserve their racial identity. Hinduism, lacking the moral certitude of Christianity, tolerated this secular evil.

    In the 19th cen, under the influence of Christianity, Hinduism reformed and Hindu leaders like Gandhi took this religious stance against such evils. It sounds irrational to people like us. But it's men like him who put an end to this institution.

    Something very similar happened in US. Where Christian moralists (men who we like to call "bigots") denounced slavery and compelled secular, rational govts to ban this profitable trade.

  26. Shrikanth: that isn't an "extract" from the book, it is part of my review - those are my words, and I stand by them.

    And I seriously hope you aren't in any way implying that abiding by the rule of law - even when the "law" is fascism - has anything to do with morality or decency.

  27. And I seriously hope you aren't in any way implying that abiding by the rule of law - even when the "law" is fascism - has anything to do with morality or decency.

    Sorry...Somehow thought you were paraphrasing Shourie there. My bad.

    Well, maybe I didn't phrase that last comment on jewish resistance perfectly. I do believe there is room for armed resistance in certain circumstances.

    My main point was Gandhi's idea of non violence was not exactly a religious idea but basically a slight perversion of similar notions voiced by major thinkers in Europe like Edmund Burke - who denounced the French revolution, though it was a revolt against a wicked, incompetent royal dispensation.

    I may not agree with Gandhi's extremism here, though I have sympathy for Burke's conservative views. My point was all this doesn't have a lot to do with religion.

    And I hope you agree atleast partly with my views on untouchability in the last comment. I've always believed it to be a secular evil. The "shaastras" may talk about it. But it existed long before the shastras took it up. India has over centuries had a racial problem like no other civilization. This is probably the only country on earth where you see people of all complexions (ranging from very fair to very dark) in each village - be it in Kashmir or interior TN! Mindboggling diversity. Practices like untouchability arose to enable a primitive people to preserve their colour (after all varna means color in sanskrit). It was evil no doubt, but I understand where it came from.

    Hinduism tolerated this shit. Christianity with its ideas of universal brotherhood came along and compelled the pagan Hindus to change their views on this. Men like Roy, Vidyasagar, Gandhi, Vivekanand are in my book Christianized Hindus.

    Anyway, thanks for this old post. Made me think hard.

  28. all major religion talk about "selfless" actions, including wars/battles. But not for oneself but for others. islam calls it "jihad", hindus call it "dharm-yudh", or "crusades" in christianity.