The Hindu ceremony of Shiva Sarwan is a dedication to Lord Shiva through a special pilgrimage to the Ganges on the first Monday of the month of Sarwan (pronounced sharvan). 200,000 pilgrims gather at the steps going down into the Ganges in the ancient Indian city of Varanasi to collect water in which to then walk, bare foot, the few kilometers to Shiva’s Golden temple, where the water offering is made.
This extraordinary event occurs in the Gregorian calendar in July each year. It is a time of the monsoon rains and water pours heavily throughout. The infrastructure of the old city of Varanasi does not cope well with the gushing water and, in the narrow lanes, the water runs and mixes with overflowing sewage, and the faeces of the cows that roam freely. The streets are challenging to walk through.
Pilgrims are, in the main, poor and beggars by the hundred beseech the throngs. In fact, the level of poverty and filth of Varanasi is so extreme, that many a tourist reportedly struggles to cope.
This is true across much of India. The crushing poverty is heart-wrenching.
India’s solution to feeding and lifting a dirt poor population out of desperate circumstances is to economically grow by adopting a classical western liberal capitalism approach: pursue comparative advantage though lower cost labor, and competitive advantage through a well delivered STEM-based educated labor force. It is no coincidence that 130 of the largest US companies maintain office buildings and campuses in Hyderabad, employing tens of thousands of highly trained workers.
It does so while maintaining a fragile but generally tolerant and peaceful freedom of religion for all those who live here; Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist and Sikh alike.
But twice in the last 10 years bombs have detonated in the middle of the Shiva Sarwan ceremony, killing 16 and 23 people respectively. Both attacks were claimed by Islamic militants.
Fanatic Hinduism exists and is spasmodically violent. But this violence is not spread outside India. You do not see Hindu suicide bombers blowing up shrines or people in Pakistan. Why? Because even though fundamental Hinduism is universal in claim, much like Buddhism, the culture of the sub-continent promotes politeness and respect. Indeed, a transcription on a gateway at Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first preached 2,300 years ago, says simply “May all beings share our merits equally with us”. In other words, maintain your own traditions in the quest for the good, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, or whatever.
This is in direct contradiction to the values and practice of much of modern Islamic society.
Wahhabism, the Sunni version of Islam promoted and funded by the Saudis for decades, brooks no ‘equal merit’ of beings and faith. Churches are banned in the Arabian Peninsula, as are all non-Wahhabi faith institutions. This is also largely true of the Shiite strand of Islam promoted and funded worldwide by Iran. It is true that Iran does maintain Soviet-like show pieces of Christianity and Judaism, but the suppression of heretical sects, like the Bahai, is violently undertaken. “Infidels” are not allowed to enter most Mosques, and indeed, are not even allowed to move their lips in prayer on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Shariff in Jerusalem.
Indians have many more gripes than Arabs when it comes to poverty, lack of opportunity (read: caste system), and grievance over a colonial past that was brutal, yet Indians do not blow themselves up when challenging the status quo.
The difference in approaches to grievance is clearly not economic. India never received the massive oil wealth the Arab nations plundered during the last 40 years. India had to do it the hard way, working to create favourable economic circumstances that enabled itself to feed 1.3Bn people.
Rich beyond any nation’s dreams, the Arab world has been tearing itself apart for the last 6 years, with more Muslims killing Muslims than any number of grievances against Western infidelity. The reasons are religious and political, not economic. When the-then wife of the UK Prime Minister, Sherie Blair said that she “could understand” why Arabs commit suicide terrorism because their economic circumstances were depressing, she was expressing her, and many in the Western elites, complete misunderstanding of the situation.
The Tibetans have been massacred, their nation occupied, their cultural identity torn to shreds, and religious leadership hijacked by the totalitarians of China, yet we do not see Tibetan suicide bombers killing civilians in Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, London, and elsewhere.
We must look to the differences within culture, not economics.
Having a Western background and been recently immersed in Indian culture, it seems to me that clarity is also found in that great determinant of cultural roots: geography.
Taking a leaf out of the geography-is-destiny thesis of Jarrad Diamond and many others, Arabian culture today is built on the foundations of tribes surviving in vast deserts. There is no opportunity for compromise in a harsh life-death environment. As life in the shifting hot sands of Western Asia and North Africa was precarious, those who would compromise the tribal unit could not be suffered. Millenia of survival has produced a tough peoples for whom negotiation and compromise is anathema, and conquest to dominate others became a driving force. Islam, the religion that sprang up late in this vast history is, at heart, based on the simple idea that there is a Muslim-believing world and a Non-Muslim world, and believers must struggle to expand Islam and bring it to all.
While not so different from missionary Christianity, the difference is the physical climate upon which Islamic society took root. Combine a missionary religion, focused on the next life, in an unforgiving environment, with the values of tribal strength first, and you get a propensity toward forceful imposition of the winner survives and takes all: Islamic believers over the non-believers.
Ursula K LeGuin illuminated this very issue in her brilliant science fiction work about a planet suffering permanent winter, “The Left Hand of Darkness”. She was describing any desert – hot or cold – and the culture that grows from such a place:
“Winter [the desert] is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is simple and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger. No margin, no reprieve. A man can trust his luck but a society can’t; and cultural change, like random mutations, may make things chancier. So they have gone very slowly.”
Christianity and Hinduism never arose in geographical conditions that produced such a culture. True, violence and savagery on mass scale is true of these societies too, but the particular nature of modern suicide terrorism as somehow glorified and justified, bears all the hallmarks of a uniquely nihilistic, and ultimately self-defeating, death cult. Who can forget the Iranian Mullahs handing out plastic keys, representing the door to heaven, to thousands and thousands of children who were asked to walk before Iranian troops on the battlefield of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s? What sort of culture produces something like that?
The only other civilisation (sic) that produced anything akin to what happened in Iran was the Aztecs. In their quest to satisfy their gods, they sacrificed everyone – children, women, the elderly, and the men. We can only hope that contemporary Shiite theocrats are assigned to history’s dustbin too.
So where does that leave those of us whose values and culture are so opposed to those of the suicide murderers who brook no debate, no discussion, and no live-and-let-live?
While the defence of liberty does require vigilance, the important thing to remember is that we are not at fault. We must hold still and strong that our truths – the right to liberty, freedom, free speech, habeaus corpus, right to assembly, democracy – to be self-evident and worth defending. Never to cower or explain away the actions of those who seek to kill for religious or cultural reasons. And to hold to account those who finance extremism and fanaticism in their quest to challenge western values.
Our greatest strength – the willingness to let all beings share their merits equally – is not our greatest weakness, as some would have. It is the very value that is worth defending and promoting in order to ensure all people have a chance to live a fulfilled life in a peaceful world.