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Epistemology as Enigma

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By Amir Suhail Wani

What is knowledge and what are the sources of acquiring it. What’s our relationship to knowledge? Is it a sort of “I – that ” or “I – it” relationship to use Buberian terminology. What is reality? What’s being and what’s reality of being. If being is becoming, what’s becoming itself. If being is a compound of attributes, what are attributes on their own? What’s the final world stuff or the ultimate fabric of cosmos? These have been questions of perennial importance in human intellect. They have engaged and engrossed an array of scientists, philosophers, theologians and mystics in their solution. Einstein thus said that “I want to know the mind of God – rest are details”. In knowing mind of God Einstein and for that matter all great minds pursuing this question actually want to understand their own position in the spectrum of existence. From Milesains right down to contemporary existentialists the quest of human mind in the final analysis has been uniform. This is the quest for meaning – meaning of self and the “other”. In other words man has been in constant quest to properly contextualize his position vis a vis his encounter with his own self and with the universe.

Man has thus tried to understand himself with reference to within and without. This quest for meaning primarily sets apart man from other biological species. Tukkaram said man is excessively anthropomorphic, but there are reasons and genuine reasons for this anthropomorphic attitude. Many thinkers in contemporary times have contested the fact that animals too have a world view, philosophical systems, beliefs and other things that were for long time deemed as human prerogatives. But this line of thinking awaits lot of scientific research. Till that point one may say, though with the note of caution that animals live mainly by instinct. But man, in addition to his instincts possess higher privilege of rationality, cognition and spirituality. Man possesses the instruments of understanding, discrimination and subsequently volition. Man is not content with what he is; instead he exploits the natural “cause-effect” axiom to its full utility. Stability, in the sense of pure vegetative euphoria has nothing to do with human self. Man can’t be content, with what he is. He strives towards “what he can be” too. That’s why humans are few of those species that have an exceptionally high [average] life span.

 

This human restlessness that’s absolutely absent in other creatures in this magnitude manifests itself both at material and abstract plane of existential hierarchy. Thus human civilization is a story of intellectual and material progress. Our journey from primordial caves to modern skyscrapers on one hand and from to Derrida mirrors this very material and intellectual journey. Though, much can be said, both positive and negative about this sequence of events. It truly remains an unsolved question that has is it a real progress or a mere change. Has there been really any paradigm shift in our approach to comprehend the basic epistemological questions or we have just been going through what Michael Focault identified as “Episteme” .

But for now let’s skip this skewed issue, for it has been much deliberated upon by social theorists, philosopher and others without reaching any unanimous conclusion, for it is a question of multivariate nature. Let’s agree that we have not merely changed but progressed too, at least materially, if not ideologically and spiritually. But have we not simultaneously ended up in an ideological plethora, chaos, and loss of meaning, where everything is simultaneously proved and disproved by same tricks of rhetoric. Have we not entered a phase of human evolution whereby “sab takht uchalay jaye ge” remains applicable not only to political authority but to religion, social institutions and cultural heritage. In this ideological juncture, at this crossroad of confusion where to look for and what to hold onto, to arrive at a holistic understanding of life and universe. Epistemology which forms the bedrock of our understanding with its modern day variants of positivism, scepticism, deconstruction, scientism, postmodernism has in a sense not only opened vistas to multiplicity but simultaneously opened floodgates of chaos.

To borrow Derrida’s word it appears as if modern world like any text is revolving around an “eccentric centre”. Multitude of orbits has led to loss of centre. The phenomenological and existential expanse as was envisioned in traditional setting seems to have been reduced psychological phenomenon and manifestations of psyche in the wake of eccentric modernism. Consequently, modern epistemology by an explicit self-annihilation attempt seems to scaffold and constrain our understanding instead of spreading it out. By making reality subservient to mental categories and “arsenals of specific definition” modern epistemology seems to not only abhor but annihilate all forms and modes of learning and experience that transcend its specific moulds of understanding. We have landed into time where essence of meaning is lost to the definitions of meaning. Reality is defined and consequently devoured by theory, map is taken as territory and ‘attribute’ is substituted for ‘being’.

At this turn of events first thing that we need to pay heed to is that nature in its entirety is a symbol. Every object that sings the songs of existence is actually a participant to the larger song of cosmic theophany. Every being signifies meta-being and every epiphenomenon happening in the membrane of space time reminds us of transcendental noumenon that escapes all categories of human mind. This brings us in terms with symbolism – metaphysical symbolism to be precise and to distinguish it from literary symbolism.

Symbolism is to be taken as the master key in any endeavour that aims at unlocking the locks of cosmos. This universe and every object thereof is a symbol – symbol of sacred and divine. Creation is constant epiphany and each phenomenon brings us to the presence of theophany. Sacred texts which are themselves symbolic have often referred to this aspect of “nature as symbol”. Quran asserts that there are symbols of God within and outside of human self. It asks its readers to contemplate the verses which it calls “signs of nature (aayaat ullah)”. Most of religious phenomenology is couched in the language of symbolism. This symbolist approach is highly pertinent and rewarding in any attempt aimed at understanding any religious text with all its contours.

The dancing image of Shiva, the celestial patterns, ying yang, the image of lotus and many other symbols as they appear associated with various religions demand an in depth understanding. Rumi, an iconic mystical poet noted that Quran has a face value and underneath it has a latent meaning and then meaning within meaning.

The understanding and appreciation of these meanings is possible only if we accept and come in terms with the symbolism that’s at the heart of religious texts. Nature, history, human self and revelation, the four principle sources of understanding and guidance as they are must be reconciled with the symbols that’s characteristic to each of them. We may recall that this symbolism is not an external superimposition that is pasted on any text but it is a phenomenon evolving and emerging from the text itself. But this theory of symbolism isn’t amenable to those who are used to literalist textual approach and go to the extent of reading religious texts (which have a heavy symbolic import in their text) in literalist manner.

This class of people is responsible for much of misunderstanding that exists among different schools of metaphysics and religion. Their absolute loyalty to the Manifest and absolute negligence of essence has deprived the religion of its aesthetic and spiritual aspect. But, if manifest was really real and visible was actually actual, then nobody would have believed that log of wood is a storehouse of fire and energy. Iblees, focusing his sight on form refused to prostrate before Adam. On the contrary angels envisaged the essence of Adam and went ahead of his material temporality. Thus blind obedience to external form and absolute negation of “beyond the Manifest” is a negative characteristic. Thus, there are infinite illustrations within our immediacy that bring home the fact of symbolism. Ghazali, in his “Mishkat Ul Anwar” has aptly dealt with this symbolism – Quranic symbolism at least. God speaking to Moses behind burning bush, the vacation of Adam from paradise, the ascension of night, the heifer of Clan of Israel has as much symbolic and allegoric importance as much they hold true in their literal and historical sense.

To mystics we must turn to understand this symbolic theophany of nature in essence and to properly appreciate its all implications. The mystic tradition is common to all traditions in one form or the other, one way or the other has been loyal to this doctrine of symbolic interpretation throughout history. A typical example of this loyalty is plenitude of mystical poetry that has not only spoken of symbolism but based its superstructure on the very notion of symbolism. It is only in the appreciation of this symbolic attitude that we realise that the apparent ritualistic clash of religions melts down in their higher esoteric dimension. Thus the he mystics of every age and religion have spoken the same fact –the fact that creation is a symbol symbolizing the divine, eternal and absolute. But they haven’t stopped here, but rather worked upon “symbol-symbolized” relation with reference to absolute and relative, temporal and eternal. This has lend us beautiful doctrines like Wahdatul Ul Wajood, Wahdatus Shahood and their Western equivalents. It may be noted here with reference to symbolism vis a vis its treatment in mysticism that mysticism is not an imaginary digression, an abstract picnic in vacuous space.

Its much concrete in its foundations that our contemporary positivist science. The laboratory of science is external to man out there and every time you perform an experiment you will get the same results. Likewise, again invoking symbolism the laboratory of mysticism is here right within the man – wherever you go , this laboratory is with you and like scientific experiments, you can repeat your mystic experiences and get same results every time. Mystic thought is not merely confluence of philosophical question and metaphysical answers; it is much more than this. It not only integrates man, universe and God into an existential whole but also guides man to the presence of absolute where all questions melt away and silence plays an orchestra of meanings.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)


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Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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