The Life and Death of Faith
There are always a couple of famous rotting corpses in the spiritual backyards of our literary imagination. There is, for instance, the corpse of Farther Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. A priest, a monk, a holy man of the highest rank, a well-loved leader of the church, whose own life has been exemplary, Zossima’s body is expected to preserve well. There may be no church promulgation to this effect, but that is the popular belief. By the afternoon of the next day, however, the odour of corruption is all too evident, slowly seeping out of the chamber of death like an incubus. Even the most faithful followers of the deceased elder cannot deny it. Why is God testing their faith, they wonder. Soon, tongues begin to wag. There is a minor rebellion brewing in the monastery. Zossima’s teachings must be false, some of the doubters aver. Young Aloysha, the guileless, faithful, devoted Aloysha, who so doted on Zossima, is perplexed too. When Ratikin tauntingly asks him, “But, surely, you’re not so upset because your old man is stinking the place out? You didn’t seriously believe that he’d start pulling miracles out of the air?” all poor Aloysha can do is to reply: “I did believe, I do believe, I want to believe!” Ratikin mocks him farther, “So, you’re angry with your God now, are you?” Aloysha says with a sudden, wry smile, “I haven’t taken up arms against God, I simply don’t accept his world” (400).
Was the putrefying corpse of Zossima really a sign from the heavens? Did it symbolise the end of an older order of faith and belief? Was Dostoyevsky presaging a new era of atheism and anarchy, an age in which horrible crimes would be committed in the name of History, an epoch of concentration camps and torture chambers? As he himself wrote in a letter to Katkov, the editor of The Moscow Herald, “our socialists … are conscious Jesuits and liars who do not admit that their ideal is the ideal of the coercion of the human conscience and the reduction of mankind to the level of cattle” (xix-xx). Yet, in his own time, few supposed that Dostoyevsky was warning his country against the danger of the new, secular ideologies that were invading Russia from Europe; even fewer readers understood that he was advocating a return to the orthodox, national church of Russia as the answer. Years later, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin wall, Doetoyevsky’s political perspicacity seems utterly breathtaking. True, the “devilishness” of Stalin may not have exactly resembled that of Stavrogin. While the latter’s was a personal, inner, moral corruption, the former created a system which could truly be considered diabolical. Indeed, it was on seeing the smooth, white, embalmed hands of Stalin, as he lay in state in his coffin, that Marquez decided similarly to equip his dead dictator, the amalgam of all the despotic rulers of South America, in Autumn of the Patriarch.
Any way you look at it, the crisis of faith looms large over the modern world.
Some time or the other, most of us have cried out in the anguished and desperate tone of Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, “My Faith is gone.” Brown, against the admonitions and pleas of his newly wedded wife, also called Faith, has ventured into the forest on a secret and shameful errand. He has followed a familiar figure, who in fact resembles his own father. On the way, he is astonished and frightened to see such personages as Goody Cloyse, who taught him his catechism, and Deacon Gookin, the very image of probity and piety, also hastening to the Devil’s Sabbath. Not only are a great many of the good, decent, and respectable folks of New England society there, but even someone who resembles the Governor’s wife. And yet, Brown believes that he can resist the Evil One: “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil.” But in the multitude of saints and sinners in the forest clearing, he thinks he hears the voice of his wife. “Faith!” he shouts, “in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him crying ‘Faith! Faith!’ as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness.” Just when Brown thinks he’s imagined it all, down comes fluttering through the night air, a pink ribbon, such as Faith had worn that very night. “My faith is gone!” Brown cries, “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.”
What happened to Brown in the forest? In his dark night of the soul, was the world revealed to him in its true, fallen state? Or did he simply have a bad dream, a nightmare? Whatever it was, it changed him forever. When he returns to his village at the end of the story, he is no longer the carefree and naïve young yeoman who went into the forest on an unholy errand: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.” Having seen evil within himself, he doesn’t let it go, but clings on to it, projecting it outwards upon the whole world. Regarding everyone around him as evil, he dies a sad, lonely man, whose “dying hour was gloom.”
The Puritan mindset is too simple, too reductive to contain contraries. It usually constructs the world in sets of binary oppositions: God/Satan, white/black, good/evil, virtue/sin, and so on. It denies the grey, the ambiguous, the doubtful. In its efforts to device a world full of security and certitude, it simplifies reality to a formula. Armed with such a ready reckoner, it assaults life with enormous confidence and vigour. Its successes are great, but so are its failures. It lacks negative capability, the ability to negotiate contradictions. To it faith is a matter of obedience, of submission, of utter lack of choice. Just as there is no escape from the original sin, grace too is irresistible—but only for the elect, the chosen. Faith is a deadly serious business, a matter not only of life and death, but of everlasting life and eternal damnation. No wonder that even today, the vast hordes of believers, the huge flocks of the faithful should so easily veer towards fanaticism and fundamentalism. The opposite of this faithfulness, is the faithlessness, nihilism, extreme scepticism, and alienation of the modern condition. In this obverse world, God is dead and man is condemned to be free.
Between these two extremes, is there a choice, a third way, a different path?
Away from Europe and America, in the remote brahmin agrahara of Durvasapura in Anantha Murthy’s Samskara, there is another rotting corpse. The anti-Brahmin, Naranappa suddenly dies, leaving his brahmin community in a disarray. These brahmins didn’t know what to do with Naranappa when he was alive; in his death, he poses an even bigger challenge to the agrahara: “Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance.”
Naranappa has broken every rule in the book. He has been a meat-eater, a wine-bigger, a fornicator; he has kept a prostitute in his house, fished from the sacred temple tank, thrown the sacred, ancestral saligrama into the river. He has vowed to destroy Brahminism. Now, in his death, his threat seems to have come true. Even the learned and saintly Praneshacharya doesn’t know what to do with the body. Naranappa’s death rites have to be performed, but who will do them? Naranappa has no children and though he has renounced brahminhood, brahminhood hesitates to renounce him. Praneshacharya cannot find the answer to this dilemma in any of the ancient books. He fasts and prays before Maruti, the village deity, but to no avail.
Instead, on his way back to the village, he stumbles into Chandri, Naranappa’s concubine. Before he realises what is happening, they couple in forest clearing. At midnight, the ascetic Praneshacharya wakes up: “A night of undying stars, spread out like a peacock’s tail. ... green grass smells, wet earth ... and the smell of a woman’s body-sweat. Darkness, sky, the tranquillity of standing trees.” The acharya, nearly forty, married out of choice to an invalid for almost twenty-four years, knows a woman for the first time in his life. Is it all a dream? But when he wakes up the next morning, Praneshacharya feels like a man lost to himself: “For the first time, a desolation, a feeling of being orphaned, entered his inmost sense.” Without knowing it, he has now become a kin to Naranappa, his dead, demonic adversary. He remembers a Sanskrit chant, “I am sin, my work is sin, my soul is sin, my birth is in sin.” What should he do? How should he face the brahmins of the agrahara waiting for his verdict?
The starving brahmins, waiting for their leader present a sorry spectacle. Vultures and crows, birds of ill omen, seem to have invaded their village. The strike the gongs and blow their conches to ward off the scavenging birds. The din and clamour can be heard in neighbouring villages, who think that the pious brahmins of Durvasapura are at their daily worship and rituals again. But, unbeknownst them, a terrible fate awaits the agrahara. Naranappa has brought the plague to their idyllic, little village. There are dead rats everywhere. Dead rats and one reeking corpse, with which they don’t know what to do. .
Clearly, Naranappa’s festering body is a symbol of the larger malaise that threatens to engulf the brahmin village. It has brought the plague of faithlessness to this brotherhood of chosen ones. Even their leader, the saintly Praneshacharya, is nonplussed. He doesn’t know what to do. Worse, he finds refuge and solace, quite accidentally, in the arms of Naranappa’s mistress. Neither Praneshacharya nor the other brahmins of the village realize what has actually happened to them. The shadow of the black death has fallen upon them.
If anyone has her bearings, it is Chandri, the low-caste, “fallen” woman, who has been Naranappa’s kept woman for ten years. While the brahmins are fasting on account of the pollution caused by Naranappa’s death, she walks to the plantain grove and feeds herself. She nurses and comforts the poor, starving, and distraught Praneshacharya, when Maruti gives him no answer. On her return to the village, she heads straight for Naranappa’s house. Instantly, she realises that what lies there is, more than anything else, is a dead body that must be attended to: “That was not her lover, Naranappa. It’s neither a brahmin nor shudra. A carcass. A stinking, rotting carcass.” Acting swiftly, she enlists the help of a Muslim friend of Naranappa’s. Together, they cremate the body, without the knowledge to the confused, suffering brahmins.
I think we should follow Chandri’s example. Good faith soon becomes bad faith. When that happens, it assails us like a decomposing corpse. We must then do what is demanded of us—cremate the corpse of the old, broken faith and dive into the vast ocean of truth. Simply speaking, there are no guarantees in this world: God may fail us, the Guru may fail us, and we may fail ourselves. Our job is to confront and face the truth, the reality of our existence, not to believe in half-truths and half lies. Faith is not about dwelling in the elysian fields of comforting illusions but about swimming in a whirlpool of discomforting truths. It involves an engagement with life, with people, with reality. Faith is about being free and fearless, not about trying to hide behind doctrines to escape from suffering.
To understand the mystery of faith, we have to learn a fundamental lesson. Faith in something—anything—is bound to be transient, limited, prone to error, susceptible of decay and death. The object of faith, no matter how cleverly we define them, are always imperfect. An imperfect object cannot sustain a perfect faith. The deeper reason for this difficulty will be clearer when we shift our attention to the subject of faith. This subject is unreliable, fickle, transitory, and ultimately, insubstantial. It seeks to perpetuate its regime of separateness by identifying with some thing that is more reliable, less transient than itself. But no matter what it invents, that invention will bear the taint of its inventor, will have to share its partiality and dissatisfaction. As embodied beings, how can we overcome this problem of inadequacy, of incompleteness?
It is only when faith is reposed not in something or the other, but begins to manifest itself as the very medium of our existence, the essence of our being, the stuff of life, that it becomes meaningful. This kind of faith is not necessarily unwavering or unreasoning. Nor is it blind or absolute. It is not unquestioning belief, nor is it a system of beliefs or dogmas. It is closer to a confidence, a trust, a reliance, not in something, but as a sort of commitment to truth, if you will—truth, which is what is, which is not an idea or a thought, but the very stuff of existence.
The Sanskrit word for faith, or something akin to it, is Shraddha. The Bhagawat Gita has many passages extolling the virtues of Shraddha. Without Shraddha, Krishna says that true knowledge is not possible: “Sraddhavaml labhate jnanam tat-parah.smayat’endriyah/ jnanam labdhva param santim aciren’adhigacchati” (4.39) or “One who has deep faith gains divine knowledge, being full zeal and devotion to it, and endowed with the mastery of the senses. Having attained that knowledge he is soon established in supreme peace.” Here faith is seen as the prerequisite for that knowledge which brings peace. Faith is therefore something that prompts right perception and action. But it is in one of the creation stories of the early Vedic lore that we find a really fascinating account of Shraddha. In this myth, Shraddha and Manu are the progenitors of humankind. Manu, or the one endowed with Mind, is the father, while Shraddha, of faith, the mother. Shraddha is the daughter of Kama or the life-principle. Kama is not just desire or expectation, but the creative force which seeks to express itself through life. It is that power, like the primal energy, which is responsible for all activity, all becoming. That is why, in Jaishankar Prasad’s great epic, Shraddha is called Kamayani, the daughter of Kama. Shraddha or faith, is thus the determination of the life force to manifest itself. That combined with the conscious mind makes up the human being.
I think this myth contains a deep truth. The truth is that faith is natural to the human condition. We humans are creatures of faith. It is a part of the design of creation itself. There may be an individual defeat or death, but not a collective end of human aspirations. Nature is careless in her plenitude. She allows all kinds of experiments, all sorts of permutations and combinations. Through every possible setback or obstacle, she persists. Ever and anon.
Faith, then, is native to us. Life itself would perish without it. It informs every action of ours; it moves us in every thing we do. It is faith that leavens our spirit to rise, to grow, to evolve. Faith is not something alien to us, some thing we should desire or inculcate. It is that which motivates all our fumbling, groping, and reaching out. Faith, like life, is indestructible. This is not faith in something or someone, but faith as the very essence of our being, the very stuff of our existence, the very marrow of our bones.
We mustn’t therefore worry about losing faith. Faith is anterior to any gain or loss; it is one with life. As long as life persists, so long will our faith last, in one form or another, in way or another.
I shall end, as I began, with a literary anecdote. Madhu Tandon’s Faith and Fire is a powerful and moving, real life account of a young couple’s experience in a remote ashram in the Himalayan foothills. The, couple, giving up the world, has undertaken a life of spiritual discipline under a famous Guru. The Guru, however, is responsible for a number of disciples, one of whom he is grooming as his successor. The heir apparent, from his own insecurities, takes a dislike for this couple. The result is that they find themselves gradually shunned and isolated in the small community, which is their only refuge. The Guru, to all appearances, continues to shield and support his successor in a manner, which seems totally unfair to the narrator-protagonist. Finally, there is a break. The couple, very painfully, decides to wrench itself from that community and return to the big city. There is a decisive encounter with the Guru in which he listens to their side of the story in silence. Finally, he says words to the effect, “If I have made a mistake, I shall pay for it.”
What do these words of the Guru mean, the narrator wonders. Does it mean that the Guru’s protection is still over her head? Does it mean that, in some way, the Guru himself brought on this rupture? She will never know for sure, because a little while after her return to the city, the Guru passes away. The book ends with the author’s dream in which she experiences the Guru’s great love and protection. The ambiguity about the meaning of the book, however, persists. Sceptics will read it as a warning against unconditional surrender to Gurus and masters. But, by the same token, the faithful will read it as one more demonstration of the omniscience and infallibility of the Guru. The Guru is God embodied; even if he appears to be “wrong,” he can never be wrong. The wrongs are righted in the end, they would claim. The Guru, realizing the unsuitability of the couple for the life of the ashram, sends them back. It is all a part of the Guru’s leela or play.
In a sense, I too would support such a reading, even purely on theoretical grounds. Yet a part of me cannot avoid taking cognizance of the flip side of faith—extreme distress and suffering. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” the Buddha told a grieving Ananda on the eve of his Mahaparinirvana. Don’t depend on others; don’t rely on authority; examine your options yourself and make a rational choice. Your liberation is in your own hands; take responsibility for your life. This is one kind of message in spiritual life. The other kind seems to be the opposite: only true and perfect surrender makes you worthy of grace. Faith alone will transform us; without it, we are useless, like dried up twigs, fit only for burning. Both positions, on closer examination, do not appear to be all that far apart or opposed to one another. Both imply faith; but in the first case, the faith is in oneself, in one’s own capacities as a moral agent. In the second instance, faith is reposed in someone else who, however, takes one one’s responsibility.
The spiritual life is no bed of roses; rather it is, to use another metaphor, like walking on the razor’s edge. I respect those, whose faith is strong, who trust in God, Guru, or some ideology, who, moreover, live according to their betrothals and commitments. I also respect those who question every certitude, who are doubters and sceptics, who seek only the truth, not any illusion that masquerades as truth, who, moreover, have faith in themselves and take responsibility for their own lives to the best of their abilities. A faith which is never tested is no faith at all; a faith for which one doesn’t put one’s life on the line, is not worth holding on to; a faith that comes too easily will not stand the stress of life. Only a faith based on recognition, understanding, clarity of mind, and direct apprehension of reality will remain steadfast in adversity. Such a faith is fearless and free, not timorous and fettered.
Though I don’t have such faith yet, I do not wish to substitute it with anything less.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Tr. David Magarshack. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.
Anantha Murthy, U. R. Samskara. Tr. A. K. Ramanujan. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1977.