Saturday, September 16, 2006, was M S Subbulakshmi's ninetieth birth anniversary. I was, I confess, a bit surprised that this went largely unacknowledged when there is so much hullabaloo over the birthdays of politicians.
On the other hand, who needs an official reminder to recall an immortal? And who needs an excuse to pull out a Subbulakshmi record and cleanse one's ears from the clangour of politicians' voices?
This year, however, there was a special resonance when I put my much-battered LP of the M S Subbulakshmi recording of Bhaja Govindam on the turntable. When that record was cut, in 1970 as I recall, the producers begged Rajaji (C Rajagopalachari) for an introduction. (Both Subbulakshmi and her husband Sadasivam were devoted to the scholar-statesman.) Rajaji's two-minute speech is a distillation of centuries of Hindu thought.
'The way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge, or Jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind it becomes wisdom. When wisdom is integrated with life and becomes action it becomes Bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. To believe that Jnana and Bhakti, knowledge and devotion, are different from each other is ignorance.'
As I am sure everyone knows by now, just four days earlier Pope Benedict XVI had addressed the same dichotomy -- as he saw it -- between 'Faith' and 'Reason'. This is the now famous speech at the University of Regensburg, where the Pope quoted a long dead Byzantine emperor to set up an argument.
I find it very hard to believe that Pope Benedict failed to foresee the storm of protest that his words unleashed. Please remember that Joseph Alois Ratzinger earned a formidable reputation for his intellect. He is fluent in half a dozen languages -- English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Latin -- over and above his native German. He can also read classical Greek and Hebrew.
He is accepted as one of the greatest theologians alive, is a student of history and an amateur musician, and became familiar with foreign affairs during his years serving Pope John Paul II in the Vatican bureaucracy. Do you think someone of his intellect and experience would not weigh each word as though it were gold dust?
I have little or no acquaintance with the Christian scriptures but surely there must be some verses in the Bible that deal with 'Faith' and 'Reason'. Why then was it necessary to dig up the provocative words of an obscure emperor? Manuel II Palaiologos is not, shall we say, the most famous of the rulers of the long-departed empire of Byzantium!
Nor, contrary to most newspaper reports, has Pope Benedict apologised for anything he said at Regensburg. I was interested enough to dig up the precise language he used in response to the controversy. The Italian words he used were sono rammaricato, which can be interpreted either as 'I am disappointed' or 'I regret'.
Was the Pope 'disappointed' at the reaction in the Islamic community, or did he 'regret' what he had said?
In any case, the Roman Catholic Church has little moral authority when it comes to accusations of spreading religion 'by the sword.' Catholic Portugal was responsible for inflicting hideous cruelties upon the Hindus of Goa, where 'infidels' were burnt alive after the Inquisition was established in 1560.
It was reported that in some Portuguese territories non-believers were driven to church with sticks and blows. These Catholics were so zealous in their faith that they tried to suppress even the ancient Syrian Christian churches in Malabar, so their treatment of Hindus is best left to the imagination. Let it be said that this behaviour was faithfully mirrored in Latin America -- burning, execution, forced conversion, and all.
However, I must tell my Muslim friends that they did themselves no favour by reacting as they did to the Pope. Did he implicitly accuse Islam of spreading through the sword, of condoning violence in the name of faith? If so, the reactions of the more outspoken elements -- and those are all that will be remembered -- bore out his words.
A 68-year-old Italian nun was killed in riots in Somalia after the religious leader Abubakar Hassan Malin urged Muslims to 'hunt down' the Pope and kill him 'on the spot'. In Britain, Anjem Choudary stood outside Westminster cathedral while calling for the Pope 'to be subject to capital punishment.' And, of course, our own Syed Ahmed Bukhari called on Muslims to 'respond in a manner which forces the Pope to apologise.' (I would love to know how calling for a total bandh in Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to force the Pope's hand!)
The debate over which Abrahamic faith is more violent is, however, less interesting than the central thesis of the Regensburg address. Pope Benedict made an interesting point, asking how a Western civilisation based on reason could handle a culture where faith reigns supreme. I suspect that would lead us to conclusions so troubling that it is easier to debate the lesser point, about Manuel II Palaiologos and his Iranian correspondent!
Speaking as a Hindu, while I am troubled by the violence of course, the debate over 'Reason' versus 'Faith' leaves me cold. Go back and read Rajaji's words, they sum up the Indian tradition more eloquently and succinctly than I could manage. There is no battle between the twain because Jnana and Bhakti are not different paths to God, they are exactly the same in the ultimate analysis.