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Archive for the tag “India”

Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism

KimKim by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The other day I came across an article about St Nicholas of Japan’s approach to Buddhism, and I blogged about it here Christianity and Buddhism | Khanya. St Nicholas acquired his knowledge of Buddhism at first hand, from Buddhist sources. He lived among Buddhists, talked to them and read and translated their scriptures.

My knowledge was much more remote. We learned something about it in history classes at school, and then, in our English classes, we were given Kim to read.

Kim is fiction. It’s about a 13-year-old boy in Lahore in what is now Pakistan who attaches himself to a Tibetan lama who is searching for a river of healing. Kim is a street kid. He is worldly wise, an expert beggar, and he is impressed that the lama, unlike most holy men of his acquaintance, is not in it for the money. As he sets off with the lama in search of the river, however, he is given a message and a packet by an Afghan horse trader of his acquaintance to deliver to a British colonel. At that time the British ruled India, and the message was an intelligence report. So Kim becomes a teenage spy.

After reading St Nicholas’s account of Buddhism, I looked at Kim again, intending to glance quickly at it to see where some of my earliest knowledge of Buddhism had come from. But I read it all the way through, for the fifth time, though the previous time was nearly 30 years ago.

Why read a book five times? I’ve read only a few books through five times, and it is because I found something new in them each time I read them, and this time was no exception.

One thing that struck me this time was that the last time I had read it, in 1988, the Cold War, which we had thought would last for ever, was about to end. And this time the Cold War is starting up again, and so a lot of things that passed me by in previous readings suddenly stand out.

trumprusOne of the themes of Kim is the clash between British and Russian imperialism. So in a sense it is very up-to-date. The Russophobia in the book reflects the Russophobia we see in the news and in social media every day. One merely has to mention the name of a Western politician as having a less than hostile attitude to Russia for that politician to be discredited, at least in the minds of some people. There is no need to say what the politician has done wrong, or what the Russians have done wrong. He talks to Russians, he’s a bad guy. It’s as simple as that. And so in the book, the bad guys are all those who make friendly overtures to the Russians, and the aim of the British spy network is to detect and neutralise them.

As the story goes on Kim himself is more deeply drawn into the spy network, and is educated and trained for the task, though his education is paid for by the old lama. During the school holidays, however, Kim goes back to the lama and joins him in his wanderings, much to the disapproval of the school authorities, who regard the lama as a street beggar.

On my first few readings the parts I liked best were Kim’s wanderings with the lama, and the accounts of the different religions, castes and cultures of India, the human variety, and the vivid descriptions of the different characters.

But always the lama stood out. from the rest as a centre of tranquility. It looks as though, in writing it, Kipling was himself torn between the worldly concerns, including the concerns of British imperialism, and the thought of the lama, that all this was illusion, and a hindrance to enlightenment.

I’ve never been to India, so I’ve no idea how accurate Kipling’s characterisations are, but they are certainly vivid and lifelike. He describes Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains, and really just one Buddhist, the lama who is central to the story.

One difference between this and my previous readings of the book is that in the previous readings I had very little idea of Orthodox Christian asceticism, Since then I have learnt a bit more about it, and, as I noted in my article on Christianity and Buddhism, there are several external similarities. On rereading Kim the resemblances between the lama and an Orthodox spiritual elder (geron, starets) become even more marked. Both strive for dispassion (apatheia), and the lama repents when his passions get the better of him, as when one of the villains (Russian, of course) tears a drawing he has made of the Wheel of Life, and he reacts with anger. So, perhaps, an Orthodox monk might react if someone desecrated an ikon he had painted, and so might he repent afterwards. Only on the penultimate page of the book do the differences really stand out, and the impersonalism of Buddhism becomes really apparent.

Even the first time I read it, at the age of 14, I enjoyed fir first 100 pages, when Kim was wandering with the lama on his spiritual quest, more than the rest of the book, where the spy story seemed to take over. This time, however, it seemed different. The theme of the spy story is present from the beginning, only I had not noticed it so much before. And even in the last 100 pages, where it become central to the action and motivation of the characters (except for the lama) it seems that there is a contrast between the two ways — the violence of the world’s way, with the calm of dispassion, as the lama explains to Kim:

The blow was but a shadow upon a shadow. Evil in itself, it met evil in me — anger, rage, and a lust to return evil. These wrought in my blood, woke tumult in my stomach, and dazzled my ears. Had I been passionless, the evil blow would have done only bodily evil — a scar, or a bruise, which is illusion. But my mind was not abstracted, for rushed in straightaway a lust to let the Spiti men kill. In fighting that lust, my soul was torn and wrenched beyond a thousand blows.

Apart from the notion that a bodily injury is illusion, I see little there that might not have been said by a Christian spiritual elder.

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Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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A traveller’s history of India

A Traveller's History of India (2nd ed)A Traveller’s History of India by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I added this book to Good Reads, and discovered it was my 1000th book, a figure that seemed to deserved some sort of notice.

As the title suggests, it’s a traveller’s history, a compact book intended to be read by foreigners travelling to India, and taken along for reference when there. It has a gazetteer of historic towns mentioned in the text, with indications of what can be found there, in addition to a brief outline of Indian history. I’m unlikely to visit India in my lifetime, so it won’t serve its purpose for me, but I nevertheless found it an interesting account.

It did, however leave me with some questions. Though the author is himself a foreigner (Sri Lankan) and so sees India with an outsider’s eye, he seems to adopt a north India point of view, and the south is only mentioned in connection with attempts by the north to conquer it.

He mentions the Aryan invasions (which many Hindu nationalists dispute) but says little about the people that the Aryans found when they invaded, other than that they tended to become members of the lower castes as Hinduism developed. It would have been interesting to know how this worked out in the south, where the Aryans barely penetrated.

There are also gaps in the story of the development of languages and religion. It appears that Sanskrit was brought by the Aryan invaders, but the Buddhist scriptures were mostly written in Pali, and won wonders where that came from, and somehow both got replaced by Hindi somewhere along the line.

Obviously one can’t fit everything into a small book, but a few extra paragraphs on these topics would only have added about 5-1o pages to the book.

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Untouchables – Dalits and Hindutva – Synchroblog

Over the last few years I have edited a number of abstracts of articles in missiological journals and a surprisingly high proportion of them deal with Dalits and Hindutva.

Consider the following extracts from a missiological article “Post Modern Challenges to Christian Mission in India” by V. Devasahayam (Bishop in Madras, CSI)

Though there has been a variety of approaches among missionaries, this wholly negative picturisation of mission history is neither factual or true to the experience of people in India, particularly the oppressed. JW Pickett says that Christianity has contributed to the economic development of converts, through education, health services, housing, personality reconstruction, reduction of wasteful expenditure etc. Missionaries protected the untouchable converts from violence and harassment, pleaded with government for their rights and represented them in public forums and courts. Their efforts to draw public attention the untouchables question stimulated Indian efforts on their behalf. “The fear of the Christian missionary is the beginning of social wisdom in India” remarked K. Natarajan

Mrs. Mohini Das attests to this fact:

“Stop for a moment and see what is happening. In both mission schools and government schools and hospitals the daughters of so called ‘Depressed classes’ now Christians, are teaching and tending the children of ‘Brahmins’. Untouchables? What has happened? They are untouchables no longer, for Jesus has touched them”.

To say that, however, affirms only the positive side, but there was a negative side as well, because a bit further on in the same article the author writes:

The caste Christians have not recognised Christian Dalits as equals and Dalits’ claim to equality is resented. Syrian Christians protested when all students were seated together in the CMS Teacher Training Institute in 1905. They complained to the Bishop: “We shall be glad to be informed why you have made this innovation in the seating arrangements without paying due attention to our feelings and opinions”. Fortunately the petition was dismissed both on theological ground and on the principle of equality. When Dalits demanded admission in school for their children, it was resisted by caste people including caste Christians. A prominent journalist wrote: To admit together the caste that had been cultivating intelligence for generations and those castes who had been cultivating land tannamount to tying a horse and a buffalo to plough under the same yoke. There are stories of caste Christians jumping out of the church through the windows when some Dalits were taken into the church for baptism. Christian Dalits are discriminated against by caste Christians both in the religious and secular spheres.

I have quoted just one article but one can read much the same in many articles in many different journals. One can summarise it by saying that Christian mission helped to improve the social position of the Dalits in India, but that many caste Christians were scandalised by this. And in recent years there has been growing resistance among Brahmins, leading to a growth in Hindutva — Hindu nationalism.

Again, in the same article the author describes Hindutva without “Hindu tolerance”: From the time of Gandhi, Hinduism was known for its tolerance of other religions, but that time is rapidly passing, and Hindutva seems to be gearing up for the Clash of Civilizations.

The controversial supreme court Judgement on Dec.11, 1995 has given Hindutva a legal approval: “ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind, and it is not to be equated with or understood as, religious Hindu fundamentalism”. The Hindu nationalist parties fought the elections in the name of Hindutva with the legal sanction for the first time. The architect of Hindutva ideology Savarkar’s said, “the crying need of our times is not men of letters but soldiers. …. you should abandon your pens in favour of guns.” The major items of Hidutva agenda are the consolidation of the Hindu community, the defence of its religion, the Hinduisation of politics, the militarisation of Hindudom, the establishment of Hindu rashtra and the reconversion of former Hindus.

Read the full article here:

For other synchrbogs on the theme of “untouchables”, see:

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