Tuesday, December 21, 2004

On the nature of belief

As noted, the holding of a (religious) belief has been given a moral value. In an example from modern Indian history, Maulana Muhammad Ali said of Mahatma Gandhi : ""However pure Gandhi's character may be, he must appear to me from the point of view of religion inferior to any Mussalman, even though he be without character.".... 'Yes, according to my religion and creed, I hold an adulterous and a fallen Muslim to be better than a Mr. Gandhi." Belief trumps conduct.

Now, the belief-based systems have been dominant in the world for many centuries - Islam, Christianity, etc., and the moral value of belief has been secularized, i.e., it now exists independent of its religious origin. Thus, for instance, it seems to matter more to people, that George W. Bush is by belief a fiscal conservative than the fact that he is running up enormous deficits. His heart is in the right place, and that counts more than anything else. Belief in an ideology now makes one good or bad.

The dominance of belief has also made the social scientists interpret every culture in terms of belief. Thus, for instance, Hinduism is analyzed in terms of "beliefs". (Let me add that the modern Hindu has lost his bearings, and also is beginning to embrace the notion of belief).

Finally, belief is conflated with truth. The belief in Jesus, for instance, requires belief in the truth, the factuality, of a particular narrative of history. So far has this conflation gone, that it is very difficult for the modern mind to disentangle the two. How can belief have anything other than truth-value going for it? It is difficult to explain, but let me try.

The "Hindu belief system" is not a belief-system, such as, e.g, is represented by, say, the Nicene Creed. Rather, at its most basic level, the "belief" lies in the idea that performing certain actions (call them rituals, if you like) is efficacious. Being a possessor of this belief/creed confers no value. Value lies in the performance of the actions. Overall, the "belief-system" is a kind of manual of "how to go about in the world", and the "belief-system" explicitly recognizes that there is no unique or best manual to living. Moreover, the "belief-system" is not tied to the factuality of its stories and symbols, any more than the teaching of Jesus in the story of the prodigal son is tied to the specifics of any such incident. The stories or so-called myths are not pseudo-history, nor are they explanations.

The best I think of for the modern Western/Westernized soul is the metaphor of music. Music is not based on fact, and thus has not truth-value. There is no virtue in "believing in" classical music or jazz or whatever. We would not say of someone, he's a great musician, if all he produces is noise. The value lies in the performance - playing or composing - and not in any belief. A school of music, or a musical tradition represents an accumulation of knowledge of method and style of performance. Musicians explicitly realize that there are many other valid ways of producing music other than the ones they know.

The metaphor ultimately fails, because one does not see how to go from "good music" to "good person". The point is that the belief "Classical music is true" is merely a point of view, and the belief "Classical music is the best music" confers no moral elevation to its holder.

Certainly, I'm not claiming that within the "Hindu belief-system" Hindus don't fall prey to errors of fact or judgment. It doesn't mean that Hinduism doesn't have explanations which are simply wrong - it is just that these explanations are not essential to the system. Since belief (need to perform certain actions) and factuality are separated, Hindus may keep doing something even when the context in which the actions made sense has passed. This is the dreary desert sand of dead habit in Tagore's poem. The point is that this is a different approach to life, with no claims of being a better one or a worse one than the one the modern person is likely to be familiar with.