Abou Ben Adhem

I’m a big fan of Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). I don’t particularly consider myself religious but I like his philosophy (as described in the poem) about being a lover of fellow-men (no pun intended) being superior to a lover of god. I get extremely irritated by people who cause inconvenience to others by way of their religious acts.

Recently I happed to read this excellent (in my opinion) article in Open by Manu Joseph (Udupa, who referred the article to me, thinks it was written in my style. I would take that as a major compliment (to me, of course). It’s been ages since I’ve made arguments like those). The article is about Islam and cricket betting but Joseph makes some important points about religion itself. To quote my favourite part of the essay,

A religious person, having done his pilgrimage, having done his prayers and fasts, has no further motivation to be good in a way that is more useful to the rest of humanity.

I think on similar lines every time I’m invited for some pooja-cum-lunch where the lunch gets delayed beyond reasonable time because the hosts (who are also doing the pooja) are taking too long with the pooja; giving too much attention to God at the cost of the felllow-men and women who they have invited. There are several such examples you come across in daily life.

Thinking more about it, I wonder if this statement (from Joseph’s article) actually applies to a religion such as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma, to be technically correct), given it’s Karma concept. The beauty of the Karma concept is that you accumulate points in God’s books (all well tabulated by the excellent Chitragupta) by being nice to your fellow men.

Now, with the Karma concept being around, and the efficient Chitragupta watching you, I’m not sure you need to “relax” and stop bothering to be nice just because you’ve said your prayers and generally been nice to God.

In this context, it surprises me further that supposedly deeply religious Hindus are nice to god at the cost of being nice to fellow men and women. Probably they just do some “religious things” blindly without really understanding what they are doing; mug up their prayers without understanding them properly. I think there’s a black swan risk in what they are doing!

In other news, during the Ganesha pooje today I tried my best to put my limited knowledge of Sanskrit to good use and actually understand the mantras that were being chanted while I was going through the motions. I’ll probably write in detail about that in another post.

10 thoughts on “Abou Ben Adhem”

  1. maybe not having to be nice to your fellow humans when you do some specific prayers is a good thing when it comes to situations where you need to be nasty? like, say, being cruel to be kind, or self-preservation?
    hinduism gives a weighted sum to being nice to your fellow beings as well as being nice to god… it’s here that it’s more flexible than liberalism or whatever you call it (war is not a solution, it’s not justified to kill any person however evil they are, etc) or other religions (as you’ve mentioned in your post).
    with hinduism, you can inconvenience your fellow beings as long as you can convince god (or yourself) that it’s worth the karma points tradeoff. that flexibility can really be useful. like all rama had to do after killing ravana was a pooja to atone for the sin of killing a brahmin.

  2. But it is not just in Hinduism that you accumulate points by being good to fellow human beings. Koran talks more about being good to fellow humans than about being supplicant to God. If anything, it is a lot more precise than any Hindu book on what constitutes good, when and how you should do it, what happens if you don’t do it, etc.

    Only problem (which doesn’t apply in Manu Joseph’s argument) is that this be-good-to-fellow-humans is stated as be-good-to-fellow-muslims. Because it was assumed that for the most part, muslims will be living with muslims. And in parts, it also explicitly asks the followers to be *not* good to non-muslims (especially kafirs), with suggestions ranging from being indifferent to them, deceiving them to even violently kill them under some circumstances. But that is a separate argument and not the one Joseph or you are making.

    Religion is the most cost-effective way of policing. Joseph’s argument seems to be that inherently good people will start doing bad things because they have completed their quota of goodness by being good to God. I find that hard to believe. If you are inherently good, then you won’t do bad things, irrespective of whether you believe in God or not. But the problem is, most of us are not inherently good. We are all tempted to do something bad at times. One deterrent for that is the fear of getting caught by human “police” (parents, society, government, whatever) and the consequences that follow. But religion adds a more powerful deterrent by creating this all-powerful, all-seeing police with most terrible consequences to follow (there is no question of “if caught”, because the police is all-seeing). And no religion comes close to Islam in describing the power of the police, the terribleness of the consequences or the precision with which do’s and dont’s are specified.

  3. I think the link between religion and good conduct is rather tenuous. It’s interesting to note that the most law abiding countries on earth (the Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian countries of Western Europe) are also among the least religious parts of the world!

    The most effective of all deterrents is the censure and non-cooperation of your fellow men, which I think matters a lot more than any holy scripture.

    Having said that, I think atheists do exaggerate the ills of religion (especially when Christianity is held responsible for the Dark Middle Ages). Such suppositions are a product of highly biased, ideological “reasoning”.

  4. @shrikanth: but those countries also have the best economic parameters (and hence lower incentive to break the laws) and best policing (hence higher deterrent). For what it is worth, this is what wiki says: “Meanwhile, other studies seem to show positive links in the relationship between religiosity and moral behavior[34][35][36]—for example, surveys suggesting a positive connection between faith and altruism.[37] Modern research in criminology also acknowledges an inverse relationship between religion and crime,[38] with many studies establishing this beneficial connection (though some claim it is a modest one).[39] Indeed, a meta-analysis of 60 studies on religion and crime concluded, “religious behaviors and beliefs exert a moderate deterrent effect on individuals’ criminal behavior”.[40]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality

    I agree with you that most effective deterrent is censure by society (that is why I find myself disagreeing with most of these libertarian bloggers – Amit Verma for example – who advocate an “each man unto himself” kind of philosophy). I was wrong in describing religion as a more powerful deterrent.

    But my point is, it costs close to nothing. All you need to do is tell some stories to kids when growing up, a visit to a temple/mosque once a week and that’s it. If it makes even 1% difference in the level of crime, I think it would be worth it.

    Does it have other hidden costs like suppressing the creativity of human beings, discouraging scientific temper, hindering progress, etc? Possibly – but that needs to be established and then those costs need to be weighed against the benefit of preventing crime. But that is anyway a separate argument from what Manu Joseph is making.

    Having thought some more on Joseph’s argument, I think what he is saying is this. Believers can wash the guilty conscience after committing a crime by praying to the God and thus be ready to unleash further crimes on humanity. Since atheists don’t have that option, they continue to suffer pangs of guilt and hence won’t commit further crimes. But praying to God only settles your account with God. Since the atheists don’t even have that account, there is nothing to settle. If it is being assumed that believers don’t feel anything towards humans against whom they have committed the crime, then why should we assume that atheists will have any such feelings?

  5. There are two reasons this doesn’t hold very true for Hinduism. The first is Vedic ritualism, which concentrates far more on prescribed rituals of prayer and so forth than on codes of conduct. The second is the bhakti movement – which came up about the same time as the mostly Buddhist concept of karma started influencing Hindus – explicitly tells you that all you need is devotion to god to wash away your sins and achieve salvation – as we see in the stories of the thief who spills oil on a lingam by accident and automatically is pulled to heaven. That way, it’s similar to how Southern Baptist churches in the US insist that a lifetime of good work won’t get you to heaven but accepting Jesus as your saviour will.

    In fact if you look at the Bhagvad Gita, it just reinforces the whole concept that reason, ethics, philosophy, etc aren’t of much use. Krishna first tries to convince Arjuna that the war is ethically justified. Then he puts a philosophical argument that nobody is actually going to die. But it isn’t until he reveals his vishwaroopam and Arjuna is overcome by worship for God that he actually does anything.

    MOST religions emphasise other things above love for your fellow man.

    Judaism – has many commandments about how to live and behave, of which only some are about being kind. Then again, a lot of the Ten Commandments are about not being UNKIND – thou shalt not steal, kill, covet, etc. But explicit “thou shalt be nice” commandments are kind of swamped by all the commandments about how to offer sacrifice, how to eat, etc.

    Christianity – most of the parables of Christ himself are to be kind to your fellow man. But fifteen hundred years of organised christianity has kind of made everyone forget that. Also see point about Southern Baptist churches above.

    Islam – as Mohan already said, has a huge number of strictures on kindliness, e.g. zakat. But again there are strictures on everything so it’s not like kindliness is the most important thing. And surrender to god is the first of the five pillars while zakat is the last. So the priorities are clear.

    Hinduism – like I said, there is so much going on besides the concept of karma that kindliness will never really become the bedrock.

    Jainism – I have no idea about what their scriptures say, but whatever it is, Jains are such sanctimonious and passive aggressive assholes that it doesn’t really work out.

    Buddhism – has karma. Does not offer escape routes like bhakti to skip the effects of karma. By elimination, Buddhism is the only hope for mankind.

  6. Axshully the convo between srikanthk and Mohan shows the problem with Manu Joseph’s article – it puts across a point of view that religion is the ONLY thing that influences your behaviour. But you can have behaviour influenced by the secular aspects of culture and tradition (think Arthashastra, Kamasutra, etc); natural empathy or lack thereof, or you can even decide to pick the parts of religion that say you should practice kindness to your fellow men (google for Red Letter Christians; or Sikh langars) or to focus on the parts that tell you to thulp your fellow man (Leviticus! Leviticus! Leviticus!)

  7. it puts across a point of view that religion is the ONLY thing that influences your behaviour.

    Correct. Also, atheists make the same mistake of assuming a strong negative relationship between rule of law and religious adherence. The countries of North west Europe (including England) were largely barbaric, tribal countries barely 1000 years ago. Their transformation is largely a consequence of Black Swan events like Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, emergence of jury system among other things. Neither their former barbarism nor their subsequent civilization can be attributed to their religiosity or lack of it.

    1. Also, atheists make the same mistake of assuming a strong negative relationship between rule of law and religious adherence.

      Come on, now you are creating a straw atheist the way Manu Joseph was creating a straw believer. There are atheists who spend their lifetime banging on about how terrible it is that people live their lives under the rule of religious law.

      I agree that barbarism is not necessarily caused by religiosity, but revealed religious edicts can be used as a justification for barbarism (or indeed barbaric codes of law). In the case where revealed religion comes up with barbaric codes of law – and most religions do have these – lower religiosity is necessary but not sufficient to become (more) civilised.

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