Cancer is bad karma, eh?

Green movement activists are always puzzled, when wars are waged and gods are invoked simultaneously. Surely the arms industry is about politics, loot and commercial stakes, with a handful of diplomatic, or alternatively, virulently absurd hate speeches, thrown in? Similarly, when disease is linked by political oratory to past lives, we feel some anxiety. Is this the way that the politicians and their representative sadhus are evading social responsibility for illness and their institutional obligations?

Other people’s beliefs are thought by us to be superstitions, our own beliefs are imagined to be about real faith. However, “faith” could very well be in Science, which takes on the contexts of religious suspension, as well as toleration for other people’s imagined spaces.  French sociologist David Émile Durkheim used the category of sacred and profane to argue that the two are divided, hierarchical and antagonistic. “Sacred” is anything that which is seen to be higher, and valued. The Indian flag was sacred till a young woman wore it as a designer garment and had to go to court to prove that its secular use was acceptable to society and the judge. The Indian flag is used to wrap the coffins of dead soldiers. Therefore, the idea of religious need not be an intrinsic part of the sacred. Anything, anything at all, can be considered sacred, as long as it is kept apart from the mundane or routine which profanes it.

Religious ideas are sacred to those who belong to a particular community, but may not be sacred to those who do not believe in that religion or its ideals.  Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, two important sociologists who survived the World War I, while many members of their Annales School died, suggested that if the gods are not worshipped, they die. Therefore, god, religious texts, prophets and priests were social fabrications. Many of the ideological debates that surround us today represent the way in which individuals and communities position themselves vis a vis their religion, their faith, their dogmas and liturgies. So fundamenatalists believe that if you don’t believe in their religion or their god you will go to hell, if you don’t join the jihad you won’t have houris welcome you to paradise, and that your karma gives you cancer.

Ordinary people, in India, are exalted by their religious experience. They have an intense belief in this world, their place in it, their hopes and dreams are all laced by ideas of beneficence and joy. Their sorrow arises often from their sense of neglect because the gods and goddesses have ignored their prayers. As a result cults arise which offer wealth, jobs, and dreams of travel and recognition are continuously pursued with the help of the guru, who commands the fates to deliver. German sociologist Max Weber was immensely interested in the idea that the priest was the “magician of the mass”, the idea being that through his prayers, the bread turned into the body of Christ. In parallel form, we understand how simple halwa becomes prasad, an embodiment of the food of the gods. Faith turns material things into spiritual presences, the aura of the divine is all around us, only if we are open to it.

Recognition of the divine is not given to everyone, just as logic is not the turn of thought of politicians. If it were so, the nation state would not endorse 33 per cent of jail records among active politicians in parliament. The accumulation of bad karma is what they are best known for. Cheating, lying and looting is their usual modus operandi, ghettoisation of the poor and killing them by leaving them to die in the cold or extreme heat of hunger, is definitely contributing to politicians bad karma.

Rather than selectively imagining our past lives, ignoring human rights, and conceding to the hegemony of cultural tropes, which impose notions of good and evil, based on a variety of religious symbols, we need to get to the root cause of sorrow and death. Sarvam Dukham is written in our biological inheritance, it is compounded by our degradation in an entropy-ridden universe. In the last century, humans lived till 40 or 45 years, and most likely, dental problems and bone loss killed them off.  American writer, filmmaker, teacher, and political activist Susan Sontag argued that Tuberculosis became the symbol of the 19th century factory system, Cancer of the 21st century industrial society, and AIDS the curse of postmodern professional and information societies.  Human genetic coding will change rapidly with the compartmentalisation of the populations of the world into those who are exposed to severe radiation, personally by choice, or collectively by imposition, for who can escape the radiation from the mobile tower? As Christ said “The meek shall inherit the earth” or Gandhian economics.

Susan Visvanathan