Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Sacred and the Secular: Splitting the Difference

Somewhere around the 160th page of Edward Slingerland's 'Trying Not To Try,' a thoroughly engaging distillation of the twin strains of ancient Chinese philosophy - Confucianism and Daoism - as they pertain to the question of a life lived in accordance with the 'Heavenly Way,' I suddenly realized the importance of a living, breathing, culturally coded connection to the sacred. Slingerland's book is filled with studies from contemporary cognitive science sitting alongside popular cultural asides, but the ways of being that he is trying to explain really come alive through stories, parables and koans, through exchanges between masters and monks, between teachers and (often unwitting) students.

These stories put me in mind of the hundreds of stories I have grown up with by virtue of simply being Indian. My cultural inheritance consists of myths, legend, fables, histories - sketchy tellings dense with import, entirely forgotten but accumulating nevertheless, trace by faint trace, in my consciousness. Everywhere I expect, and encounter, meaning. Where there isn't myth, there is history. Where there isn't history, there is superstition. There isn't a lake the Pandavas didn't drink from, a temple not pillaged by invaders, a fortress not betrayed by a conniving minister or soldier, a coastal town not altered forever by seafaring adventurers, a church whose architecture is absent of colonial imprints, a grove that has given up all its ghosts.

Humans are story-telling creatures and yet even among this species it is astounding, sometimes, the extent to which we Indians absorb and emit story. The air we breathe is thick with story and yet we complacently create more - churches and mosques where miracles happen, idols who grant wishes and visas, celebrities who become demi-gods, rapes and murders that confirm our belief that this is the worst of all ages, herbs that will cure all.   

This is how we become, in India. This is how we know what to, and what not to, do. This is how we learn how to be. We inherit thousands of years of story and the luckless among us - the untouchables, the poor, the aboriginal, the feminine - the ones whose stories are negated - are crushed by oppressive narratives. Some of us are luckier, and we carry our tales a little more lightly, confident in the knowledge that they have validity and worth. Either way, though, we would all be very different without our stories, completely unsure of how to travel the distance between the present and the unknowable future.   

This preponderance of story explains to me, somehow, why Indian popular culture lacks the ferment of popular culture in the United States. Because societies that are secular, less preoccupied with constantly coding the sacred, have to rely on popular culture to fill in the blanks - the blanks of tribe, of value, of morality. And secularism is not a problem we have. 

No wonder we have fewer strains of pop music, fewer sub-cultures, not too many hippies and nowhere near enough hipsters and liberals. No wonder our mainstream cinema has, in its all too short history, chiefly been engrossed with ideas of patriotism, nation-building, class conflict and modern-day romance. These are topics on which our mythology is either silent or inadequately accessible. No wonder our writers, for the most part, write books that are less fantastical. We don't need modern-day myth-makers like Tolkein, Rowling, Gaiman, or Pratchett. We have too much fantasy and magic already. What we need is a tethering to reality, some sense-making and interpretation of the world as it is. That's why we have Rushdie - magical, but also real. Recognizably fantastical. 

Our conviction that we are connected to what is sacred is often dangerous. It makes us less receptive to change, less inventive, less creative, too complacent, too preoccupied with the past, not concerned enough about the work of building an equitable society for the future.

But I'm suspicious of stripped down secularism as well. What happens to a people when they believe that they have to create everything they will ever need? When they realize they will have to invent not only the future, but also the past? When truth has to be absolute and self-evident, all hard edges, like the shining cube of science I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? When success is a busy striving, contingent on control, with failure logically anchored in individual deficiency rather than complex circumstance? When things that should be shimmering and mysterious find no place in the popular discourse? Sense-making is a life's work, and stories that telegraph the sacred give us somewhere to start.

So what is that fine balance between the sacred and the secular? Where we are conditioned but also curious? Where the old stories inspire us to tell newer, better ones? Where a glorious past doesn't preclude an adaptability to the ever-changing present? Where you can feel relieved that the ancients knew, but that you now understand? The sacred and the secular - what I wouldn't give to split the difference in this country, today.    

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