Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Gandhi's Baptism - Ridiculous but Rational

The news that the Mormon church has posthumously baptised Mahatma Gandhi drew a chuckle from me. But then I'm an agnostic. I shouldn't have been surprised to read that the effect it had on others wasn't quite the same. Some Hindus were offended.

Rajan Zed explained that Hindus did not mark death as the end of existence. Ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) referred to death as abandoning of worn-out clothes and acquiring new ones. Hindus believed in reincarnation with moksha (liberation) as a goal; which brought end to rebirth, embodiment and death.

Zed stressed that ancestors had always been highly important in Hinduism since ancient times. Hindus followed sraddha, pitryajna, pinda, etc., rituals for their ancestors. It would be really painful for Hindus if they came to know that somebody unrelated performed some rites on their ancestors without even asking them.

Translation: Your fantasy offends my fantasy. Your Easter bunny punched my sharabha and I'm really upset.

I have a simpler explanation for this event. Gandhi's posthumous baptism is an attempt -  an entirely rational one, mind you - by modern Christians to address an acutely embarrassing contradiction in traditional doctrine.

Christian doctrine holds that all humans are born as sinners thanks to the Original Sin of disobedience by Adam and Eve. Humans are therefore condemned to an eternity of Hell when they die unless they are "saved". The only way they can be saved is for them to repent their sins and accept Jesus Christ, who was himself free from Original Sin (being the virgin-born Son of God and hence not among the progeny of Adam and Eve) and who died for all our sins in an act of substitutional atonement.

[Rajiv Malhotra's response to Christian evangelists who knock on his door with the "good news" of salvation through Christ is to tell them about the "Hindu good news", i.e., that there is no original sin and that we are all innately divine. It's equally unsubstantiated, but a good riposte nevertheless.]

All well and good, but the problem with this Christian doctrine is its implication for "good heathens", i.e., people who have lived good lives but have never accepted Jesus as their saviour.

Gandhi is the exemplar of the good heathen. He lived a life of fearless truth, writing candidly about his many (real and perceived) failings, repenting and (often needlessly) atoning for them. He also practised non-violence, forever turning the other cheek, yet persistently confronting injustice, fighting for the rights of the oppressed and working for communal peace and harmony. The standard Christian escape route of the "deathbed conversion" also did not apply to Gandhi. He was publicly assassinated, and his dying words have been officially recorded to be "He Ram!" ("O Rama!"), an invocation of the name of a Hindu god. There is some controversy over what he actually said as he was dying, but none of the versions mentions anything about Jesus. So it's safe to say there was no deathbed conversion or acceptance of Christ in the case of Gandhi, and he died as he had lived, a "heathen".

[I believe Gandhi was very Christian in at least one negative aspect - he constantly suffered from needless guilt.]

The example of Gandhi as a person who wouldn't qualify for admission to Heaven according to doctrine has been a constant source of embarrassment to traditional Christians, especially in these modern times when a more secular interpretation of goodness is in favour. It seems unreasonable to more and more people to condemn a good man to an eternity of Hell just because he didn't accept one particular version of "the truth". The idea of a loving God threatening people with eternal torment if they do not accept Him sounds just childish. Many atheists have stated that such unjustifiable fundamentalism was what opened their eyes and turned them off religion. Doctrine is no longer taken on faith but is now expected to justify itself through reasonable argument.

I see this posthumous baptism of Gandhi as an attempt by the Mormon church to extricate orthodox Christianity as a whole from the embarrassing moral knot it has tied itself into. There is a window of opportunity here because, according to doctrine, souls don't actually go to Heaven or Hell until after the Day of Judgement (which hasn't happened yet), and so there's the chance that they can be saved while they're still waiting! Posthumous baptism gives the heathen soul another chance at salvation, and who's to say the soul won't eagerly grab the opportunity, now that the truth that was hidden from them earlier is plainly visible? The faithful can now say with relief that Gandhi will probably be judged worthy of Heaven because he must have accepted Jesus posthumously.

You have to admire the ingenuity of the idea. Embarrassment has been avoided without an overhaul of the doctrine itself!

I'm not offended, merely amused. Watching the shenanigans of the doctrinally religious is like watching contortionists in action, tying themselves into knots and trying to get out of them. For me, the atheistic explanation of our existence is still the simplest and most rational - and entirely adequate.

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