An octogenarian’s thoughts about religion (Part 2)

In Part 1, I made the following claims: That the major religions are equal in their potential; that the Hindu faith is more attractive for me because it is most comprehensive (because it offers a view of mankind’s place in the Cosmos, as well as a cosmology involving cycles of existence each of 3.11 trillion years); and that, and while our prayers may take diverse forms, we all pray for the same reasons.

I now highlight yet another, and most significant, feature of religions. The following extract is from Chapter 16 of ‘Destiny Will Out’, my first memoir.

“All religions guide us in our relationships with fellow humans. This ethical component draws upon a belief in a Creator (and this was not denied by the Buddha) and, as we are all bound to the Creator, we are bonded to one another. In intent, then, the ethical component of all religions of faiths is the same. Those religionists who argue to the contrary may well be placing themselves and their powers over us; I distrust the integrity of such people. This is not to deny the equivalence of the humanist perspective to the core ethics of the spiritually religious.”

Ignoring the reality that the ethical imperative is ignored by greedy individuals, as well as by those who are politically driven (possibly implying that their claimed religious faith is a facade), without an ethical code shared by those of us who believe that we are co-created by God, we may be compared with lesser members of the kingdom of fauna, the animal kingdom.

 

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Celebrating nationhood

The celebration of Australia Day has come and gone, exacerbating the division in the populace as to the appropriateness of the date.

Pride in one’s nation is wonderful; and advisable. However, when the visible, audible, and palpable underlay of the populace, the indigenes of Australia, remain the underclass in the nation after more than two centuries of control over their lands, their lifestyles, and their life-chances, could they be expected to commemorate the anniversary of the date of invasion by the British?

Australia was formed as a nation on 1 January. Celebrating Australia Day on the date would, however, deny an extra public holiday. We can’t have that. Public holidays should also fall on a Friday or Monday, enabling a long weekend for full-time employees. The operators of small businesses and their traditionally casual employees can have no say in this matter. How then decide on an appropriate day?

Then there are the ‘trogs’ of this nation. Another generation of these will have to join their Maker before any Aboriginal rights, or even recognition as First Nation Peoples, could ever be considered. In this allegedly democratic nation, what a large majority (say 80%) of electors or the population want has been repeatedly over-ridden by (concealed) cultural superiority, sectarian religion, or political-party affiliation. Our elected representatives represent only their parties, which represent only their own interests. Re-election is all that matters.

Now that the federal government has increased both entry numbers and the ethno-lingual diversity of the immigrant intake, seemingly in the belief that the world will soon run out of migration-seekers, there will be a natural tendency for some new settlers to remain involved in the politics ‘back home,’ to the extent of returning to fight their tribal opponents.

Others will yearn for some aspect of their traditional culture which is incompatible with Australia’s institutions or cultural values and mores. It may be the next or succeeding generations which feel Australian – and with pride.

Successful migrant adaptation can be expected in a country known for its ‘fair-go’ ethos.

When will our Aborigines be accepted as a distinct people, and that ‘bridging the gap’ in disadvantage goes beyond political rhetoric? I fear, not racism based on skin colour, but tribal superiority based on cultural conditioning over more than two centuries.

‘They need to be like us’ used to be said frequently. They clearly have. What now, in this highly-vaunted multicultural nation?

Cultures need not be competitive

Some years ago, childless couples in Australia were adopting babies from overseas. An Aussie woman opposed this practice. As she explained to the newspaper which published her letter, foreign babies bring ‘foreign cultures.’ The reality, of course, is that any foreign culture brought in would be in the baby’s nappy.

Culture refers to the ways humans behave consistently, traditionally; and the underlying values. I was brought up in a family and tribe of Hindus. Hence beef was not on the menu. We did not eat pork, although it was the main meat for our Chinese neighbours. We saw pork as hygienically unclean. Pork was not avoided because of religious beliefs, as with the Jewish faith and Islam.

During the racist White Australia era, Anglo-Australians complained about the odour of garlic, ginger, and curry spices used by Asian students in shared kitchens. The huge influx of Europeans soon stopped that. Young Aussies who had travelled overseas also took to Asian and European foods.

In the 1960s, I observed 2 young white Aussie girls buying from a food store owned by an Englishman the ingredients to be combined into curry powder. They knew exactly what they wanted. On the other hand, I bought a packet of imported curry powder. I had no idea of its ingredients. My mother had never told me; indeed, I had not been allowed into the kitchen.

Cuisine and clothing, as cultural markers, cross ethnic boundaries easily, in time. Prayer and associated religious rituals, while variable, are motivated by identical objectives – to seek succour from, and to express thanks to, God. Diversity in religious belief is not a barrier to close inter-cultural relations, as I have observed. Doctrine-bound priests may not agree.

In terms of day-to-day living, what differences in behaviour do we all display – wherever we are on the globe – which pose barriers to mutual tolerance inter-culturally?
British Malaya, with its ethno-tribal diversity during my development, was a multicultural nation-in-the-making. There was mutual tolerance, in spite of an original lack of a shared language. We lived our lives as guided by our respective cultures and, in time, through habituation, education, and some social interaction, became one people. Only politics can be a threat to social cohesion.

My own extended family includes Chinese, Malay, Indian, English, Burmese, Italian, and Anglo-Australian genes. We are the lamp-lighters to a new world based on a shared humanity, with any historical cultural tensions devoid of consequence.

 

Hinduism in Indonesia

In front of the Indonesian Embassy (on Embassy Row, Washington), one would have expected to see the statue of Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia. But no; there is the Hindu Goddess of learning, Saraswati, glowing white and gold, with her four arms upraised. At her feet are three students -young Barack Obama and his classmates while he was in grade school in Indonesia.

The goddess’ statue, on top of a lotus, stands tall a block away from the Indian Embassy in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

Why would Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with Hindus accounting for a mere 1.7 per cent, choose a Hindu goddess as its embassy’s symbol?
It speaks volumes about the nation’s respect for religious freedom. Indonesia is a secular nation and its constitution is planked on the philosophy of “Pancasila” which is pluralistic in its outlook. The constitution refers not to “Allah” but “Tuhan” so as to ensure that the minorities feel fully integrated.

Indonesia has the fourth largest Hindu population and the highest number of Hindus outside the Indian subcontinent (after Nepal and Bangladesh). Most Indonesian Hindus are Balinese.

Hinduism’s manifestations in myriad forms are on display in every sphere of Indonesian life. The Hindu influence is immediately brought home when a traveler boards the national airline bearing the name from Hindu mythology – Garuda, the bird and vehicle of Vishnu. The national emblem of Indonesia is Garuda Pancasila. Hanuman is the official mascot of Indonesia’s military intelligence. At the 1997 South-East Asian Games at Jakarta, the official mascot was Hanuman.

Ganesh, the God of wisdom, is inscribed on the 20,000 rupiah currency note. The logo of Institut Teknologi Bandung – Indonesia’s premier engineering institute – is also Ganesh.
The dwarpal statue is placed outside hotels, shops, public offices. He sits with the right knee on the ground and holds a formidable mace in the right hand as a protector of the establishment. Even the Bank of Indonesia in Yogyakarta is guarded by, not one, but two dwarpals.

Indonesia has issued many stamps on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata featuring Arjun, Krishan, Hanuman and scenes from the epics. Depiction of epics in the form of folk painting, shadow puppets, dramatic characters and sculpture are found across the length and breadth of the country.

Sukarno himself was named after the Mahabharata character, Karna. Sukarno’s father, fascinated by his characterisation but equally disapproving of his support to the wrong side in the war, named him Su (good) Karna. Sukarno’s daughter was named Megawati Sukarnoputri and was the president of the country from 2001 to 2004.

The language of India is Bahasa which in Sanskrit means language (Bhasha). Thousands of Tamil and Sanskrit names are found in Indonesia, many of them in their corrupted form due to the passage of time.

The National flag of Indonesia, called the “Sang Saka Merah-Putih” (The Sacred Red and White) has been influenced by the banner of the Majapahit Empire, which during the 13th century was one of the largest empires of the region. Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions in the Majapahit Empire.
(From the Internet.)

(Comment: Indonesia is not the only East Asian nation influenced for a long period in history by Indian culture)

Are all cultures reflective of a religion?

The brutal slicing out of the clitoris – we know what it is, where it is, and what it can do – of girls and young women has been claimed to reflect a cultural tradition. Was this practice derived from a major accepted religion?

The marrying off of a daughter as soon as she reaches puberty, reportedly to a much older man, has been claimed to reflect another cultural tradition. Which religion recommends or endorses this practice involving child-brides?

In another culture, a woman’s feet are bound, thus keeping them small and not particularly reliable for walking. (I have seen such women travelling by rickshaw in British Malaya.) Which religion endorses this cultural practice?

In an old culture, a widow is reportedly induced to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre by her relatives. Which religion’s doctrine requires this practice?

In Australia, I have seen a figure walk down a street covered from head to feet in what I think of as a walking tent. The gender of the occupant of the ‘tent’ was not clearly discernible. I have read in our media that some such persons have sought the right to drive a car along extremely busy streets, in spite of the probability that lateral vision may be compromised by the face covering. Which religion requires this practice of covering the whole body?

A focus by a religious sect on the ‘netherlands’ of women has resulted, in a secular nation, in a doctrine banning contraception and abortion. Is this cultural stance reflected in the doctrines of other sects of this religion?

In another nation, one’s caste (defined by one’s occupation) allegedly over-rides class. This means that, while one may be able to rise up the class structure, all the descendants of any one caste are traditionally required to be defined and treated as members of that caste. Is this cultural tradition supported by any version of Hinduism?

A culture defines the way things are done, by how they live, by members of a community. These ways do change, just as the underpinning values change through the generations. Immigrants know how cultures evolve in the nations they left behind, even as they seek to retain the cultures they brought with them.

The leaders of an ethno-cultural community may claim the primacy of their cultural practices in a multicultural nation, by seeking the legitimacy hopefully available within their religion. Regrettably, religion’s foundation (or core) beliefs may not sanctify all the diverse cultural practices of its followers.

What society is then left with are not only competitive religious sects and religions, but also ego-related competitive cultural practices. How then about adopting this principle – horses for courses?

This would mean that, in suburban Australia, where there is no risk of a storm involving a horizontal wall of sand many feet high cutting its way through (I have experienced such a storm well away from human settlements), there is really no need to cover one’s hair, face and body as if one is living in a desert.

We do not need child-brides, and such other ‘traditional’ cultures transplanted into this emerging cosmopolitan polity. In time we will rid ourselves of religious edicts imposed by historical controllers of humanity.

Revised cultural traditions will also enable a swifter tribo-cultural integration into (urban) Australia.

Some interesting aspects of multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is just another term for ethno-cultural diversity. The world over is largely multicultural. When that term was temporarily linked with the term policy in Australia, a vision of a separate sand-pit for ‘ethnics’ did arise, for some. Here are some interesting facets of experience.

“When ethnicity was in vogue, I asked publicly whether I, Australian by citizenship, Malaysian by birth, Ceylon Tamil by distant ancestry, and Indian by culture (Hinduism) could identify myself as an ethnic; and, if so, by what criteria. Even the academics were silent! What of those who are the products of marriage across nationalities or ethnicities? More and more of our young are marrying across parental cultures.” … …

“Cynically, I did ask some of the ethnic community leaders who were second or third generation Aussies if they spoke their mother tongue fluently; and with whom (other than their mums) did they speak. Did they read books, see films and attend plays in that language; dress the way their ancestors had back ‘home’ (except for multicultural festivals in Australia); and celebrate their tribal cultures in any meaningful manner? I also asked if their communities reached out to other ethnic communities as equals.

Then there is the issue of some Australia-born descendants of immigrants going back to their tribal lands to fight a traditional, or even a new, enemy. Further, if integration is rejected by them, would that affect their right to call on the equal opportunity that is available? And since social superiority is given little air in Australia, how would ethnic superiority be viewed? I believe these questions to be relevant.”… …

“In the early 1980s, I once observed 3 teenagers on a tram. Their heads suggested 3 different European regions of ancestral origin. They were dressed almost identically, and their speech accents were identically Australian. This was evidence of integration. Travelling through the city, observing, I saw few turbans, skull caps, head scarfs or face covering. Careful immigration selection was the explanation. Why is the situation different now?” … …

“By and large, were tribal leaders, that is, the priests and politicians, to keep away from the fields of cultural interaction, we the people will eventually reach out to one another? How so?

Excluding the exploiters, there is an innate human tendency – displayed so satisfyingly by children – to do so. In Australia, thanks to the public education systems, by the third generation, youngsters will feel, and behave as, part of a whole far wider and deeper than the family or an ethnic community. The gestalt effect will take over.

How does this work? Good immigrants will tend to retain their values almost intact, while modifying their behaviour as appropriate. Those of their children exposed to Australian values through the public education system will move a step or two away from parental values and practices; reciprocally, parental perspectives may also change, become less parochial. There is good evidence that this happens. The third generation is not likely to be influenced by the values of their grandparents, as peer group values begin to back up values inculcated through public education, socialising, sport, and habituation – unless the priesthood intervenes. Do religious leaders, their schools, and other institutions hinder integration?” … …

“Ingrained prejudice cannot be changed by propaganda. For instance, again in the 1980s, a senior public servant, an icon of his political party, denied accommodation in migrant hostels to British immigrants, thereby denying the most important on-arrival assistance the nation could provide to needed immigrants from other countries as well. The Minister did not note this denial. Are Ministers adequately awake when reading briefs?

This senior public servant also cancelled the planned posting of a Moslem employee to an overseas migrant selection office, and the promised promotion of a Hindu employee to a senior position. But he was not a racist; only a tribal. Tribals tend to look after their own, by discriminating against those who did not belong! And some burbling about the Eucharist!

Racism and tribalism (I have suffered from both in Australia), cultural and religious prejudice, and the ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ attitude, like the ubiquitous bacterium or even crime, cannot be totally eradicated. The young priest who, in the mid-1960s, kept 5 Roman Catholic women away from their Protestant neighbour, is unlikely to have changed.

However, education, habituation, and media scrutiny will moderate extreme behaviour. Strengthening citizenship as a commitment to the nation and its values, as a measure of successful integration, will yet continue to make us one people out of many.”

The above extracts are from the chapter ‘On multiculturalism’ in my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society’.

An ethnic approach to minority communities

Emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, an eminent sociologist, and Chairman of the federal government’s Ethnic Advisory Council, said (in a published article) that the policy of grants to ethnic groups pays disproportionate attention to one of the many dimensions of multicultural policy. It promotes “an ethnic approach to minority groups”, by emphasising the things that divide us, instead of the things that bind us. The policy also extends the scope of equality of access (to the nation’s resources) to the equality of outcomes.

The need for some short-term affirmative action or positive discrimination “specifically targeted to refugees and other victims of oppression” is, however, not denied by the professor. He went on to say that wooing the ethnic vote “represents a grave distortion of multiculturalism for all Australians. It measures the success or otherwise of multicultural policies by the amount of special funds and programs directed specifically to ethnics, irrespective of whether they lead to a cohesive or fragmented society”.

He says also that multiculturalism is seen here as an instance of public policy developed for the benefit of minority groups and not as Australia’s legitimate response to the demographic reality of our society.

This view is confirmed (also in a published article) by Sir James Gobbo, an eminent community leader (later Governor of the state of Victoria), when he says that the philosophy of multiculturalism “calls for respect for differences but not their perpetuation at public expense”.

I am grateful to these two eminent leaders (with whom I once had a close and warm working relationship) for articulating my views so succinctly and in such a timely manner. But stacked against the three of us in our approach to funding for ethnic groups (and implicitly to the plural service structures so endowed) and the divisiveness of such an approach, is a multitude of ethnic leaders. Of course, these claim to speak on behalf of their people.

However, it is difficult to know if their constituencies are consulted regularly and whether, in any such consultations, each community has considered how its grandchildren will relate to the grandchildren of other Australians, and to what kind of nation they will belong.

(This is an extract from my first book ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of multicultural Malayan in White Australia, written in 1994. Following Prof. Zubrzycki’s positive review of the book, he wrote to me a personal letter. He said “I agree with everything you have said, except on the issue of voluntary euthanasia.”

All the reviews of the book were fabulous. Refer book pages for Raja Arasa Ratnam on amazon.com’s kindle books. Refer also my other WordPress posts on multiculturalism. To me, multiculturalism simply defines ethno-cultural diversity; no policy is needed.)