Monday, 30 December 2013

Book Review: Paths To Peace – Religion, Ethics and Tolerance in a Globalizing World, by Dirk Collier

I normally don’t read books on spirituality or morality or suchlike values. However, I made an exception in the case of Dirk Collier’s Paths To Peace – Religion, Ethics and Tolerance in a Globalizing World, mainly because I have read Collier’s treatise on Akbar, The Emperor’s Writings and was deeply impressed by Collier’s knowledge of India, Indian culture, Islam and Hinduism, not to mention his simple, but elegant writing style.

I was not disappointed. Paths To Peace is a masterly exposition on various strands of religious thought, the direction(s) we are being led in on account of the various organized religions we follow and Collier’s thoughts on how we may all live harmoniously amongst so much diverse thoughts and beliefs, not to mention the prevailing distrust and hatred in today’s world.

Collier analyses and compares Pakistan and the European Union. The former was created on the basis of religion and has drifted off to become an Islamic State, something far from its founder’s ideals. Currently, Pakistan is undergoing tremendous upheaval in terms of violence against the Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Hindus and other minorities. I wish Collier had commented on Israel, another state created on the basis of religion and which faces a number of unique problems, but Collier doesn’t talk about Israel. Collier tells us that unlike in the case of Pakistan, creation of the European Union has brought peace to Europe, a continent which saw extensive warfare on account of religion for many centuries between its various nation states and with neighbouring powers such as the Ottoman Empire.

Collier deals with a number of questions and issues which I am sure have perplexed almost everyone who has considered the existence of God and the relativity of moral values. Are all values relative to something else? Is it possible to argue that Hitler’s goals could be considered acceptable by some?Are moral choices avoidable? Is interreligious dialogue possible at all? Would there be any pre-conditions to such dialogue? If yes, what are they?

Collier advocates the universal principal of reciprocity as a panacea for most ills – Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. Collier argues that even if we are sure that our point of view is right, we ought to be modest enough to admit that we might have something to learn from other people’s insights. Failure to admit others’ views leads to fanaticism, which in Collier’s view (and mine) is responsible for most of the problems faced by the world.

One of the best bits about Paths To Peace is the part (Part II) in which Collier compares three of the world’s leading religions – namely Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Collier notes that Christianity has so many plus points, in particular, its central tenet that we should love our fellow human beings. On the flip side, Christianity has created feelings of unworthiness, ineptitude and guilt in so many people, driving them to the greatest despair. Also, despite its avowed pacifism, for ninety per cent of its history, Christianity has behaved as the most violent, most imperialist and least tolerant of all religions. Christianity propagates the view that it is the only path to salvation and unlike Judaism, Christianity has always sought to convert the rest of the world. In this context, Collier looks at Pope Francis’s attempt to reach out to people of other faiths with approval, saying that ‘doing good is more important than adherence to dogmas.’

In contrast to Christianity, Islam has a simpler ideology. Also, throughout the Middle-Ages, Islam has been more tolerant and progressive than Christianity. On the flip side, Islam has the concept of naskh, whereby certain verses of the Qur’an have been revoked by others – Collier finds this problematic. Analysing Prophet Muhammad’s life, Collier finds the Prophet to be absolutely sincere and of good faith regarding his divine mission. On the other hand, the Prophet did lead many wars and raids on rival tribes, married many wives, including underage children. In short, ‘the Prophet Muhammad was very much a seventh-century Arab, whereas Jesus of Nazareth truly comes across as a timeless, almost unreal, radically peaceful prophet, whose Kingdom, as per his own words, is not of this world.’ Collier asks a number of tough questions regarding Islam, in light of the recent actions of its proponents who have taken an extreme and fundamentalist view of its tenets. The responses to his own questions from moderate Muslims, as collated by Collier, do make for interesting reading.

Collier, the humanist, has a large, warm spot for Hinduism. Even as he takes note of issues such as the caste system and the recent phenomenon of Hindutva, Collier comments that Hinduism is remarkably inclusive and pluralistic, much more than Islam or Christianity. Hinduism’s Sanatana Dharma is much more pre-occupied with attainment of freedom or liberation, through re-unification with the Divine, than with any particular set of beliefs. Hinduism is unencumbered with thoughts of apostasy, heresy, blasphemy and other ideas which still plague Islam and Christianity.

Towards the end, Collier reveals his own preference in matters of divinity, one which avoids the Paradox of Evil (if God is all powerful and all-good, how can evil exist) and the Paradox of Predestination (if God is all-knowing and knows beforehand what’s going to happen and God is all powerful, how can evil occur?). Rather than reveal anymore, I’ll leave it to you to read this wonderful book and discover Collier’s prescription for avoiding much of the evil, hatred and violence that plague the modern day world.

More an essay than a book, Paths to Peace runs to just under 200 pages in large print. I finished reading the entire book in around four hours without any break. Paths to Peace has been published by Vakils, Feffer & Simons Private Limited. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, has written its foreword.