Sunday, December 25, 2011

A New Perspective on Atheism

Can we define a word by what it does not represent, rather than by what it does represent? Is it fair that we assume the general public will responsibly fill in the blanks and develop a coherent definition to describe an abstract and broad concept? The answer is a clear no. No astute person can expect the public to come to a unified, clear consensus over what a word means, unless an authority properly defines it. Therefore, I agree with neuroscientist Sam Harris that “no one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist'” (Harris). However, in order to shed light on the discrepancies in usage of the word “atheist,” I will employ the word to describe my own subjective views contrary to the objective connotation of “atheism” found in dictionaries – dictionaries that devolve the word to a hollow concept lacking depth or substance. As much of the world encounters atheism only in the form of a word, not in the form of a living, aspiring fellow human, I hope to exemplify the attributes of atheism not commonly exposed to the public. By examining the word from three different lenses: etymological undertones, personal perspective and impact, and greater social implications, one understands that “atheism” is not a cynical, unhappy “doctrine...that there is no god,” but a flexible belief content with different, but equally fulfilling values and ideals (“Atheism”).

One prime reason for the lack of understanding of atheism in modern society originates from the etymological meaning of the word itself. The roots of the word “atheism” infer a void in the belief, rather than define the true ideals of exploration, experimentation, and individualism inherent in the way most atheists view their surrounding. The word “atheism” originally came to English via the Greek “atheos” meaning “to deny the gods, godless.” And furthermore, “atheos” advances from its roots of “a + theos” – meaning “without a god” (“Atheist”). Regardless of the root, since sixteenth century English, those who do not subscribe to a god have been relegated to believing in nothingness, instead of a set of different, but still valuable beliefs. However, Greek is not the only language to lend itself to the dispossession of the godless through the word. Similarly, modern Indian languages deriving from Sanskrit also strip atheists of a word that substantiated their beliefs. The Sanskrit term “naastik” literally translates to “not believing, not pious” – once again highlighting a void, not a different range of appreciated values (Monier-Williams).

Though the dictionary definitions of atheism are not false, they under no circumstance fully represent the means though which atheists represent themselves, the means through which they find satisfaction, or the means through which they fill the vacuums of nothingness described by the dictionaries – or even that means for such fulfillment exist. And therefore, most people who do not association the word with a person that they know struggle to comprehend the legitimacy or substantiation of the belief itself. Perhaps the lack of success on the part of ancient (and modern) languages to bring forth a descriptive, value-oriented definition of the godless lifestyle involves the degree of subjectivity, flexibility, and personal initiative recognized under the broad umbrella of interpretations of atheism.

The personal nature of atheism is one that encourages free-thought, open-mindedness, curiosity, and individualism. And this might have proven both as a boon and a bane to the manner in which society sees and understands (or does not understand) atheists. Firstly, the flexibility of atheism with no supervising priest, rabbi, imam, or guru allows the non-religious to adopt a personal definition of their beliefs that they structure specifically around their lives and families, their goals and aspirations, their careers and education. Although many who identify themselves as atheists will commit to many basic perspectives, most define a set of values important to them. For example, British geneticist and biologist J.B.S. Haldane's definition of his core beliefs distinguishes him as a scientist:
My practise as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not atheistic in the affairs of the world. And I should be a coward if I did not state my theoretical views in public.
Haldane applies his belief of objectivity, curiosity, and individualism to the scientific process while acknowledging the role that this set of values plays in his everyday activities in the lab. As this excerpt emphasizes, just as people's religious values travel with them and immerse into their numerous other identities – the same sense of commitment to a different set of values occurs in the life of the non-religious.

Consequentially, the ways in which I understand atheism and its correlated values to filter into my life differ greatly from Haldane's. As a college student, I see the prevailing theory of fatalism which is present in all religions as pointless and detracting from life. Praying as I prepare for an exam is non-consequential; my own efforts can pull me through. I also refuse to be intoxicated; if I object to surrendering my fate to a god, how can I surrender my judgment to alcohol and drugs? Through rejecting fatalism, I feel responsible for my own actions and am aware that any goals I set may be achieved through my own will and not that of any god's Providence. When I am successful I commend only myself; when I fail, I censure only myself. As an Indian-American atheist, I have always been a pragmatic person, challenging the various superstitions rooted in the Indian and Hindu cultures. I find reciting Sanskrit incantations for protection, consulting priests for a propitious wedding date, or adorning an amulet for good luck to be an unnecessary attempt to leave the real practicalities of the world behind. Rather than escape these practicalities, I prefer to work with them. In all these ways, I define myself as an individual, an individual with an open mind, personal values, and societal responsibilities.

The ambiguous definition of the atheist found in dictionaries also fails to assess the social implications an atheistic population has on its surroundings. A 2006 study from the University of Minnesota manifests this prejudice against atheists. The study concluded that atheists formed the least trusted demographic in the United States. As sociologist Penny Edgell comments on the results of this study, the “findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.” Likewise, society does not award atheists the same degree of tolerance that atheists have been awarding to other diverse minority groups. Edgell continues to note that the American atheist is “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.” (Paulos). Common atheistic values of self-determination, education, political participation, and tolerance not only affect the individual, but also their societies as a whole. Therefore, the definition of atheists as only “godless” commits an injustice to atheists' contributions to society.

Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman's analysis of declared atheists and their societies reveals trends that demonstrate against the view of atheists as apathetic, hateful, and depressed individuals alienated from their communities. On the contrary, the fewest murders occur in states with the highest percentage of atheists; only 0.2% of American prisoners are atheists. Societies with high proportions of atheists also benefit from greater tolerance toward homosexual and women's rights groups, as well as low levels of racial prejudice, and high levels of education (Cohen). Zuckerman also suggests that Sweden – arguable the most atheistic country in the world – donates the greatest percentage of its GDP to charity (Zuckerman). All these instances promote examples of greater cooperation, progressivism, and collectivism in societies rather than alienation, anger, and disillusionment stereotypically characterizing a secular, or clearly non-religious population.

These statistics also deny the common misconception that religion is equivalent to morality and that morality is equivalent to religion. This is not the case. One can indeed exist and prosper without the other. But how can we reverse this trend of outcasting atheists to the fringes while atheists themselves are attempting to integrate their societies? The definition and usage of the word “atheist” does not relay to the average man or woman a concrete description of what the godless incorporate into their lifestyle, ethics, or morals. And this ignorance keeps society and atheists distances my misunderstandings, misconceptions, and miscommunication.

To separate themselves from the range of ambiguity and implicit nature of the word “atheism,” many who do not identify themselves with any religion have chosen a new range of terms to explicitly identify their ideals and values. Terms such as “freethinking,” “humanism,” and “universalism” are all terms under the umbrella of “atheism” which which further substantiate a set of beliefs. For example, as a secular humanist, I believe that my personal decisions, choices, and ethics determine their specific consequences. I believe that power to accomplish is left to humans – and we must proactively make our goals as reality. Humanism advocates activism, not passive hope or faith.

But why a range of identities under an umbrella that believes in nothingness? Because that is a misconception propagated by the word “atheist,” that we believe in nothingness. The assimilation of new, different words each possessing a specific, unique definition – such as “freethinker,” “humanist,” or “universalist” – more clearly identify what atheism is and who atheists are, and not what we are not.

Given the controversial nature of the discussion over religion, words defined by vague or implicit terms such as “atheism” often lead to the spread of preconceived and ignorant notions. When a word itself cannot be defined accurately and concretely in words, how can one expect the public to react when they encounter a person whose identity, aspirations, and approach to life circle around that seemingly nebulous concept? I remember the regular pattern of conversation whenever I reveal to an acquaintance that I am a secular humanist, not a Hindu like my parents and ancestors. They normally look perplexed and crunch together their eyebrows. They sift through the various messages the hostile media and politicians shoot at them. And finally, they ask, “You don't believe in god? But you seem to be nice...”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hindi, Urdu, and Hindustani: Where Commonalities End and Differences Begin

A student from the United States makes her first trip to Delhi, India after spending four
semesters at the University of Michigan studying Hindi. In desperate need of a guidebook, she steps into a small, Hindu-owned store and asks,“Namaste. Mujhe ek achhii kitaab kii zaruurat hai. Kyaa aap merii madad kar sakte haiN?” (Namaste. I'm in need of a good book. Can you help me?). The storekeeper is stunned and compliments the student on her exceptional HINDI. However, the store does not stock the appropriate book. The student notices another store across the street. As she steps in, she notices the storekeeper is Muslim. Replacing a Namaste with a Salaam, she inquires about the book, employing the same word choice. Again, the storekeeper is surprised, and with a big smile on his face tells her, “Masha'Allah. Your URDU is perfect.” The puzzled student picks up her book and leaves the store.

This student had elected Hindi for the past four semesters, not Urdu! Yet, she is being
complimented for her conversational skills in this language. How is this possible? This episode depicts the nature of the Hindi-Urdu linguistic conflict at its most visible level. While notions of the two languages have diverged since independence, colloquial registers of Hindi and Urdu are almost indistinguishable from one another. This broader basis of vocabulary and syntax from which both Hindi and Urdu have developed is called Hindustani. This language is “the linguistic super family uniting all” across North India and into Pakistan (Khan 2006: 8). Moreover, it is the unifying language of the region, not of a particular race or religion (Singh 2003). Hindustani served as a lingua franca around Delhi to facilitate interaction between speakers of Khariboli and speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish (Sinha 2000: 299). This language developed throughout the medieval ages and received the patronage of many British administrative institutions and various writers through the 13th-17th centuries (Sinha 2000: 300). This paper describes the fluid borders between what speech one considers as Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani. And moreover, it explores why, in colloquial speech, certain Arabic-Persian features have gained popularity as opposed to their Sanskrit equivalents. And finally, how does the diversity in linguistic influences across North India and Pakistan translate into “linguistic politics?” In a region of the world characterized by volatile borders and fragile religious and social tension – how do linguistic choices matter?

But what are Hindi and Urdu, and more importantly, what do they signify in certain
circumstances? In which cases might a speaker be most definitely speaking Hindi or Urdu? And when might he or she be democratizing his or her speech using Hindustani? K. Gajendra Singh 2003 traces a history of the evolution of distinguished Hindi and Urdu identities post-Independence in the late 1940s. Newly independent India made its Hindi more Sanskritized and Pakistanis made their Urdu more Persianized. The outcome is a diglossia in society. Indians and Pakistanis speak relatively the same lingua franca of Hindustani on the streets – while notions of standard Hindi and standard Urdu have become polarized. Therefore, in an effort to avoid common Hindustani words, their media use a strict, artificial, stilted form of Hindi or Urdu. As Singh puts it most realistically, “the result that it is difficult for a common man to understand either Hindi or Urdu” in the “pure” form (Singh 2003).

In the case of Urdu, Tariq Rahman 2010 describes some of the reformations made to
standardize the language, in essence, to reflect a “pure” Muslim tradition. In what Rahman calls the “Muslimization of Urdu,” words from Sanskrit and local dialects were “purged out” in favor of Persian and Arabic words. In addition, allusions to a common Hindustani culture and land were replaced by references to Persian and Islamic culture and an Iranian landscape. Though the elite embraced this hyper-Persian form of speech, many others were alienated by this new, foreign understanding of Urdu (Rahman 2010: 90). The vast majority of Urdu speakers were a product of the Hindustani culture. India was their home and identity, not Iran.

Meanwhile, the newly-formed Republic of India was engaged in the translation of official
documents from English to Hindi. The outcome of this project was the creation of thousands of neologisms of Sanskrit origin describing administrative terms and practices. Examples of such neologisms which have survived into modern usage include pradhaan mantrii for prime minister, or raashTrapati for president. However, in effect, these “artificial” words lack any practical currency. Yet, these neologisms were still propagated through many spheres of influence including the Indian news media, the Indian government, and in matters of Hindu cultural context (Shackle and Snell 1990: 14). Even India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Aajkal jo bhaashaa nikal rahii hai pachaas percent merii samajh meiN nahiiN aatii.” (Of the language that is employed these days, 50% of it is unintelligible to me.) (Gandhi 2010).

For many reasons, one can accord the desired disparity between Hindi and Hindustani to
notions of “linguistic purity.” The Muslims were not alone in their intention of propagating cultural identity through a linguistic register. Hindu nationalists supported nationalizing a Sanskritized Hindi in hopes of invoking the concept of India as a Hindu-native nation (Shackle and Snell 1990: 43). This divergent behavior at the highest registers of Hindi and Urdu is based on something outside of linguistic factors – cultural and religious identity, nationalism. However, these “pure” registers are highly artificial and ideologically motivated.

With these bases for “pure” Hindi and Urdu in place, where do the people stand in their
daily speech in regards to this Arabic/Persian—Sanskrit spectrum? Prior to independence, the Subcontinent was divided in what Shackle and Snell call “The Urdu—Hindi—Hindustani
Debate.” While religious Hindus argued in favor of Hindi and the Devanagari script as India's national language, Muslims felt reluctant to neglect their own rich literary tradition in Urdu through the Nastaliq script. Gandhi offered Hindustani as a middle path in a compromise between both groups (Shackle and Snell 1990: 13). However, Gandhi received little support from the masses. And furthermore, Hindustani left unanswered the question of which script the nation would choose to adopt. And therefore, Hindustani was forgotten as the most practical, yet least ideologically satisfying of the choices.

But in reality, what does modern colloquial speech sound like throughout North India and
urban Pakistan? Regardless of whether speakers identify their language as Hindi or Urdu, why do they almost always choose certain synonyms over others? More specifically, why have Persian-Arabic loanwords better pervaded into popular speech? For example, the interaction the Michigan student engaged in with the Hindu storekeeper did not feature a single lexical item of Sanskrit origin. Each of the key nouns (kitaab for book, zaruurat for necessity, and madad for assistance) are loanwords of Arabic origin, yet would seem completely natural and expected as colloquial Hindi. In fact, repeating this sentence in a fully Sanskritized register would seem exceptionally stilted in a colloquial context (“Mujhe ek achhii pustak kii aavashyakataa hai. Kyaa aap merii sahaayataa kar sakte haiN?”).

The artificial nature of Sanskritized language is a result of many historical patterns in
society, government, and religion. Firstly, as Shyam Rao 1999 argues, Sanskrit was always a
dead language. Even in its “Golden Age” during the reign of the Gupta Empire, Sanskrit was not dispersed outside a “closely-knit circle of Brahmins, who jealously hid all themselves” (Rao 1999). The result was an identity centered around Sanskrit, a language far removed from the accessibility of the common Hindu or Indian (Neelakantan 2011). And therefore, many Sanskritized terms were not transmitted to a broader section of society. While Brahmins safeguarded their knowledge over Sanskrit, the common people of the Subcontinent were engaging with Muslim traders, rulers, and invaders since the 11th century. They settled the Subcontinent and brought with them their languages: Turkish, Persian, and Arabic (Singh 2003). And after almost three hundred years of Mughal Rule, Persian was the language of government up until 1837 (Robinson 1974: 31). Moreover, the Muslim community was not the only one educated in Persian. Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Persian played a role in the education of middle-class Hindu boys (Shackle and Snell 1990: 10). In fact, many Hindu writers published in Persian, including the Kashmiri Brahmin Tej Bahadur Sapri (Robinson 1974: 31).

The Persian-Arabic tradition maintained its linguistic strength against Sanskrit when the
British replaced Persian with English and introduced Urdu into the education system (Baxter 2004: 172). Under the British, Urdu gained favorable status as it was the language of the ruling Muslim bureaucratic elites (of Persian origin) across the region. Many necessary administrative terms in Persian and Urdu had already existed prior to the arrival of the British. In many ways, the British accepted Urdu as the native lingua franca of the North (Seal 1968: 304). Unlike Sanskritized Hindi, it was already a part of the public sphere for centuries prior to colonization. Urdu had absorbed elements of Hindustani and other foreign languages naturally. Most importantly, Urdu and its Persian-Arabic vocabulary had spread outside of a Muslim base into most communities. However, many see Sanskritized Hindi as an artificial language, a language releasing archaic words from a vault. The result was a dynamic Urdu and a forced Hindi which was far from everyday usage and inaccessible to the common speaker (Kelley 1992). And due to the factors listed above, the Hindustani that most Urdu and Hindi speakers actually use in everyday contexts is more Persian-Arabic influenced.

Finally, what does it mean when the institutions of Hindi and Urdu are remarkable
different from the spoken variety of either languages? How does ideology clash with reality to create a strategic “linguistic politics” in the Subcontinent. How do geopolitical tensions between India and Pakistan and communal tensions between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims manifest themselves through language? This diglossia found between the government and literary spheres and the colloquial sphere is easily seen through two sorts of media which reflect two separate entities with very different goals. Firstly, the 'Hindi' film industry which represents speech in a quotidian context. And secondly, the news media of either India and Pakistan which represent the high registers of polarized Sanskrit and Persian varieties, respectively (Singh 2003).

The 'Hindi' Film Industry (Bollywood) has contributed in large part to the propagation of
Hindustani as a reflection of the type of colloquial speech used by millions of Indians and
Pakistanis. As a commercial institution, the Industry seeks to become accessible to as broad an audience as it can, and therefore employs Hindustani – “the most common blend of vernaculars throughout North India” (Alter 2007: 70). This decision allows audiences from across India as well as Pakistan to freely understand the films in a manner which Sanskritized Hindi would not have.
Whenever the film language became too Sanskritised, the films have not been very popular. At the same time, when a film on 'Razia' (a Turkish Queen of Delhi) utilised too Persianised Urdu, its lack of popularity could in some ways be attributed to the difficulty of the masses in understanding it. Hindustani with its vast vocabulary, form and literary variety provides the lyric and dialogue writer all the richness, elegance and nuances to express himself. (Singh 2003).
In addition, the Industry owes much of its fame and success to the Urdu tradition. Ghazals,
qawwali, shaa'iri (poetry), Sufism, and Nautch have become recurring themes in Indian cinema with roots from Turkish and Persian literature and culture. And of course these cultural institutions employ allusions and metaphors from their respective languages to describe sentiments such as love, passion, and longing (Kavoori 2008: 46). Thereby, allusions to the Arabic tale of Laila-Majnu or the Persian Shirin-Farhad entered the larger psyche of the Subcontinent as these pieces of cultural capital were propagated by the most influential film industry in the region. This phenomenon further emphasized Hindustani and Arabic-Persian roots in favor of Sanskrit equivalents. For example, millions would hear and want to replicate stars on the big screen using Arabic-Persian loanwords for love (ishq, muhabbat) in place for the Sanskrit synonym (prem). However, if the 'Hindi'' Film Industry retained much of its pre-Independence Hindustani tradition, the broadcast media had very much diverged from its common Hindustani roots. An emphasis on cultural, societal, and linguistic differences were encouraged to form national solidarity and identity. In effect, this divergence demonstrated a manufactured linguistic wall between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims.

Thus, the broadcast media of India and Pakistan had become polarized with each nation
wanting to completely deny the common linguistic relationship it shares with the other. In the case of India, “Doordarshan Hindi” – “a stylistically Sanskritized form of the language” was named after the state-owned Hindi news outlet. Aside from the practical difficulties of understanding this form of Hindi, it also came with religious and political baggage. Radio and television programming was controlled by the central government which preferred Sanskritized vocabulary in all spoken language.

In addition, this variety was not only seen as Hindi, but as Hindu. This hyper-Sanskrit
variety highlighted differences in Hindu and Muslim identity and past (Ludden 1996: 100). The nationalistic rhetoric behind this variety also plays on the notion of Urdu and Islam as foreign institutions brought to the Subcontinent through violent invasion. In this way, a dichotomy was created between “virtuous” Hindi and “vicious” Urdu. In the press, Urdu was seen as a cultural force capable of turning Hindus away from their faith. Also featured was the strict concept of Urdu being Muslim and Hindi being Hindu (Jones 1992: 144). In essence, this was an either/or debate; Hindustani was a moot choice as no one could be part Hindu, part Muslim (Jones 1992:145). Dr. Imtiaz Hasnain refutes these conceptions of Urdu as a foreign, Muslim-only, even Pakistani entity. And moreover, he outlines the marginalization Indian speakers of Urdu face as a result of this religious connection. As many Indians feel Pakistani identity was created through Urdu and Islam (Hasnain 2007: 16), Hasnain cites the status of Muslims in India as hardly better off than most Dalits (Hasnain 2007: 3). This divisive “linguistic politics” plays on language as a tool of cultural, national, and religious identity.

Perhaps the best metaphor to describe the relationship between Hindi and Urdu is that of
Siamese twins destined to coexist, but the surgery of Partition ensured that each would develop its own path (Shackle and Snell 1990: 13). This history exhibits the volatile nature of language as an indicator of identity. Hindi and Urdu had existed together for centuries, but when presented with the fork in the road, each was able to dress itself differently. Most importantly, though the universal colloquial speech – Hindustani – has not changed since before Independence, it will be interesting to see whether the polarized nature of Hindi and Urdu will affect colloquial speech into the future. Already, as a result of economic liberalization, satellite TV channels have become popular in comparison to state-owned media. These new channels do not necessarily adhere to the government prescribed hyper-Sanskritized or hyper-Persianized speech. They target the urban youth. Therefore, perhaps it will not be Persian or Sanskrit which characterize tomorrow's Hindustani – but English.