Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Some recent reviews, and thoughts on the interpretation of scripture

Some recent reviews in Mint: on the late Benazir Bhutto's Reconciliation (a vastly dull book, but with one good and very useful chapter ), Ramin Jahanbegloo's The Spirit of India (from which I'd earlier quoted a passage here), and Jose Saramago's sublime Death By Intervals, which with David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk is the best novel I've read so far this year.

Interestingly, Jahanbegloo's book contains an assertion the demonstration of which is worked out in Bhutto's long meditation on the Quran with the help of many progressive voices in the Islamic world. Jahanbegloo's idea is that: "In the long run, there is no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' religions. There are only 'hard readings' and 'soft readings' of religious texts." That is, the work of textual interpretation of scripture is as significant as the (often ambiguous) words of the text itself. Or, as the liberal Iranian theologian Abdolkarim Soroush puts it in this essay, there is a way of understanding religious texts that sees them as "immutable and changeable at the same time".

An an older post on the memoirs of General Pervez Musharraf, a work in which the word "army" is as central as the word "democracy" is in Bhutto's book, and is possibly used more sincerely. The feature common to both books though is that both writers see themselves as absolutely central to the rehabilitation of Pakistan's fortunes. That is to say, both Musharraf and Bhutto saw themselves, and only themselves, as solutions, and therefore were in no small way part of the problem.

I have not read LK Advani's just-released memoir: I wonder if there is a key word in it and if so what that is. Perhaps "Hindu"?


Sundeep said...

Chandrahas, something suspects itself of tending to pushy and fanatical, speculates you are inducing such behavior, concludes it's all your fault.

The following extract, from the first chapter of Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita, might be relevant to your musings. The "First of all" I am not fit to judge, but the "Secondly" is appealing.

" It may therefore be useful in approaching an ancient Scripture, ..., to indicate precisely the spirit in which we approach it and what exactly we think we may derive from it that is of value to humanity and its future.

First of all, there is undoubtedly a Truth one and eternal which we are seeking, from which all other truth derives, by the light of which all other truth finds its right place, explanation and relation to the scheme of knowledge. But precisely for that reason it cannot be shut up In a single trenchant formula, it is not likely to be found in its entirety or in all its bearings in any single philosophy or Scripture or uttered altogether and for ever by any one teacher, thinker, prophet or Avatar. Nor has it been wholly found by us if our view of it necessitates the intolerant exclusion of the truth underlying other systems; for when we reject passionately, we mean simply that we cannot appreciate and explain.

Secondly, this Truth, though it is one and eternal, expresses itself in Time and through the mind of man; therefore every Scripture must necessarily contain two elements, one temporary, perishable, belonging to the ideas of the period and country in which it was produced, the other eternal and imperishable and applicable in all ages and countries. Moreover, in the statement of the Truth the actual form given to it, the system and arrangement, the metaphysical and intellectual mould, the precise expression used must be largely subject to the mutations of Time and cease to have the same force; for the human intellect modifies itself always; continually dividing and putting together it is obliged to shift its divisions continually and to rearrange its syntheses; it is always leaving old expression and symbol for new or, if it uses the old, it so changes its connotation or at least its exact content and association that we can never be quite sure of understanding an ancient book of this kind precisely in the sense and spirit it bore to its contemporaries."

The whole chapter is here:

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - Excellent choice of passage. It does seem that Sri Aurobindo and Soroush are saying much the same thing: that overly literal and exclusivist interpretations of scripture only expose the smallness and pettiness of the people who hold fast to them.

And your choice is even more apposite because Sri Aurobindo is one of the thinkers profiled by Jahanbegloo is his book

Uncertain said...

If you drop the word "religions" and the phrase "In the long run" from Jahanbegloo's quote - you get what people identified as post modernists have been saying for some decades now i.e. "There is no such 'thing' as 'good' or 'bad'." [Note emphasis on thing]

There are narratives and some of them are dominant; 'good' and 'bad' are social constructions within the dominant narrative(s).

Seen in that light the "immutable and changeable at the same time" is perhaps more a quality associated with the interpreter (in this case Soroush) than a quality of the texts. Our reading of texts is as much, if not more, about us as about the texts. Or in Weick-ian terms, our narratives enact our realities rather than the other way round - thus collapsing the reader-text duality that your narrative implicitly assumes.

And therefore people who indulge in "overly literal" interpretations might just be deconstructing a text. And even if they are not, your post offers no logic for why anyone who reads a text overly literally is 'small' and 'petty' - except of course unless you idiosyncratically consider them small and petty.

Lastly, this comment also constitutes a narrative with the difference that it does not claim the high pedestal of truthdom - assuming there is such a thing as objective truth.