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Decoding PK: Beliefs may be cast in stone..

By Amish, Hindustan Times

My wife and I finally saw the much talked about movie, PK, the other day. Let’s first be done with the obvious: I oppose calls for banning the movie or violent protests against it (of course, non-violent protests are legal). If in the past I have opposed the ban on Satanic Verses and The DaVinci Code (in some Indian states) then I must abide by the same standards for PK.

Let’s use the same Freedom of Expression standards to pose some questions to the filmmakers of PK. Clearly, PK is a noble attempt to convince us that naked, humanoid aliens regularly visit India and they can educate us on our relationship with God. In this same spirit of scientific inquiry, PK casts some serious doubts on religion. Actually, not all religions; some have been covered perfunctorily. The primary scholarly analysis is on religions that practise idol-worship (note that, theologically, practically all idol-worshippers are also nature-worshippers, for that is the philosophical route).

PK is clearly making ‘rational’ arguments against those who love myths, follow living spiritual masters (rather than exclusively prophets/messiahs who lived many centuries ago) and worship idols. You may imagine that only Hinduism answers to this description. You would be wrong. Idol-worshipping cultures proliferated across the world in the ancient era; and most encouraged questioning. Nothing was beyond the pale of criticism because they didn’t believe in only ‘one’ truth. Certainly there are features of Hinduism that can and should be critically examined. But it’s intriguing that the makers of PK thought it fit to criticise some strengths of idol-worshipping cultures instead.

The fact that idol-worshipping cultures, normally, have living spiritual masters allows them to change easily in times of fast change. Reform is, normally, easier for such cultures and you will find that among them, philosophies change relatively smoothly with changing times. Admittedly, there are some unsavoury elements among the present-day spiritual masters. But the ‘Muslim terrorist’, the ‘paedophile Western Catholic priest’ and the ‘unscrupulous idol-worshipping godman’ have a common thread — they all suffer from the fallacy of stereotyping. Maybe I’m naive, but one expects intelligent filmmakers to be nuanced enough to not stereotype.

Consider another ‘hard-hitting’ scene in the movie. The protagonist picks up a rock, applies paan masala on it, and says that soon this will become God which everyone will worship. The subtext is clear: Look at these idol-worshipping idiots who will worship anything. Don’t they realise that this is not the real God, who apparently is an ‘external’ entity?

This belief that idol-worshipping is somehow wrong, or at least primitive and tribal, has been around for long. However, few are able to give a cogent, theological answer as to why it’s wrong; except one that you can’t argue with: ‘My God said so!’ Over the last two millennia, some communities, starting with the Europeans, then the Arabs, Turks, Mongols etc, took this dislike to an extreme level to end the ‘Satanic’ idol-worshipping practice forcibly. There was massive violence across the world to purge idol-worship. Many places of worship were destroyed, others appropriated, and millions of people slaughtered simply because they worshipped idols. The ancient world was dotted with idol-worshipping cultures. But today, most of them — the Hellenic, Khemit, etc — have been exterminated. Hinduism is a rare idol-worshipping culture that has survived. Interestingly, I have not come across many historical examples of idol-worshipping cultures going around the world, killing ‘others’ simply because they were not worshipping idols.

I am not suggesting that idol-rejecting cultures are bad; there are strengths and qualities in them; weaknesses as well. Similarly, there are weaknesses among the idol-worshipping. But there is one immeasurably precious quality that they possess; which is the secret to their inherent liberalism. Surprisingly this is precisely what is portrayed in PK as a weakness viz: That idol-worshippers are open to worshipping anything, even a stone.

What is the philosophical idea that underpins this attitude? Why are we willing to worship anything? Because this might lead us to see the divine in everything. There is nothing in this world that is not divine or Godly. This gives someone like me the philosophical grounding to worship Gods/symbols of all faiths. It gives us the philosophical grounding to be able to love and respect everyone, even those among the idol-rejecters who hate us simply because we worship idols. Because we see God in them as well. This gives us the ability to respect nature and the environment with religious zeal, since we don’t believe that nature was created for our use, but that it is God!

What transforms a stone into God? Our belief does it. Can this belief be exploited? Possibly. But, if, as shown in the movie, someone prays to a stone, and if this gives them hope, then what exactly is the problem? Hope is one of the greatest human strengths. And how is worshipping a stone different from someone visiting a temple with an officially recognised idol, or a mosque or a church? You will think there is a difference only if you believe God doesn’t exist everywhere. If, like me, you’re a nature and idol-worshipper, you will find that God exists everywhere. In you, in me, in animals, in trees and, yes, even in that stone in the movie PK.