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On the Way to Hell

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 In the vastness of our new home and through the shared experience of a challenging past, the Bhutanese community tries to remain close knit, and our solidarity is particularly evident in difficult times. 1 Last month, about a hundred of us, were laying Shanta Kumar to rest. Shanta and his immediate family are Christians while many of us present are not. The burial started solemnly with a minister, a white man with a trace of an unrecognizable accent, telling us that he was referring to the Corinthians, and speaking the God’s words. “Brother Shanta has not died; we are just burying brother Shanta’s body. Brother Shanta is with Lord Jesus Christ. Only we and only Christians will go to Heaven and meet with brother Shanta. The other people will go to hell, where they will be tormented by fire, serpents and boiling oil. Like Heaven is real, Hell is real. TODAY is the day, my friends, brothers and sisters, to accept Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. Then, you will see Heaven and be with Lord Jesus Christ like brother Shanta. This is your opportunity.”2 The white minister announced his verdict across the deadening calm of the cemetery. And he meant what he said. He stomped his foot when he pronounced the words “real” and “hell,” and with the TODAY, he shook his finger at the attendees. He was fierce, loud and relentless in his cause. A Bhutanese pastor was interpreting for him in Nepali. In addition to the meticulous interpretation, the Bhutanese pastor added his own share of how the abiswasi (non-Christians, the term meaning non-believers) remained confused with their many gods and that the ultimate doom awaited them. He then produced a Nepali Bible and went to read more verses from the Corinthian. The white minister, red by now, moved aside and let his interpreter take over the show. Somehow the Lord in the Nepali Bible sounded more wrathful and more desperate than the English speaking Lord, condemning the sinners and yet pleading with them to join the Church. In the 90 plus degrees heat, people waited to bury dead Shanta Kumar. And I stood there, right next to the coffin, with thousand thoughts racing in my head. I stood there with a poker face. I had forgotten my shades in my car.

I have come to pay my respect to Shanta Kumar, a gentle person who knew no harm. I admired the man. I have tried to be culturally sensitive, and I have come properly attired in black.3 I have come in respect and in support of the family, and I get scourged to hell? I cannot be getting upset. I have been always taught by my mother to remind myself of death, at least once a day, and I would instinctively try to be a better human. And here I was, in presence of death. Impermanence, I told myself. But my ego is hurt4. As soon as I thought of ego, I was reminded of my summer readings. What would the great thinkers say of my standing here trying to make sense of what was happening? How does Sigmund Freud’s thanatos play today? What would Karl Marx think of our gathering? What explanation would Jacques Lacan have? Would Michel Foucault approve my silent participation? I displaced myself to the readings, trying to remember what these scholars and the others like them said.

The Bhutanese take pride that even in the refugees camps, education remained our priority. Teaching and learning continued in the shade of trees; mothers and grandmothers who had no opportunities in the villages back in Bhutan found themselves learning to hold a pencil for the first time. The point to be noted is that the education system relied on western education. Yet all of us (including the priests of all religions) conveniently forget the metaphysical and epistemic roots of western education. Did we not learn the powers of reason, and did not train ourselves to arrive at knowledge using the method of observation and assessment through use of reason? We have earned degrees in western education, but we are yet to be enlightened. We carry smart phones, but we are yet to come out of our primordial caves. We allow ourselves, time and again, to be reduced to mere subjects of carefully thought-out system of oppression. We accept fear and hope (hell and heaven), and forget that man made religion and that religion did not make man. In our vulnerability, we make the next mistake, the mistake of idolizing the promisors of heaven and validating the meaning they create for us. We encourage these mouthpieces of God to act upon their belief as they alone possess knowledge, and they alone are the intermediary between God and us. It is not surprising then that the priests of all religions are looked upon as the highest type of man – kings and emperors bow down in their presence; no other authors’ works are considered wiser than the holy books; no stately offices outshine their working spaces in forms of churches and temples. And yet, often these idolized selves (whose sole existence depends on being idolized) condemn others for idol worship.

The voice of these condemners is loudest if the voice is targeting people from his own community. One can argue that we have been rendered refugees because we did not have a voice, and that having a voice, actually a loud one, is we making progress. But what is disappointing is that these so-called representatives of goodness dared not think of making good the many evil tenets of Hindu customs like caste system and untouchability. When they were Hindus, they chose to remain silent, and when they are no longer Hindus, they find the loudest voice to constantly worry about the rest of us going to hell. If a fraction of their concern was about the living and not the dead, human rights abuses happening in the name of culture and traditions could be mitigated.

But why would any one want to get involved in human rights advocacy and humanitarian works? Having worked in those fields for more than ten years, I know first-hand how monetarily poor this field is. Always seeking for donors, begging. On the other hand, religious organizations, in the name of God, are godly rich. We have heard of the opulent papal treasury, and lately we have watched Rajneesh, the Guru who loved his Rolls Royce in Wild Wild Country (Netflix documentary) fetishizing wealth. I am not denying commodification of human rights activities (yes they are, the number of clients served is equal to this many amount of dollars), but religion sells at a higher costs. If you do not give a cow, a complete set of furniture, gold string pulled to the height of your dead father, he may not find his path to heaven. If ten percent of your wages is not given to charity, you are not heeding God’s words (I do not remember reading this in the Bible, but who am I? I am only a heathen). On the other hand, I do understand the necessity of remuneration of the busy-ness, and the effort it takes to send people to heaven or hell.

Is this obsession about death a displacement of desire to return to the sea of yolky enjoyment? Like in the mother’s womb, time before knowing God was quieter even if gods were many – the rain god, the sun god, the destroyer god, the creator god, the goddess of wealth, the goddess of knowledge, the goddess of strength, and so on. The females are goddesses of passive subtleties and the males are active forces, and even with this glaring disparity, together they represent Nature. And in Nature, there is no authority. And Nature does not discriminate, but instead encompasses all. However this equilibrium was lost long ago when we allowed the priests to pollute it in the name of religion. Authorities were established, winners were declared and soon mega products like Hinduism and by-products like Shiavaism, Viashnavism were in the market. And the market had its own rules. Labor was divided, and one was not allowed to do any other work than what was prescribed. The ones tasked with menial labor could not come near other task-makers lest they contaminate the space around. Hierarchical social groups were thus born. While this process of reification of Nature into religion was taking place, and the world was being made to mean, there came the colonizers with their own sets of beliefs. Theirs was this one God and his one son who died for our sins so that we can join the God in heaven. What simplicity! Someone had already sacrificed for us to be compensated with an unsophisticated life and a guaranteed afterlife. This straightforward religious rhetoric would have appealed to many even if not forced upon. The marginalized most probably would have inadvertently used Christianity to renegotiate their social standing, but humans cannot become good without making others evil. How can you prove right without making somebody else wrong? Proselytizing therefore went hand in hand with condemning the others. If my God is divine, your God has to be demonized. Consequently a new subaltern group of new Christians is formed- although Christians, this group can never be equal to their colonizer Christians, and they can never be equal to fellow society members because of their newly adopted religion and also because they may have already existed as a subaltern group in the society of caste hierarchy. In the case of the Bhutanese, remaining subjugated as refugees for nearly two decades kept us at the bottom of social strata. Some found hope in Christianity and used their newfound religion to navigate the complexity of the society, but they, like the colonized Christians, found themselves living in the same herds as before. They unconsciously come to realize that imitating the colonizers or the proselytizers do not transform human reality. What they went through is a symbolic change, from Hindu to Christian. They forget that the “I” behind remained the same. This unconscious awareness that there is no escape from the desire for recognition and the desire of meaning brings much suffering, and the only hope is death, hence this huge obsession of death. If not for the guaranteed heaven after death, death would also restore an earlier state of things, the homeostatic quiescence of Nature where one could share the blissful oceanic feeling of being one with the universe.

Christian death, in addition to the promise of heaven, is the simplest process than any other religions I know. If you are a Christian, when you die, you cross over. If you are a Bhutanese Hindu, when you die, your family will have to go under arduous diet restrictions and physical isolation (no touching with any other living being) for thirteen days to assist you with your crossing over.5 If you are a Buddhist (Tibetan Buddhism), when you die, your family will have to offer prayers through priests for forty-nine days to assist you with your crossing over.6 And yes there are heaven and hell in both Hindus and Buddhism, with hells equally vehement and heavens equally grandiose like the Christian minister’s. We all know that no one has actually seen heaven or hell, and that these are metaphors used as a means to reinforce an impression. Great are the artists who first imagined heaven and hell, and then employed these imageries to familiarize the unfamiliar. We recognize this symbolic significance, but we have been conditioned to accept the existence of heaven and hell, not just any heaven or hell, but only our own version of heaven and hell (either the one that comes guaranteed or the one after thirteen days of salt-less diet or the one that comes with forty-nine days of sleepy incomprehensible chants). The ideology of heaven and hell has been hardwired in us (all religions), and made indispensable to our how we behave in our every day life, and how we react to something as natural as death. Had the prescription of this ideology remained to only one’s self, it would have served humanity well. I need to go to heaven, so I need to be good, and likewise, I do not want to go to hell, so I should not be bad. Imagine! However, the very nature of ideology encompasses us all. We members of heaven-and-hell-believing society are interpellated by the ideology as subjects. Thus as subjected beings, we submit ourselves to higher authorities that prescribe the ideology. We may understand that heaven and hell are metaphors to clarify the unknown by means of the known, but enslaved by the ideology, we still use heaven and hell to hide from the truth7. And anybody trying to shed light on the effects of ideology is condemned blasphemous and sent to hell.

It is this act of threatening to send/sending to hell that does not sit well with me. Otherwise, heaven or hell, no matter which priest says what, to me is the most magnificent piece of imagination ever succeeded by humans. Think of all the art, architecture, and literature that depend on theme of heaven and hell, and think of culture and history derived in the name of heaven and hell. Imagination and the awareness of our own mortality are two of the few traits that set us apart from animals. Products of imagination like heaven and hell give meaning to humans to be humanized. How many of us remember hearing stories of heaven and hell even before we knew the concept of death and/or religion? Since then, our future actions have been shaped by those stories. Meaning has been fabricated. Remember the consistent rhetoric of “you should be good,” “you should be kind,” “you should be helpful,” “you should be grateful,” and so on. If you had courage to ask why should you be good, the answer would be “papa will be happy” (“God will be happy”), and if you pressed further, “then papa will take you to the zoo/movies/mall” (“God will take you to heaven”). Young animals are not told any of this because they do not have to be animalized. This, according to Jacques Lacan, is because of our “specific prematurity at birth.” He explains that we are born premature compared to all other species and we do not spent enough time in the womb, as we should. Therefore, we are not fully humans at birth.8 The human child in the next few years (sometimes for the rest of the life) has to learn to be human. He learns more as he is rewarded with more “that’s my good boy/girl.” As a grown up, you still keep being good, hoping to hear the same appreciation of “that’s my good boy/girl,” and not because you truly believe that you will go to heaven. And as a grown up, when you condemn others to go to hell, you are forgetting that you too were inadequate at birth like all of us humans, and that you are also in the process of learning to be a human. Thus you, like everyone one of us, are totally incapable to sending anyone to a metaphorical place.

I do understand that everything is contradictory and the world must be made to mean, and that there is no right or wrong meaning. However I do not think meaning must be made by dehumanizing the people who do not interpret like you do, and especially not by demonizing who do not see meaning the way you do. To my fellow Bhutanese (former refugees), I suggest that we stick together in solidarity as Bhutanese, as we had done during the darkest of our times. We can only do so by refusing “the comforts of fixed meaning, [and by] swearing off absolute knowledge” (Ten Lessons, 81). We are first humans (hopefully), then Bhutanese, then our religious identity (if necessary). Let us not allow ideology to drive a wedge amongst us. Let us learn to “make sense of human reality as a montage of the imaginary and the symbolic, as a rich tapestry of ambiguous and conflictual fictions – suspended over the void”.9 Let us keep finding meaning by taking different routes, but let us not mud-sling ourselves blind; the tapestry, in its ambiguity and fictionality, is indeed too beautiful to be missed.

References used:

  1. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2007/11/473088d84/bhutans-refugees-resettled-nepal-months.html?query=Bhutanese https://www.cdc.gov/immigrantrefugeehealth/profiles/bhutanese/background/index.html
  2. I did not record the exact words, but this is a compilation from at least five different burial attendees. The words may have been spoken in different sequences.
  3. While Buddhists do not have a dress code, Hindus wear white. There were a few of us in black.
  4. Going forward, all the words in italics have philosophical and theoretical significance; I am going to explain only a few of the references, with an assumption that the readers already are knowledgable.
  5. There is not much scholarship on specific Nepali Hindu death rituals. However, Professor Jonathan Parry’s article below is relevant to the subject matter at hand. Jonathan Parry. “Death and Digestion: The Symbolism of Food and Eating in the North Indian Mortuary Rites,” Man, 20:4, (1985), 612-30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802753.
  6. Robert E. Goss Dennis Klass. “Tibetan Buddhism and the Resolution of Grief: The Bardo-Thodol for the Dying and the Grieving,” Death Studies, 21:4, (1997), 377-95. DOI: 10.1080/074811897201895
  7. Nietzche’s “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense.” What then is truth? A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered metal and no longer as coins. Calvin Thomas. Ten Lessons in Theory, p.203.
  8. Thomas, Calvin. Ten Lessons in Theory, p.34-36.
  9. Ten Lessons in Theory, p. 86. I thank Dr. Thomas for giving me permission to quote him in my publication. I am in awe of these lines. I would not give justice to the eloquence of Dr. Thomas’s words if I only paraphrased the idea.

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