Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, March 18, 2012
Over the years as a writer, I have noticed something peculiar about editors. Every time I send an article where the word ‘god’ is written without capitalization, they promptly capitalize it, thinking I have made a mistake, or because they do not want to offend an oversensitive ignorant reader. So god becomes God. And with that one act, they reveal how Western thought has singed itself into our Indian brains.
Western thought is more ideological, than geographical, though its self-proclaimed champions are Europeans, Americans. Before it was what we call scientific, secular and modern thought, it was primarily Judeo-Christian thought. In science and secularism, God does not exist, or God does not matter, with or without capitalization. But in Judeo-Christian thought,God matters. God is singular, absolute, ideally non-gendered, but more often than not expressed in masculine terms. In orthodox Jewish tradition, God is referred to as G** as His name shall not be spoken in vain. And in Malaysia, a legal battle rages over whether the word God can be used synonymously with Allah, making Islam also Western thought.
Most people find it odd when I put Islam in the Western thought bracket, for generally the media portrays Islam at loggerheads with Western thought. First, let us clarify the three arms of Western thought: Judeo-Christian thought, Islamic thought, and Modern/Scientific/Secular thought. All three have one thing in common. They all believe in objective absolute truth that exists outside human beings. Hence, God is referred to as a third person, even atheists. Hence the phrase: the truth is out there. Hence, the use of capitalization to distinguish between word and Word, truth and Truth, him and Him, lord and Lord, god and God. Feminism insisted that Goddess be included. Scientists seek Truth using evidence while the faithful find Truth using faith. The method is different.
Indian thought or rather philosophies and mythologies of Indian origin (please note, I have not called it Eastern thought as I have not included Oriental thought here), believe objective truth does not matter, only subjective truth does. There is no truth out there, there is truth inside humans. Hence the Upanishadic phrase, “Aham Brahmasmi,” which means, I am god/God. Notice, my struggle to use capitalization. For divinity is seen as a spectrum: everything and everyone is divine, but with differing level of awareness. In Indian languages, there were different words therefore to indicate the divine: devata, bhagavan, ishwar, paramatma, parmeshwar. Translators of the Bible have struggled with which word to choose for God. Ironically, both Hindu reformists and fundamentalists have preferred the Western notion of God.
The notion of capitalization does not exist in Indian scripts. It comes from the West, where there is yearning for the absolute, and disdain for the rest. Even the scientific mind assumes this to be the more desirable truth. So God is holy and true, while gods represent the unholy and false pagan traditions of non-believers in Western traditions.
In Vedanta, Tantra, or Bhakti everything and everyone is god (partially aware), on the journey to realize God (fully aware). And to realize God they have to understand nature, prakriti, who is Goddess. Goddess in India is not the female version of God, as cavalier Western feminists proclaim for all of womankind. Goddess in Hinduism especially is a very specific idea, distinct from God, and God means something very different from G**. That is why the word Bhagavan has very different meaning in Hindu and Jain tradition, representing God in one and the most worthy sage in the other. Similar ideas have been found in Buddhist tradition, which has rejected theistic vocabulary: which means they refer to god or Devatas but not God.
This is the politics of language that affects understanding of different cultures, and in the desire to be global, in the pursuit of the Word, we crush different ways of looking at life and religion by rejecting their words, and their grammar.