Printed in Speaking Tree supplement, Times of India, 21 March 2010

Imagine a man who earns less than Rs. 100/- a day and supporting a family of four, watching his starving children and his unhappy wife day in and day out. Imagine him being given money and a purpose, one that will help him vent his rage against society and guarantee him a place in heaven. All he has to do is allow himself to killed. It is not suicide, he is told. Suicide is vile. It is a sacrifice, an offering of faith. This is your candidate for suicide bombing. By surrendering to the narrative presented before him, he suddenly becomes a significant member of society, respected by his peers and feared by his enemies. With this one decision, he suddenly matters. He is not one of the countless hungry faces in the fringes of society who have been forgotten.

What is interesting to note is the apparent faith of the suicide bomber in heaven, the place where he will go after death. One hears of terrorist bombers believing in a paradise where they will be welcomed and given seventy-two virgins to marry. Is that true? For the person who believes it, it is true. For the person who propogates it, it is true. For the rest, it is imagination. Heaven is not an objective reality. But is a subjective reality. And every culture has used the idea of heaven to influence the behavior of people in society.

In the 19th century, an idea was proposed, that during the crusades a band of murderers were given hashish, a drug that induced hallucinations. This gave them visions of paradise and gave them the strength to kill their feared enemies. Since hashish played a key role in turning them into lethal killers, they became known as assassins. Modern scholars feel this is orientalist nonsense. There was no such band of hashish-using assassins. But the idea of being seduced by a drug and a vision and a story rings true.

The ferocious Viking warriors of Europe believed that if they fought fiercely and died on the battlefield, beautiful women known as Valkyrie would carry them up to Valhalla, the hall of the gods, where they would be welcomed as heroes and allowed to drink and dine with the gods and fight beside them in their great celestial battles. It is this tale that made them ferocious warriors.

The idea of heaven motivates people across the world. The Chinese believed in Tian, heaven which had a Jade Emperor with his very own bureaucracy. They modeled their entire civilization to replicate the perfection of this world they imagined. Ancient Egyptians believed in the heaven of Osiris into which one gained access after death if one managed to perform the right rituals and preserve the body. This vision of heaven motivated them to build their tombs and their magnificent pyramids.

One can dismiss the idea of heaven as superstition and myth. This stems from the assumption that those who do not believe in heaven are rational, scientific and therefore superior. Look around you – there are millions of people who believe that if they earn the next million, they will be happy; if they lose the next inch around their waist, they will be happy; if they get the next distinction, they will be happy. Are these true? Or are these imaginary constructs? Different forms of heaven? How different is it from the heaven with the virgin wives? Let us ask ourselves: what is the heaven we sell to the soldier who stands cold and starving in the glaciers protecting our country while we sit at home reading our newspapers.