Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Religion and Spirituality

So school's ended for me for undergrad and it seems I am becoming nocturnal in the summer and my recent activities include poring over reading materials that I never had the liberty of perusing through them during the last two years of my engineering undergraduate career. I am unfortunately most effective at reading and ruminating around the wee hours in the morning, so I adapted this nocturnal sleeping pattern.

My recent reading material happens to be Raden Mas' Hidup Bertuhan Hidup Beragama. I don't normally read philosophical texts in Malay, so this is a first. I thought about writing it in Malay because some terms are best described in Malay, though I personally feel that my capacity to express my thoughts in Malay is limited since I myself have thought processes in English and I made English annotations during my read through, but I will do to the best of my ability to unpack what I've read.

I read through it twice. I usually read through once, but lately I have a habit of needing to read through everything twice. The first time around was a general overview because it's not something I normally read, I needed to know the general geography of what I am reading through. The second time around I made notes of the major points and my personal thoughts.

I have to admit it does speak to my own personal dilemmas regarding my practice of my own faith. From my youth, I've always had trouble with keeping to rituals and often times I ask questions that led to chastisement from my ustaz and ustazahs of asking things for fear that I would one day become an apostate. Even to this day, I admit that it is sometimes very hard for me to feel a communion with God when I perform rituals, but I have always taken a liking to reciting the Quran for some inexplicable reason.

The fact that the central issue of this paper is about the distinction between living a religious life and, living a, I suppose, the loose English translation would be, spiritual life. It is explained at length that while both, on the surface seem to be indistinguishable as they do perform rituals, but the difference lies in how one views rituals and the focus of faith as opposed to the other.

A religious person is only concern in perfecting his rituals, only seeking out to reap the rewards for his rituals in the afterlife, and not, ultimately, to know his creator. There is little room for speculation, they believe that what is taught from the books is immutable and their only concern is following what is being taught to the tee without question. Whereas, a spiritual person is one who views the rituals merely as a platform or an aspect of a religion's identity, but it is not faith itself. They view rituals as a means to commune with God, and that with every ritual they bring themselves closer to God, because their ultimate goal is to meet with their Creator. They allow themselves to question and seek out answers regarding God. A religious person is obsessed with religion to the point that it is sufficient for them to attribute God to a being that merely watches them perform those rituals and it is not necessary to know their Creator.

I vaguely remember reading about sufi poets who sought knowledge of God and write poetry of being intoxicated with love for God and chastise the masses for fearing His punishment because that is not the true way of fully devoting one's self to Him.

The author characterizes religion as "zahir", implying it is physical and worldly, whereas the question of knowing God as "ghaib", implying it being, to loosely put it, other worldly. Knowing God can only be obtainable from one's faith and feeling His presence in one's heart and not simply from knowing facts that He exists from a book. Religious people are concerned with matters of perfecting rituals and of worldly matters. So, perhaps it would probably appall religious people had they been told that their way of living is very much secular in this context.

When I was enrolled in Religious Studies, we did comparative religion, and in any religion, there was a pattern of having multiple paths in religion. For example, in Hinduism there was a way of "bhakti" in which people who subscribe to this path are more likely to be in service in multiple deities of their choosing and their means of practicing their religion is to do good deeds and rituals to appease the deities. An alternate path is that of asceticism in which the members spend most of their time meditating and separating themselves from worldly matters in order to attain enlightenment of God. This paper is yet another example of illustrating that there exists multiple ways of practicing the same faith. Yet, the author argues, that the way of the ritual does not guarantee unwavering faith. As pushing away the need for understanding God and merely doing rituals is empty, and it could sow seeds of doubt as the person does not understand why and for what purpose are they doing those rituals for.

There is also a discussion of "hakikat". I am not sure what the English word for this is. If I had to give my own word for it, I think, loosely, it would translate to "reality", though it's not just any kind of reality, it's the absolute reality, or the absolute truth. It is the underlying, absolute truth of the nature of God and His creations. The author describes that the hakikat is trying to know if what you feel is what is real or if it is an illusion. (I'm sorry, I don't actually know how to transcribe the description into a better streamlined explanation). There are sects that practices the way of the hakikat, but the author warns that without a sharp wit, proper pedagogy and a teacher that has been enlightened himself and if the way is not constrained by proper guidelines, one can be easily led astray instead of getting closer to God. "Hakikat" is not tied to religion and it is therefore not part of the discussion in staunchly religious sects. "Hakikat" is about the true nature of God and it is not about the nature of the individual. I remember learning in religious studies about some Islamic thinkers, forgive me, I cannot recall their names, who found themselves "enlightened" and claiming that all creations and God are one of the same, which is more characteristic of some Hindu thoughts and pantheism, and as the author notes, is not true hakikat teachings.

The final part of the paper involves a reiteration for the need of a more spiritual approach to religion, the author reminds us that intellect is equally important to discern religious teachings that are corrupted with nafs and worldliness from that which is true to the purpose of becoming closer to God. Religions that become cults can be difficult to dispel as it can become ingrained in indoctrination, and it will lead to extremism.

The paper bookends by characterizing what a spiritual person's motivations are in seeking God in order to give meaning to the rituals, and ultimately to his faith. The paper closes with the statement : "Kenal Tuhan binasa dirinya". Meaning that once you know God, you realize that you lose your Self. God's creations will not stand before Him without feeling insignificant and in awe once they attain the understanding of God.

I once mused if I could meet God I would ask him all the questions I've ever had about this world, and one of my lecturers commented that once I meet Him, I wouldn't even have the gall to do so because I would be humbled at my insignificance before Him. Even in Buddhist thought, there is an emphasis on the teaching that the Self is illusory. So, there is evidence that there is a universal understanding in other religions as well.

I don't claim to be an expert on other religions, I am merely piecing together the little things that I know because comparative religion has personally been the way I better understand my own religion, and I suppose I've always liked making connections with other things I've learned or read, it's more interesting.

All in all, I hope I've done it justice, else it could be attributed to my own limitations in understanding, and thus, I still need to read or reflect a lot more.

The takeaway message from all this is really relevant to current day society in Malaysia. Clerics are concerned of how much a woman should cover herself and how it is not wrong for a man to force himself on his wife and pig's DNA in chocolates. Tch. The obsession with perfecting rituals that lead to trivial nitpicking on what is the best way to practice those rituals takes away from the actual point of the ritual in the first place which is to bring once closer to God. I'm not saying rituals are to be carried out half-arsed, but at the same time, one must strive for meaningful ritual and not an empty one, and meaningful ritual is not attained from bickering between different opinions of how one should practice said ritual. Secondly, it is also important to ask your own questions, and actively seek out answers. Relying on immutable explanations that does not allow for questions is a stagnation. Books and clerics can only do so much, but getting closer to God takes a lot more than that and it is your own responsibility. Living a spiritual life is an active process. It is not the ritual's job and it's not the cleric's job to do that for you.

So, yeah. I have other stuff to read too that I haven't gotten to, but in due time, I will probably do a write up for each of them to better consolidate my thoughts. Currently, I just finished another book, but it's altogether a completely different topic. It's also another type of book I don't normally read. It's an economic and politicala history analysis on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James P. Robinson, but I'll save that for another day. I am apparently pursuing my non-engineering interests in my free time right now, but I really like this break from engineering for now. Here's to more productive reading.

2 comments:

Malenka Sri Elang said...

Excellent review...

Nana said...

Thank you