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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Religion is belief, not rule



The Federal Court’s ruling, that the unilateral conversion of M Indira Gandhi’s three children to Islam is null and void, re-balances the essential dynamics of a family, giving weight to the rights of the mother and child.
The decision was applauded by lawyers, non-Muslims, women’s rights NGOs. 
Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) was quoted as saying: “It affirms that both parents have equal right to decide on their child’s religion. Unilateral conversion is a grave violation of women’s rights.”


I beg to differ. Parents do not have the right to decide their child’s religion. Only the child should have that right.
Accepting a religion as a guide in our lives must first come from a mature understanding of its precepts and principles, the spirit/soul of the religion. It would be better if there was knowledge of other religions for comparison. That’s beyond even many adults, much less kids. 
From understanding follows whole-hearted acceptance of the religion, rather than observing it by rote and under rule.
I proffer my spiritual journey as a clear illustration.
My mum, all her life, was a devout Buddhist, but typical of many Chinese Buddhists, there were Taoist elements.
In our house in Rozario Street, Brickfields, in the 50s and 60s, there was a metal altar nailed halfway up a wooden pillar for the God of the Sky, one on the ground for the God of the Earth, and one at the back for the Kitchen God.
On the eve of Chinese New Year and on the opening of the New Year on the second day, a poached chicken, roast pork, Chinese lettuce (its Chinese name evokes “Life”), and small cups of Chinese tea were placed on a large tray painted blue with a profusion of roses, and placed in front of the three altars, the kitchen god eating last. 
When the joss-sticks and candles smoked out at the kitchen god’s altar, the ingredients on the tray were taken into the kitchen for final touches for the reunion dinner.
On those occasions, I stood beside my mother jiggling the joss-sticks in my hand while mum chanted her prayers. 
It had no meaning for me; it was just something I had to do. It wasn’t arduous.
On Wesak, the procession of brightly-lit floats at night, accompanied by people chanting and carrying candles, passing in front of my house, was a spectacle for a kid.
Again, I would be standing next to my mother, palms together in a gesture of prayer. My motive was mundane, not spiritual. Mum said that if the holy water the monks sprayed out splattered on me, there would be blessings. It wouldn’t hurt to have insurance for the next test in school.
The next day it would be off to the temple round the corner, me carrying two big packs of joss-sticks. 


Never saw the point of that. The temple was crowded and the several big prayer urns were a fiery thicket of joss-sticks defying devotees trying to find space for their joss-sticks.
Every couple of minutes, volunteers would grab handfuls of joss-sticks to extinguish and discard in bins. Hey, the joss-sticks carrying my smoky prayers had barely started. Now God would never know.
The halls with the large Buddhas were a haven of calm, those stepping in automatically stilling their rush through life.
Then it was back to my normal life.
Things beyond my comprehension
In university, I steeped myself in the nihilism and existentialism of Nietszche, Sartre, Camus, mixed with the Liberation Theology of Latin America, Catholic priests working with the poor and fighting their Church because it was allied to military dictatorships.
This is what you would expect of a young man – being an intellectual poseur. It wasn’t heartfelt, merely flagging a political position.
One good thing in university was the English Department handing out reading assignments before each break for a test at the start of the next term – large chunks of the Bible, but also (in translation) the Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Confucius and Lao Tze, et cetera – so that we would have something to read and moan, “I’m sooo booored!”, instead of just sitting around and moaning, “I’m sooo booored!”  
In the late 70s, while teaching in Taylor’s College, I found myself, one dawn, arriving on the night train in Penang, to meet a man I had only met once without saying much to each other. 
I still do not know why I did that, but for two-and-a-half years, every college vacation, I was in his house in Pulau Tikus.
From start to when I last saw him, there was a decades-old scepticism in me about things spiritual which made me re-examine the things I went through with him, the medical miracles I witnessed.
For all the scientific, rational scouring of possible explanations, I can only conclude there are things beyond my comprehension. My master’s constant admonishment: just accept, don’t question.  
What I witnessed – classify it as spiritual magic. What he gave me was an understanding of Buddhism that went beyond my intellect. It was an acceptance.
Hey, I am no ascetic saint now, but every day I try to be less of a sorry excuse for a human being.
It took slow-developer me nearly three decades to reach that stage. 
The High Court ruled that children reaching the age of 18 can decide on their religion.
At 18, I was thrilled that I had to wear long pants to school. I was no longer a kid, man. I knew everything. Boy, what a dumbass!

THOR KAH HOONG is a veteran journalist.- Mkini

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