Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Beyond Belief, by VS Naipaul, and Some Thoughts on Revealed Religions and Earth Religions


In the mid 1990s, V.S.Naipaul revisited countries – Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia – he had been to in the late seventies to follow up on his earlier work Among the Believers. The book that emerged from his travels, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, is a sequel of sorts. It has received much criticism.

The reason for the criticism becomes clear when one reads the prologue: in short, sharp sentences Naipaul summarizes his thoughts on countries whose major religion is Islam but whose people are not Arabic. “Islam in its origins is an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert.” “A convert’s worldview alters; his holy places are Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story.” Consequently, “the disturbance for societies is immense”, “people develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism.”

These sweeping pronouncements apart, Beyond Belief is a book of stories. It is Naipaul’s approach to travel writing: meet people, talk at length with them, understand their backgrounds and their particular experiences and create a narrative out of them. It is an immensely effective technique; the writer recedes into the background and the stories stand for themselves.

But Naipaul can be severe on Islam, as he is in the prologue and other places in the book. How does he arrive at his analysis? Naipaul calls Islam and Christianity as “revealed religions”, religions that came into being through prophets who revealed the word of God. In a sense Buddhism, and a number of other religions – Jainism, Sikhism – can be classified the same way though they differ significantly from Islam and Christianity. The revealed religions, in many places of the world, have supplanted the “earth religions”, religions that believe in ancestral spirits, “cults of rulers and local deities”, involve the animals, birds and insects of the region in which they are practiced; religions that are intimately connected to, and worship the sacredness of topical landmarks – an imposing mountain, a river that sustains life, a tree or a plant that yields food and utilities.

“The crossover from the classical world to Christianity is now history. It is not easy, reading the texts, imaginatively to enter the long disputes and anguishes of that crossover. But in some of the cultures described in this book the crossover to Islam – and sometimes to Christianity – is still going on. It is the extra drama in the background, like a cultural big bang, a steady grinding down of the old world.”

Such summaries of his thoughts, as these finishing sentences of the prologue, are always there in Naipaul’s writings. His prose is known to be clear and brilliant. Later, in a chapter on Indonesia, Naipaul writes: “The overthrow of the old religions – religions linked to the earth and animals and deities of particular place or tribe – by the revealed religions is one of the haunting themes of history. Even when there are texts, as with the ancient Roman-Christian world, the changeover is hard to follow. There are only indications.”

Naipaul seems to have feeling for the old beliefs and earth religions, and animus for the “arrogance” and proselytizing fervor of revealed religions. He says as much in an interview with Farrukh Dhondhy:

“I had a great interest - an ignorant interest, I should say as well - in African art. And through that I have a feeling for the religions of the earth, if you can call or classify African religions as that. They're so mysterious, and really to me quite wonderful. The missionary who wants to convert them all to a revealed religion is arrogant and destructive. I'm interested in this ancient thing from the earth. Religious Africa. If one reads Virgil, there is a lot of mystery about Rome, the founding of Rome, Roman religion, its antiquity. And there is the same thing of course in this culture, African culture, the dark continent. They come from very far back. They are very mysterious things, I find these things wonderful. That was my initial interest in Africa, a reason for going there.”

In Naipaul’s view, the revealed religions – Christianity and Islam, principally – are more attractive because of their larger philosophical, humanitarian and social concerns that some of the old beliefs do not offer: “It can be seen that the earth religions are limited offering everything to the gods and very little to men. If these religions can be attractive it is principally for modern aesthetic reasons; and even so, it is impossible to imagine a life completely within them. The ideas of the revealed religions are larger, more human, more related to what men see as their pain, and more related to a moral view of the world.”

And in an interview with the Indian magazine, Outlook, he said: “The two great revealed religions, Islam and Christianity, have altered the world forever, and we all, whatever our faith, walk in their light. Over and above their theology, these religions gave the world social ideas – brotherhood, charity, the feeling of man for man – which we now all take for granted. They are the basis of our political ideas and our ideas of morality. Those ideas didn’t exist before. It may be that these two revealed religions have done their work and have little more to offer.”


Flagstaff is a small town in northern Arizona, eighty miles south of the Grand Canyon. It lies at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, a range of high mountains. The tallest of these peaks, Mount Humphrey, is also the tallest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. I tried to scale the peak with a friend this summer. We were unsuccessful. There was too much snow, and for most of the time we were lost amongst the firs and aspens of the slopes.

In those summer months, I came to know of a dispute surrounding the peaks. A ski resort development project was being planned but there were protests from twelve Native American tribes. The matter is still in court. The tribes hold the peaks sacred – though the peaks are not in any reservation – and consider any development activities as a violation of a religious place. And perhaps by hiking through the slopes of Mount Humphrey, by treating it as a recreational commodity, I too had defiled it in some way.

Sacredness of the earth, of a particular natural landmark; that a natural landmark could be pristine, undisturbed and yet, just by virtue of its imposing presence, be a place of worship, like a temple or a mosque or a church: such a belief can only come through a long association – for centuries or millennia – with the land and a spiritual dependence on it.

It was precisely this connection with the land that Naipaul missed, though not consciously, during the eighteen years of his life growing up in Trinidad. Naipaul’s ancestors were Brahmins of north India who had come in the eighteenth century as indentured laborers for work in the plantation colonies of Trinidad. Their sacred places were in India. In the Trinidad of his childhood, Naipaul felt “an incompleteness, an emptiness” for “the real world existed somewhere else”.

In Naipaul’s analysis, the New World is full of people – Europeans, former slaves from Africa, small Asian communities – whose sacred lands lie elsewhere. And from this idea, and from the experience all his travels, he arrives at the following abstract thought: “Perhaps it is this absence of the sense of sacredness – which is more than the idea of 'environment'– that is the curse of the New World, and is the curse especially of Argentina and ravaged places like Brazil.”

The Native Americans to whom the lands of Trinidad and the Caribbean had been sacred had been destroyed in the years after the arrival of Columbus. Naipaul grew up in a town called Chaguanas, named after an extinct tribe. Naipaul has considerable feeling for the tribe; in his Nobel speech, Naipaul said: “The people who had been dispossessed would have had their own kind of agriculture, their own calendar, their own codes, their own sacred sites. They would have understood the Orinoco-fed currents in the Gulf of Paria. Now all their skills and everything else about them had been obliterated.” In an interview with Tarun Tejpal he said: “I also knew even when I was a child in school that the land on which we were living, was the land on which 200 years before aboriginal people had lived and then been wiped out. They don’t exist. Not a single one of them. It was a terrible thing to understand, to come to terms with.”

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