... and ego has the last laugh

by Kathiresan, The New Straits Times, Sep 24, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- RELIGION divides people. His eyes on the newspaper, my teenage son continued: "If religion was intended to bring peace, why are people fighting over it?"

I did not have to guess the reason for the question. He was reading about the outcry that followed Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam.

I could have told him he was still young and would not understand. But, no, that won’t do. For today’s teenagers are more knowledgeable than teenagers of my generation.

I gave the safe reply that religion appeared sometimes to drive a wedge between people but, overall, there was good in it. Anyway, I added, people had been fighting in the name of religion for 2,000 years or more.

He shot a glance at me. If I didn’t know him better (and which parent claims otherwise?), I would have thought he was thinking: "Don’t give me that crap."

He went back to his reading. A few seconds later, he ventured: "Why can’t people of different religions live in peace? Why do people kill in the name of religion?"

Perhaps I took a little too long to answer, for he continued: "You have taught me that there cannot be one God for the Hindus, one for the Muslims, one for the Christians, one for the Buddhists and one for the Sikhs. I still remember your water example."

My mind rolled back, trying to recall the words uttered years ago when I was attempting to explain God. I had said water was called Thanni in Tamil, Air in Bahasa Melayu, Water in English and Chooi in Hokkien. No matter what you call it, water is water.

Calling it by another name does not change its properties or its functions. And water belongs to all. There is no Hindu water or Muslim water or Christian water or Buddhist water.

Similarly, I had told him, God was known by different names in different languages.

The approaches and rituals practised depended on factors such as geography and local culture at the period in history when a particular religion took shape.

His voice jolted my reminiscing.

"I’m just trying to understand why adults tell us that fighting is wrong but then fight each other in the name of God who is supposed to stand for love and peace."

Oh, how I have anguished over that very question. I had concluded that it was due to rigidity in refusing to see that there are various ways of approaching God, not just the way one is born into. I told him so. He nodded, but I wasn’t sure if he was satisfied with the answer.

But the old disquiet gushed up again. More so when two days later, my colleague Balan Moses broached the subject of inter-religious strife.

Can anyone deny that religion, which should provide strength and guidance towards living a good life, has also become a source of heated argument and intellectual anxiety? Even fear?

And that murders have been, and continue to be, committed in the name of God?

I recalled Charles Caleb Cotton’s words: "Men will wrangle for religion; write for it; fight for it; die for it; anything but live it." How true.

That day, when I went home, I called my son over and ventured an answer: "These murders, these fears, these arguments have nothing to do with religion. They have to do with the ego."

The ego lurks unassumingly, often exhibiting an air of benevolence, waiting to pounce on, and gobble up, the smallest of gestures and the briefest of words. For that is how it grows.

Stripped naked, what is the ego but the "I" and the "my".

"I" fight with you because you said something about "my" religion. You want to burn "my" temple because "I" demolished yours.

"I" think "my" religion is better than yours. You feel your religion is superior to "mine".

So religion is not to be blamed. It is the ego behind those professing the religion. Religious competition is driving many conflicts today.

My son asked: "But isn’t the ego individual? I have an ego, you have an ego. But people as a group get upset and go crazy, burning and killing, sometimes over petty issues."

My mind went back to the Kampung Rawa incident in Penang — where people of different faiths fought each other over the ringing of a bell. But then again, politics played a major part in that conflict.

There was such a thing as "collective ego", an ego shared by members of a group of people who had the same or similar characteristics and practised a common way of life, I said.

When you decry my religion, for instance, I take it as a personal attack on me because this is my religion.

My ego is hurt. If many such individual egos feel bruised or hurt, then the collective ego is hurt, I added. As it is rather subtle, its presence is not immediately felt or understood.

The ego, which is often nurtured by demeaning others, breathes only when there is some sort of struggle — to be more beautiful, better, superior or to have more of something or other.

"That," said my son, "sounds more plausible."

"Great", I said, "now, we need to talk about your plan of study..."

He shot a glance, at me, again. But this time it seemed to say: "Oh, no. I should have gone to bed earlier."