December 2, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
I am always amazed, and somehow repeatedly surprised, at the way in which the passage of time is so often simultaneously experienced in two (or more?) contradictory ways. The world is full of such paradoxes, of course. The gods are many and yet one. Humans are good and yet evil. Rational actions so often lead to irrational outcomes. Paradoxes abound even in the so-called “hard” sciences: the universe is limitless and yet also expanding. Distances between numbers can be immeasurably small and yet infinite. Most of what we perceive as matter is, in fact, empty space – whatever “empty space” actually means.
As my time here in Lucknow begins to wind down, I’ve found myself in a familiar, if uncomfortable conundrum. Foreign sights and smells have become routine. Strangers have become friends. Indecipherable sounds have become words and sentences. When I think back on my first few days and weeks in this place, the passage of time from then until now seems vast. And yet it is also not so. I have seen and gotten to know so little of the city for the past three months. My mental map of the surrounding streets and landmarks has only recently begun to coalesce. It has all gone by so fast. A few grid lines on a calender. A couple cycles of the moon.
I have been in Lucknow for 12 weeks, 4 days, and 18 hours as of my writing these words down. In this sense, at least, the passage of time is clear, measurable and pretty straightforward. This little time paradox is, it seems to me, a matter of perception. Looked at one way, 12 ½ weeks can seem like a very long time indeed, especially when I focus on specific events, passing ever further into the horizon. When looked at collectively, however, the length feels far less significant. Add in the emotional factors of nostalgia, anxiety, excitement and fear, and you’ve come quite a long way from the steady ticking of a clock and cold addition of seconds to minutes, minutes to hours, hours to days, days to weeks.
I have been told that humans, in our quest to understand the world, seek both patterns and meaning (the latter often derived from the former), and it is in these two simultaneous pursuits (specifically, when they contradict) that so many paradoxes arise. This can be seen in the world of science, for example, in paradigms – basic assumptions (based on observable patterns) about how the world works and why. We all rely on paradigms and the unquestioning assumptions they allow us to make to help us interpret our world. Think of them as the things we think we know before we even think about them. Paradigms can be specific to a field (smoking causes cancer; humans will always seek to maximize profit; evolution) or can be quite encompassing indeed (say, for example, the assumption that scientific observation is an accurate interpretation of reality). As Thomas Kuhn, the founder of paradigm theory, described it, paradigms have a tendency to continue on until scientists run into something that just doesn’t fit with preconceived notions (a paradox, you might say), after which a new paradigm must be made that takes this new phenomenon into account. Perhaps the most famous example is the continuing struggle to merge Classical Newtonian Physics (think Force=Mass x Acceleration), which has thus far proved excellent in describing the motions of planets, falling books, cars, etc. with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which is far better at describing the behavior of light, as well as Quantum Mechanics, which is best at describing the behavior of atoms and the like, into one single, all-encompassing paradigm.
There are two elements of paradigm theory that I find most interesting. First: paradigms tend to be self-reinforcing. Once one has been established, it can be very difficult to move outside of it. People don’t like the idea of things they’ve “always” assumed to be true being wrong. Just look at the persecution early proponents of a solar-centric universe faced, or the way in which supporters of Jean Baptiste Lamarck carried his use/disuse theory of evolution well into the 20th century, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Second, we all carry different sets of paradigms along with us. The differences in these paradigms can be vast, as with two people raised in very different cultures. They can also be (relatively) trivial. For example, a trained physicist may not consider my description of the universe in the first paragraph to be a paradox at all – the paradigm through which he views the nature of the universe being far more developed than mine. In the case of both big and small paradigmatic differences, it is a matter of perspective.
I say all this with a point, I think.
Last Sunday, instead of my normal blog-writing routine I went into the Old City with several other classmates to observe the annual Ashura procession (Jaloos). Ashura, is the tenth day of the lunar month of Muharram, and on this day, it is said that the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein, was brutally murdered by the ruling Caliph at Karbala along with much of his small band of family and followers. While most Muslims recognize Ashura as a day of mourning, it is particularly significant for Shi’a, who believe that the proper line of succession to lead the Muslim Community (Ummah) passed through the Prophet’s family. As such, Hussein was the rightful third Imam. The day is commemorated around the world with self-reflection, songs recounting the tragic events of that day, sermons, mourning, and chest-beating. It is often highly emotional and raw, despite the passage of over 1,300 years. The fact that Shi’a remain a persecuted minority in much of the world, including parts of South Asia, keeps Hussein’s martyrdom fresh in the minds of many of the devout. Like I said, time is a matter of perception.
Ashura often garners the most attention for the practice of ritual self-flagellation that a small number of participants here in Lucknow traditionally engage in. The practice is shunned by many members of the Shi’a clergy and is banned in some parts of the world, including Iran, where almost half of the world’s Shi’a live. The emotional reaction it garners is easy to understand. Dozens of men and young boys, shirtless and donning white pants, stood with chains in hand, their razor-tipped endings dangling just above the ground. They chatted casually with each other and members of the crowd that had gathered along either side of the street, cameras at the ready. On the cue of an unseen man, the dull clap of metal to flesh could be heard – the pattern somewhat organized at first but soon descending into a muffled applause. Men gathered in groups in front and behind to sing songs of mourning. People everywhere wept. Some cried silent tears, while others uttered low moans following a particularly sorrowful verse. Often, those leading songs and chants wept bitterly, as if they were witnessing the event before their own eyes.
As the procession lumbered mournfully through the streets the backs of the men holding the chains grew increasingly bloody, and the water onlookers poured on them made their pants run crimson red. Some others, who had cut their foreheads, walked slowly through the streets as if deep in meditation, stopping periodically to gather in small circles, chanting Hussein’s name while beating their chests.
Although those participating in such activities were a small minority, it was difficult not to notice them – not to be in awe of, and shocked by, their intense devotion. Its a highly emotional practice that often elicits emotional reactions, including horror, curiosity, disgust, shock, skepticism, or outright disdain from non-Muslims, Sunnis, and many Shi’a alike.
Why is this? Well, sure, its a practice that involves some blood and bodily mutilation, things people tend to be uncomfortable with, but so does circumcision (on babies, no less) and that hasn’t fallen out of favor – at least not yet. More than just the bloodiness of it, I believe we have something of a religious paradigm to thank for at least part of our strong reaction to practices of self-flagellation, namely the concept of body-soul Dualism. This is the idea that our bodies and souls are fundamentally different in nature, and thus have fundamentally different purposes and needs. It often follows, therefore (certainly in the three major monotheistic faiths, that is), that the body is inherently less pure than the soul. The classic sacred/profane divide. Now while this belief, in principle, holds true across most segments of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the way in which we have understood it has changed over time and varies across sect. There are still many today, across virtually all religious traditions, that use their bodies as a means to encounter God. These groups are loosely termed “mystics,” although where one draws the line is certainly a matter of debate. In early Christianity, for example, long periods of fasting and deprivation to overcome the urges of the body were not uncommon, and self-flagellation continues among some sects, particularly around Easter. Today, Pentecostalism might be the most popular form of Christian mysticism. Sufi Muslims continue the practice of using their bodies as a medium for personal encounters with the divine in a startlingly diverse number of ways ranging from chants, to ritual dance, to skin piercing. Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, also continues on today as a medium for direct contact with the divine.
To be clear, the practitioners I witnessed here in Lucknow were not attempting to connect with God through self-flagellation. Their purpose, as I gathered, was rather to express solidarity with Hussein, as well as a sort of collective guilt on the part of the Shi’a community for not being there in his time of need. But I believe the disdain many orthodox practitioners have for the mystical sects described above and the more general unease (and certainly orthodox distaste as well) for the self-flagellation practices associated with some Ashura processions has the same root in the notion that somehow faith as experienced through the body is not legitimate, or at least less legitimate than that found in internal prayer and reflection. Throw in the general distaste for public displays of religion present in the West, (the sacred/profane plus the public/private realm dichotomies) and the stage is set for some prime cultural miscommunication.
In short, as someone (full disclosure) who is not religious, I find little reason to deny the body as a tool for expressing faith, solidarity, community, or grief. Pain is not just thought, it is felt. As is joy. As is sorrow. As is community. I see no reason to prohibit it being expressed as such, nor do I find it to be particularly distasteful or any less legitimate than any other form of worship. It is, simply, an expression of human experience on (what else?) the human body. For those who would criticize these practices, I would point to my two most interesting aspects of paradigms:
- They are self-reinforcing
- Everyone’s are (at least) slightly different
Yes, its bloody. Yes, its shocking. Yes, its painful.
But have you seen the world lately?