Walter Benjamin

A Happy Atheistic Deepavali (aka Diwali) to Each and Every One of You!

I’m an atheist. There was a time—a green adolescent time of stumbling discovery—when because of my atheism I refused to enter temples, choosing rather to wait outside while my family disappeared inside for a while. I remember very well an old and beautiful temple in Thirunelveli, quiet and dignified and redolent with the incense smoke of centuries. To the shock of relatives we were visiting I refused to enter it. Later, there were arguments about superstition and casteism and the dead weight of tradition that seemed—and actually were—urgent and unavoidable to me and my emergent atheism.

There was a time when I refused religious festivals too. I grew up with the annual wonder of Deepavali (which this year falls in the middle of next week). Waking up early; oil bath in the dark of pre-dawn to “cool” your body; new clothes; firecrackers; playing cards; endless feasting through the day; visiting friends and relatives. Festive sociality. Escape from routine. All this I gave up at a certain point. How can an atheist, I thought to myself, celebrate Deepavali?

I am different now. I enter temples. And in my own way I mark Deepavali. I understand now that people do not live by reason alone and that great things can sometimes be found hidden in (oppressive) tradition, including temples and festivals. I have learned the reverse of Walter Benjamin’s great dictum that a document of civilization is also a document of barbarism: I know now that many (certainly not all) examples of barbarism and oppression also have suppressed within them their own negation, their own more optimistic opposite. Mined in the right way they might very well be made to yield up egalitarian nuggets from within their dark barbaric depths.

And so, in that spirit, I wish each and every one of you (an advance) happy atheistic Deepavali. After all, the core of Deepavali, unlike many other Hindu festivals, is not caste-ridden ritual but sociality—the celebration of community, of relationships of friendship and kinship. The variety of stories associated with Deepavali shows that the festival has its origins as much in the folk and “lower” caste “little” traditions of India as the classical and “upper” caste great ones. What, then, is to stop us from taking the festival, with its festive lights and firecrackers and food and bonhomie, and making of it not a celebration of Rama or Krishna (as often done) but of our idea of community, of our notion of our connection to each other as human beings?

Yes, a very happy atheistic Deepavali to each and every one of you!

Namaste: a contrary reading in which, with advance apologies to lovers of yoga, thoughts are offered about Walter Benjamin, caste, untouchability, civilization, barbarism, and radical politics (all in the space of a brief blog)

The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Namaste, linked inextricably to the hands-pressed-together gesture that accompanies it, might be an excellent illustration of this thesis. Of course, to enter with me into an exploration of what I mean here you first have to consent to an expanded definition of “document,” where the term refers not just to something written, or even to a text in the way a film is a text, but rather to any unit in any system of signification or meaning-making. Thus, to arrange your body in a particular manner (as in placing your hands together in the gesture of namaste) is to produce a “text” full of meaning that must then be “read” by your interlocutor (the addressee of your greeting). It is in this way that I term namaste a “document.”

So much for a breezy review of cultural theory. The verbal text of namaste is generally translated as “I bow to you,” and in this sense, accompanied by the aforementioned pressed hands placed before the heart, is indeed a wonderful Indian greeting of humility, vulnerability, and open-ness to the other. But is that all it is? Let me play the provocateur here. Consider this. Europeans shake hands in greeting, Arabs embrace each other, Maori touch foreheads and let their breath mingle. And then we have Hindus, who namaste each other from a safe distance.

What’s going on here? How do we “read” this discrepancy? Is it possible there is an aversion to physical contact in namaste? To cut to the chase: can we separate this long-distance civility that Hindus engage in from the culture of untouchability that pervades India?

As is well known, untouchability, or rather strict rules about who may touch whom under what circumstances, is a fundamental feature of caste. It is associated with notions of impurity and is one of the most obnoxious features of caste prejudice. Is it not perfectly reasonable, then, to speculate that namaste is exactly the kind of greeting that a culture of untouchability would produce? Is it not probable that the civilized document of namaste hides within itself the barbaric code of caste prejudice?

Civilization and barbarism—scratch the surface of one and find the dark depths of the other. How tragically fitting that a man who died fleeing the horrors of Nazism should have (perhaps much too presciently) provided us with such potent insight into the relationship between the two.

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Benjamin. What barbarism do you find in your cherished documents of civilization? Confronting that question might be the first step in a radical politics.