Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dissecting a Joke (weekly feature)

Here is the joke of the week:
A newspaperman was interviewing Mulla Nasrudin on his 105th birthday. He noticed that the Mulla was wearing a rabbit's foot on his key chain. "You don't mean to tell me," said the newspaperman, "that a man of your experience still believes in that old and childish superstition? " "CERTAINLY NOT," said Nasrudin, "BUT MY WIFE TELLS ME IT IS SUPPOSED TO BRING YOU LUCK WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN IT OR NOT."

So why is the joke funny? Because most of us know that it is the act of belief itself, and not the object of belief, that is the important factor in catalyzing an event. The object of faith is usually untrue (otherwise it wouldn't require faith in it), but the act of faith provides a feeling which is important.

Affective beings that we are, we are forever fighting against our dark sides. The vast amount of self-help literature, the umpteen guides for "positive" thinking, the plethora of therapeutic techniques almost always aim at strengthening our "good" sides against our perverse or damaging tendencies.

Positive energy or good vibes definitely help us in feeling better and in becoming more efficient. Most religious or spiritual communities bank on this to market their dubious metaphysics. It is very hard for a normal human to separate the grain from the chaff - to separate the positive effects of a calming technique from its metaphysics. And it is dangerous to even attempt this investigation, for what if in the process, one discovers that one is just blindly believing and loses all the benefits that accrue from that belief system? What if one loses the "motivation" of doing a meditation without a supportive belief system, e.g. one which promises heaven or a favorable next birth?

A belief system may make one humane, vegetarian, non-violent, charitable, generous, faithful, devout, honest, "god-fearing" and so on. Is a "good belief" better than cynicism? Is it reasonable to expect a normal human being to give up both believing and cynicism?

These are important questions, at the heart of the current debates between atheism and the various religious systems. Atheists rightly point out that belief, and its passionate defense, can lead to hatred and unspeakable violence. But in day-to-day living, isn't belief and its positive energy a good thing?

The joke is quite insightful and funny if you think about it. It is not just about belief, but also about relationships.

Mulla believes his wife, but not the effects of the rabbit-foot. Maybe his acceptance of his wife's views (which he knows are false, because he says: "CERTAINLY NOT" when asked about them) have led to his long-standing marriage, eh? One can criticize him for being a hypocrite, for doing something without believing in it. But isn't that the bedrock of most human relationships? To do something even if one doesn't like it or believe in it? Can a relationship survive if one is completely true to oneself?

An example of a man who was generally quite true to his principles was M K Gandhi, and his relationships were singularly disastrous. People close to him (his friends, colleagues, his immediate family) suffered a lot for his (at times stubborn) insistence on being true to himself.

But what is being "true to onseself" anyway? I think, in the real world, it is being true to one's own beliefs, rather than those of others (including one's loved ones). In the light of this definition, Gandhi was being true (or trying to be true) to his own (at times foolish) beliefs, to the detriment of others around him. He was not an enquirer or a seeker, he was a practitioner.

Mulla, in the joke above, is treading a middle path of doing what others ask, but not believing in what they say. What if he were to create an issue out of wearing the rabbit-foot? Who would benefit from that debate? His wife? This is where one must, again, ask: is it reasonable to expect a normal human being to give up his/her beliefs based on a reasoned argument.

As far as I understand, it doesn't work like that. Beliefs are shed through one's intention to seek the truth and live by it. If Mulla's wife doesn't have that intention, then Mulla's arguments and reasoning will only further agitate her.

Most of our relationships are affective and emotional, and they will be destroyed if we question the passionate beliefs and assumptions lying at their foundations. A well-adjusted human (one who accepts and follows the conventions and beliefs of his community) will have better relationships than a seeker, who will offend, repulse and hurt people around him. Even if the seeker doesn't interfere with others' lives, his act of disbelief will be considered a provocation.

And it is simplistic to say that beliefs and communities exist only in primitive societies and the third world. When I was holding a senior position in a multi-national corporation, some of us went for a company outing. The event-manager/team-building-expert at that outing asked us all to divide ourselves into two groups: team players and lone rangers. I was, quite appropriately, the only person in the "lone ranger" group. Being a team-player in a corporate setting is to, first and foremost, accept the various belief systems (the company's vision statement, faith in the various leaders and their utterances, etc.). Cooperation can only happen if there is a common ground of vision, the path, and the goals. People might pay lip-service to being authentic and skeptical in a corporate setting, but being human, they are fearful of dissent and rejection.

Not a few disliked me for not publicly affirming my team spirit.

The responsibility of hurt due to a belief being attacked certainly lies with the one who is hurt. But a vast proportion of the human drama is about hurt, and the management of this hurt. To disavow the management of others' feelings is to be an outcast.

To do something collectively, one has to play along with others' beliefs.

Some, like the Mulla, are able to do it, surive as part of a family and live to be 105.

Those who are uncompromising, fight too many battles.

Whose life is more "meaningful"?


Anonymous said...

"whose life is more meaningful?"

meaningfulness of life is subjective.

Decision or choices are difficult only till the fear of unknown or un-prevalent haunts us. If 'fear' is confronted , then one can live a 'meaningful' life.

For example, for a society obsessed with 'couple- hood' and marriage, a decision to remain single augurs difficulties, but it is not impossible.
In a society, fraught with gadgets and gizmos, to live simply can be a challenge. "Meaningful" or otherwise is dependent upon one's threshold of satisfaction and wants.

Anonymous said...

i found it funny because it is scoring a point that spouses exerts a lot of influence on each other and in this case Mulla ( who can get away with anyone but his wife). That man is browbeaten by a woman makes men laugh ( because they resign to this supposed fate of every married man) and makes women laugh ( because it is so untrue in a patriarchal society- man being controlled by a woman).

( i am giving myself a name since it is awkward not saying it and you addressing me as anonymous)

- dadi ma ke kisse-kahani

ya..that's my name!

Harmanjit Singh said...

My seemingly rhetorical questions don't have easy answers. I consider the life of a seeker more meaningful, as should be obvious from my blog, but as an actualist, am not dissociating from the world of people and things. I am married, have a house, etc.

But I also understand that a large part of humanity is neither ready nor inclined for non-dissociative, un-credulous, non-spiritual living.

As for meaning being subjective. Of course it is subjective, but from our own subjective notions of meaning, we can try to answer the question whether a compromised life in which one fights other, important, battles is to be chosen over one in which the creation of space for oneself itself is a battle. The answer is subjective, but that doesn't mean there is no answer possible.

I once knew a woman who, while announcing her marriage, rued that it was better to be bothered by one man than a whole society. I don't think it applies to all, but her utterance is noteworthy.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi "dadi ma":

The joke has multiple dimensions. I am glad you found it funny.

Such husbands do exist, quite a few in fact, who get browbeaten in front of a woman and then feel like "men" again with their male friends.

See the film Bazaar, and notice the character played by Sudhir Pandey (the Lala Gaindamal in Buniyaad).

Anonymous said...

:-) Rhetorical question? hardly. Ironical? yes.
# Battles that one fights are at many levels and of many kinds. Some are personal in nature and without fighting them , for example for one's own space in the world, fighting "larger " battles itself may not happen.

Battles are primarily fought for change in a structure or an order which is interalia, obsolete and redundant. One kind over another kind will depend upon circumstances and need ( which are personal first) else the very act of fighting can turn into another form of altruism/ideology ( both a power play hence vulnerable to corruption and floundering in the end).

# Dadi Ma's comments do apply to a larger cultural context. That the man can be browbeaten by a woman itself is considered absurd hence laughter. Not all laughs are out of mirth and tickling a funny bone, some are mere chuckles. This one with Mulla shouting has the shade of spectacle ( hence performance element of this joke is much higher than most) and black humour and irritability on part of Mulla because he is doing which he does not want to do and feels sorry for himself.

Anonymous said...

"dissociating from the world of people and things"

that is withdrawal and despair, which is antithesis of life.

Even the itinerant seeker associate with people and things because that adds to a meaningful life.

Fighting and Dissociating are poles apart. Fighting means engagement with systems and structures and destabilizing them. Dissociation may lead to indifference and disenchantment which is commencement of despair.

Harmanjit Singh said...


The actualist challenge is to live in this world, with other people having beliefs and who might be antagonistic to you, happily and harmlessly.

Neither the dissociated seeker nor someone who constantly has to defend himself is happy. I was only wanting to convey that most seekers (esp. those in eastern spiritual traditions) choose to dissociate, while most of those who associate/engage give up their seeking.

To seek freedom in the world, while not running away from engagements, is /the/ challenge.

It is a very complex subject.

I.e. how to do all of the following:

One is not running away.
One is happy and harmless.
One is not compromised.

My commentary is about the last aspect, and whether relationships survive an uncompromising stance.

If not, then what suffering it is to try and maintain the relationships and also try to "be true" to oneself!

Anonymous said...

" To seek freedom in the world, while not running away from engagements, is /the/ challenge.

It is a very complex subject.

I.e. how to do all of the following:

One is not running away.
One is happy and harmless.
One is not compromised.

My commentary is about the last aspect, and whether relationships survive an uncompromising stance.

If not, then what suffering it is to try and maintain the relationships and also try to "be true" to oneself! "

"running away" is the key! why and from what will reveal the resolution itself. For a moment, if we were to side step any schema ( of actualism or eastern spiritualism) and clear the doors of perception, then perhaps the answers will appear. Because these answers require choices which are difficult, ( while living among people with antagonist beliefs ) that's when running away begins. I will come back to the earlier post that( i am certain) it is the fear ( of being alone, of being left out, of not being understood, of not living a "meaningful" life, social security) which drives us to compromise. Resolution lies in taking care of the fear.

If the relationships are static then they will get brittle and break. However, if relationships are dynamic then it lends enjoyment. For example, most parents have a relationship of power/hierarchy with children and when children grow up the change in the equation occurs. Those parents who keep up with the dynamics of growth and "befriend" their children or "treat" them as adults share a much more enjoyable relationship. However, the parents who refuse to see their children as adults and want them to "listen" to them and respond the same way as when they were younger, do not want a change in the hierarchy, suffer when children assert their "emotional/financial " freedom.

similarly the relationships which are dynamic survive the uncompromising stance.

Just as the seeker will grow and change, so will the people around him/her and the relationships will undergo changes too.

Coming back to the joke:

Mulla is evidently irritated because he loses face( is being questioned) and will be projected as a brow beaten husband ( hurt to male ego). With some sense of humour he will enjoy the moment, not letting the comments/enquiry get to him ( right now he thinks the interviewer in casting aspersions on his seemingly superstitious beliefs.

Sharad said...

Just a couple of related thoughts.

The non-conformist:

Count on the rabbit's foot if you wish, but remember that it didn't help the rabbit!

The critique on the non-conformist:

Sansaar se bhaage firte ho,
bhagwaan ko tum kya paoge?
Is janam ko bhi apna na sake,
us lok mein bhi pach'taoge;

Anonymous said...

santa - oye chicken leya oye
waiter - sir kaunsa chicken khana pasand karenge, spanish ya english
santa - oye jeda marji leya mai keda gallan karniyan ne

isko dissect karo to maane