My quiet fourteen days leading to the New Year were spent watching a few movies, listening to my vinyl LPs, doing some house-cleaning and furniture rearranging, figuring out where to relocate my thousands of books I have collected over a decade, and reading. I managed to finish Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to learn about the philosophical world of one of the greatest Roman emperors and its only philosopher-ruler. Meditations consist of notes the Stoic philosopher wrote, not intending to have them published. This is the beauty of the collection of words and passages of wisdom: narrative of one who has the power and the wisdom to govern the monumental Roman Empire.
I yearn to see in our world today more leaders behaving like philosopher-rulers rather than tyrants, thieves, and murderers.
My two-week reading of Meditations gave me the reflective moments to think about the journey I have gone through as an educator and some of my persistent thoughts on religion and philosophy or how this ought to be harnessed as one. The sustained quiet moments at night have brought some light to my thinking, reflected in what I have written the last ten years:
I. A poem of self-definition
Perspectives of the Individual. The Life of the Mind. Cross-cultural Perspectives. Social and Moral Philosophy. Religions of the World. Introduction to Religion. Western Civilization. The Middle East. Islamic Scriptures (in translation).
These are some of the courses (amongst seventy so far) I have taught in the areas of Philosophy, Anthropology, and Comparative Religions, giving me the basis for helping others see the multiplicities of views and how to see beyond the rites and rituals of belief systems, and how to evolve beyond systems thinking. If Karl Marx said we are all homo economicus, or essentially “economic beings” we too are “homo spiritus” and natural philosophers trapped in the linguistic game or the prison-house of language, borrowing the words of the American Marxist Frederic Jameson, of what to believe and the certitude of things, of being forced to believe in an Ultimate Truth, wherein truth is an evolving concept of the phenomenological nature of existence.
By the path I took as an educator and an academic interested in ideas, and a passionate defender of intellectual freedom, I was ready to immerse myself in any experience provided by the spaces of religious knowledge, be they a Hindu temple, a Buddhist sangha, a Jewish synagogue, or the Muslim’s masjid, and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, in Rome. Had I been in a country such as Malaysia, or in any conservative country run by Muslim theologians, I would not have been able to or allowed to practice what I profess: teaching cross-cultural exploration of a variety of religious experiences.
I share below a poem related to my philosophical inquiry.
A poem about nothing special
“Genesis II, Chapter 7666, preamble”
When I was born
there were perhaps
no marks of a wheel at the bottom of my right heel
no bright clouds canopying my mother’s tent on a desert yonder
no three wise men foretelling a greatness only Love can explain
no thunderstorms or tsunami greeting the world with calamity
only the Universe nodding its head
its long-flowing beard caught in a spinning wheel
why this birth, I asked?
where will I be, I lamented?
what shall be the end of the story? I framed my inquiry repeatedly
existence — are not thou like a canvas
or Om– the first sound of the universe
like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly
create ripples and raging seas
of the inner ambiance in me?
what must I now conjure of my existence thus far
whilst at times like a younger Rodin
skillfully conjuring the signs and signifiers
of the greatness of Man in all his complexities
of this Divine Comedy he is plunged into?
as I see this samsara
— azly rahman
II. Musings and Propositions on the Genealogy of Religion
1] All religious celebrations are more cultural than religious; for the roots of religion and spirituality lie in human anthropology framed by the agricultural society, and the need to engage in rites and rituals to structure the inner and outer patterns in understanding the unknown and that elusive concept called “divinity”;
2] All ideas of “god” are rooted in language and concepts in materialism and the dialectic- ness of it; different names of different gods signify the attempt by Man to name the Unknown and the Infinite and the Non-Being via words framed culturally, so that Man can worship the name and appease the construction of personal and social reality;
3] all forms of worship — the prayers, the puja, the sembah Hyang, the solat — are a form of cultural-language-play rooted in the origins of names and the process of constructing language out of the need to “connect”; the purpose of all form of prayer is psychological, i.e. to numb the self so that its conscious state of “being-in-this-word” can be “destroyed” and the self can experience “death and living” all in one, in a different realm of consciousness now directed to the Unknown imagined as the “Divine” or the “Theos and the Logos” worshiped all in one;
4] All worshippers in religion worship objects and do not worship objects all at once — the Hindus worship/do not worship the multitude of gods from the pantheon gods, the Christians worship/do not worship the symbolic representation of a man crucified, the Muslim worship/do not worship the cube/kaabah that house the black stone from Paradise, and those of other cultural beliefs worship/do not worship the forces of Nature. Worshippers are creatures of semiotics (of signs, symbols, significations, representations) that do not have the power not to imagine. Iit is impossible not to imagine anything while worshiping, as Man is an invention imbued with the power to read and recite and redefine the world he/she lives in;
5] When one prays, where will the words/mantras/puja/doa/surahs/prayers be directed to? Does one know who the receiver of the offerings and words of sacrifice shall be?
6] Since the beginning of it, the greatest beneficiary of religion has been the rulers of men and the priest class that help provide the divinely sanctioned legitimacy; those who owns the means to produce Official Knowledge and those who rule by myth and the architecture of power derived from such myths, hence kings, emperors, sultans, and rajahs are all capitalists of “spiritual knowledge” their glory tied to the need for religion to be “spread” in the name of “empires of faith” the story of these rulers have not only been the story of plunderers and conversions to this or that religion, but how they plunder in style with the pomp and pageantry and nobility divinely-inspired thieves can be;
7] The pen is said to be mightier than the sword, if it belongs to the priest class and the sword wielded by kings but it is the invention of the writing system that has given might to both the pen and the sword whoever owns the means to tell the story of others own the mind of the future of the generations they wish to colonize in a world of epic-poems and storytelling of heroes and villains and masters and slaves;
8] In a world of the haves and have-nots of spiritual/religious knowledge the more the rulers and the guardians of religion emphasize the mundane but over-glorified ritualistic aspects of religion so that the masses can weep and cry while praying and take Fate as a life of suffering divinely-orchestrated, the more the ruling priestly class can administer more control using more sophisticated and ceremonial signs and symbol of alleviating suffering so that behind the scene the national treasures can be robbed clean;
9] If it is said that “the body is the temple of the soul,” why is there a need for any house of worship and to imagine that God “lives” there?
10] What is the origin of Man? For what purpose did he invent the idea of “god”.
Such are my musings upon reading Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and doing a self-reflection on the philosophical questions I have had since I was a young boy meeting the world and trying to make phenomenological sense of my surroundings and the sky above and what lies within me. I continue to have these “child-like” questions and every end of another fruitful year as an educator is another benchmark of philosophical quest: never a farewell but a renewal of meditative zeal. In the tradition of a “philosopher-king”