It has been a long time since I began my journey in medicine, and yet I distinctly remember the motives that propelled me on this long and difficult path. Firstly, I wanted to solve the mystery of human life, right from its micromolecular basis to its physical and psychological manifestations, ultimately leading to the solution of that ultimate puzzle – namely, what is the purpose of human life? And who better than a doctor to analyze these problems, with his scientific knowledge combined with a ringside view of the deepest, darkest human emotions and desires? The other and perhaps the greater quest was to answer the fundamental question – does God exist?
I entered medical college and immediately plunged headlong into a heady cocktail of ragging, comradeship, sports, philosophy, politics, smoking and girls, called college life. Except a month before exams, when all concerns were usurped by the overwhelming desire to avoid a ‘dhakkan’ (loosely translated as a lid – the meaning is of course obvious). In this whirlwind of experiences and emotions the fire of my quest was reduced to embers, smouldering in my heart like the guilt of a past misdeed, but never entirely quenched.
In due course I took my degree and found that graduation was only a mirage, and now I have to chase the oasis of post-graduation. Another three years of toil and insomnia later, I became a real doctor and started seeing patients of my own. They told me everything about themselves, things which they would never dream of telling their spouses, and sometimes had hidden from themselves. They had a desperate need to communicate with someone, anyone who would listen, and keep their secret safe. I was a good listener, and my Hippocratic Oath was a pledge of secrecy.
I learnt the limitations of my science and often the only medicines I could offer were reassurance and sympathy. But how do you reassure a 25 year old youth who has developed severe acute transverse myelitis, probably as an immune reaction to a simple sore throat, and is likely to remain paralyzed below his waist for the rest of his life? Or a middle-aged lady whose teetotaler, nonsmoking, vegetarian husband who exercised daily developed a massive heart attack and was declared ‘brought dead’ in the emergency? I told them that they had to accept it, that it was the will of God, and somehow that helped them a bit.
But my own faith in God was withering away. Why should God decide that a 3 year old girl, doted upon by her religious middle-class parents, develop diabetes, condemning her to a lifetime of insulin injections? And where God was silent, science at least provided some answers, some hope. Science told me that the child’s insulin producing beta-cells were destroyed and she needed insulin to survive. It provided me with the purified insulin that will help to normalize her life somewhat. It gives me the hope that one day we may be able to develop a procedure – perhaps transplantation of beta cells into her pancreas – that will help her lead an absolutely normal life.
And meanwhile it is God’s will that corrupt bureaucrats suck up the vitality of the projects meant to bring prosperity and health to the people of the country; that octogenarians tottering on the verge of dementia shape the destiny of a billion people in the mould of their bottomless greed; that youth pay the price for their blunders at the borders, while they pile up their wealth in the bullet-ridden coffins of those soldiers; that George Bush Sr. and Jr. are able to starve 2 million children in Iraq and later flatten the whole blasted nation to the ground in the name of democracy and the greater good.
God and good are supposed to go together. All religions say that the religious man is the good man. But these good men massacre innocents to propagate their religion. Others like them conducted the religious purges and the inquisitions of the past. Their religion makes them rigid, inflexible – unable to reason and unable to consider the other man’s point of view.
But science is not like that. Science feeds on reason, it thrives on free-thinking; not on dogma and blind faith. It smoothens contradictions as it grows. It searches for the truth and does not attempt to hide it in obscure, high-sounding phrases and bewitching metaphors. It is frank in its acknowledgement of its limitations, but holds out hope for the future, when all problems may be solved and all questions may be answered. Sure, it is vulnerable to be misinterpreted by prejudiced, opinionated men; to be misused by venal, corrupt, power-hungry men. But deep inside, the stream of reason flows on – pure, untrammeled, clear and un-biased – towards the ocean of complete knowledge.
And man is not made good by religion or made evil by its absence. Good and bad are intrinsic to human nature, the forces which shape his thinking but which are ultimately dependent on his will.
The concept of God is not needed to make man good. Rather it is needed because it fills a deep vacuum in the human psyche, a deep desire to have meaning in life. Also it protects us from that ultimate fear – the fear of the unknown. We don’t have to face the unknown directly and stare into its murky, dark and deep eyes – because we believe that God knows everything that is to come, rather it is he who has charted out the entire course of our life down to our ultimate destiny; that in fact, there is no unknown.
This fear of the unknown is what those pseudo-sciences of astrology, tarot-card reading, palmistry, vaastu-shastra and the like, feed upon. They offer their own charts to navigate the vast and frightening ocean of the unknown. Their success depends on the same factor that allows me to predict the result of a coin toss – pure randomness. If I call heads everytime, I will be right nearly 50% of times – and that is about the measure of success that the greatest of astrologers have enjoyed in their predictions. Besides, in our country if I predict drought or floods or famine, there is more than a 50% chance of success in any given year.
This fear makes us stand for long hours in front of temples, churches, gurudwaras and shrines – in the hope that God who knows the unknown will be kind and merciful to us to alter that unknown in our favor. But what a paradox exists in our worship! On the one hand we believe that everything happens by the wish of God and that everything is destined, and on the other hand we wish to subvert the purposes of that sublime destiny by our meager offerings of coconuts and money.
People ask me that if there is no God, then who made this universe? Well, I don’t know. It may have been the big bang, or as a friend of mine once theorized after a couple of pegs of scotch and soda – that the universe is nothing but a single atom that has been accelerated to the speed of light to make it infinite. We are still learning the truth. But if every word written in religious texts is true, then how was Galileo able to prove that the earth is not the centre of the universe? If God made the world in seven days, why did it take man millions of years to evolve from the ape?
So have I found the answers to my original quest? Well, I still don’t know the purpose of human life, but I believe that we are evolving towards it. It may be a search for immortality, or it may be to spread out to the farthest corners of the universe like in an Isaac Asimov sci-fi. But whatever it is, the ultimate destiny of the human race will I’m sure be decided by science and the force of the human will, not by the caprices of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. And therein lies the answer to my second and probably more important quest.