This was part of a special Christmas supplement of ‘Letters to God’ commissioned by the New Statesman in 1991.
I have had trouble with you ever since I was born. First you confused me: a Hindu boy, growing up in Buddhist Ceylon, attending a Catholic school. I didn’t know who you were, let alone who I was. As a Hindu, I realised you were man and woman both at once, Shiva-Parvati; as a Catholic, I was told you were a man three times over: the father, the son and the Holy Ghost; and, as a Buddhist, I knew you did not exist.
Maybe not at first, the confusion I mean, not when I was little, not before I went to secondary school, anyway, not before the world began to close in on me. That is when my history with you really begins.
But if I were to go back to prehistory, to when I was a child, all Hindu and all village, I had no problem with you. I was not conscious of you (except on temple day, and then you were fun and food). You were just there, like my parents, my brothers and sisters, my cousins, aunts, everybody in the village, immanent. You were in the trees and the rivers and the cows and the goats and everything useful, and you were in everything that was not otherwise intelligible, explicable, like the droughts that withered our crops, the monsoons that drowned them and the lightning that killed aunt Saras. But I didn’t hold those things against you.I took you in the round.
Till, that is, I went to Catholic school in Colombo, and you came across to me as an intrusive God, an interfering God, telling people what they could do and what they couldn’t do, what was right and what was wrong, and punishing them for it with confessions, Hail Marys and penances. My father, who was Hinduism in practice, never punished me for wrong-doing. He would say “that was an ugly thing you did, my son” (or come to terms with my adolescent fears and when I did something good, which was rare: conflicts, but the absence also of authority, of “that was beautiful”) and I would get a feeling in me that would instinctively recoil from doing the same thing again. I didn’t get that feeling with you. I recoiled from you instead. like that then, but the makings of you in me, You were too domineering, dogmatic, self righteous.
Of course, you sent your son in the confusions and the conflicts and the around to make things better—and I must contradictions of my growing soul. confess I was taken in by the fairy tale of his birth and death and resurrection and by his another consciousness in me, a secular one own little parables and miracles. And for a while there, I was lost in wonderment of you people and you priests got up to for you. But in the end, you came across as a disputatious God, a Christian god or another. The enormity of that crime, and Christian God, insisting that you were the best, but belonging only to Christians , Catholics in particular. And in your name they called me heathen, forced me to attend mass, learn the scriptures, and kept me out of the school cricket team. And, somewhere beyond the reach of consciousness , I began to feel that the beauty of all that ceremony and singing and the legends of the man-God were meant only to inveigle me into the dumb acceptance of dogma and authority.
And all the time there was this other God, Godhood to which I can reach, attain, “for a or rather, godliness, in the temples of the man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or Buddhists that I passed every morning on what’s a heaven for?” the way to school. I found a stillness there, a To do that, though, I must first come to quietitude—what, later I would learn, Saint Augustine called quies ab exterioribus and which your church was too frantic, converting and appropriating, to learn or to value.Not just the stillness in which I could come to terms with my adolescent fears and conflicts, but the absence also of authority, of an All-mighty; and reflection, meditation instead of worship.
Of course I could not articulate you quite like that then, but the making of you in me, of how I see you today, were already there, in the conclusions and the contradictions in my growing soul.
What catalysed them was the growth of another consciousness in me, a secular one if you like, that I belonged to a colonised people, a people who had had no say in their lives for almost a millennium of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule – and you had been a part to it in one way or another. The enormity of that crime, and the crime of the slave trade beggered all belief and belief itself became a beggar, seeking existence in the small crumbs of a habitual faith – till habit itself became sinful – or in the distinction between you and your church. What people do in your name is what you let people do.
That is why I no longer believe in God – and here perforce I must write of you in the third person – but only in the concept of God, in the concept of a divinity within myself, A Godhood to which I can reach, attain ‘for a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, of what’s a heaven for?’
To do that, though, I must first come to terms with myself, my myriad selves, accept myself in my totality, sins uglinesses and all and work through them towards my best self, my divine self, losing my evilnesses in the process. And seeing myself for who I am allows me to see others for who they are, without you getting in the way, without you being an intermediary. It allows me to see others in myself and myself in others, which is love; to understand what is owed to them and what is owed to me, which is justice; to become them, which is imagination. And without these three, I am as “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”.
It is that self-determination, self-belief, that authority over myself, the sense of being my own author, that has taken your place. But of course it frightens the hell out of me. For there is no adjudicator except myself, no one who can forgive me except myself, no one who can excoriate me, absolve me, lift me up again, except myself. No “batter my heart, three-personed God”, but me in many per sons battering out my Godhood, hammering out my socialist creed and faith.