Some rudimentary thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke’s funeral
There may have been some two to three hundred mourners at his funeral. Most of them seemed to have been his close acquaintances or those known to him at least remotely. I don’t know how many scientists or science fiction writers were there to represent the field of Clarke’s scribe. From Sinhala art field there were two, namely Ajith Thilakasena and Sugath Watagadhara, and one politician, Prof. Thissa Vitharana. From the Buddhist clergy, 19 monks appeared remarkably lacking any public figures among them. They had come uninvited and on their own, not to hold any religious ceremony but to pay their last sincere respects to a great rationalist. No rituals and no eulogies. The funeral lasted barely 15 minutes with the body brought at 3.45 being buried at 4.00 pm.
I consider this humble nature of his funeral as a sign of a great farewell, not letting those pompous meaningless rituals deemed fit only for corrupt politicians’ funerals, hamper the simplicity of this great science fiction writer. Yet, the fact that the honour lavishly bestowed upon ignorance in Sri Lanka is not reserved for rational tradition too manifests itself in the same phenomenon. Ajith Thilakasena reminisced about his attendance some dozens of years back at the funeral of Dr. N.M. Perera’s where he noticed an abundance of religious paraphenalia which only emphasised the irony of religion being given such a prominence in the name of a person who practiced his politics, spanning more than 5 decades in Sri Lanka, in a belief that bordered on labelling religion as opium. Prof. Sunanda Mahandra had once pointed out that Sugathapala De Silva who wrote and produced his stage dramas postulating the importance of labour over metaphysics had gone to Kataragama to seek godly blessings prior to every stage production.
Do people behave like this because of taking rituals as a habit or because of a real faith that they reposit in them? If the answer is the latter the picture becomes gloomier.
Anura Bandaranayake, a man well versed in world literature and art, had a strong grasp of modern thinking and rational way of looking at things, a rare feat that the majority of our present day politicians are devoid of. Yet, this same brilliant man went on pilgrimage to India almost in every year to get blessed by that world famous conman Sai Baba. Our politicians including the President and the Prime Minister tend for their own well-being to consult astrologists before taking political decisions, sometimes jeopardizing the national interests. The Opposition party too resorts to various superstitious rituals like Coconut Striking as protests against the government’s mishandling of the country. Some politicians well known for their liberal ideas about religion, morals and sex hesitate to take political decisions without consulting a woman famous for horoscope (mis) reading.
Modern day superstitious beliefs emanate from the same ancient root. Loneliness giving rise to a desolate self requires solace from unworldly powers. This is not a physical loneliness, for man among men is never alone in physical terms. It is not because he has companions but because he has a reality, however illusive, to relate himself to, a reference point to which he can claim himself belonging to, a process in the natural course of events in which he can place himself, giving a substantial meaning to his existence. As long as he can identify himself with this existence he is not alone. As an example, take a man who is about to be hanged. He cannot be alone in this sense since he can place himself in the process starting with the crime of which he was the author and leading to the gallows that resulted from the initial criminal act. In short, he has a place in the whole process, which displaces him from any inner coherent loneliness. In contrast to this man, take another person who got caught totally unawares in the tsunami, which in his mind and in his perception of the world is totally unprecedented, therefore inexplicable in his reading of the existence as lived up to that point.
Now, apart from these extreme cases, if we turn to mundane life experiences where we cannot grasp head or tail of certain events, we have a virtual personal tsunami situation. Without being firmly armed with intellectual reasoning power and without the courage to withstand rough tides, then one needs to have the supportive hand of a power beyond this earth, not to overcome that personal tsunami situation but to temporarily evade it. When you go to Kataragama or to India seeking blessings from Sai Baba, what you do in reality is to unburden yourself by giving the management to an unknown god whom you believe would act on your behalf.
This whole process is illogical not only because it is substantially illusory but also because despite all shortcomings apparent to any practical eye of scrutiny you persist in a faith that deceives you over and over again. You become immune to being duped. The day the golden pinnacle of Kataragama Kiri Vehera was successfully stolen (up to now the thief has not been apprehended, even after some dozen of years from the theft) by some smart person, one could only expect that all pilgrimages to that godly shrine should have stopped. Yet, no decrease of pilgrims has been noted. Everybody knows that predictions of wealth for those Taurians in the horoscope column today do not materialize for the majority, while others not belonging to Taurus might win even lotteries. Yet, they read their horoscopes in newspapers before going on to read other items!
My objection to astrology is simple and straightforward. I hold the opinion that the human being has an unalienable responsibility for his existence solely because of my nausea at the thought of being reduced to a stone or a plant if I am to be deprived of that self-belonging. I exist among those that relate to me and among those that I relate to. To that extent, I am responsible for myself and for others. If I get caught in the rain I might catch cold. I cannot stop it from raining but I can avoid being caught in the rain. If I am struck by lightening I might die. I may not be able to avoid getting struck by lightening as I avoided getting wet in the rain. Yet, getting killed by lightening and from being run over by a bus has my responsibility as well as of those connected with the incident firmly registered in the same logical circumstances. Therefore, the responsibility that binds me and others to my death is what makes my existence or non existence independent from metaphysical forces, that gives me my freedom conditional only to others’ freedoms. If I, as the bus driver, tell you that I am not responsible for killing you since your fate had been predetermined by some planet, you have to agree with me if you believe in astrology. Before these planetary verdicts you and I are both helpless. But as you know very well if we relegate the responsibility to a planet or to a god the whole human edifice would crumble like a pack of cards.
When I insist on placing responsibility on materialistic (including mind) causes, one may ask if the planets are not materialistic phenomena. True, they are matter in the perfect sense of the word, but they cannot break my marriage or set up my death. What is superstitious is not the acceptance of real existence of planets but the metaphysical meaning we bestow on them.
The biggest harm done to me in saying that my death is predetermined by planetary systems is grabbing from me my essence, the core meaning of my existence. My selfness is snatched away from me making me a virtual non-entity. In short, I am a puppet, nothing more than that. It is there, this astrologer, the middleman between me and the planets, strikes a business deal.
In Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination these planets attained a prominent place in terms of fiction as well as in sharp scientific observations. Some predictions made in the light of pure fiction became true. But nowhere has he implied any metaphysical powers gaining upper hand over these planets. This great sage’s last wishes were peace for Sri Lanka and an appeal to carry on incessant research into discovering the universe, so that perhaps one day we would be able to strip all planets of their godly powers!