Journalist Khushwant Singh makes a case for religion, but advocates the use of rationality in his new book. Here's an excerpt from A Man for All Reasons: The Dalai Lama, in which the confirmed agnostic spends an afternoon with the Tibetan leader and comes away exhilarated, even if a bit unconvinced
The invitation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama came through his representative in Delhi, Tashi Wangdi: His Holiness would be pleased to grant me an audience at his residence in Dharamshala (in Himachal Pradesh). Wangdi accompanied me in the train that took us to Pathankot (in Punjab).
Agnostic Khushwant There is No God! by Khushwant Singh with Ashok Chopra, published by Hay House. Available in bookstores for Rs 299
From there, we had to go by road to Dharamshala. I sleep badly in trains; all through the night I kept thinking of what I could ask the Dalai Lama. I had read his autobiography, My Land and My People (published in 1962), and some other books written by or on him, but had not obtained much information.
I knew the circumstances that had driven him and thousands of his followers from Tibet to seek sanctuary in India in 1959. The Indian Government had been embarrassed by his arrival and alternated between protesting against his presence and generously allowing him facilities to rehabilitate his countrymen who had followed him on Indian soil.
Several large Tibetan townships came up in our hills and plains. Far from being resented, the Tibetans won their way into the hearts of their Indian neighbours. They were (and are) law abiding, clean, disciplined, ever-smiling and quick to learn the languages of the regions in which they settled. I don't know another people who have the same ability to speak alien tongues to perfection as the Tibetans.
In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile (1990), the Dalai Lama wrote: 'There was no interference from Delhi over how I and the growing numbers of Tibetans conducted our lives. In accordance with popular requests, I had begun to give weekly audiences in the grounds of Birla House (in New Delhi). This gave me the opportunity to meet a variety of people and tell them about the real situation in Tibet. It also helped me begin the process of removing the protocol which did so much to separate the Dalai Lama from his people.
I had a strong feeling that we should not cling to old practices that were no longer appropriate. As I often reminded people, we were now refugees .... It is very easy to put others off by remaining aloof. So I was determined to be entirely open, to show everything and not to hide behind etiquette. In this way I hoped that people would relate to me as one human being to another.'
So what was I to ask His Holiness? I decided to avoid politics and ask him questions that had bothered me over the years. I have been an agnostic; he the reincarnation of God or the Buddha, I was not sure which of the two. As an incarnate he obviously believed in the theory of samsara -- birth, death and rebirth in never-ending cycles, till the attainment of nirvana. As a rationalist, I could not accept this unproven theory.
He also believed in karma of past lives influencing one's fate in one's present life. If that was so, what had this reincarnation of God or the Buddha done in his past life to be punished by being exiled from the land of his forefathers? I was not sure if he would deign to answer such questions; he might dismiss them as impertinent. On the other hand, if he did, we would have a lively theological debate, which would give me good copy.
After a nearly three-hour drive through mountainous country, we reached Dharamshala. Mcleodganj, where most of the Tibetans live, was another half-an-hour's drive, high up a steep mountain. I was lodged in the Dalai Lama's guest house, a modest-sized bungalow overlooking Dharamshala. His mother had spent many years there before she died. It was looked after by the wife of his youngest brother, Tentzin Chogyal, a most attractive young lady and the mother of two children. She came over in the evening.
I persuaded her to join us for a drink. I asked her if the questions I intended to ask would upset the Dalai Lama. 'I don't think so', she replied, in perfect English. 'In any case there is no harm in putting them to him. He must have had enough of answering questions about Tibet, communist China and his future plans.'
My appointment was for the next day afternoon. I got to his residence half an hour early to take in the surroundings. There was a large temple facing his well-guarded mansion. There were not many people in the temple; I saw one European monk sitting in deep meditation facing the statue of the Buddha. We were led into the residence and asked to wait in the sitting room as some German visitors were still with His Holiness.
A few minutes later the party of Germans left by going through the sitting room and we were asked to go in. The Dalai Lama had come out to the verandah to receive me. He apologized for keeping us waiting. He turned out to be much bigger sized than his photographs made him out to be: almost six feet in height. And muscular. His grip, as we shook hands, was like that of an all-in wrestler. I presented him with the customary scarf and he gave me one in return. I was escorted into his drawing room. I switched on my tape recorder and began as abruptly as I could: 'Your Holiness I am not going to ask you anything about politics, but ...'
He interrupted me with a loud guffaw and said: 'Then we can relax. I have to be very cautious (while) answering political questions to journalists. What are you going to ask me?' 'I am an agnostic. I don't believe in God. What basis have you for saying God is the creator of the universe?'
Another guffaw of hearty laughter followed. He then stated: 'I don't say God created the world. The Buddha did not say God created the world. On the contrary, he said, "don't believe in anything that your reason does not accept".'
That floored me. I then asked my second question. 'In that case, what is reincarnation about?' 'We believe that people are reborn after death. If we did not, I would not be Dalai Lama.' Yet another explosion of laughter.
I held my ground: 'There is no scientific basis for believing in rebirth after death.' He began to give me instances of children recalling their lives in earlier birth. Most of his examples came from India. I could sense that he was on uneasy ground. 'Those are all childish fantasies encouraged by parents. They disappear after a few months. I do not accept them as proofs,' I said.
'No one asks you to do so,' he replied calmly. He again quoted the Buddha about the supremacy of reason: 'If you can convince me that there is nothing in the theory of reincarnation I will also reject it.' 'Since you still believe in it, can you explain what you did in your previous birth to deserve being punished by being exiled from your homeland?'
The Dalai Lama's English is not as good as that of many of his followers. He had his secretary repeat my question in Tibetan and replied in a mixture of Tibetan and English. He then replied: 'Yes I am sure I and my fellow Tibetans are paying for wrongs committed by us in our previous birth. Otherwise it does not make sense.' He realized that the answer did not make sense to me. We went on to other questions such as: Why wickedness so often triumphs over goodness? Why good people suffer while evil people prosper? Instead of the half-hour allotted to me, the interview went on for an hour and a half. The tape ran out. As did his secretary's patience; there were other visitors waiting to see the Dalai Lama.
I took his leave. I was exhilarated by being with him. He exuded an aura of goodwill, cheerfulness and crystal-clear honesty that envelopes you long after you have left his presence. The Nobel Committee had done well in awarding him the peace prize in 1989 because he is a man of peace. He has suffered many wrongs but has never uttered an angry word in protest. He has brought solace to millions of people who are troubled by the way world is going today.
Extracted with permission from Hay House Publishers India.