Honest Doubt

Light of truth

Prema Jayakumar

The best lack all conviction,
while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.

That was W. B. Yeats in his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming. Passionate conviction has never been an aid to dialogue and conversation. While faith is comforting, cocooning one in its safety, honest doubt, though troubling, has the virtue of making those convictions, arrived at, at some pains, logical and firm. That is perhaps why the best teachers have always liked students who doubted and questioned.

It is said that Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was fondest of Vivekananda among all his disciples, or at least more indulgent towards him, in spite of himself, not just because he foresaw that this was the man to speak of Hindu philosophy to the world, but also because he was the disciple who had the most doubts. Whereas the others accepted anything that the guru said, this disciple argued, ran away from the guru, asked for proof, had to be convinced. The guru felt perhaps, that a faith earned with such difficulty was more likely to stay firm. I’ve always felt that Jesus had a sneaking fondness for Doubting Thomas who needed to see and touch before he would believe. Or, why would he allow him to touch? It was a sixteenth century philosopher who said, ‘In contemplation if a man begins with certainty, he shall end in doubt; but if he shall be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties’ and most likely, these certainties are sure to be firmer, more secure, and most important of all, more tolerant.

Doubt, when it is honest, seeking, is a quality to be cultivated. It is when there is no doubt, when all is certainty, that the staunch believer can be incited to despising those who don’t share his or her convictions, moved to intimidation, to violence. This belief might be in religion, in the rightness of certain practices, in political philosophies, even economic forces. If you are absolutely certain, you forget to listen, to hear what others say, you are so sure that you and you alone are the custodian of the truth. If you have doubts, you can hear others speak, you can perhaps accept some of what they say, ask them if something else could not be true as well. There is the possibility of dialogue, of communication.

Forget straightforward faith, religious, political or otherwise, there are so many people who are so absolutely certain of their practices, of the way they recite their prayers, of the number of times they go round the sanctum of a temple, even of the way they fold their hands before the deity, of the number of times that they kneel or get up, that they will brook no difference. They often end any discussion with a clincher, ‘That is the way I have been taught by my guru, my teacher.’ But that there are other gurus, who may be equally knowledgeable, other practices, which may be of equal validity, is something that does not seem to occur to them. Everyone around is supposed to accept what they have said as the ultimate truth, as the way things should be done, all other ways being wrong ones. It is this second conviction, that all ways, other than mine, are wrong, that is the root of most trouble in the world.

Whereas, doubt lays you open to discussions, to learning, to winnowing what can be accepted and what has to be discarded. It lets you listen, have dialogues, respect the convictions of others even if you don’t share them. Since you are not sure, you are open to being convinced of someone else’s view point. Since you are not sure, you will not dismiss any view as being ‘wrong’ because there is the possibility that it may be right. Your doubt lets you question not just what you are doing or planning to do, but also what others are doing. It gets rid of the blinkers and lets you see all around, forward and backward, as you go through the world.

All in all, some doubt should be cultivated by all thinking human beings. Not to the extent of being cynical about everything, but to prevent absolute certainty about all things. As I agree with the immortal Bertie Wooster that all the best bits, if they don’t come from the Bible are from Shakespeare, I shall end with the Bard’s words, ‘Modest doubt is called the beacon of virtue.’

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