(Published in the Business Standard, March 19, 2013)

Pauline Baynes, illustration from the Arabian Nights
Pauline Baynes, illustration from the Arabian Nights

“In the beginning was the Word, and it was inscribed upon ye parietal lobe.” No religious scriptures begin with this line, but over the last decade or so, the search for God has been conducted via MRI scans as much as through theological debate.

By the mid-2000s, many researchers had concluded that there was no “God spot”—that single point of the brain where ideas of faith or belief might be located. Instead, it seems that several areas of the brain work together to generate or strengthen experiences of faith, belief and spirituality.

In a January 2012 study, Dr Brick Johnstone and others at the University of Missouri suggested that damage to the right parietal lobe—or the practice of meditation over a period of time—decreases one’s focus on the self, and enhances the possibility that people will have intense spiritual experiences. In July 2012, Erik Asp, K Ramachandran and Tranel hypothesised that patients with prefrontal cortex damage would have a “doubt deficit” that manifests as religious fundamentalism.

For many, the idea that you can locate religious belief in the brain is profoundly unsettling, even potentially blasphemous. Calmer thinkers point out that there is a difference between understanding humanity’s need to look for a spiritual explanation, and between understanding the neurobiology behind that quest.

Some, like me, find this fascinating because it allows us to see religion, gods and beliefs as further evidence of the human mind’s love for creating stories. If we learn that faith and belief are to some extent created in the brain, just as any powerful story is, it also becomes easier to respect the right of atheists to choose another storyline outside of religion.

Through three recently published books—Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism, Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva, and Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic—we might look at some approaches to handling religion and religious stories in the 21st century.

Our modern battles over faith, religion and belief are curiously medieval. At stake is the question of whether one’s beliefs—so intensely felt—should indeed be protected as sacred, or whether religion and faith should be as open to scrutiny as any other idea invented by humanity. The word ‘sacred’ refers to the gods or anything in their power, and more specifically, to the area around a temple. The sacred contains intrinsic power—and yet, it is also the area that requires protection.

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic does not examine religious texts—it is an inquiry into the vast and influential story-cycle known as the Arabian Nights. Warner looks at how Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights were received by a Western public fascinated by the Orient, at the hidden meanings of objects such as Aladdin’s lamp or magic carpets in the tales, at the sources of these stories. Stranger Magic has the broad-ranging freedom that a scholar of mythology and legend can claim; it offends nobody that Warner will comb through the pages of the Arabian Nights and examine how the stories came to be invented.

Amruta Patil’s powerful Adi Parva—years in the making, stunningly beautiful, imbued with a deep love of the Mahabharata—is an against-the-grain reworking of the epic. Ms Patil is a sharp writer, and her mind works aslant. But her retelling of the great tale, however astute her eye, is not so sharply against the grain that it falls outside the boundaries of what the anxious guardian of these stories would find acceptable. Like Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni or some folk versions, Adi Parva draws from the Indian tradition common to storytellers, singers and performers of churning the epics.

Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism, the 700 pages representing decades of scholarship and close reading of Hindu texts, is likely to draw the most intense reactions. And yet, this book, as with Doniger’s previous work, The Hindus: An Alternative History, is important not just for her insights, but for its approach. Though she is sometimes called provocative, what really upsets the thin-skinned is not what she says about Hindusim, but her approach to the religion’s ur-texts.

She reads the Puranas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas and also assorted plays, treatises and literature as though they were texts first and foremost, their sacredness less important than their meaning. Her path to understanding the giant story-cycles that make up Hinduism is very similar to Warner’s path to understanding the Arabian Nights—both Doniger and Warner look to see what stories are being told, who tells those stories, and what meanings they hold.

And that is what places Doniger squarely at the heart of modern debates over the extent to which religion should be open to scrutiny. If every religion is founded upon the Word of God, the real division is between those who want gods and religious texts to be exempt from human interrogation, and those who see religion as one of the greatest inventions of human storytelling.

If it turns out that the word of God does indeed originate in the human brain, then the inescapable—if unsettling—conclusion is that all the great scriptures must be read like every other story ever invented by the human mind. Everything that comes from the imagination is open to question.