Published in The Independent, 16 August 2003
Religion has long warned us against the trap Lord Hutton must conclude we have fallen into – that we first depersonalise those we want to destroy
From the outset there has been something unsettling about the way we have been honed into thinking about Dr David Kelly. He first came into our consciousness with total anonymity. He was the “unnamed official” who confessed to his bosses that he had briefed Andrew Gilligan before the BBC reporter ran his story suggesting that the Government had exaggerated the case for war on Iraq. Even after his name was made public he was largely referred to only by his function as “the source” who had leaked information to the BBC.
Ironically it was when his life ended that he became, to most of us, a real person. All at once he was not an official, an expert or a source. He was someone who had feelings, integrity, a home life, children, he was a member of the Baha’i faith, he was respected by his friends, a man of character. Unfortunately he was also a person who became sucked into a political machine of whose workings, the Hutton inquiry heard this week, he could not have had the faintest understanding until it was all too late. As the Hutton inquiry has got under way, though those in the courtroom have now heard a tape recording of his voice, Dr Kelly has once again ceased to be a person and has once again been relegated to being a function: an expert, a mole, a source, a leak. This is because we tend to use such categorisation to justify how we treat people. But Dr Kelly is still a person. And, of course, Alastair Campbell and Andrew Gilligan are not just stories either.
Someone else who is not just a story is Krishna, the most popular form of God for Hindus. Krishna, is a person – his name meaning “he who is attractive to everyone”. Tradition has it that Krishna was born in India over 5,000 years ago, so his birthday celebration next Wednesday – Sri Krishna Janmastami – must rank as the oldest birthday celebration in the world. It’s certainly the biggest religious observance in the UK, where hundreds and thousands of Hindus and others will gather at temples throughout the country to make his appearance at midnight, 80,000 attending one temple alone, the Hare Krishna Temple at Bhaktivedanta Manor near Watford.
The fact that God is portrayed as a person is significant. It helps us focus our minds on the Divine. Krishna has friends, he has an address, he lives in a community and interacts with others, and if the quality of his relationships with others – heart to heart, full of love and an happiness that leaves nothing to be desired – surpasses anything we have experienced, it is something we all we aspire to.
But the Hindu tradition goes further than this. The sun, moon and stars, trees, animals, the oceans and rivers all have personality, which some cultures call spirits, and which are all inseparable from the unlimited, omniscient Krishna. In Vedic and Hindu spirituality the understanding of the personal aspect of universal affairs allows us to enter a universe of feeling, a universe full of relationships, a universe where people are never stories, where animals are not simply meat, where every living being has a right to life and where we feel impelled to give not take. It’s all a matter of consciousness.
When we depersonalise the cosmos – and lose the consciousness of the link between the world and God himself – it is easier for us to assume ownership of land, treat it harshly, and if there are others involved, cruelly. We can rob it and steal without any pang of conscience or moral repugnance. It also makes it easier for us to extend that to humans and reduce them from being whole persons to mere functions. As someone becomes less of a person we can be cruel, violent or even kill. We can deprive others of their rights or steal from them. This ranges from the apparently trivial – which is why people feel it is easier to steal by downloading music from the internet than to pinch a CD from a local shop where we can see the face of the man we are depriving – to the self-evidently grave; once the Jews had been defined as Untermenschen it became possible to exterminate them.
Once, too, Dr Kelly was identified simply as a source, he became a victim of our depersonalised culture – a culture that we all participate in maintaining, that we must all accept responsibility for. Our current scientific world view may predispose us to see personality as a gene or see feelings and relationships as just an amalgam of chemicals in the brain but what spirituality and religion offer for those who want to develop a personal relationship with God, and real feelings of love, is something which can restore a wholeness to our vision of the cosmos and the people in it.
When I try to imagine Dr Kelly’s family now, and how they may be remembering him, I know that they think of him not by his function – not even by the complex interaction of functions of father, as husband, beloved and friend – but as the person who was David. Their feelings for him say more about who he is than any amount of fact. When I go to my local temple to celebrate Janmastami this Wednesday I will greet my friend Krishna with as much affection as my heart can muster and embrace a truth that our culture needs to relearn: from top to bottom people are more important than functions and facts.