The Man Who Moved A Mountain


I just finished reading the incredible story of Dashrath Manjhi, also known as the “Mountain Man,” who devoted 22 years of his life to a singular task — carving a 100-meter path through the Gehlour Hills in Bihar, India using nothing but hand tools. It was not an act of madness nor a desperate attempt at seeking fame or of breaking some world record. Rather, it was an act born of tragedy, fueled by love and a genuine desire to help his community.

Manjhi was born into a community called the “Musahar” who are generally regarded as the lowest among the castes in their particular state. They are not allowed to own land. Ninety-nine percent of them are illiterate and their main meal consists of roots, snails, or rats. The word “Musahar” literally means “rat eaters.”

They lived in a small village surrounded by a range of mountain hills called the Gehlour hills. In order to travel to a nearby town which was supposedly only a few kilometers away, one had to take a circuitous route that extended that short distance to around 55 kilometers.

It was in 1959 when tragedy struck. Manjhi’s wife, Falguni Devi, was traversing a particularly treacherous path on the mountain when she fell and got injured. Manjhi had to take the long road around the mountain to the nearest doctor, who was around 70 kilometers away. Because of this, Devi did not receive timely medical treatment and passed away.

He was so moved by the senselessness of her death and did not want anyone else in their community suffering her fate. So he took it upon himself to do something about it, probably knowing full well that a nobody like him petitioning the government for a road would be even more futile than digging through the mountain with a spoon. That is not what he actually did but it was close. He took a hammer and chisel and began chipping away at the mountain.

And so from 1960 to 1982, he would work as a farmhand, helping farmers till their fields. In his spare time, he would chisel away at the mountain. At first, everyone thought he was crazy and they laughed and jeered at him. But as time went on, the villagers saw how serious he was and they pitched in to help him in small ways (they were very poor, after all) like bringing him food or giving him a little money to buy new tools.

When his work was done, he had carved through a path 110 meters long and 9.1 meters wide, and he got rid of around 7.6 meters high worth of mountain. His efforts effectively reduced the distance one had to travel from 55 kilometers to just 15 kilometers. The government later on recognized him for his efforts, building a 3-km metalled road, as well as a hospital, and named both after him.

There are many lessons one can glean from Manjhi’s life — of hope, courage, perseverance, duty and so forth, but what struck me most was his singular focus and dedication on completing a task he had started, no matter what the odds. In a world where we are so used to multitasking, where we do many things at the same time (and often finish very few or none at all), he threw himself at a single task and achieved remarkable results given his meager resources.

Manjhi breathed life to the principle that if one wants change, one has to start with oneself, to the best of one’s ability. Jesus said that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed could command a mountain to go jump in the sea, but I have not seen anyone do that with even a clump of dirt. Manjhi has shown, however, that if you want to move a mountain, it isn’t enough to rely on some sort of faith magic that many televangelists are selling. The only faith one needs, rather, is the faith in one’s ability to effect change in one’s community.

In the words of Edwin de Leon, who wrote an article in the Inquirer called “Is A Secular Church Inevitable?” (which has since been blocked by Facebook):

Sorry, but there is nobody ‘up there’ to change anything. The sooner humankind accepts this, we will be more at peace with ourselves knowing that our destiny depends on us alone and not from any prescription from ‘ancient literature.’”

Amen to that.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Belief and Disbelief

Photo Credit: aphotoshooter via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: aphotoshooter via Compfight cc

Another reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent in an interesting reflection on belief and disbelief. I will, as usual, present the full text with only minor edits:

Is it “RIGHT” for a “Christian” to believe, and “WRONG” to disbelieve? Some people would consider even this question to be immoral, and so would any devout Muslim, Hindu, Jew or Buddhist. AND THEY CONSIDER THAT THEY ARE PERFECTLY RIGHT AND JUSTIFIED IN THEIR ASSERTION – in their estimation any non-believer, or anyone believing in a DIFFERENT religion, is inferior to them – almost  “not quite human”. Until quite recently I tended to agree with them – I was under such pressure to become a “Christian” that I felt that there was obviously something wrong with me which prevented me from seeing “THE TRUTH”.

But then I asked myself: “Am I really wrong?” I have lived for a very long time with a certain philosophy which has served me quite adequately; must I now accept that I was wrong just because numerous people have told me so during the last 20 years? Am I really inferior? Or, widening the net, is a devout Jew, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu really inferior to a Christian? Note that I have left out the adjective “devout” in referring to the Christian, because a great many people are convinced that ANY Christian, as long as he or she has been baptized, is (as a result of that baptism) superior. The difference between a “true”, as opposed to a “nominal” Christian is seldom emphasized, and this applies to ALL religions in which an infant is enrolled in a religion merely because of the religion of his or her parents.

So am I arguing that an agnostic, or an atheist, is necessarily a better person than one who is a sincere believer? By no means. But I believe that a sincere agnostic  (or even atheist) who has arrived at his/her conclusion as a result of logical reasoning is (if such an evaluation is ever justified) a “better person” than a “nominal believer” in any faith. After all, these “nominal believers” have reached that position in one of three ways:

1) Their parents were themselves “nominal believers”, or;

2) They were “persuaded” to adopt that religion through coercion (e.g. the conversion of the Philippine population to Catholicism by the Spanish friars) or bribery (e.g. the conversion of many Philippine Catholics to “modern” American Protestant churches) or;

3) Simple self-interest (e.g. the “conversion” of helpers to the religion of their employers).

And certainly the last two groups acted very sensibly; it is better to be a live Catholic than a dead lumad, it is better to accept a religion which will help you to pay your family’s hospital bills than to allow them to die, and your life as a helper will certainly be more pleasant if you share your employer’s faith.

So where does all this lead us? Firstly – that we should “evaluate” people on their ACTIONS rather than on their PROFESSED BELIEFS. Whilst we should – according to the Christian belief – LOVE ALL – we should be most considerate to those who show consideration towards others. This seems an OBVIOUS statement, but in fact most of us are most considerate towards those who can give us what we want – be it wealth, or power, or influence. Giving a contribution to a charity and thus having your name published may be VERY useful and might entice us to be very generous, but we are reluctant to give the begging child in the street more than a couple of pesos.

The second conclusion to be drawn is that we should RESPECT people of all beliefs as long as these beliefs do not lead to antisocial actions. This is sometimes a little problematical; we cannot be 100% certain that some money donated for the relief of poverty and hardship in Maguindanao will not end up in the wrong hands and be used to purchase guns and weapons to harm others. But on a personal level the decision is seldom so complex; if someone we know is in need, and we are able to help, we should extend this help irrespective of his/her religion. AND THIS DOES NOT MERELY REFER TO MATERIAL HELP, BUT ALSO TO PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP!

We should be prepared, if necessary, to act in accordance with the desires and will of others as long as these do not fundamentally clash with our own beliefs (especially if that “other” person is close and dear to us). Not being a Christian, I do not normally attend church, but for a baptism, a wedding or a burial. I would not hesitate to do so as a sign of friendship and concern for the people involved. And I would do so irrespective of the nature of the place of worship, – be it a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a temple – even if I knew that the “star” – the main “actor” – was not himself or herself a devout believer (as long as he/she was not a “bad person”). This is the price one pays for living in a certain society and is, I believe, a small price to pay.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Freethinking 101


Over the course of the past two years, I have had discussions with people who would say, “Oh so you’re the freethinker. Ok, let’s do some ‘free’ thinking. Let’s explore these ideas,” and they would proceed to make these outlandish claims. When I stop them, or point out to them why their ideas are unreasonable or illogical, they would say, “Oh but I thought you were a freethinker. What happened to ‘free’ thinking? Free your mind, man.” At this point, I usually proceed to give a short discourse on the history and proper use of “freethinker” and “freethinking.”

A quick search of the word “freethinker” across some of the most popular references on the web gives us these definitions: (this is the default reference site when you type “freethinker” on Google) – “a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.” (everyone’s favorite dictionary since we came down from the trees, before the internet was invented) – “a person who forms his or her own opinions about important subjects (such as religion and politics) instead of accepting what other people say.” This is followed by a “full definition” which states: “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority;especially :  one who doubts or denies religious dogma.” (searching “freethinker” on this site redirects you to a page on “freethought” which defines it this way) – “a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application of freethought is known as ‘freethinking’, and practitioners of freethought are known as ‘freethinkers.’”

By now, it should be obvious that freethinking is not the freedom to think anything. That thought must be based on reason. As my friend, Jong, likes to say, a freethinker is free to think outside the bounds of authority, tradition and religious dogma, but he is not free to think outside the bounds of reason, logic and empirical evidence.

Why is there an emphasis on being against “established belief,” “authority,” or “religious dogma?”

The term was coined at a time when religious authority was synonymous with political authority. The church wielded tremendous authority and influence over the state and people who disagreed with matters of doctrine could be captured and tried as criminals. Heresy was a crime that could lead to your death just as much as murder or rape could. It was against this sociological backdrop that the word “freethinking” was first used in the late 1600’s by William Molyneux, an Irish philosopher and political writer. Hence, one can see historically why there is a constant tension between freethinkers and religion.

This is not to say that freethinkers are automatically atheists (or vice versa — as many atheists can be irrational as well). For example, Thomas Paine, a British and American political activist in the 18th century widely regarded as a champion of freethought, professed a strong belief in God though not of organized religion. In a pamphlet entitled The Age of Reason, Paine writes: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Being a freethinker, then, is not so much a profession of belief or disbelief in a deity or deities but rather a commitment to the process of reason, logic and scientific examination of evidence in one’s search for truth. In other words, a freethinker holds something to be true not because of what a “holy book” says, or because of what a religious authority says, but because it passes the test of reason, logic and evidence.

This ends today’s lesson. Now for the quiz. Close your notes and get one-half sheet of paper.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Alternative Realities

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

Some people are strong advocates of alternative medicine. They believe that western medical practice is a big conspiracy designed to keep patients hooked on medication, keeping the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and healthcare industry thriving. They are the ones who cry that vaccination causes autism, and promote treatments such as “cleansing,” “detoxification,” “strengthening the immune system,” and so forth. They argue that modern medicine and vitamins is laden with “chemicals” that harm your body.

On the last point, I would gently remind these people that every single thing in our universe is a chemical and just because someone uses the chemical name of an ingredient in a product label doesn’t make it more lethal than using the common name. “Ascorbic acid,” for example, sounds like it would burn through your intestines while “Natural Vitamin C” sounds a little friendlier (more so if you add the phrase “from organic sources”) although both really amount to the same thing.

A few years ago, an article came out in the Durand Express, a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan, stating that a harmful chemical called dihydrogen oxide or DHMO had been found in the city’s water pipes. Other articles (and an entire website – came out citing the prevalence and dangers of DHMO, which was in almost every product on the market, but rarely cited in the ingredients. It was one big conspiracy.

A careful and mildly scientifically literate reader, would of course, have picked up the joke early on. Dihydrogen means two parts of hydrogen. Monoxide means one part of oxygen. Combine the two and you have a chemical formula you have probably seen before you were 10 years old — that of water. Oh, and the Durand Express article came out on April Fools day.

This story is reportedly used by science educators to encourage critical thinking. At least, I hope that our science educators are doing that. If they themselves fell for that trick, well, let’s just say my reaction to that is not fit for print.

Going back to alternative treatments, there are doctors, on the other hand, who refuse to consider them at all. They think all these “herbal nonsense” is bunk and unscientific, and all its practitioners are unscrupulous individuals out to deceive their patients and milk them dry. As a side note, the “natural remedies” business is also a multi-billion dollar industry with its own set of practitioners and subspecialties that can rival the status quo.

So what do I believe and where do I stand? I find that my stand on this is very similar to my stand on religion. I think there is some middle ground to be found — some might argue that it’s not so middle — but nonetheless, I think there is something genuine in alternative medicine, but I tend to err always on the side of scientific inquiry.

There is indeed a lot of bunk, hype and deception going on in the alternative healthcare industry. Magnet care, radio wave care, and such exotic sounding therapies have been scientifically refuted by cancer research groups such as the American Cancer Society. Many herbal products have also been found not to contain the herbs they are supposed to contain, but powdered substitutes such as rice and weeds.

On the other hand, I also find a lot of sincere individuals who really believe they are doing something good and that they are providing real care and service. I also personally know people who have benefitted from such care and not just in a very subjective, “I feel better” kind of way, but backed up by improved laboratory results and doctors’ evaluations.

A recent article by oncologist Dr. Ranjana Srivastava in The Guardian UK, laments the fact that there is virtually no communication or collaboration between medical doctors and alternative therapy providers. At first, she seems angered by the fact that a lot of alternative “doctors” are hijacking her patients. She states, “Research shows that nearly 70% of cancer patients and a staggering 90% of patients enrolled in an early phase clinical trial use alternative therapies. We now know that many of these therapies are not only unhelpful but are downright dangerous. Herbs and supplements can interact with chemotherapy and reduce its efficacy, a real drawback when therapy is given with curative intent.”

However, one discovers at the end that she is advocating the removal of alternative medicine, but only to implement better regulatory practices and to have a genuine dialogue. She concludes: “But the point of many alternative therapies seems to be in their secret powers of healing. I know it’s often said but I honestly don’t consider arrogance a good explanation for why oncologists and alternative practitioners don’t talk. I would, however, say that dismay and distrust feature heavily. As does the troubling realisation that a doctor can face reprimand for inadvertent error but an alternative practitioner can get away with intentional harm.

This is not a reason to excuse the former but to regulate the latter. Perhaps this would make it easier to follow the advice that doctors need to familiarise themselves with the various forms of complementary and alternative medicines. It is conceivable that some worthwhile measures are tainted by the same brush as a lot of fraudulent ones.”

It is quite easy to pick one side over another and defend it to death. It is much more difficult to open yourself to the possibility that there is something to be learned from the other side as well, and it is difficult because the process is messy, time-consuming and involves a lot of humility, listening, unlearning and critical thinking.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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