The Freethinker’s Prayer Book by Khushwant Singh is best described in his own words: “If you have a good bullshit detector, it is possible to separate the sublime from the ridiculous and derive inspiration from the words of prophets and poets, gurus and rogues, grave men and clowns. I have done that nearly all my life and put down in my notebooks hundreds of lines from different sources that appealed to me. The best of these have been collected in the pages that follow.”
No personal list of wisdom, inspiration, and insight can be well categorised — because they are thoughts that have inspired and cheered you up in life in all its maddening situations. The Freethinker’s Prayer Book is no different. The verses and words that have inspired the nonagenarian are grouped rather roughly. Verses from books and holy texts begin the collection. Then comes the wisdom of philosophers and poets. And finally, all else gets filed under, no guesses here, miscellaneous. If this book were to be organised topically, say by brotherhood, love, desire, faith and such, it probably would bring in monotony. But the randomness of the content keeps the reader going since you don’t know what you are going to read next, or by whom.
Not much can be written about a book of this nature. What can one really say about a collection of eclectic and time-tested verses and precepts? You can only try and soak up as much of the wisdom of the wise as you can. These are the words that have inspired this accomplished grand old man for decades. One can’t but be amazed at the vast number of sources, from the obscure to the well-known, the author has garnered these nuggets from. Scriptures from Karaniya Metta Sutta to Vedas, religions from Hinduism to Zorastrianism, philosophers from Basavanna to LaoTsu, and poets from Tukaram to Lal Ded — they all find a place in this collection.
Quoting a few precepts from the book, here are some on religion and spirituality — “If a man debates and quarrels about scriptures and doctrines, he has not tasted the nectar of true faith” — Ramakrishna Paramahansa. “You won’t find your way out by praying from a book. Focus on Self. That’s the best advice you can get” — Lal Ded.
A straightforward thought on being human — “Let no one deceive another nor despise any person whatsoever in any place. In anger or ill-will, let him not wish any harm to another” — Karaniya Metta Sutta. A more complex thought on the same — “No action debases the man of integrity who is master of his life and whose soul is one with the soul of all” — The Bhagavad Gita.
On love and harmony — “Go and wash off all hatred from your chest seven times with water. Then you can become our companion drinking from the wine of love” — Rumi.
On truth — “There was truth in the beginning, there was truth before the aeons. There is truth now, Nanak, and there will be truth hereafter.” — Guru Nanak.
“Men must speak the truth, the truth living in their thoughts, not have a promise on their lips and a lie in their hearts” — Guru Gobind Singh.
While I found this collection of inspiring poetry very uplifting, the introduction by the author left me wondering if there was any need to say some of the things he has said. The author writes that he lost interest in religion by the time he was 16, since he found the rituals and religious dogma irrational. That is fine, each one to his own path. However, his exultation at having converted a 12-year-old believer into a non-believer is quite disturbing. Makes you wonder about this urge to convert and promote your beliefs. “I was delighted that I had won a convert in the great grandchild of two great believers in God, Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari.”
Then he goes on to write, “My role models have never been the pious, who contemplate God and the Universe in the seclusion of caves or by the banks of holy rivers. Mother Theresa, Baba Amte are worth a hundred more Shankaracharya, Chinmayananda.” This, to me, is an uncalled for attack based on prejudice. A stark contradiction to this statement is that this book mostly has the words of poets, philosophers, and the god-men and women, whom the author declares as ‘non-doers.’
That said, this is a beautiful collection that touches upon many aspects of life — from the spiritual and emotional to the pure physical. The wisdom contained here does make you think about life differently. Ending with a quote from Zig Ziggler, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.” So, if you choose to have a daily dose of inspiration, this book can go right onto your reading pile.