Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
An old saying goes, ‘God invented spirituality, but Satan invented religion.’ How is it that a set of ideas that were meant to elevate can actually destroy? It must be that when individuals create a religion, they earnestly believe that what they construct is for the betterment of their community.
And yet over time, the idealism becomes twisted. Going with the flow becomes staunching the flow, brutally if need be. Submission becomes attack. Turning the other cheek means throwing stones. Feeding the poor means cutting back on food stamps. The list is endless.
In Vassanji’s novel, the main character is a disenchanted Sufi. Unlike most other young men disenchanted with their parents’ religion, Karsan is expected to follow in his father’s role, which is to be the living avatar, the God, of his followers. He is in line to be the next Saheb of Pirbag.
Most young people have more freedom to explore other religious philosophies, but Karsan’s inheritance is so constraining to him that he abandons his Gujerati village, family, beliefs and culture to pursue a Western lifestyle in the United States and then Canada. He seeks freedom, although he’s not entirely sure what that means. He questions the Godliness of his father, and is certain that he himself can never take on such a role. He doesn’t feel pure enough, doesn’t believe enough, doesn’t control his emotions enough. He cannot take on this absurd weight. While studying literature at Harvard, his American friends can only joke about how back in that village, he was to have been the living God, something incomprehensible to them, and to himself. Karsan and his friends aren’t terrified of religion, they just find it irrelevant and a bit weird.
Yet The Assassin’s Song certainly pinpoints the more terrifying aspects of religion. Neighbors committing atrocities and murders on neighbors, countries waging war against one another, all in the name of whose religion is best. In this novel Vassanji traces some of the history of religious bloodshed in and around India, all so appalling and ironic.
Meanwhile, back in Gujarat, are the riots where Muslims are brutally murdered. Karsan’s father’s version of Sufiism is a path between the Hindus and Muslims. The Saheb maintains that a mystical view of oneness is the only side to take. The non-Sufis, and even some of the Sufis, would prefer a more concrete approach, and are frustrated with his refusal to take the material world seriously. Militant Hindus disregard his beliefs, seeing him and his community as purely Muslim, the enemy. Finally, despite Karsan’s father trying to reason with a mob drunk on blood, red wine and bhang, or maybe because of his trying to reason at all, they attack and kill him, and then move on past the gates to the hundreds of followers he was trying to protect.
Years after Karsan has left, he returns, sitting in the shrine’s compound at night, still hearing what must have been echoes of the murders. Pirbag is smashed and desecrated. Yet some followers have survived, if that word can be used. They welcome him with hard work and garlands.
Perhaps when his father originally named him as successor, instead of his more pious younger son, he knew exactly what he was doing. The one who fears what religion can do is likely the one to handle it most gently.
As far as literature therapy goes, The Assassin’s Song won’t turn you off religion. It will just remind you to see the dangers inherent in believing in any religion without question. It will also remind you of the true purpose of religion, which is surely to instill a sense of reverence, not just toward one’s own religious figures, but toward the creator, the creation, the self, the neighbor, and the other. When we revere something, or someone, we have a tendency to behave mercifully. Surely this is what's best for any community?