Book review: ‘The Freethinker’s Prayer Book’ by Khushuwant Singh

My passion for literature means my nightstand often holds many books that come and go, but one book has remained there over the years, ever since it found me in Delhi several years ago.

It was an afternoon when I escaped from the hysteria and hilarity of my beloved Chandni Chowk for some peace and tranquility, strolling around Connaught Circle to buy books with my little bhai, Dheeraj, as we would often do before stopping to have coffee and read all afternoon in a café.  One of the street vendors, sitting on his haunches in the perpetual dust from the construction project that  never end in Connaught Circle for the years that I have been visiting it, saw that I had spied a new title from my idol, Khushuwant Singh, a title of his that I had not heard of : “The Freethinker’s Prayer Book”. It jumped into my hand before I could stop to see it properly.

As I have always said the really important books find you; you do not find them.

In 2012, the indomitable Indian journalist and novelist published what I believe was his last book at the age of 97, and I was surprised to find that it was not one of his excruciatingly irreverent novels, filled with acidic, sidesplitting truths about what people really do. Khushuwant Singh published none other than his own very personal collection of some of literature’s greatest verses and aphorisms of writers, prophets, poets, philosophers, mystics and saints to support his “own religion”: a religion of a man, born in an orthodox Sikh family, but who “does not believe in God”. It is a collection of words to live by that he had gathered over a lifetime, spanning the Vedas, the Quran, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Avesta, Rumi, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, among many others.

Of prose, the book is a short read at 14 pages. I do not agree with Kushuwant’s analysis on the non-existence of God, but there is nothing quite like his pursuit. The rest is the collection that I almost finished in the café in Delhi and it has not left my bedroom since I brought it back. In good Khushuwant form and in honor of his quest for truthfulness, I will confess that I am at an age when my bedroom sees more books than (ahem!) … other things… so I pick it up on many, many nights when I am too tired to read responsibly and have just enough energy left to reflect upon some of verses before succumbing to darkness.

The pages are lists of surprises, as eclectic as they are profound. Some lengthier than others, but I cannot help but to string some pearls:

  • “Ego is a foul disease; but it carries its own remedy.” — Guru Angad
  • “The Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our works – As at the love with which they are done.”  — Saint Teresa of Ávila
  • “Wealth without  work. Pleasure without conscience. Science without humanity. Knowledge without character. Politics without principle. Commerce without morality. Worship without sacrifice.”  – the Seven Deadly Sins, according to Gandhi
  • “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least do not hurt them.” – the Dalai Lama
  • “Once I set out to find [but] the crooked of heart and returned disappointed. Then I looked into my heart: I found the king of crooks hiding there” – Kabir
  • “We can do noble things without ruling the earth and sea” – Aristotle
  • “Learn to let go” – from the Isha Upanishad
  • “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others” – Kazulo Okakura, from the Book of Tea
  • “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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