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PANOPTICISM: God in his Creation

Religions are meant to be the glue that unites a people in common purpose and progress on the path.

My reading habits are wide but shallow. Like not being in a deep and capacious well — but rather in a wide and shallow wading pool for infants. My take today would likely come across as largely non-reverential, so hold the proverbial nose while we dive in.

I recently encountered the word Panopticon somewhere. Apparently, Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century philosopher, coined it to refer to a fictional experimental laboratory built with an observation tower in the center, where inmates are isolated but under observation 24/7. The French philosopher Michel Foucault deserves credit, kudos (or brickbats) for further elaboration of this thorn in our sides.

Be assured that it’s a fictional model. Hard to get your head around this social theory but in this e-world anything is possible. How probable it is would be a different matter.

Also, all inmates of this “prison” would always know that they are being observed. No privacy, not even for a nanosecond. And that “inmates” always accept the reality of being watched.”

In real life if you want your children, or anyone, to develop a sense of self this is not the way. This experiment would develop instead an acute sense of insecurity and stifle the imagination – indeed all creative endeavor, all essence of personal responsibility. To banish any sense of psychic maturity, or prevent its development. Only physical maturity is possible, if at all.

Of course, many children raised under such fictional conditioning will grow into adulthood and carry the governing idea in their lives. Just explore the limitations that govern them and that they have accepted. It’s more than a stigma.

Why are inmates being watched 24/7? Obviously to ensure that they follow each and every rule that controls their life. Corrective measures, including punishment, immediately and automatically follow infractions of the Code. The idea: constant surveillance would enable modification of undesirable behavior. In Foucault’s words, the inmate is always "the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

Clearly, fear would be the primary driving principle and the modus operandi of this theoretical social order.  Can you imagine this being a leading teaching model on how to raise children and families?

Of course, some degree of obedience to legitimate authority must be taught, otherwise the social order collapses. But not to raise such clones of slavery if the goal is to raise independent, responsible, mature adults who can freely differ with each other but also equally freely collaborate, and even put their head on the line for friend, family, nation, or other notable cause. Without these character traits, no society can thrive or survive. Creating a community requires rules, but also demands space to be free for interaction and communication. Freedom of thought and action are essential, not just desirable.

On second thoughts, panopticism as an idea may not seem quite as crazy. Note that most religions see an all-powerful Creator who can see everything everywhere and control every moment (every breath) of everyone’s life, like a micromanager.

Does life then become a prison 24/7 with nary a moment of freedom of will?

Two environs come to mind for observing unquestioned obedience: One obviously is the prison system. Because of the emphasis on unquestioned obedience to doctrine, tradition and phenomena that remain beyond human faculties, religions would be the other.

Think of the idea of Hukum. According to most believers, it allows not an iota of free will. Ways and specific procedures exist to absolve us of the many wrongs and sins (small or large) that we commit as we walk through life.

I must add that I do not live like this. I believe that the Sikh idea of Hukum allows us the freedom to err, the responsibility to own our mistakes and the onus to correct and move forward.

But just listen to the messages that blare at us from the major religions of mankind, including ours at times, that speak of a micromanaging God. They often command us to suspend all judgment, indeed all reason, and embrace the teaching without question – no ifs, buts, why or how.

Why such a closed shop?

The only reasons that come to mind are that either the keepers of religions – ministers, chaplains, swamis, granthis, priests, rabbis etc. – are ill-equipped to explain what they pretend to teach and preach or that their listeners are unable to understand. Are they like so many professors that profess to teach what they know not?

When we explore the idea of a totally disciplined society as Foucault did, even if it is attained by “positive” power as opposed to something “negative,” the mind goes to the religions of mankind. In this theoretical system, the prisoner always knows that he is being watched. A sense of responsibility arises from it. But in religions the watcher and the watching are always unverifiable. And that produces a degree of paranoia. Perhaps a need to share the loneliness arises as well; hence the confessional or its equivalent in some religions.

Ironically speaking, prisons and religions, as usually seen by most followers appear to be the ideal models for parsing the application of panopticism to human life. This is so because we have largely degraded and confused the purpose and meaning of religion. 

Doesn’t the idea of unquestioned faith and a constantly watchful God reproduce the idea of the panopticon? Isn’t this the one irreducible idea in religious faiths of mankind? On a positive note: the acceptance of the panopticon gives rise to individual responsibility and morality without which mankind would not survive. 

Religions are meant to be the glue that unites a people in common purpose and progress on the path. They are designed to endow followers with the tools of self-governance in an inclusive reality. These goals are reachable only in a community that is not obsessed with dictatorial extreme control but a people that are at peace within and without the self. I am pointing here at what Sikhi labels the Meeri-Peeri doctrine. Ideally, religions are meant to transform insecure people into confident free-thinkers. The path of religions should be inclusive and cheerful, not repressive and never coercive.

Sikhi neither can nor should be reduced to a formula that is blindly lived and followed. I offer you only two citations from the Guru Granth for my position: Serve with intelligence, earn honor by wisdom (Akli sahib seveeyae akli paayae maan, p. 1245). And that liberation is not attained by vision of the Guru but by contemplation on the teaching (Dithae mukt na hoveyee jictcher sabd na karay vichaar, p.594).

In Sikhi the Creator is infinite, neither fully perceived by our finite senses nor fathomed by our limited intellect. Says the Guru Granth that a connected soul (mind) can become like the Creator – the difference vanishes. Our finite resources and talents cannot capture that which is, by definition, infinite. The Creator is best experienced within the Creation.

I close my rant today with the age-old truism that mankind sure is imaginative and inventive.

IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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