Sunday, October 11, 2009

God, His agents and Deafness

Down the ages, across civilizations and cultures, prophets have dwelt on the biology and sociology of deaf people and deafness, and the role of sign. Pre-Enlightenment attitudes and policies towards deafness, deaf education, and sign language were linked to religious practices. Community membership was defined in terms of membership of a religious community. For all religions, speech was fundamental and sacred; and signing is not considered the equivalent of speech.
In India, one of the earliest references to deaf people can be found in verses of the Vedas (ca. 1500 BC). Thus, the Rig Veda: ‘even the deaf will tremble at my roaring’; and the Atharva Veda (approx. 1500 BC): ‘the malady that makes one deaf, the malady that makes one blind,/ all malady that wrings thy brow, we charm away with this our spell.’ These allusions make the point that deafness was considered as a malady needing a cure, and that speech and hearing are signifiers of normalcy. At the same time, it reflects a social yearning for the aural world.
Given the lack of historical records, it would be difficult to claim the existence of a specific social policy towards the deaf in particular. Quite generally, however, it is clear that under Brahminical customs, the deaf were excluded from the inheritance of property, as it was believed that a deaf person cannot make the sacrifices to lessen the sufferings, and enhance the position of the deceased father. The ground for exclusion was based on the conclusion that a person’s deafness is congenital and incurable, and indeed, to verify this, many brutal practices were carried out by the physicians. Moreover, the doctrine of anga-vanga (mutilated body parts), Vidur Niti (Vidur’s Ethics) in the Mahabharata, Manu Smiriti (Codes of Manu), and others perceived disabilities in general, and deafness in particular, as forms of sin in previous births. Such texts, together with religio-literary texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, contributed to the perpetuation of a social system that marginalised the disabled, particularly the deaf, in Indian history.
This social system remained largely unaffected by the philosophical social reform movement propounded by Gautama Buddha, which swept the Asian continent more than two thousand five hundred years ago. The Buddhist texts mention that the deaf were excluded from rituals and were denied membership of the sangha (community). Thus, despite all the social reformist teachings of Buddha, there was no radical, progressive change in the status of, and attitudes to deafness and the deaf.
The Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible also make numerous references to deaf people, many of which shaped the attitude and policies towards the deaf in Christian society. In the Old Testament, deafness is viewed as a divine plan (Exodus 4) and ‘thou shalt not curse the deaf (Leviticus 19:14). Chapter 29, verse 14 of Isaiah prophesies a day when ‘the deaf hear the words of the book,’ ‘the dumb will sing,’ and ‘the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.’ And a life free from deafness is promised. The New Testament, on the other hand, views deafness as a possession of demonic, evil spirit, ‘thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him’ (Mark 9). Chapter 7 of Mark and Chapter 9 of Matthew regard deafness as a means to prove Jesus’s supernatural power ‘...he hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak’ (Mark 7).
If the Old Testament reflects the attitudes prevalent at the time of Moses, then societally, deafness was perceived as a sin, a social menace, and hence, the deaf were cursed, damned and shunted aside. In fact, Isaiah’s prophesies clearly reflect a vision of society where sound and hearing was central and it was free from deafness and deaf people. This is a view shared by the New Testament, which, although it no longer conceives of deafness as a grand design, emphasizes the social inclination towards orality and aurality viz., the healing powers of Jesus. Such ‘miracles’ seek to ‘cure’ deafness and install speech and hearing among the deaf. The extreme view of all, however, is to be found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (10: 17), where in a single sentence, the deaf are denied the possibility of faith: ‘So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’
These attitudes established the centrality of speech and hearing in the Christian world-view in the centuries that followed. Catholic theologists accepted the official doctrine; in the words of Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), deafness ‘is a hindrance to faith’ because the deaf cannot hear the word of God. At the same time, a dialogue in Chapter Eighteen of De quantitate animae liber unus reflects Augustine’s optimism about deaf community and sign language, as can be seen in his question: ‘What does it matter, as he grows up, whether he speaks or makes gestures, since both these pertain to the soul?’ Augustine enlisted the deaf to spread his mission and membership, but his view that deaf people could learn through sign (Augustine refers to ‘bodily movements,’ ‘signs,’ and ‘gestures’) and were thus able to receive faith and salvation was ignored, and was not part of the official doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church.
In the Holy Quran, in Sura 19:1-11, we find reference to sign language as one of the five modes to communicate the praise of Allah. However, these verses inhabit the same text as verses like ‘Those who reject our signs/ are deaf and dumb/ in the midst of darkness/ profound whom Allah willeth/ he leaveth to wander/ whom he willeth, he placeth/ on the way that is straight’ (Sura 6:39). The references to deafness appear to be metaphorical here, where deafness is seen as unwillingness to hear the revelations of Allah. Once again, we have a stress on phonocentric attitudes and a negativism towards deafness.
It was only with the growth of a social concern for deaf education that deaf people’s access to language became a pressing issue. In the mid-19th century that an educational system using sign language as a medium of instruction came to exist. Till then, the God's agents suppressed both Deaf and sign.

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