Religion

Beyond the Ugly Practices of Organised Religion

Why is it that everything is upside down, and all that happens in the name of religion is divisive, oppressive and morally repugnant?

It is important to realise that shallow secularism with reductionist science is no less violent. Credit: Reuters

What can I do my friends, if I do not know?
I am neither Christian nor Jew, nor Muslim nor Hindu.
What can I do?
My place is the placeless. My trace is the traceless.
~ Jalaluddin Rumi 

It is not easy to write about the religion of man, particularly at a time when all sorts of ugly practices are legitimised in the name of faith. However, only at the hour of darkness does the need for the light of being acquires special importance. True, organised/institutionalised religions often cause fear – the fear of sin or the fear of bad karma – and encourage the orthodoxies of the priest craft. As a result, popular religion, despite many reform movements – from bhakti to sufi, from Zen to Protestantism – remain obsessively ritualistic; the outer performance becomes more important than inner cleansing. Move around the ghats of Haridwar, see the power of the priests and the trap of ritualism, and feel how the outer bath with soaps and detergent keeps polluting the ‘sacred’ river while the purification of soul is simply forgotten. Again, as we are witnessing in our times, religion is negatively politicised; faith becomes an ideology; socially engineered, manipulative practices of exclusion and hatred are popularised in the name of cultural nationalism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism and fixed identity markers like triple talaq or cow vigilantism. Furthermore, in the age of market-induced consumption, religion becomes a spectacle. Yet, despite all these unholy manifestations of religion (be it the Ayodhya syndrome further intensifying the trauma of Partition with its political engineering of Hindu-Muslim divide or the state-sponsored celebrity guru with his ‘art of living’ spectacle causing massive environmental damage to the Yamuna river in Delhi), there is no reason to believe that we cannot have a deeper quest for the light of being – the light that illumines, enchants and helps us to create a better world. It is in this context that I refer to three existential issues which are immensely important for the cultivation of the religion of man – the religion that no bounded systems like Christianity or Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism can possess and capture.

To be truly religious is to be revolutionary

When you look for me, you will find me instantly
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: “Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.”
~ Kabir

To begin with, as I would argue, man’s religiosity begins with a sense of wonder and mystery. The very fact that we find ourselves in this vast universe amidst all sorts of miracles leads to a sense of wonder. Even though modern science demystifies the world, the fact is that the realisation of just being one amongst many, or this feeling of finitude in this infinite canvas leads to a sense of gratitude. This is man’s inherent prayer – the urge to see beyond the limitedness of one’s embodied existence and experience the glimpses of the infinite. In a way, this is the aesthetics of religiosity. There is something deep about this prayer; it is for merger and surrender; it is not for what the priests ask us to do all the time – perform this puja, visit the church every Sunday morning, offer namaz five times a day, and pray for your son’s job, daughter’s marriage and your career upliftment.

Jesus is lost in the Vatican, Muhammed is forgotten because of the power of the clergy, and Rama cannot exist amongst the mahants in the temples of Ayodhya. Credit: Reuters

Second, religiosity emanates from the reality of death and subsequent realisation of the temporality of existence. This constant interplay of life and death, creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, substance and void, form and formlessness takes us to a realm of existential crisis. Although modern medicine seeks to declare war against death, or in our times we try to see it as ugly, and separate it from life by taking it to the insulation of the Intensive Care Unit of a mega hospital, it haunts us. Is there any meaning to life if everything we are so deeply attached to is eventually reduced into nothingness? At one level, as we see in existential philosophies, it causes a sense of the absurd or meaninglessness. However, deep religiosity emanates from the very acknowledgement that all that is created is temporal; and it is only the infinite (or the real substance in the eternal void, which has no beginning, no end) that transcends our temporal existence. To live meaningfully is, as the likes of Nachiketa and Buddha, Tolstoy and Tagore would have said, is to experience this transcendence even amidst all earthly activities, is to live with awareness and light even amidst physical pain and separation from the loved ones.

Third, this intense awareness – the temporality of earthly existence or the futility of an inflated ego in the presence of the infinite – helps one to cultivate the psychic/spiritual qualities like love and forgiveness, empathy and compassion, non-possessiveness and ethic of care. For a mind of this kind, it does not matter whether God exists in this temple or that mosque because she/he realises that God is essentially about love, has no measurement, and is everywhere. In a way, the truly religious mind is radical; sharing and togetherness, ecological harmony and egalitarianism characterise his/her very existence.

Hard times and the lamp within

Music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music.
~ T.S. Eliot

But then why is it that everything is upside down, and all that happens in the name of religion is divisive, oppressive and morally repugnant? One possible reason is that organised religious groups alter the practice of religion from a personal quest to a conformist crowd behavior with rituals, badges and centralised authorities – fixed books, fixed prophets, fixed beliefs. Furthermore, instrumental/competitive politics taps this human vulnerability for identity-based mobilisation leading to the erection of huge walls and boundaries: I am a Hindu, you are a Muslim; I am a Christian, you are a Jew, and never can we meet. Another reason is the process of routinisation of charisma. The ecstasy of the prophet is lost, and the symbol is used for a hugely bureaucratic/hierarchical religious organisation. Jesus is lost in the Vatican, Muhammed is forgotten because of the power of the clergy, and Rama cannot exist amongst the mahants in the temples of Ayodhya.


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However, it is equally important to realise that shallow secularism with reductionist science is no less violent. It too becomes a kind of orthodox religion in the name of scientism, developmentalism, Marxism and nationalism. In fact, secular war is no less threatening than religious war. Hence, the real task is to restore the true religiosity of man. At a time when religion means nasty symbolism of Gujarat elections, the bitterness among non-reflexive pandits and mullahas of Ayodhya, the criminality of the Ram Rahims of the world, the packaging of yoga and Ayurveda in the global market by television-friendly gurus and babas, and the heavily priced lecture series on the Bhagavad Gita organised in lavish five star hotels for the corporate elite, the revolution of true religiosity I am talking about may sound utopia, a poetic dream. However, it is only in darkness that you and I ought to strive for the lamp of illumination that we carry within our souls.

Avijit Pathak is professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.

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