Beware the Politics of Seeing Religious ‘Meaning’ in Disasters

An aerial view of damage in the Sendai region with black smoke coming from the Nippon Oil Sendai oil refinery. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An aerial view of damage in the Sendai region with black smoke coming from the Nippon Oil Sendai oil refinery. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As millions of people struggle to overcome the impact of the killer earthquake in Kathmandu valley, a range of bizarre statements are being made by religious groups and individuals in an attempt to assign ‘meaning’ to the disaster.

Two days after the earthquake, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Sakshi Maharaj attributed the disaster to Rahul Gandhi’s beef eating habits and his recent visit to Kedarnath without having ‘purified’ himself first. Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, founder of the Orthodox Judaism outreach organization, enthusiastically posted on his Facebook page that all the idol-worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed. Several Christian missionaries took to Twitter to declare that Nepalis should convert and not re-build their ‘pagan shrines’.

While many of these expressions appear to be unscientific and even distasteful, especially in the aftermath of devastations such as the Kathmandu earthquake, the fact remains that religion has always played an important role in assigning ‘meanings’ to disasters. A recent news story outlines how religious fatalism has set in after the earthquake, where survivors belonging to different religious groups made sense of the disaster, either as a ‘pre-destined’ event that God ‘knew about’ or something in which God had no role to play. In either case, the role that God possibly plays in causing or not causing disasters is clearly a matter of importance for most survivors. Just as the Nepal experience demonstrates, meanings and theodicies after disasters are often contested, both between and even within religious traditions. In some ways, these are engagements through which people make sense of their environment and lives, especially in difficult situations. Those ‘rationalists’ who assume that the whole world should simply abandon these ‘unscientific superstitions’ and accept the truthfulness of their accounts have thoroughly anaemic understandings of the complex ways in which people come to ‘know’ things.

Search for explanation

That survivors would be attracted towards transcendental explanations of catastrophic events is not surprising. The shock of any disaster and the death and displacement of loved ones gets compounded by damage to property, breakdown of regular means of communication, lack of food, water, shelter and electricity. These tragedies often provide opportunities for contemplation on deeply existential questions when victims make attempts to rationalize the reasons for their sufferings. This makes them particularly susceptible towards succumbing to ‘unscientific’ and ‘irrational’ explanations. More importantly, religious models of theodicy tend to provide solace, especially in comparison to an apathetic, unfamiliar and bureaucratic state which does little to provide emotive support to the affected.

One of the earliest forms of understandings about disasters is that they are ‘Acts of Gods’ or a manifestation of retribution for the sins of non-believers. This attribution to divinity can be found within the tradition of three major monotheist religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief suggests that many early natural disasters became the basis for myths which were assumed to be manifestations of the ‘whims and moods’ of the gods, rather than acts of a physical natural agent. It also points to the fact that several Mesopotamian, Indian and African religious sources speak of a flood that covered the whole of the earth, which could have been inspired by an ancient tsunami. Despite a gradual shift in the conceptualization of disasters, from being understood as ‘divine interventions’ to being understood as ‘natural’ and even ‘man-made’ phenomena,  the role attributed to the ‘Gods’, ‘fate’ or ‘karma’ continues to pervade the social imagination of most victims of disasters even in contemporary times.

Divine interpretation of disasters has been visible on several occasions in contemporary times. Religious leaders from Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish faiths claimed that Hurricane Katrina was a divine punishment, although there were differences about what people were being punished for. In their essay, ‘Christianity, Calamity and Culture’, Philip M.Fountain and his colleagues reveal that soon after the Aitape tsunami in Papua New Guinea in 1998, the Combined Churches Organization (CCO) pastors declared that God had caused the tsunami to punish Roman Catholics for their lack of Christian faith. They also explain that pastors maintained that the local beneficiary community’s strongly anti-Christian attitude and conduct of pasinnogut (wrong behavior) had led to the disaster. Claudia Merli’s research in southern Thailand reveals how local discourses in the Muslim Satun province were influenced by the idea that the tsunami was Allah’s punishment to the people of Aceh. Similarly, after the Kashmir Earthquake in 2005, local Islamic groups involved in relief operations actively promoted the idea that it was a manifestation of divine retribution. After the Bhuj Earthquake in 2001, the Shahi Imam (high priest) of the Fatehpuri mosque in Delhi said that natural calamities, like earthquakes, cyclones, floods, droughts are a result of ‘oppression of poor and minorities’. Accusing the central BJP government of oppressing the minorities, the leader urged the government to run its machinery ‘in the true spirit of secularism and to be just, fair and honest’.

God’s punishment

The attribution of disasters to some form of divinity is also practiced by seemingly secular representatives. On March 15, 2011, Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō reacted to the Great East Japan Earthquake by characterizing the disaster as ‘divine punishment’ for the ‘egoism’ of the Japanese people. Soon after the 1934 Bihar Earthquake, which had led to the death of thousands of people, none other than Gandhi remarked that the disaster was divine retribution for the sin of untouchability that existed in Indian society. Tagore, an equally vehement critic of untouchability, found this comment to be offensive and accused Gandhi of taking India back to the Middle Ages. Gandhi, on the other hand perhaps hoped that if superstitious Indians were made to believe that the disaster was God’s punishment for practicing social evils such as untouchability, this could lead to social reform.

In all of these instances, one discerns a clear pattern; that of imparting a ‘sacred’ potency to an otherwise natural or man- made phenomenon. The act of meaning-making is thus clearly a political act with important political implications. This imparted ‘sacredness’ is repeatedly invoked and reproduced by certain groups for a variety of different reasons, the most obvious being to exercise power and mobilise the victims of disaster for a specific religio-political agenda. This is accomplished through a variety of different ways such as conducting particular kinds of rituals, erecting memorials and organising anniversaries to commemorate disasters. Attempts at meaning-making also include references to ‘miraculous’ survival of ‘sacred’ places of worship. One such instance of a ‘miracle’ that captured the imagination of people during the Uttarakhand Floods of 2013 was that the 1200-year-old Kedarnath temple, its statues, the lingam inside the Lord Shiva temple and the statue of Nandi (the bull) had survived while everything around it was destroyed. The survival of the famous fifth century Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu after the recent earthquake is a similar phenomenon that is likely to be leveraged by certain interest groups.

An emphasis on meaning-making, though important, is also a rather limited frame for understanding religious responses to disaster. It is also imperative to pay heed to the vast body of literature dedicated towards understanding how religion as a dynamic category influences community practices, institution building, and network proliferation through disaster relief and reconstruction. History is replete with examples about the incredible contribution that several religious organisations make in the wake of disasters, be it that of Hindu nationalist groups after the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, Islamic extremist groups after the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, or that of Christian aid groups after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Many a time, these organisations have been the first to plunge into rescue and relief operations post-calamity, even before the arrival of the formal state. Like all other aid actors who get involved in in relief, religious groups are also driven by a clear agenda: that of enlisting greater support for their organisation, both ideologically and materially, using relief as a way of providing a face-lift to their organisation, fund raising etc.

It is common knowledge that the realm of humanitarianism is steeped in the political, and significant attention has already been paid towards understanding the politics of relief and reconstruction post disasters. It is time we also start paying heed to the specific ways in which religious actors gain an edge over other relief actors in times of calamities. In this regard, it is important to realise how conceptualisations of catastrophes in themselves can lend themselves to political mobilisation, even before the dynamics of relief actually set in. Nepal, which has only recently shed the label of a ‘Hindu nation’ is particularly vulnerable to such ideological mobilisations now.

The writer is on the faculty of Azim Premji University.