Limits of Religion

 Limits of Religion  

Posted on 1-October-2010

     During his visit to the United Kingdom last month, the Head of State of the Vatican, variously known as the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and by his pagan title of the Supreme Pontiff, spent most of his time in his public appearances preaching against "aggressive" secularism, atheism and other modern abominations--to be fair to him he did not use that archaic, biblical word of denunciation. He argued for the restoration of Christian values and morality, which within the framework of his own professed faith he would call the eternal and the only truth. Watching the Pope on television I was assailed by various sceptical thoughts. I could not but wonder how many of his own flock believed in all that he preached or whether he was more interested in preserving the authority of the institution he heads than promoting the virtues of an ethical and moral life. For someone like me, brought up in an eastern cultural tradition, the roots of much of which are at least as old as those of Christianity, a tradition in which  religion and simple living are inextricably linked together, the splendour and accoutrements of a European Head of State sit uneasily with his role of a religious teacher, so much so that I felt that if I had been living in seventeenth century England or Germany, I would have joined in the puritanical denunciations of the Church of Rome. But my most serious doubts were about how many in his audience were really going to join him in his battle against secularism and atheism. Probably not many.

     England, where the Pope was speaking, has for a few centuries been a cradle of the modern, secular state, of modern science and of modern rational thinking. India, where life is generally characterised as being deeply imbued with religion, is by contrast a vastly different country. It has unfortunately been too often wracked by violent strife between two of its largest religious communities, Muslims and Hindus and each instance of violent rioting between the two is publicised by the international (for which read western, even more specifically, the dominant Anglo-Saxon) news organisations. Indian intellectuals and politicians like to define the Indian version of secularism as meaning respect for all religions and not separation between the state and religion and the consequent separation between religion and politics. In actual practice this Indian definition of secularism has often meant that the state has caved in so many times, setting aside or amending its secular laws,  to howsoever unreasonable demands made by this or that vociferous group of its citizens in the name of religion. In this country where any one at all claiming to be a religious or spiritual teacher finds a ready audience, something very unusual happened yesterday.

     In the Indian town of Faizabad-Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh there had stood till 1992 a mosque built in 1528 during the reign of Babar, the first Mogul ruler of India. Now, for Hindus, Ayodhya was the capital of the kingdom of Ramachandra, the protagonist of the Ramayana, believed by Hindus to be an incarnation of Vishnu and worshipped as such. It is not clear since when, but certainly since the first half of the nineteenth century, many Hindus had held that Ramachandra was born at the spot where the mosque stood and at least through the nineteenth century Hindus had made offerings to Ramachandra at a spot in the mosque premises while Muslims had offered prayers inside. Since December 1949 there had continuously been an image of Ramachandra--stealthily introduced by some Hindus--under the central dome of the mosque to which a priest had made daily offerings. Since 1949, different Hindu and Muslim groups had filed civil cases in Indian courts of law each claiming that the entire area of the mosque as well as the places of Hindu worship within the mosque premises belonged to them. These civil cases about the ownership of the land made their slow progress through Indian courts of law even though the mosque was destroyed in 1992 by a Hindu mob incited by some Indian politicians hoping to win the support of the majority Hindu community of India. Yesterday, on 30th September 2010, the High Court of Allahabad, the highest court in the state of Uttar Pradesh ruled on the numerous claims of ownership of the land, and very briefly, concluding that no clear title to the land could be established, decided that the three remaining litigants, two Hindu groups and one Muslim were joint owners of the land. It then ordered that the land be divided between these three, not less than one third going to the Muslim litigant. The Muslim litigant and at least one Hindu litigant has said that it is not satisfied with the judgment of the High Court and will appeal against it to the Supreme Court of India. It is interesting that no group has tried to rouse religious sentiments and that all groups have decided to submit to the authority of the secular law and the secular courts. In this there lies an implicit recognition that in a multi-religious society like that of India  disputes of this kind can be settled only under the authority of a secular state and not on the basis of religion. Those who wish to see in India a truly modern secular state will certainly be very happy and will hope that this is the beginning of a new altogether healthy trend.

     Whether in Christian Europe and America or Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or animist Asia and Africa, religion has been in retreat for a long time. The role of gods or God as the force behind the processes of nature has been diminishing ever since Babylonian astronomers first discovered that eclipses could be predicted and were not dependent on the whim of some supernatural being. Each advance of science has been a blow against the divine that had been invented by humans in order to explain the workings of nature in an age when they had no other explanation available. Likewise, reasoning human beings found it more and more difficult to accept a divine being whose existence could no longer be taken as an immutable truth or the words of those who claimed to be in direct contact with the divine as the ultimate source of law. Not only in multi-religious polities but also in many polities where one religious community dominates overwhelmingly, for example, Syria, Egypt, Indonesia, France, Spain, Poland and Sweden, to name only a few, laws are made by men and women and not by a god or a representative of a god. Most modern governments derive their legitimacy from popular support or claims of it and not from anointment by some divine power.  Finally, at least two very influential teachers of the ancient world, Gautama, the Buddha and Confucius established their ethical and moral codes without reference to any divine being. Modern understanding that ethics and morality are social necessities, some elements of which came down to us from our evolutionary ancestors, makes religion as the source of morality unnecessary. Attempts to re-establish religion as the dominant force in modern societies cannot succeed for they run against all human progress till now and in future.

     Yet, in spite of all the scientific progress and of advances in human social organisation, religions thrive. Since they will not go away, but since they cannot have the kind of dominant role in society that they had in another age, they can still be a positive force in society by remaining in the private sphere. No one can have anything against religious beliefs and practices giving solace to individuals and helping them overcome their inner demons of anger, hatred, envy, greed and aggression and be good, peaceful, law-abiding members of society. Religion through its influence on individual actions can often promote public morality. Others through individual efforts and ancient meditative practices may perhaps succeed in understanding the true nature of their being, but such an understanding can be no more than a deeply personal experience, difficult, by definition to communicate to another person. Beyond this, whenever in the modern, shrinking world in which people of diverse cultural traditions--religious traditions are ultimately part of cultural traditions--live in ever greater physical and psychological proximity with each other, religion has been sought to be introduced into politics, law or science, the result has been social friction, violence or intellectual confusion.                       


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