In the Name of Religion
Posted on 1-November-2007
Coming down from the grotto at Lourdes, walking between lines of abandoned crutches, the sight of an elderly woman, dragging herself with the help of a companion, up the slope towards the grotto, caught my attention. I have forgotten her face and everything else about her appearance. But the passage of about thirty years has not dimmed my memory of her eyes filled at once with pain and despair and with hope. Elsewhere, a few years later, going up the hill from Sheshnag Lake in Kashmir towards Mahaguna Pass and then on to the Amarnath cave, at a height of about 14000 feet above the sea, I and my entire family passed a woman of about eighty,dressed in a simple cotton sari, supporting herself with a stick, coming down the hill. She was quite evidently returning from Amarnath. From the way she wore her sari, she seemed to be Bengali. The most memorable thing about her was the look of contentment, even happiness on her face. A few years later, one afternoon my wife and I visited a small Sufi shrine outside the desert town of Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum. There was a gathering of a few devotees and a sprinkling of curious onlookers like us. The devotees went inside the shrine, circumambulated the grave of the holy man buried there, burnt incense, and in the open space outside the shrine, moved around in a circle, chanting, their bodies and feet in a rhythmic dance- like movement, oblivious of the world around them, oblivious also perhaps of the world of orthodox Sunni Islam promoted by their political leaders.
There is no universal religion but religion in the sense of belief in a divine entity, which people must propitiate or in worshipping which they find contentment, to which they can turn for help in times of distress, or for blessings for the future, is nearly universal. Such religious beliefs are directly connected to people's intimate, often strong, feelings of hope, despair, fear, loneliness, solace, happiness or fulfillment. Making little of the divine being the other person thus believes in is like mocking at his difficulties and dreams. It would clearly be inadmissible for a civilised, even though a non-believing, human being to denigrate the beliefs and the feelings that are enshrined by it of the crippled woman going to Lourdes, of the woman returning happy after her visit to Amarnath or of the men chanting and dancing in front of the Sufi shrine in Omdurman. If such religious sentiments of these people or of many others like them were offended in this manner, they would naturally express their dislike, anger or resentment.
But, questioning and arguing about the rationality of one's own beliefs, religious or otherwise, or of those of another person or of groups whether of one's own people or of others is not the same as denigrating them. Even more universal than belief in supernatural, divine entities which manage the world of humans, animals and natural phenomena are human mental habits of curiosity and of asking questions about and looking for proofs to support different assertions people make. Without these mental habits, advance of human knowledge would have been impossible. Yahweh forbade Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. St. Augustine denounced curiosity 'which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature' as a disease and a dangerous temptation. Yet that curiosity has persisted and produced knowledge about the secrets of nature for the benefit of mankind. This progress would not have been possible if through the ages people, sometimes at great personal risks, had not asked questions about the validity of accepted religious and other beliefs and made discoveries that led to many of those beliefs being discarded.
While religious belief in a supernatural being, driven by emotions and existential anxieties of individuals can be and is in essence deeply personal, religious rituals, dogmas and formally defined creeds are often enforced by a priesthood or a well-defined religious hierarchy. A priesthood or a hierarchical religious organisation can and does function quasi-politically, at times in alliance with secular political authority, at others in competition and at yet others in opposition. At one remove from a priesthood or an organised religious hierarchy are political organisations and political parties which pursue power and mobilise support in the name of religion. Priesthoods, organised religious hierarchies or political parties acting against secular authority are apt to cite the will of God or hurt to the religious sentiments of people whenever they are short of rational arguments to oppose the secular action of a state or a government. People who explode bombs in a mass transit system because some religio-political group has talked to them about the will of God or about martyrdom leading to a life of eternal bliss in paradise are willingly or unwillingly manipulated for a political purpose just as people who are incited to go and raze a mosque in the name of the pride of their religious community are.
Separation of religion and state is one of the most important principles of politics established over the last three hundred and fifty years. While the separation may not in reality be complete everywhere, the principle has inexorably been gaining universal acceptance. It means not only that no priesthood nor any set of religious beliefs will guide governmental action, but it also means that a government's action will be based on considerations of social and economic welfare of the people on whose behalf it functions, measured by purely material, this-worldly criteria. And if a government's action is opposed by a religious group it is the material this-worldly criteria and considerations of general welfare that must prevail over the objections of religious or religio- political establishments. A modern government cannot and should not be prevented from building a road or a bridge for example according to the advice and the design of engineers because some group claims that the location of the road or the bridge will hurt the religious sentiments of people just as a modern government cannot and should not be prevented from prosecuting an individual who kills or maims another in the name of his religious beliefs.
Man's deepest and truest religious beliefs and feelings are personal and private--essentially a matter between him and the divine being he is devoted to. They have the same sanctity and deserve the same respect from the community as his right to life and his right to individual liberties. The trouble begins when organisations or groups arrogate to themselves the right to codify religious beliefs of individuals and to establish formal rituals and then decide what demands should be made on society in the name of such codified beliefs and rituals. Another problem is that any human organisation sooner or later starts acting politically: it gets subjected to struggles for power internally as well as with other human organisations. It acquires a leadership which in its turn develops its own ambitions. A leadership that speaks of the hurt caused to the religious sentiments of the community it claims to lead is essentially not different from another that speaks of the exploitation of workers and peasants except that the former offers to its followers a paradise which is unrealisable while the latter promises a future which is at least partially achievable.