The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002

Signs & signatures
The history of religion has always been gory
Darshan Singh Maini

AS I turn over the events and effects of the continuing communal tragedies in my mind, I feel as though the simmering revulsion of a life time against organised religion has almost come to the boil. For over half a century of adult life, I have been witness to the unspeakable horrors of religion in action which included the killing of my father and the torching of our home during the Partition riots. I have no desire to drum up that ugly and shameful interlude in Indian history, horrendous in dimensions, and wicked beyond belief in the scale of its atrocities committed in the name of religion. All that is trenchantly recorded in the literature of the period. And we had naively hoped that having paid a blood price in full, the two bleeding halves of the country would at last settle down to the business of life, creating for their impoverished societies conditions for good government and good law. Itís as though religious poison had been worked out of our bodypolitic in that terrible fashion. Thus purged.. thus taught an unforgettable lesson, the generations to come could expect to put this revolting past behind them. But, alas, history has taught us nothing, and we remain hostages to that Moloch called religion. Pakistan has gone all the way to its fundamentalist destiny, and India remains a divided nation with all its fig-leaves of secularism and democracy. Religion, in sum, has cloven us right down to our unconscious, and we cannot throw away its yoke.

Thus, communal thinking has become a way of life with us, and we imbibe this milk of mischief from the cradle to the school and beyond. To be sure, we do wake up from our sleep every now and then when a major communal disaster overwhelms us, but as experience tells us, the outcry soon peters out into a whimper. Once the heat is gone, we return to the diet of cliches, platitudes and homilies. And itís these poor profundities that get my goat more than anything else.


What, then, is the true face of religion? Almost invariably, the argument runs along these lines: Yes, religion has always been used as a ploy, as a ladder to the throne, and as a machinery of power and division. It has, moreover, always been a hand-maiden to the establishment, and an enemy of the people whatever its protestations and songs and stories. But, then, thatís not the essence of religion, the wise ones aver. Religion, they say, is Godís own voice on earth, and it leads us to a life of virtue, pity and compassion. Itís, indeed, the daily food for the spirit, and the only means of meeting the assault of absurdity and irrationality in life. It may be an opium for the wretched of the earth, but in a world where wickedness is a permanent condition of life, it serves to dispel darkness in millions of homes. And this too is true in a general way. We are trapped in religion, and by religion, and we have to puzzle out this dilemma somehow.

Whatever we may say to support the idea of religion as a spiritual exercise, few indeed would deny that when it turns into a Ďchurchí, its character changes, and it becomes an instrument of oppression, tyranny and wars. So long as it remains confined to the home, it dispenses sweetness and light, but the moment it hits the streets, it acquires a rhetoric of hell and brimfire. Does that suggest that between the concept and the praxis lies something of "a Catch-22 situation" so that we are rendered helpless either way? In simple terms, can we somehow come to terms with the contradictions inherent in the situation. Is there something, some virus in the very grain of religion which ends up in an armed vision of reality requiring total commitment to its ideology?

Let me illustrate the point in a more dramatic way. We in India have been using Iqbalís song of patriotism about the glory of Bharat in season and out of season. And whenever religious strife erupts in large-scale killings, we fall back upon the poetís celebrated couplet: "Mazhab nahin sikhata apas mein bair rakhna." or "Religion as such never teaches enmity." And yet the whole history of religion in the world shows that religion in action, and on the march, has sown nothing but seeds of division, hatred and bloodshed. Iqbal couldnít have been referring to only the positive side of religion when he knew it to have had a gory history all along. A beautiful line of verse, yes, but with little truth in it, and, more grievously, and more ironically, Iqbalís own later transformation into a possessed visionary of Pakistan with his faith in the transcendent destiny of his people cannot but raise troublesome and tormenting questions. More intense the vision, more is the sword likely to be lifted in its behalf. That, in sum, are the kinetics of religion, and its obscure energies.

Now the truth is that no religion can survive without its own church, and no church can survive without militancy and violence, first against its own radical and recalcitrant members, and then against other religions in the field claiming uniqueness, sovereignty and salvation. It may be helpful to remember that all religions turn into closed systems, and into prisons of thought at some point in their journey, and they set up an imperialism of faith.

Whenever, therefore, a thought, a vision, or even a point of view seeks to become total, complete and absolute, and hardens into an iron-clad ideology that demands unquestioning obedience in all circumstances till eternity, it cannot but turn into a fascism of the mind and the spirit. All such totalisations, religious as well as secular, are basically tragedies of understanding, tragedies that reduce everything to one dimension whereas life is always straining after freedom, variety and colour. All those religions that enforce prohibitions, food laws and marriage edicts etc. are simply erecting walls of obscurantism, and even though they may thus protect the flock of the faithful, they cannot create conditions of happiness. Which perhaps is not their aim anyway.

Nor is the doctrine of uniqueness, of being "the Lordís elect, anything but a theological weapon to bind the community into a theocracy. Whilst the semitic religions in particular are prone to it, nearly all major religions have claimed a sui generis status vis-a-vis the rest. Hinduism appears to have bypassed it in a subtle way. It claimed a pre-natal superiority, a caste tyranny which reduced a whole section of its own society to "untouchables" at birth, and a whole section of womanhood to temple devadasis or prostitutes. And it excluded the rest of mankind from its ambit. An apartheid with a metaphysical gloss!

What the Shiv Sainiks and their kind now want to do is to cast Hinduism in the image of their enemy as they see it. They wish to give Hinduism flags of war and fangs. They want to rob it of its cultural fineness, and of its heritage of peace and respect for life. What they opposed and ridiculed till the other day ó the mixing of religion and politics by the minorities ó is today their open and unabashed agenda. Hinduism couldnít be destroyed by the Muslim rulers for all their might; nor could the British touch its core for all their cunning and craft. So, itís left to the likes of Bal Thackeray to change its course and character.

The Koran too proclaims this in so many words: "To every people have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made a single people." Other scriptures have a similar message for mankind. And yet, no religion has truly lived by the promise of its letter and code. The clergy, the divines and the pundits have erected whole pagodas and castles of thought to subvert the essence of religion. The world, it appears, is, alas, too small for different religions to live in peace and harmony! And man, "a particle of dust", but yet "a most dangerous particle on earth" continues to show his "essence." Aldous Huxley in his post-war novel, Ape and Essence, was precisely concerned with this issue.

Even this sweeping statement is too cold for comfort for man has also the energies to scale heights of sublimity. No wander, then, the puzzle agonises us and abides. The same Huxley in later years turned to religion as a source of intuition and deeper insights!