Sunday, May 9, 2004

The many facets of faith
D. R. Chaudhry

Sociology of Religion in India
edited by Rowena Robinson. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 360. Rs 350.

Nation, emphasises Tanveer Fazal, is constructed in terms of the "will of the dominant"
Nation, emphasises Tanveer Fazal, is constructed in terms of the “will of the dominant”.

MOVING spirits behind various belief systems have emphasised the life-giving traits of religion. Yet, religion has often been a seat of strife and violence causing untold misery to mankind. Ethnic cleansing in erstwhile Yugoslavia and Rawanda, pogrom of the Sikhs in 1984 and communal genocide in Gujarat in India are a few of the latest examples. This book is an attempt to unravel this paradox in the Indian context.

The book contains essays by well-known sociologists that have appeared in the Sociological Bulletin during the past fifty years. The first section deals with religion, society and identity. The next deals with sects, cults and shrines. Religious conversion is covered in the third section and the last section provides a comparative perspective drawn from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago and the USA.

Proshanta Nandi deals with the perspective of some of the most important nationalist leaders of India on the question of nationhood and religiosity. They perceived no threat to national integration, as assimilation of numerous ethnic and religious groups in India was its strength. This vision has come under great strain in present times with the growth of religious sectarianism and fundamentalism.

A. R. Desai is highly critical of the state for using religion in various social activities. Religion may be used, apprehends Desai, to lull the under-privileged strata into complacency and thus help the coercive state apparatus to evolve a pattern of social integration that would transform nation into a regimented society. M. S. A. Rao, in his essay, focuses on the relationship between religion and economic development.

He debunks the popular notion that other-worldness of Hinduism is not conducive to development. Hindu culture, in fact, is as much this-worldly as other-worldly. Church-sect opposition, so important in Christianity, is not true of Hinduism. Cult is an important category to study the Hindu tradition, as unlike sect, it is not exclusive.

There is a myriad of cults among the Hindus. Ursula Sharma discusses two cultic traditions in Kangra around Balak Nath and Baba Lundro. Likewise, L. Thorn Bhai analyses the emergence and growth of three shrines in Tamil Nadu. Three individuals are invested with divine qualities leading to the emergence of cults around them. C. N. Venugopal’s is an illuminating study of the Ungyat movement in Karnataka that began as a sect rejecting purity-pollution syndrome and it eventually transformed itself into a caste. Centred on Sivalinga, it is an egalitarian ideology emphasising sanctity of work and equal opportunities for all.

The next section dealing with religious conversions in India is all the more important these days, as it has acquired emotive content and often results into community clashes. Force did play its part in conversions in Goa under the Portuguese rule, but this is only a half-truth. Rowena Robinson admits to the role of coercion in the process of conversions in Goa. However, it was the opportunity provided by the Portuguese role to the depressed castes to free themselves from the stranglehold of high castes that facilitated the task of conversions.

Surabh Dube, in his study of Christianity in colonial Chhatisgarh, emphasises the prospect of better life chances offered by Christianity to the oppressed caste groups that prompted them to opt for the new creed. N. Jayaram’s paper is a typical Marxian analysis of conversions in India. It was the hegemony of the Brahiminical ideology reducing the depressed caste groups to sub-human existence that impelled them to seek emancipation through proselytism.

The key to emancipation in Jayaram’s opinion lies in mobilising deprived castes along class lines along with similar economically deprived elements of the higher castes. This typical Marxist approach, in the opinion of this reviewer, suffers from one serious infirmity. It bypasses the autonomous character of caste in social organisation.

Unless ideological basis of caste is fought out, the economic factor alone is not enough. It is this infirmity that has pushed numerous depressed caste groups in the fold of different caste leaders in the country, leaving the Marxists high and dry.

In the last section Tanveer Fazal’s paper on Religion and Language in the Formation of Nationhood in Pakistan and Bangladesh deserves special mention. It is highly informative and analytical. The language-centric Bengali nationalism espoused by the Pakistani state, eventually triumphed over the religious nationalism espoused by the Pakistani state. Nation, emphasises Fazal, is constructed in terms of the "will of the dominant", thus making "national mainstream" a euphemism for the cultural and material interests of the former. It will be instructive to examine the politics of Hindutva in this parameter. The collection of papers raises some vital contemporary issues. It can be useful for the students of sociology as well as those who are interested in the current socio-political scenario in the country.