Rights, Rites and Riots

There have been revolutions in the name of religion, lives devoted to its understanding and spread, volumes of literature and architecture inspired, and billions of hopes nurtured by prayers. It is a fundamental right, often seen as something essential to survival of a secular state. Where as a secular state is perceived and invariably a ‘better’ alternative to a theocracy. Faith is pious; fanaticism however, often demeans our faith to communalism.


There are two things that I personally understand about this concept of belief; first, that religion in itself is a sociological term. It often needs expression. This may be in the form of rituals, festivals, idols, structures etc. it forms the most integral part of a ‘culture’, which may or may not be comprehended by all alike as was intended originally in the scriptures. Many a times, it flows out of mere inherited tradition which has gone on unconditionally and unquestioned for years. This, however, does not mean that the ones believing in a formless, faceless God are a step closer to spirituality but simply the fact that a matter of ‘faith’ remains a private affair. This brings us to the second aspect, that faith in fact, can be so individualistic that people of the same religion may have different perceptions of their same God. This faith does not give or take explanations. The object of worship may be a book, and idol, a philosophy, science or anything existing not existing.


One wonders why something which so inherent, simple and self-sufficient has been a bone of contention in so many societies. Here is where the degeneration begins as religion becomes communal. Communalism by definition means “Strong devotion to the interests of one’s own minority or ethnic group rather than those of society as a whole”. It is a parochial concept which gives an individual a restricted identity, an identity about which an individual is unreasonably protective.


Why does this identity crisis remain more acute in a developing country? The answer takes us back to the colonial era from which we inherited the idea of an Indian ‘nation state’. India has always taken immense pride in its heritage, we love to believe in the ‘multi-cultural whole’, however, we must realize that pre-independence we were multi-cultural-lingual-ethnic, but we weren’t a whole. The territory on the Indian ‘nation-state’ is not the same as that of India under the Mughals, Ashoka, Harshvardhan and the like.


Thus, the transplantation of a foreign political system on India’s cosmopolitan democracy has suffered many failed attempts at cosmetic integration, as commonalities of religion and region erupt regularly. Political parties in such a society are not oriented towards a particular political arena, but tend to take a world view and represent a way of life, resembling a social movement. Consequently, political loyalty is governed more by a sense of identification with a concrete group than professed policy goals. As the movement strengthens, a parallel reactionary force comes to the fore and confrontation often results in an India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine etc.


Looking to the sociological aspect of religion, one encounters another range of issues. Sometimes one finds and unfortunate translation of religion into some irrelevant rites and rituals namely sati, dowry, treatment of widows- gender centric; or untouchability, isolation, restricted education- caste centric. Here knowledge becomes the political weapon, and since interpretation of religious texts remains a privilege of very few, they often manipulate information dissemination as per convenience, to maintain a status-quo, play upon prevailing superstition and restrict the flow of education to retain power. The abject poverty helps to crystallize redundant tradition as people begin to seek solutions from religion. It becomes institutionalised, and ends in itself.


Whatever the political and social affiliations religion might have, it has intrigued the minds of men since time immemorial and has been subject to a lot of controversy.


“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the masses.”


Or is it an immaculate conception? Or an all pervasive God, a guiding light. Abraham Lincoln seems to have summed it in its simplest state.


“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”


Saumya Saxena

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