If religion is an industry, God is a commodity. Perhaps that’s a strong statement. Strong, but true! From time and again religion, as it is commonly practiced in India (owing to the sectarian fanaticism characteristic of fundamentalists) has been distorted in ways more than one. This has been done in a game of politics and power, relegating the larger interest of society to a secondary status. Often our politicians, priests, and religious fundamentalists, sell God to the people of India for votes, money or power.
Consider, for instance, the issue in Ayodhya. Do you see any point to it? Well, I don’t. For another temple or mosque essentially adds nothing to making this nation a little stronger or an individual’s life a little better. And our politicians excel in the art of making an issue out of a non-issue, while sidelining the more important issue of individual and societal well-being. Sectarian consciousness based on religion, region, sex and other such identities, while allowing an individual to assert one’s individuality and grow within (so that at some point one can transcend these very identities and realize the unity of one and all, animate and inanimate) does cause a distortion of one’s sense of oneself when taken to the extremes of fanaticism. For, in your exclusively fanatic devotion to one of the many identities you carry (religion, region et al) and share with others, you forget your individuality – the composite of all your shared identities – and lose yourself to one shared identity. I’ll explain.
The very ideas of religion, region etc, seemed too divisive to me; and, in some sense, repugnant. For time and again they threaten the unity of my country and the well-being of my countrymen. However, as I reasoned out, these identities are part of one’s individuality. They let an individual grow, give and celebrate them in a larger celebration of life. The question is: who or what instills this belief in me that India ought to be a united land shared by different identities? Why does its unity matter to me? It matters, perhaps, because I can see a larger shared identity, an idea that connects Indians, the idea of India. That is my conception of India. India resides within you, within me, within each Indian. We are a living manifestation of the Indian Identity which, diverse as it may seem, is condensed into but one idea, which is India. India is basically an amalgamation of different identities into one cohesive whole. None of these identities will thrive in isolation. Nor can India thrive without them.
So, to go from strength to strength, India needs an Indian to recognize his/her own, in Tagore’s words, “vigorous individuality” while being conscious of the fact that none of his/her identities is complete in itself but a part of the larger identity, India. And to say that India, as an identity, is complete in itself would be as much an underestimation of the extent of one’s individuality as to say, that your name, as an identity, is complete in itself. For it is not; your name is nothing if there’s no other identity to use it in relation to. India resides within an Indian. However, an Indian (or for that matter, any individual) is much more than the label assigned by his/her race, region, religion, nation et al. Just as India is composed of and a celebration of the myriad identities this country nurtures, an individual’s identity is a composite of identities that transcend India. This identity of the individual is a celebration of life. And life is a celebration of this identity, of this individuality.
If you’re wondering in what way my identity as an individual, transcends that of India, let me explain. Who am I? At the physical level I am just a moving mass of atoms endowed with a property called ‘life’. Everything is a collection of atoms. Not everything, however, is endowed with ‘life’. So this distinction creates two identities – animate and inanimate. But, inasmuch as I am a collection of atoms, I’m one with the universe. The atoms that make me have been there from time immemorial in one form or another. I’m the same energy, the same matter that once pervaded this Universe, that was a part of some star, and that will go back to it once my body – a collection of atoms, is unable to sustain itself and in the process loses its property called ‘life’ and then crumbles up to release the atoms back to the Universe. So, essentially, my most basic identity, at the physical level, is that I am a collection of atoms.
At this level I can sense a unity with the Universe. The first differentiation of my identity occurs once I’m endowed with ‘life’. Then I am an animate object, distinct from those inanimate. You’ll see that this is the first layer of identity that covers my more basic identity as one with the universe. Then, again, I am an animal, distinct from plants; I am a mammal, distinct from other classes of animals; I am a human, distinct from other mammals; I am a man, distinct from a woman; and so on. So, essentially, I am a composition of layers over layers of identities. The idea is to discover what lies beneath the layers and at what level the unity of all holds. At one level, I am distinct from you. At another, I am one with you. At one level, I am a believer in nationalism. At another, I am an internationalist. And at quite another level, I believe in universalism. To grow as an individual and contribute meaningfully to this celebration of the universality of all, I need to recognize and appreciate both: my uniqueness as an individual and the fact that I’m one with the universe at the most basic level.
To put it succinctly, in Tagore’s words,
“Individuality is precious, because only through it we can realize the universal.”