The question of whether God exists – if there is a supreme consciousness behind the cosmos – primarily belongs to the collective realm of human thought and is in no way exclusive to religion. Early man looking at the stars, modern physicists working on the unified field theory and your best friend with their eyes closed right before taking an exam are all, in one way or the other, trying to figure out God. One uses thought and inquisition, or philosophy, one uses sequential logic and tangible data, or science and one uses faith and will, or religion. There are countless such ways to ponder over this very fundamental question of what was there before everything and man vehemently continues to do so using every tool at his disposal with philosophy, religion and science being the most prominent. At least, most men are. The pioneers of religion – one of the most subjective of these tools, seem extremely content with their answers in spite of having multiple contradicting theories and have deemed this search complete. They seem to be quite impatient people who do not want to wait for the others to catch up but rather want them to quit their pursuits as well since after all, the answer is already here. While God may or may not exist, organised religion most definitely does. Making things worse, it’s infiltrating the ranks of government and things are not going so well.
I hold no advanced degrees in theology but those who do still haven’t come to a consensus as to how the term ‘religion’ can be defined. The Oxford dictionary took the easy route and declared that religion is a system of beliefs and practices associated with a belief in a higher power or God. There is a school of thought that says religion has no concrete definition outside western culture, which I have personally felt to be the case as well. While I was born in a Hindu household, the next religion I’m most familiar with is Christianity courtesy of Dan Brown, Google and a whole lot of western TV shows. Most eastern religions and practices seem more similar to a language – growing and spreading organically with the times, rituals stemming partly out of mythology and partly based on the lifestyle of the people. India wasn’t ‘India’ until a few hundred years ago while the teachings of ‘Hinduism’ are ancient. Just like how people of neighbouring regions have their own, different languages and dialects but still have many similarities bleeding into one another, the country now called India used to be a series of dispersed regions each with its own beliefs and practices – loosely linked owing to the mingling of people yet independent nonetheless. That’s why there are all sorts of Hindus – they don’t have steadfast rules on whether or not to eat meat (Hindus and even Brahmins of Bengal eat fish, people from Kerala love beef) they don’t have defined rules on what to wear, what not to, when to celebrate which God (Indian-Hindus celebrate extremely different festivals during the same days of the year under different names) they don’t even have rules on whether or not to accept God. That’s why they don’t have a single holy book like the Bible or the Quran. Some regard the Vedas to be the Hindu document, some look to the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata or their spin-offs like the story of Krishna in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Not to mention all the thousands of varieties of ‘Amman’s from South India make no appearance in any of these and are yet worshipped and revered, sans literature. We were all just a bunch of tribes worshipping a different tree and minding our own business. Of course, there were fights now and then regarding whose tree was bigger but those fights pale in comparison to the atrocities we got going on now in the name of religion.
Even under the Mughal rule when ‘India’ was beginning to take shape, it was mostly the architecture that took on the Islamic influence and not the people themselves. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and many such eastern religions never worked on ‘conversions’ because they did not consider themselves to be religions, rather just a way of life. They were philosophies on how to be good humans but yes, often using god-like men as examples and teachers. So I guess in a way they do satisfy the Oxford definition of religion. One of my professors, a strongly opinionated man, during a wayward discussion of caste politics in India told me that “Hinduism” was merely a British construct. It was the British that colonised this huge landmass and decided to collectively call all the different systems we had going on in different parts of the landmass under one name – ‘Hinduism’. India was under their rule for so long that many have difficulty distinguishing archaic British practices from India’s own heritage. More on this later.
So if the religions of the east are fluid and similar to language, those of the west appear much more rigorous and with strict rules similar to mathematics. Take Christianity for example, a monotheistic religion – they have one God, one holy book and they look to the Pope as their one leader. I get that there are multiple sects within Christianity but they were variations that branched off of the primary “Jesus story”. Entirely opposite to Hinduism where different “similar but not similar” practices were grouped together under one name. The story begins the same, with colonisers walking into a region with its own varied sets of beliefs – Greek, Roman and the many other ‘pagan’ religions. However, these were more or less amalgamated to give birth to Judaism and Christianity as we know it. The amalgamation happened neither overnight nor peacefully. From setting down the dates for Christmas and Easter to deciding which gospels to acknowledge and which ones to ignore to tell the story of the Christ were decided in the First Council of Nicaea of Emperor Constantine, some three centuries after the death of Christ. What was to be canon in the Bible was voted upon, not solely based on fact but rather, what would keep the peace. Pagan beliefs were given significance as well as they were more in numbers then and their most important events and practices were kept intact but given Christian meanings – the date of Christmas and the tradition of the ‘Christmas tree’ to name a few. While the modern practice of decorating a fir tree with lights and ornaments might have its roots back to early German’s decorating trees with roses and apples to symbolise the forbidden fruit, the “December 25th” date and the notion of bringing in a tree in itself is said to have Pagan roots wherein they brought an evergreen tree that braved even the harsh winter indoors to celebrate their Sun God. The life of Jesus was thus converted to the story of Jesus that Christians throughout the world now worship and follow, in a medieval board meeting.
The story so far was just me pondering over how organized religions that people kill over came to be. It was more to stress on the “organized” part of the phrase. I don’t really think either of them is better than the other and would gladly agree to a world with no organized religion at all. I just had to use Hinduism and Christianity as examples as I’m only familiar with the two. Nothing would insult me more than accusing me of pandering towards any specific religious faction.
Church and State
Modern times did take their toll and there is a good mix of how much a given person takes religion seriously. We have extremists and moderates in all major religions today. However, it is interesting to note that Christianity started rigid and highly structured out of political agenda and eventually the changing times diluted the belief system, relatively speaking that is, with numbers of churchgoers dropping every year, but Hinduism started out accommodating and a sort of free-for-all but is growing extremist every day due to political agenda, with religion-based violence invading the governance of the country. People claim the religion they associate themselves with is a part of their identity. Okay, no arguments there. The religion you belong to has a giant influence on your day-to-day routine and is definitely something you can identify yourself with. However, identities are personal, aren’t they? “Identity theft” exists because identity is something that belongs to and manifests uniquely in every individual. So pushing one’s identity on someone else is an absurd and deviant act. For a whole government to do so, in any capacity, is downright evil and the country loses its democratic status.
We all saw what happened when the High Sparrow gained more and more power in Game of Thrones. Even the mighty Cersei fell and was stripped and shamed. When are we going to learn to keep church and state separate? Democracy is a tricky concept as it is essentially a rule of compromises. It needs to figure out how to make the most people happy and at the same time not tip towards the interests of any particular faction of people so that even the minorities have a voice. But I really do think if that voice, from a majority or a minority alike, is crying “Blasphemy!”, it is best for the government to look the other way.
This is India
It goes both ways. Religious extremists calling for evolution to be removed from public school curriculum, for abortion to be made illegal, for denying vaccines to their children, for denying same-sex couples to get married and so on under the guise that it’ll piss off God or that “God’s creation is perfect and mustn’t be tampered with” is not okay just as much as governments interfering with localised religious affairs without proper insight. Examples for both can be seen throughout India just from events in the last couple of years. I am not a very political person but I still blame the whole ‘Hindutva’ agenda of BJP for this whole hiatus. The very first thing that we were taught about the Indian constitution all the way back in 9th grade in a little book called “Democratic Politics” is the phrase “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India”. I remember it because we were made to repeatedly memorise the phrase and the meanings of those words since “What are the key features of the preamble of the Indian constitution?” was and still is a sure-shot question in the annual examination. How can a party with a public “Hindutva” agenda be even allowed to campaign and win if the country’s constitution declares itself secular? ‘Secular’ literally means the country has no official religion and the people are free to follow whatever they want, that the government cannot favour a particular religion. I was the topper in 9th grade, I know this stuff by heart. I used to feel so proud of the ‘secular’ part because it felt like common sense and so noble. In a country with such a diverse population, any favouritism will result in civil unrest.
However, much like the surprise victory of President Trump’s fearmongering campaign against anything he considered non-American, BJP’s campaign of “Make Hinduism great again” (That wasn’t the actual slogan, but that was the message. Consider it artistic liberty.) surprisingly won and revealed the uglier side of this country. A literal godman was appointed the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, someone who’s blatantly abused people of other religions in his public speeches and one who’s vehemently aligned towards Hindu extremist values. Unsurprisingly enough, one of the first things he implemented was the “Anti-Romeo squad”. A group of men – could be literally anyone with a saffron shawl around their necks – walking the streets of UP aiming to make the streets safer for women by catching “eve-teasers”. At least that’s what it said on paper. What it turned out to be was a group of bored middle-aged men moral policing the shit out of every man and woman who dared walk side by side on the street without a marriage license. I actually do not know if they managed to catch any actual eve-teasers but they did catch multiple groups of friends, cousins and even shaved a guy’s head for talking to a girl publicly. When the cat doesn’t really give a shit and encourages chaos, of course, countless mice are going to play and well, play they did. Independent factions like the Bajrang dal took it upon themselves to uphold “Indian culture” and started storming pubs and bars during valentine’s day celebrations forcing the couples to marry each other and New Year’s Eve parties attacking anyone celebrating late in the night. And the government watched and was secretly proud, I’m sure.
Or is it India?
These Hindu nationalists are essentially trying to do now what the Council of Nicaea did to Christianity centuries ago. They are attempting to take something fluid and gentle and convert it into a rigid religion with fixed commandments – no Hindu shall eat beef, no Hindu woman shall marry outside her caste, religion or heck, dare talk to a man before she is wed, no Hindu woman shall wear anything besides a saree. (Case in point, this village which decided its women shall not wear nighties “for their own safety”). The primary agenda seems to be to “standardize” Hindus with the ultimate goal being making India a purely Hindu country. This is done by sensationalized campaigning, especially in rural regions where religious sentiments ebb right on the surface of the population, by cultivating fear that in the name of secularism and globalisation, the integrity of Hinduism and subsequently the identity of all Hindus is diminishing and that the only solution to this is strict moral policing and bashing anyone who refuses to follow.
A different professor of mine, who actually does hold advanced degrees in spiritual studies once went on a rant that Thailand Airport has a huge statue depicting the churning of the ocean to bring forth the divine nectar as Lord Vishnu held a mountain up on his back taking the form of a giant turtle, (Flat Earthers in the crowd rejoice!), no Indian airport has such a feature because it would mean they are glorifying Hinduism and neglecting other religions. He stated that it was a pity that India cannot celebrate or take pride in her own native religion due to secularism and secularism would be the death of our heritage. He said we can still be a secular country while acknowledging that we are the birthplace of Hinduism and not be shy to celebrate it without fear of hurting other religious sentiments. It is hard to decide if he does make sense or if it is another man who wants his religious ego stroked, someone who wants something concrete to proclaim that his religion and in turn himself is superior to the other “foreigners” and “immigrant religions”. People often love to point out that countries like Saudi Arabia take the utmost pride in conserving their religion and their governments would never dare make any changes or adjustments for the sake of other minorities. A similar comment was raised when the Indian supreme court allowed women to step into Sabarimala. “Does the government have guts to make such changes to mosques or churches?”. No other religions make any effort to be more accommodating of modern, liberal values. “When they don’t, why should we?” I say, “Well, they should but unfortunately they haven’t. At least let us?”
You see how attaching religion to regional politics makes everything uncomfortable?
Also, what’s laughable at the highest degree is that these so-called “Hindu values” and “Indian culture” that these extremists pander to the public so passionately, the system that they intend on upholding with any means necessary, has no roots in any form of Hinduism at all. Take these rules for example :
- Girls are to be brought up in such a way to plan herself for a life devoted to looking after her house and family if she entered into wedlock, and charity if she decided not to. She is to remain meek and mild in order to be considered beautiful and her qualities to be looked upon favourably.
- To be found alone with a man who was other than family is tantamount to social death. Her reputation would be ruined and the man would find himself the object of gossip and suffer derision.
- The established career for women is marriage – full stop. They are to represent and accompany their husbands with grace and provide absolutely no scandal.
- A single woman should never walk alone and it is preferable she is chaperoned by an older, married man. She can’t call an unmarried man to her residence, mustn’t indulge in any impure conversations, must refrain from any sexual contact and must remain innocent until she is wed.
Do they seem to align with the ideal “Indian cultured” woman? Those are rules I just paraphrased from different websites about Victorian-era etiquette for high society women. These were introduced to India when the British colonizers brought their families here along with them. Vedic sages wrote guidebooks for a happy marriage which included descriptions of sexual acts and tips on having healthy polygamous relationships. We have temples full of sculptures depicted postures that would put all the websites the government of India so generously banned. Hindu scriptures have numerous descriptions for sexual acts, glorify sexual intercourse as a divine act and hold countless stories regarding the sexual lives of sages, gods and goddesses in spiritual, metaphorical, romantic as well as erotic ways – ideas that the modern day Indian would consider far too “broad-minded”. The self-proclaimed protectors of Indian/Hindu culture, those who hold their life’s purpose to eradicating “western influence” on our pious nation are actually pushing for us to go the same route that the west took in terms of institutionalizing and standardizing religion and in terms of implementation of it by following archaic British forms of proper conduct. Who’s the anti-Indian now?
Maybe irony is the one true god. That shit is everywhere these days and no one seems to be able to see it.
The Fix (?)
If we truly want to take India back to its prosperous Vedic routes, we must focus on the righteousness of actions over religious-correctness. Hinduism has its roots in dharma, righteousness. Christianity takes root in forgiveness. Buddhism is all about non-violence. Taoism speaks of universal balance and harmony. I intentionally shy away from bringing Islam into this discussion ’cause I have very little knowledge of its teachings and ways. Most of what is found online feel like propaganda and I’d rather not comment on things I’m yet to fully understand. God can truly be good if religions stuck to being these fundamental, internal faiths and stopped trying to be ‘organized’ militant cults. Leave godly discussions out of the courtroom.
It came as a glorious revelation to the artistic community when in 1990, nearly 400 years after it was painted, people realized that “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo (the cover photo on the top of this page) had God superimposed over a near-anatomically perfect drawing of the human brain. While some believe that it speaks of man’s own divinity, that God exists within us all and that he created us in his image; there are others who argue it actually shows that God is merely the brain’s own creation. The painting might as well be called “The Creation of God” and not “The Creation of Adam”. God exists simply because we want him to and he can be whatever we want him to be. Fluid, not rigid. If at all God did exist, seeing all that’s going on now on his behalf, he might consider becoming an atheist as well.