I was born a Hindu, and had no choice in the matter. As an adult I have had no doubt in my mind that to me, personally, god, idols,temples or pilgrimages have no meaning at all. Yet, I have never refused to go to a temple or participate in a ‘puja’ along with my family, mainly because I believe that religion serves a purpose, it gives meaning, hope and direction to the lives of a lot of people and I should not do anything to take this away from them.
But as religious extremism gains acceptability across socio-economic groups - from the poorest to the richest culminating in events as they happened in Gujarat - I am forced to rethink and take a stand. I know that the stand may not have large-scale ramifications but I also know that it will have significant impact on my two children and may have some bearing on the lives of a handful of people close to me.
Is there something in common across diverse ideas, for each one of them to be identified as religion? It is not a distinct social philosophy of life, otherwise existentialism and many other significant philosophies of life would qualify as religion. It would appear to me that the philosophy not only has to answer the questions- What is life? What is the meaning of it all? How should I live? -but answer them convincingly to a large group of people, in a way that it appears to be the only right answer. These people can then institutionalise the philosophy to be the only right one, and make a god out of the proponent of the thought.
It is unlikely that any one religion or institution of thought has answered all the questions perfectly, because then there wouldn’t be a need for another group of thought to emerge. If the questions were answerable in simple, accessible terms, then the almost impenetrable ideas that are found in Zen or Vedantic literature would be laughable.It would appear to me that the basic questions are either unanswerable or at least cannot be transmitted.
And hence, anybody who is supposed to have the answers becomes an object of worship and the followers will pray to him, his book, his idol, his grave, his tree, whatever is supposed to be connected with him. This worship is bred out of either greed of knowledge and favours or the fear of having breached some code of conduct, and sometimes out of respect for having found the answer.
Like every other human institution, religion also must survive, and what better way to survive than to grow - by either having a new generation of believers or by converting others. Fear and greed are the two most powerful human emotions and religious institutions managed by humans are unlikely to be untouched by these emotions. I am told that you can jump the line of devotees at the famous Vaishno Devi temple by bribing somebody at the temple administration.
With time, some of these philosophies become inaccessible to the common man who has to work hard to survive, so the institution reinterprets and simplifies them, and provides access to god.Ultimately, the institution is managed by humans and like all other institutions, it must do everything to maintain its hegemony, deal with the corruption that is bred by the amazing power it has over people, fight off any school of thought that threatens its pride ofplace. Is that the reason why Buddhism was driven out of mainland India? It is unlikely that Rama or Krishna had a personal problem with the peace-loving Gautam.
The human fear of emptiness and meaninglessness knows no bounds. I’d suspect that it is the primal human characteristic. Even death is a transition into meaninglessness and emptiness. And any idea or thought that allays this fear is likely to have a huge influence on human conduct. The desire for power, riches, fame and immortality are also an attempt to escape meaninglessness.
Religion provides a priori meaning - god said so, or it is written in the book - ranging from first cause, what to do, what not to do, and also remedial action if you have done what shouldn’t have been done.Even though humans can’t control their lives and circumstances, with the help of their religion they know who does, and what can be done to influence the controller of the universe. No wonder religion has such amazing hold over people.
I find it foolish to believe that there is one or two or a thousand gods out there who control our lives and script our destiny. If he wishes for me to pray to him to change my circumstances and destiny then he must be hugely egoistical, self-centred and prone to flattery- hardly the attributes of somebody I would like to respect, leave alone pray to.
It is another matter that I don’t have a pressing need to get my circumstances or destiny changed. I can understand how seductive the idea is for someone who is less fortunate. The idea of going to a temple or worshiping his idols, or his tree or any other thing associated with him is even more meaningless than the meaninglessness itself.
In any case, if he exists then the world has no option but to follow his direction - so this must be what he wishes. If god wanted to change it, he can always have a rebirth or redeliver his sermon.Hopefully, this time it would be a little more idiot-proof so that the humans don’t go around killing people in the name of god. That must hurt him, shouldn’t it?
Since god is unlikely to intervene, human beings are likely to continue being driven by fear and greed to exploit their fellow beings in the name of whatever they can, including religion. For years, I have had a detached attitude towards religion and have stayed a Hindu by default. But under the current circumstances, I feel the need to assert my dislike of religion - dislike of religion and not human thought.
First published as op-ed in Hindustan Times on 21 09 2002