A whopping 93% of Indian youth consider religion to be a matter of faith and not of cultural or social identity. 32% of them assert that they are staunchly religious, while 59% say they are moderately religious. These are the findings of a survey commissioned by HT and carried out by C fore to analyse the religious outlook of young people in the country. One thousand youngsters in the 18-30 age group living in major metropolitan cities and across a cross-section of religions in India were surveyed. While the percentages would have us believe that religiosity in this part of the world is nowhere near plummeting, a closer reading of the survey throws up some other interesting facts. When the respondents were asked if they had read their religious scriptures, only 15% answered in the affirmative. 48% say that they did not know why certain rituals like fasting are practised. The picture that emerges is of a generation happy to flaunt religious identity while not caring enough to delve deeply into its philosophical underpinnings.
Other findings of the survey seem to confirm the paradoxical nature of this cohort’s beliefs. While 75% of the respondents seemed acutely conventional and insisted that they would not marry someone outside their faith, only 24% professed to actually follow the important tenets of their religion including praying. An even smaller percentage - just 10% – dressed as per the rules laid down by their religion.
Encouragingly the individuals do not subject their friendships to the same exclusionist rules: 45% said they celebrated the rituals of other faiths with their friends. 77% also thought that religion should be kept away from politics, revealing a preference for tolerant versions of religious practice.
The paradoxes thrown up by the survey don’t necessarily mean the younger generation is hollow. Instead, as Madhu Khanna, professor, Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilisations says, “The new generation is not interested in the old form of religiosity. While some may believe practitioners not knowing their beliefs is a sign of the decline of religion, it can also be viewed as an emergence of an alternate way of practising,” she says.
Social anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan says the phenomenon is a byproduct of an age of religion-meets-requests. “Driven by anxiety, for many, religion gives meaning and a sense of community,” he says.
But while young people in India are clinging to religion in form if not in essence, the story is changing in the West. An international survey on religion conducted last week by WIN-Gallup International reveals that the average religiosity of 59% showed a decline of 9% since 2005. The percentage of atheists also rose from 4 to 7% in the same period, indicating, perhaps a crisis of faith. SURVEY
Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist, VIMHANS says, “Youngsters seem to be holding on to a convenient image of believing in religion but don’t want to get deeply involved as it would mean following rituals.” While the poll does reveal that most youngsters shy away from religious practices social watchers say that, in the changing sociopolitical milieu, many youngsters are confused about which strain of religion to adhere to. “We see many youngsters coming to religion in search of an identity where the sentiment is not just about professing a religion but about making a statement,” says Akhtarul Wasey, director, Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. “Isolation and short-lived relationships are also a fact of the modern world. In such a scenario, young people need an anchor, and religion, drugs or even a rational approach are the common seeking grounds,” says Sharma.
“The generation today has seen a world of failed ideologies – from communism to capitalism to socialism. So, religion functions to unite a lost world,” says Vishvanathan. Wasey welcomes the emerging alternate strain and says the soft stand of the young is comparable to the Sufi and Bhakti movements of medieval India.
Visvanathan also notices another trend. “Particularly among youth, there is a rise of spiritual sects. From Swaminarayan to Jaggi Vasudev to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The modern gurus would quote from Gita in one instance and would talk about a Western philosopher in another breath, these dialects of intelligence appeal to the young,” he says.
MATTER OF RETALIATION
The constant questioning of religious identity has also led to a rigorous, albeit half-baked awakening. “Incidents like 9/11, the gurudwara attack and the Gujarat riots have led to an emergence of assertive religion,” says Wasey. “In such a scenario, the youth who may otherwise not be interested in religious values begins to assert his identity and it is a disturbing phenomenon.”
Professor Khanna says, “In our country, there are no avenues to understand the true leanings of religion. every secular nation has a department of religious studies at universities. India has none. Unless we have educative channels the youth will continue to absorb colonial knowledge. After all, if you flaunt the roots you must know what to flaunt,” she says.