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A free market for religions

If you think religion cannot be analysed in economic terms, consider how our godmen have carved out the spiritual consolation market between them, writes Manas Chakravarty.

india Updated: Sep 27, 2008 22:05 IST

Zeal of religious leaders can be dangerous only where there is...but one sect [or two or three] tolerated in the society. That zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred sects, of which no one would be considerable enough to disturb the public tranquillity.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

If the founder of modern economics was right, we need a truly free market in religion. Just as the dismantling of the licence raj boosted economic growth in this country, so too will increased competition among religions benefit the masses. But, for that to happen, the right to free conversion, de-conversion, re-conversion, re-de-conversion and so on must be recognised. Just as nobody bothers when a consumer buys potatoes from one shop today and turnips from another one tomorrow, so too should the consumer of religious commodities be able to make his own choices. Do you prefer Heaven and Hell to reincarnation? Do you prefer to believe in the Devil or in rakshasas?

The choice should be entirely yours

Offering freebies and incentives for conversions is the same as granting discounts on products. Nobody makes a fuss when a magazine subscription comes with a free leather wallet or when a toothpaste manufacturer gives away free toothbrushes. Similarly, if the seller of a brand of spiritual solace wants to give away freebies, rational consumers should rejoice. For instance, if religion A offers free schooling for the masses, religion B could offer health care. Religion C could carve a niche by screening Bollywood hits gratis, while poorer Religion D could specialise in free trips to the zoo. All this is certain to benefit ordinary people. They not only get the spiritual support they crave, but also enhance their material comfort. If you feel that the point of religion is to be austere and penitential, there’s sure to be someone offering free hair shirts and beds of nails, too. And if you think religion is not something that can be analysed in economic terms, consider how our godmen have carved out the spiritual consolation market between them, with some catering to the upmarket segment, while others position themselves in the mass market. All that remains is to corporatise themselves, offer shares in their holy enterprises and list on a stock exchange.

As Adam Smith pointed out, we need to have as many religions as possible to foster competition. So in addition to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism and the Sikh religion, we should invite Confucians, Shinto-ists, Taoists, Rastafarians, Scientologists, voodoo practitioners and followers of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, among others.

Critical to the success of this model, however, should be the freedom to change one’s mind. Let’s say you have been persuaded, thanks to the offer of a free bottle of scotch, to join the sect of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, drums and dance and you are bored of dancing and want to shift your allegiance to Bo and Bomong, the gods of Donyi Polo, the religion followed by many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. You should feel free to do so. If you want to expand your spiritual bandwidth and your waistline by gorging on free lunches and dinners offered by competing sects, (praying hard all the while, of course) that should be entirely up to you.

There’s also no particular reason why you should limit your choices to one particular set of spiritual practices. I know lots of people, smug atheists during good times, who rush to temples, churches and dargahs completely indiscriminately at the slightest hint of trouble. You might like the drumming of the Shangoists, but it’s equally possible that after a really bad day you may prefer to pray to Ah Puch, the god of death in the Mayan religion. I recognise, though, the need for a modicum of discipline. A weekly time-table might do the trick. The ideal state would probably be reached when, in response to the question, “Are you an Ah Puch-ist?” you can answer, “Yes, between 5 and 7 pm, on Mondays and Wednesdays.”

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint