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Author Neil MacGregor talks faith, history, the importance of everyday objects

The former director of the British Museum has a new book out called Living with the Gods. Here he discusses, among other things, why he believes religion isn’t going anywhere.

art and culture Updated: Nov 24, 2018 19:38 IST
Dipanjan Sinha
Dipanjan Sinha
Hindustan Times
Soviet Union,Faith,God
MacGregor’s previous book was the international bestseller, The History of the World in 100 Objects. (Jason Bell)

‘I see no God up here’. A Soviet-era poster from the 1970s featuring Uri Gagarin, the first man in space, marks a time in history when the general consensus was that religion’s hold was loosening. Instead, the opposite has happened.

Vladimir Putin, the current president of Russia, wears his Orthodox Christian identity on his sleeve. In countries around the world, religious right-wing outfits have become more popular, and more powerful.

This will only intensify in the years to come, says Neil MacGregor, art historian, former director of the British Museum, and author of the bestselling History of the World in 100 Objects.

His new book, Living with the Gods, explores the history of shared religious belief, and its impact on communities, and sees him examine objects, places and human activity going back 40,000 years. MacGregor was in Mumbai last week, to discuss the ideas in this new book, at the Tata LitLive literature festival.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin takes a dip in ice-cold water to mark Epiphany. In a nation that not long ago had declared itself atheist, he wears his Orthodox Christian identity on his sleeve. ( en.kremlin.ru )

One thing he has found across most societies, he says, is that the state and religion are difficult to separate. “The European Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century tried to separate religion and politics. They failed to understand that religion and politics are actually asking the same questions. Who are we and how do we want to live together,” MacGregor says.

The secularism in Europe that followed the Enlightenment held on to the misreading and became hostile to religion. The extreme example of this hostility was seen in the Soviet Union, where atheism was imposed as state policy, and places of worship demolished.

Since the fall of Soviet Russia in 1991, cathedrals have been rebuilt to stand exactly where they did before.

The Lion Man of Ulm, a figurine with a lion’s head made from mammoth tusk ivory, found in a German cave and estimated to date back 40,000 years. MacGregor calls this sculpture “the earliest known representation of something beyond human experience”. Living with the Gods uses objects like this one to explore the history of shared belief, and its impact on human communities. ( Oleg Kuchar Photographie )

The secular state in India, MacGregor adds, whether under Asoka, Akbar or the Indian Constitution, grasps the reality better. “The Indian secular tradition acknowledges the importance of religion in the life of a community, and keeps the state equidistant from all religion,” he says

Religion, MacGregor explains, is a story that helps humans survive. A narrative that makes them a part of a bigger story that goes on after they are dead and started before they were born; one that helps them belong.

“Even the earliest hunter-gatherer communities had stories that were larger than them and bound them together and gave them strength to tide through difficulties,” MacGregor says.

A pre-Columbian Muisca votive figurine depicting the ceremony of El Dorado, in which a new leader would be covered in resin and gold dust and travel down a river on a raft. ( www.bridgemanart.com )

He explains this through, among other objects, The Lion Man of Ulm, a figurine with a lion’s head made from mammoth tusk ivory that was found in a German cave and is estimated to date back 40,000 years. He calls this sculpture “the earliest known representation of something beyond human experience”.

The relationship between the need for creativity and religion is something he also explores through the Durga Puja celebrations of West Bengal. “Every year people create a tableau that reflects stories from the community, only to dispose of it in the river. Then next year, a new set of images is created and again the whole community comes together symbolically,” he says.

Religion, he adds, has taken diverse political shapes. In the case of India, the freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak engineered public Ganesh festivities in the streets of Bombay as an assertion of the identity of the community, a gesture of defiance against colonial Britain, and as a means of circumventing laws against public gatherings.

Objects that have defined India through the ages
  • Quartzite hand axe : Estimated to be 1.7 million years old, unearthed in Tamil Nadu, it marks our transition from sentient beings to creators.
  • Humped bull with gold horns: This tiny, perfectly formed sculpture in banded agate (seen above) was found at a Harappan-era site in Haryana and is believed to date to 1800 BCE. The horns are made of gold; the beautiful stone likely came from far-off Gujarat or Maharashtra.
  • Dancing girl: Her confident stance, her cheeky expression, frozen for all time — this bronze figurine estimated to be from 2500 BCE was found in a Mohenjodaro in present-day Pakistan and has become a symbol of our ancient civilisation.
  • Edict of emperor Ashoka: Found in Nallasopara near Mumbai, issued around 250 BCE, the inscription calls for peace and ethical conduct among citizens.
  • Kalamkari textile: This cloth found in Golconda and said to be from CE 1640 show the multicultural nature of Indian Ocean trade. A prince sits in a garden in Persian attire, a Persian chats with a Chinese man, a sadhu holds up a pineapple, a fruit imported from overseas.

In Mexico, meanwhile, the religion of the coloniser became the story that the local population carried with them while fighting colonial forces. Here, people marched with statues of the local interpretations of Mary, whom they called Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is dressed like a local woman, is spoken to in the local language and became the symbol of a Mexican identity free from Spain, in the early 19th century.

Today, from Europe to India to Latin America, MacGregor says he sees the rise in religious politics as a result of the kind of economic policy that has prevailed in the last 50 years. “Economically, there has been an approach that focusses on the individual over community responsibility. Whereas individual freedoms are tremendously important, it does not ensure the basic dignity of the large numbers of marginalised, and that is what draws the oppressed and those left out towards nationalism and retellings of religion — sometimes both together.”

As economics complicates issues, the rationality of the Age of Enlightenment and the progressive movements of the 20th century have a significant role to play, McGregor says.

“In a world where communities, despite their differences, live closer, the key question will be, how can they co-exist with their different stories.”

First Published: Nov 24, 2018 19:33 IST