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Say a prayer for rational thought

As organised religion gets more commercial, India is leaning towards personal belief systems, writes Gautam Chikermane, Executive Editor (Business), Hindustan Times.

delhi Updated: Jan 01, 2011 16:05 IST
Gautam Chikermane
Gautam Chikermane
Hindustan Times

Like it or not, the coming decade is going to see religion - in all its misguided, political, dogmatic, perverted and divinity-devoid forms - take up even more mindspace than it traditionally has in the course of India's history. The process of religion spilling onto the streets is already more or less as acceptable as corruption. It is now going to get institutionalised, with religion entering our workspaces, shopping malls, restaurants and schools.

This is but a mirroring of international trends. If globalisation is an irreversible process of moving people, money and resources into a one-world paradigm, the 4,200-and-counting religions (temples, mosques, churches, denominations, faith groups, tribes, cultures, movements, adherents) are going to block that oneness. Already, there is a clash of civilisations between the world's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. There will be similar minor but equally violent conflicts between other sects.

Can India stand untarnished? As a matter of fact, it already is. It's just that religion as a field is something intellectuals have been shying away from and hence this phenomenon has gone unreported, unstudied. This is despite the fact that there is not a single Indian home I know, from New York to Niyamgiri, where people don't pray, discuss, celebrate and live their faith every day - and I'm not talking about spirituality here, just simple practices, rituals and organisations built around them that remind people of a higher presence.

The criminal or political aspects of religion are well reported, though. The Babri Masjid demolition in 1991; burning Graham Steins and his sons to death in 1999; the Godhra riots in 2002, when 1,103 people were killed; the suspension of Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, reader at Aligarh Muslim University, because he was having consensual sex with another man in 2010; students of Kolkata's Aliah University demanding that their teacher wear a burka or leave, in 2010. The list is long and will get longer in the coming decade.

But while I argue that organised religion has failed society - a fact that the Dalai Lama was unable to argue away when I asked him this question at HT's Leadership Summit last month - it could simply be that religion has lost its leaders, its integrity, its very purpose. With politicisation and commercialisation of religion on one side and its manipulators on the other, the function of religion as an expression of the highest aspiration of Man, a tool to look beyond the material and, through rituals and prayers, carry the individual towards a higher, spiritual life, seems to have ended.

Despite its failure, religion remains unwilling to introspect or evolve. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the invisible threads that bind individuals to a higher force are wrapped in time and have a use-by date. A spiritual Teacher comes, carries a drop of Truth in him, and preaches it within the confines of that time and space, in a way the people can identify with, in the social context of their times. Once the Teacher passes on - the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Sri Krishna - the Truth and dynamism of his teachings turn stagnant, gets divided into power- and adherents-seeking organisations, puts on a blindfold and awaits the next Teacher, who will carry the baton of spirituality forward.

I don't see any new Teachers right now, but the decade ahead is not so dark. Religion is going to be one of the strongest centripetal societal forces of this decade, binding believers and crooks alike. It lives in the villages of India, but its growth in this decade will be led by the cities, where migrants will come with dreams in their heads and hands eager for work, and for whom the only anchor, the sole strength, the strongest inspiration, will be religion. Caught in a mesh of conflicting demands of time and money, dignity and desires, religion will offer a unique stability.

Companies and traders have already begun to convert festivals into events and rituals into transactions. Bihar's four-day Chhath festival of offering gratitude to the Sun god, for instance, has over the past few years become part of New Delhi's and Mumbai's spending opportunities. In a sea of anomie - a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose, rampant across our large cities - religion as an 'absolute' binds migrants and gives them an identity. Religion has been co-opted and consumed by the market.

India is not alone in this religious consumption. According to market research company Gallup, 90% of Indians polled said religion plays an important role in their lives. You think that's high? In the highest four - Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and Indonesia (all Islamic nations) - the figure was 99%. And while the figures for UK (27%), Hong Kong and Japan (24%) and Sweden (17%) are low, in the US, it is as high as 65%. In general, the role of religion falls as a country climbs the development scale. These data reveal that religion plays an important role in low-income countries, giving the poor -numbering 800 million in India alone - one clutch of stability to hold on to while eking out a life on less than $2 (Rs 94) a day.

According to Religion and Economic Growth, a brilliant paper by Robert J Barro and Rachel M McCleary, it is faith, not rituals, that help nurture economic growth. "Economic growth responds positively to the extent of religious beliefs, notably those in hell and heaven, but negatively to church attendance. That is, growth depends on the extent of believing relative to belonging," the paper states. Driven by economic growth, perhaps the coming decade will set the stage for the dominance of spirituality - a personal belief system - rather than religion, even though that spirituality will need the material and tangible crutch of religion till it can stand on its own. Organised religion will eventually make way for direct communion with God - inner or outer, idol or idea, abstract or real, historical or fictional.

Beyond economics, the duo of migration and demographics will influence religions. As young people negotiate the landscapes of cities and cluster around jobs and causes that bring them together, the power of religion as a community divider will fall. But that will not mean the subsuming of one by the other; instead, the institution of 'family' in the next decade will expand from acceptance of inter-caste to inter-religion marriages. My daughter, nephew and niece celebrate the glory of God on Diwali and Eid equally, effortlessly, joyously. We have expanded to include ideas from Islam into our largely Hindu family and are spiritually richer for it. Transforming Religion

While spirituality is an individual quest, I'm not sure where its organisation will go. New organisations that have begun to mushroom are finding willing and hungry devotees and creating a new religious elite - Swami Ramdev's healthy India mission, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's sudarshan kriya (right vision, purifying action), Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudeva's inner engineering - all of whom, not unlike the imperialists of the past, are expanding their spiritual empires in India and abroad. "Imperialism can happen only when there's conquest, not inclusion," the highly articulate Sadhguru told me last month. Wordplay or not, the fact is they are creating a new religion of health and calm, using yoga as their calling card. Their tribe will increase at a much faster rate in this decade. Finally, religion is about you, me, us and our future. With leadership at the top in tethers, the coming decade will see individual initiatives that, while distinctly nonreligious, will be pursued with a religious fervour - tribals rights, clean air, no firecrackers, human rights, rock music, air modelling, even governance. This bottoms-up leadership will turn traditional religious structures topsy-turvy. While this process is not new, it will accelerate in the coming decade, with an increasing number of children taking the lead in preserving their planet, providing a moral compass and making the world a better place - a role that traditionally belonged to religion.

(Gautam Chikermane is the Executive Editor (Business), Hindustan Times)

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 30, 2010 19:08 IST