Religion is not a commodity to be controlled or sold

Being secular and democratic, India needs to treat history for what it is, fact-based, and allow religion in its multiple forms to be studied or practised as a means to define freedom of faith and expression.

ht view Updated: Aug 20, 2014 23:44 IST

When religion becomes a commodity, it is sold in the market in a competitive manner by which ‘owners’ or those that ‘belong’ to a specific religion believe they have a superior product.

They use a version of history and ‘belief’ as dominating factors to outsell or corner a market. The market then becomes a battleground of sorts where often the majority has to win.

In recent times, India has witnessed such dynamics. One group claims superiority over another, making religion and faith not a matter of personal belief but a brand to articulate who you are and what you may stand for.

This is not necessarily new but is tending to become a norm rather than an issue that needs to be addressed and changed through what India has stood for — democracy and the rights of the individual.

This brings one to what is history and what is now. The media have debated the re-writing of history books and re-interpretation of events.

There are claims that mythology or myths are being used as historical facts. Counter-arguments suggest that the authors of some of our history books are influenced by certain groups and intellectuals who probably harbour a view that is not ‘real’.

An argument on this could be endless as evidence creation is critical to history and views on incidents can be surely biased. One could question the importance of BC and AD as cut-off periods as well. None of this may necessarily lead to peace or any gain.

Helmer Juul Nissen, a Danish history teacher in Thailand, once told me it was important to have religion as a subject.

This helps moving mythology and stories on beliefs into a different space. This leaves historical facts and dates, the cause and effect of incidents, the politics of rulers and governments, all within the subject of history. This would also mean religion would cover sufficient information on different faiths.

Students, importantly, would be more informed on similar values and how compassion and paths are interpreted by each faith.

This explains why most democracies have worked to segregate the two — be it the Church and the State — or in the academic space.

The US, for example, considers endorsement by teachers or school administration of religion as a violation of the law while the study of religion for academic purposes is permissible though not in public schools. Japan has similar restrictions.

France does not recognise any religion and discourages ‘religious’ schools from advocating a specific faith. Austria does allow studies of major religions while giving minority groups the option to go for secular classes in ethics.

Germany has a similar structure. Poland, in some part, has kept religious studies as an option. Finland has several religions recorded and allows students to make their choice and if they don’t belong to any sect or religious group, they could study ethics.

Being secular and democratic, India needs to treat history for what it is — fact-based — and allow religion in its multiple forms to be studied or practised as a means to define freedom of faith and expression.

Given that Mahatma Gandhi said, “the essence of all religions are one” and Ramakrishna pointed out “all religions are true”, there is no reason to differentiate and turn each religion into a commodity that can be controlled, sold or imposed and that too without any anti-trust laws.

It is important, though, like in many other democracies, to allow religion to be studied in its totality just like history giving both a sense of purity so that one can follow one’s faith and have faith in the history one is taught.

(Sharif D Rangnekar is CEO and director, Integral PR. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Aug 20, 2014 23:41 IST