RELIGION IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Lecture delivered at the Bangalore Brahmo Samaj on the occasion of the 173rd Maghotsav Celebrations on 26th January 2003 by Dr. D. Jeevan Kumar, Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, Bangalore-560056
During these troubled times, when religious polarization seems to have become the order of the day, nationally as well as internationally, it is imperative that we ask ourselves two fundamental questions: What is religion? And what is its purpose? While any number of wise men have provided a variety of answers to these eternal questions, Gandhiji’s views on the subject are refreshingly different and free from religiosity and pontification. In his view, religion is the tie that binds one to one’s creator. To him, the fragrance of religious and spiritual life is much finer and subtler than that of the rose. Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions, states Gandhi, and reiterates that the final goal of all religions is to realize the essential oneness. Having studied the various religions of the world, Gandhi emphatically states that all the great religions inculcate equality and brotherhood of mankind, and the virtue of toleration. According to him, religion is one tree with many branches. As branches, you may say religions are many, but as a tree, religion is one. To Gandhi, religions are different roads, converging at the same point. Revealing the remarkable quality of eclecticism, Gandhi states that it was through the Hindu religion that he learnt to respect Christianity and Islam. To a mischievous equation of Islam with violence, Gandhi responds in these words: I do regard Islam to be a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are. By far, the most powerful of Gandhiji’s views on religion is his seemingly simple, yet profound statement: My religion enables me to imbibe all that is good in all the great religions of the world.
One of the greatest challenges to Gandhi’s quest for Truth, which he said is his God, and Non-Violence, which he said, is the means of realizing Him, came from communalism and the communal divide in the sub-continent. When Partition only served to entrench feelings of hatred, Gandhi said it was a tragedy that religion meant nothing more than adherence to a sense of superiority and inferiority. To him, it was a travesty of true religion to consider one’s own religion as superior, and other’s as inferior. He thundered: Religions are not meant for separating men from one another; they are meant to bind them. And when he found no one listening to him, he warned his countrymen that a religion couldn’t be sustained by its lip-followers denying in their lives, its basic tenets. It was a sad Gandhi, who made the observation: True religion being the greatest thing in life, it has been exploited the most.
With the neo-liberal mantra of globalization focussing worldwide attention on the worship of Mammon, it almost appeared that the real Gods had been displaced from their pedestals. When Samuel Huntington predicted a Clash of Civilizations, between Christianity and Islam, because of inherent contradictions and conflicts of interest, nobody took him seriously. But
September 11th 2001, and the events of February 2002 in Gujarat, brought home the ghastly reality of contemporary religion. That, far from being a unifying and binding force, religion had actually succeeded in dividing peoples so irreparably, that “crusades”, genocide and ethnic cleansing have become the order of the day.
The defining characteristics of religion, at the end of the old millennium, may be briefly stated as follows:
1. Deep religious animosities amongst the adherents of different religions;
2. Religion being exploited for political purposes, both by politicians and by religious leaders, for the promotion of selfish interests;
3. Tensions in theocratic states, through discrimination against their minorities;
4. Tensions in secular states, caused by the dominant majority suppressing the minorities;
5. Challenges posed by secularisation, modernization and industrialization of societies, to the traditional religious order.
To overcome the above challenges, secular and right-minded institutions like the Brahmo Samaj need to play a more pro-active role. The following agenda for action may be contemplated:
1. Promotion of the right understanding of religion, and stressing the common core of all religions;
2. Adopting measures for promoting inter-religious unity, harmony and fraternity;
3. Highlighting the role of religion as a promoter of peace and an instrument of conflict resolution;
4. Building up public opinion against violence, and religious and racial discrimination and
5. Ensuring that the mass media does not fuel communal hatred and inter-religious feuds.
Religions can no longer avoid coming to grips with the profound socio-economic and political changes brought about by the forces of globalization. There is a growing awareness that the immorality of poverty and injustice is largely the consequence of structural relationships. Religions need to become aware of the real meaning of their message for this process of structural change.
Neither can religions afford to be guided solely by righteous indignation at persistent injustice and inequality. This could blind them to the dynamics and limitations of power in managing social transformation while maintaining national harmony, the social fabric of solidarity, unity and a minimum of stability ad security. Religions must learn to live with the many conflicting demands of development, with its attendant moral dilemmas.
Another important role for religions will be in assuming part of the responsibility for increasing a nation’s overall capacity to manage the tensions inherent in the development process. This means helping to increase awareness and understanding at all levels of society, of the complex interconnections and dynamics of these tensions. They will have to abandon much of their traditional role as legitimizers of formal authority and power, and become moral counsellors, helping to channelize the tortuous path of social transformation and human development.
Over and above any commitment to change, no religion can escape the responsibility of trying to reduce the social and human cost of change by humanizing the processes of change. This means an insistence on democratic procedures and rule of law. Religions can make a major contribution to the world in a state of rapid change, by simply teaching the importance of caring, sharing and living in harmony.
Religions can evolve a new kind of education for peace – an education that is not just a self-righteous teaching of traditional religious dogma, but a quest for pluralistic dialogue among peoples, cultures and societies, and a reaching out for compassion and tolerance. The necessity of sharing this small planet forces us to rethink our cultural and social arrangements, to enable us to survive with peace, freedom and human dignity.
It would not be out of place to recall Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s understanding of religion and religious reform, here. Roy’s chief contribution lies in the fact that he not only attempted to purify and simplify religion, but also to emphasize its social and political dimensions, without which religion would be of little use to practical life. Roy’s religious philosophy combined the theism of the Vedas and the Upanishads, with Christian theism in the form of British and American Unitarianism. It brought him to an ethical universalism, consisting of the basic moral teachings of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. It yielded him a social philosophy grounded in a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of the individual. If at all an‘ism’ is needed in the new millennium, to act as a compass, it would be Brahmoism and a reiteration of the philosophy of the Brahmo Samaj.
A PORTRAIT OF RAJA RAM MOHAN ROY by Atul Bose
1. Donald Bishop, Thinkers of the Indian Renaissance.
2. Sujan Singh Uban, ed., Religion in Action for Peace.
3. S.J. Samartha, The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ.
4. Government of
; The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi India