Monday, June 05, 2006

The Davinci Code and the politics of religious identity

That Davinci code is banned in Hyderabad is already stale news and the reasons behind the ban are certainly not so opaque. The Government is doing the politically right thing, you know, showing sensitivity to the sentiments of the religious minorities, ensuring there are no law & order disruptions, etc ad nauseam. I am certainly not interested in flogging the dead horse, what I wish to examine, however is a more fundamental issue-which is the politics of a religious identity. From times immemorial, organized religion’s role has been ostensibly that of a conscience keeper, but in reality it has only been a perpetuator of a religious identity. What exactly is wrong with that, you might ask? Well, few organized religions seem to have adapted to the times, or made efforts to become contemporary and relevant. The world-view they preach is often restrictive and not inclusive enough and hence creates polarization around a lot of issues that are important. (Here, I would like to draw a clear distinction between organized religion and spirituality; and I define spirituality as a personal quest for meaning.) I would like to argue that the motivations behind sustaining the caste system in India and perpetuating a religious identity (a devout Hindu or a pious Catholic etc) are political in nature and broadly comparable.

And clearly the problems of a carrying an identity (somehow considered choice-less) that has not evolved with the times are manifold. We do see great evidence of schizophrenic behavior all around us, people who are perfectly rational and logical in their everyday lives, return to retrogression and primitivism in matters concerning religious behavior

The question to ask is whether organized religion should define boundaries for Art? Most of us are tempted to answer in a ‘conditional’ affirmative with a lame statement-‘in exceptional circumstances, yes’. Well, what’s wrong with that, you may ask? -Everything for starters. Art, remember, is an expression of a point of view. The idea that a handful of people acting supposedly in the larger interests, can suppress that right is clearly a ridiculous notion, but the more fundamental issue here is the aura of reverential untouchability we create around religious beliefs. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ said Socrates. Yatho Vaacho Nivartanthe Aprapya Manasa Saha (where both the speech and thought fail in describing the Truth: Taittiriya Upanishad) clearly cannot apply to the tenets of an organized religion.


Anonymous Radhika said...

Excellent analysis. Especially the remark about not having a "choice" about identity. Not only with religion, this lack of choice of identity extends to many other areas such as language, caste etc. these are all forced identities we have to live with.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree sustaining caste system is entirely political. There are major cultural (as in _way of life_) differences between various castes which most of the time are insurmountable.

Just as we can't choose our genetic code, we can't choose "identity" too, so get over it.

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re-reading I don't understand why there is a need to bring casteism while talking about art and organized religion. Does every negative point in other religions need to be balanced with casteim in Hinduism? Cleary the issue here is appeasement of minorities by weak knee'd politicians.
And exactly what is the religious identity forced on by Hindus?

3:44 AM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

I'm sure there is nothing 'genetic' about religion, caste etc.These 'insurmountable differences' are no longer valid in the wake of globalization.Also I have used 'caste system' merely as an example to illustrate my point. Resisting conversions (forced or otherwise), building a temple for Ram in Ayodhya, Muslim bashing etc have been used to reinforce the 'Hindu' identity in the recent past.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear ravi, organised religion is an insrument of spirituality. the problem with it in the present times is that, the instrument has become crooked and hence needs correction. casteism is a reflection of the continuous nature of work performed over generations over aeons. once the basics are not understood or forgotten and more importance is given to the rituals and appearnces then everything will get stymied and a new cult or religion is born to meet those needs. even that changes over years (as happenned to christianity or islam, i take them as newer examples of religion becoming more of particular way of doing thins (i am not able to get the proper word at this time)).
if you take your airtel experience as an example, airtel is the religion and the spiritual part of it is that you should be happy. but the process and procedures have become so arcane and unresponsive to the customer needs that you decide to switch the operator (changing religion) hoping that will give you happiness.


8:25 PM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

My point, Srinivas, though I haven't said in so many words, is that religion itself is irrelevant in the current times. Ideas and institutions are products of their times and religion as an institution was probably useful as a moral reference point in the pre-renaissance period. However, in the present times, when the world around is not exactly a black box and we do know how most things work, it’s not clear if religion as an institution has any constructive role left to play.

I have used the word ‘spirituality’ for want of a better word and no connection with God or religion was intended. I think the phrase ‘search for meaning’ better conveys what I wanted to say.

10:47 PM  

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