Sunday, November 26, 2006

The religious Indian

‘Do you believe in God?’ asks Mr. White from the latest bond flick, Casino Royale. ‘No, I believe only in a reasonable rate of return’ says Mads Mikkelsen, who plays an evil banker in the movie. Most of the Vratas and Poojas in the Hindu way of life also seem to believe in an (un) reasonable rate of return for the priest. Take for example the ‘Sathyanarayana Vrata’, more famous in the South India rather than the North, which details explicitly the kind of offerings to be made to Brahmins for the full benefits of the Vrata to be realized. The reasons are not far to seek. For hundreds of years, the bulk of the Brahmin community survived on the priestly profession though a small percentage did serve as ministers, poets etc in the king’s court. Not surprisingly, the Hindu way prescribes a very austere life-style for the Brahmins and mandates that they earn their living only from the temples and in other cases through begging. Yes, begging was a legitimate way of earning one’s livelihood, what with Lord Shiva Himself portrayed as a beggar who lives in a cemetery. The Brahmin community, in some sense was the intelligentsia in the society, thanks to the education they have received and their perceived superiority over other sects. Surely someone would have asked the question (which was begging to be asked in some sense), ‘If we represent the creamy layer in the society, why do we have to be poor? Assuredly economic prosperity and intellectual (whether perceived or real) superiority are not mutually incompatible.’ Since priesthood was the only career option available to the majority of the Brahmin community, it seems likely that this option was systematically made more and more lucrative with time.

Interestingly, God is portrayed as a god of vengeance in these Vratas. For the uninitiated, the typical storyline goes like this; the devotee, who is passing through a period of great difficulty, strikes a bargain with God that he would do the Vrata if God made him rich, or gave him a child or whatever. Invariably, the devotee would forget his part of the bargain and God would strike back in vengeance. Now the God of the Old Testament was also a vengeful God, meaning that this notion of a vengeful God is at least as old as the Old Testament. It is not clear why this notion has not evolved even after 2000 years; apparently, our religious dimension remained unchanged and primitive.

From the Hindu World View’s perspective, materialism figures at the bottom in the pecking order and therefore cunningly, all these Vratas are positioned as spiritual shortcuts to material success, which accords them with a stamp of legitimacy. This kind of hypocrisy is not uncommon among the religious; they euphemize their material ambition by calling it their dharma.

Surely, the annoying habit of deification is a legacy of the Hindu way of life. Though I suspect, it is this very habit you see in action when temples are built for Rajnikant and Jayalalitha, there is more to it. Rama, the warrior prince in the Valmiki’s version becomes the Almighty Himself in the Tulasidas’s version. Once you call someone a god, all arguments cease, you are muted in reverence and rationality is suspended. There is no room for debate -for how could you be presumptuous to judge God. Therefore, Ramayana and Mahabharata- marvelous parables that they are- instead of becoming great literary works degenerate into mystical discourses.

The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen refers to has always belonged to a minority. Debate cannot co-exist with reverence and reverence has been our bane for centuries. For long, only the ‘hereafter’ mattered -where supposedly our sage-scientists have figured out the alpha and omega of the paraloka (afterlife) millenniums ago. Western technology you say; bah, what about it? We have built an aircraft (Pushpaka Vimana) thousands of years ago; what we called Brahmastra- that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Mahabharata- is what you call today a nuclear bomb. This is Hinduism at its assimilatory best!

Initially it was Gandhi, sadly now it is a political party that wants to use Hinduism as an ideology of regeneration for India -to bring back the utopian Ramraj. Neither Hinduism, nor any religion for that matter could serve as a vehicle of progress for a society or a nation. Religion, as an institution had served its purpose-which was to provide a moral reference point in the absence of the state. Now it’s time to move on.