Forms of Religion, Identity & Violence -a brief consideration

At the outset I must declare that I’m not against religion, I’m not an atheist and I don’t believe in violence. The old adage that violence cannot be vanquished by violence is an absolute truth.

Conflict is inevitable in a relationship, it could be between any relationships, be it between parents and children, husband and wife, between people of different religions and political persuasions, or between nations. This conflict is because we think we know the right way, our religion is true, our values are the best, and, each one of us has such absolute views and that is the problem, the source of conflict.

But, as Gandhiji would say we do not know the absolute truth, we cannot claim that our view is the best and it must be good for everyone and for all time. Relative truth is all that is given to us: History, our past, present, our experiences and hopes and ideas of future constitute relative truths. So, living in a world of relative truths, and in a world of conflicting theories and ideologies, the means by which we pursue truth shall be non-violence. In other words, living in a world of relative truths and in an imperfect, evolving society where man is not God or in possession of absolute truth, he is not competent or cannot possess any right to punish or kill or destroy. Hence only ahimsa shall be the means to resolve conflicts, for only ahimsa can create the creative possibilities for both the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘victim’ to realize their common humanity and achieve their freedom and happiness.

Or, as Dr. Ambedkar, who too was a firm believer in ahimsa, showed, it is possible to deal with human conflict creatively and successfully through democratic process, through education, dialogue, even protest (but in democratic and non-violent ways), and by developing public awareness.

With that cautionary note, now let me take up the subject for which I have been invited to speak. That is, the nature of religion, its different forms, the problematic forms of identity, and if there is a way out of conflict and violence.

All religions have two sides to them: one that inspires most ennobling art and great architecture, and is a source of liberating wisdom and transcendence.

The word religion is derived from the Latin re-ligio, which means ‘to link back, to bind’, to return to the source, to our natural state. The Indian notion of Dharma, derived from the root dhr, which means ‘to hold up, support or bear, sustain’ is sometimes used to mean religion, but it is not same as religion; rather, the concept of Dharma is quite complex, signifying many things. It is in fact the notion of Yoga (though a clichéd, much abused term today), derived from the verb yuj, meaning ‘to yoke, join, or ‘to bind together’, that comes close to the Latin re-ligio.

What we call the religious quest is propelled by this urge to ‘link back’, ‘to bind’, to return to the source, that sets up the journey, the inquiry, the search for truth. Not only the lives of sages and saints, such as the Buddha, Basavanna and Ramana Maharshi, to name only a few, but also the lives of thousands of people embody this facet of religion, which is a sacred, private affair, which is a quest for and realization of truth, of that which is ineffable and inexpressible.

Then there is the other side of religion, which is the opposite of the first one, which manifests itself in majorly two ways,: one, it functions as a system of faith that is based on the belief in and worshipping of God, and related to it, following a set of ‘moral principles’ or ‘commandments’ or ‘laws’ in order to realize a specified (religious) goal; two, which is the diabolic side of religion, that is organisational, structured, authoritative, political, divisive, oppressive and violent. Forceful conversions, oppression and killings of people the world over in the name of religion and God are the worst manifestations of this diabolic side of religion.

So, to reiterate, religion as an inquiry into meaning of life, as a quest for transcendence, as love and kindness towards all life forms, is indeed most ennobling and beautiful aspect of our existence, but that should not detract us from understanding and accepting the fact that religions, or, certain interpretations of religions, if you like, have been a source of great conflict, fear, hate, division and most appalling crimes committed in the name of God.

The ideas of God could have inspired many to turn inwards and mature into great artists and poets, into mystics and compassionate human beings, but they have also been a source of great violence, of most heinous crimes in history. The Mumbai blasts, Gujarat carnage, bomb blasts in London, in Paris, and the recent killings in India in the name of dharma have yet again exposed this dangerous side of religion.

It would be simplistic and naïve, therefore, to believe that religion is basically good, that these killings are only aberrations, that the massacres are the handiwork of only misguided people or fundamentalists. It would be a grave error if we fail to reckon with the fact that religions have emerged out of separative consciousness and thereby create the urge to transcendence, and also frontiers both within and without and make killing people in the name of God easy and guiltless.

It seems the trouble with us is not an excess of aggression, but an excess capacity for fanatical devotion to ‘selfless’ ideals, be it religion or religious identity, or some political ideology either of the left or the right. We are easily driven not so much by hatred as by loyalty to whatever persuasion, which turns us into butchers. In point of fact, ‘hate’ or ‘hatred’ has no independent existence of its own except in relation to ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’. Rather, ‘hate’ is born of the womb of ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’.

A close look at riots/massacres/genocide should reveal that people indulge in destruction of property and kill because they feel threatened, humiliated, because they feel they are treated unjustly (by whatever authority or power), or because the ‘other’ interfered with their great wishes and grand designs. This destructive streak in man, therefore, one would argue, is more of an ‘impulse to protect’ rather than the ‘impulse to destroy’ or ‘death wish’.

Now, one might ask: to protect what? Is there any real danger or is it all imagined or exaggerated? Most often it is exaggerated if not an entirely imagined sense of danger. Many factors together contribute to this neurotic state: a false consciousness produced by a biased reading of history and exclusive, (untenable) identities, submerged prejudices whipped up by fanatical forces, unqualified identification with social/political groups and uncritical acceptance of their belief-systems or ideals. In this context, even a notion of justice could become a self-transcending ideal which could drive individuals and groups to indulge in acts of revenge.

Revenge is the grand yet macabre theme of the theatre of war we play often. And the theme: an eye for an eye is the moving, often spellbinding motif of most of our popular cinema, of action-bound films from Hollywood to Bollywood, of Gujarat carnage, of the one-sided war fought in the name of ‘eternal justice’ by America on the desert sands of Afghanistan, occupation of Iraq, 9/11 attack, and now the Paris blasts.

In effect, these killings or acts of revenge point out that the most dangerous trait of man consists not so much in his selfishness, or his alleged aggressiveness, as in his chauvinist lifestyle, and in his loyalty to transpersonal ideals. As Arthur Koestler would argue: ‘No historian would deny that the part played by crimes committed for personal motives is very small compared to the vast populations slaughtered in unselfish loyalty to a jealous god, king, country, or political system’.

To put it differently, a person’s identification with a group or an identity, be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or some political ideology, becomes a self-transcending act which reinforces his self-assertive or aggressive tendencies and prepares him to injure and kill, and also die for the cause. And when the person kills, which is often done in groups or collectively, it is not seen as murder, but as ‘sacrifice’ which is not very different from a tribal practice of offering human blood for a jealous god. Further, the act of killing is not seen as an immoral act, rather it is experienced as a supremely moral act for a higher goal. An idea of morality informed and inspired by a sense of loyalty, duty, discipline, by transpersonal ideals. Therefore what is problematic here is not immorality, but the very notion of morality; it is not injustice, rather the danger here is the notion of justice itself. Justice that demands human sacrifice! 

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Religious scriptures (not necessarily all philosophical or spiritual texts or mystical literatures) whether of the east or the west continue to suppress and prevent a free and open enquiry into the predicament of human existence. These scriptures as answers and solutions to the problems of life have failed, still we are not prepared to view them with a healthy scepticism. It becomes quite tricky therefore, if not blasphemous and provocative, to say that these scriptures have not only failed as solutions to our problems but have become a major part of our problem.

With the growth of new consciousness whether in the field of science or politics or humanities, it seems rather easy to argue and show how for instance feudal system, caste practices or slavery, early marriages or widow burnings are human creations that violate a humane sense of justice and freedom, how cultural practices or social structures are man-made and could be changed (without god’s intervention), while it seems almost impossible to show that these religious scriptures are human constructs and it is possible to go beyond and reconstruct a better world without these exclusive, antagonistic identities.

Freedom to question the scriptures or even to reject its tyrannical authority and dump religious beliefs and practices that violate our sense of dignity and freedom does not mean we embrace atheism or some hopeless nihilism, it does not mean destroying temples and churches, or burning religious scriptures, it does not mean rejection of the mystery of life, the wonder of cosmos, the beauty of earth, or the cleansing and transforming quality of compassion. The sacredness of human life and relationship and life affirming tenderness need no validation from scriptures however ancient or profound. In fact, it is the scriptures whether of the east or the west that need validation from the standpoint of our growing understandings and experiences.

But seriously, can religion be changed? Is it possible to overcome its dualistic and oppressive elements and benefit from its liberating wisdom? Can it really change the violent structures of our society? Can the appointed leaders and gurus start living the teaching and stop lecturing and leave people alone? After all, isn’t religion deeply personal and sacred? Or, are the secular notions of freedom, equality, human right, justice, dignity and self-determinism sufficient to challenge and transform the patriarchal and violent structures of the world?

But then, it’s important to note here that most of our secular ideas too are but an extension and modification of religious ideas, and geared towards social engineering. Secular and political notions of revolution, progress, order, reason, law and utopias did not emerge in an intellectual vacuum. They grew out of the religious ideas of good and evil, sin and redemption, reward and punishment, divine order and salvation; in short, our religious thinking, which, in the first place, put humanity on the wrong path, or, on what maybe called this most absurd yet vicious merry-go-round! Therefore, the religious roots of our ideas or ideals need to be understood. It is inevitable, for religion has been the mother of all our ideals and ideologies. To understand religion, therefore, particularly its neurotic side, is to begin to understand our problems and the endless troubles we have created for ourselves and others.

Notions of Identity

This leads us on to a consideration of the notion of identity which has a bearing on things we have discussed so far.

Identity is not a given, it is unlike the natural attributes like your eyes, nose and mental dispositions you are born with. After your birth, as you grow up in a family, in an environment, you acquire an identity. So it is something you put up, construct and it has a tremendous, historical momentum behind it.

That is to say, the identities we build or construct for ourselves through living have only a functional role and value, which is necessary to communicate, to make sense of certain things, to function in the world, but we behave as if we are born with identities, like the skin on our body, or as if they are solid, natural, unchangeable and permanent, and that is an illusion. For all identities are fluid, relative, a social construct and functional, whether you are a man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, auto-driver or a professor of English.

Identities can bring people together to live together, work for a common cause but it also firmly exclude many people, divide society, and easily lead to ‘othering’ people who do not share your identity and wage wars against them.

Amartya Sen calls it the ‘miniaturization of human beings’, which is unnatural, nevertheless it unfortunately conditions people to see and experience themselves and others in terms of their little identities and thus impose grave limits on human possibilities.

This kind of thinking in terms identities, categorizing and analysing people and groups in terms of religion, of singular or communal identities, is counterproductive, instead we should work against the sharp separation of people along one single hardened line of division or identity and bring into focus the pluralities of human identity and its functional nature.

We are all affected by desire, hunger, fear, worry and sorrow, whether you are a Hindu, an American, an industrialist, economically poor or rich or belong to the other gender. You may call yourself a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, an African or a Soliga, but you experience the same anxiety, the same joy and sorrow, through your religion or faith, you are searching for the same psychological security, the same permanent happiness in your beliefs and rituals and gods.

The expressions may differ but the content is always the same. E.g. notions of God, heaven, afterlife and so on may differ. One may say there is no rebirth, souls go to heaven and God after death, another may say that after death, souls come back to earth and take a new form of life, but the nature of the mind that seeks different forms of escape from the fear of death, and an anchor to rest, is the same in both cases.

It is this content which is same in all of us that binds us all as human beings living on this planet, the different identities are only a veil thrown over these basic emotions that makes us human, and propels us to live the way we do. It is in that sense, we need to understand that identities have only a functional meaning and purpose, to assume anything beyond it is false and an illusion.

Now, to sum-up:

-identities are robustly plural and the importance of one identity at a given point of time need not obliterate the importance of other identities. E.g.-the economic side that sustains one’s living.

-study of individuals and communities in terms of identities becomes a major intellectual barrier to focussing more fully on the nature of problems, on prevailing social conditions and politics. E.g.-inter-religious dialogues or harmony events have limits, etc.

-Understanding people in terms of identities lead to stereotyping people and that becomes a singularly major obstacle in understanding the fundamental problems of a society and its people. E.g.-Identities within the general identity, not monolithic. ‘Othering’!

-We are always and already different and much more and larger than our identities, much more and larger than our religion, culture and politics. E.g. – identity is fluid, contradictory, deconstructs itself, etc.

-Indeed, in the last analysis, an individual cannot be capsuled, held within an identity, for a human being is more than his culture and religion. Perhaps we could say that a human being is a child of the cosmos, of that mystery which probably can never be understood conceptually, and that is a tremendously humbling factor that should enhance our sense of being on this planet.   

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Mukunda Rao

Email ID: mukunda53@gmail.com