When I read the daily newspaper I often wonder at how religion complicates things in India. Only yesterday I was thinking what a quagmire we have turned our country into, with people of almost every religion doing things that defeat the purpose of religion per se. Why didn’t we put more effort into dealing with quotidian issues instead?
Then came news that a Sikh teenager had been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan, and handed over to a random man as a ‘wife’. In India, parents start looking for a bride outside the community only when they can’t find a good-looking, educated girl from among their own. Is that the situation in Pakistan now? We would approach the girl’s family in a more civilised way, though!
Let me relate a childhood incident to illustrate why this scenario is practically incomprehensible to me.
My great-aunt was a high school teacher in Mangalore. She must have been in her mid-fifties when I went to stay with her in the Dasara holidays in the fifth grade. Her part-time maid’s daughter, Jessie, also ten years old like me, would spend a little time fetching and carrying things for her mother when she did the housework. Then, before we could go out to play near the well under the carambola tree, she would sit down with us to pray when my great-aunt did her morning pooja.
One day she told my great-aunt that she wanted to be a Hindu. My great-aunt said, “No, child, you have to be faithful to your God. He has taken good care of you and your anna, amma and akka. And don’t you think your church father will feel bad if you stop going to church?” When I think about it now I’m surprised how spontaneous, simple and unequivocal her response was. Some people do believe they are doing something of moral value by replacing others’ religious beliefs with their own, so it’s wonderful that she wasn’t that sort.
Propagating one’s religion is a constitutional right in India. Except that it is dishonourable to take advantage of innocent people like this little girl. One needs a home, a full stomach, good health and some money in the bank before thinking of the needs of the soul. So people who have met their basic needs on their own, and who are therefore confident and ready to explore their higher needs, are the ones to be engaged in a public discourse if one wants to honourably propagate one’s religion.
As I see it, our religion on Earth doesn’t matter. People address the one god by different names is what I think. So all religions are fine so long as they don’t intrude into the lives of people following other religions. This is what Sri Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
- As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.
- Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion also worship me, Arjuna, even if they do not observe the usual forms. I am the object of all worship, its enjoyer and Lord.
That there is only one god is not an exclusively Hindu belief. All religions preach that there is only one God, at least as far as I know. The disputes are only over what name He should go by, and which of the books He has co-authored should take precedence over the rest.
I’m not surprised that many people have turned away from religion today. Practiced and preached in the right spirit religion had a chance – many chances, in fact – to make the world a better place. But religion has been petty and divisive, when it was actually meant to bind us together in peoplehood. Right now, gathering more people into any religious fold – even if it means poaching from other religious groups – is part of a bigger game plan in which gullible participants are mere pawns. Or, it’s a political activity to build vote-banks. Even poor old Bernie Sanders unwittingly fell into the vote-bank religion trap yesterday while addressing the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America!
Perhaps accepting people as they are, without bigotry and put-downs, is enough for us by way of religion in the social sense; personal religion can stay private. Especially if the alternative is to hang on to a bunch of dogmas that make us discriminate against those who believe in a different set of dogmas. Dogmas have meaning only at a superficial level. As the Gita says, just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.
Jalaluddin Rumi makes it simpler:
God gives the things of this earth
a certain color and variety and value,
causing childish folk to argue over it.
When a piece of dough is baked
in the shape of a camel or lion,
these children bite their fingers excitedly in their greed.
Both lion and camel turn to bread in their mouth,
but it’s futile to tell this to children.
Decades later, I still feel glad that my great-aunt was so forthright in her response. Any other reaction would have been exploitative and made her a lesser person. And my takeaway from the same incident would have been vastly different!