Even though I’m not religious I can’t stop thinking about Religion and what it is doing to this country and, indeed, to the world. It’s in your face, making headlines everyday. If the purpose of Religion is to make us better people that’s certainly not happening. In fact, I don’t think that is what Religion is about anymore. And as news media confuse us more than they clarify, we need to think things through as best we can.
I wonder if it’ll help if I go back to the beginning of religion in India, and work my way to the present. Not being a theologian, I’m definitely hamstrung, but I’ll try.
Let’s see – what do I know of the nascent stage of religion in India? Our ancestors’ gods were elements of nature, personified. Consequently trees, rivers and animals had identities and were respected. They were not treated like disposables – to fell, pollute, cage and kill as we pleased. Forces of nature like fire, wind, thunder and rain, and celestial bodies like the sun, moon and stars, had names. They were part of the interconnected system of which human beings were a small part. A change in one link could impact the whole system. The Sanskrit word for this perspective is Sanatana, meaning ‘without a beginning’. Religion had no beginning as it was already there? I guess.
Okay, this aspect of religion does make sense to me. That would make me an Animist. To me every object in the universe is an arrangement of recycled quarks and leptons, including myself. Everything has its place and duty, which is literally what dharma means. Dharma comes from ‘dhr’, which means ‘to hold and maintain’ or ’that which is established’ in Sanskrit. To put it simply, dharma is my duty, what I am supposed to do in an honest and ethical manner during my earthly sojourn. That’s it, Sanatana Dharma! Religion at its simplest!
What is the problem with stopping here? Some say Animists are primitive because they can’t tell the difference between living things and non-living things! Well, Animists are by nature not Cartesian thinkers and cannot understand why some people see god as a separate anthropomorphic entity when the whole world is a manifestation of god, or maya. Some say god created the world, I think he manifested as the world, and I put down the difference to semantics, because this is a futile debate.
God is described as neti neti, meaning ‘not this, not this’ in Sanskrit because he’s all of it, the whole universe, including all of us in Kingdom Animalia and Kingdom Plantae, and things inanimate. By the way, there is now something called New Animism. The adherents revere nature after acknowledging that the objects they revere are inanimate, to show the world they are not primitive. The Cartesian mindset cannot process the original, organic Old Animism, but even if it could, this disclaimer is necessary so their Rationalist friends don’t dismiss them as cuckoo!
Admittedly, a lot of things went wrong with Sanatana Dharma as it got more and more complicated over the centuries. Pettiness, meanness, high-handedness, clannishness and exclusion created rifts and resentment among people. Reformers like Siddhartha and Mahavira in the BCEs, theologians like Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya and others about thousand years ago, and some kings and sages along the way, provided checks and balances from time to time. Things continued in pretty much the same way as the world is proceeding now, selfishly, with no regard for the greater good. We all know that entropy is inevitable, and we see it happening everywhere on earth now too, but faster than then. Stability is transitional in the affairs of human beings because we have an insatiable appetite for drama and BREAKING NEWS!
Let me skip to about 1000 CE because there don’t seem to have been any upheavals until then that are germane to the problems in India today.
People from other cultures encountered Indian culture for the first time in large numbers from the time Afghans invaded India in the 11th century CE. Over the next thousand years Islam and Christianity clashed with Indian thought continuously.
Islam and Christianity are centred around two different personages from Middle Eastern regions. They evolved from systems of thought that tend to study, classify, quantify, record, separate and order everything in the Universe, rather than flow with the inherent universal order and merge and be one with all of life, unlike the original Sanatana Dharma.
This is just my impression. I see one human lifetime as a few decades in a span of four billion years. We are as transitional as dinosaurs, mastodons, Java lapwings and orange upperwing moths. We don’t matter. I expect others will have their own take on this because religions are complex and people are individualistic, and I’m not an authority on the subject. And I’m certainly not saying one way is right and the other wrong, because opposites are often illusory, and both paths ought to lead to the same point if there are no biases.
What is Indian culture?
A loosely defined pan-Indian culture does exist. There are too many cognate words common to Sanskrit (north Indian) and Tamil (south Indian) for anyone to swallow the myth of the Aryan invasion. The gods of North Indians and South Indians are the same, so are the scriptures. Festivals like lohri and sankranti are harvest festivals of the north and south respectively, raksha bandhan and nagpanchami reaffirm the bond between brother and sister in the north and south respectively, and karva chauth in north India and varalakshmi pooja in south India celebrate the bond between husband and wife. They occur at the same time of the year in both the north and the south.
The only thing I can say for sure is that Indian culture is syncretic, having absorbed elements from immigrants over more than two millennia, or maybe even five. Make that sixty five if you start from the advent of the first Africans.
If Indian culture is syncretic and accepting as I say, you might well ask why Hindus of today seem intolerant. Some sections of the English press in India and abroad have asked this question and tried to answer it. Every time I read one of these articles I get the feeling that the writer doesn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle he’s trying to complete.
Let me go back to the very beginning or, rather, the many beginnings, of religion in many parts of the world. One thing is obvious: the religion of a population is subject to change depending on which section is dominant at a given time, and how much pressure that section exerts on the rest to convert.
- The Celts worshipped nature gods between 500BCE and 500 CE. When Romans invaded Celt territories their religion got romanised, later christianised, and finally lost its essence.
- The Greeks had a pantheon somewhat like the one in India. Their religion gradually disappeared by the 9th century CE, replaced by Christianity. The ancient Greek religion is being revived now under the name ‘Hellenism’ and has been gaining popularity since the 1990s.
- The Romans created a pantheon of nature gods of their own based on the Greek one. The entire edifice of Roman culture and religious beliefs collapsed in the 4th century CE when the king, Constantine, converted to Christianity and gave it legal status.
- The Nordic religion of Germanic peoples was lost in the 12th century CE when Christianity replaced it. It has been revived as Forn Sidr, meaning ‘the old way’, and worship of Norse gods has been practiced as Asatro for the last two centuries.
- Lithuanians worshipped nature until Christianity became the religion of the majority by the 14th century CE. They have now revived their ancient faith, which is called Romuva. I came across a most surprising post today: https://medium.com/@subhashkak1/romuva-and-the-vedic-gods-of-lithuania-3aae469ff2f1
- Native Indian tribes in America had their own religion and gods. From the 1600s to the 1970s these religions were suppressed, until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Though much of their culture is lost they are apparently trying to save what they can. Meanwhile, 66% of them identify as Christian according to US government data published in 2014.
- Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world dating back to 2000 BCE, originated in Iran and was the state religion for a thousand years, until 650 CE. Then its followers had to convert to Islam or flee. Many of them fled to India in the 8th century CE. They are called Parsis and have assimilated well over here. They are devout Zoroastrians but do not attempt to spread their faith. My Parsi friend tells me that the community continues to be grateful to India for sheltering them when they fled Iran twelve centuries ago and they show it by respecting the culture that welcomed and helped them. That sounds very fair to me, because that gratitude and respect for local culture is exactly what I see in my relatives who are now citizens of the USA.
All of these peoples, except Parsis, were Animists or Polytheists. They were probably open to accepting others’ gods as an addition to their altar, the way a lot of Hindus are, even today. They didn’t suspect that their gods would completely disappear if they did that. We learn from history. We see patterns. We become wary.
In South-East Asia, indigenous religions were replaced by Hinduism and, later, Buddhism many centuries ago. Some South-East Asian nations became Muslim, like Indonesia and Malaysia. Many African countries like Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Congo have a Christian majority, though this wasn’t so in earlier years. This shows that religions of entire populations can change depending on which group has seized the chance to crawl into the breach, because forced conversions following conquests are not common now.
Putting together what happened to other ancient religions of the world with what is currently happening around the world it seems that Christianity and Islam have always been vying to dominate the world. All 193 countries, except India and Nepal, seem to have one of these two religions as their majority religion! India and Nepal are the only Hindu majority countries in the world, and there are very few Hindus outside of these two countries.
The pantheon of gods is what has kept India stable for centuries. All gods are welcome here, but since the search for the meaning of life is an individual quest, each person ought to do it his own way, however primitive his idea of god and religion may appear to someone else. Anyone who disrupts his growth by telling him his god is not worthwhile, and offers to replace his god, is impeding his soul’s progress. That is the essence of Hinduism. This is why Hindus don’t proselytise. Which means Hindu numbers will greatly diminish if conversions to Christianity and Islam are strategically planned and rapidly executed.
What happens to Hindus if two warring faiths (starting with the first of the Crusades in the 11th century CE) become the dominant religions here?
As Christianity and Islam exhort their followers to proselytise, Hindus try to hold on to the gods worshipped by different communities, so that each Hindu community has a traditional god and a network of supportive relatives and friends affiliated to that god. This way, they are less likely to get conscripted into one of the two armies. India could eventually turn into a battlefield for turf wars, and be reduced to the state Yemen and Iraq have been reduced to. The zeal of new converts will make it easy for them to offer themselves up as cannon fodder. Hindus suspect that systematic proselytisation is destroying this network by targeting the most vulnerable among them.
I fervently hope the unfolding years prove me wrong.
This is my personal view. I don’t claim to speak for all Animists, or Hindu Indians, or anyone else, nor do I have issues with Indians affiliated to any religion. I think religion is a set of ethics a person lives by, nothing more. To me, religion is neither a social nor a political concept; my religion has nothing to do with anybody else.
As I understand it, the religious turmoil in India right now is less about God, more about the fear of control, manipulation, negation of identity, and the unspeakable horrors inflicted on us by some of the Delhi Sultanate kings and Europeans in the past. Right now nobody’s in a good place, neither Hindus, nor the rest. The echo chambers of each religion are circulating plausible-sounding hypotheses and frightening the entire country, except those who don’t believe that Religion is powerful enough to rip this country to bits.
Unlike Europeans, we Indians are fortunate that our link with our past is unbroken. Many of us are aware of our remote past through stories passed down orally by parents and grandparents. Thanks to social media they are being collected and shared all over India. People have started noticing and appreciating similarities rather than differences now. Someday somebody will have to verify and catalogue these stories.
If Greta Thunberg’s ancestors had held on to Forn Sidr she might not have driven herself into depression over the state of the world at the tender age of twelve. If people still worshipped nature gods they wouldn’t have brought Earth to the brink of total destruction. Right now, India is one of the few countries on earth where nature worship is still prevalent in some form. When I walk around the lake every morning I see quite a few people stand for many minutes facing the sun with hands joined in a Namaste, eyes shut. People still worship the Peepal tree, anthills, cows and other things in nature during different festivals. It’s just giving thanks to the universe, a forerunner of the modern gratitude journal!
Meanwhile, I’m somewhat relieved to see there are quite a few moderate known voices of people from all religions, and many concerned, articulate, generous and empathic unknown Indians, who are not any party’s bots, who lucidly explain new developments to the public so they don’t go completely berserk with fear. As Steven Pinker says: With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.
When my son was two he would play peek-a-boo with the moon, excitedly shouting “Boooooo” when it came out from behind a cloud. When a cuckoo trilled “Ku-oooo” he’d say “Mama, birdie calling Kayu” (what he called himself then), and call back “ku-oooo”. He would switch easily from English to Russian when necessary. There were no barriers between himself and celestial bodies, birds, or Russians!
Once, when we were packing up to leave a cabin we had been living in for four months, I unthinkingly deflated his inflatable panda and he screamed in terror, obviously thinking it would be his turn next! Perhaps we are, likewise, getting frightened of what we think will happen, and there’s no reliable source of information left to enlighten us in this era of fake news.