By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Name of the Book: In Good Faith—A Journey in Search of an Unknown India
Author: Saba Naqvi
Publisher: Rainlight/Rupa, New Delhi
Price: Rs. 395
Lived religion hardly corresponds to the seemingly convenient textbook definitions of it. Such definitions seek to homogenize amazingly diverse forms of religious belief and expression and box them into neatly-definable and easily-manageable categories. But this isn’t quite how religion is understood and expressed out there in the ‘real’ world.
Typically, textbooks define religions as fixed bodies of dogmas and practices, suggesting that all those who follow, or claim to follow, a particular religion share exactly the same beliefs, even though they may differ in terms of how seriously they take them in their own lives. Moreover, in conventional ways of conceiving religions, each religion is seen as wholly distinct from other religions. Even though they may share things in common (such as certain values), they are treated as if they represent two entirely different cognitive worlds and as having no significant overlaps. Accordingly, their adherents are seen to be entirely distinct from each other, having little or nothing in common with each other in terms of religious beliefs and practices.
But, as this absorbing book by journalist Saba Naqvi reveals, this is not quite how many Indians understand religion. In the ‘unknown India’ that Naqvi journeys to—literally all across the country—she uncovers scores of individuals, castes, communities and historical legends that defy the conventional logic of religions being sharply distinct from, and hostile to, each other. She terms these as ‘little traditions’, using a phrase that has been long since discarded by the anthropologists who invented it, and contrasts them with the ‘orthodox’ versions of religion (for which she uses the equally antiquated term ‘Great traditions’) that are premised on the notion of each religion being a static, homogeneous entity, with sharp borders separating it from other religions and their adherents.
Naqvi’s journey across India grew out of her own experience of living with and learning from the multiple religious allegiances of members of her own family. Her father is a Shia Muslim, and her mother is a Christian, the daughter of a woman who, Naqvi tells us, later became an ardent evangelist. Naqvi’s former husband is a Bengali Hindu. Naqvi describes with great finesse what it meant for her to grow up jostling with different religious traditions and identities while not conforming to just one of these alone. Being exposed to multiple religions at home from a young age, on the one hand, and horrified at the hate, exclusivism and violence promoted in the name of religion, on the other, Naqvi turned—not unsurprisingly—into a ‘non-believer’, as she describes herself. But that did not stop her from celebrating the intermingling of cultures and the overturning and undermining of rigidly-inscribed religious borders and identities that she experienced ever since a child. Even as a ‘non-believer’ she saw the humanistic potential of some religious traditions that, by drawing upon motifs, customs and beliefs from two or more religions that were otherwise seen as antagonistic, defied, in their own silent ways, ‘orthodox’ traditions that had no room for the religious ‘other’.
Over a period of several years, Naqvi had the good fortune of being able to travel across India as a journalist, including to write about what she mistakenly terms as ‘syncretistic’ religious traditions communities that mirrored her own family in significant ways. This book is a chronicle of those journeys. While most of the cases Naqvi highlights are of traditions and communities that illustrate a ‘mix’ of Hinduism and Islam, a few relate to instances of Christian-Hindu interface.
If you believe that there’s nothing in common at all between Hindus and Muslims in terms of religious belief and practice, you’ll be forced to rethink your position on reading Naqvi’s delightful stories. You’ll encounter a Muslim ‘goddess’ named Bon Bibi, who is worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims in the Sunderbans in Bengal; ‘low’ caste Bengali Muslim Chitrakars, who paint pictures of Hindu deities and travel about singing songs in their praise; a Brahmin priest in Kolkata who has constructed a mausoleum for a Muslim ‘holy’ man; Maharashtrian Sufis who wrote books on yoga and had Hindu admirers; Banjara tribals in Hyderabad who mourn for Husain in the month of Moharram; the Muslim female consort of a Hindu god in a popular temple in Tamil Nadu; ‘low’ caste Muslim singers in the Thar desert who sing devotional songs in praise of Hindu deities; Muslims in Haryana who claim to be descendants of Arjuna, hero of the Mahabharata; the Muslim custodian of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya; Hindu devotees at dargahs or tombs of putative Muslim saints in Lucknow and Aligarh; a Muslim who sings paeans to a Hindu Rajput woman at a sati shrine in Rajasthan; Sufis who defied the mullahs and claimed that all religions are paths to a single destination; Muslim poets who celebrated Hindu festivals; an Assamase Muslim ‘saint’ whose universal vision of religion had equal room for Hindus and Muslims. And so on. Equally intriguing are reports about castes in Tamil Nadu whose Christian and Hindu members freely intermarry, and churches that are hardly distinguishable from Hindu temples.
By highlighting such examples of traditions and communities that challenge our conventional understandings of religion and religion-based community identities, this book adds much-needed nuance to debates about a subject that inevitably provokes our most deeply-rooted emotions. If vast numbers of Hindus and Muslims in the ‘unknown India’ that Naqvi describes can live with such camaraderie and can evolve traditions, customs and myths that subvert orthodox beliefs and codes, why can’t the rest of us do the same, Naqvi seems to ask. She upholds these instances as sources of inspiration for other Indians to emulate.
But here, as elsewhere, good intentions alone don’t always suffice. The religious traditions and notions of religious identity that Naqvi celebrates are far from being static, immune to pressure from ‘orthodox’ quarters. As she herself admits, many such ‘liminal’ traditions and communities are now veering round to more ‘orthodox’ Islam or Hinduism, whose proponents regard these as aberrations or deviant. As Naqvi herself acknowledges, shrines that attract devotees from different faith traditions need not necessarily be what we, in our urge to romanticize a putative lost past, might want to see them as. They can be centres of crass superstition, as well as simply a means for crafty priests to make a lucrative living off the credulous. Vast numbers of people flock to such shrines (some of which, Naqvi tells us, have been built in the name of entirely fictitious ‘holy’ folks, who never even existed!) simply because they are led to imagine that the deity or deceased ‘saint’ buried therein can grant them their wishes. If you think that such hopes are chimerical and the promises of cures and miracles that shrine-keepers advertise are sheer nonsense, there’s absolutely no reason at all to get excited about these centres of blind belief in the absurd. Just because they bring Hindus and Muslims and others together in common superstition is, surely, no reason whatsoever to celebrate them.
Perceptive readers might also point out another problematic dimension of what they might regard as Naqvis simplistic, though well-meaning, defence of ‘mixed’ religious traditions and communities. They might argue that these do not represent ‘syncretism’ as such—which is how Naqvi characterizes them—which is, to put it simply, a mix of elements from two or more divergent traditions in order to create a third one. Rather, most of the cases Naqvi discusses reflect partial and as yet incomplete process of gradual Islamisation and Christianisation of local Indic traditions and caste communities, resulting in what Naqvi mistakenly seems to regard and hails as models of happy Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Christian coexistence. What appears to be the product of a congenial mix of two or more religions can be seen as quite the opposite actually, at least in some of the cases that Naqvi describes. Missionaries of different religions have long-understood the importance of syncretism, appropriating local motifs, beliefs and customs and using them for their own ends so that prospective converts can find their message intelligible and appealing. That, in fact, was how all missionary religions have historically spread in India—be it Brahminical Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.
In other words, ‘syncretism’ can often be simply a clever missionary strategy, and is not always the harmonious synthesis of different faiths that we might be tempted to see it as. At the same time, however, some of the forms of ‘syncretism’ that Naqvi highlights are definitely not the results of failed or incomplete missionary efforts of advocates of a particular faith among prospective neophytes but reflect a genuine urge to evolve a humane understanding of spirituality that transcends narrow boundaries of religion, caste and community.
Despite its conceptual flaws, this book is definitely worth a read, especially if you are fed up of conventional religion and are looking for inspiring ways to relate to people who don’t think and believe exactly as you do.