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A tricky question: Who is the custodian of a religion?

Oct 10, 2008

 Indian Express

There is a sense in which the continued visibility of religion in the public sphere is masking two deep crises. The first, more discussed, is the crisis of citizenship. It bears repeating that so long as religious identities, and collective identities more generally, remain the axis around which the state distributes goods, exercises discretion, disburses patronage, grants rights and mobilises support, religious conflict is inevitable. We will hear a lot of pious cant in forums like the National Integration Council about respecting all religions, about being even handed towards all communities, about banning nefarious groups from all religions, etc. But it is doubtful that that anyone will honestly confront the fact that our conception of citizenship needs to be made independent of what religious affiliations anyone might have; that public policy needs to dissociate itself from the tangled webs of identity. So the homicidal philanthropy that passes off as public policy will continue.


But the second crisis, less discussed, is the crisis of religion itself. Religion is itself a complicated term. But bracketing those difficulties for the moment, we have to acknowledge that there is some kind of crisis associated with the fret and fuss of much that passes off as religion. This is not a crisis of faith or devotion, or a crisis generated by the ability of various religions to mobilise adherents. It is rather a crisis along three different dimensions.


What passes off as religious language has little to do with the traditional functions of religious ideas: as a medium of self-knowledge, a way of endowing the world with meaning as an unbroken totality, as a way of responding to the dissonances of existence, and unravelling the mysteries of value. Rather, there is a complex process by which religion has become ethnicised. It has become a code by which tribalistic boundaries are being drawn around groups to determine who is in and who is out. This question more than anything else, begins to colonise religious consciousness. The fervour of identity displaces the question of meaning, and increasingly religion appears simultaneously assertive and spiritually redundant. What forms of religiosity can rescue us from the pathologies of collective narcissism, will be an important question for our times?


The second crisis is the crisis of religious authority itself. In a way this crisis is related to the first crisis. Only when there is an internal crisis does religion become available for being moulded in new directions by all kinds of groups. We often, in a well meaning way, say things like “real Islam does not enjoin violence,” or “the RSS does not represent Hinduism.” But the question is: by what authority does anyone make these claims? We are endlessly searching for what Islam or Hinduism or Christianity’s true teaching is, trying valiantly to assure ourselves that Islam or Hinduism does not really teach this or that. This search, as a response to political challenges is distinctly odd. It is premised upon the hope that there is a necessary truth of a religion, that this truth will be benign and that this necessary truth, once apprehended, will move those who claim adherence to that religion.


But now, there are competing claimants to what these truths are. Who is the authoritative custodian of these truths? In Hinduism, this was always a tricky question. But even for traditionally more centralised religions like Islam and Christianity this question is now deeply contested. Statements like “SIMI does not represent Muslims” or “Bajrang Dal does not represent Hindus” are understandable at one level: they are claims to the effects that the beliefs and actions of these groups do not have the imprimatur of many members of the community. But the crucial question is not whether these groups are representative. The question is deeper: can we have confidence that there are resources within those communities to prevent such groups from existing, or reining in their actions? Simply denying them representative status does not answer this more important question.


The third crisis is more subtle. All societies need a source of norms and values that provide an anchor with which to face the flux of the external world, and provide a sense of authoritative internal restraint. Democracy requires a robust sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice, a social conscience, and a sense of discrimination about what is genuinely valuable and what is not. And the freer a society, the more choices it gives, the more it needs to exercise moral and aesthetic discrimination. Exercising genuine choice has to be based on grounds; otherwise it is a dumb, deedless expression of momentary desire. But the challenge is that the practice of political democracy is not itself sufficient to generate these virtues. What are the sites where an internalised sense of morality will be generated? Our educational institutions do not seem quite up to the task, and public culture is seriously corrosive of deep moral reflection. To some extent, for good or for ill, we are living off a complex inheritance of family values, religious associations, traditional authority, on which are grafted schools and modern civic associations. This legacy is a mixed bag: oppressive in some respects, but also with the resources to transcend itself. But many of these institutions that shaped us, for good or for ill, are dissolving. What will fill that vacuum?


The last imaginative attempt to fill the vacuum was the nationalist movement, which, even more than the question of Independence, was obsessed with the question of the norms and values, the sense of self and history that would shape us. But that legacy petered out; partly because of a genuine disillusionment, partly because of the constricted and wilfully suffocating intellectual culture we created. Whether we like it or not, new forms of religious groups are filling in that vacuum.


But it is unclear what habits and inner allegiances these new forms will cultivate. If televangelists are any guide, the range is considerable: from the deeply reflective to the dangerously ridiculous. But even in the best, there is an excessive focusing on ordering the inner self, on the theory that if our inner lives are ordered, so will our outer world be. There may be something to this thought. But it still leaves open large questions about the role religion will play in shaping our sense of self and its relation to the world. Will it be supportive of all the moral responsibilities that a democracy will impose upon us? The crisis of our times is reflected in the fact that we cannot say yes to this question with any confidence.


The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


Courtesy: Indian Express,