By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Dec. 10, 2012
Even though we may not often be aware of this, every belief that we hold has crucial socio-political implications and consequences. What we believe indelibly shapes our attitudes towards, and behaviour with, others. In every relationship there is an exercise of power, and this is what politics, the domain of power relations between two or more individuals or entities, is all about. And so, if our beliefs shape our relationships, every belief has some or the other political underpinning. This holds true for religious beliefs just as it does with beliefs of any other sort. This is why all religions, even those that are supposedly apolitical, have always exerted a profound political influence—perhaps more often for the worse than the better.
Religious beliefs are concerned with supposedly supernatural entities. The ways in which these entities are conceived of have different political implications. One way of understanding these implications is to categorise religious belief systems on the basis of whether the supposedly divine being/beings or divine force/forces they are centred on are seen as of transcendent or immanent, and then to draw out what this distinction means for people’s behavior vis-à-vis others who don’t share their religious beliefs.
Religious traditions that are premised on the notion of the divine as thoroughly and wholly transcendent to human beings regard the divine as being utterly above and beyond the cosmos. Generally, in such traditions the divine is thought of as a being (or multiple beings) who creates and rules the world, in the image of an absolute monarch. This divine being is often conceived of in the male gender, mirroring the head of the patriarchal family. ‘He’ is thought of as commanding human beings to worship ‘Him’, generally through a set pattern of rituals and prayers, promising rich rewards to those who do so while threatening those who don’t with damnation—in this world and/or after death. ‘He’ is seen as something like a global super-policeman, to be loved somewhat but, more than that, to be greatly feared.
On the other hand, religious traditions that conceive of the divine as being immanent in the cosmos, don’t see the divine as distinct from it. Rather, they believe that the cosmos is itself the very manifestation of the divine. In contrast to traditions that posit a creator god/gods somewhere beyond the world (up in the skies, perhaps, and maybe sitting on a grand throne), they believe that the divine manifests itself in every particle of the cosmos, pervading everything that exists. Accordingly, the divine is not thought of as so much as a being to be worshipped as a force or quality to be discovered and realized within one’s own self, generally through meditation. One sees one’s self as well as everything else that exists as simply a tiny form, reflection or manifestation of the divine, just as everything else is. The analogy is often given of a drop in the ocean, the drop not being identical with the ocean but, yet, not distinct from it either. Not being thought of as a being who is wholly separate from the cosmos, the divine isn’t regarded as someone to be feared but, rather, something to be discovered and celebrated within oneself, in every other living being, too, and, indeed, in every other bit of existence—animals, birds, trees and rocks as well.
This distinction between traditions that are premised on these two distinct notions of the divine has crucial consequences for how the adherents of these traditions relate to people who think, believe and live differently from them. Generally (though there may be exceptions that only prove the rule), those who conceive of the divine as utterly transcendent tend to a smug self-righteousness, unshakably convinced that there is one, exclusive path—their own religion, that is—to win the favour of the divine being/beings. This path, they believe, has been specially commissioned by the divine, and is the only true way to be authentically human. Only those who follow this one path, they insist, can earn the pleasure of the divine being/beings. They earnestly believe that the rest of humanity is doomed to perdition because, supposedly following deviant paths, they are alleged to be opposed to the divine being/beings. Others can be saved the terrible torment that supposedly awaits them only if they convert to what is believed to be the one true religion or path favoured by the divine being/beings.
This explains the missionary zeal that generally characterizes such traditions and their adherents, who believe they are charged with a divine mandate to convert the entire world to their way of thinking and believing. Such an attitude to other religious traditions and their adherents conduces to a distinct intolerance, which, depending on the situation, may or may not lead to physical conflict. In situations where the adherents of such traditions may be numerically or politically weak, their innate intolerance may still be sought to be camouflaged by an unnerving condescension of other traditions and their adherents, buffeted by the belief that while they may lack the power to impose their will on others, they remain God’s chosen people, and therefore, supposedly the exclusive occupants of paradise after death.
On the other hand, generally speaking (and here again, exceptions might only prove the rule), those who conceive of the divine as immanent in the entire cosmos tend to an expansive understanding of religious truth. If every particle of the cosmos is divine, then the notion of a single ‘right path’ or ‘true religion’ is itself rendered meaningless. If everything contains the divine, if the divine manifests itself in every person, no matter what religious, caste, gender, class or ethnic labels he or she wears, there can be no question of a single ‘true’ religion as opposed to multiple ‘false religions’ that are to be wiped off through missionary or physical conquest. If someone who follows a different religious tradition or none at all is seen as equally a manifestation of the divine as oneself, there can be no question of seeking to convert or conquer him or to force or seek to convince him to follow one’s own path. Typically, this is how many ‘mystics throughout the ages (who, despite having been born and reared in distinct religious communities, completely transcended them) are said to have experienced the divine within their own selves and to have related to others. This approach, it is apparent, conduces, at least theoretically, to a distinct acceptance of people who may think and believe in other ways.
A careful analysis of conflicts across the world—historically as well as today—that have been sought to be legitmised in the name of religion will probably reveal that these have had much to do with rival and completely irreconcilable claims of two or more brands of religion predicated on the notion of the divine as utterly transcendent to the rest of the cosmos. In contrast, a survey of individuals who are acclaimed as heralds of universal inter-religious synthesis will probably reveal that many, if not all of them, conceived of, or even personally experienced, the divine as immanent in every bit of the cosmos, and, at the same time, wholly transcending all human-made boundaries of religion.
Every religion has been historically characterized by multiple interpretations, some of them nauseatingly exclusivist (generally based on the notion of the divine as wholly different from and beyond the cosmos), others generously inclusivist (generally premised on the conviction of the divine as pervading every particle of the cosmos). Probably all of the major religious traditions have been historically interpreted and understood in both ways. Typically, the former tend to an extreme intolerance, and even conflict, and the latter to acceptance and harmony. Either way, both have their own distinct political implications, in terms of how their adherents view and relate to people who think and believe differently from them.