Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Revival of religion in India


For a few decades since its freedom from British in 1947, Indian policymakers and thinkers tried hard to keep religion out of Indian society and politics. India declared itself as secular socialist and its first prime minister – Pandit Nehru, had his own inhibitions against religion. He wanted Indian’s dams and industries rather than temples to be the places of worship. The liberals sold the common people the idea modernism means keeping Hinduism out and faith & development couldn’t go together. It was as though secularism is a virtue by itself. It was as though one cannot enjoy the marvels of technology and religion at the same time – you have to pick and choose only one. They made it fashionable to become atheistic and educated people were abhorred from displaying their faith. Populist leaders broke Hindu idols in public ceremonies and political leaders tried to keep a completely non-religious aka modern outlook.

There were two ironies here. First, International economists call the Indian economic growth between 1947 to 1991 derisively as “Hindu rate of growth”  - for its lean and anemic nature, while during that time Hinduism had its lowest point as policy makers have successfully kept Hinduism out of the society. Second, the Indian liberals equated development with atheism by pointing to the West, where curiously religion had far more status than in India. While Indian populace were made to believe developed nations are completely secular, they were unaware of the fact that American goverment’s official motto is “In God we trust”, Head of British state also heads the Church of England and Shintoism & Buddhism continue to be a central part of Japanese society. Rather Indian liberals were enamored with the Soviet’s failed ideals of anti-religonism.

The liberals also forgot history. Almost every major civilization evolved with a religion at its core. Mesopotamians produced the first recorded religion, Egyptians had their Sun worship, Harappans had their Shiva like god, and Greeks and Romans came with their own pantheon of gods with Zeus and Jupiter as centre. There were no real atheistic civilizations. It was Renaissance in religion in the middle of 16th century in Europe that brought the continent to its central place in world history. In fact religion and cultural development almost always go together. By keeping out religion the liberals attacked the very glue that bonded the society. Faith plays a great role in spread of moral values and can also be a great antidote to urban crime. Without religion’s role in answering deep philosophical questions, societies can quickly unravel. Economic cycles can deeply strain people’s lives, as economies move from expansion to recession to expansion and if people don’t have the faith that there is some good being on top of the things, mayhem can result. A calm, non-violent, philosophical religion is a must for every society.

As the dawn of economic revival started in India in 1991, so did the start of the end of Indian secularism. As people started to get more educated, more of them started to believe in religion. they also came to realize that intellectuals like Einstein, Da Vinci and Gandhi had a faith to back their glorious work. The color of the religion matters less compared to the fact of possessing faith in something.

While Hinduism had taken some bad elements (with the infusion of all those self-professed  Swamiji’s or “holy men”) there are many good elements too in its new flavor. The religion has become more inclusive with people at all levels now included in the new revival, not just the high class urbanistas. Various rural faiths are merged with the mainstream Hinduism that has added color and strength to the mainstream. Village deities like Aiyappan of the southern state of Kerala and Mariamman of the state of Tamilnadu, are now successfully merged with Hindu pantheon. Just like European Renaissance, Hinduism sprang back up – much to the chagrin of Indian socialists, and has slowly started to get official patronage too. Over the past 6000 years, Hinduism had survived many a crisis, and now it has survived one more at the hand of Indian socialists.


Mumbai Paused said...

Well, the popularity of Indian gods are like the reigns of Bollywoopd stars. The current favourites (among Hindus) are Ganesh and Shani. Then there are the Godmen. Among catholic Christians - Velankanni Mother is pretty popular.

Ananth Shrinivas said...

I sort of broadly agree with your reasoning. Related random thoughts:

"Religion" is a very wide noun. What we perceive as a part of religion and what aspects of our thought processes and actions we attribute to religion, has shifted over time. Mainly by acquisition and absorption of new knowledge.

The ritualistic nature of religion will fall out over the course of the next few centuries in favor of rational thinking and economic convenience. While the moralistic aspects will evolve and become very fuzzy because of the shared global culture we have.

The two major events that kick started this trend were the Gutenberg Printing Press and Magellan's Circumnavigation. The Internet and Plane travel have accelerated that trend. Dissemination of ideas and cross-cultural exchange are the biggest threats to religions which are used to being static and unchallenged.

The key question I will really ask to anyone who talks about the death of a religion would be: "Specify an exit criteria" When would you acknowledge a religion as being "dead" ? (Outside of famines, wars, mass migration and other disasters)

Hinduism is just a robust and extremely malleable system with no single points of identity or failure. Whatever lives on in the subcontinent (and now elsewhere) another 6000 years from now will still be called "Hinduism" no matter if its completely different from what exists today. Hinduism simply the collective cultural memory of 16% of the planet.

Which is why socialists or liberals or atheists engaged in "following western examples" just remind me of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the Hill.