We humans consider ourselves the most advanced species on Earth; however, neither physically nor spiritually are we independent of beliefs and practices. Faith or hope is something we all cling on to, in order to move forward. It could be a lucky shirt, a rock, scriptures, customs, or religion.
The concept of religion has evolved to take space in all spheres of our lives. Humans have always been spiritual creatures. We created religions at the same time we created works of art. These early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that always had been an essential component of the human experience.
An important element of a civilised society is the freedom to practice religion. Even the makers of our constitution realised this, and thus, practising and professing one’s religion has been considered as a fundamental right. No other nation in the world harks about its great religious practices, morals, and values, the idea of Sarva Dharma Sambhava or Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the way Indian society does. Yet, it fares poorly on the graph of minimum decency, values, and social practices.
Today, people hate people. Religions hate religions because society has failed to come out of its rotten shell to connect itself with the nation. The world’s largest democracy, paradoxically, also has one of the highest intolerance indices. It is often considered that factions and religious animosity has always been present since time immemorial. However, that flawed account has been presented to us by the British Orientalists. Ironically, in our entire ancient and medieval history, we have never fought a war in the name of religion.
Nowadays, the concept of religion is being very closely associated with the concept of ‘nationalism’. We have quite conveniently juxtaposed these two imagined concepts into one, and its repercussions are being felt all across the country. Mob lynching of a particular caste or a community, demeaning their social status, and thereafter releasing the accused on account of ‘no witnesses’ has become a norm. Slogans of ‘azaadi’ are being considered as national conspiracies, and some sections are being tagged as the ‘tukde-tukde gang’. Intellectuals and scholars are being jailed and tagged with a new name of ‘urban naxals’.
The flames of initial riots of mandir-masjid have since then only inflated, and have now reached their peak. The current debate, however, revolving around the concept of citizenship. All the events have turned into a communal discord, with some religious fanatics igniting the rage and fear in the minds of people. Every faction is now in the race to dominate and feel superior. This sense of religious nationalism has left us being dangerously exclusivist and intimidating. It is beyond comprehension as to how a society that worships Ram, Krishna, Jesus, Nanak, Paigambar Mohammad could be so intolerant and callous!
Society is quick enough to forget about these incidents and so is social media, but what has made our society so intolerant that we are ready to kill our own fellow citizens at the drop of a hat? Our diversity has done more harm than good to our society and has created serious cultural conflicts. It is time for us to realise that it is not enough to just be human, but to be humane and value human life.
Secularism has become synonymous with the politics of opportunism, setting up a dynamic of competitive victimisation. The deeper question is not about the ideological debates; after all, differences are inevitable and can be managed. It is the growing tolerance for prejudice that is unleashing ferocious darkness. The banning itch of anti-conversion laws and vigilantism over the slaughter of particular animals has now become an established norm.
Modernisation by the global north is now creating ruptures like anti-semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalist supremacy which are slowly gaining momentum in many regions. Fast-growing cities are slowly suppressing small and regional groupings, eventually taking the shape of secession. Capitalism has now been entrenched within the global south. Capital is killing social richness. It is more focused on producing private richness. This private culture of thinking of ‘this belongs to me’, and the ‘mine is superior to yours’ mindset is now being seen in communities as well. Burning a train, wiping out an entire population, or fake propaganda during elections can ferment anger in citizens. This pseudo nationalism is now turning itself into self-love for the nation with propaganda to spread hate.
Freedom of expression in our country would remain under siege until and unless all groups accept that people can have different opinions and beliefs in a free country. Criticism must not be equated with causing offense or perceived as causing hurt in every statement. Instead, criticism should also be within its limits to not overstep the boundaries of rationalism and reasoning.
Today, we all need to accept that ‘culture’ is open. It is open to global influence. Culture expands because the notion of ‘rights to culture’ and of a ‘culture of rights’ has emerged in modernity. Only rationality, modesty, and accommodative nature in a society can help it survive.
The root cause is not religion, but rather it is the endless thirst for power, wealth, and supremacy that divides. The name of religion is used to quench the thirst of self-appointed saviours of culture and society. However, that does not mean we all have to be atheists. Human beings cannot endure emptiness, it is necessary to form a belief system to have order in life. We tend to fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning.
The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new society for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder on the history of religion for some lessons and warnings.