Complexity of faith

  • Religion is a complex dynamic force of human civilisation with potential for both good and evil
- Pramod Mishra
Complexity of faith

Dec 24, 2014-

The British ambassador’s statement that Nepal’s new constitution should allow religious conversion/freedom and some rightwing and convicted politicians’ representation to the prime minister objecting to the British envoy’s statement has brought to the fore of public debate the Nepali state’s entrenched Hindu ideology and its formal adoption of a secular state. Is Nepal secular or Hindu? Should Nepal allow conversions or ban them? Should Nepal declare itself a secular state in the new constitution or return to its Panchayat-era identity as a Hindu state?  These simmering questions have all of a sudden assumed centre-stage since the British envoy’s undiplomatic statement and Nepal’s discredited politicians’ last-ditch effort to shore up their political career by propping up the Hindu bandwagon. And the fact that the prime minister himself feigned ignorance about how secularism crept into the Interim Constitution takes the controversy one step further from just a matter of principle, theory, and philosophical debate about secular v theological state into the realm of the actual history of religions’ habitus in the state.  

Church and state

When we think of the practice of the relationship between the state and religion, the issue becomes murkier, more complex, and all the more interesting. For example, the West has been explicitly secular, philosophically at least, since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, if not its inception in the Renaissance, inspired by Hellenic antiquity. And since the Enlightenment, debates have raged over the nature of secularism, taking for granted the separation of church and state. Yet, time after time, country after country, monarchies, political leaders, and the general populace in the West have taken oaths on the Bible, called the cluster of their lands Christendom, and shown examples of intolerance in the past when non-Christians have come into their midst and tried to obtain leadership positions. Example: the son of Hindu parents—Piyush Jindal, governor of the US state of Louisiana—becomes Bobby Jindal and Roman Catholic; the daughter of Sikh parents—Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, the governor of South Carolina—becomes Nikki Haley and Methodist. And the virulent detractors of President Barak Obama never miss a chance to tarnish him by insinuating that he is a Muslim because his middle name is Hussain. And whenever there is an important event, the President, prime minister or King and/or Queen in Europe and the Americas make it a point to attend a church before consummating it.

Wikipedia tells us that even now, in a cultural sense, Christendom “refers to ... the worldwide community of Christians.”

It further goes on to say that in a “contemporary sense, it may simply refer collectively to Christian majority countries or countries in which Christianity dominates or nations in which Christianity is the established religion.”

And European colonialism spread on the wings of Christianity. Whether it was the British monarch Henry the VII of England (in the case of John Cabot) or King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (in the case of Columbus), they sanctioned their colonial expeditions and seizure and capture of colonial territories by invoking the term ‘heathen’. You can’t harm Christians but you can seize their property and confiscate their lands. That’s why, there is a well-known saying that Europe spread colonialism with a sword in one hand and the Bible in the other.

Religion’s many forms

So, the issue of religion in the West, even in the case of those who inhabit the state, is not as simple and straightforward as the discourse of secularism or the separation of church and state purports to be. The West is secular, yes, but it’s also deeply Christian. Even where it’s not theologically, it is Christian culturally. So, rule one of the debate on secularism should make it clear that secularism may mean distance from religion but very often, it means permission of religious pluralism, which is how it should be if it is genuinely plural and tolerant of others.

So, as a pure faith, as a purely individual practice of belief, any religion has much to offer to an individual’s spiritual well-being. But religion has seldom been as innocent as that. Most often, it has allied itself with institutional power to empower some and strip the dignity of others.  Witches and heretics were burnt in medieval Europe and 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, in its name. Fed up with Christianity’s bedding with racism, Cassius Marcellus Clay, like many black Americans in the second half of the 20th century, embraced Islam and became Mohammad Ali. But many who were born into Muslim families, like Salman Rushdie and the Somalian writer/activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, became atheists or rebels. But then, many others, like the Oscar-winning Bollywood music composer became Muslim AR Rahman from his Hindu birth name AS Dileep Kumar, or fed up with intractable Hindu casteism, the draftsman of the Indian constitution BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism en masse with his followers.  

So, there is an individual dimension of conversion but then there is a political and evangelical dimension. Besides, any religion is not one thing. Colonial Christianity, which became a tool of colonisation, is not the same thing as the Christianity of the Lasallian Brothers, who devoted their celibate life to teaching, after the fashion of their radical messiah Jesus Christ and the patron saint of teachers, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, to the poor and the downtrodden, and declared their educational institutions a ‘sanctified zone’, where pluralism and an ecumenical approach to faith become hallmarks. In the same way, Islam has emerged in its Sufi, Aligarhi (modern), and Deobandi/Wahabi (orthodox) forms. Hinduism, too, despite its inherent pluralism has its caste-ridden, Dalit-dehumanising, lower-caste and Janajati-demeaning Sanatani form as well as its Bairagi, Baul, and reformist forms, which includes even Kabir. So, it depends on which form of religion we are talking about and how proselytising is done.  

Less purity, more complexity

Any religion that dehumanises the weak and keeps them oppressed, that teaches intolerance, hate, and monoculturalism ought to be opposed. But any faith that liberates the soul from dogma, from the narrowness of human possibilities ought to be celebrated and embraced. But which religion has all the honey in the world? If one thinks about it, no one, not even the Buddhism that BR Ambedkar embraced, fleeing from the casteist clutches of Hinduism, and that the Dalai Lama so sublimely practices. Look at what the Buddhists have done to the Rohingyas in Burma, to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and to Nepali refugees in Bhutan.

So, the point I am making is that religion is a dynamic force of human civilisation and so, inherently complex. It has potential for both good and evil. We shouldn’t rush into a black-and-white understanding of it, neither of Nepali opportunist politicians nor the evangelical zealots of any faith, including Christianity. Nepalis should develop a nuanced, more complex understanding and embrace any faith they choose to practice.  


Published: 25-12-2014 09:11

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