September 23, 2012

Trying to Defend Religion

It's tough to find a single good thing about religion. Let me try.

Shivam Vij argued at Kafila how and why he' s a Hindu and not a terrorist. I am wondering what's the thing about being a Hindu that appeals to him.

He says Hinduism is a religion of peace. So what? Many people also say that Islam is a religion of peace. Which doesn't seem to be the case right about now considering the violent reactions of Muslims in many of the world to the silly Prophet Mohammed film.

Muslims always react with violence to similar acts that they consider to be 'insulting' to the Prophet. Islam is a religion where there's no scope for argument. The case is permanently closed.

That is of course not unique to Islam by any stretch of imagination. Closer to home, Hinduism has many mythologies which are funny and ridiculous and otherwise intelligent people somehow suspend their disbelief to agree with obviously stone-age notions.




There's a monkey in Hinduism named Hanuman who has become a God and people worship 'him' in all seriousness rather than making fun of the whole idea of a talking monkey.

There's the god Ganesh with the torso of a human boy and the head of an elephant. The story of how he got to have an elephant's head is sort of known to all -- handed down through the generations by the grandmothers. Another altogether stupid concept. But instead of ridiculing this story, educated Hindus all across India worship the god. Ganesh worship plays a central part in many religious functions.

In Maharashtra, Ganesh worship has become a mass, social occasion. In Bengal and elsewhere, it's the worship of Durga which is celebrated by the entire society with huge idols.

The people who participate in these rituals usually tend to have grown up with those festivals and never get around to questioning what lies beneath. It's like the air they breathe. They just assume that it's just a part of the order of nature. They probably don't realize that these rituals and everything that goes along with that are recent creations.

People might argue - what is wrong with having festivals worshiping this or that god or goddess. Well, probably nothing wrong, except that it's pretty stupid to worship monkeys or someone's penis or someone with four heads or ten hands.

Then there are complications at times. The conflicts arise when faiths collide. When Hindus and Muslims have a dispute. Talk about Ayodhya. Problems occur when Jews and Muslims and Christians consider the same little parcel of land to be holy and want to have exclusive claim to it. Talk about the intractable problem of Jerusalem.

The biggest war of them all -- the Second World War -- was primarily not about religious differences. So I won't try to paint it as if it was.

But the partition riots in India were certainly about religion.

So again, let's see if there's any good about religion.

How do people in general observe religion? In the Indian Hindu context, I see hundreds of millions of housewives performing various kinds of daily religious rituals in the morning. These rituals are never exactly similar from one household to another.

Because of the wonderful diversity and plentifulness of gods in the Hindu pantheon, every family has its own favorite god that it likes to suck up to. So some people might be focused on Shiva while others may be into Hanuman BIG TIME and yet others will be devotees of Jagannath. Clearly, there usually tends to be a reason how things turn out to be that way. There are various state-level gods -- gods whose domain tends to extend far and wide inside one of the Indian states but whose godliness is not so valued outside of that particular state.

Being from Odisha, I can point to the local favorite lord there -- the one named Jagannath. But Jagannath is not BIG in any other state. Similarly, Ganesh in Maharashtra and Durga in Bengal.

Then there are some pan-Indian Hindu gods such as Shiva. You'll find Shiva temples in many states in India and women will make a beeline to those temples every Monday morning -- to worship a penis apparently!

So god-worshiping takes a certain number of hours from the waking hours every day for hundreds of millions of housewives in India. The men probably spend less time on the god worship business -- may be five minutes per day.

Of course, there are always, ALWAYS, exceptions to every rule. I have got an old donkey uncle who spends probably five hours in worshiping god every day. But then he's not particularly bright. On the contrary.

So, yes, that argument about religion being 'good.' And I do hope the smart ones among us ARE concerned with that question -- whether it's good or not; whether it's worth persisting with or not.

Well, the Christians tend to point to all the charitable work that the Church tends to be involved with via the do-gooder nuns. Hinduism has less to show in this regard. Of course, the Church doesn't do its missionary work entirely out of altruistic purposes. It's in the business of conversion as well -- trying to increase the ranks of the Christians in the world at large. Hinduism seems not to be too much in the business of evangelizing. Which is a pretty strong claim by itself to being a "good" religion -- considering the whole scam that religion is.

Some of the more prosperous Hindu temples such as Tirupati do a somewhat nice job of spending the money that the stupid 'devotees' devote to it in an accounted manner. Which is to say, Tirupati doesn't stink to the high heavens. Puri, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. Those who have visited the temple there will have horror stories to tell about how the workers at the temple try their best to cheat the visitors to the greatest extent possible by forcing the hapless visitor to part with as much cash as the priests possibly can.

This business of rampant, shameless money-grubbing is essentially commonplace across many temples in India. So -- the worst human impulses on glaring display in houses of worship.

Compare this to some other activities. When you visit the transport department's office to get a driving license, you are rather frustrated with the unnecessary bureaucracy. There are often agents and middlemen who want to 'help' you for the consideration of a fat 'commission.'

We do not condone such scenarios. We deprecate them. And try to make things better. And certainly, we do not have a situation where the transport department officials of the passport department officials themselves openly bargain with you about how much commission you need to pay THEM for them to do their job.

With religion and with houses of worship, the scenario is quite absurd: you are being forced to part with as MUCH as money as the charlatan priests can. And more importantly -- WHAT FOR??

You aren't in a temple to get a driver's license or a passport or something similar, are you? And yet people will voluntarily 'donate' millions in cash or gold to various temples and gods. People often probably have no qualms about cheating on their income taxes and instead paying millions to some or the other god. These guys could be any of your average corrupt businessmen or Bollywood types or cricketers.

One could argue that religion in India persists therefore with the devotion of the intellectually-challenged housewife combined with the stupidity and avarice-driven behavior of movie people or others who know that whatever money they have earned is really fickle.

If the purpose of religion then is so as to give a bit of peace of mind to some actors, players, corrupt businessmen, then there's not much to recommend it, is there?

If the purpose of religion is merely to keep the people at the 'bottom of the pyramid' not questioning the state that they are in, then there's not much to recommend religion, is there?

One of the roles god or religion plays -- at least in my experience of interacting with Hindu relations -- is this: when unexpected or untimely, accidental deaths happen in the family, god is trotted out as the 'reason' for it. People will proclaim with all the moroseness that is suitable and necessary to the occasion - "Oh, it was god's will. He has a plan for all. Who knows what his purpose is. He operates in mysterious ways." And thus the grieving folks are sought to be pacified in their hour of perplexity.

The other role of god appears to be to play the role of divide doctor. When kids fall too sick, parents will likely propitiate their favorite god and other gods too if necessary. Meanwhile, they'll usually continue to treat the kid with conventional medicine. When the kid recovers, as it most of the time will with the aid and advances and medicines of modern medicine, the parents will thank the lord.

God also plays the role of insurer on the roads for the vehicles of the believers. When Hindus buy a two or four-wheeler, they'll invariably take the vehicle to a nearby temple for it to be blessed by a priest or a small puja performed.

Of course, god is also tasked with blessing new houses when these houses are acquired by Hindus.

Gods's due permissions are taken during marriage.

So a diverse role altogether for divine deities.

All in all, as I see it, god apparently doesn't turn people into kinder and gentler souls. People of India don't feel aggrieved about all the child laborers. They are okay meanwhile with the occasional burning of the bride or the killing of the female fetus.

The quality of life of the people is more or less unaffected by religion in any way. The state of the nation appears to be a result of the economic policy choices we have made over the years.

Unlike some of those middle eastern nations in the deserts who suddenly got rich as oil wealth got discovered beneath their soils, India is not endowed with such valuable natural resources as black gold. Also, the Saudi Arabs and Kuwaits of the world have tiny populations whereas India is burdened with a billion-plus population.

We do not seem to have the sort of intellectual talents that the Americans, Japanese, the Germans, etc. seem to possess. We do not even compare with the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, or the Singaporeans.

So we languish in poverty.

And in all this, religion is at best irrelevant. We will sink or swim based on our mental talents, our ability to innovate in a competitive world, our foresight, our knack to foresee the direction in which the world of technology is moving and will move and learn to benefit from that foresight.

In all this, religion is just a bunch of meaningless rituals, mostly adhered to by unthinking people.

We will surely do well to recognize the inherent dangers in religion such as when the beliefs of one religion come in conflict with another.

We will do well to realize that no god will come to our rescue -- that we have to fight with the challenges with our own human talents. When we realize that, when we realize not to ascribe misfortunes on to the gods, may be we'll be more scared about our place in the universe. We will learn that we are travelers on a tiny spaceship floating through space.

When we learn to grasp our destiny in our own hands, we might even become smart enough to find the technological solutions to our real man-made problems and not end up as the dinosaurs did.

Dinosaurs may not have invented a god or gods unlike us humans but I am sure that imaginary gods won't come to our rescue either if an asteroid were to come our way. Imaginary gods won't be rescuing humans from any man-made climate catastrophe.

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