Ask a random set of people the values their religion preaches and chances are you will be played back more or less the same words by all. Love, peace, compassion, forbearance and so on.
With so much synergy one would imagine religion would be the strongest binding factor for humanity. But no, over 20 million lives have been lost in wars in the last two millenniums for no reason other than religious hegemony. Millions more have also died as a result of religious persecution and events like the partition of India and the Jewish pogrom in the Second War etc.
Exact figures are irrelevant. But why should even one life have been lost to the pursuit of such honorable human values?
To understand how religion has emerged as the world’s largest killer after old age let us deviate. A bottle of ordinary packaged water costs you Rs 20 while a bottle of Evian may cost you Rs. 120. Why so much variation for a chemical compound in which each molecule comprising two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen?
We are told that Evian is no ordinary water. It is bottled at source in 15000 years-old glaciers and each drop of water takes years to sieve through a natural aquifer in the mountains and is ideal for detoxing the body, preventing and removing kidney and liver stones, helping the body heal and generate new cells in the body. No wonder Evian manages to sell at six times the price of normal bottled water.
Old rule of marketing. Add frills and fancies, mix hope and hype and there is nothing you cannot extract from any product. Religion is no different.
Love, compassion and forbearance are commodities just like water. Religion takes these values, issues guidelines, mandates symbols and rituals and simply converts the magnificent to the mundane. Making what and when you eat, what you wear and how you pray more important than the values you stand for. Unsurprisingly, millions are willing to die for temples, churches and mosques while you hardly ever hear a moral crusader fasting to death for love or even peace. As Gandhi once used to.
What Evian does to increase margins, religion does to possess your soul. So as to create armies of cattle who will accept that Hanuman could carry a mountain but reject virgin birth as being fantastical. Or swear by the Day of Judgment but find the idea of rebirth unacceptable. Or find pork acceptable and beef unacceptable. And vice versa.
And this this is not new.
After being founded in the seventh century, Islam grew rapidly sparking off a war of attrition between Christianity and Islam. It was a time of competitive conversion and drew heavily on the ability of religious leaders to create fierce loyalty and intense hatred. The rhetoric became shriller with terms like ‘infidels’, kafirs’, ‘sacrilege’ and ‘heresy’ started gaining currency.
By dividing the world into believers and non believers, the Bible and the Quran abetted the process. In fact the Old Testament happily suggested death by stoning as punishment for non believers. By the eleventh century matters reached their nadir with commencement of the Crusades.
The gratuitously named ‘Crusades’, suggesting a kind of lofty spiritual objective were nothing but a shameless effort to prove length and size. They started with one Pope Urban-2, raising an army of Catholics to ‘free the promised land’ from the Muslims. Yes, the Pope personally led the thuggery. The Crusades see-sawed intermittently for over four centuries during which time 15 million lives had been lost to the excesses of religion.
And the Holy Land remained where it had been.
While this was going on in Europe and the middle-east, in the sub-continent, the Hinduism concept was fighting an unequal battle with invaders from the West who decided to make India their home and become a part of the Indian landscape.
Hinduism was all that Islam and Christianity were not. It was less a religion and more a sort of a federation of faiths with no unifying system, no central authority and not even a common place of pilgrimage. Almost nothing could be said about Hinduism without the opposite not being equally true. In revealed religions at some point the debate ends at ‘because god says so’. Not so in Hinduism. Even the sacred texts were more philosophic than prescriptive in nature. And since there was no revelation from god nor any rules set by him, there was also no concept of sacrilege or heresy.
Walking out of Hinduism was easy. And perchance you strayed in, you didn’t know what to do next. This plurality was a strength as it enabled the religion to endure a thousand years of being ruled without giving up its culture but also a weakness as it prevented consolidation against invasions.
By 1947 we had been under Muslim and later Christian leadership for over a millennium but also had the legacy of a democracy and a secular constitution which kept religion and governance apart.
The turning point came in 2014 when BJP won with a decent majority. As the VHP Chief Ashok Singhal had famously declared, this was the first time India was to be ruled by the Hindus. Not true in a democratic and secular system but easy to see what propelled him to say so. When the NDA had won under Vajpayee, Hindu credentials of the BJP had been suppressed or at best kept very low-key.
The RSS, of which BJP is the political front, was formed in 1925 with a view to forging ‘the present-day scattered Hindu society into an organized and invincible force both on the plane of Adhyaatma and on the plane of material life’. Though this objective vitiated the concept of the vibrant pluralistic faith Hinduism is, perhaps it was inevitable. No king likes to rule over a kingdom with undefined boundaries, with no rules and regulations, different languages, and different cultures.
Two related aspects muddied the water. Islam and Christianity encouraged conversion but in the absence of a well-defined and coded framework, Hinduism could never return the favor. What do you convert a person to? There is no one Hindu template. The Hindu from Jammu may be completely different from the one in Jharkhand. Hence the need to create that template, both as a defense against perceived losses to conversion as well as reconverting when possible.
Focus at the foliage and it you can see a million shades of green but focus on the sky and the foliage appears just green. That is what the RSS decided to do. Define Hinduism not in terms of intrinsic common values but in terms of practices that differentiate it from Islam and Christianity, particularly the former. It was important to keep Islam as the target as Hindu Muslim relations had always been testy. They also knew that such is the diversity in India that if they strayed away from targeting Islam they could end up in no man’s land. The recent anti-dalit accusations proved their fears were right.
Unfortunately, at the very heart of this strategy is conflict. To make it work, you have to establish that the target religion is not just different but is wrong. By design, success will always be proportionate to the amount of conflict and hatred you can generate.
If Islam accepts beef, Hinduism must settle for nothing less than life-sentence for cow-slaughter. If Muslims prefer non-vegetarian food for its nutrition, Hindus must ask for meat-free days, if Muslims want a personal law, Hindus must ask for its repeal, if Muslims can be ultra-sensitive about the Prophet, so must Hindus be about their gods and goddesses. If a secular law, in some way or another appears to favor Muslims it must be mocked at for being appeasement. If it appears in any way to be against the stereotypical interests of the Muslims, it is nationalist.
The binary is endless. A minister went further and divided the country into Ramzadas, the believers and Haramzadas, the non-believers with the kind of ferocity that was explicit in terms like kafir and infidel a millennium ago.
Though it appears recent, the attempt to codify Hindu practices has been on the RSS agenda for very long though with only spikes of success.
The first serious effort happened during the Ram Janam Bhoomi movement. This included developing a passion for the color saffron, the practice of wearing a trishul on your person and the salutation Jai Shri Ram. More recently an aggressive love for the cow has been added to the list. And the stereotyped passive and accepting personality has been transformed with into shrill aggression.
The problem is that while Islam and Christianity were unified in a different era under the authority of god or his messengers, Hinduism is being sought to be codified by a loud social service organization with limited moral stature in a secular constitutional democracy. The result is a curious mix of majoritarian muscle-flexing, mobocracy and vigilante justice.
Will the codification of Hinduism actually happen? Will there be a time when Hindus across the country will conform to a common set of practices? Most unlikely. But that is unimportant. In this one instance the journey is the trauma.
So what does the future bode?
At least for me, more of the same. And with the current momentum, it is very unlikely that any party at the center will be very different. We are in a trough; just have to wade through it for a while.