Monday, December 24, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - IV

In Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi, mentions Arundhati Roy saying that Gandhi introduced religion into politics and in the hands of lesser individuals that followed, its misuse was inevitable. The first half of the story is not true. Religion was already a part of the Indian political scene before Gandhi returned to India in 1915. In the late 19th century, Syed Ahmad Khan had charged Congress with benefiting Hindus and harming Muslims. In Bombay, Muslims felt frightened when Tilak mobilized Hindus around religious festivals. Bengal was partitioned into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority parts in 1905. The Muslim league was founded in 1906 to look after the interests of Muslims and wanted a separate electorate. Rajmohan Gandhi writes:
Between a politics that pretended that religion was absent from India and a politics that squarely faced religion's hold, Gandhi chose the latter, and tried to remind all concerned that true Hinduism taught goodwill and that true Islam,  Sikhism and Christianity did the same. One survey suggests that he made the right choice, and also that without him, intolerance would have been even stronger in both Hindu India and Muslim India. 
Gandhi’s prayer meetings were a unique experiment in bringing people together. They did not require a building, they did not bring in priests and were not restricted to people of a particular faith. They combined devotional practice and song with discussions of group and national issues. During the Calcutta riots at the time of Partition, if there was an objection to reading some verses from the Koran, Gandhi would drop it from the schedule. In his talk later, he would discuss that very objection and at the end of his talk, the protester would often withdraw his objection.

Even critics of Gandhi's method of mixing religion with politics said that his prayer meetings had a calming effect. After he brought the Partition-related riots in Calcutta under control, an awed Mountbatten wrote that Gandhi did alone in Calcutta what 50,000 troops couldn't do  in Punjab. Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our  manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.' This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past.

This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.  In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’.

In Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama endorses Gandhi's view of religion when he says that 'any deed done with good motivation is a religious act'. He therefore sees no contradiction between politics and religion and says that religious people are morally obliged to help solve the problems of the world. He says that politicians need religion more than hermits. 'If a hermit acts out of bad motivation, he harms no one but himself. But if someone who can directly influence the whole of society acts with bad motivation then a great many people will be adversely affected.'

In his essay An Anti-secularist manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes that in the Western concept, ‘secular’ is used in the sense of being opposite to the word ‘sacred’. In the Indian concept, it is not opposite to ‘sacred’ but to ‘ethnocentrism’, ‘xenophobia’ and ‘fanaticism’. This Indian concept is what the leaders of the freedom movement adopted knowing the Western concept of secularism will not make any sense to an overwhelmingly religious population.

The separation of religion and politics has not kept religion out of politics. It has only resulted in the more unacceptable and anti-democratic forms of religion to gain more power and visibility. When we abandon symbols of religious tolerance, others appropriate them, which is what has now happened with Gandhi's legacy . Ashis Nandy says in "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and The Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World" :
For more than three millennia, human beings have invested some of their best cognitive and affective resources in the spiritual and the religious. That investment, in retrospect, might not have been uniformly wise and uniformly creative. But it has not been uniformly forgettable either. The investment in secular statecraft and secular public life, on the other hand, has been relatively recent and, though it has also often been immensely creative, it has been spectacularly destructive, too. 
In any case, the second set of investments can never compare with the three millennia of human achievement in the sphere of religion. Civilization, as we know it, is largely the achievement of the religious way of life, though we try hard to forget that part of the story. I say this as a non-believer who has invested some years of life in the study of the psychological and cultural sources of human creativity. 
Can we ignore or bypass these achievements for the sake of a theory of progress that seeks to wipe clean the pre-Enlightenment world or freeze it as a museum piece? 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - III

The best example of someone using religion in politics is Gandhi. All his activities including politics were governed by the spirit of religion. 'You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general - The sum total of all those in me is my religion.' He said that if religion is concerned with practical life, it is also concerned with politics. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realized that he couldn't do even social work without politics.

Gandhi looked on religion in terms of experience rather than ritual practice. His perception of religion was not in any way connected with denominational religion. He finds major religious traditions giving people the moral material to frame their choices as they go about their daily lives. He does not accept the idea of a single 'best' tradition and maintains that each religious tradition speaks in its way of the shared experiences and problems faced by people living in that community.

He didn’t believe in just talk about religion but kept reminding people that actions speak louder than words. Things had to be done rather than merely contemplated. The exclusive cultivation of inwardness leads one to neglect the practical aspects of life which does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on society. He therefore does not advocate a retreat into the ‘cave of the heart’ like Indian holy men but the power of religion to move hearts must be used to bring people together when a course of action is being planned.

He re-interpreted Hinduism so drastically that it is not recognizable to many Hindus. Hinduism, for Gandhi, was not exclusive, but a broad and inclusive faith, a tolerant and open-minded religion, accommodating the best in other religions. He was ready to detect the same insight in men of  different faiths so he says, 'Khan Saheb Abdul Gaffar Khan derives his belief in non-violence from the Koran.' He retained his eclectic view on religion throughout his life. Here are a few quotes to show where he stood on religion:
  • Hind Swaraj - Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter if we take different roads as long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.
  • Speech in September 1927 - I believe that all the great religions of the world are true more or less. I say “more or less” because I believe that everything that the human hand touches, by reason of the very fact that human beings are imperfect, becomes imperfect. 
  • Before March 12, 1940 - I do not regard God as a person. Truth for me is God . . . God is an Idea.   
  • The Story of My Experiments with Truth - devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
  • October 1927, Young India - I do not believe in people telling others of their faith, especially with a view to conversion. Faith does not admit of telling. It has to be lived and then it becomes self-propagating. 
  • September 1946"If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!" 
The heart can cause passions that can result in a course of action that can cause trouble. But to say that religion always causes conflict is an overstatement. All religions, even the most tolerant ones, can be used or misused and can include as well as exclude. After Independence and Gandhi's removal from the political scene (much to the relief of who Ashis Nandy calls the 'moderns', who were wedded to secular statecraft), the intelligentsia abandoned the field of religion as something that the poor, illiterate villagers pursued.

In the absence of the tolerant, inclusive interpretation of religion that Gandhi had provided, various regressive and exclusive versions of religion sprang up in the public sphere. By the 1980s these forces had become dominant and started speaking on behalf of all their co-religionists. This was easy since there were no competing ideas in the marketplace of religion. The few noises that the intelligentsia made giving an alternative interpretation of religion seemed merely reactive.

In his essay An Anti-secularist Manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes about these regressive forces: ‘Instead of making religious use of politics, they make political use of religion, turning it into an instrument of political mobilization within a psephocratic model – a model in which elections and elected ‘kings’ dominate the system.’ Instead of being a means of expressing cultural values, religion has become a legitimate instrument for perusing personal and group self-interest. Instead of private faith and public agnosticism, what has become dominant is public faith and private agnosticism.

Gandhi once said that 'religions are only as good or as bad as their professors make them out to be'. Hence Raimundo Panikkar said - 'the separation between religion and politics is lethal and their identification suicidal'.