Reflections on religion

Thoughts about how to write this entry have been running through my mind quite frequently for the month that we’ve been back from India. But now feels almost like the right time to write about it. It’s Sunday, after all.

(I fully suspect that some folks will be offended by or dismissive of this post — whether atheist, Indian secularist, Hindu nationalist, Christian fundamentalist, etc. Before reading, know that I’m neither Hindu nor Christian, though I deeply admire the ability of people to have faith in something that I don’t apprehend. Deep breath . . . .)

Traveling through India it’s hard not to notice religion. With over 900 million Hindus, 135 million Muslims, and millions of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Parsis, Baha’is, and Jews, this should hardly be surprising. The Hindu mandirs (temples) are all marked by flags, red for a female deity and white for a male god; on the train up to Shimla it seemed that every prominent hilltop had a building with flags waving. On the way to seeing the Taj Mahal, an enormous consecrated Muslim site in Agra, we passed an enormous Vishnu statue standing beside the highway.

On the way to Agra, I asked our Sikh driver to clarify something: “Are Sikhs Hindu?” He pointed to his turban. “Turban, Sikh. No turban, no Sikh. Hindu!” I asked a similar question to our Hindu guide in Jaisalmer after we went into a Jain temple. “Oh sure! Jains are Hindu. Sikhs, too.” Many Hindus also claim Christians, Muslims, and most other people of faith. (Nimmi reminds me that it’s just as dangerous to generalize about Hinduism and its various beliefs as it is to lump all Christians — or even all Protestants — together. There is even monotheism of sorts within certain branches.)

Religion pervades public and private life. Holy symbols — the Om (ॐ) and the swastika — adorn buildings, rickshaws, bumpers sickers, and clothing. While we were photographing outside the temple to Lakshmi in Jaisalmer, our tour guide ducked inside. On a few train platforms we saw saddhus, lifelong pilgrims who travel India penniless. At Nimmi and Jay’s wedding a contingent of a half-dozen priests and holymen conducted the ceremony, and we all traveled to the temple during the engagement.

Looking through the paper, I came across a number of articles mixing religion and science. Perhaps some irony was present in the Economic Times article that started by saying “If Lord Rama blesses the Punjab with a good monsoon, the harvest will be good again” and then went on to explain the scientific modeling of the seasonal rains; but if it was there, I completely missed it.

By and large, India — the world’s largest democracy — seems at ease with being the world’s largest pluralist society. The prime minister is Sikh. The head of the ruling government, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian-born Christian. Statistically, this would be like the U.S. having a Jew for president and a Muslim heading the GOP. (Okay, that kind of made me chuckle…)

Of course, during our travels we mostly met Hindus, and I got the sense that Muslims lived “over there” out of sight in the poorer sections of Hindustan and Rajasthan. It’s also easy to misattribute the tensions between India and Pakistan to religious differences between the nations; while I do think Indians are nervous of the risk of theocracy next door, lingering ill-will because of the 1947 partition, the continuing war over Jammu and Kashmir up north, and occasional attacks by Pakistani-supported militants within India proper play a much bigger role.

Religion and nationalism are further conflated in Indian politics, as we got to see firsthand. Just after we arrived, LK Advani, the head of the BJP — India’s major Hindu nationalist party — said that one of the major architects of the partition between India and Pakistan (Jinnah) was, in fact, a great secularist nation-builder. The ensuing flap caused crisis within the BJP and led to a fair bit of national debate about the future of the BJP, the peace process in Kashmir, and relations in general with Pakistan. It’s quite like a soap opera…

Actually more of a tragic opera sometimes. A couple of weeks after we returned home, militants attacked a Hindu site in Ayodhya. The site used to be a mosque until LK Advani allegedly incited a riotous mob to destroy it in 1992, ushering the largest wave of deadly sectarian violence since partition.

By and large though, Indians seem to go with the flow concerning both religion and politics. “Traditional values” seem to play a much bigger role in shaping Indian culture than religion, per se. I have to confess that I sometimes have trouble telling the border between these two, but most Indians regardless of religion (as far as I could tell) seemed to share a similar set of values regarding social interactions, members of the family, the role of women, and tradition in general. This perception was reinforced as I read Sarah MacDonald’s book Holy Cow. The vignettes of an Australian who followed her fiancé to India and embarked on a tour of India’s religious communities made for interesting reading on the train and during our afternoon siestas.

In Madras I needed a new book — Kipling’s Kim kept putting me to sleep — so I decided to read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven : A Story of Violent Faith, which a number of colleagues recommended to me. Even though it was about Mormons, it seemed to have a lot of relevance to the collision of tradition, modernity, religion, fundamentalism, and extremism that is happening in several places in south Asia — and sadly is exported through violence to the U.S., Spain, the U.K., and elsewhere. Though I personally find the extremists’ positions abhorant, after being in a rather tradition-bound culture for a few weeks and experiencing mild culture shock myself after returning home, I can begin to understand just how different and aberrant American/European culture might appear to others.

So now I’m back in a slightly less religious country (by percentage of the population) with fewer primary religions. As in India, religion permeates daily life on both the personal and public levels, so I wonder about the perception that many religious people in America have that religion is under attack, especially a religion that 85% of Americans claim as their own. Religious pluralism in America sounds like a happy, almost believable dream based on the legal principle of religious tolerance but which is caught up in the reality of a tradition that is overwhelmingly Christian.

Perhaps the right way to end this rambling entry is with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Ten Commandments in public places that they issued a week after we returned. Other than thinking the court made a rather half-hearted legal attempt to “split the baby,” I was unexpectedly unmoved by the decision. The majority of the country claims to accept the decalogue as instructions from God on how to comport their lives, so I have no problem seeing them posted in public — especially since the highest civil law in the land says I’m free to believe them or not. But I couldn’t help thinking that the people who want to erect more of these religious monuments in the midst of a secular nation (which is becoming ever more pluralistic) are acting a bit like the old LK Advani, inciting their followers to relentlessly pursue a national religion that doesn’t value others.

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