Swami Agnivesh and Rev. Valson Thampu

Neither Buddha nor Christ nor Krishna nor Mahavir nor Ram came to establish religions. They came as servants and spokesmen of authentic humanity. They put the spotlight on the intrinsic and incomparable worth of every human being, irrespective of the accidents of birth and wealth. The social and moral ideals they advocated were revolutionary in character. They were stingingly subversive of the status quo.

But over the years the custodians of their spiritual legacy have corrupted them into the keepers of the status quo. On the authority of their sacred memory and liberating teachings, oppressive religious establishments have been erected, driven by a coalition of vested interests. Their radical teachings have been rendered wholly toothless: the ingredients of an escapist piety. The establishments first fought and later hijacked the spiritual ethics of these servants of humanity and perverted them into the religious fares they would dish out to the faithful in doctored forms. What began as spiritual ferments were reduced to ideologies that would subserve the interests of the ruling elite in every age and society.

The foremost concern of the ruling class is to justify and perpetuate its monopoly. As a result those who dared to disagree with their schemes -the prophets and the reformers- were stigmatized and eliminated as heretics and enemies of God. The genius of the religious elite has always been in inventing myths and methodologies for enforcing unthinking conformity. This is done mainly in two ways. In the first place they invent myths, presuming scriptural authority and privileged knowledge of God's will, calculated to discourage the victims of the
status quo from revolting against their misery and degradation. This involves a psychological double-ploy. If you put up with mountainous injustice, all avoidable forms of suffering, oppression and indignity, you will be rewarded in the world to come. Alternately, if you dare to rebel and imperil the status quo, you and the generations after you, will be cursed for rebellious impiety. The gross and growing immorality of the establishment, on the other hand, is tacitly assumed to be under the spell of divine favour and protection. The mockery of the immoral establishment preaching the morality of conformity to the crushed and the exploited is lost even on the victims of this systemic hypocrisy.

In all this, the customary trick of the religious elite has been to arrogate to themselves the monopoly over the religious heritage and to degrade it into props for their vested interests. The great teachers, God Himself, were promptly taken into custody! If the religious establishment were pleased to see God as a man, it had to be so. If, on the other hand, it seemed preferable to dress up God as a woman, then too it had to be fine. If they decided that the divine had to be set up in a temple, God had to concur. It simply does not occur to anyone to wonder if God is comfortable with this arrangement. There is enough evidence in the scriptures that God has been vehemently unhappy over the fanciful accommodations created by human hands, mainly -as he knew- with a view to localizing his authority and to claim the rest of the earth for ungodly purposes.

But what we have done to God in the name of religion pales into insignificance in comparison to what we have done to our fellow human beings in the name of religion. First, the idea of God has been perverted into an anti-humanist ideology. God is forever keen to affirm and enhance human worth uniformly for all people; for all are equally his children. In fact, the foremost spiritual goal is to actualize and accentuate the worth of human beings. It is because of a commitment to human worth, and not because of some abstract moral or philosophical theory, that Lord Krishna did battle with the forces of evil. It was for the same reason that Jesus thundered, "The Sabbath is made for man; and not man for the Sabbath." If Lord Buddha had not ascribed supreme
significance to human destiny, he would not have abandoned the material comforts of a palace and set out as a seeker of light and truth. Righteousness, as embodied in Lord Ram, is an eloquent testimony to the importance of being human and the spiritual duty to create conditions favourable for its development and expression.

All religious establishments have corrupted the spiritual light they pretend to preserve and propagate. They have made a mockery of the liberating spiritual message and mission of the enlightened ones. As against the incomparable worth that the spiritual teachers have ascribed to human life, the religious elite in every age and society have cynically played with the lives of the faithful as means to protect and promote their vested interests. Centuries of religious conditioning has so crippled our capacity to think objectively when it comes to religion
that the obvious contradiction between precept and practice is invariably lost on us. Millions have been convinced -and they continue to be convinced- that it is meritorious to kill and die in the name of God, even though God is the giver and protector of life, the impartial promoter of human wellbeing and the embodiment of love and compassion. Unspiritual religious conditioning has always been directed towards establishing a devious correlation between devotion to God and devotion to the religious elite, even though the latter often amounts to a betrayal of the former!

Secondly, and this is related to the first, the liberating function of religion has been replaced by an enslaving one. Even a casual glance at the life and work of the great spiritual leaders of the past proves that their priority was to empower individuals and to transform societies. The priority of the religious elite, in contrast, has been to invent excuses, explanations and justifications for the unending suffering of the people. Suffering, it is argued for example, has religious merit. Blessed are the poor; for God is in solidarity with them. Why the religious establishment also should not stick its neck out for them is, of course, a question not to be asked. The poor should not grumble or resent their miserable predicament, lest they jeopardize their reward in the world to come. Your present suffering, to take another ingenious explanation, is on account of your sins in the past births and it is impious to resent it. All that one must do is to endure it meekly and hope for an improvement in the next birth. Can there be a cleverer way of throwing dust in the eyes of the victims, so that they will put up with their misery endlessly and not see their plight for what it is? Ungodly religion thus stifles human aspirations and perpetuates under-development by offering substitute gratifications. It deludes the masses into believing that their misery is the supposed will of a loving and just God. People are thus  prevented from  desiring or

achieving a real change in their situation, which works out to the advantage of the beneficiaries of the status quo.

How different from all this were the teachings of Buddha, Guru Nanak, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Mahavir, and Jesus Christ! They were willing to stake everything, even their lives, on the priority they ascribed to human beings. They were flaming humanists. It is this human dimension that religions seem to have wholly lost and which needs to be most urgently recovered today. This alone will ensure that religion becomes the hope rather than the opium of the masses. Then religion will become a clarion call to liberty, dignity and quality of life for all people: a battle cry against injustice and oppression, a bulwark against the hosts of adharmic forces that today threaten us from all directions. This will also make sure that the constructive and ennobling scope of religions, rather than their destructive and alienating forces, are brought into play in the public arena of our multi-religious society.

And most importantly, this will pave the way for a harmony of religions in the pursuit of the common good all. It does not have to be argued that the current conflictual model of inter-religious outlook and strategies has been invented by the vested interests that monopolized the religious sphere. Vested interests and conflicts go hand-in-hand. The latter is the means for legitimizing and perpetuating the former. The downside of this situation is that it presupposes the instrumentality of human beings. Millions have been sacrificed in ungodly religious gameplans. Billions have been kept suppressed and exploited for centuries. The monstrous contradiction that we have entertained for too long in the sphere of religion by which religion is the seed for war and wickedness rather than peace and justice needs to be roundly denounced and renounced.

The religious elite have had a variety of incarnations over a period of time. The most dramatic of these in our times is the mushrooming of god-men. It is interesting and instructive to discern the formula on which they put together their circumlocution office. Religion becomes in their hands a "false hopes industry" comprising a curious cocktail of miracles, magic, sex, crime, and charity. The effect of all this is to enslave rather than empower the people. This bogus religiosity will continue to delude the masses with magical expectations, corrupt our work culture and foster an attitude of escapism rather than engagement and reform. What is conspicuous by its absence in the idea of religion practised by god-men in all religions is the profundity and ultimacy of the worth that God ascribes to all human beings. While Jesus of Nazareth, as Karl Marx observed, shed his blood to wash away the sins of the world, the religious kulaks and elite in every religion seek to cover their sins with the blood of their followers. This may be an over-statement; but it is, still, the over-statement of an historical truth. From the perspective of human worth and welfare in respect of life both before and after death, freedom from ungodly religion is at
least as important as freedom for religion. The sooner we realize it, the better.