-A Hindu Perspective.


Swami Agnivesh

The current scenario

            Asia is turning into a spiritual battleground, almost unawares. For a long time religions kept fighting with each other, allowing materialism to sneak in and colonize the hearts and minds of our people. The marriage between religion and materialism has bred religious fundamentalism, obscurantism and communal politics. Escapist and cultic versions of religions are having a field day in many parts of Asia. This is especially the case in India. People want to move closer to God, but get away from each other. Yet God is also believed to be the principle of love animating every human being. Hate is seen to be replacing love. In the name of light, people are engaging with work that spreads darkness. Devotion to truth expresses itself as the loss of all inhibition concerning falsehood.

           In the midst of all this, the tyranny of the priestly class continues unabated. They sell their opiates and tranquilizers to the credulous who are then grateful, ironically for being taken for a ride. The strategy of ‘divide and rule’ invented by imperialists and colonizers, baptized in the waters of mindless devotion, enables them to manipulate the masses. A tragic by-product of this situation is that religions see each other as enemies. The interfaith encounter continues to be plagued by the mindset of religious imperialism, with its metaphors of domination, mutual suspicion and anxiety.

           The new awareness

            Mounting evidence compels us today to recognize that this crude state of affairs helps only the vested interests in the field of religion and politics. The unspiritual idea and practice of religion has disabled it from being the “the salt of the earth and the light of the world”. If anything, it seems to escalate the existing darkness. Spiritually sensitive people in Asia, and other parts of the world are getting disillusioned with the conflictual model of inter-religious relationships. Our many divisions have crippled our effectiveness and bred cynicism especially in the minds of the youth regarding the usefulness of religion.            

            Hence, at the present time there is a crying need to redeem the inter-faith scenario from its degradation. This would involve a total reversal in the direction of the flow of religion. Today people in general see places of worship and the religious establishments as places of refuge where they go for some special favours and advantages. Religion is seen as a sea into which everything flows and disappears. Instead, religion should be seen as a river that flows out towards individuals and societies and, in this process, transforms people and enhances the quality of their life.

Some of us are engaged in this very enterprise in India. At a time when religious fundamentalism threatens to tear apart the fabric of our society and nation, we have launched a multi-religious forum to restore the focus on social justice. This was born out of our conviction that true religious cooperation will not be a reality unless we move on from our obsession with doctrines to an active engagement with the realities of the world in which we live.  The dialogue of words needs to be complemented with the dialogue of deeds. Out of this vision was born “Religions for Social Justice”: a multi-religious forum for the promotion of social justice in the Indian context. We believe that justice is the quintessence of spirituality.

It is not enough to insist that religions should come together. Rather it is important to ask the question about why one needs to come together? Togetherness without a sense of mission only aggravates problems. It is neither possible nor desirable for escapist religions to come together and stay together for any period of time.

The climate of division

            It is important to realize that the current inter-religious outlook is dominated by two major factors. First, the centripetal force in religion has superseded the centrifugal force. Religions are driven by a desire either to draw everything outside of itself into its own vortex, or to shut out what is different from itself. At the root of both is the desire to define all others in terms of one’s own norms and goals which is a sort of ontological imperialism. As long as this mindset dominates the domain of religions, there can be no genuine mutual trust or cooperation among religions.

            Second, the culture of our times is designed on domination and distance. Basic to the spirit of domination is the unwillingness to grant survival space to others. The project of assimilation is born out of this. The logic of domination gives rise to a culture of distance, especially with respect to that which refuses to be assimilated. This is the spirit of modern culture. It has a special genius for coercing whatever is different into conforming to its own norms and goals. Unknowingly, religions get infected by this spirit and pave the way for religious fundamentalism. It is a historical fact that the rise of religious fundamentalism coincides with the ascendancy of materialism.

            The problem with this mindset is the inability to see the truth both about oneself and about others. The mindset of division has a built-in compulsion to distort and demonize others. Those who know nothing about the faith of their neighbours are trigger-happy in denouncing it. What makes this situation extremely pathetic is that it is out of their mistaken zeal to oblige their god [arguably a small god!] that they thus bear false witness to their neighbours and their religious life. Ironically, our depraved religiosity robs us of our freedom to see what is good in others. Rather than liberating people, religions of this kind tend to enslave people. Religion, which is meant to be a sphere of love thus, starts to breed hate and conflicts.

            What makes it even more heartbreaking is the fact that people disown their own personal experiences of the goodness of their neighbours of other faiths and allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the fundamentalist propaganda of hate unleashed by vested interests from a distance. People who lived together as good neighbours for years have been made to spill each other’s blood by their communal manipulators. 

            This has been possible only because religion has been allowed to develop in isolation from the life of the people. From being a way of life, it has become an Establishment without eyes or heart. The primacy of life is lost sight of. The growth and welfare of the people have become secondary issues. Abstract notion of what comprises religion and its interests. The paradigm shift that is required in the inter-religious space, if a new vision is to emerge and prevail, is a shift from “Religion as Establishment” to “Religion as life”. No project or advocacy that undermines the sanctity of life in any form whatsoever should be passed or patronized in the name of religion.  The primary business of religion is to nurture a way of life that is conducive to human dignity and fulfillment. 

The need for a vision


            Vision is not just any idea; or the most esoteric of ideas. Vision is the embodiment of an idea that would, if accepted and implemented, lead to a breakthrough in the present impasse. A vision encapsulates a new direction. The prospect of a breakthrough will not be attractive to those who are the hangers-on of status quo. This makes sure that the visions that come go a-begging. Our problem is not that visions rarely come; but instead, our problem is our inability to accept and follow the given vision.

            The desire for a vision, without the willingness to affect a radical break with the past, degenerates into a craving for mere novelty. Novelty need not imply a shift in foundations. It is, more often than not, a different exercise on the same foundation. In the kind of “conference culture” that we have developed, devoid as it is of any zeal to bring out radical changes, we may mistake a dilettantish interest in the idea of visions for a genuine openness to a new vision. Ironically, those who seem to be seeking desperately for new visions may be the most reluctant to accept a new vision as and when it comes.

            The question to be asked in this context is: “Who welcomes a new vision?” Is it not for the victims of the old that the new vision constitutes a ‘good news’? But it is precisely this that is rarely, if ever, heard of in our conferences. The spiritual leaders of the past perfected the art of understanding and articulating the perspective of the victims. Jesus said that he came to be crucified. The true meaning of this statement is that he came to experience truth as seen by the victims of the systems of injustice and untruth. The story of Lord Krishna is similar. It is because Krishna saw through the crudity and cruelty of the religio-political Establishment that he resorted to leela (play-activity) as his subversive strategy. The best way to refuse to play the game of the establishment, is to play an alternate game. Leela is the best rebuttal to the world’s pretensions to seriousness.   

            Today, we do not know the exact shape of the new vision that is emerging from the chaos of our times. But we know its essential feature. This new vision should be people-centered. It will insist on the equal, intrinsic worth of all human beings.

Asia and religions

            All religions are Asiatic. The only exception to this pattern is the quasi-religions of materialism and Marxism. This fact notwithstanding, the saddest truth is that the fate of religions has been substantially affected by non-Asiatic factors. Even today the mindset that rules, is that the inter-religious space is hardly Asiatic. Catholics in India need a nod from the Pope in Rome to accept their brethren in the Protestant world as fellow-Christians. Today Asiatic religions are being commandeered by the western spirit of cultural nationalism and consumerist materialism, presumably to play out the drama of artificially contrived civilizational conflicts. Asiatic religions are on the point of ceasing to be Asian.  However, this does not mean to say that Asia is all spiritual. This is only to caution us on the near-total hegemony of the tools and paradigms of the West in the discourses on religion and religious plurality.

            What has been lost in this process is the equilibrium between the local and the global, between the intimate and the ultimate, between the temporal and the eternal, between the rational and the supra-rational. The western epistemology, for all its apparent complexity and sophistication, is essentially unipolar. That is why it is incapable of coping with paradoxes. Paradoxes inhere in life. Life is both good and bad and the distance between pain and pleasure is almost hypothetical. The universal must take root in the local. In western epistemology it is “either- or”. That is why this tradition of knowing and relating to the other is uni-directional and intolerant. It is inherently antithetical to ‘coming together’ and ‘community building’ as is proved by the evidence of history. The spiritual paradigm is, without exception, a harmony of the opposites, which is the bottom-line of the dynamics of life. The paradigm-shift that we need in the domain of religions is precisely this. The alternative is to succumb to the destructiveness of a religious outlook possessed by the hegemonic spirit that operates necessarily in terms of assimilation or annihilation.