Religion is our strength — and weakness. Religion serves as a beacon of light when it helps to make us better human beings. For that, religion has to be rational, and our practise of it, reasonable. Every religion, in its origin, was refreshingly rational. It is when class and group interests hijacked religious beliefs that dogma gained the upper hand.
Look at the religious issues uppermost in our national concerns now — cow vigilantism and strident orthodoxy that pretends the discriminatory custom of triple talaq is a pillar of Islam. Both camps are an embarrassment to their respective religions. Religions arose when people were deficient in their understanding of fundamental issues — the core function of religion is to set people free. But it is here that the merchants of religion play havoc. Blind faith is their passport to anti-people criminality.
Religion turns human beings towards God, so that they are led out of narrow-mindedness. Therefore, any religion which advocates divisive agendas is an insult to God and human beings. We must see through the games religious ventriloquists play.
From a constitutional angle, freedom of choice is basic to the practice of religion. This assumption is spiritually sound — but religious agents who claim protection under Article 25 flout this freedom. No religion respects the freedom of an individual to make free choices with respect to the religion he or she wishes to practice. All religions function on the basis of birth: You are born a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. Christians and Muslims, who are keen to convert, will not allow, much less encourage, their flock to choose any other religion. Article 25 should, according to them, facilitate one-way traffic.
Every religious establishment is keen to focus on religious rituals: No one presents the philosophical core. It is surprising that Hindus don’t react when Hinduism is equated with caste, cows or a Ram mandir. Why don’t Christians feel troubled when church life is, in most respects, a contradiction of Jesus’s teachings? Jesus was passionate about justice and dignity. Where is that to be found in the agenda of the church?
In a multi-religious society like India, it is dangerous to allow religious wheeler-dealers to wreak havoc. Every religious agenda that promotes alienation among citizens should be disallowed. Religions need to be liberated from so-called places of worship. Temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras and so on have nothing to do with godliness. They are centres of materialism, corruption and greed.
I would propose the following as priorities: First, the indoctrination of children from birth onwards regarding a single faith, so that their freedom of choice is virtually abolished, should stop. Second, children, through education, should be familiarised with world religions, so they can make informed choices. Third, every attempt should be made to promote a critical mind in children. The worst disservice religions do is that, by promoting orthodoxy, they kill free thinking, innovation and initiative, which despoils our potential. Religions, as agents of liberation, must promote free inquiry. The freedom of religion is meaningless without freedom from religion.
Next, the all-inclusive vision of our seers, vasudhaiva kutumbakam, is something all religious communities can endorse without feeling homogenised. Transcending division is a sign that we are truly godly — every discriminative custom should be eradicated.
Finally, the poor need to be seen as God’s equal children — Aryans, as the Vedas and Swami Dayanand taught us. Paying lip-service to them should stop. The poor as our priority must be reflected in our budgetary allocations and schemes. The poor should get full protection against exploitation.
A national confederation of religions, accredited by all communities, must beconstituted to speak on national issues, from a non-partisan perspective, on the lines of the National Integration Council.
The most important contribution that religions can make to India is by counterpointing expediency, which drives politics and statecraft with long-term wisdom. Total submission to expediency cheapens a nation. Time attains significance only under the aegis of eternity. Indeed, religions are meant to embody the intimations of eternity within the fleeting nature of man-made systems, structures and institutions.
The writer is president emeritus, World Council of Arya Samaj