So long as man is in a mere state of nature, his god is a mere nature-God — a personification of some natural force. Where man inhabits houses, he also encloses his Gods in temples. The temple is only a manifestation of the value which man attaches to beautiful buildings. Temples in honour of religion are in truth temples in honour of architecture.
— Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity
We begin with a simple truth: We live in a post-religious age. Religion has departed, only the appearance of religion remains. In the spiritual phase of religion, human beings are suffused with the consciousness of the divine, as in the insight that God and human beings are one. In such a state, the external accessories of religion — symbols, rituals, temples, sects, etc. — are superfluous.
Our seers and savants did not preside over religious structures and establishments. They sought oneness with the divine. They would have been ill-at-home amidst brick and mortar structures, cacophony of crowds, tinkling of coins and cackling of sermons. They dwelt in the abode of silence. In the serenity of their soul, they encountered the Eternal, and peered through the veil of maya.
The modern man prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, the appearance to the essence and the fanfare of religiosity to the fidelity of being in communion with God. The temple is a sign of man’s longing for the divine. If so, no temple is complete simply because the architect says it is. The paradox of a place of worship is that it is forever being built. After the physical structure is erected, the spiritual task begins, and continues. No temple is a place of worship, if it does not serve continually as a sign and site for man’s on-going, never-ending search for God. If and when this inward reality changes, a temple becomes a monument. “Believers” may swell. Priests may ply rites and rituals. But it’s no longer, spiritually, a temple. A communitarian meeting place? An identity marker? A sign of religious splendour and ascendancy? Sure, but not, in truth, a place of worship. Impressive cathedrals were built in the past all over Europe. But their architectural splendour had little to do with the spiritual longings of the people. If anything, they signaled cultural pride and presaged spiritual decline. European cathedrals now seem, in retrospect, ghostly monuments of religious self-assertion overshadowed by spiritual anticlimax.
There is nothing wrong about self-assertion, at the individual or collective level. To live is to assert. Being alive is a good, and it merits being celebrated. The all-important question is: How does one assert oneself in a spiritually valid way? The very fact that such a basic question has not been asked over decades in relation to a religious cauldron like the Ayodhya face-off, points to a decline in spiritual consciousness.
There are two contrary ways in which a religious community may assert itself. The first is the worldly way. It can impose its will on “the other”, the designated enemy. In this model, the more belligerently and brutally a community imposes itself on the other, the more triumphant it feels. But the problem here is this sense of fulfillment is, by definition, shallow and short-lived. It turns out to be a pyrrhic victory. That is so for the reason that, once the thunder and lightning of the conflict, the belligerent self-assertion over the other, is accomplished, something wakes up from deep within — the realisation that the defeated one is, somehow, a part of oneself. One may suppress this awareness. But the birth of this new consciousness is unavoidable as long as we remain human.
The second mode of self-assertion is Vedantic. This is not achieved through anything muscular, or at the expense of anyone else. In this model, assertion is co-extensive with consciousness. I don’t assert myself against anyone. I assert and celebrate myself — for and on behalf of my species — through an expansion of spiritual consciousness. As even a high school student knows, the greatness of a human being is determined by the extent of his or her awareness. Animals too are aware and imbued with consciousness; but their consciousness is of a limited kind. An animal is aware of its immediate surroundings and of other animals. For a caterpillar, the leaf it sits on is its world. For a lion, it is the territory it has marked out for itself. Not so, for a human being. Human consciousness can be larger than the universe. It is this that makes us human. Conversely, reduction in the range of our consciousness makes us regress to the animal stage.
Our species did not begin its earthly journey on a high note of awareness. It began, perhaps, like the caterpillar. It was the business of spirituality to help humankind to grow in consciousness till it reached the acme of spirituality at which it could be said with ecstasy: “The world is one family.” The core function of spirituality is to transform “otherness” into togetherness. Seen in the spiritual light, “enemy” emerges as “neighbour”.
It is naïve to assume that mediation in Ayodhya will succeed somehow. A responsible practice of mediation requires that an outlook conducive to a just denouement is created. It is universally true that nothing changes on the ground, until the outlook changes. Mediation, undertaken from a mindset of self-assertion of the martial kind, is anything but mediation.
It could well be that the Supreme Court is mindful of this logic. Perhaps that explains the inclusion of Sri Sri Ravishankar in the panel of mediators. But, for Sri Sri, this could be a double-edged sword. He will realise soon enough how difficult it is to stand steadfast on the spiritual foundation in a charged atmosphere, in which religion has already been superseded by politics and the dynamic of mediation is overshadowed by triumphalism. But, the beauty of spirituality is that it succeeds in its mission, not because the circumstances are propitious, but because destiny wills it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 25, 2019, under the title ‘Otherness to togetherness’.
(Swami Agnivesh is a Vedic scholar and social activist and Thampu is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)