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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Monopoly religion

It is deeply sad that a most gloriously inventive,radical and genuinely pious religious community like the Sikhs now seems to be frequently hostage to a regime of internal intolerance.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | New Delhi |
May 26, 2009 9:45:30 am

It is deeply sad that a most gloriously inventive,radical and genuinely pious religious community like the Sikhs now seems to be frequently hostage to a regime of internal intolerance. Not only was this tradition founded on the premise of an astonishing synthesis; it allowed an amazing internal diversity as well. In the nineteenth century,there were a large number of traditions with which Sikhs identified: Khalsa,Nirmala,Udasi,Nanak-Panthi,Nihang,Kalu Panthi,Ram Dasi,Kuka,Nirankari,etc. Now it is fair to say that over the course of the twentieth century this diverse tradition has also succumbed to the cardinal sins any religious tradition can commit: establish a coercive set of monopolies.

The roots of the current conflict that took a murderous turn in Vienna will,in due course be traced to contingent causes. On the face of it,both the violence in Vienna and the violent response in Punjab will turn out to have political overtones. But underlying this conflict is the fact that Sikh identity has been transformed over the course of the twentieth century,often in the direction of internal intolerance.

Some of its followers have succumbed to the idea that there can be only one authoritative interpretation of the tradition,there can be only one authority pronouncing over temporal aspects of the religion,and that both of these monopolies will also be tied to a territorial imagination. The attempt is to monopolise the master narrative of Sikh tradition,to eviscerate its diverse imaginings,and to concentrate power in organisations like the SGPC. You take all of these aspirations,and align them with religious politics and you will get the combustible mix that we are seeing in Punjab.

The blunt truth is that the drive to standardise Sikh identity is the root cause of so many of these troubles. It is not often discussed in public,but there is no getting away from the fact that organised groups within Sikhism,including the SGPC,have served to silence internal criticism within the tradition. Openly challenging authority has become a risky business,and a number of Sikh intellectuals feel under pressure not to challenge the insidious monopolies that are putting the liberal imagination within Sikhism at great risk.

It is a truism that the conditions for generating an enlarged and liberal outlook are less a function of the doctrine of a religion,but more a product of the fragmentation of authority. When any tradition is comfortable with the idea that there is no monopoly over authority,over interpretation,it is more likely to be comfortable with internal dissent. The fragmentation of authority is important for the intellectual vitality of any tradition. But the move in organised Sikhism has often been in the reverse direction: to uphold monopoly over authority and homogeneity of identity at all cost. Unless the tradition comes to terms with this increasing internal intolerance it will remain hostage to violence.

Many religious identities see themselves under siege in the modern world,and are inventing new abstract identifications that do away with the richness of traditions. In that sense Sikhism is not exceptional. But in the Indian context the fact that so much of its authority has been closely linked to politics,complicates its character. Political parties,let alone unfriendly powers,will not hesitate to fish in this political cauldron. It is important that this conflict be contained,and justice done,before it acquires dangerous proportions. And it is important to learn the lesson that monopolies within any religion are dangerous: they generate more conflict. One can only hope that the religion will return to the eternal and limitless verities of the sabda,and not be hijacked by the narcissism of so many little selves.

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