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Articles from Pre-1998 Issues 

Religion as I see It

by Neerja Mattoo

I do not believe in the fashionable rejection of religion. As I see it, religion - I mean every religion - has a beautiful face that satisfies the deepest of human urges, but which becomes tarnished, distorted, even defaced in the imperfect hands of the human beings who pride themselves on practising it! Let me explain.

In its purest form, religion was born as a quest for the knowledge of the unknown. I shall not go into the evolution of the religious urge - I think the desire to find answers to the questions that constantly plague the sensitive mind, is a fact of human consciousness itself. The very fact of existence, the act of being, demands an explanstion. And religion is the codification of human attempts through intellectual development to give meaning to the chaotic mess of life. The ultimate triumph of good over evil promised by every religion, enables us to go through life in this world. Otherwise its Unreason, Injustice, even Absurdity which confront us at every step, would surely overwhelm us. At the highest level, religion is a reaching out to lift the veils of mystery that hide the ultimate reality from us. At a lower level, the thought of an All-pervading, All-knowing, All-loving, Perfect - Being who presides ever our destinies, is a nice, comforting thought. It creates a warm but tough core within that makes it possible for us to cope with disorders, individual and collective. At a still lower level, religious belief in an ambivalent presence, to be summoned whenever a crisis looms ahead, keeps us joint and sees us through. Aren't we all familiar with the sight of streams of young people crowding the steps of shrines, mosques and temples when examinations are near? And their equally 'motivated' parents, importuning the Higher Power through vows and donations!! But, seriously, religion is the motive force that makes human beings strive for perfection through adoration of the All Perfect Being. As it inspires Mother Teresa to tirelessly tend the forsaken dregs of humanity, religion acquires a luminous face. When John Donne, the deeply religious poet, utters the impassioned plea, "No man is an island unto himself....therefore ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee," religion strikes the right balance between the individual urge and the collective good. In making the individual rise above self - interest and worry about the neighbour's welfare, its role can never be over-emphasized. The virtues of fellow-feeling and generosity, in fact all the attributes of the human beings whom we respect owe their cultivation to religious teachings. If interpreted correctly and practised seriously, every religion can become a cohesive force to channelize the best energy and potential of humanity, utilizing the sense of shared strength among its followers. There are so many other beautiful faces of religion. Just look at the sublime architecture of the many houses of god - cathedrals, mosques, temples, gurudwaras and gompas, painstakingly designed, built and decorated out of religious love. Our greatest creative and aesthetic skills, no matter whether in music, painting, literature of whatever, have been poured into the service of religion. Religious poetry in any language plays upon the finest chords of our being. The ecstasy of devotion transforms a mere singer into amusical genius. The collectively sung prayers, resonant with feeling, stir the inmost depths of our hearts. The vibrations of the muezzin's call, in the stillness of the early hours of the morning, have a deeply moving, universal quality, which cannot be the monopoly of only a selected group. The spiritual urge that moves the celebrated Mehdi Hassan to make music in Allah's name is the same that motivates the great Subbulakhshmi or Kumar Gandharva, when they pour their souls into the veneration of Shri Venkatesh or Rama or that which inspires Amahlia Jackson when she breaks into a Negre Spiritual. The complete dedication with which a Bharata Natyam dancer gives herself up to pure dance is also born out of religious feeling - it is her way of reaching out to the divine. And the whole - hearted response of her cosmopolitan audience is also due to a shared religious experience in its broadest sense which hss nothing to do with the religion that her dance might have originally been associated with.

But, alas, religion has an ugly face too which thrusts itself before our vision too often. Imperfectly understood and narrowly interpreted, it has allowed itself to be used as a divisive force, driving wedges between people instead of uniting them. This comes from grasping the externals of religion rather than understsnding its essence. Thus it becomes a mockery of itself. Alexander Pope's famous lines come to mind:

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.
This sums up the situation beautifully. With a smattering of knowledge, a newly serious 'upholder' of religion becomes vain and self-satisfied, as though he alone were the worthy candidate for heaven. Of all arrogances, moral arrogance is the worst. It is a sin against humanity, preaching intolerance and self - righteousness, and goes totally against the humility religion is supposed to inculcate. And I do not mean the all-obvious institutions of intolerance like the Inquisition. There are other, perhaps more cruel and subtle ways of piling guilt upon an individual for not professing to believe loudly enough. The battle cries that are raised give religion an unrecognizable aggressive face, far removed from the gentle, benign, divine face it was supposed to have. Inimically enough, that which should have been the most humanizing force in the world is being used as an agent of dehumanization.

I must not forget to mention a comic face of religion that has made its appearance in the fast-paced western world with its material pre- occupations. This is the quickie brand or rather instant salvation, which is being bought and sold in the international thoroughfare. There are all manner of peddlers of this commodity, who take advantage of the innocents qualibility. There is money to be made while the euphoria of their followers lasts, and the Guru disappears before his followers do!

True religion does not breed fear, it celebrates a joyous freedom from doubt. It does not impose blinkers, not lifts them. It ushers in the light to dispel the darkness of uncertainly. To me, religion is a liberating force, setting one free from fear and ignorance. To think of it as an instrument of enslavement is a grotesque insult to it. But, sadly enough, vested interests are distorting it by deliberately mystifying it, suggesting that it is the chosen few who can understand it and that it is their responsibility - (noblesse oblige!) to interpret it for the lesser mortals! Thereby it is used to serve ends totally at variance with the spirit.

What we need, in the circumstances, is a demystification of religions so that its truths become accessible to the masses, particularly the youth who so desperately need a strong, positive anchor in these drifting negatively volatile times. Such a proeess will only strengthen the foundation of religions and not weaken them, as human intellectual energies shall then be harnessed to it and not work at cross - purposes. In my mind there is a clear difference between individual religion, a private matter, and organized religion. The latter has its clearly defined and regionally upheld system of hierarchies. It has its own compulsions to enforce its diktat. When an individual will come into conflict with it, organized religion must defend itself with all the force at its command and, needless to say, crush it There in lies its apparent strength. But Mira Bai, Surdas and others of the Bhakti Movement, forging their own direct line to their God, successfully challenged it. There lies their strength. Joan of Arc was burnt on the stake as a heretic, accused of daring to directly communicate and receive instructions from her God without aid form the clergy, but how can we forget that the same Joan was canonized as St Joan later?

[Professor Neerja Mattoo is a noted scholar of English. A talented writer, her published work includes seueral books and a number of learned articles on a variety of topics]
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