The power of religion lies surely in its ability to provide answers. But every so often a godman pops up, as one has done in Haryana just now, who raises questions. Religion is not, at least in my opinion, the antidote of reason, but works somewhere to the askance of it. Religion emerges from belief; and belief is beyond the compass of the mind, and will remain so until the human brain, a part of the creation of the being, is incapable of understanding the rationale of existence or the meaning of death.
Only atheists believe in death. For the uncertain, death is a step into the unknown. For believers, death is a transition into celestial space, whose full nature will be determined by some form of accountability for what we have done in our time on earth. The reassurance of linkage serves as sanction for broad moral order, although of course the divine force did create leeway for depravity by offering free will in the human package. If we drive logic along a very stern line, we could even suggest that barbarism is a trenchant manifestation of atheism, for only those who reject the creative and serene genius of the divine would indulge in cruelty or murder or mayhem. And when tyrants indulge in barbarism in the name of faith? It is not a coincidence that all religions have a particular place in hell reserved for hypocrites.
The tricky part might be an acceptable definition of morality. All too often, ruling elites have usurped and rewritten morality to serve their economic and political interests. Religion is the operational vehicle for such inequity. And so, when the French rebelled in the last quarter of the 18th century, they smashed the Catholic church with just as much ferocity as they beheaded the Bourbon kings, queens and dukes. The people jeered, and cheered. When Karl Marx took the thought a nuanced mile forward, described religion as the opium of the masses, and abolished religious institutions from the framework of social management, he found a response that gripped generations across two vast continents, particularly in societies where the poor had been drugged by intellectual and economic torpor.
And yet, Catholicism in France reappeared more quickly than the revolutionaries could have imagined. Robespierre, the doyen of reason, tried to appease the French need for God by setting up an Alpha deity fashioned after Hercules, but that, alas, could not protect him from a speedy decapitation. Orthodox Christianity in Russia and Confucius-Buddhism-Christ in China have survived their long, traumatic mid-life crises. A Soviet success like Vladimir Putin now pays homage to the Orthodox church because he knows that Russians do not live by bread alone. And if a recent report in the Financial Times is to be believed, then there are more practicing Christians today in Red China than Communist Party members.
Beijing is trying a curious kind of contortion to resolve the paradox. China and Hong Kong are the same nation but two states, the former atheist and the latter with freedom of faith and expression. Beijing commands the instruments of power, but Hong Kong marshals a dramatic alternative, the heavy artillery of ideas in the battlefield of ideology. Which of the two will prevail in the next twenty years? If you are a betting person, put your wager on Hong Kong. For one thing, you will get better odds.
In our very own India, every challenge to religion faltered before it could acquire momentum. Bengal's Marxists quickly realised that they could brush aside political parties but had to bow before Goddess Durga and Goddess Kali and the mosque's right to call for prayer, if they wanted to survive. The opium theory falls a little flat when the Hindu is waiting for nectar in swarga and the Muslim thirsting for the heady waters of Tasneem in jannat.
The absence of serious debate in India may have increased the Indian appetite for gullibility. Contemporary India is under no threat from atheism, or its many cousins, but it is under some danger from poseurs and frauds of every religion who market themselves as wholesale merchants of the faithful.
But the absence of serious debate in India may have increased the Indian appetite for gullibility. Contemporary India is under no threat from atheism, or its many cousins, but it is under some danger from poseurs and frauds of every religion who market themselves as wholesale merchants of the faithful. All sadhus and savants and imams are not corrupt, of course; and it is important to stress this. But when a man like Rampal sets up a faith factory where simplistic solutions are produced on an assembly line and fed to the innocent for a price, collected in cash, it is time to worry. This is the merchandise of delusion, sold in the shadows of mischief.
When this trade explodes, the state must do what it should to restore order. But the answer is not in the clutch of the police, but in persuasive abilities of political leadership. Our leaders must speak out to save God from some of His self-appointed Godmen.