In order to understand what religion is and deepen one’s insights into what I term ‘the faith process’, it would be befitting to travel back into time, to when the world was created.
What is religion? Is it a philosophical coalescence of some kind of paraphernalia that aims to congregate the common mass into a foolhardy social order, or has it, since time immemorial, been devised in a way so as to explain the happenings of the natural world around us, and thus serve to be a bridge between the ‘mortal’ and the ‘divine’?
The answer to the question put forth above would look abstruse, if one would, all of a sudden, jump into that. What is meant by that is, in order to understand what religion is and deepen ones insights into what I term ‘the faith process’, it would be befitting to travel back into the timeframe, to when the world had been created. After this formation, and of course, the advent of the earliest members of what is the taxonomic hominid group, occurrences of the natural world needed an explanation. They needed an explanation for that was crucial to survive, to grow, and to develop. This, in turn, gave rise to what is called ‘the thinking process’, for humans tend to think not because they have to, but because they try to formulate an understanding about the world and how they could possibly make themselves more congenial to the ambience that veils them .
“The purpose of thinking is to understand our world as best as possible. Our minds have evolved to think so that we can better adapt to our environment and make smarter decisions on how to survive, live, and flourish”, better says Steve Handel, a psychologist and self-improvement coach, in an article for the Emotion Machine.
With their thinking caps on, our ancestors embarked on this venture to provide explanations and build up theories about the world and why things occur the way they do. The hypotheses they brought forward, of course, were not as developed as the philosophies that are there today, but they did very much contribute in laying down the foundational slabs for the ‘faith process’ and the religious orders to follow.
This ‘faith process’ comes into play after what I term the ‘thought process’ is concluded, and a particular community has various explanations to choose from, and then to adhere by. A distinctive characteristic trait of the human being again, is that he would adhere himself (or herself) to that one particular idea that would look more appealing to him than the others. What is important to understand here is that the person in question would not, out of blind belief or reverence, align himself to the ‘philosophical way’ put forth by his fellow community member, but would do so after a detailed study of how that theory fits into what he needs to learn about the environment, and if what comes as a result is able to provide him with a satisfactory explanation to the phenomenon or incident he has in mind. Human, by nature, is curious, and he is in a dire need of answers. He would align himself to that particular theory put forward only when that would provide him with answers he so strives for. This ‘hit and trial method’ he would follow to determine his adherence, is, in turn, the ‘creative process’ that both the member who is tasked with verifying the theory and the theorist who’s in charge of development, go through while formulating or testing their respective ideals, and there is also a detailed ‘neuro-scientistic’ perspective on how and why the brain works the way we know it does, during this ‘creative process’. “While there are many components of creativity, including originality, pleasure, value, process, and imagination, the definition that scientists use to study creativity puts those components together to say that creativity is an ability to produce something that is both novel (or original) and has utility. This definition allows scientists to develop testable hypotheses about how creativity arises from the human brain”, goes a line from Dita Cavdarbasha and Jake Kurczek’s “Connecting the Dots: Your Brain and Creativity”, published in the Frontiers for Young Minds.
Thus, to look at it that way, philosophical stances so developed were a byproduct of man’s inquiry into nature. It was after these standpoints had been affirmed that the philosophers or the thinkers who first talked about or preached this particular way of life as they saw it, came to be regarded as prophets, and what they preached, as gospels, meant to guide those that believed.
In the numerous communities that eventually came to be formed as such, there were certain reasonings for belief that the believers had to answer to themselves.
Carl J Wenning, Physics Education Specialist at the Illinois State University, in his paper entitled, “Scientific Epistemology: How scientists know what they know” analyses the very common questions that can be put forth before a believer to testify why he adheres to the way of life he adheres to. “What is knowledge, and what do we mean when we say that we know something? What is the source of knowledge and how do we know if it is reliable? What is the scope of knowledge and what are its limitations?”, he asks.
Any man who’s a part of the community and knows the answers to the questions above, is, if not the prophet himself, his disciples or future preachers, for these form the basic foundations of what would tomorrow be a religion, or a way of life. It is to be noted however, that adhering oneself to a particular philosophical stance does not entail worship or a belief in the supernatural. Scientism, a strong, often aggressive, advocate of science being the only source of true knowledge and nature being the source of creation, is a belief, a supposition, a stance, and not a religion, to which it is verily opposed.
Now, any belief that lives in isolation, dies in isolation. To avoid this despondent death, communities engage with one another. Say, for example, A is a particular epistemic community that shares its beliefs and ideals with B (another community). In the process of this interaction (that usually takes place between learned members from both communities A and B), made possible by debates and deliberations, each member, going with the flow to defend the way of life he adheres by, often ends up rebuking the dissident claims with what could potentially be an aggressive stand on his part. This is what, could, to some extent, be likened with the concept of fundamentalism, wherein the believer who’s been tasked with rebuking the claim, is ascertained of the fact that the highest truth exists with him only, and that everyone else who is on a different path from the one he is on, is untrue or at-least, not epistemically true about the world he irrationally supposes the faith he is allied to, has some full fledged knowledge about. Being fundamentalistic, might, thus, mean denouncing and demeaning any opposition or criticism levelled at anything that a fundamentalist holds dear to oneself (and hence takes that to be true). Drawing on from what is stated above, one who is a fundamentalist knows that there is an ultimate truth, an ultimate reality, and that he has a path to strictly adhere to, to reach upto that reality, to get to know about the world around him, but he lags behind in the way of rationally critiquing people who do not subscribe to the way of life he is an adherent of, thus often (when the fundamentalist’s way of life becomes societally dominant), forcibly enjoining on the dissenter to practice deeds that his outlook upholds. Hence, the view that a fundamentalist might have, might not actually be true, but to him, it is the be-all and end-all of himself, the adherents of his sect, and the world, for nothing but the view he abides by, is true.
Similarly, when a religion is fundamentalistic, it aspires to dominate the world view, to send missions to regions where the religion is not much prevalent and herd non-believers, baptise them, and force people belonging to these subservient ranks within the religious order into accepting what is sacramental to that religion, further issuing an uncompromising commandment that would either ask non-believers of that faith to live as second-class citizens (by paying taxes or following set norms) within the territorial delineations of where the faith is followed by those at the helm, or veil itself in secularism, advocating the outlook that those at the helm ‘tolerate’ other ways of life even though they would not make efficient arrangements to ensure that the people, considering that they’re from various epistemic communities, get to asseverate the way of life they hold dear, independently.
For a religion to hold a non-fundamentalist outlook however, it must not have been given rise to, from the words of a prophet or one father figure as such, but rather be what is, quoting a line from one my earlier columns entitled ‘God, Para Brahman and the Hindu Henotheism’ (published in the Sunday Guardian, dated 25th July, 2021) “an ever evolving, self-sowing seed, with newer dimensions of the religious order ever opening up to sectarian adherents that follow.” Now, if the so very rational scientistic way, that scholars say, being evolutionary, advocates the ‘Ship of Theseus’ principle, and tends to have a naturalistic outlook of the world around us, Hinduism, the religion to which the quote above points to, is, in no way, less scientistic.
In the same way as ancient Egyptian deities find their existence from animals (animistic religion), Hindu deities in the likes of Indra, Varuna, Vayu, Chandra, Surya, Maruts and others in the swargic pantheon are personified forms of forces of the natural world around, and at times, constellations and distant bodies of the cosmos. Hinduism, a religion that has also been, without any specific sacramental text to refer to, ever evolving, advocates the outlook that it is ‘acceptance’ of all religions that it professes, and not ‘tolerance’ for ‘tolerance’ literally entails that I am in dominance, but I will tolerate your way of life, as long as that is subservient to mine own. As Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in his paper ‘The Hindu Philosophy’, writes “It is clear that Hinduism is a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”. With over four major sects to choose from, and innumerable forms of the divine (of the one Para Brahman that is nameless, formless, infinite, and everlasting) an adherent can worship, Hinduism, a religion that has also encompassed doctrines of the heterodox shramana schools (Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas, Ajnanas, and Charvaka) and the orthodox shad-darshana schools, each of which has interpreted its scriptural texts in a different light, is idolatrous, not because that forms a crucial tenet in its way of life, but because Hinduism, unlike the major Abrahamic religions, does not specify a ‘way’ it advocates. It is open to ideals, to a dozen pathways in which one can experience the higher being, for the ultimate aim of a Hindu is self-realisation; to search inward, and realise God not in the paradise so often talked about, but within himself. There is absolutely nothing, starting from the creation of the universe to the innumerable ways in which a Hindu can experience God, that Hinduism presupposes or claims to know about, for it has always been questioning what is said, seeking answers to that which remains untold, metamorphosing its ideals keeping in accordance with the needs of the society, exploring ways that might take a Hindu closer to experiencing God, and it is for a reason, that Hinduism, one of the oldest religions to have come into being, continues to be practised as a major way of life till this day, when its contemporaries, in the likes of the ancient Greek, the Roman, and the Egyptian religions have gradually dwindled beyond existence, the populace commingling with other ways of life that came to dominate the domains they were most prevalent in.
As the verse 10:129 of the Rig Veda (translated by Indologist Max Muller), in the context of the creation of the universe, better puts it, “Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here, whence, whence this manifold creation sprang? – The gods themselves came later into being. – Who knows from whence this great creation sprang? -He from whom all this great creation came. Whether his will created or was mute, the Most High seer that is in highest heaven, he knows it, – or perchance e’en He knows not.”
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, and the honorary Colonelcy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org