Thursday, October 25, 2012

Religious Pollution


Dussehra was celebrated all over the country yesterday in various ways in tune with regional beliefs.  Today’s [25 Oct] Times of India carries a few interesting headlines in relation to the celebrations.
“Filth, stench mar Durga idol immersion,” says one such headline.  “Puja material adds to Yamuna’s woes,” laments another. The devotees of Durga were not aware of the Delhi government’s order that the idols should be immersed only in certain places allotted specifically for the purpose.  Consequently people disposed of the idols wherever they liked.  Along with the idols was also disposed a lot of waste matter including plastic wrappers of food items and empty mineral water bottles.  The much polluted Yamuna was ill fated to carry more pollution than it could ever digest.
A question that should necessarily arise in our minds is: why can’t we modernize certain rituals that have become out of tune with the time?  Doesn’t religion require modernisation, renewal, or – in technical jargon – aggiornamento?  Are the old rituals relevant today?
We can say with some certainty that the conquest of evil by good, symbolised by Dussehra, is not quite meaningful today.  We live in a world in which the distinction between good and evil is increasingly becoming blurred.
Another headline in the same Times of India reports that some JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi] students were planning to celebrate Mahishasur Day.  Mahishasur is the demon, the evil monster, vanquished by Durga.  But asur is a tribe in Jharkhand, according to these students. 
The question that these students are trying to raise is whether Durga was the real embodiments of goodness and Mahishasur that of evil.  Or, was Durga the embodiment of the power of a certain section of people who wanted to have absolute control over the others who were perceived and projected as evil?  In the recent past we had such philosophers as Foucault who argued that some people could get the others to accept their ideas of who we were.  The process involves some power to create belief.  Is Durga a creation of such a process?  Is Mahishasur a victim of such a process?
Another philosopher of the 20th century, Barrows Dunham, argued that “truth has been suffered to exist in the world just to the extent that it profited the rulers of society.”  According to that theory, evil can be anything that becomes inconvenient for the ruling classes, the powerful classes.
Yet another headline in the very same Times of India says that Ravana is a mahatma for some people like the Valmiki community.  The report also says that Ravana’s wife, Mandodari, was the daughter of the King of Mandawar, today’s Mandor, 11 km from Jaipur in Rajasthan.  Some relatives of Ravana stayed back after his wedding and their descendants still live in the place.  For them too Ravana is a mahatma.  They have even constructed a temple where the entity that is perceived as a monster by many others is worshipped.
Where lies the truth, and where the falsehood?  Where lies goodness, and where the evil?
Can Rama’s indifference to Sita after his murder of Ravana be justified?  Can the fire test meted out to Sita be justified?  Wasn’t it the duty of a leader to raise the consciousness of his followers?  Instead of doing that why did Rama play to the gallery?
Quite many questions can be asked.
A colleague of mine, Mr S K Sharma, tells me about a Hindi play titled Andha Yug [Dark Age] which tells the story of the Mahabharata from a different perspective.  Wasn’t it a sign of the darkness (moral and spiritual blindness) of the time that the wife of a blind man chose to be blind herself instead of being her husband’s light?  Can we really justify the allotment of one woman as the wife of five men?  And then staking her at a bout of gambling?  Is the Mahabharata really about the victory of the good over evil?
Isn’t it time that we redefined our religions and their rituals so that the followers can find them really meaningful in today’s real life situations?  Does ‘good’ belong to the rituals or our hearts?

23 comments:

  1. It's as if I'm reading my own thoughts. I often think the same..each time the Hussain Sagar in my city is bombarded with Ganesh and then subsequently,Durga idols...why can't the people just pause and think before dunking gods in such murky waters. And rahi baat Mahabaratha ki, there are many questions in mind too...there is a novel called 'The Palace of Illusions,' it is from woman's point of view

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    1. Thanks for suggesting The Palace of Illusions. I'll check it out.

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  2. Saw a play about Ek Lavya in the Mahabharat -- from a Dalit perspective. They changed it and gave it a happy ending!

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    1. When the perspective changes, the truth itself changes. Ending may be happy or sad, that doesn't matter much. What is the truth - that's what matters. And the truth varies from perspective to perspective.

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  3. I think sir, you highlight the paradox pretty well.
    1. The media should blame it on the law enforcement's poor show if people are not following a govt ruling. Yamuna on paper is dead from Panipat to Etawah.
    2. Foucault was a confused thinker advocating relativism and resistance at the same time, so it seems to be the case with the JNU students. Maybe Durga is a product of such a 'process' or marginally better, a by-product. The name no more symbolizes vested interests but embodies faith of a billion people. These students I hope are not travelling 500 years back in a time machine and planning to take a bunch of zamindars head-on.
    3. About the Valmiki community, they seem to worship Vishmakarma, the celestial architect on the pretext that he helped Ravana build Lanka. Some years later he helped Rama construct the bridge to reach Lanka. The latter point, it seems, was ignored by the community.

    In India, faith(read religion) is all about convenience. If it's comfortable and goes with the 'culture', we can indulge in any and every lunatic act under the sun. If not, "it's the 21st century".

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    1. Sid, I have become an expert in highlighting paradoxes, it seems. Maybe, life in Sawan nurtures such talents!

      The media is the epitome of superficiality, as far as I understand. The Times of India is the most superficial newspaper I have seen in India's Engish journalism. I read it only because it is available free of charge in the staff room. But the way it covered the Durga Puja (Dussehra) celebrations in Delhi and elsewhere made me think a bit. Kudos to TOI.

      Foucault was not confused, perhaps. Relativism and resistance do go together. Resistance is questioning absolutism, isn't it?

      The faith of a billion people makes nothing true necessarily. Belief has nothing to do with truth per se. A billion people on the earth today believe that Allah is the only true god. Another billion believe that Jesus and his Father are the only true gods. Are these truths?

      JNU students have their own agenda. I'm really not interested in politics.

      Rama of the religion is a myth, Sid. The real Rama was no better than you and me!

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  4. Enjoyed reading, every bit of it. Keep sharing..God Bless

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  5. Link shared of your blog here: http://globalannal.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/words-meaning-and-usage-of-the-word-aggiornamento/

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    1. That's very nice of you. I saw the link.

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  6. "Can we really justify the allotment of one woman as the wife of five men? And then staking her at a bout of gambling?" - Patricia Uberoi points out ina book that there is a group somewhere in the Himalayas who do have a similar practice - a woman marries ALL the sons in a family. And, if she gets pregnant, it is she who decides who is the father based on which of the brothers she slept with last. If you want I can fish out the details. So, the Pandav-cum-Draupati story may not be all unreal.

    I am surprised that you asked, "Are the old rituals relevant today?" Then I understood, after having read your recent posts that you could belong to the school of "comparative culturalists", even if not a card carrying relatiist; perhaps close to Joseph Campbell, the American comparative mythologist.

    The implication of your statement is when the ritual was "new" it was relevant. Then, you have to answer relevant to whom and under what socio-political and economic circumstances.

    RE


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    1. Raghuram, the book that i'm now reading - Llosa's 'The Dream of the Celt' - says "a human being can't live without believing." What the character is trying to say is that belief in a god/reigion alleviates human suffering. Belief is a psychological solution to the problem of evil in the world. That's why I accept religion and tolerate it thought I'm no believer myself. I undertsant why others believe. But I feel terribly sad that they cling to the same old beliefs and rituals which make no sense today. Hence the need for aggiornamento.

      It's highly possible that the character of Draupati was not a mere figment of the author's imagination, that such a practice existed... That does not make the Pandavas any better than the Kauravas!

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  7. My point is religion working in its own interests deliberately ossifies rituals. No ritual will be allowed to die. I remember walking the corridors of GK I M-Block market in the mid '90s. A group of girls walking ahead of my friend and me were plotting how to avoid the advances of a boy towards one of the girls - the suggestion was to sneakily tie the "Rakhi" (did I spell that right?) on the guy's wrist. That, then, becomes an enduring and useful ritual, adjusted to the times!

    I have a different take on how to "alleviate human suffering" - people should be taught that the supreme law of life is probability, right from the beginning of the life of an individual (we can go right to the beginning of life itself, but that will lead to metaphysics which has a tendency to descend to the level of religion - I would not want that). It is only in terms of probability we can "understand" (why I put that in quotes is to stress that we have no choice but to "accept" that probability as the realized reality, the sperm-egg-fusion reality) why that sperm fused with that egg to create any particular individual. As I have said before elsewhere, being unique is the universal attribute of every individual. Has religion ever made anyone understand that? No. have rituals made anyone aware of that? No. Then, why rituals and religion?

    RE

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    1. I can understand you, Raghuram. Yet I would say that religion is an easy solution for most people. Easier than trying to understand laws of probability. Further, religion has something 'personal' about it unlike the laws of probability. People want personal solutions, personal gods... solutions that touch their emotions, their hearts.

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  8. Well said. These thoughts cross one's mind many a times. You have pointed out in simple words. The bouncing of ideas between you and your friends makes this blog very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, and glad to see you here after a pretty long while :)

      I'm also happy that my writing engenders some discussion. It means there are people who take me seriously :))

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  9. Critical analysis of religion and mythology invariably leaves a thinker demystified. A believer therefore does not analyse. She finds comfort in her personal belief in black and white, with no shade of grey. As long as the belief does not harm another,and provides solace and peace of mind to the believer, I feel that it can be no body else's business to proselytise a believer into becoming a non-believer.If it has to happen, it will, on its own, without external stimulii.

    Also there are times when rituals are followed because not following them would hurt a closely loved person(s). I can give an example from personal experience.

    Traditionally married Bengali Hindu women worship Goddess Lakshmi every Thursday evening. A small brass or copper water pitcher filled to the brim is the symbol of the Goddess, which is marked with vermillion,and annointed with 5 or 7 mango leaves in a bunch, with a whole fruit like banana balanced on the pitcher.There is a 'katha' or a ballad that is read as part of the ritual, which is totally patriarchal and reinforces the subsurvient role of women in the family,e.g it censures a woman laughing loudly, having meals before the husband,wearing clothes as per own preference, not caring for in laws etc, because of which apparantly Lakhsmi gets annoyed.Now I would never want to read this ballad as it goes against my own convictions.But then a family elder in my husband's family very lovingly handed me down the pitcher being worshipped for generations as I was the eldest d-i-l, and wanted me to carry on with the convention, as she herself was pushing 80, and was very anxious that the tradition was not broken after her demise. So out of reverence for her, I accepted the responsibility, and till today, unless I am travelling, I follow the ritual as sincerely as I can, for I had given her my word of honour. Such is life.

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    1. Aditi, I like the way you conclude your comment: "Such is life." I too have come to accept the 'suchness' of life though much late in life. But I have not accepted it in my personal beliefs. I gave up the religious beliefs imposed on me by my parents and the priests of the Church to which I belonged for a long while. Now I follow my conscience and my reason. However, I am in a position to understand other people's situations for reasons that you indicate with your own example.

      When I write, I do question the relevance of certain rituals and even of religion itself, because they remain unacceptable to me for reasons that I make clear. There's no harm in letting my little candle shine, is there? The candle is a candle for me, though may be an irritation for many others.

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  10. Aditi, with Matheikal's permission:

    Religion and rituals are noise, of the loudest kind, and to hear beyond that to voices of sanity in a manner of resignation (even if only implied) "if it has to happen, it will" ensures it will not be heard. This indeed is the reason for religion to be loud. No external stimuli other than that of being religious/ritualistic/superstitious is allowed to enter the conscience of the believer. This is what Richard Dawkins calls child abuse and I haven't a better term for that.

    If proselytising against religion is wrong, what do you say for what precedes it, proselytizing for religion? Without the latter, the former does not exist, you must admit. No one, on her own accord, rises up and says, "Religion is filth. There is no God!" etc.

    Yes, I understand what you say in your personal account. I have gone through that. I have told my father that I will not do the annual ritual for him. He was resigned to that but asked me to do for my mother (she too was alive then). But, I refused. I said, "It is neither for you nor for mother." But, and this is the biggest thing, I could not say that to my mother. Even to this day, I do not know why I I did not take that stand explicitly with my mother.

    As you said, "such is life ..."

    RE

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    1. Raghu,when I said that it can be no body else's business to proselytise a believer into becoming a non-believer and that if has to happen, it will on its own, I meant cases like yours or Matheikal's. I suppose both of you evolved at your present position on your own, no 'mentor' proselytised you in taking the decision.

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  11. Enjoyed the post and the esnuing discussions... 'such is life....' is the compromise that all arrive at! I suppose that is how social change is brought about - at snail's pace pushed through by compromises.

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    1. Deepak, will social change take place through such compromises, I wonder. Maybe, at snail's pace, as you say. When it comes to religion I think there are no meaningful changes taking place except at personal levels. My next blog is an example of how religions are more exploitative than secular institutions.

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  12. Rituals ,done only for the sake of it, is the norm here. From my experience, people feel superior ,because they perform rituals , and look down upon those who don't.I have seen fake rituals performed with deceit, and then proclaimed as a great event!

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