Religion has always been a tool for oppressing sections of people so that the oppressors can uphold their own interests easily. In our own country, some clever men (men, and not women) invented a supernatural creature in order to establish the caste system which was highly oppressive for the vast majority of people. A small minority became the most powerful people who controlled gods, the scriptures (rubrics and canons as well as truths), politics by subordinating the kings and their warriors, and everybody else.
From the time Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, it ceased to be a religion of love and compassion. Thousands of people were eliminated labelled as heretics, witches, pagans, and so on.
Islam has its own jihads of all sorts which oppress and even eliminate whole sections of people.
Connected with the oppressor role of religion are the material benefits it brings. The priestly classes always enjoyed infinite benefits. The Brahmins in India and the first estate in France are just two examples. Today, people attach themselves to those in high positions in religions and derive many material benefits. For example, I know businessmen who have established strong relationships with godmen and other religious leaders at whose residences take place meetings between the religious leaders, political leaders and the traders. Under the guise of religion, a lot of malpractices get ritualised or sanctified. You can encroach on forest lands, break any rule with impunity or do just anything (which ordinary mortals will never dare do) provided there is a religious leader to support you.
In India today, nationalism has become a dominant discourse and it is inextricably intertwined with religion. Violence and even terrorism become holy because of the religious associations.
Like the clichéd coin with two sides, religion has certain good aspects too. There are plenty of religious people who carry out remarkable service for fellow human beings. There is a lot of charity work being done. There are excellent schools and hospitals run by religious people (though most of them are becoming commercial ventures today). There are genuinely saintly people.
Most human beings have an urge to transcend themselves. Religion provides avenues to reach the divine, what is beyond the self. Personally, my firm conviction is that divinity should first of all be discovered within one’s self. One who cannot do that will seldom discover divinity anywhere else. And one who does that will be compassionate to fellow human beings because he/she will realise the divinity that underlies all reality.
There are thousands of people who lead eminently good lives with the help of religion. But the limelight seldom falls on such people. The limelight invariably falls on those who misuse religion because it is in love with power and power structures. Two of the prominent political leaders today who steal most of the media attention are persons who have misused religion in order to kick up nationalist sentiments in their people.
If such misuse of religion could be prevented, it could possibly be a good transforming agent – transforming the world into a paradise. But experience shows that it is mere wishful thinking.
PS. Written for Indispire Edition 161: #WhyReligion