“Why have religious sentiments become touchy?” Joe, a young student, asked me. He looked genuinely concerned. Of late, he had started asking many such questions. Probably he asked them at home too because his mother once complained that his English teacher was taking away his religious faith. When I asked him about that complaint, Joe said, “You make me think. Is thinking bad, sir?” I winced.
I told him that religion is much more than a matter of faith for most people. It’s an identity, a political statement, a power game, and many other such things than what it should be. Hence it becomes touchy.
“You said ‘what it should be’. What should it be actually? Is it really needed?” Joe asked.
“The need depends on individuals. If it didn’t serve some meaningful purpose, it wouldn’t have survived thousands of years,” I answered. Then I went on to tell him what it should be.
Religion should be a faith, an awareness and a consciousness. Religion is essentially an affirmation of life founded on faith. It is saying ‘yes’ to life in a comparatively easier way. Life becomes quite arduous without the crutches of religion.
“Why don’t you believe then?” Joe butted in.
“Faith is a gift, I think,” I said. “Psychologist Erik Erikson said that development of basic trust is the first state in the psychosocial growth of a child. Catholic theologian Hans Kung borrowed that concept to argue that Erikson’s basic trust is the beginning of faith in God. There are many people who are deprived of that basic trust.”
Joe was not fully satisfied but decided to carry the discussion forward. “So religion is a faith and should remain that? Not carry it to other things like politics and identity…”
“You said it!”
“You said it’s also an awareness and a consciousness.”
“Most religious strife comes from ignorance. Awareness of what one’s religion is – its creeds, myths, doctrines, etc –is essential to internalise the religion. That internalisation is the consciousness I spoke about. Once religion is an integral part of the believer’s consciousness, there will be absolutely no question of any conflict with others. There may be inner conflicts, that’s a different matter.”
“What about the thousands of people who just believe without ever bothering about the awareness and consciousness levels?”
I told him to take the example of Dolly Winthrop in Silas Marner, his supplementary reader. Hers was faith in its simplest, most naïve form. Do your part and leave the rest to God – that was her theology. She was religious, very religious. She would put the Christogram IHS on her special cakes without knowing what it meant. Just because it appears in certain things related to the church, IHS is sacred. Such simple faith has its own consolations and benefits. People like Dolly are genuinely religious even if they lack the awareness and consciousness I spoke of. Dolly would never imagine the smallest harm to anyone. Isn’t that the best religion?
I looked at Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that was lying on my table. Joe’s eyes followed. I opened page 169 and read out:
I saw a man on a bridge about to jump.
I said, ‘Don’t do it!’
He said, ‘Nobody loves me.’
I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’
He said, ‘Yes.’
I said, ‘Are you a Muslim or a non-Muslim?’
He said, ‘A Muslim.”
I said, ‘Shia or Sunni?’
He said, ‘Sunni.’
I said, ‘Me too! Deobandi or Barelvi?’
He said, ‘Barelvi.’
I said, ‘Me too! Tanzeehi or Tafkeeri?’
He said, ‘Tanzeehi.’
I said, ‘Me too! Tanzeehi Azmati or Tanzeehi Farhati?’
He said, ‘Tanzeehi Farhati.’
I said, ‘Me too! Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Uloom Ajmer or Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat?’
He said, ‘Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat.’
I said, ‘Die, kafir!’ and I pushed him over.
Joe blinked. He grinned. He thanked me and walked away with umpteen questions rising in his mind. I know his mother won’t be happy.
PS. Dedicated to a student of mine (whose name is not Joe) whose thinking ignites me.