On Religion – A discourse

By Deepa Majumdar

Within the sphere of Time-Space-Causation that hosts human History, there is something perennial about the nature of religion. If church, temple, mosque and other external insignia of the human heart have endured and stood the test of time, despite the tumult of History – this is because religion, at its highest, delivers a numinous fire, which illumines the rest of History.

What is religion in its heart and essence? One way to answer this question is to envision religion as a fountainhead of the highest human aspirations – whether moral values and ideals, or the thirst for salvation and numinous oneness. In its highest mystical aspects, religion fulfills us in ways that nothing else can. In terms of its heart and essence therefore, religion is an instrument of Self-knowledge that transports us from the mundane level of the ego, to our true nature, which is divine. Delivering us from lower levels of truth to God qua Truth itself, religion becomes a vehicle that enables human communion with God. Unlike Plato, who claims that the Good (his God), is the source of truth, Christians like St. Augustine and St. Catherine of Siena, identified Christ with Truth itself. Equally, Gandhi asserted that God is nothing but Truth. Religion therefore is a vehicle of ascent.

As a mere instrument, religion cannot be anything more than a means to an end. Religion can never and should never be an end in itself. The end sought by religion is our numinous communion with God, experienced in the ultimate experience of unio mystica. From the Vedāntic standpoint, the primary side-effect of this hallowed goal is Self-knowledge, or manifestation of the divinity that is always innate in us. Thus, a fuller definition should describe religion as not only an instrument of numinous contact with God, but thereby, also one of Self-knowledge. This is religion at its highest level.

At its lower levels, however, religion can inspire violence for at least two reasons. First, we become violent when we mistake religion as an end in itself, instead of a means to an end. Second, we become violent, when we give our idolatrous loyalty to the religious identity, instead of God, who alone deserves our loyalty – when religiosity consists of fighting over the religious identity, rather than the quiet, diligent praxis of the heart and essence of religion. Although means and ends are usually related, there is something dangerous about treating the lesser of the two, (means), as the greater (ends). Thus, when we convert religion, from instrument, to end in itself, we become  violent. We depart from the Truth that rules at the summit of religion – descending from its numinous peak to its lower ideological levels. We also depart from Truth when we uphold a religious identity above sincere praxis of its basic tenets.

The majority of religious fundamentalists, who kill in the name of God, are zealots, because they cleave to the religious identity, instead of the heart of religion and its practice. Wholly bereft of bhakti (devotion), they turn to religion prematurely, without first traversing ethical forms of secularism that serve as buffer zones safeguarding the numinous aspects of religion from its ideological extremes. Like a fruit that rots when ripened prematurely, the religious fundamentalist “rots” when he turns religious prematurely.

A severe distortion of the saints and mystics engendered by the same religion, he now interprets his own ego as God. Indeed, no zealotry and xenophobia can match those of the religious bigot. Equally, no hypocrisy can match that of the religious bigot. Yet, religion is not a double-edged sword with a moral day and night – its numinous light the day, and its dark violence, the night. Instead, it is a noetic steeple with myriad levels. What are these different levels? The Truth that rules at the summit illumines the upper echelons of the steeple of religion with its ambiance and glow – igniting the numinous fire of Self-knowledge. The midlevels serve as a repository of discursive expositions – like theology and religious philosophy, which can never equate the mystic’s direct communion at the numinous pinnacle. At this midlevel, the genius of religion also gives us a treasure-trove of techniques and methods – like prayer, meditation, rituals, and wisdom. But the lowest level of religion runs the risk of becoming contaminated by politics, and hence muddied by egotism and violence.

All the major world religions that have stood the test of time possess this lowest level, which, with its noxious fumes of bigotry, serves to disguise, conceal, and contradict the numinous summit of religion. If the Abrahamic religions have a history of violence – both outer (forced conversions, crusades, destruction of other religions, including indigenous religions, etc.), and inner (oppression of women and denominations that are minorities, the burning of witches, etc.) – so do the religions of the east.

Thus, Buddhists have a history of violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Hinduism comes with two original sins, both of which drew righteous rebukes from Swami Vivekananda – the oppression of women, and the caste system. If Europe burnt witches, Indian Hindus, through the abominable custom of Sati, burnt widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Equally abominable is the caste system, which belies and contradicts altogether the sublime message of oneness preached by Advaita Vedānta. By attacking and persecuting Muslims, Christians, and 3 of 4 other religious minorities, present-day Hindu fundamentalists are adding a third dimension to this litany of ideological violence.

All religions without exception, run the risk of three levels of violence. At the lowest (as already stated), when politics corrupts religion, we have literal physical violence in the name of the religion. At a higher level, we have the mental counterpart of this, in the form of religious intolerance, bigotry, and hatred for the atheist and the religious other. At a still higher level, we have religious materialism, which comes with two faces of violence – first, through religious voyeurism, and second through the irrational level of superstitions, etc.

First, we have religious voyeurism that is endemic to conditions of advanced capitalism. Parading itself as religious tolerance, this voyeurism is, in fact, a soul-searing superficiality that prevents the votary from striking roots within any one religion. We see this face of religious materialism in the dilettante, who flits from one religion to the next, sometimes practicing several in the same day – with no serious roots in any. Second, religious materialism expresses itself in the form of superstitions, false prophets, and the penchant for quasi-materialistic modes of therapy. It is not difficult to distinguish both faces of religious materialism from sincere faith. For, unlike votaries of the latter, religious materialists are wholly bereft of higher faith and bhakti, which serve as the surest corroborations of devotion.

Yet, to be fair to religion, it must be acknowledged that religious ugliness, which belies all true religiosity, is barely religious. Bereft of all semblance of bhakti, and an offspring of identity politics, this ideological level is also bereft of any practice of true religiosity. The slightest practice of any true religion expands the soul, from narrow prejudices endemic to the religious identity – to greater and greater forms of religious universality that strengthen particularity.

When we practice a religion in its sublime aspects, using the instruments of prayer and meditation to suffuse our souls with the sublimity of bhakti, we expand ourselves to embrace all true faiths, even as we strengthen our roots in our own religions. If anything, the practice of religion emancipates us from all identities (whether religious or secular), enabling us to reject them as so many forms of idolatry.

When it comes to religion therefore, what matters most, is how we use our God-given freedom of will. We use free-will, first, to choose a particular religion, and second, to choose specific practices within this religion. Unlike prior ages, modernity allows us religious choices, which reveal our inmost moral proclivities, serving as insignia of how we use free-will. Thus, more materialistic votaries will choose to belong to the materialistic level of religion, reveling in 4 of 4 superstition and trite forms therapy. But higher aspirants will yearn and thirst for God with an aspiration that defies all human limits. While religion comes with its own essence, it is up to us to choose which aspects and levels we practice.

If at the highest level, the hearth of the numinous fire that illumines a religion inspires in us a centripetal felicity that serves as the heart and essence of all positive forms of cosmopolitanism, gathering all together and destroying all alienating forms of otherness – then at the lowest level, religious zealotry, whether physical or mental, serves as a centrifugal force that destroys cosmopolitanism. If at the highest level, we pierce Time to touch the bright star of Eternity, then at the lowest, we kill in the name of God. Religion therefore is the greatest of all conundrums.

The writer teaches at Purdue University, US. Email:  [email protected]

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