Jul 25, 2008

India - Violent Religion

If lakhs of people were to block all the roads between Haridwar, Delhi and surrounding areas for nearly a month, torch a few dozen trucks, buses, tractors and petrol pumps in retaliation for a few deaths in road accidents, the government would have responded with alacrity and sent in the army. But if these vandals were on a mission of religious piety no political party would dare to interfere. The kanwaria season is upon us again. An estimated seven lakh devotees will block most of the roads from Haridwar to their home towns and villages in a 300-km radius during the lunar month of Shravan. They are called kanwarias because they carry small pots of Ganga water on their shoulders on a bamboo pole called a kanwar . For the most part the short pilgrimages are peaceful but the advent of a new custom of dak kanwars with groups of running kanwarias who run in relays to quickly get to their destinations is causing serious problems. While one devotee runs with the pots on his shoulder, the rest of his team follows on motorcycles, buses or cars and get violent if their passage is delayed. For about four weeks, it will be nearly impossible for children to get to school, for mourners to take the ashes of their departed ones for immersion. Ambulances will be virtually immobile and fire brigade, police and other emergency vehicles will find it difficult to operate. This custom was unknown a decade ago and was transplanted here from a similar practice that began years earlier in Sultanganj in Bihar. This annual migration with its raucous religiosity is a far cry from the quiet spirituality of true religion. The custom has no place in any of the scriptures but is a popular act of public piety in which both the devotees as well as the numerous supporters providing them with food, refreshments and shelter believe that they will gain punya or good karma for a better next life. Professional priests of all religions have for many centuries exploited gullible devotees persuading them that numerous heavenly or otherworldly rewards would be available to them in exchange for donations, pilgrimages, fasts, sacrifices or austerities. With surprising speed, many new religious customs develop. Soon even the less credulous succumb to the comfort of going with the current. Paradoxically, such customs were seldom at the command of the sages, prophets or founders of any religion. None of them had asked for temples, mosques or churches, let alone the trappings or demonstrations of religion with sacred robes, triumphant flags, loud music or colourful processions. But power corrupts and the priests of every faith are easily intoxicated by the power that religiosity gives them. Politicians happily support religiosity that can serve their political agendas. With amazing speed, the social and moral ideas of the founders become lost in an ocean of meaningless rituals and superstitions. Outward form becomes more important than inner substance and religiosity masquerades as religion. Curiously, it is at this stage of most feverish religiosity that religions have collapsed. History shows that new reformers disgusted with empty rituals, superstitions and the arrogance of priests have appeared to break away from the old order to become the founders of new faiths. Zoroaster and Buddha, disgusted with the sacrifices of the old Avestan and Vedic priests, founded simple new faiths. Jesus, horrified by the excesses of Jewish priests founded Christianity. Muhammad, appalled by the rituals and offerings to 365 idols at Mecca founded Islam. But the insidious influence of ritual and superstition is difficult to eradicate. Rituals, penances, processions and offerings packaged as joyous distractions cost much less than the effort of understanding and practising the deeper moral, social and philosophical tenets of religion. So populist ritual and superstition have crept into Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths.

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