the-south-asian.com                                     February 2003

 

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EVOLVING A CODE OF CONDUCT FOR RELIGIONS

Swami Agnivesh & Rev. Valson Thampu

 

Impatience with inconvenience is the hallmark of our times. Gone are the days when people would have put up with anything for any length of time.

Speed is basic to modern culture: a recognition that underlies the massive investment being made on developing a sophisticated mass rapid transport system for Delhi, even as several basic civic amenities remain inadequate and substandard. It is inevitable that preference for speed aggravates impatience with bottlenecks. Given this, it is amazing how patient people continue to be with inconveniences and disruption of civic life when they are brought about in the name of religion. The length, breadth and duration of religious processions continue to increase in Delhi. Sometimes traffic along the affected route is stalled for hours. It is a scary experience to suddenly find oneself in the midst of such a procession, especially if it happens at night. More often than not, the temper and spirit that prevail at these religious processions and public displays are hardly religious. A little spark, and the situation could erupt into violence.

Because we cherish the spiritual core of religions as the reservoir of higher values and ideals, we feel troubled by the mindless perpetuation of these practices that entrap people in the past and inhibit the development of their sense and sensibility. The curious thing is this. It is because of oneís fervour for God that these public displays are mounted.

The importance of processions and morchas is declining in politics, where they used to thrive till recently. Yet, it seems only to increase in the sphere of religions. These religious processions and public displays made sense when they were evolved. They were shared events that provided a rallying point for the local community. Exciting public events were so few and far between in those days, and life was so unhurried, that the festive air these processions conjured up provided the needed effervescence to alleviate the monotony of routine life. There was, besides, no mass media then and these exercises served to carry religious experiences to the business and bosom of the people. Rather than disrupt life in the locality, these religious events cemented and enriched the life of the whole community. This, however, is no longer the case.

Religion is becoming, for increasing numbers of people, a ready excuse for indulging in irrational and otherwise indefensible behaviour. From encroaching public land to browbeating jurisprudence to oneís own advance, religion is being increasingly deployed for sanctifying no-sense, even non-sense. It stands in danger of being degraded into an alibi for violence, cruelty and alienation among people. "Politics," said George Bernard Shaw a few decades ago, "is the last resort of scoundrels". We must ensure that religion does not suffer a similar degradation in this land of religions.

Because of the irreligious spirit of competition that today vitiates the inter-religious space, the keepers of religions are engrossed in a tragicomic game of out-smarting each other. This has serious consequences in a multi-religious democracy. If religions are to be a blessing for our people, it is necessary to evolve a code of conduct to guide their self-expressions in the public space. Arguably, such a code cannot be improvised by some thinkers or groups, no matter how well-meaning they are. It has to be evolved through a series of consultations involving all religions, to identify the dos and doníts objectively. If this is not done without delay, the nuisance value of religions will continue to increase and assume epidemic proportions. This could discredit the very idea of religion.

Religion is meant to help rather than hinder life. As a rule, therefore, nothing that disrupts, devalues, dehumanises, or destroys life should be allowed any religious legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the practitioners of each religion to ensure that this is so. They must deem it a spiritual duty to dissociate themselves from such traditions, practices and advocacies. This calls for a large measure of objectivity. Sadly, the capacity for objective thinking is conspicuous by its absence from the religious nurture that takes place today. Communalism revels in breeding and exploiting subjectivity and its inevitable accompaniment of double-standards. The spiritual mandate, on the contrary, is to treat others, as we would wish to be treated by them. No one likes to be held up on the way for hours together, especially in situations of medical emergencies, for the sake of gods or goddesses, who have nothing to do with these roads in the first place.

We would urge our Muslim brothers, for example, to ensure that Friday prayers do not spill over to adjoining roads to the inconvenience of the public. Prayers are important and religious traditions need to be honoured. At the same time, due consideration for peopleís needs must be factored into oneís religiosity. If the mosques are not spacious enough, these prayers can happen in two sessions. Alternately, if it is imperative that all people pray together, it should be possible to organize these namazes in suitable public places like parks or play-fields. Surely, it is better to pray in a park than on a thoroughfare!

Urgent thought, likewise, needs to be paid to the implied insult in honouring the birthdays of gods and the founders of religions. Without exception, all of them were karma yogis: great souls who exalted work to the heights of worship. Active practice of good in the form of serving people in need, rather than wasting oneís days in idleness, is a better way to honour them. Ideally we should work more, not less, on these auspicious days; even if it is not routine work that we do. Promotion of slothfulness and lowering the dignity of work in the name of gods makes religion a corrupter of our work-culture. Swelling the quota of public holidays for each religion is the communal largesse that politicians proffer to the keepers of religions. This is holy bribery: a loss, rather than a gain for all of us.

These are only a few pointers to a long-neglected agenda that brooks no further delay. Religion, until it is commandeered and corrupted by organized vested interests, is a profoundly rational thing. And it is high time that the practitioners of religions are urged to heed the demands of rationality and reasonableness, especially in the practice of their religiosity in the public space.

 

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