Alain de Botton, one of the best known intellectuals of Britain, suggests that in the modern world culture should take precedence over religion. Ultimately, he prescribes that the former should replace the latter. It's interesting to see how far Alain's ideas can go in an oriental society like India. Recently, I visited my native district Deoghar, situated in Jharkhand, to celebrate Durga Puja. What surprised me was not the scale at which the festival was celebrated there, but the degree of strictness with which people still follow religious rituals. From the looks of it, the rites and ceremonies of worship, including animal sacrifices in the goddess's temple, have not changed for centuries. It made me think how strongly religion governs culture in our society. In other words, I saw Alain de Botton's thesis failing in that small district of Jharkhand.
Has too much of a dependence on religion made India a stiff and non-reformist society? Or rather, have we as a society failed to apply religion in a wiser way so that it could guide us to lead a progressive life?
"It's easier for the average Hindu to go to a temple and pour a jug of holy Ganges water over a shivling rather than pore over the Bhagavad Gita..."
Religion is not about engaging in philosophical pondering over the existence or non-existence of a divine agency or god. Instead, it's an extremely powerful institution that has been shaping society through its manifestation in culture for ages and ages.
A structured religion generally has three components: teaching, symbols and rituals. Through these three elements it encompasses the entire human psyche. Teaching guides the rational; symbols influence the physicality of a concept without which a human being can't remain committed to a belief for a longer time; and, the daily repetitive rituals discipline our activities and our behaviour. This means religion provides a complete recipe on how to live life. It is, therefore, a staunch creator and manager of society.
The socio-political events that unfold in a country decide which one of those three elements will surpass others in the course of time. In some far eastern countries, especially in Japan and South Korea, Buddhist teachings taken precedence over rituals, resulting in societies that are not unevenly guided by greed. In India, rituals and symbols remained vital in lighting the notion of religion (especially Brahmanism), and the actual teachings waned in significance. A possible reason can be that for the general populace, scholarship and its complexities are less attractive than prescriptive rituals that are easy to follow, often entertaining and that provide markers of identity as well as a psychological cushion. Symbols perform similar functions of identity and community.
For instance, it's easier for the average Hindu to go to a temple and pour a jug of holy Ganges water over a shivling rather than pore over the Bhagavad Gita in the pursuit of understanding Karma Yoga. Similarly, it's fun and easy to devour Chetan Bhagat's pulp fiction rather than grapple with the politically layered tomes of a Salman Rushdie or a Hilary Mantel.
In addition, people are neither farsighted nor well-informed enough to decide which path they should take. They need to be guided by the leaders of that era, be it a head of state, public intellectuals or spiritual gurus. Unfortunately, during the British era the entire intellectual energy was exhausted in attaining political freedom rather than thinking about a cultural renaissance which was equally important in the long run. Post independence, the Nehruvian socialist thought encouraged us to drop religion as an important analytical tool while considering much-needed reforms in society. One can observe easily that the Indian thought culture has remained subservient to Western intellectual tradition.
"For a complicated society like India, it's important to direct the masses towards the core teaching of the religion instead of letting them carried away with the external embellishments of worship."
It's also true that religion in India has been inclusive enough to allow positive socio-political adjustments to take place. India has been a democracy since the inception of its republic and we've had a free market economy since 1991. Both ideas are solely based on individualism. How surprising that these value systems coming from the land of individualism find a solid base in India that has always had a staunchly collectivist character. These developments are evidence of the tolerant nature of Indian religion, especially Hinduism (the religion of the majority of population). The religion and its philosophy must have prepared the ground for an acceptance of foreign- grown ideas like democracy and neo-liberal economics.
For a complicated society like India, it's important to direct the masses towards the core teaching of the religion instead of letting them carried away with the external embellishments of worship. Spiritual gurus need to play a more pro-active role in educating the people on how to humanize religion; how to integrate the real essence of all the Indian religions for our societal progress.
In the absence of such spiritual awakening, today most Indians are following the Western mode of consumerism which is not sustainable for a long term as it invites you to spend beyond your means, and seduces you to succumb to instant gratification. Hence, a rational regulation of market is required for a sustainable growth in a society like India.