The world is gripped by a pandemic—one that was never predicted by the astrologers. In usual times, many families visit places of worship, in addition to seeking medical aid, to get rid of diseases. Currently, all places of worship are locked, be it the Vatican in Rome or Mecca-Medina or the holy temples from Balaji to Shirdi—and Vaishno Devi. The clergy, who generally facilitate prayers have covered themselves with medically-sound precautions while their devotees are trying to follow the advise of their governments, also guided by the scientific-medical establishments.
Social media, which has acquired a sort of notoriety, has seen in this climate two interesting messages: one is science is on duty, religion is on holiday and second is, god is not powerful. Some forthright writers, particularly atheists, have pointed out that the gods have run away while human society is facing a crisis. Many a ‘holy’ person is advising devotees to pray from a distance, from the environs of their homes. Azaans are being relayed, not for calling devotees to mosques but to offer namaz from homes. Ditto is the case of the Sunday mass or the pujas in temples and shrines. To cap it all, even the idols of some gods have been adorned with masks, to ‘protect’ them from the deadly virus.
The old debate of whether god, who is supposed to be the creator and protector, exists, has been sparked all over again. The clergy stands on the margins in this grave human crisis while some gurus are repeating their vague advise in a language couched in spirituality. If god is almighty why is he not saving the world from this suffering? How come only science is making all the effort?
History has seen a long struggle of science to establish the principle of reason. The clergy has mostly opposed science. The most organised clergy, the Roman Catholic church, opposed the discoveries of science through history. The emergence of scientific inquiry was against the opposition of the established church,right from Copernicus to Bruno to Galileo, all faced the wrath of the church. In other countries, the clergy was not so well-organised. In Islam, the clergy has no official place but at social level a clergy did emerge.
Most of this clergy stood with those in power and were for the status quo in social relations of class, caste and gender hierarchy. Feudal kings and landlords had come to be regarded as repositories of divine power and the poor were made to keep expending their labour to serve the ruling sections. The clergy were also supposed to hold a monopoly over knowledge—and they had decreed that the ‘divine’ books held all knowledge.
The foundations of an industrial society, laid on the basis of scientific production processes changed matters to some extent. The clergy also changed its social role. Still, its traditional role has remained prominent enough; to the extent that when one talks of religion, it is only the clergy that claims all authority over it. As such the clergy has focussed more on rituals, places of worship and social norms.
What often gets ignored by many critics is the other components of religion: we find that most prophets were rebels in their times and posited humane values of love. From among religions we also saw the tradition of saints emerge, such as the Bhakti and Sufi movements, which in their unique ways opposed the exploitative social systems and promoted social amity. Another aspect of religion, which has been the support system of many, is the faith that some require to bear the burdens of a heartless world. Still, all religions do not have the concept of god, for example, Buddhism.
The concept of the supernatural has also not been static. Starting from the animism of Adivasis to polytheism and monotheism and to a formless god, human society has travelled a long journey in the evolving concept of god. Atheism has also been part of human history. Starting from Charvaka to Bhagat Singh to Periyar, India also saw this phenomenon. Indeed religion has also acted as a cover for the expansionist goal of kings. Dharmyudha, Crusades and Jihad were primarily launched by kings to expand their kingdoms.
Today, globally, religion is being used as a cover for two diverse phenomenons. The American lust for oil led to propping up of Al Qaeda, which today has mutated into Islamic State and is a cancer behaving like Frankenstein’s monster. America had invested $8,000 million and supplied 7,000 tons of armament to prop up and support the Qaeda. Now it is making efforts to wash its hands off its own creation.
In the face of industrialisation and social changes that have propelled the world towards seeking greater equality, the declining sections of societies (landlord-kings), particularly in post-colonial states, have resurfaced to oppose democratic values and the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. IT is they who have taken cover under the banner of a politics of religion. Be it Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, Buddhist fundamentalism or Hindu fundamentalism, which we know as communalism, they do not stand for the moral values; they seek to revert to the values of a pre-industrialised world, which in India means enforced caste and gender hierarchies.
To add to the confusion, we in India are seeing this politics unfold in the garb of Hinduism mutated into Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. Whatever name it goes by, it is now claiming that all scientific discoveries were part of an ancient wisdom which has been “forgotten” over time. So plastic surgery, genetic engineering, aviation science, TV and internet and even Newton’s theory of gravitation are supposed to be part of our ancient knowledge.
One hopes that the efforts of the Indian government and the global governments will win over the threat which the Novel Coronavirus poses to human society. The hope is also that it will also make us more rational in our approach to scientific policy and social affairs.
The author is a social activist and commentator. The views are personal.