Of Politics and Religion

both are irrational, and both make the promise of a better hereafter. In religion it is afterlife, in politics it is after-election — By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In this age of Kali Yuga (the last one of the four ages or eras in the Hindu cycle of existence), which is the ‘age of vice’ or ‘age of darkness’, politics and religion make for uneasy bedfellows. Yet there was a time in ancient India when the ‘philosopher-king’ Ram ruled his kingdom, which meant resorting to politics, according to the highest moral order known as Dharma (righteousness) which is a foundational principle of Hinduism, and established what is known as Ram Rajya. It was an ideal system which resulted in a reign during which peace prevailed, the people were happy, society was free of conflicts, there was enough for everybody’s needs and the ruler genuinely cared for his subjects who in turn showered him with their love and respect.

Maria Wirth, a German lady converted to Hinduism who has made India her home for many decades now, shows a fine understanding of Dharma in a post: ‘One should be a little careful with the term religion. In the west it usually means a rigid “belief system”, with one book and one founder. India’s ancient religion is different. Rishis (sages) tried to find out what the truth about us and the universe is and how to live life in the best way (dharmic lifestyle), and they left notes on their insights. Hindu Dharma does not depend on blind belief in something that never can be known whether it is true… Hinduism is different. One is meant to use one’s intelligence and realize that there must be some invisible intelligence and power behind this visible manifestation.’

To that extent therefore Hinduism is not a religion as is commonly understood, that is a set of beliefs based on faith which cannot be questioned. But for the purpose of this article we will consider Hinduism as a religion since that’s how politicians view it as they try to use religion to gain political mileage. During political campaigns the ideal of Ram Rajya is also referred to by local politicians, without some of them perhaps fully appreciating what all it implies for their conduct to start with and for the people whom they are canvassing to accept their leadership.

It must certainly not be in the sense that Mahatma Gandhi understood it, and genuinely strove to apply it in his struggle for India’s independence. As he wrote in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’: ‘To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.’

If he were around today, one wonders what Gandhi would have felt about another Gandhi, Rahul (not related to him), doing ‘temple hopping’ and ‘temple politics’ (terms used by anchors on Indian TV channels), during the campaign for the State elections in Gujarat which ended a couple of days ago. Apparently in this period of 90 days, he has visited no less than 28 temples, a record by their calculations, because he never goes to a temple in Delhi where he resides, nor did he visit temples while campaigning for the State elections in Uttar Pradesh last year, where the Congress Party got a thrashing. So that’s why the anchors think that the profusion of temple visits he carried out in the time due for campaigning was definitely meant as a signal to the Hindus in a bid to obtain their votes. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits temples or does yoga is nothing unusual, for he has been doing that from his youth.

Locally too, we recall that politicians like to be shown visiting temples or when they are present at functions held by religious organizations, and even being invited to make speeches on these occasions, thinking that this will enhance popularity or translate into votes. However, here we must point out that this seems to apply more to Hindu functions rather than to Christian or Muslim ones. What is it that bugs Hindu politicians to so demean their religion and so publicly? And why are the leaders of Hindu organisations or places of worship willing accomplices in what is clearly a totally unacceptable practice? After all, the other religious groups also obtain subsidies from the government, and yet one does not see politicians making speeches when these groups are concerned?

The limit of absurdity was reached once when a former party leader, donned in a kurta, was shown pouring water on a Shivalinga at the Tulsi Sham Mandir on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri. For that matter, another politician too has been shown on TV wearing kurta and sporting red tikka on one or more similar occasions. Need it be said that such rituals must be preceded by a period of fasting and puja at home, etc.? Not doing so amounts to a desecration of the sacred space: don’t those responsible for such acts realize the profanity that their ignorance and latitude causes? Further, does the non-Hindu person slapping on a kurta or a tikka understand the symbolic significance, and this applies to the draping with a shawl as well? What a shame on those who allow these aberrations! One minister, a rare one with a sense of self-respect and dignity, actually submitted his resignation to the committee of a society of which he was a member. He had been revolted when during a hawan (when simagri is put offered into the fire in the kund), he found that one of the participants was a high personality of the country, a non-Hindu, sitting in with his shoes on and making offerings too! The right thing to do would have been to make him sit among the general audience.

At its inception, the present government clearly announced that it would do away with the practice of politicians making speeches on religious occasions. Unfortunately, perhaps the temptation or the reflex was too strong for them to implement their pledge, and we seem subsequently to have gone back to business as usual – in Hindu religious places.

In contrast, it is not uncommon for non-Hindu religious figures to air their views on political matters, including from the pulpit, with loaded and barbed messages obviously meant for the political class, despite claiming to believe in secularism. One would recall how Pere Jocelyn Gregoire, who was a fly-by-night operator hailing from America, made a call to ‘vote with the heart’. He even founded a party that soon saw dwindling attendances at the few meetings he held, and fizzled out of existence. The only conclusion can be that the constituency he was seeking to influence preferred him as a priest rather than as amateur politician. Which is similar to what happened to an excellent doctor who failed to make it in the 1987 election: he wisely concluded that his patients wanted him for his medical skills – he served many more long years — and not as politician.

This said, politics and religion, especially the monotheistic ones, have got some similarities. They are both irrational, and both make the promise of a better hereafter. In religion it is afterlife, in politics it is after-election. As we have all experienced, the after-election begins to sour soon enough; as for the afterlife, no one has ever come back to confirm the abundance of wine or virgins. Hence the demand for fierce loyalty to the chieftains and the beliefs and dogmas they hold, under threat of punishment, which can include being sidelined or expelled (from the party), excommunicated (from the fold) or even eliminated, often physically if there is the slightest inkling of independent thinking or of questioning the dogma.

And both are about power over people. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, American-Lebanese analyst and essayist wrote: ‘That’s why many among the 76 percent of American adults who call themselves Christians, feel like an oppressed minority, even though they are a 5:1 majority. They have been losing power since the 1960s.’ He makes a masterly analysis of this phenomenon in his article ‘The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority’. It has important lessons and insights which may help in crafting policy for the future of our world, including our island. Those who are positioning themselves to lead the country would do themselves and their countrymen a great service by becoming familiar with the analyses of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

 

 

*  Published in print edition on 15 December 2017

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