The power of religion

Below is a reflection I wrote for class that contextualizes some of my experiences in India with readings and class discussions:

 

A common theme I have found through our studies so far is the role of religion in India.  Everything we have read includes religious identity or conflict either as the focus (Samskara) or as a cause/effect situation (“Borders and Boundaries”).  I already had a good deal of background the current/historical background of religious tension in India and was raised Hindu.  Last summer I visited Kashmir and Ladakh where I learned about the history of the Kashmiri conflict and the Khargil War.  The border conflicts are the typical historical events that are associated with India.  Since I already had background in that, I found learning about the other facets of religion in India to be more interesting.

Samskara showed me a different side of India—I do not mean the typical village perspective, but a look into the caste system from the top down.  Brahmins are generally respected and considered to be the holiest in society, but the characters in the novel are guilty of corruption, greed, and selfishness.  For example, both Garudacharya and Lakshmanacharya appealed to Praneshacharya to do the rituals out of greed.  Praneshacharya says, “Garuda was returning all the Vedanta, Purana, and logic he’d heard from him—for what? Gold.  Alas for men’s lives,” (Ananthamurthy 27).  This irony reminds me of a Hindi story called “Prayashchit” in which a family’s cat is killed when someone kicks it and the family is terrified of all the bad omens this will bring.  They call a priest that lists off a bunch of tasks they must do, most of which require they pay him money.  However, at the end the maid finds that the cat ran off.  The family had frantically called the priest before even properly checking if the cat was actually dead!  The story demonstrates both the extremity of religious faith as the priest’s word is never doubted and the corruption of much of the Brahmin class.  People automatically jump to religion for solutions just as Praneshacharya searches through his texts for a solution to his very specific problem of Naranappa’s cremation.  When he finds no answer, he is lost (Ananthamurthy 43).

Another recurring topic in our readings has been Hindu-Muslim relations.  This is especially relevant given current events since earlier this week the Indian army conducted surgical attacks on terrorist cells in Pakistan.  The relatively peaceful coexistence of Hindu and Muslim populations during the Mughal Era lies in stark contrast with post-partition relations.  Our examination of the role the historical narrative plays in shaping current affairs points to the incongruences in modern perceptions of history and actual fact.  The Mughals are often viewed as aggressive conquerors that opposed Hinduism, but in fact most of the rulers were tolerant of other religions.  These misconceptions have fueled current enmity that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and other such riots (Bose and Jalal 20-30).

I actually experienced such riots when I was in middle school and I went on a family road trip from Amritsar to Vaishnodevi in Jammu.  At the time, there was a big controversy over the building of hospitality sites for Hindu pilgrims en route to the Amarnath Temple in Muslim-populated regions.  Roads were blocks, shops were closed, and rioters rode around on the backs of trucks with long sticks shouting, “Bum bum bole!”  We had trouble finding a car mechanic after our second flat tire since the shops were shut and we actually passed a burning effigy.  We made it through fine, but it was quite an adventure.

The amount of violence and enmity that derives out of the division is astonishing.  The “Borders and Boundaries” piece goes into great detail about the different disputes almost all of which return to the Hindu-Muslim conflict (Talbot).  Someone’s remark in class this week about how the Indian news portrays India’s rivalry with Pakistan as a competition that they are winning really struck me in both its truth and absurdity.  The national interest in an India-Pakistan cricket match may seem innocent at first, but it belies the intense sense of hate between the two countries.  Changing the historical narrative to reflect a more neutral view can only help to make future amends to the current climate.

Thus, many of the readings this past week have exemplified the power that faith commands in India.  Both domestic class divisions and foreign policy are dictated by Hindu beliefs.  Devotion often blinds people since they put too much faith in the system that on the surface promotes their religion.  It can also lead to extremist reactions to conflicting ideas that are overall detrimental to society.

[1] Samskara by U.R. Ananthamurthy
[2] Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal
[3] “Borders and Boundaries” chapter from A History of Modern South Asia: Politics, States, Diasporas by Ian Talbot

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