The divisiveness of religion


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


Through our past two weeks of class, religion, especially pertaining to communalism, has been a common thread throughout our discussions.  Several of the readings have either touched on or gone into great depth on the significance of religion in India and just by living here it is apparent everywhere you go.  Just in everyday life there are roadside shrines and outward displays of religion through dress.  The piece I found most interesting was the Shashi Tharoor chapter titled “Unity, Diversity, and Other Contradictions,” which pointed out the simultaneous logic and irony of India’s pluralist society.  He begins with a discussion of the many definitions of secularism, an area that we spent a lot of time on in class.  When the term was searched, we found two different definitions of secularism.  However, they both had the underlying thread of “not religious.”  Tharoor points out the incongruences of the Indian perception of the term, which is often equated with pluralism, or the accepting of all religious (aka religious tolerance).  He says, “secularism in India did not mean irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the Communists or the southern Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) found unpopular among their voters; rather it meant, in the Indian tradition, pluri-religiousness,” (Tharoor 53).  This distinction is important since it shows the underlying differences between India’s model of government and that of the United States.  The US is secularist in the sense that religion (supposedly) has no effect on the state or governance.  On the other hand, India tries to include multiple religious by creating religious codes.  Tharoor does not specifically cite the codes, but he does allude to them with his mention of Muslim marriage laws (Tharoor 54).  He does not go into depth on whether they are beneficial or not, but I don’t think you can deny that this causes division.  Rather than viewing the country as a single entity, each sect is seen as separate.  As a result, groups form that lead to communalism.

Another interesting part of the Tharoor reading that I related to was his discussion of Hinduism and its relation to fundamentalism.  I have grown up with a similar ideology in that Hinduism is not really a religion, but a way of life.  It has doctrines that teaches life philosophy, but it does not dictate a supreme being that one should worship.  Only through different interpretations and followings have certain gods gained followings.  The important thing is to worship some form of god that you believe in since the idea is that all gods are one.  Tharoor basically says the same thing in stating, “Hinduism, however, asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths,” (Tharoor 57).  He rightly states that it follows that such a religion, or rather belief system, cannot lend itself to fundamentalism.  The issue is that over time the concept of Hinduism has been distorted by its need to be categorized as a religion, which has caused division and even violence.

One such example we discussed in class was the violence against Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in the Amitav Ghosh article.  I thought the article was written really well and the time he took to put his thoughts into words showed.  Some others in class brought up how they thought he was talking from a point of privilege, but I think there’s value in hearing from all perspectives.  He obviously still had insight to add and his experiences in the bus with the Sikh man and his friend’s neighbors demonstrated real fear and tension.  To claim that he is speaking from a point of privilege is to belittle those valid thoughts and experiences on the basis that he has money.  Others thought that the article would not be met with good reception from Sikh families, but I disagree.  If I were in the place of the families affected, I’d appreciate Ghosh’s positive message of unity and his role in helping fellow Indians stay out of harm’s way.  Just because he did not describe the pain of the Sikh community in detail does not make his article insensitive—it’s just his perspective.  He is not Sikh so he could not write from such a perspective.  I enjoyed reading the piece since it was both realistic and optimistic: it recognized the nation’s flaws but also inspired hope for the future. (Ghosh)

Therefore, religion causing division has been a recurring theme in our readings.  Root causes and examples have been discussed with optimism for the future in mind, but it is easier to discuss than resolve the issue.  Changing public opinion will take a lot more than a politician (Tharoor) writing about it, especially when we have such a religiously polarizing party currently in power.  Hopefully, the conversation about communalism and the resulting violence will continue and eventually religion will be used solely as a unifying factor and not a divisive one, but until then it is good to be aware of the current issues facing Indian society today.

[1] Ghosh, Amitav. “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi.” The New Yorker, 17 July 1995.

[2] Tharoor, Shashi. “Unity, Diversity, and Other Contradictions.” India: From Midnight to the Millennium and beyond. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2007. 51-79. Print.


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