It was Christmas in America yesterday. The US is 95 % Christian1, Mumbai about 4 %. Trust me, Christmas in Mumbai is celebrated with much more gusto than here in central Texas. Americans seem to have quite an interesting attitude to religion, on the one hand they think that them being more ‘religious’ than the European nations is proof of their moral superiority, and religion does figure prominently in their culture (movies, songs) and politics. On the other hand, when it comes to actually practicing their religion (festivals, prayers, pilgrimage etc.) they seem quite dormant.
This is in huge contrast to the scene in India, where virtually every possible festival is celebrated with great gusto 😀 . This is an aspect of life in Mumbai, that I miss a lot. Be it Holi, Eid, Diwali, Onam or Christmas, a holiday, a celebration and good food were guaranteed 🙂 . Of course, just as in America, religion in India also has political and national significance. In particular, India’s secularism is seen by many Indians as proof of their moral superiority over other states. Of course, the role of religion in the internal politics of India is huge, which I wont get into here.
But aside from its sporadic ugly political manifestations, religion also has other, slightly more subtle negative influences on individual Indians. Religious ritual is often used to justify immoral actions in day to day life. So, an official can take bribes, go home, do a ‘puja’ and get cleansed of his/her sins. Indeed, the gangsters and underworld of Mumbai are renowned to be extremely religious2. A person might go around trying to keep Mumbai clean, and nobody will give two hoots about it. But the same person going to a temple will evoke comments about how full of virtue he/she is.
The problem seems to be that due to the excessively religious nature of Indian society, morality is often seen, not in the context of the integrity of ones actions and upholding the law but in terms of adherence to religious norms. No amount of namaz or daan can make up for taking a bribe or even breaking a traffic light. No amount of ‘dakshina’ can make up for evading taxes. In many ways, the Indian state provokes this faith in the supernatural because its Kafkaesque workings ensure that often getting anything done depends a lot on one’s luck and prayers.
The problem of course is not religion itself, but Indian’s strange interpretation of it. Hindu deities, Allah and Jesus can sooth our minds in times of trouble and give us spiritual contentment. But they cant protect us from terrorists, build schools, bridges and roads that our country so desperately needs. For this we need a strong state, that abides by the Constitution and gets things done. Unfortunately, while we can ‘wash our sins away’ or ‘confess to the lord’, the fact that we weaken our state everytime we cheat/bribe/ignore remains unchanged.
We should not infuse religious ritual and contentment with our interactions with our state.
1: 80% are ‘practicing’ Christians, most of the rest are ‘cultural’ Christians.
2: Suketu Mehta, in his book Maximum City, spends a lot of time with Mumbai gangsters, who frequently mention this scene from the movie Parinda to be one of the few occasions when Bollywood has potrayed a gangster correctly.