Posted by: Vikram | December 26, 2008

Is religion a positive influence on contemporary Indian society ?

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.

Sign outside a tourist spot in Goa

Sign outside a tourist spot in Goa

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.

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Responses

  1. I think the difference between the gusto of celebrations is that in India we do not really care too much about stepping on other toes to express ourselves- even at the cost of being insensitive. We are just not civic minded- remember the blaring music from films, the loud Diwali crackers and the rest- so Christmas too becomes as boisterous. In the US, as in most of the West there is a tendency to keep the noise out of public life. I don’t hear people screaming from their houses either. Neither do religious processions ( and yes they are there) block traffic and inconvenience others(on another note, neither do pickets nor strikes) people are just “well-behaved” in public. The in-your face religion thing is petty strong here in Texas- look at the number of churches, the people handing out chick tracts, church booklets- but it is done quietly. In India it is much louder- in a “Its our religious celebration, how can anyone be offended” manner- that is the difference.
    The interesting thing is how a lot of Indians too tend to congregate in groups to keep the spirit of festivals alive- we unnecessarily try to make it a community thing- somehow getting away from the individual feel-good thing some of our festivals and their rituals symbolize.

    You are bang on target about the other observations about religious ritual.

  2. If you ever go to a restaurant in India or any other public place you will notice how loud everyone is. Its just the same thing, festivals in India are loud as well. Somehow in India being loud and in your face is associated with coolness. You are considered more lively. The media here often encourages young people to be boisterous. Personally I prefer it quiet but everyone has their own take. I would rather hear the songs of the birds in a metropolis than an infernal din.

    However I guess you are right what India does need is the things that are elementary. These will not happen by itself. People will have to realise that they need to work hard for them. Each one of us will have to do something about it.

  3. @ Allytude, Odzer : My idea here was just to point out that Indians are more likely to emphasize the celebratory aspect of a festival, even though, as you point out it often comes at the cost of civic decency.

    I dont think the West was always like this and now I wonder if the lack of boisterousness is in part due to the emphasis on being ‘well-behaved’.

  4. A lot of it is cultural. In the U.S. in public schools we are taught not to be too boisterous about religious things. Kids are told to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christams” or “Happy Hanukkah”. Some schools don’t allow much in the way of celebrating the holidays. I think in the U.S. people are still getting used to diversity so rather than teach about all religions, some people just throw it all out of the schools.

    Some also could be Protestant Christianity. Protestants don’t have a lot of rituals, no statues, hardly any religious artifacts whatsoever. There are very few pilgrimages. Prayer is done in private. All that matters is faith. Also, most come from very subdued cultures-my Scandinavian Lutheran relatives place a high importance on blending in (no loud displays), being stoic, and working for the good of the group. Being ostentatious is one of the worst things to be.

    The largest religious group in the U.S. are the white Protestants.

    The Catholic relatives are a bit more relaxed, more emotional. My home church did have church processions around the block of the church on some church holidays. The houses of my Catholic relatives did have more religious artifacts-crucifixes, statues, rosaries, holy cards, scapulars of saints to wear around the neck, a reproduction of the Last Supper in the kitchen, a place to hold holy water on the wall of the bedroom so that before starting the day and ending the day they could bless themselves.

    Or it could be the culture of American suburbs. People don’t usually know their neighbors well. The average American lives in a house less than 10 years before moving on. Middle class Americans live life behind closed doors. Poorer people in the US are louder and do live more in public.

    Probably it is a combination of all of the above.

    I don’t think Hinduism is to blame for people not paying their taxes. If it was only religion, Hindus in the US. wouldn’t pay their taxes either. Also, U.S. Italian/Catholic gangsters were also very religious and had strict codes of behaviour.

    In short, I think you are simplifying way too much.

  5. @ MmeetsK : Thank You MmeetsK. Your comments have shed much needed might on my original (perhaps naive) interpretation on religion in America. I had this article linked in, but I do want to point it out specifically, since it backs your observations,
    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1668481,00.html

    Also, thinks for pointing out the Protestant work ethic and culture, that perhaps had a lot to do with America’s success.

    I never specifically blamed Hinduism. In fact, I mentioned that it is the fact that Indians cant prioritize their state over religion in matters, that is to blame. This is true of most Indians, regardless of religion. In fact, I thinks its true in many developing countries with a strongly religious population (Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia).

  6. Interesting post Vikram. Additional reasons for Indians celebrating Christmas with gusto (besides religiosity) is that in India people are very social and bonds are strong. Also people have more time! 🙂

  7. Vikram,

    I have spent one Christmas in Mumbai and indeed it was all over and everyone got into the spirit of christmas and giving gifts. In my opinion, celebration of christmas in big Indian cities has more to do with multinational companies and their advertising campaigns around christmas rather than people celebrating the religious festival.

  8. @ Yes Nita, as an example I am reminded of my own childhood in Powai in Mumbai. Apart from 3 Punjabi families (2 Sikh, 1 Hindu) everyone in my building was from a different state. But still the social bonds were very strong. Our neighbours were Malayali Christians, who would bring us sweets and other Kerala goodies on every Christian festival. Most festivals were celebrated together.

    @ Tazeen, I think you are right to a great extent. It is definitely hyped up by the media and the corporates. It is also seen by many urban Indians as a very ‘chic’ and ‘Western’ thing to do.

    One should contrast the celebrations of Christmas with those of the Muslim festivals (Eid, Muharram). Apart from the Muslims and a few media outlets nobody seems to care. Of course they are usually holidays, but pretty soon the right wing will start calling even that minority ‘appeasement’.

  9. Hi Vikram,

    It has been long since I have visited your blog.. stuck up with some works.. but first things first.. A very happy new year to you 🙂
    And I am happy that now-a-days you are very frequent 🙂
    This is a very nice post.. we people have the habit to celebrating the festivals in big way with all the colours that gives a identification to us.. it’s good too.. as it helps ourselves to relax.. As far as Christmas is concerned we have accepted the concept of Santa and gifting and we have great great relationship with all over neighbours 🙂

    Thanks Kanagu, a happy new year to u too.


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