Friday, August 29, 2008

The Ways of the way of life

How many times have you heard this statement: "Not a religion, but a way of life." Chances are, several times. I first heard this from my dad about Christianity. I've heard this of Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam and any number of shamanistic, tribal or animistic religions as well, Hinduism currently topping the number by a wide margin, most often implying that by virtue of it being a way of life it is somehow better to link your lot with it than any other worldview.

Which religion isn't a way of life? After all religions are worldviews and they all expound on the condition of man (sinful, unenlightened, ignorant, fulfilling Karmic law, unfulfilled potential and so on), the ways to change the condition (redemption, self-realization, cycle of births, acquiring wisdom, meditation), ways to live the earthly life (ethics, morals, laws, situational ethics, choosing the least evil), who God is (the Triune God, Allah, Brahman, Impersonal Reality, various deities), purpose of life (devotion to God, self-fulfillment, completion of just earthly duties). They may not all have a holy book but they all have sacred writings (Bible, Koran, Vedas, Upanishads, Buddhist treatises, Guru Granth Sahib), some form of organization (hierarchical, conciliar, congregationalist, loosely bound), key men who have founded or nurtured them (Jesus, Mohammed, Sankara, Buddha).

And so this pithy polemic that they are ways of life is best left unsaid. Indeed Christianity in its earliest days was not known as Christianity but simply as "the Way", clearly referring to the Jesus' definitive statement, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life". But this did not mean simply that it was A Way, but that Jesus himself was The Way.

Hinduism is on trial this week in the Indian state of Orissa. If indeed it is not a religion but a way of life then it is very loosely defined. Is the violence being unleashed on Christians part of this way of life? Most Hindus would disagree though some may disingenuously say that the violence was just the natural response to the slaying of a respected Hindu leader and not normal Hidu behaviour. One must be careful whe one uses this statement. After all the proponents of Hindutva insist that they are being taken for a ride because they are a peace-loving people. History does not prove that exactly, what with the wars among the Hindus before the Muslims invaded India. Indeed the explosive birth of Buddhism in India was precisely in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the ancient world, Kalinga (ironically enough, in Orissa), fought among Hindus. Besides the long history of discrimnation, reprisals and brutality based on Jati and Varna (known to the world as the Caste System) reduce such notions to nought. And one must ask the question, if indeed Hinduism is a religion of peace, how does one account for the current cycle of violence? Blaming "forced conversions" is a fig leaf for the insecurities that social ills engender in Indian society that contemporary Hindus feel and do not want to acknowledge.

How is a convert forcibly converted? From Wikipedia, "A forced conversion is the conversion to a religion or philosophy under duress, with the threatened consequence of earthly penalties or harm. These consequences range from job loss and social isolation to incarceration, torture or death. Typically, such a conversion entails the repudiation of former religious or philosophical convictions".

But these kind of conversions are not the forced conversions alleged by Hindu nationalists against Christians. These are not reprisals for not converting but positive reinforcements (implicit or explicit) for converting. A poor tribal Hindu is in need of a job. Christian social workers and missionaries not only preach the Gospel to him but help him get a job. The local Hindu Nationalist leaders are agitated. They are losing a lower caste Hindu from the ranks of their indentured servants; and they are threatened by the advent of a faith that challenges their supremacy. Besides they see economic progress coming to a convert from whom it had long been denied. They bogey of forced conversions is then raised.

Perhaps a more reasonable question could be asked: Do the missionaries deny the assistance to a poor Hindu that they give a poor Christian convert? If the answer is yes, then shame on the missionaries! God causes his rain to fall on the wicked and the just. How could we then distinguish between two human beings on the basis of their faith, much less their character?

A missionary helps people in need but especially those he comes into close contact with. A new convert has the opportunity to interact much more with him than a non-convert. Why is it so hard to give him the benefit of doubt in such a situation? Besides, even in such a case the response of the nationalist leaders gives their game away. An organized political resistance to such preferential and unjust treatments would have gone a long way, and indeed Hindus have a history of organizing themselves well against social evils. Even in their current response they are organized well, and this could have been applauded but for their evil intent and methods- violence, intimidation and terror.

The current spate of violence is being understood among the nationalist circles as the response to the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda. The mob has its own twisted notions of justice. But keep in mind that the government, the police and the nationalist leaders themselves have nothing to say or do to contain the violence. Even the questions being raised in the Orissa state assembly seek to understand from the incumbent party why Hindus are not being protected. There is no mention of the Christians who are being slaughtered in the aftermath. Have the lawmakers forgotten to serve the people who are in most need? Every Christian leader has unequivocally condemned the killing of the swami, burying for the moment their deep grievances about his actions against them. Is there noone among the Hindu leaders to shed a tear for the victims of the nationalist rabble? While the more bloody Gujarat riots are recalled to mind, it is important to know that the evidence for implicating leaders is not so much evidence for instigating the rabble but that for standing by and doing nothing.

It is time to ask a basic question: if Hinduism is indeed a way of life, then whose way of life is it? Will the real Hindu please stand up? Is he the face of the mob in Orissa? Or the complex avatar, Ram, often called the perfect man worthy of emulation (Maryada Purush)? In both cases, the answers raise more doubts than solutions, and present that ancient way of life as one not worth following.

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