RELIGION AND DEMOCRACY
I had written an article long time back about Religion and fanaticism and about how religious dogmas give rise to fanatics and fanaticism. While writing that article I came upon a thought about whether religion suppresses democracy or whether democracy suppresses religion. Either way the effect would be explosive as in both the cases the fundamental freedom of man is at stake. Therefore in this article I have decided to pen my thoughts regarding that very question, whether religion suppresses democracy or whether democracy suppresses religion. There is another very pertinent reason as why this debate should have a logical conclusion. What we are seeing in India along the Kashmir border, what we are seeing in Pakistan, Afghanistan We only point our fingers to one culprit to all the troubles that are been endured by the innocents in these places. Not only in these places but world over we have started blaming one religion for the troubles and the problems and the depleting economy of every nation in this earth. Have we ever tried to find out the proper reasons for the anomalies that are perpetrated world over? Is it not the responsibility of the elected government to set the things in its right perspective? Here in lies the crux of the issue, the crux of the debate that whether religion suppresses democracy? Or the other way round.
Let us then first start defining these two words. What do we understand by the word Democracy. DEMOCRACY: the political orientation of those who favor government by the people or by their elected representatives a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them majority rule: the doctrine that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group
Democracy, which derives from the Greek word “demos,” or “people,” is defined, basically, as government in which the supreme power is vested in the people. In some forms, democracy can be exercised directly by the people; in large societies, it is by the people through their elected agents. Or, in the memorable phrase of President Abraham Lincoln, democracy is government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” And now let us define the word Religion. It is very difficult to define religion because it encompasses not only one aspect of human social behavior but it encompasses the entire gamut of human social cultural intellectual behavior. Unlike democracy which just deals with the political behavior of human beings, religion can be seen as a theological, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of human kind. Again as said earlier to limit religion to only one of these categories is to miss its multifaceted nature and lose out on the complete definition.” There are many interpretations of what defines a religion but not one that can be said to be the most accurate. A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. An institution to express belief in a divine power. A belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the practices and institutions associated with such belief. The sum total of answers given to explain humankind’s relationship with the universe.
In dictionaries, religion is defined as “any specific system of belief, worship, or conduct that prescribes certain responses to the existence (or non-existence) and character of God.” Also, “a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power.” This was just an attempt to define, religion but how did this aspect of human evolution come into being? If you go to the history you will find that religion was the second important thing that developed in the course of human evolution the evolution of social cultural human being, the physical evolution being complete by that time. the first thing that developed was the need to keep a group of the then hunters and gatherers together as a economical ,social coercive group functioning as one unit, a progressive unit therefore certain rules and regulations were imposed and developed –The first signs of democracy. The development of religion came second out of fear of the natures fury, the time I am talking about is 40000 to 30000 years before present when the earth was going through various physical turmoil evidence are plenty in various cave arts all over the world which we call therianthropes. Actually the evolution of the brain is responsible for religion to take shape in the psyche of the human beings. The religious mind is one consequence of a brain that is large enough to formulate religious and philosophical ideas. During human evolution the hominid brain tripled in size, peaking 500,000 years ago. Much of the brain’s expansion took place in the neocortex. This part of the brain is involved in processing higher order cognitive functions that are necessary for human religiosity. The neocortex is responsible for self consciousness language and emotion. According to Dunbar’s theory, the relative neocortex size of any species correlates with the level of social complexity of the particular species. The neocortex size correlates with a number of social variables that include social group size and complexity of mating behaviors. In chimpanzees the neocortex occupies 50% of the brain, whereas in modern humans it occupies 80% of the brain.
Robin Dunbar argues that the critical event in the evolution of the neocortex took place at the speciation of archaic homo sapiens about 500 thousand years ago. His study indicates that only after the speciation event is the neocortex sufficiently large enough to process complex social phenomena such as language and religion. The study is based on a regression analysis of neocortex size plotted against a number of social behaviors of living and extinct hominids.
Having said a little about the origin of religion, how did democracy originate then. Was it the function again of the same developed neocortex? Or was it the fall out of the religious concept where by human beings devised a way to be harmonious and progressive, and economically viable social group? There was an article in the Deccan chronicle dated 8th August 2010 which I reproduce verbatim for my readers to get an insights as to how and why religion laid the foundation to democracy. “The beauty of being a Hindu lies in your freedom to be who you want to be. Nobody can tell you what to do, or what not to do. There is no central authority, no single leader of the faith. No one can pass an order to excommunicate you, or like in some countries, pass a decree that orders your death by stoning for walking with a strange man.
We don’t appreciate our freedom because we can’t feel the plight of others who aren’t free. Many religions have a central authority with awesome power over the individual. They have a clear chain of command, from the lowliest local priest to the highest central leader. Hinduism somehow escaped from such central authority, and the Hindu has miraculously managed to hold on to his freedom through the ages. How did this happen?
Vedanta is the answer. When the writers of Vedanta emerged, around 1500 BC, they faced an organized religion of orthodox Hinduism. This was the post Vedic age, where ritualism was practiced, and the masses had no choice but to follow. It was a coercive atmosphere.
The writers of Vedanta rebelled against this authority and moved away from society into forests. This was how the ‘Aranyakas’ were written, literally meaning ‘writings from the forest’. These later paved the way for the Upanishads, and Vedanta eventually caught the imagination of the masses. It emerged triumphant, bearing with it the clear voice of personal freedom.
This democracy of religious thought, so intrinsic to Vedantic intelligence, sank into the mindset of every Indian. Most couldn’t fathom the deep wisdom it contained, but this much was very clear. They understood that faith was an expression of personal freedom, and one could believe at will.
That’s why Hinduism saw an explosion of Gods. There was a God for every need and every creed. If you wanted to build your muscles, you worshiped a God with fabulous muscles. If you wanted to pursue education, there was a Goddess of Learning. If it was wealth you were looking for, then you looked up to the Goddess of wealth — with gold coins coming out of her hands.
If you wanted to live happily as a family, you worshiped Gods who specially blessed families. When you grew old and faced oncoming death, you spent time in contemplating a God whose business it was to dissolve everything — from an individual to the entire Universe.
Everywhere, divinity appeared in the manner and form you wanted it to appear, and when its use was over, you quietly discarded that form of divinity and looked at new forms of the divine that was currently of use to you. ‘Yad Bhavam, tad Bhavati’… what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth, and freedom to believe is always more important than belief itself.
Behind all this — was the silent Vedantic wisdom that Gods are but figments of human imagination. As the Kena Upanishad says, “Brahma ha devebhyo vijigye…” — All Gods are mere subjects of the Self. It implies that it is far better that God serves Man than Men serve God. Because Men never really serve God — they only obey the dictates of a religious head who speaks for that God, who can turn them into slaves in God’s name.
Hindus have therefore never tried to convert anyone. Never waged war in the name of religion. The average Hindu happily makes Gods serve him as per his needs. He discards Gods when he has no use for them. And new Gods emerge all the time — in response to market needs. In this tumult, no central authority could survive. No single prophet could emerge and hold sway, no chain of command could be established.
Vedanta had injected an organized chaos into Hinduism, and that’s the way it has been from the last thirty five centuries. Vedanta is also responsible, by default, for sustaining democracy. When the British left India, it was assumed that the nation would soon break up. Nothing of that kind has happened.
The pundits of doom forgot that the Indian had been used to religious freedom from thousands of years. When he got political freedom, he grabbed it naturally. After all, when you can discard Gods why can’t you discard leaders?
Leaders like Gods are completely expendable to the Indian mindset. They are tolerated as long as they serve the people, and are replaced when needs change. It’s the triumph of people over their leaders, and in this tumult, no dictator can ever take over and rule us. Strange how the thoughts of a few men living in forests, thirty five centuries ago, can echo inside the heart of every Indian. That’s a tribute to the resurgent power of India, and the fearlessness of its free thinking people.”
I am not preaching Hinduism here and that is not what this article is all about. What this article has basically brought forward is the freedom that the religion gives to human beings. To maintain these freedom and to enhance the other freedoms like that of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and thought, right to freedom of religion and right against exploitation it is the religion that gives the first impetus and human beings then models the same in a larger context when it comes to the question of ruling or governing a state. That is precisely the reason why the Indian constitution says that it is a sovereign socialist republic by virtue of which every citizen or every human being residing in India has a right to choose and preach his religion peacefully and the state will not interfere in anyway in the expression and practice of religion. Politics and religion are kept separate and politics does not come in the way of religion or vice versa.
Hinduism is not the only religion where democracy took shape through religion. Democracy is not new to Islam. The foundation of the first government in the history of Islam was laid on democracy. “That Muslims attach great significance to their organization as a political community can be seen in the fact that their calendar is dated neither from the birth nor the death of the Prophet, but from the establishment of the first Muslim policy in the city-state of Madinah in 622. Before Madinah was founded, the Arabs had no state to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” (Ahmad, 2003)
There are certain important points to remember as one searches democracy in the history of Islam. The concept of democracy is present in the Qur’an as the Qur’an covers everyday life, including the political structure. Since Islam is a way of life, democracy fits in well with it – freedom of speech, religion, equality, are the rights of the people as long as they are well balanced.
Prophet Muhammad applied democratic principles in the establishment of the Muslim community 1500 years ago. The two major principles of democracy practiced during this time were: The concept of Bay’ah (voting) where the Qur’an says that the “ruler cannot rule without the consent of the people.” For example, Abu Bakr was the first elected Khalifa. He was democratically elected in the same way the earlier U.S. president George Washington was elected. A large number of Sahaba (companions of the prophet) would gather in the Saqifa where different parties would put forward different nominations open for debate and then would pick out a single nominee like the caucuses in the different parties in a constitutional democracy. At the time of Abu Bakr there were not two parties but three, and each party came up with their own nomination (Al Muhajeroon with candidate Abu Baker; Alansar with Saad bin Ubada; and Ali Bin Abi Talib and Abdullah Ibn Alzubir in a mixture of Muhajeroon and Ansar as the third party). After the individual caucuses the three major groups met in the Saqifa of Banu Saeda and agreed on Abu Bakr after much heated debates. Abu Bakr finally emerged as the nominee and he was presented to the masses as the candidate for them to make a final vote. In other words Abu Bakr did not become the Khalifa until the masses gave him the Biya, similar to the Democratic and Republican parties. Thus, “Abu Bakr’s election as the first caliph demonstrates the acceptability of the Electoral College as a method of electing the head of state.” (Ahmad, 2003)
The concept of the Shura (consultation) is very similar to the democratic principle of debate and agreement. It is the community as a whole, not an individual that owns or exercises power. In a chapter on Al-Shura the Qur’an describes Muslim societies as one in which individuals manage their affairs through consultation. Shura is similar to direct democracy and is considered as a personal duty, which no on can perform on behalf of another. Shura is obligatory on Muslims as the five daily prayers are; like prayers Muslims are urged to practice shura in their daily work, family lives, and community affairs. Again we see that religion actually helped states to formulate a well devised formula to govern a state flawlessly without any prejudice whatsoever as it (democracy) became the wish of the people, for the people. So Abraham Lincoln was not wrong when he said the famous words. “By the people, For the people, Of the people”
Going back to Hinduism again Hindu scriptures, Vedas, are a collection of teachings from over many thousand years. Hinduism allows followers to interpret scriptures according to the current times. Dogmatic interpretation and its forceful execution are not a part of Hinduism, as it has been with Islam and Christianity. These religions often ignore the basic teachings of their founders. Hinduism does not seek converts. No forceful or violent conversion, no religious wars with Christians, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists,
You can become Hindu by your own free will by accepting Bhagavad-Gita, essence of Vedas spoken by Lord Krishna as a final authority. The mythology of Purana or the great epics Ramayana or Mahabharata explain the Vedas to common people in a simple way. Numerous sects of Hinduism co-exist peacefully under the supreme guidance from the Vedas. Hinduism offers lots of freedom to operate. An individual decides his Guru, and follows him or her. When many devotees come together a sect is formed. Like democracy, the people select a leader. Sects come and go like political parties in a dynamic democracy. Often, those of other faiths portray Hinduism as a religion of confusion. It is like communist or a dictator might consider democracy as a confused state where the news media, congressmen, senators, the president and scholars challenges each other dramatically and sometimes unreasonably. Like American democracy, where challenging a President or burning a flag is tolerated – Hinduism tolerates challenges. Contrast to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam offer very limited freedom and tolerance for other faiths.
According to Hinduism, there are different paths to reach God, just like there are many ways to reach the top of the mountain. As you go higher, differences between them are reduced. Anyone who believes that his is the only way to reach God is full of ignorance just like a frog in a well unable to comprehend the outside world. Bhagavad-Gita suggests the following Yogas to reach God: Knowledge, Devotion, Meditation, and Karma. Karma Yoga is pure selfless service. Missionary service is not Karma Yoga, as missionaries hope to convert people to their faith and thus expand their power base to reestablish domination of the church which will ultimately curtail democracy.
Vedas means knowledge. It is not only religious rituals with chanting of hymns, but it includes philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and grammar. When philosophy is the origin of religion, it permits freedom of speech and thought, and acknowledges Atheism. Just like democracy, Hinduism accepts Atheists as equal citizens. About 2300 years ago India peacefully became predominantly Buddhist during the Maurya Empire. During that period, Takshila University was the center of learning Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and Atheism. Also, Nalanda University was formed 2000 years ago with its 10,000 students and 1500 teachers. In the 8th century Hindu Guru Shankracharya debated one to one Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Atheist women and men gurus who upon defeat accepted his synthesis of Vedic metaphysics philosophy and India became again predominantly Hindu.
So is religion compatible with democracy? Yes, if you practice your religion or beliefs as you see fit without imposition on the lives of other people. This teaches the value of democracy to all
Now If we remember long time back when Afghanistan was under Russian regime during the cold war period and America desperately wanted to have a base in Pakistan, a plan was set in motion to destabilize the Russians in Afghanistan. Bin laden was reared by the Americans to bring down the Russians and for that he was given a free hand and funds were plenty available at the whims and fancy of Bin laden. Today we have a frankestin at our door step and we are blaming the religion for it?? The people at power in America Afghanistan and Pakistan, the democratically elected leaders at the helms of affair are to be blamed for the emergence of groups and organizations like Al Qaeda . It is their policies and politics that has created a monster and now we are all blaming each other for its existence. Is religion to be blamed here?? What is happening in India? Corrupt politicians create divide between the two religions namely the Hindus and the Muslim only to gather and garner the numbers ( votes ) mathematics to win an election and by that way they can stay in power and keep continuing to be corrupt. Democracy here is the mathematics of number, majority. So much so that these corrupt bands of politicians even divide the society on the basis of caste system which was not in the first place a part of religion. National issues have long taken back seat in Indian politics and the politicians today are busy appeasing and pleasing a section of the population based on religion or caste just to get elected and to be in the driving seat so that they can keep on becoming more and more corrupt. Again we see that it is democracy which is actually killing the religion.
People everywhere are today blaming the Islam religion and particularly the Muslims for all the destability that the world is facing today. In many places in India Muslims have started keeping a Hindu name. Muslims do not get visas, Muslims do not get jobs. Muslims feel isolated and this feeling is universal everywhere. Question is Why should the religion and the followers of this religion be punished for something which it has never perpetrated?? Have we brought the perpetrators to justice?? Did the corrupt, self-centered, criminal politician get the boot? No because it is again the mathematics of number the mathematics of majority, the mathematics of Democracy that has suppressed the religion.
As I had mentioned in one of my earlier article that once Sri ramkrishna Paramhansa was asked that if god is one and only one then why do we need religion or what is necessity for religion. Ramkrishna beautifully answered the question. He said that it is a top of the mountain where one has to reach and there are various route around the mountain that one has to take so that he can reach the top. Now if the person who is already on one route making his way to the top starts thinking that the route he is on is a tough one and he needs to change and he comes down and takes another route and he keeps doing this frequently, he will never be able to reach the top. So a route is a must and the route is the religion And all route leads to the top of the mountain so all religion leads to the same top the only one. Therefore every religion preaches the basic concept of democracy, every religion preaches that love thy neighbor, every religion preaches tolerance, every religion preaches humility, and above all every religion preaches love. It is the rulers, politicians, the elected representatives, who malign the religion create divide between them and loot the moolah at the expense of the electorate.
The author has a masters degree in anthropology from Kolkata university
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