Religion, Power and Violence: A view from India
(Excerpts from the talk delivered at 6th W.A. Vissert Hooft Memorial Consultation, Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland, June 8-13, 2004)
by Ram Puniyani
The world scene has seen immense and horrific violencein recent times.
Two planes ram into the World tradecenter, nearly three thousand people
Separated by thousands of kilometers, in another part of the World, Gujarat,
India, a train coach is burned. Instant investigation by the Chief minister
Last three decades have seen the violence world over under the flag of
religions. Is this violence done to save some religion or its followers?
Is it done to
One recalls that even in medieval times the phenomenon of crusades, jihads
and dharmayudhs, which, kings undertook on the pretext of religion. Were
these meant to expand religion or were they meant to expand their empires.
One recalls that the identity of religions is associated more with the
clergy and less with the moral values of the religions. It does not require
too much of knowledge to realize that in pre-industrial society the clergy,
the most visible part of religions was associated with the landlords and
the kings in different forms. Somewhere in direct collaboration from top
to bottom, somewhere in fragmented form. Also there was another set of
people associated with religions, the saints, who were away from the power
centers. These were the saints, the bhakti saints in Hindu tradition,
the Sufi saints in Islamic tradition
The rulers did not tolerate the saints. The clergy, the official upholders
of the religion, were hostile to bhakti saints, who were killed in various
A sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya refused to receive the emperor in his dargah, Tukaram was done to death, Chokhamela reprimands God himself for the plight of the poor. These traditions emphasize on the message of love and amity in contrast to the clergy, which gives importance to rituals and the written word. In India the saints, mostly came from low caste and did proclaim that they have no capacity to learn the heavy tomes of their religion written in Devbhasha (language of Gods, upper caste) Sanskrit, which was denied to them anyway, because of their low caste status.
During the process of secularization the role of clergy declined from the social and political space. The structural hierarchies of caste and gender, which this clergy legitimized in the name of religion started getting challenged, got abolished in countries where industrialization took place in the early period. These societies strove for the values of Liberty Equality and Fraternity (community). In colonies the nexus between colonial powers and the landlords, kings blocked the secularization process. And in a country like India these declining classes, Landlord-Clergy, threw up the politics in the name of religion, known as communal politics. For example in India it came up as Muslim league and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS, but these were marginal streams.
At World level the politics was dominated by the colonial powers. Later US emerged as the major World power and national liberation struggles in the colonies took the inspiration from Russian and Chinese revolutions, at many places under the flag of socialism. During this era the global violence was presented as the struggle between the" free world" and communism.
After the cold war era, the decline of socialist economies, the hegemony
of US started becoming indisputable. Its machinations in the oil zone
where Islam was the dominant religion, the new offensive of Imperialism
took the garb of religious language and the 'backward Islam' started being
targeted by the US
Around this time in India the rise of Hindutva politics has goals similar
to the ones of the US as far as targeting Muslims and Islam are concerned.
This Hindutva ideology is a politics based on Brahminical stream of Hinduism
and had base earlier in the declining classes of Landlords and clergy
Globally and locally various phenomenon are overlapping. Now as the offensive of power seekers at world level is masked in the language of religion, particularly anti-Islam, those aspiring for control on social and political power at home are also using this Hindutva, religion based politics.
The language of religion is deceptive. It gives it a type of moral sanctity,
it creates a sort of mass hysteria, and it offers a sort of platform for
the retrograde ideology. The goals of power are creating violence, condoned
by those who should have different types of social power. Violence is
Religion has diverse functions in society. The way it is being used (! abused) by Hindutva and US and its cohorts, is its most dominant face. The clergy at many times plays diverse roles as well. At times it has played the role of projecting the religion, which is the opiate of the masses, it has also been the sigh of the oppressed in this heartless world. The Sufis and saints had particularly played the latter role. While the opiate role has been played by the section of clergy tied to the apron strings of those in political and social power, acting as legitimizers of their exploitative and oppressive role. One sees the Church of old times associating with Kings, and the one currently, which is opposing the US offensives as the same institution playing diverse role with change of time. One can see in Indian context the fleet of gurus with immense wealth under their control serving as the base for creating the opinion and opium for Hindutva politics. One also sees the saffron clad sadhus of Vishwa Hindu Parishad asking for revenge against Muslims.
Religion, if one regards moral values as its core, should not be associated with power. Different types of people associated with religion have at times played as handmaiden to the power centers, legitimizing their violence in turn. The triad of religion power and violence gets connected once we see the ambitions of those using religion for their narrow goals. If the people of religion cannot be associated with the plight of poor and oppressed they are handmaidens of the powerful. And in turn then they are legitimsers of violence. The examples of these abound.
It is time that the people associated with religion realize the abuse
to which religion has been put. Some streams of religion are for this
goal in a blatant
Association of religion with power is the crux of its negative role in
society. A severance of this will surely put religion more as the vehicle
of sigh of the oppressed and this can only be achieved by firm advocacy
of the causes of this section, this can be achieved by associating with
their struggles for the justice,
Building on the 2002 Consultation on "Violence and Peace: an Interfaith
Exploration into the Heart of Religions", this multifaith consultation
will explore the relationship between religion, power and violence. While
both history and our present days can witness to the role of religion
in peace making and reconciliation, it is today increasingly true that
religion also is used to fuel conflict and violence. Within the framework
of the Decade to Overcome Violence - Churches Seeking Peace and Reconciliation,
and the priority of the WCC and Bossey to foster good and constructive
inter-religious relations, the main objective of this consultation is
to provide a space to discuss the interrelationship between religion,
power and violence. Addressing the correlation between religion and power
and building upon case-studies from their own religious traditions, participants
from different religions will together seek to articulate how religion
in a responsible way could become an unambiguous tool in overcoming violence.
The findings of this consultation should lead participants to identify
and produce resources for an inter-religious peace building study guide.
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