Emanations of the Philosophy of Life Instinct
(To get the most out of this perspective, detach yourself. Imagine you’re some intelligent entity looking down on Earth from fifty thousand km up in space and observing all its life forms, including humans.)
This story is about a recent event in India that I watched with dismay, leaving me with a lasting sense of disquiet. It was the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, i.e., the Temple for Ram or Rama, one of the main Gods of Hinduism, in the city of Ayodhya, supposedly his birthplace, on the 22nd of January. The idol of Rama was consecrated in the sanctum, which was complete by then.
The mass euphoria it generated in the preceding days and the religious ecstasy on the day itself stunned me. It opened my eyes to a reality I had suspected. Still, I hadn’t seen it so graphically— the continuing hold of religion on hundreds of millions in India and how it is encouraged and exploited.
It’s made me write this article on its various aspects to unburden myself by sharing my turmoil with those who feel like me and those open to thought, learning, and change.
Let’s begin with the big picture of the human species and the evolutionary position of religion in it.
The Evolutionary Reality of Religion and Faith
If you think long and hard enough, you’ll see that Gods and religion are human inventions. They were important in our evolution and helped us survive and grow more numerous.
Belief in God and religion was useful personally and socially. The idea of an omnipotent omniscient being comforted us when we were afraid and gave us hope to get what we desired.
While this gave us psychological strength and allowed us to face many situations and work confidently, it pales compared to its social value for the species.
We created religious systems which began as rituals to ensure the protection and assistance of imagined Gods. Then, they grew into elaborate frameworks to govern the thinking and behaviour of individuals, families, and groups. It bonded us into strong communities by exploiting something more potent than external similarities of physique, language, and region — a shared almighty God and ways to get his protection and help.
However, the species did not develop a single religion. There are two possible reasons for this — physical separation and evolutionary forces.
Geographical separation would have led to the creation of different religions in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, South America, etc. We can call them original (and perhaps) peacefully born religions. Hinduism is one such with an almost continuous history.
However, many religions and sects arose out of protest or strife due to existing social or religious situations. Christianity (and its Protestant-Catholic schism), Islam (and its Sunni-Shia division), Buddhism, Sikhism, and others originated like this. We can call them strife-born religions and sects.
Whatever their origin, these divisions have created a long history of inter-religious and inter-sect conflict all over the world. Read about the killing in the crusades, the holocaust, 1947 Indian Partition deaths, Palestine, Syria, N. Ireland, 9/11/2001 New York, 2002 Godhra-Gujarat, 26/11/2008 Mumbai, Gaza today, and on and on.
Homo sapiens has been around for about 300,000 years. Religion worked well for cooperation and human growth for around 200,000 years. But we progressed to something that has recently started reducing its need and supplanting it — science.
And science is not just another form of faith or belief.
The Value and Spread of Science
Science is fundamentally different from religious belief and faith. It methodically seeks and applies knowledge and understanding through objective observation, rational reasoning, and evidence.
The scientific method applies not only to physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, geography and their applied forms but also to humanities such as history, sociology, economics, etc.
There’ll be those who claim all maths, advanced science, and engineering were invented by Indians thousands of years ago and have been lost due to the malign effect of outsiders. Setting aside this fanciful jingoism, humanity’s scientific renaissance began in the mid-fifteenth century in Europe and spread gradually worldwide.
One of the outcomes of the scientific method is that it encourages people to think for themselves and provides the freedom and support to do so. It led to the breaking down of traditional dependencies on family and social structures and made them more capable of working with reasonably peaceful strangers. It allowed the rise of urban living and industrialisation, increasing peace and spreading prosperity. Science’s empowerment of humanity is direct and immediate, unlike religion’s.
The spread of scientific education and spirit has significantly reduced religion’s hold and faith in God. Almost two billion people identify as atheists now, with a strong correlation between economic prosperity and the extent of non-religious identification.
Science vs religion
There will be those who argue that science is a form of faith, too, as we can’t directly see the particles, forces, and waves it posits. They may also argue that it is even more dangerous and destructive, with examples of the number of lives taken by dynamite, nuclear bombs, industrial pollution, global warming, etc., that are mainly the result of scientific advances.
But we cannot ignore the facts — science is just as much an outcome of human evolution and not something alien — and the rise of machinery, electricity, engines, chemicals, medicine, modern materials, communications and transportation, etc., have taken our population from about 450 million in 1600 AD to 8 billion people now, living longer and better lives due to the many practical benefits of science. It is not religion that achieved this.
And however much conservatives and traditionalists may wish it, there is no going back to living without science, is there? Imagine how much the mobilisation of the Ram Temple and its political and economic outcomes depend on TV, mobiles, trains and planes — all outcomes of science.
So, the reduction of religiosity and increase in scientific education have improved lives materially, expanded the human population, and most likely increased happiness substantially.
Religion is serving us less now, as we have so much power over nature and many types of communities to belong to — states, countries, languages, sports teams, professions, creative art forms, etc.
Many will argue that religion and science can co-exist. Yes, they can, but they are fundamentally incompatible. Science innately questions and challenges everything, including itself and its effects, whereas religion insists it’s perfect and unchangeable.
Science and technology can only flourish with intellectual freedom and peace. This needs the worst aspects of religion to be curbed with the wisdom of self-control in governments, leaders, and, most importantly, ordinary citizens of every type. We’ll see how in the section below.
Given the giant leap for our species due to science, from an evolutionary point of view, we expect it to be making big strides among all human populations at the cost of religiosity. Yet, we see something that went against this in India.
Let’s have a look at why.
The Source of the Mass Euphoria for the Ram Temple
The outpouring of emotion for the building and consecration of the temple was a perfect storm created by the coming together of the following elements.
- India is a country of 1.4 billion people, of which around 1.1 billion are Hindus.
- The vast majority of the Hindus, at a rough guess of 800 million, are strong to medium followers and practitioners of the religion.
- A well-founded sense among the Hindus of being persecuted and dominated by non-Hindu outsiders for five hundred years, combined with an instinctive fear of Muslims, seen as very different, growing faster by plan and becoming dominant at the cost of mainly Hindus. (Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs are less feared as they are home-grown and relatable, and the numbers are smaller, like for Christianity.)
- The political and personal interest of the leader of the strongest and governing political party, with its roots in Hindu revival, and the country’s Prime Minister, no less.
- A majority of the Hindus, especially in the Hindi heartland and adjacent states, have been waiting collectively since the 1850s (while going from 120 to 800 million) to replace the Muslim Babri Masjid mosque with a temple and idol of one of the major Gods of Hinduism, with long-running court cases and several riots.
Given these factors, when the consecration of temple and idol finally happened, it was inevitable we would get mass Hindu cathartic hysteria.
There were widespread mass celebrations with pennants, images, worship, processions, crackers, decking up Ayodhya, hundreds of thousands congregating, a government(!) holiday in many places, blanket media coverage, live telecasts, celebrity invitees, elaborate rituals, etc.
What will be the outcome? There can be two sides to everything. So, let’s see both the good and bad sides of boosting and mobilising mass religiosity.
What Will Indians Gain from the Ram Temple?
Continuance of a mostly beneficial party in government.
This event has been a godsend (pun intended) for the national ruling party and its leader (they will likely repeat this at an opportune time with the Krishna Janmabhoomi [birthplace] Temple in Mathura). The BJP and Modi will likely reap a windfall in upcoming elections and continue in power for many years at the centre and in several large states.
Objectively, Narendra Modi and his governance have benefited India and the world economically and in other ways. Their continuance is likely advantageous for India and the world. (Despite this, I am loathe to equate one political party or individual with India. This is especially problematic if the long-term harm outweighs the gains, which we’ll see further on.)
Millions of domestic and international tourists will visit Ayodhya, with significant economic benefits for its citizens, Indian and international airlines, transport, real estate, construction, hotels, the food industry, tourism operators, the souvenir industry, etc. There will be a flow-on effect for other religious spots in North India.
Hindus moving on with forgiveness and acceptance.
The majority of Hindus, especially in the ‘Hindi heartland’ states of the north and centre, may feel they have settled an old and deep grievance. It may allow them to forgive Indian Muslims, whom they take as representatives of their forefathers, and move forward with greater tolerance, acceptance, and unity. In return, Muslims may give up some archaic practices and integrate better. (But both are uncertain as they depend on many factors I cannot cover here.)
What Will Indians Lose From Increased Religiosity and Politicising Religion?
It’s not only about Hinduism. Religion has a strong hold on Muslims in India. The Sikhs have religious extremists and separatists, too. (The issue is not just Indian and exists in many parts of the world.)
Religion has some value for humanity, but its excess and politicisation pose many dangers.
Increases bigotry, marginalisation, division, extremism, and violence — One way to identify deeply with something is to act like you strongly dislike ‘others’ and work yourself up to feel and think it, too.
This is happening with religion in India. You find reasons for, ‘We are great, you are evil’, imagined and real. Then you argue and get strident and start chest-thumping. Actions have reactions. It makes others feel threatened and pushed away, with the inevitable fear, anger, hatred, withdrawal, ghettoisation, and isolation.
If mobilising religious fervour increases radicalisation by just 0.01%, with 99.99% remaining secular and gentle, it would still create a hundred thousand dangerous people. And why wouldn’t it happen, given the size of the population, its natural variation, and the feeling of safety felt in the majority and systematic support on one side, and fear on the other?
Condones majoritarianism — Majoritarianism is the biggest danger in democratic systems. A majority is power, but what happens when power is with a majority that doesn’t represent humanity’s most evolved morals, ethics, and intellect? What happens when a less evolved minority within the majority exploits the power of the majority to get its way? Hindus and other religious communities, wherever they are the majority, must be vigilant that they don’t trample equality, liberality, and freedom in the nation, state, city, locality, or residential complex. There are growing signs of elements of the Indian Hindu majority people and governments telling various minorities within and beyond the community how to feel, think, and behave. Challenges are met with an arrogant, ‘What’s wrong with that? We are the majority. It’s our place. Live with it.’ Larger politico-leadership trends are influencing and suppressing higher-minded people from discouraging this. If emotion helps us better than thought to realise this problem, we should consider that all of us will be in a minority of some sort sometime in life. We cannot bury our heads and ignore principles. Majoritarianism will eat at the very soul of humanity in our nation.
Weakens secularism — Secularism is freedom and tolerance for all religions. It is not irreligion. But when there is massive involvement and unbridled enthusiasm from the central government and many state governments and their entire leadership for the beliefs of one religion without displaying the same for others, it defeats the very idea of secularism. It kills the concept in the minds of the populace, both in the majority and minority communities. Secularism will die a rapid death unless there is a massive correction in action and perception.
Sets back the scientific spirit, education, and independent thought — Cultivating religiosity can never encourage science and technology education. Religion is about faith, following, and ritual, collectively as far as possible. Science is about questioning, evidence, objectivity, and independent thought. Anyone who argues that a country can be deeply religious and scientific at the same time is being disingenuous. However, this is one of the unfortunate arguments being made in India today. State-backed moral policing and invasion of privacy due to misguided religio-cultural thinking are rising.
Reduces productivity and progress — The promotion of religion creates complacency, laziness, and waste. People would rather depend on prayer and a government actively encouraging faith than work or learn for themselves. Billions of hours are wasted on praying, rituals, and watching devotional TV. More is given to temples, mosques and holy men than schools and colleges. Divisive and ineffective religion and caste quotas in education and jobs increase. The enormous amount of discourse, legislation, politics, and law tied up in religious matters in India is also dragging on its progress. Globally, there’s a strong correlation between regions that are strongly religious, low in education, and underdeveloped. (The only exceptions are areas like the Middle East that are rich in natural resources, e.g., oil and gas.)
Makes the weakest weaker and increases social disparity — The very people who need more education, focused study, and technical skills are being led into wasting valuable time and energy on Gods, temples or masjids, flags, religious gatherings, and rituals! And they are happy with this, as it’s much easier than studying and a lot more fun to raise slogans, wave flags, and sing songs in a mob. It is cynical exploitation and a wilful blindness in the leaders. The long-term gains argument is a convenient fallacy, given the enormous amount of time and effort wasted now when every second is precious for the poor.
Reduces diversity — Every religion is trying to get more converts to increase its relative size. If this happens with a skew, it will lessen the healthy diversity of Indian society.
Weakens the rule of law — When religious beliefs, mythologies, and texts are given too much importance, the easily led, lowly educated masses have two parallel value systems for moral and ethical living. Do they follow the Indian constitution and laws or the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Quran, Guru Granth Sahib, etc.? In ancient times, these texts were taken as the law. There are enough rules about behaviour in them, often misused by vested interests, to cause deep dents in the foundations of a modern state. We can see this happening in India, with shockingly weak prevention of vigilantism, lynchings, moral policing of movies, OTT, comedy, books, etc., honour killings, hounding of inter-faith couples, forced religious chanting, targeted bulldozer razing, communal rules in residential complexes, pressure to display religious symbols, etc., by Hindus. On the Muslim side, repression of women and education, propensity to crime, jihadism, arbitrary divorce, etc., are evident.
Boosts authoritarianism — Whatever one may say about India’s economic and geopolitical progress, there is no denying the emergence of something like one-person rule, that of Narendra Modi, at the national level and across a large swathe of India. He has used the appeal of nationalism and religion most effectively. The brilliant thing is that this is more insidious than using an army (like Xi uses the PLA) or internal security and financial power (like Putin) as the worship and following come from people internally. They don’t want to get out of the daze and think independently. Why should they, when he’s there to solve all their problems and give them nice dopamine hits regularly? Members of the party and government he leads show little signs of dissent, even ambivalence. A vast majority in large parts of India are perfect subjects for being led by such an astute politician. It includes a surprising number of those we would call educated and intellectual people. The growing cult around him is likely to soon turn to divinity. It’s masterful. Ayatollahs would be envious. There’s much to worry about in its dangers to alternative leadership, potentially better economic and social policies, and basic freedoms.
(If Modi called me up and said, ‘Shashi, don’t worry, I know it’s all fake, but this is the only way these backward people can be made to stop fighting and start working so we progress till they can think for themselves,’ I would be happy to play along. But it’s unlikely he’s really like that.)
Increases ultra-nationalism — When countries identify with a religion, it sharpens the differences with other countries, generates myopic narratives of cultural greatness, increases jingoism, reduces cooperation and trade, and can lead to war.
Reduces global influence — The world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries are in the global North and West. They are overwhelmingly secular and free of ultra-religiousness in society, politics, and the state. A majority of Indians and its leader being so enthused by a religious event will be looked upon tolerantly at best and with disdain and disappointment at worst. While their economic and geopolitical interests may suppress immediate overt criticism, it will do little for long-term respect for India’s modernity and progressiveness.
What is my dream for India, then?
Where Should India be Heading?
I was proud of being a Hindu and Indian. Somehow, we evolved into a highly civilised people with great intellectual vitality, inventiveness, scepticism, argumentativeness, and complex thought. It gave rise to highly developed art, music, dance, mathematics, science, architecture, and multiple philosophies. I find much holistic wisdom in the Gita (of a vastly superior level to the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics).
In modern times, we can take pride in our Nobel prizes, IITs, IT and space industry, nuclear power, etc. Hindus felt and went global, assimilated well, accepted other cultures, and instinctively saw differences secularly. None of this was a weakness. It gave us precious strength and resilience. I looked forward to it discarding caste, making its moral and ethical teachings less ambiguous, and continuing its philosophical growth.
But there’s been a change in the atmosphere over the last decade, which, along with recent events, has dented my pride. Hinduism was fine with doubt, which is a strength. But now, questioning it has become anathema. Unevolved leadership and politics are bringing Hinduism down to the same base level as other religions with a legacy of prescription, vengeance and hatred.
I don’t say Hindus should be weak. We should have fought against external aggressors, whether Mughal, Arab, or British. But that we didn’t do so then doesn’t mean we keep carrying insecurities and overcorrect now at the cost of our humanity. And we should realise ‘local’ rulers also expanded empires and killed hundreds of thousands of ‘Indians’, yet we ironically glorify them.
Faith, religion, temples, and mosques will have a place for a long time yet, but they should be for our private needs more and more. Their social bonding function should be replaced by professions, arts, sports, and other healthy pursuits.
I dream of an India that is modern, enlightened, peaceful, law-abiding, technologically and scientifically advanced, well-educated, prosperous, and an example for the world. Three realities will form the basis of its further evolution.
Scientific spirit that reduces superstition and waste of mind.
Economic progress that increases independence and education.
Law and justice that ensure freedom, equality, and peace.
Call to Action for India
- Make education a top priority, with increased spending and reach. Focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) education, especially for women.
- Discourage excessive religiosity in all religions. Keep religion out of the state (legislature, executive, judiciary) and politics.
- Create equality and justice through economic affirmative action, not terribly divisive caste-based reservation.
- Empower the judiciary and law enforcement.
- Learn objectively from ancient and recent history, accept its variety, set it aside, and look together to the future.
There is a glimmer of hope that India will take its rank among the progressive and modern nations of the world, not due to its size but because we, the people, somehow gave ourselves a good path we need to take.
Let’s see where this light in the tunnel comes from.
Enabling Factors for an Intellectual Renaissance in India
India has a lot going for it.
Democracy (still the best system for this large country, even with its shortcomings)
A great constitution (as of now)
An independent judiciary (as yet, with lower levels beginning to show external influence and bias)
Freedom of expression (reducing steadily, especially in media, but existing)
A federal structure (with sufficient regional variety)
Openness and connectedness to the world (with a large diaspora and travellers)
Economic growth (that should lead to education and intellectual independence)
A significant scientific community
But these are not magic wands, and there are a billion people to enlighten. It will take decades, perhaps centuries, and happen long after I’m gone.
Meanwhile, What Should I Do?
Some friends tell me, ‘Don’t think so much, Shashi.’ Their intention is good; they want me to be happy. But I think. I am a thinker. I didn’t get an education to not think. I didn’t get a brain to not think. And happiness is overrated. Should we live like animals? The arc of history shows us that thinking has made us better off and contented, if not moronically happy. So, thinking is not my malady uniquely.
You can tell me to be kind and accept things as they are. Sure, I will, after I’ve done the thinking. (Please don’t tell me not to judge because only dead people don’t).
I don’t have time to waste in limbo, so I considered these options.
Curl up and isolate
I did this for a while, telling myself, ‘As long as I have basic freedoms, why should I care so much? Let it all go to dogs. I’ll enjoy my music, books, writing, and the few friends and family who think like me or I care for enough to exchange ideas with. I’ll stop interacting with everyone else and helping them.’
The problem is that my nature is to be combative (non-violently) for things I firmly believe in. I like to fix broken things and help people who’ve tried to do something but are struggling. Both are easier to do while interacting with people.
Also, I’d throw away a lot of potential joy in life, and I like to laugh with others. I would also sacrifice my ability to influence others positively. Withdrawal is the easy way out, and it’s chickening out. So, I am gradually coming out of this.
It’s a meaningless universe, so why bother?
So what if India gets more religious and science does not progress, and people hate and kill each other here and all over the world? Ultimately, the universe has no purpose or meaning, nor does life or humanity. I’ll also be dead and gone in a few years, and nothing will be my problem, so why my hubris to make it my burden now?
The problem is, I cannot float detached above life for so long. I am not solitary, and it is mentally challenging to deny the impulses of life constantly. If I were going to die in a few months or weeks, I would surely give up bothering. But not yet.
Get away to Australia or Western Europe.
I was born in India and have spent most of my life here. My family and I became Australian citizens but returned to India. It is highly tempting to go back to Sydney and enjoy the vastly non-religious, educated, rational atmosphere there, with little religion in politics and governance. The UK or Western Europe would also be a haven for people like me.
The move to Australia may happen naturally if our children settle there. I don’t know how much I’ll care about India if I am not living in India.
But while we are here, I can’t help reacting to the milieu.
Do whatever I can for the sake of progress.
My usual cure for feeling unhappy is to confront its cause and do something about it.
So, I wrote this article to influence others towards a progressive path. This is for the immediate. In the long term, I’ll spread the scientific spirit through as many means as I can muster.
I’ve also seen that kindness and helping others have the best chance of changing them. Actions speak louder than words. Good people must do even more if base people use clever tactics for their ends.
What am I?
By now, you’ll have a fair idea about me. But there are a few aspects to clarify.
I am a secular, globalist, scientific liberal. I am an atheist, but I identify as Hindu (and a Brahmin, to boot). This is not hypocrisy because, in my view, Hinduism is a philosophy, and benign ancient practices have a spiritual value.
Let me also make it clear: I’m not a supporter of the Congress party, nor a leftist, and not particularly a supporter of any other religion. I would be equally mortified if mass religious hysteria centred around a mosque, cathedral, synagogue, or gurdwara.
I delight in the peaceful gifts of all religions and cultures. The muezzin’s call, Buddhist chanting, choral singing, Sufi music, and Gurbani — all move and uplift me. I feel it’s a glorious tapestry, and I carry no baggage to despoil this.
I love English, Hindi and Urdu and am competent in two more Indian languages. The scientific spirit is natural to me, and I’m deeply into reading and knowing everything under the sun (including the scriptures of many religions) to know the beautiful and valuable and the opposite.
I’m not like this due to my family background or living in the West. And I am not alone! I’m sure there are tens of millions like me. There’s something about India that produces us. The place breeds openness and joy in variety.
I, too, have humility and spirituality. I sense the overwhelming size of the universe and its grand power. I cannot transcend nature, of which I am a part. But within my puny existence, I can think and deliberately choose my beliefs, actions, and future. I have free will, and while I choose to live, I must free myself from as much blindness as possible.
If you’re like me
If I’m preaching to a member of the choir (terribly ill-fitting pun), please let me know, as it will be good to know people like us exist. Together, we can gently spread the light. Start by sharing this article widely. Or write your version of it.
If you’re like me but got swept up in the religious euphoria
If you essentially agree with me but got swept up in the spirit of mass ecstasy of the day, think about what it achieved for you and the country. Did you learn anything? Did you fix or clean anything or help anyone in distress? If all you got was a thrill, you could have got it from something healthier and not encouraged the religious dystopia.
If you are also instinctively secular, scientifically tempered, rational, and liberal, why didn’t you say no? Ultimately, you have to stand for something and have the courage of your convictions.
Saying to yourself and others, ‘Everyone is right, everything is okay, it’s just different perspectives,’ is conforming, taking the easy way out.
It’s a betrayal of evolution. And of your nature.
If you’re not like me
I implore you to see the big picture. Learn about evolution and history. See the facts. Ignorance is temporary bliss. Ignoring facts is a betrayal of your independence, freedom, and intelligence.
Think for yourself deeply. Don’t be intellectually lazy. Don’t take the easy way out and go with the flow. Choose the better and bigger thing to enjoy. This is what your brain is for. Guide your emotions with thought. Be brave. Don’t get caught up in the hype. Don’t conform.
Not calling out the wrong for too long starts making it seem right. Call it out to yourself, then anyone who’ll listen.
It’s your choice. Make it count.
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