Someone somewhere in the distant past wondering over the powers of nature and wanting to find a plausible explanation of the beginning of everything seen and unseen around them began to give rise to ideas of creation or origin of life which in turn gave rise to the idea of a creator and eventually to the concept of Brahman followed by myriads of mythical stories related to Brahman were formed over a period of thousands of years. Similarly the phenomenon of growth and development of all forms of life was mythologized into Vishnu the preserver. In the same way one who is supposed to be responsible for death and disintegration of all living beings was called Shiva on whom too mythologies were developed. Thus a concept of Trimurthy and all the mythical stories around them were evolved over a period of thousands of years, into a pantheon of 33 crore gods according to popular Hindu belief.
I have chosen Hindu concept of God because Hinduism is the oldest recorded religion in the human history. The meandering mythologies woven around the Hindu pantheon is an example of the marvelous capacity of humans in creating mythical stories around creation, preservation and transformation. They were handed down to subsequent generations through word of mouth before the writings were invented. People in their leisure times used to narrate these stories about Brahma, Vishnu and Siva with embellishments to make them interesting. Some among them improvised new side stories and over hundreds of years the Hindu mythology became like a huge banyan tree with thousands of branches and adventitious roots.
Simultaneously these mythical stories were further converted into visual treats like paintings and remarkable sculptures which are easily comprehended even by uneducated people. They could internalize the religious mysteries depicted in the paintings and sculptures and pray to their gods and goddesses for various spiritual and material benefits. They identified their gods in those pictures and sculptures and venerated them as if they were real gods and goddesses. That was the beginning of idolatry which is so prevalent even today in most religions.
The poets among the people composed mesmerizing songs and bhajans for the devotees to chant effortlessly and follow the Bhakti Marga. Feasts and festivals were assigned on different dates of a calendar year and were celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Thus popular religiosity came into existence and is being promoted in all religions. Almost all of them, except a few, promoted real idol worship in various forms. In religions where images of gods or saints are not used they make the places of worship such a marvelous pieces of architectural beauty to which they attribute sacredness and a sense of mystery. In the broad sense anything attributed with divine presence may be idol in the pictures, sculptures, mosques, synagogues, churches, monasteries have become idols. When the pictures and statues of gods gave rise to obvious idolatry, the temples, mosques, churches, monasteries or place of pilgrimage became objects of camouflaged idolatry. Human beings always need some symbols and signs to focus their mind on their gods.
Though in the course of time these mythical stories were developed into philosophical and theological schools like Advaita, Dwaita, Dwaita-Advaita, Vishistadvaita etc. by the intelligentsia at different periods of history, the common people remained at the mythological level celebrating their belief in the their visible man-made gods. People chose their gods individually or collectively; temples were built for different gods and annual festivals were held regularly which became a great source of income. Thus temples, churches, mosques and other religious places became centers of great wealth. Naturally different groups of people emerged wanting to have a share in the administration and management of these religious institutions. That is the beginning of socio-political involvement of the rich and powerful in religious matters. Initially kings and nobles were controlling the wealth of the religious institutions. Now political parties and governments are involving in the management of temple festivals and wealth. Slowly religious places have become places of economic battle ground between socio-religious groups and political parties.
Such socio-religious and political involvement by the rich and powerful were there from ancient times. Emperor Constantine was instrumental in the spread of Christianity; Rome is not only the seat of the successors of St. Peter but also a country having a membership in the UN like any other country. Emperor Asoka promoted Buddhism which is the official religion of a few countries now; Islam is the official religion of nearly fifty countries and Christianity is the official religion of many European and American countries. Further social and political rivalries are going on between different denominations of Christianity and different sects in Islam. Such divisions and distinctions are vibrant in Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Besides numerous sects in Hinduism, it is further divided into four major castes and numerous sub and sub-sub castes giving rise to the perennial malady of caste politics. Underlying all the external pompous expressions of celebrations are the hidden agenda of controlling the common people, financial sources and political positions. Thus we see kings always maintained places of worship and priests by which they can control their subjects and exploited their labour as free service and wealth by collection of tax.
Both religion and politics capture power to control masses . However, to achieve this objective, their methods are different. Religion mobilizes religious sentiments of people using idols, images and colourfull celebrations and enticing music and sound engineering while politicians co-opt them into their political jargons and ideologies. Both have the single aim: to capture the economic and political power. Both politics and religion make attempts to undermine each other. However politicians seem to be getting an upper hand and they become the modern idols for the people and in the place of mythologies political ideologies are promoted around which the common people can be rallied and exploited. For example the communist ideology never allowed the people to develop but kept them under control as we see in West Bengal, Andhra and Kerala. Similarly the Hindutva ideology never allows people to develop but keep them poor and submissive through caste discrimination. In India there are hundreds of religious places where idols of different gods and goddesses are worshiped and idolatry is rampant. The administration and management of these religious places are highly politicized and different political parties with different ideologies are actively involved. Ram Temple and Babri Masjid and Sabarimala issue are fresh in our mind. In all these places pure religious matters are highly politicized by different political parties defining even the Supreme Court orders, democratic principles and human rights.
In many countries religious heads are political heads too, as we see in Iran. In most countries, kings are replaced by heads of political parties and religious precepts give way to political ideologies; there is a subtle movement of people from idolatry to ideologies though it may appear to be too mixed up. At present many politicians are idols to the people commanding reverence, loyalty and blind obedience. The road-shows of both religious leaders and politicians look alike. We are aware of the way Hitler, Mussolini and many other politicians have become idols to people. Throughout history kings used religion to control their subjects. In the present world kings are replaced by the so-called democratically elected politicians. Involvement of politicians Ram Temple, Babri-Masjid, cow worship, Jai Sri Ram and Sabarimala are only a few examples of religio-political collusion to exploit the masses.
Both religion and politics use the same mythical narratives and popular religiosity to retain control over economic and social control. Secularism is a hostage to communal politics. Those who preach religious values are becoming political and are in control the masses, money and other forms of wealth. If religion colludes with political authority, its ambition is to exploit the masses. Politics on the contrary gets muddled up with religious issues for the same reason. In a secular society man is responsible to determine his destiny. He should not be under the control of priests and politicians. He is supposed to initiate and plan to build a society according to the secular constitutional provisions and democratic principles. But secularism is almost vanished into thin air giving rise to a Neo-Politico-Religious Collusion as we see in India.
(The writer is a retired Professor, XIM, Bhubaneswar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published on 22nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 30)