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Religious Exclusivism

Religious Exclusivism

At the time of Jesus Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and people infected with contagious diseases were excluded from the Jewish community and this exclusion had the sanction of religion. In fact the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders, were promoting this kind of exclusion.  On the contrary Jesus presented an inclusive vision of society by enunciating the concept of the Kingdom of God.

He taught his disciples to call God ‘Father’ implying that all human beings are brothers and sisters. Jesus freely mingled with the social outcastes of his time. He included Mathew, a tax collector, among his twelve disciples. That is why the Scribes and Pharisees often accused Jesus a friend of tax collectors and sinners. “ When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mt. 9:11) In many communities eating is an occasion when discrimination is practiced. Even today in many villages of India the dalits are not allowed to have common meals with the high castes.

Hinduism for many centuries tolerated and promoted caste based discriminations. That is why the people belonging to low castes were not allowed to enter temples. A highly educated scholar and legal eagle like Ambedkar had to change his religion and become a Buddhist in order to escape caste discrimination. Even though Christianity does not approve of caste discrimination, it is being practiced in many Christian communities in India. While adopting the “The Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India” the Church in India has officially accepted the practice of caste based discriminations within its fold. Any type of discrimination leads to exclusion.

Many religious practices devised ostensibly for helping the faithful of a particular religious community to grow in spirituality may lead to divisions in a society where people belonging to different religions live together. The constitution of India gives freedom to every citizen to profess, practice and propagate the faith of his/her choice. At the same time the practice of one’s faith should not create problems for others.

All over India efforts are being made to polarize people on the basis of religion, leading to mistrust and tension among the followers of different faiths. The massive victory of BJP in the recently concluded assembly elections in UP and Uttarakhand is mainly due to the polarization of people on the basis of religion. Religious practices that cause inconvenience and irritation to the people of other faiths also indirectly contribute to polarization of people based on religion.

Kerala has the noble traditions of Hindu rulers granting land to Muslims, Christians and Jews for building their respective shrines. In contrast to much of north India, inter-community relations in Kerala have always been fairly harmonious, although the situation is beginning to change today. Dominique-Sila Khan in her book, “Sacred Kerala- A Spiritual Journey” narrates a number of practices and traditions that contain the seeds of a truly universal spirituality that transcends narrow creedal boundaries. For example At the annual Chandankulam festival in a remote Kerala village devotees of all faiths gather at a Catholic church, proceed to a Bhagvati temple and then finally congregate at a mosque.

In the same book Dominique Sila Khan admits that, in recent years, Kerala has witnessed the emergence of a number of right-wing communal and religious ‘fundamentalist’ movements, among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. She writes that these movements see the state’s rich legacy of shared religious traditions and spaces that bring together people belonging to different religious communities, as ‘superstitious’, ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant’. These movements have had a major impact on Kerala society, and have succeeded in making communal divisions much stronger and clearly-demarcated. Thus t he growth of religious fundamentalism in the three main religions of Kerala is widening the gap among the followers of these religions. Since the religious leaders are more concerned about their power they try to increase their grip over the people than the spiritual well being of the faithful. Hence they easily take recourse to religiosity that sometimes boarders blind faith superstitions.

The Sangh Parivar has left no stone unturned in getting a foothold in Kerala’s political landscape. It is reported that RSS (Rashrtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) has the largest number of shakas in Kerala- 5000 whereas Gujarat has only 1000 shakhas. The Sangh Parivar has adopted various strategies to polarize the Hindus and the most effective one is to “build a temple-based organized society” and a “temple-based way of life”.

There has been unprecedented resurgence in religious activities among the Hindu communities. As a result BJP could increase its vote share from 6.3% in 2011 to 16% in 2016 assembly election. Thus the Sangh Parivar’s strategy of propagating the view that the two political formations led by the left parties and the Congress are appeasing the Christians and Muslims and the Hindus have been neglected and discriminated against, has benefited the BJP immensely.

The response from the Muslims and Christians to the increased religious fervor among the Hindus is nothing but increased focus on religiosity. The competitive religiosity is exhibited most vulgarly in building opulent worship centres and the celebration of festivals, particularly temple and church based celebrations. The clamour for fireworks in connection with the festivals, already banned by the Kerala High Court, is ascendancy of religiosity over human life and human values.   At the same time there is no let-up in crimes, particularly crimes against women and children. The crime graph of Kerala has crossed the seven-lakh mark for the first time in 2016 to reach 7,07,541 according to the state police’s provisional crime statistics. It clearly indicates that the spurt in religiosity in different religions is not contributing to the spiritual and moral growth of the people.

Any religious practice that may create divisions in the society or exclude any particular section of the society is to be conscientiously avoided by the followers of Jesus. The ordinary faithful should not blindly follow the rituals imposed on them by their religious leaders. They must be able to critically assess any ritual or devotion in the light of the values and principles taught by Jesus. Ay religious ritual or practice that excludes any section of the society on the basis of rite, sex or language is not spiritual or Christian. The decision to exclude women from the foot washing ritual on Maundy Thursday by the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches is not according to the mind and heart of Jesus and definitely not in tune with the vision of Pope Francis who started the practice of including women in the foot washing ceremony since he became Pope. The leaders of these two Churches have to ask their conscience whether they are more faithful to Jesus than to their tradition.

(Published on 10th April 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 15)#