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Saturday, September 21, 2002

Religion has a powerful hold over most Indians. A survey conducted in the 80's in non-communist countries revealed some surprising facts about modern world. Japan, had the lowest proportion of believers, and Britain ranked only next! India, with about 99% believers, was the most god-fearing, and the US was ranked second!.

But to what extent is religious belief translated into scocietal good?. By all accounts, Japan and Britain are two of the most orderly societies in the world. They don't need cops to maintain order, or enforce decent behaviour in both those countries. India, for long, has been characterised as a 'functioning anarchy'! obviously, faith in god is no guarantee of proper conduct.

The Gita, a literary master piece, and one of the greatest religious discourses of all time, is all about Dharma, one's duty and good conduct. For its time, it was remarkably progressive and emancipatory.

We probably have the largest number of godmen and godwomen per unit population on earth. There are several of them whose spiritual eminence, erudition and compassion are legendary. But there are also many charlatans and outright cheats who are masquerading as gurus. All they seek is money and adulation. The gullible people with their insecurities and fears and hopes and greed are their victims.

But even the decent and well-meaning gurus are at best offering personal salvation. Religion, instead of being an ennobling tool, has become a disabling mechanism. Far too many are succumbing to senseless superstition and mindless greed.  The relationship between a devotee and the Lord is more like a trade. We offer prayers and money, and we get in return wealth and position.

But religion need not be like that. Great men and women of religion have always been a source of inspiration and strength to us. The late Paramacharya of Kanchi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Swami Ranganadhananda, Mother Teresa, and Moulvi Wahiduddiin are among the most spiritual Indians of our generation. We need to make religion a great tool to inspire people, and promote genuine public good. Liberation Theology in Latin America transformed many states, and undermined the power and influence of cruel dictatorships. St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig in the former GDR is a great example of what true religion can do. For about a decade in the 80's it became a symbol of freedom and resistance to state oppression. Every Monday the devotees flocked to the church and used the occasion as a means of defiance of tyranny. Suddenly, one day in September, tens of thousands gathered outside the church, and people simply started marching peacefully holding candles. This simple act paralysed the city, and eventually the whole of east Germany, and in one fell swoop the totalitarian regime collapsed. That church is now a proud symbol of the human spirit, and a true shrine for all lovers of liberty.

We are a society deeply troubled. Many of our problems are amenable to practical solutions. Over population, poverty, illiteracy, hunger, drudgery, crime, corruption - all these are man-made,  and can be easily overcome with our resources and effort.  But it requires courage, confidence and  collective will to confront these challenges.  In a deeply religious society, spiritualism and devotion have a vital role in transforming the nation.  But that requires reinterpretation of religion and redefinition of god.  Most of all, it needs true spiritualism and  deep quest for promotion of human happiness.  Will our gurus and sects and godmen accept this challenge ? Will our well-heeled devotees spare a thought to the condition of fellow human beings?  Then and only then, can they make religion truly worthy of respect.