"The question of the relationship of political emancipation to religion becomes. . .the question of of the relationship of political emancipation to human emancipation."
It has taken a long time in happening, but at long last modern India may be beginning to embrace a challenging rite of passage.
One among India's proliferating Television channels has picked up the courage to expose, without fear or favour, the criminalities practiced within the country's myriad Hindu religious establishments.
Having previously investigated the unlawful manipulations of moneys related to the muslim institution of the Haj, as well as captured on candid camera Christian pastors of diverse Indian churches issuing fake certificates of baptism against graft, TV 18 has over the past week or so scooped through hidden camera the mind-bogling money-laundering shenanigans of seven of India's best known Hindu godmen.
The racket involves facilitating the conversion of large sums of unaccounted wealth into legitimate incomes by using the agency of elephantine religious institutions over which these saintly dharm gurus preside. Notably, the properties—land, buildings, and other assets—that these institutions possess always seem to lie outside the operations of India's investigating agencies, just as the crores of unaccounted liquidity that finds a haven therein seems never to attract the notice of any tax-levying/gathering authority.
Not surprisingly, some of these infamous seven also made brazen claims of having serviced politicians in the highest places. TV 18 has judiciously withheld those names, lacking any corroborative evidence.
Happily, a few other channels seem to have caught on, even if with a view to not losing out on competitive TRP ratings. Who said capitalism does not have its positive points.
While one of these other channels has been running the spectacle of a Naga sadhu receiving public chastisement from a young woman whom he tried to molest in her house next door, another has been projecting the unlovely greed of the priesthood in the Juna akhara in the holy city of Varanasi who have been shown to lay forcible claim to a temple gaddi in far off Jammu city worth some eleven crores! Not unreasonably, local Jammu city citizens have been shown physically preventing the somewhat colonial take-over from afar to raucuous resolve.
Even as I write, TV 18 is repeatedly displaying the latest violent vigilantism of VHP goons (and the channel is indeed calling them such) who are shown bashing in broad daylight—and in front of media cameras—two miserable looking Christian priests allegedly for indulging in conversion activity. The TV 18 story is justly emphasizing the point that while a case has been lodged against the two priests, the police has thus far refused to take cognizance of the criminal brutality vented on them on the pretext, would you believe, that no formal complaint has been lodged. To wit, next time around you might feel free to rob, molest, or kill in broad daylight, or indulge more extensive communal pogroms if you can ensure that no complaint will be lodged! As to what the whole country is witness to, thanks to TV 18, well, maybe the channel should think better of it. It is to be noted that Maharashra where this lynch mob has been busy breaking Christian bones is ruled by a Congress-led government. Furthermore, the poorpriests are at the receiving end of the law when infact no complaint has been lodged against them by the people they have been accused of converting—a requirement in law as per the police's own stipulation!
Back, however, to the seven godmen. The path-breaking exposure made by TV 18 as a sustained critique invites the speculation whether India (Brahminical North India in particular) may be on the threshold of its Lutheran moment. One is encouraged to ask that question in the light of the public response that TV18 has been relaying; in town and city, young and old express a range of disgust, stretching from saddened disillusionment, to anger and outrage. Many are heard saying that these self-proclaimed godmen should forthwith face the legal consequences of their clandestine criminalities; others admonish that no faithfuls must frequent the discourses they routinely deliver.
Hindu religious practice is, as is well-known, endlessly fractious and pluralist, primarily because its diversity of doctrine disallows the centralization of any single creed. There are ofcourse the four Shankaracharyas who rule over four authorized matths (it is another matter, again, that one of the four is currently involved in litigation over a charge of murder). Thus Hindu religious organization has no Pope. Yet, the godmen and miracle-workers who are ubiquitous in droves have tended to wield an influence that continues to hold in thrall the consolidation of the regime of "public reason"—a concept that archbishop Rowan was to characterize as the central edifice of the secular way of life (see his lecture given at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Rome on November 23, 2006). Not that archbishop Rowan endorses that way of life without intellectual challenge, as is to be expected. Yet, it would seem that Brahminical North might just be saying, enough of Indulgencies and certificates of remission, enough of claims to supra-rational prowess: we have seen the ugly truth. Keep your fingers crossed; this here is a land where mystery and myth reign, and where the magical irrational, even if often gruesome and inhuman, has votaries among the very highly educated and accomplished. Indeed, we are not quite past the time when even among professionals with astronomical incomes, the need and pride of indigenism expresses itself in the most maddening forms of unreason.
Far be it for me to suggest that the Lutheran revolt was a revolt against Christianity, not to speak of religion. Perhaps unbeknown to the man himself, the stand he took against Church hierarchy and its totalitarian requirements was to be the ideological bedrock upon which the new European capitalist class could base its expropriating, secular future. After all, in routing for "faith" as the true ground for "justification" as against "works", Luther was to accomplish a liberation for the new avant garde that a hypocritical and venal Rome had consistently denied, never mind that they were found to be the worst offenders against what they preached.
The doctrine of "faith" in effect ousted Jesus and his ethical/socially radical teaching from the Bible. Think; how on earth could the new capitalist elite carry on the proper business of expropriation so long as the moral/humanist centralities of the Sermon on the Mount remained at the heart of the Christian way of life. Imagine the new entrepreneur admonishing himself to love his neighbour as himself, or to take to heart the teaching that heaven was as inaccessible to the rich man as the eye of the needle to the camel; or that it was such a rotten thing to lay your treasure upon the earth! As to "faith" anyone could lay claim to it with subjective fervour that brooked no demonstration in life.
None of this might have happened if a Copernicus, a Galileo, a Bruno had not made frontal assaults on the reigning epistemologies of the religious view that swore by the revealed rather than by the empirically established. The European bourgeois classes, I am suggesting, were to be the product of a grounding in the new method of science. And in seeking to dethrone medievalism, they had crucially underlined the linkages between medieval religious doctrine and feudal political economy—properly the project of a radical and progressive class. Not for a minute, though, was it any part of this class to jettison religion per se. As Marx was resonantly to observe, the capitalist class may have taken up cudgels against a discomfiting form of christianity; capitalism cannot, however, ever live without the idea of religion as a crucial ally in thwarting inimical extensions of the democratic histories it helped to forge.
Since the exhaustion of its first progressive role in history, the capitalist class the world over has made the fullest use of religion to further its reactionary/sectarian/imperialist purposes, paying to the ousted medievalists the ultimate tribute of mimicry. After all, it is christian jehadis today who seek to vanquish islamic jehadis, just as it is hindutva jehadis who seek to oust both islamist jehadists and secular republicans at one go.
Marx, it will be remembered, was to articulate the double life of the citizen in capitalist society with customary clarity and force of formulation in his rejoinder to Bruno Bauer (On the Jewish Question):
The citizen of a "free state" leads a double life. In his real life in civil society, i.e. economic society, he is isolated and at war with everyone else in defence of his private interests. And in his imaginary life as a citizen of the state, he is integrated into and at one with the world in theory but not in practice. It is this situation which gives rise to religious feelings. Religion is the heart's cry of alienated, atomized man, who overcomes the separation he experiences in every day life, but only on the level of fantasy. Religious ideas will finally evaporate only when we have put an end to the atomism of society and chased away the fear and anxiety caused by the role of money.
Be that as it may, however the empowered and entrenched capitalist class may have sought to extinguish its crucial, formative debt to the method of science, substituting reified technologies and fetishised commodities for the regime of scientific reason and integrity, if western "successes" have remained autonomous of the life of church doctrine (one kind or another), this has owed to those decisive centuries when it made science its legitimating ground.
The story as far as India is concerned was to be vastly, and dismally, at variance with that western capitalist narrative.
Although the party documents of India's organized Left routinely allude to the post-independence state as, variously, "bourgeois-landlord" or "bourgeois" state, I have often wondered whether India actually ever went through a bourgeois transformation, or can be said to possess a classic bourgeois class.
Is it not the case, overwhelmingly, that the professional and propertied elites who led the Indian anti-colonial struggle had next to no history of having taken on social or religious medievalism, with countable honourable exceptions in the southern states and in Maharashtra? Can it be said that their grounding in science had a fraction of the conviction or rigour that the bourgeois classes in England and Europe? Did they not rather seek, dissenting rational voices notwithstanding, (and these were often heroic in the teeth of the most abysmal denials of scrutiny into disabling traditions and forms of social and religious life) to incorporate the worst archives of superstitious myth-making, and ostensibly supra-rational ways of seeing into the anti-colonial movement, either to avoid causing divisions among the polity or to keep in place a reservoir of indigenisms which somehow represented that which was wholly our own?
India's affluent metropolitans, alas, it must be said, are the products of a collective history of which the radical challenge of science and rational enquiry into the patent chicaneries and unsubstantiated claims of diverse patterns of hierarchy and authority formed little part. Their claim to modernity thus remains a spurious skein and veneer, defined more by income-levels, gadgetry, trans-global mobility, proficiency in English, rather than by an intellectual history of dissent and interrogation. That charlatan godmen and sundry mountebanks should have for so long flourished among them should be no surprise.
Given also the fact that this class, and Indian capitalist transformation generally, has still not yielded that classical individualism which in the west was to lead to terminally radical histories (not necessarily all nice and fine, but suggestive of real breaks with the past), our elites are always on the lookout for a "community" that is reassuring in an unquestionable sort of way. This reassurance spans both emotional needs as well as functions as divine insurance against menace to vested styles of comfort. It is this sort of congruence that explains the successes of Hindutva communalism among a seemingly avant garde class.
Just as it also explains the extraordinary clout that godmen and suchlike continue to wield among five-star icons and their myriad followers among the upwardly mobile. Nor should it be any surprise that some of the most influential godmen continue to have among their most devoted followers some of India's best-known scientists as well.
And another thing: to the extent that India's new middle classes have come to identify the politics of the Left as the chief dissenter with respect to the capitalist path of development, and Left mobilization as the only probable collectivity that questions both the content and desirability of their chosen praxis, godmen and their political proponents among the Hindutva organizations offer a totality that seems equipped to thwart with success the incursions from the Left.
Let it not be, then, said that India's continuing tryst with organized religiosity is owing exclusively to the ignorant need of the impoverished masses for the proverbial opiate. In a significant historical reversal, in India it is the possessing and entrenched classes that consume and propagate the opiate with far greater political purpose than do the labouring. Indeed, frequently, among the latter responses to spurious and sickeningly opulent demonstrations of godmen-led religiosity are simply and sharply canny. Invariably, they have no difficulty in identifying such opulent establishments as just one other part of the power-structure that wears them down.
Keeping all that in mind, I return to the significance of the exposures now under way. I may be pardoned for divining in this new departure on behalf of TV18 (managed by Rajdeep Sardesai) the beginnings of a subversive idea whose time has come. As I have said, the continuing responses to the exposures (as I write this, the latest in the line now on the air is one Asa Ram Bapu—a horrendously puissant member of the godmen clan who counts the biggest guns among his shradhalus—who it turns out has been hogging land in some states on false pretences, and now finds a First Information Police Report lodged against him), bespeak a public willingness to acknowledge the fraudulent realities of godmen and the establishments they lord over, even if with some sense of loss.
In that sense, it just may be that the polity is poised, however hesitantly, to stand up before the Emperor, as Luther did before Charles V, and begin to nod with some courage Bartleby's immortal demur "I would prefer not to." History surprises us in uncanny ways; there is no telling how the dominoes might fall and, how that falling might begin to yield a new self-confidence to the "public reason" of secularity.
Congratulations, TV18; we are with you.