UNIT 20 RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
Religion : An Aspect of Social Organisation
Religion is concerned with the shared beliefs and practices of human beings. It is the human response to those elements in the life and environment of mankind which are beyond their ordinary comprehension. Most religions deal with the attempt of human beings to understand something or some power which is supernatural and suprasensory.
Religion and Society
Religion the upholder of all values,morality and ethics of society. In this sense, it is the source of public order in society and provides the source of inner individual peace to men and women. It has both
ennobling, as well as, civilising effect on mankind. Yet, it has also led to the creation of obstacles in the path of progress. Its negative effects amongst mankind have been of promoting fanaticism and intolerance, ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.
In Karl Marx’s words : “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
Religion and Faith
Central to all religions is the concept of faith. Religion in this sense is the organisation of faith which binds human beings to their temporal and transcendental foundation. By faith human being is distinguished from other beings. It is essentially a subjective and private matter. We share the belief of others. This elevates us to a wider human plane. Thus, faith is something which binds us together and is, therefore, more important than reason.
Link Between Faith and Religious Life
Using the Biblical metaphor, we can say: faith is the bridge that links the termporal with the transcendental, the exterior with the interior. But how? Let us consider the mechanism.
All traditional societies constitute their faith in such order as may make interaction between individuals possible, and the movement from temporal to transcendental a reality. What follows is an inverted triangle ABC (Illustration 1), where:
A represents the transcendental value
B represents the temporal element
C represents the human response of ethical value
R stands for religion
What links B to C to A is faith.
Self, marriage, family and society refer to the basic constitutions of social life. These correspond to human response and transcendental value, through faith. The individual (self) in deep faith develops reverence for life, the condition which liberates him from suffering. A married person endowed with faith observes fidelity, which is the state of highest love. A faithful man is duty-bound not only for the living members but also for the deceased kins. Hence, performs ancestor-worship, the act of divine unity.
He also cultivates ideological tolerance, whereby the society rests in peace and he himself reaches the highest stage of perfection. Now, if you recollect the experiences and sayings of your own tradition, you will find that what we have just explained is nothing very new. Such interpretations of religious life are available in all traditions, may be in many different ways. But in essence they all agree that faith is the foundation of religion. In other words, the thread that binds all forms of religious organisation is
invariably the faith.
Culturally Diverse Forms of Religion
Broadly we can classify religion into three classes: (i) simple form of religion; (ii) complex form of religion; and (iii) mixed form of religion.
Simple Forms of Religion.
Characteristic features of the simple form of religion are as follows:
i) The archaic form of religion is ahistorical, that is timeless. It is believed as a divinely given form of life, which has been in existence since the appearance, or creation, of human being, the beginning of the World.
ii) As it is ahistorical, it is not founded or formalised by human being.
iii) In this form of religion, the knowledge of belief and ritual is trans,mitted orally from one generation to the next.
iv) In it, the religious experience is also an aesthetic experience, shared collectively in such performances as ritual dance and festivity.
v) It is essentially descriptive, not explanatory. It is practised in ‘good faith’ a faith that needs no interpretation, no philosophical debate, no dialectical discussion.
Complex forms of Religion
This form of religion has the following main features, which are radically different from the simple form of religion.
i) It is historical, that is, its origin can be traced.
ii) It is also a founded religion. The founder is attributed with divine powers, recognised as the Incarnation of God, the Son of God, or the Messenger of ‘God. The adherents look upon the founder as saviour.
iii) The knowledge of belief and ritual is codified and textualised. The scriptures are considered holy and believed to contain the sacred words of God, or of his representative, and worshipped as a deity.
iv) In this form of religion there is a large measure of personalism. The emphasis is on personal experience of religious phenomena. Faith is organised around the personality of the founder.
v) This is a highly intellectualised form of religion. It possesses a body of doctrine which the adherents are required to believe and follow. The new doctrines are added in course of scholastic development. New interpreters belong to the same spiritual lineage. This leads to the formation of cults and sects. To continue the doctrinal system and to propagate a’ particular ideology there comes up a class of specialists, preachers, monks and ascetics. who devote their lives exclusively for this purpose.
Buddhism : An Example
Buddhism as a complex form of religion has the following features which put it in this category.
i) Historical Origin: 6th - 5th centuries B.C. First preached at Sarnath (near Varanasi).
ii) The Founder: Siddhartha Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha, the son of King - Suddhodana and Queen Maya Devi of Kapilavastu (Nepal).
iii) Main Tenets: The Middle Path or the Eightfold Path: the practices of right view: right aim, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. These are the means of Nirvana, the release from the Wheel of Life. Those desirous of setting foot on the Eightfold Path have to take refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha
(community of monks).
iv) Distinguishing Features: (i) Materialism, the doctrine of non soul : man is an aggregate of material factors and processes which at death, disintegrate without residue, (ii) Atheism, a religion without the concept of God (in practice its followers worship the gods who are lesser than the Buddha), (iii) Nihilism,
the doctrine of impermanence, (iv) Renunciation, a religion of other wordly asceticism. v) Sects: Main divide: (i): Theravada or Hinayana with Arhat ideal, emphasising salvation of the spiritually advanced individuals. Main concentration in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand. (ii) Mahayana with Bodhisatva ideal, preaching attainability of enlightenment by all, the householder as well as the recluse. Mahayana or Tantric Lamaism, further subdivided into Kadampa, Kargyupa, Sakyapa and Ningmapa. The sects of Kargypa (with two offshoots: Norpa and Jonanpa) are regarded as semi-reformed. Main concentration in Tibet and the Himalayan region of India, especially Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and
vi) Scriptures: The most important ones: Dhammapada, Tipitaka of the early school, and a large collection of Mahayanist scriptures called Tanjur.
Mixed Forms of Religion
This type of religion is characterised by the elements of both the simple and the complex forms. In particular, it is a religion with scholastic explanation but without history. One of the best examples of this type of religion is Hinduism, traditionally called. Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Religion.
Hindu Religion and Caste System
Hindu religion can not be understood apart from the caste system. It does not have an organised clergy or religious order as in the case of Christianity. Therefore, the system of caste acts as a means of maintaining order in society. This system derives its legitimacy from the Hindu religion, especially the Manu Smriti. The caste system consists of about 3,000 castes which are separated from each
other in marriage practices, food habits, linguistic differences, etc. The Indian caste system was originally derived from the four Varnas, but territorial, linguistic and occupational factors gave rise to numerous hereditary groups which came to be known as castes. Each caste has a set of beliefs and rituals. These differences are marked in the observance of domestic rites (marriage, funeral etc.).
For the Hindu, there are two important guides for practice: The Dharmasutra and Grihyasutra. These are the parts of the Vedas dealing with the rules or procedures for religious activity. The Grihyasutra (domestic rites) incorporate a number of specific features of the castes. Hence, the rules relating to domesticity are very elaborate. Many of the rituals are preserved in memory rather than recorded: The women are the repositories of informal rituals. So, apart from the priest who recites mantra there are family elders-mainly women who perform rites for the new born child, the newly-wed couple, for the dead members of the family, etc. Hence, Hindu religious practices contain both formal and informal rites. In the formation of informal rites the castes are a major source.
Notions about Dharma, Karma and Moksha
For the Hindus, and also Buddhists and Jains, the notions dharma, karma and moksha are important.
i) Dharma stands for the balance between social and cosmic orders; in ordinary terms it stands for justice or fairplay. Both for individuals and groups, it is the guiding socio-religious principle. It is the first of the four Hindu principles, the others being artha, kama and moksha. The two middle terms mean pursuit of material and social goals. Together, they are called the purusharthas. These four principles are for individual’s guidance. On the social plane, any imbalance in this system results in adharma or disturbance of social order. The demons in Purana are the forces which create adharma, hence the gods
and goddesses incarnate on this earth, often in human form, to destroy adharma and restore dharma.
ii) Karma is the consequence of the individual’s or group’s action. It can be bad or good depending on the actions. Human beings pass through a long cycle of births and deaths during which they accumulate karma or the consequences of actions in one’s life. The present status of an individual, good or bad, high
or low, is the result of actions performed in the past life. If an individual accumulates punya (merit) through good actions then he enjoys happiness in this life, but if he accumulates papa (sin) through evil doing he suffers as a result. Karma is not fatalism. The individual can improve his destiny through
his or her actions. An important outcome of Karma theory is that the individuals do not blame gods or blind fate or the society for their sufferings; they alone are responsible for their present status.
iii) Moksha or liberation means cessation of births and deaths. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains firmly believe in karma. Usually Buddhist and Jain monks take more rigorous steps than lay people, to overcome karmic bondage and escape from the cycle of births and deaths to attain moksha or nirvana.
Religion and Social Change
Broadly, there are three types of change in religion: (i) from simple to complex, (ii) from complex to simple and (iii) mixing of forms.
Simple to Complex Forms
Contact with complex form of religion adds many new elements in the simple form of tribal religion For example. with” the gradual spread of Vaisnavism in Chotanagpur, the Oraons, a tribe which lives in that region, began to re-organise their traditional faith.
The consequences were as follows:
i) The Oraons lost faith in the powers of their old spirits. , ..
ii) A few of the spirits such as the ancestor spirits and the clan-spirits, came to be shorn of much of their maleficence and came to be regarded as ordinarily beneficent.
iii) The original conception of the Spirit of Good developed into a small pantheon, which in turn evolved elaborate rites and ceremonies, actions and observations to please different grades of supernatural powers.
iv) The Oraons aspiring for a higher spiritual life imposed upon themselves the restrictions against the use of alcoholic liquors as drink or libation, and of fowls, pigs and oxen as food or sacrifice.
v) The institutions of temple and guru or spiritual guide, and loving adoration of a personal deity (bhakti) became acceptable.
vi) Religious life began to find expressions through different denominations. Some turned into Bhuiput Bhagat, some into Nemha Bhagat, some into Visnu Bhagat, some into Kabirpanthi Bhagat, and some into Tana Bhagat.
Complex to Simple Form
There are also examples of simplification of the complex form of religion, specially of rituals and ceremonies. Buddhism, for instance, came as a revolt against the Vedic ritual which was both complex and expensive, .and also beyond the reach of ordinary people. It also required the services of the specialists, and knowledge of Sanskrit. The Buddha showed a path far simpler than this. He spoke to the people in everyday language and prescribed the Eightfold Noble Path. It is a different matter that in
course of time his disciples, especially the Mahayanist, gave themselves up to the mystical Tantric form of complex religion. Later, the 19th century Brahmo Samaj again tried to simplify the complex nature of Brahmanic Hinduism. Its impact has been limited to Bengal. The Arya Samaj had also made a similar venture. It denied the Pauranic rituals and tried to establish the Vedic fire-sacrifice in a simple form. The
impact of Arya Samaj can still be seen mainly in the western parts of north India.
Mixing of Multiple Forms
Sikhism, Kabirpanth and many other Santa-Sampradayas of their kind are Sanatan Hinduism, modified by Buddhism and Sufism. In these forms of religion, the prime object of attainment is not Paradise but the total cessation of individual existence, or what is called Nirvana in Buddhism. Also there is no personal God. The Sufi idea of the unity of God is well-founded in most of the medieval religions. Guru Govind Singh, the last Guru of the Sikh Panth, was a staunch devotee of the goddess Durga. He established khalsa by which he bound his disciples into an army and conferred upon each of them the name Singh, or Lion. He asked his followers that after his death the Granth Sahib or “the Lord of the Book” was to be their guide in every respect. This holy scripture contains the devotional songs sung by practically all the Hindu saints of medieval India. It also contains 142 stanzas composed by Shaikh
Baba Farid, the most celebrated Sufi . saint who accompanied Nanak, the illustrious founder of Sikhism, for more than twelve years. The Bisnois of Rajasthan claim that their religious organisation is composed of twenty Hindu and nine Muslim tenets, and hence “Bisnoi” (Bis = twenty + nau = nine).
Sects and Cults
Sects are like the various branches of a tree, which is a religion. They are a reaction to what is not acceptable in a religion. In fact, the sects rise as a protest movement against established religions. Protestant Christianity is a sect of Catholic Christianity; just as Jainism and Buddhism are some of the sects of Hinduism. Sects often reject many of the norms and values of the main religion and replace
them with beliefs and practices which appear to. be unusual to the people who are not members of that sect. They are insular to, and closed to others who have not gone through the initiation procedures for membership. In most sects a strict pattern of behaviour for members to follow is present. Membership demands extreme loyalty to the sect and it becomes the most dominant factor in the member’s life.
Cult is another aspect of religion, which is an offshoot but unlike a sect it does not arise as a protest movement but remains part of the main religion. It is an acting out of feelings, attitudes, and relationships which are an end in themselves. For example, the cult of Devi, or the cult of Krishna etc. have a following of a large number of people who believe in it and sing the devotional songs, etc. for its own sake. Sects and cults are the processual aspects of religion i.e., religion in the process of being practiced. Sect is much more formalised and definite, while cults are only minor expressions of variety within a religion.
Conversion is the chief end of all teaching and preaching in some religions. It is a process of growing up in spiritual life. In protestant theology it is called “the rebirth of the soul”. As a constant challenge of faith, conversion is an ongoing discovery of the real nature of religion. In practice, however, such personal freedom of experience is hardly attainable. For, one is either born in a religious tradition to follow the prescribed way, or alternatively may give up ‘the inherited tradition to adopt another
prescribed way. In either case he is not involved in the discovery of faith. Religious missions are motivated by a desire to convert others to their faith. The supreme task of the Christian Church is the conversion of the World, making disciples from all nations. That is the objective of Islam also. The ethics of conversion grants moral rights to seek for more followers to one’s way of religious beliefs. The missionaries believe that theirs is the best form of religion received from God and that it is their
religious duty to impart to others who are not yet within it. When this pious motive gets distorted the method of coercion is employed only with a view to increasing the number of fellow religionists. It is no longer then a real conversion. Many Hindus embraced Islam under different situations. The Mopla fisherfolk of Kerala were the first Indians to have accepted Islam. The Sufi saints and other
religious faqirs or darwesh converted a large number of Hindus to Islamic faith. The Muhammadan rulers were also instrumental in conversion but more often than not they exercised force. Conversion to Christianity has generally been through missionaries, and largely among the tribes of India. Kerala again is the home of the first Indian converts to Christianity. Traditions die hard. Most converts to Islam and
Christianity continue to follow some of their old beliefs and practices which are even against the tenets of the new faith. This they do either secretly, or openly. A proselytising religion wanting to hold on to the neophytes or new converts cannot do anything in this regard. Like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism also practises conversion. The Buddha had asked his mendicants to convert their adversaries to
the Path not by reasoning but by reduction to the sublime. Sanatan Hinduism does not believe in proselytising, because in its view there are different paths to the Ultimate, each equally valid and worthy to follow: As there is no conversion, so also no reversion. The Arya Samaj theory of conversion was never accepted by the orthodox followers of Hinduism.