Religion: A Belief, Doctrine or Compulsion?
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
Religion has always intrigued me. Since I was a young child, I have often questioned the reason for the existence of religion.
Has religion intrigued you as a concept too? If yes, you will enjoy reading this article. If not, you will find an alternate perspective in this post, which will I hope, lead you to question certain things about it.
Here are a few questions that I have often thought about:
1. Why do we need religion?
2. How do godmen help us?
3. After all, what is the ultimate purpose of our life? Is it to live a happy, peaceful and purposeful life and ultimately achieve nirvana? or is it to be in communion with our god and escape cycle of rebirth?
Well, I am 78 years old now and I have never found answers to these questions. I am not an atheist but I am also not a religious person in the worldly sense. I believe in God, who I see in Krishna, the laughing, singing and dancing God. I believe in and try to live my life in accordance to The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as the Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture.
Whenever I am in a difficult situation and face a problem, I find answers in Gita. But I do not go to religious temples, ashrams and visit godmen in the quest of peace. I feel my relation with my God is personal and therefore, does not require a public show.
I listen to Gita every night while I sit in front of my Kanha (Lord Krishna) in prayer. It is another dimension, another world where a human is one with God.
I strongly believe in the power of prayer. Mahatma Gandhi said that prayer is not asking. It is the longing of the soul. It is the daily admission of one's weakness. It is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart in one's prayer.
A very pertinent question is does God have a religion. I entirely agree with Gandhi, when he says that God has no religion. I believe that religion is a personal preference of each human being. I also believe that religion divides more than it unites.
I developed aversion to the concept of religion from a very young age. I belong to a highly religious family. My Mother was a stout devotee of Anandpur Ashram which has branches all over India and in some parts of world. I remember that there used to be Satang Kirtan at our house every Monday.
I would like to narrate one incident which I always resented as a child. I was in class fourth at that time. It was my birthday. A few of my friends were invited. It was a simple affair. That day, there was kirtan in a neighbor's house in our area. My mother gave me a small amount of money; one rupee and four annas and asked me to place this money before photographs of guru ji and gods. I refused to go. My young mind debated with me furiously: we have a temple at our house. Then why do we need to do this public show of my birthday. My mother was firm. She reprimanded me and said that I had to go. When I said no the second time, I got a hard thrashing for being disobedient on my birthday.
With tears in my eyes, I went to the neighbour's house and did the needful. I prayed to God while offering that money that he should call me back to him because I did not want to stay in this cruel world. I have never forgotten this incidence. However, God knew that a mother's thrashing is also her love, and it is that love, that has helped me survive so many near death experiences. So, clearly, the God was always on the side of my mother. But I never forgot that it was religion that pushed my mother to beat me on my birthday.
Another incident that left a deep scar on my soul relates to my Kamla Mausi, my maternal aunt. A conman, disguised as a sadhu in saffron clothes, claiming to be a godman, duped her to take some deadly medicine, which left her a cripple for rest of her life. This happened because my maternal grandparents being highly religious, believed that sadhu baba in the disguise of God had miraculously appeared to mitigate the suffering of their daughter. So much so for blind faith in religion.
Now the big question is what is religion? Let us look at its definition. Scholars generally do not agree on definition of religion. Religion often involves cultural beliefs, texts, prophecies, revelations, and morals that have spiritual meaning to members of a particular faith. It can encompass a range of practices including sermons, rituals, prayer, meditation, holy places, symbols, trances, and feasts.
The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described religion as a form of wish fulfilment. However, modern psychology recognizes that religion can play an important role in an individual's life and experiences, thus improving health and well-being. To some, Religion is a set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to belief and worship of a controlling force such as a personal God or another supernatural being. Karl Marx defines religion as sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Majority of Indians practice Hinduism. The other major regions are Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam; and a small percentage of population practice Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Bahai Faith. Did you know that about 900 million of the 6.5 billion world population are Hindus, making Hinduism the fourth-largest religion in the world.
The correct name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal law in Sanskrit. Hinduism is one of the oldest organized religions in the world, tracing its roots back to 5000 BC. It originated in the Indian subcontinent on the banks of the Sindhu river (now Indus river) and was practiced by the Sindus (people who lived on the banks of the Sindhu), who were later known to the Greeks as Sindhus and finally as Hindus (a Persian word).
In contrast to some of the other organized religions, Hinduism can be more aptly described as a philosophy or way of life that has been subjected to numerous interpretations over several millennia, now resulting in a religious practice that incorporates a remarkable diversity of cultural rituals and customs. Hinduism’s philosophical core is rooted for the most part in the three fundamental Hindu scriptures: the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagvad Gita.
Since Hinduism’s inception over 5000 years ago, countless interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred texts have obscured the line between religion and cultural practice. However, the philosophical tenets have remained remarkably constant.
The pursuit and practice of the Hindu dharma is governed by a belief in karma (from the Sanskrit root meaning “action”)—the concept that every action leaves an imprint on one’s Atman (soul or spirit). Karma is determined by a universal law (or order) in which good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results.
Religion has historically influenced Indian society on a political, cultural and economic level. There is a sense of pride associated with the country’s rich religious history as the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism all emerged out of India. Moreover, while a majority of people in India identify as Hindu (79.8%), the medley of religions that exist within the country continually impacted contemporary society.
In India, religion is more publicly visible than it is in most English-speaking Western countries. This becomes evident when considering the numerous spaces that are thought to be sacred and holy. Examples include ‘ashrams’ consisting of large communities of scholars or monastics, temples (mandir), shrines and specific landscapes such as the Ganges river. There is a rich religious history visible in architecture, and it is not uncommon to find various places of worship, such as a Hindu temple, Muslim mosque and Christian church, all next to each other.
The 2011 Indian census indicated that 79.8% of Indians identified as Hindu, 14.2% identified as Muslim and 2.3% identified as Christian. A further 1.7% of the population identified as Sikh, 0.7% identified as Buddhist and 0.37% identified as Jain. Due to the massive population size of India, religious minorities still represent a significant number of people.
It is a hereditary system in that people are believed to be born into a family of a specific caste. Each caste has specific duties (sometimes known as ‘dharma’) they are expected to uphold as part of their social standing. For instance, a member of the Brahmin caste may be expected to attend to religious affairs (such as learning religious texts and performing rituals. In contemporary times, Brahmin men who have been trained as priests often tend to temples and perform ritual activities on behalf of other members of Hindu community.
Islam is the second most followed religion in India, influencing the country's society, culture, architecture and artistry. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 led to mass emigration of roughly 10 million Muslims to Pakistan and nearly as many Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan into India. This event changed the demographics of both countries significantly and is continually felt throughout India. Partition resulted in biggest tragedy of the century. Millions from both community lost lives. It only showed that religion never unites, it only divides people. Two nation theory based on religion miserably failed.
Nonetheless, the Islamic community in India continues to play a considerable role in the development of the country. For example, the Muslim community in India has contributed to theological research and the establishment of religious facilities, institutes and universities. The mystical strain of Islam (Sufism) is also popular, with people gathering to watch Sufi dance performances.
How beautifully Dalai Lama defines religion. This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. He emphasizes that whether one believes in religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there is not anyone who does not appreciate kindness and compassion.
Thomas Paine, an English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary says the world is my country, all mankind are my brothers and to do good is my religion.
I feel it is up to you whether you believe in organized religion or want to make compassion and kindness as your religion. It is a personal choice, and ultimately any doctrine we follow must strive to allow us to live our most authentic lives to the optimal.