I write this on a day when the front page of the newspaper reports that a Cabinet Minister has visited Rajasthan to consult an astrologer. Meanwhile, a back page photograph in the same paper shows the most powerful man in cricket preparing to enter a famous and well endowed temple in Kerala.
The Cabinet Minister in question has recently faced criticism in the press for her (mis)handling of her Ministry. And, it seems, some criticism from her party too—once in sole charge, she now has two Ministers of State to keep her in check. That said, the troubles faced by the Minister are trifling compared to those that currently face the Boss of Indian and world cricket. A close member of his family has been indicted for illegal betting; players of a team he owns may have been involved in match-fixing; while the ownership of the team itself has been criticized as reflecting a conflict of interest, for while running the team he simultaneously served first as Secretary and then as President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The Supreme Court has passed scathing strictures on him for these serial violations, disallowing him from functioning as BCCI President while the court’s investigations continued.
Many, if not most, of the most wealthy and powerful men and women in India consult astrologers and visit temples on a regular basis. However established and successful, they yet remain insecure, nervous that a misalignment of the stars or the wrath of a particular deity will cause them to lose, or have diminished, their power and their wealth. At the first sign of trouble they go to their astrologer or visit a temple. The astrologer may ask them to change the colour of their clothes, or of their car, or to enter or leave their house by a different entrance than before. The temple priest, speaking as God’s authorized intermediary, will ask them to perform a particular puja, this followed or preceded by a handsome monetary donation.
A friend of mine, who for many years ran a design company, tells me that most of her clients consulted their astrologers before choosing a logo or trademark. However beautiful the design, however appropriate to the company or product in question, it still had to be vetted by the proprietor’s holy man, who would decide whether the logo would be ‘lucky’ or not. This practice was more common among family-owed firms, but even CEO’s of professionally run and publicly listed companies were sometimes partial to it.
I live far away from the worlds of politics and commerce myself. But on one occasion I was directly confronted with this ubiquitous appeasement of the Gods by the rich and powerful. Shortly after Kingfisher Airlines was launched, I received a call from the Public Relations Officer of the company. Dr (sic) Mallya, she said, was taking an aeroplane he had just bought to the foot of the hill where the Tirupathi temple was sited, so that it might be blessed by the priests. Dr (sic) Mallya, she continued, would like to have the pleasure of taking along a select (sic) group of Bangalore’s citizens for the ride. She was happy to inform me that I was one of them.
I politely refused. I am sure my place was quickly filled up, and that Mr. Mallya had pleasant company on his plane. Apparently he would take every new plane to be similarly blessed. Yet his Kingfisher Airlines crashed anyway. The deity on the hill was not powerful enough to offset careless business practices.
Among the other regular visitors to the Sri Venkateshwara temple in Tirupathi were the Reddy brothers of Bellary. After they were charged with illegal mining on a mass scale, they presented a bejewelled crown worth an estimated Rs 52 crores to the temple. Clearly this wasn’t enough, for shortly after this act of propitiation they were indicted by the Courts, stripped of their Ministerships, and sent to jail.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway: ‘Ernest, the rich are different from us’. Hemingway answered: ‘Yes, they have more money’. These words ring especially true in India, where the middle class differ from the rich largely in having less money. They share the same hopes and fears, and, not least, the same transactional approach to religion. There must be millions of Indians who pray to God before an examination, or before a job interview, or to have a son. Like N. Srinivasan and Vijay Mallya, we too seek to bribe or buy our way into divine affection. The only difference between the rich and us is that we place less money in the temple hundi.
To be sure, there are Indians who see faith in other than materialistic or instrumental terms. I remember visiting the pioneering psephologist E. P. W. De Costa, then living in retirement in Bangalore. As I entered his home I saw the octogenarian sitting still, looking contemplatively at the world outside his window. ‘What are you thinking of, Sir’, I asked. ‘How I have failed to live a true Christian life’, was the answer.
I also recall a visit to the home of another distinguished Bangalorean, the jurist M. N. Venkatachalliah. A deeply pious Hindu, he spent an hour every morning doing his puja. For him, as for De Costa, faith was a source of morality. It gave him the strength to be upright and fearless in his work as a lawyer and as a judge.
I call myself an agnostic rather than atheist. I do not know really whether there is a God or not. And I do know individuals whose faith encourages them to be selfless rather than selfish, to put the interests of their family or community above their own. In the past and in the present, the most generous philanthropists and the most heroic social workers have often been motivated by religious belief.
In 1895, Gandhi visited a Trappist monastery in the Natal highlands. He had then just begun his struggle against the racist laws of a regime that claimed to be ‘Christian’. The rulers went to Church every Sunday and read the Bible regularly, while discriminating against Indians and still more severely against Africans. But among these monks Gandhi saw a very different kind of Christianity at work. Whereas elsewhere in Natal there was ‘a very strong prejudice against the Indian population’, the Trappists, wrote Gandhi, ‘believe in no colour distinctions. The Natives are accorded the same treatment as the whites. … They get the same food as the brothers, and are dressed as well as they themselves are’. The contrast with the powerful white Christians of Natal was stark. ‘It proves conclusively’, remarked Gandhi, ‘that a religion appears divine or devilish, according as its professors choose to make it appear’.
Also quite distinct from the instrumental approach to faith is the ascetic tradition. All through history, men and women have sought God in silence and contemplation, in withdrawal from the everyday world, or in studying and reflecting upon classical texts. Other humans have a more mystical or even ecstatic approach to religion, using song and dance as a means to comprehend the Divine.
Indeed, a compelling argument for the ennobling role of religion is that it has given us the most sublime music. Had, for example, M. S. Subbulakshmi or Mallikarjun Mansur been atheists or agnostics, they could never have sung the way they did. The glorious traditions of both Indian and Western classical music owe a great deal to the intensity and passion of the religious faith of the greatest composers and performers.
In the atheists versus believers debate I stand with Gandhi. In 2014, as in 1895, ‘a religion appears divine or devilish, according as its professors choose to make it appear’. Like N. Srinivan, M. S. Subbulakshmi was also a resident of Chennai, and like him again, she saw herself as a devout and practicing Hindu. But what she made of her faith was altogether different from what he makes of his.
RELIGIOUS FAITH, DEVILISH AND DIVINE
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 29th November 2014)