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Faith : September 23, 2001
Faith in transition
We are accustomed to speaking of the sacred as an entity intrinsically vaster than life: we regard it as a transcendental energy of presence that animates the world, a cosmic ordering principle that helps us makes sense of our experience. The sacred is acknowledged as a mystery both by reason, which describes it as the numen, and by faith, which venerates it as the Divine. And yet, paradoxically, the transcendental mystery of the sacred is always approached through specific icons, archetypal symbols or conceptual devices: whether Shiva or Vishnu, the cross or the sacred fire, the Shunya or the Kaaba. We have no universal image of the sacred: the sacred must be conceived and addressed through the particularities of local cultures.
Manoj K. Jain
And it is, therefore, the impact of the forces of globalisation on local cultures that has brought the sacred into so extreme a condition of crisis today, across the world. This edition of Folio takes, as its focus, the changing role of belief in society, as also the altered place of the sacred in contemporary culture, in a period of disruptive, epic-scale economic and social transformation.
The phenomenon of globalisation has drawn diverse geographical regions, social structures and economic arrangements into a single network of transactions, in which all natural and human resources are treated as potential commodities or services, and all scales of value reduced to a calculus of profit and liability. By so doing, globalisation has shattered the specificity of the local and radically destabilised all prevailing conceptions of collective identity, individual purpose, ethical obligation and political responsibility. This is especially true in the formerly colonised and economically weaker countries of the world, which have neither a cultural nor a legal apparatus of sufficient strength to oppose the decrees of globalisation, which emanate from the centres of global power in the former First World.
This is not an argument for the static preservation of local cultures: there is much in them that is hierarchical, regressive and oppressive; but there is also much else that is participatory, dynamic and wise. In any case, the local must have the right to determine its own course of revision and reform, by the light of universal human principles, without having these changes imposed on it by a global authority.
While globalisation may be seen to give (in the form of consumer goods and new technologies, and the access to a First-World "look" that these options generate), it is surely more important to assess what it takes away. Not only does it rob countries of control over their resources, their goods and services, and their autonomy to act as sovereign nation-states, but it also deepens existing asymmetries within societies by operating through their complicit elites to exploit their subaltern classes.
With this revisitation of the East India Company syndrome goes the colossal fragmentation of an experienced totality of the world that has already been placed under strain by the onset of industrial modernity. In the epoch of globalisation, the conceptual shift from duty to choice, from consistency to multifariousness, has resulted in the loss of centredness in self and world, the release of divergent energies towards diverse objects.
This loss of coherence causes an acute sense of homelessness, which none of the traditional belief-systems can remedy, unless they adapt themselves greatly to meet the surprises and shocks of the present. In the process of re-invention that ensues, some religions undergo distortion, others transfigure themselves; some wane into discreet philosophies, others are revived by ferocious bigots or rapacious gurus.
Religious practice can degenerate into a supermarket of spiritual options, sustained by celebrity endorsement like any other consumer product. To employ the marketing jargon so popular in this age, many religious traditions succumb to the pressure to "reposition themselves," to consolidate their "brand equity," to "find new recruits", and to "tap new markets". But religious practice can also transmogrify into the terrorism of doctrinaire belief, revealing that the march towards a promised Utopia can be a violent project, which destroys all obstacles in its path, plunging the world into terror and madness. The quest for the Absolute in a world of relativities can, as Kierkegaard recognised, be a demonic one.
We may identify at least six contemporary experiential landscapes that demonstrate the transitions of faith today, each comprising a specific historical stimulus and a widespread response to it, and a constituency that has developed around that response.
First, we have fundamentalism, the securing of the self within a selectively constructed and interpreted image of tradition. The Taliban are a prime instance of this tendency: the fanaticism of these Pakhtoon militants, far from being a basic attribute of Islam, is the product of a specific and tragic modern history. It is the desperate guarantee of existential meaning to Afghanistan's lost generation, the young men who grew up as orphans in Pakistani refugee camps, educated by fanatical mullahs, isolated from the wider world of sensuous and intellectual experience that would have given them a more finely textured understanding of life. Militants created by the criminal war-lust of the USSR, the U.S. and their regional satraps, the Taliban are hard-wired to promote the anti-ideals of vengeance and unfreedom, which are their defence against the uncertainties of postmodernity.
Second, we have anomie, when global commerce and technology reduce the individual's human possibilities to the routines of productive labour and the imperatives of survival; and when the sociality of traditional religion breaks down. When the community - as ecclesia, sangha, congregation - fails the individual, when the magisterium of religion is questioned, a loss of self-worth seeps into the consciousness, and social practice is characterised by a loss of traditional values. Into this spiritual vacuum rush the demons of a dark imagination, offering an alternative guidance and sociality: the control-freak gurus of lunatic-fringe cults, figures who imprison their faithful in nightmarish psychological and physical conditions of submission and isolation.
R. K. Wadhwa/Fotomedia
In his book Underground (2000), the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami argues that the March 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult was not an aberration, but a symptom of the malaise afflicting Japanese society. He records how competitiveness and spiritual emptiness can drive "normal" individuals, against their better judgment, to seek solace in the maniacal doctrines of a cult-guru like Shoko Asahara.
Third, we have a remix religiosity, manufactured and disseminated by spiritual entrepreneurs, who see a business opportunity in the need of many individuals for spiritual comfort. Religion is marketed professionally, as a leisure-and-lifestyle option, a group therapy, a stress-management technique: many of the New Age movements would be classifiable under this rubric. Under the aegis of New Age remix religiosity, the spiritual traditions - whether Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, Bhakti, or Sufi - are subverted to serve the interests of consumerism-as-spectacle or else, are trivialised into personal enhancement devices. Another aspect of this experiential landscape is the relaying of religious sentiment through the mediatic structures, especially by televangelists and tele-gurus. The New Age philosophies may well manifest themselves as sources of hope for the perplexed, but their general incoherence and naivete promotes a "self-realisation"-type narcissism that is divorced from any progressive or responsible possibility of social action.
Fourth, we have neo-tribalism: the deployment of religion as a component in overt political mobilisation, the politicisation of faith. The Hindutva upsurge is a case in point, with the Ramjanambhoomi agitation as its key operation: proceeding from the political desire to consolidate the domination of the Hindu upper-caste and upper-class elites, Hindutva has attempted to convert Hinduism into an ideology of group assertion, a weapon of identity politics aimed at the establishment of a national counter-modernity governed by majoritarian rather than ecumenical premises.
Such neo-tribalism is best seen in relation to a fifth experiential landscape, that of competitive expressivity. Here, we note the interplay of group assertions, elite and subaltern, phrased in terms that conflate the political with the religious. If the Hindutva sympathiser displays a car-sticker saying "Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain" or pastes up a poster showing a Ravi-Varmaesque Rama striding towards Ayodhya, the newly politicised cobbler sets up a four-colour image of his patron-saint, Sant Ravidas, above his stall, while the Dalit activist hallmarks his neighbourhood with a statue of Dr. Ambedkar, pink-skinned and blue-suited, dermatically and sartorially defiant of the Brahminical order. Such competitive expressivity is the site of dissensus, rather than consensus: it is where public space is marked off by group interests, where signals are sent and territory staked in a ceaseless, fluctuating exchange of messages.
R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile
The sixth and last experiential landscape examined here is that of cyberspace: the domain of virtual reality, which questions the conventional certitudes of self and God, chance and destiny. Cyberspace permits an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries between factuality and fantasy, a concealment of motive, a change of identity. The advocates of cyberspace as the final frontier of human consciousness ask us a potentially terrifying question: If the self can be elaborated into a playful masquerade of avatars, and a super-computer can act as the template of the Overmind, where do we place the hypothesis of God?
These are not the only experiential landscapes in which we may observe the process of faith undergoing transition. But they point us in the direction of a general conclusion. The inescapeable fact is that the syndromes and predicaments we have briefly surveyed do indeed posit alternative modernities, or counter-modernities, which are produced from within some particular context of religious assumptions. Some of these are presented as Utopias, but may turn out to be abysses of terror.
At the same time, there are other living traditions, which do not promise Utopia, but insist on the responsible pursuit of the religious life in the present. These living traditions, which may be found among most of the world's major religions - including Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam - provide the basis for a constructive and wholesome engagement with the challenges of globalisation. They inspire us to safeguard the environment, to refrain from insulting the earth and exploiting our fellow sentient beings. They help us to negotiate between the contrasted realms of faith and inquiry, between the alternatives of sociality and solitude. Through their techniques of reflection and action, we may find ways of re-locating the sacred: by recognising of the interconnectedness of all life, by reinstating the sacred in the most intimate and everyday rituals of living.
Above all, these living traditions oblige us to accept that faith is indeed in transition, that it is not, and can never be, a changeless talisman of stability: faith is an act of effort, as all the great teachers have taught us. Our own effort in this edition of Folio, modest as it may be, is to reflect on a haunting problem of faith at the present time: How can we respond to the spiritual resources of hope offered by tradition, and connect them with projects that are both personally meaningful and capable of assuming socially vital forms?
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