Karl Marx famously called it the opiate of the masses, capable of numbing pain, inducing addiction, and wielding its influence over entire civilisations. Thousands of years after religion in its earliest forms seems to have come up in human society, it remains a source of much polarisation and hostility in the world, an oft-cited cause of war.
It is difficult, if not unfair, to generalise vastly different faiths, not to mention the hundreds of degrees and variations within them. But if one were to search, nevertheless, for characteristics common to most religious beliefs, perhaps the most fascinating of these would be the tightrope that they manage to walk with their dual nature.
There is something about religion that allows it to be intensely personal, framing the individual’s relationship with the spiritual world, while still being an agent that can weave together communities and rally masses around it.
Complex Duality Of Religion
This duality could be the key to a complex question that surrounds religion in the 21st century. How has it managed to persist, pervade, and thrive in the face of paradigmatic shifts in human society? As I look around me at a country where religious identity lies at the heart of many tensions and clashes, this question becomes more pressing than ever.
Religious politics is by no means a feature endemic to India’s modern form. From ancient regimes in the subcontinent that derived moral and legal codes from Hindu values to the patronage given to Islam in the kingdoms of several Mughal emperors, religion has long been an important organising principle in society, exercised by rulers to wield order.
Under the British, “divide and rule” was a legitimate political strategy used to introduce tensions between Hindus and Muslims and keep at bay united opposition to the state. The use of this strategy culminated in the Partition of India and Pakistan, which also had an internal political context behind it, but was nevertheless strongly advocated for by the British government in its dying moments.
Religion As A Political Tool
In modern India, however, the exercise of religion as a political tool makes its duality more prominent than ever. The processes that bring religions into existence seem to come, at least in some measure, from human nature itself. They involve elements such as the human desire for social affiliation, as well as curiosity about the nature of the universe and phenomena around them.
Once again, the duality comes up when a synthesis between individual agency and group dynamics leads to individuals defining their own religious identity, as distinct from and sometimes oppositional to others’.
The creation of vote banks based upon these religions transcends the boundaries of the natural to superimpose synthetic divisions on these identities. Political parties have long carried out this process by associating specific policy interests and political choices with the core values of particular faiths.
Creating Political Identities
This is Marx’s opiate at work, tapping into the deeply personal affiliation many believers tend to have with their faiths and constructing mass political identities out of them, often relying on a dilution of rationality in the name of faith on the part of the voting public.
The symbolic precedent set by communal vote banks seems to say that voter interests are truly divided along identity. It pushes the notion that the idea of India itself is divided along the lines of identity, that perspectives on the country’s present and future cannot converge if it means cutting across the lines of faith.
This is how communalisation has turned Indian politics into a self-fulfilling prophecy that yields little tangible benefit for the voters it manages to indoctrinate, instead peddling a narrative that paints religion into both cause and effect. It has slowly managed to alter the very nature of the duality it relies upon, diminishing the space it creates for the individual, constructing top-down identities that erode rational choice among citizens. And now it falls to each of us to steer clear of addiction.
(Pratyaksha’s passions lie in writing, debating, music, and food. A 20-year-old studying Political Science at Ashoka University, she wishes the world were a better place and hopes to use the spoken as well as written word to catalyse such a change. )
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views.