The metamorphosis of mankind from primitive cave-dwellers to ‘global’ citizens has created a complicated man-made world. The pillars of this world include languages, customs, nations, socio-economic arrangements, political systems, technology and religions. Among these, religion is a dominant influence passed on to a child by the family as a tamperproof emotional template of beliefs and behaviours.
These beliefs can condition minds to the extremes of nobility or cruelty in the name of religion. For instance, noble diktat-s like compassion in Christianity and ban on charging interest in the Quran. The examples of cruelty are the Holy Crusades of Christians, laws of Manusmriti of Hindus, and the Islamic Jihad. To ensure order in a community, religion may have been an effective tool, but it also has been a tool of exploitation of weaker sections and women, with divine sanction.
In ancient India, long before the advent of Islamic invaders and Christian missionaries, there were two sets of religious ideologies. One was the Brahminical tradition of Vedas that dictated 100 per cent reservation by birth (not ability), in learning and scholarship for Brahmins; in fighting wars for Kshatriyas; in trading for Vaishyas; and in serving the upper three categories, for Shudras (present day OBCs). Below the caste system were the untouchables (now, Scheduled Castes) who were forced to live on village boundaries as slaves. This system was patriarchal, based on inequality, determined the worth of a person by virtue of his/her caste, and ensured Brahmin hegemony.
The other school of thought – like Charvak and Lokayat – which rejected the Brahminical order, reached its zenith during the Buddhist period. Over 2,500 years ago, Buddha rejected religious theories, Vedas, Varna, rituals, animal sacrifice and blind faith, advocating a Godless world of non-violence, compassion, equality and morality, thereby envisaging a world of virtuous atheists.
The atheist tenet
Traditionally, an atheist has been demonised and considered undesirable by established religions (except Buddhism); because he/she cannot be mentally controlled as he/she has no fear of God or the Judgment Day. There is also a common belief that all religions are good, divinely ordained and tolerant. This is a myth created by conservatives. Religions can unite and divide. For instance, Lord Krishna says in the Bhagvadgita: ‘Shreyanswadharmo Vigunaha Pardharmatswanusthitat/Swadharme Nidhanam Shreya, Paradharmo Bhayavaha’ (III.35) (Irrespective of the character of our religion, it is still better than any other religion. It is better to die in our own religion, because any other religion is horrible.). The Quran opines against marrying a non-Muslim (II.221); and calls all non-believers, enemies (IV.101).
According to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, “…To hold that all religions are true and good, is to cherish a belief which is positively and demonstrably wrong…Nothing can be a greater error than this. Religion is an institution or an influence and like all social influences and institutions, it may help or it may harm a society which is in its grip…Everything depends upon what social ideal a given religion as a divine scheme of governance holds out.” (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 3, Pg 24).
Buddha did not propound a theory of the origin of the universe, but stressed on virtuous behaviour without rituals, violence, animal sacrifice or blind faith. He expected his followers to question everything, even his doctrines and care for animals and ecology. During the Mauryan Empire under Emperor Ashoka, trees were planted; rest-houses were created for travellers along with shelters for animals with provision of water, fodder and healthcare. Animal sacrifice was banned and efforts were made to wean people away from oppressive traditions. It was the next step in human evolution – of a civilised society with equality, liberty, brotherhood – in which disputes would be settled only through peaceful dialogue, not by the sword. Buddha also demystified meditation, which was traditionally linked with chanting of mantra-s, God’s name, etc., by introducing Vipassana – meditation based just on quietly focusing on one’s breathing, without tampering with it. Buddhism happens to be the only religion that comes close to scientific temperament.
The scientific Budhist philosophy
It ushered in a revolution in Indian society under Ashoka and also spread to other countries, where it gained roots and survived, albeit in varied forms after being appropriated with local ethos. However, though Buddhist India tolerated other religions, it invited the wrath of orthodox Brahmins. A coup was engineered during Ashoka’s descendant Brihadrath’s regime, and Pushyamitra Sung captured power to start a counter-revolution in favour of Brahmins. By the time foreign invaders and missionaries arrived, Buddhism had declined. In due course, it was reduced to ruins because of the onslaught of Islamic invaders and orthodox Brahmins, who even captured the Mahabodhi shrine at Bodhgaya.
During the British period, when soldiers and officials explored the country, they found ruins of Buddhism; like Ajanta caves discovered in 1824; Buddha’s statues found buried 10 feet underground at Shravasti in 1875; and Ashoka’s Lion capital (which is now the national emblem of India) found severed from its pillar at Sarnath in 1904.
When India became a republic in 1950, the founding fathers ushered in a new revolution by creating unity in diversity under the Constitution, ensuring equality, liberty and fraternity to all citizens. The Lion Capital of Ashoka became the national emblem and the Ashok Chakra found a place on the Indian flag. Besides, in 1956, Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in its purest form, alongwith over five lakh ‘untouchables’. On the eve of the conversion, he refused to accept the dominance of monks, and after a lengthy argument with Bhante Chandramani (who conducted the ceremony) it was decided to create a new category of ‘Bouddhacharya’ or ‘Bouddhopasak’(who would be laypersons with ability to recite Panchsheel and not dependent on rituals for livelihood), to conduct Buddhist ceremonies – to ensure that Buddhists are not exploited by monks.
Almost seven decades later, the accumulated backlog of human development created by Indian traditional society is yet to be cleared, as those who had been deprived of education, freedom and dignified life – like the tribals, dalits, women, nomads and shudras are still struggling for a place in the mainstream. The hitch is that under the pretext of protecting ancient traditions and festivals, the masses have been turned into organic robots operating with the software of outdated religious tenets. While politicians of all hues hail Dr. Ambedkar, none of them have accepted his remedy written in Annihilation of Caste, of amending oppressive holy texts. He is being appropriated selectively by those who want to turn the clock back. Do religions have scope for amending their doctrines to keep pace with the changing world? Yes, they have, albeit too little, too late and by humans! For instance, in 1992 the Pope accepted Galileo’s theory of Earth, planets and the Sun (that was against the Christian belief of the universe) propounded in 1633, and rectified its mistake of persecuting Galileo in 1633.
The prevailing situation in which terrorists justify killing of innocents in the name of Islam, jingoistic Hindu leaders dictate norms of behaviour in the name of cultural nationalism, and fringe groups go around lynching people, efforts are necessary to raise the bar of emotional intelligence among the masses to ensure that they get a proper perspective, become tolerant, and are not carried away by sentiments. Buddhism is an option, and mentally, all rational people are practicing Buddhists, irrespective of their inherited religions. But ironically, a majority of Buddha’s followers have become worshipping Buddhists, not practicing ones. The only remaining option is that of atheism, without destructive/oppressive emotions, for a peaceful world of coexistence and harmony.
The atheist option
A person who is an ethical atheist, does not require a religion to survive, and can save energy, time and money otherwise spent on religious activities. But, to take on religious bigots, sections 295 (a), 153 (a) and 298 in the Indian Penal Code pose a hurdle as they prescribe punishment for ‘hurting religious sentiments’. These sections require rethinking to facilitate freedom of expression to counter exploitation by the priestly class in the name of religions and raise the bar of ‘beliefs’ among the masses to transcend barriers, which make them tools in the hands of political and religious mercenaries.