Religion as a unifying force
The unveiling of Divya Kashi-Bhavya Kashi recently by the Prime Minister was a grand spectacle. The project to transform one of the oldest cities in the world from a dirty and cluttered urban space into a modern city while retaining its essential traditional features is remarkable. The Kashi Vishwanath Dham project, costing Rs 900 crore, includes a corridor to facilitate circulation through the city, cleaning up the surroundings of the temple, restoring the ghats and creating a link between the temple and the ghats, an emporium, a museum, murals and more.
While questions may be raised about the mixing of religion and politics and the propriety of a Prime Minister participating in religious ceremonies under public scrutiny, the fact remains that the renewed gaze of the ancient Varanasi has captured the hearts of many Hindus, who believe that a visit to Kashi would lead them to moksha. He also aroused grudging admiration from people of other religions.
This is not surprising as an overwhelming majority of the Indian population is religious by nature. A survey of religion and attitudes towards religion, conducted by the American company Pew Research between the end of 2019 and 2020, revealed that, regardless of their religion, Indians are a deeply conservative people – food habits marriage and religious beliefs. Only 3% of the general population does not believe in God, and interestingly, while only 2% of Hindus are non-believers, among Muslims this figure is 6%.
Read more: Kashi corridor: highway of faith or narrow road of communal politics?
This brings me to the next question: why not use religion as a unifying force to promote values common to all religions, such as love, compassion, charity and the spirit of service? This may seem impractical at a time when we are witnessing a rise in intolerance, hate speech and polarizing tendencies. In fact, those who engage in these divisive tactics – a portion of selfish politicians, religious leaders and a few malevolent elements, are a small minority, while the vast majority of all communities yearn for peace and harmony. .
Another interesting finding from the Pew Research survey is that 91% of respondents believe they are free to practice their religion and over 80% said respecting all religions is important to being truly Indian and part important to their religious identity. It is therefore the small vocal minority that we must counter, and religion in its true spirit offers the best antidote to religion or politics aimed at fostering conflict. Not an easy task, but here are my suggestions.
The government needs to replicate the idea of Project Kashi in other parts of India, for two reasons. First, it is a well-designed and efficiently executed project on schedule, acting as a precursor for the revival of other cities, especially temple cities. Second, it can restore confidence among people who view Modi and the ruling party as biased towards North India and promoting only Hindutva. The role of the state should, however, be limited to the creation of infrastructure and tourist facilities, leaving the task of improving the temples to the temple authorities.
And there would be nothing better than starting from the South, and making Hampi in Karnataka the “Kashi of the South”. Hampi is home to the temple of Virupaksha, a form of Lord Shiva, and was the capital of the magnificent Vijayanagar empire which reached the height of its glory under the famous king Krishnadevaraya in the 16th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, spread over a wide area with several lovely structures reflecting the grandeur of the Vijayanagar Empire and attracting a large number of visitors, but it lacks infrastructure and tourist facilities. Hampi awaits a makeover on the lines of Varanasi, but with its own unique characteristics.
There are several other temples in the South and other regions that demand attention. Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, home to the Ramanathaswamy temple where Rama is said to have worshiped on his return from Sri Lanka. The temple has the longest set of hallways in the world and is a sight to behold; the Jagannath temple in Puri, with its unique wooden idols of the trio of deities – Krishna in the form of Lord Jagannatha, and his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, attracting huge crowds, especially during the annual Rath Yatra. It also houses the Govardhan Peetha, established by Sankaracharya; Tirumala, the hilltop abode of Lord Venkateswara in Andhra Pradesh at the foot of Tirupati, the richest temple in India, attracting the largest number of pilgrims almost every day.
All of these temple cities need a complete overhaul, not only because of their religious significance, but also because of their contribution to the economy and society. The full potential of the temple economy in India has yet to be tapped.
The Prime Minister, who swears only by the ideal of sabka sath sabka vikas, must translate it into practice by including shrines of all faiths in its recovery plan. To begin with, on the model of Char Dham, create a ‘Panch Dham’, an inter-religious pentagon, linking the Catholic Church of Velankanni in Tamil Nadu in the South, the Sai Baba shrine in Shirdi near Pune in the West, the Sharif Dargah, a tomb of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer in Rajasthan, the Sikh shrine of Amritsar to the north and the Buddhist holy city of Sarnath to the east. All attract people of different faiths and are models of interreligious unity.
Finally, organizations committed to the promotion of moral and spiritual values as well as service to society and which are credible, such as the Ramakrishna Mission, the Chinmaya Mission, Siddaganga Math, the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa and organizations likes of different faiths, should be involved in the fight against communalism and casteism, and the promotion of interfaith unity and social harmony.
People in India trust religious leaders more than politicians or any other tribe, and are likely to be swayed by what they say. As Swami Vivekananda eloquently put it, “Holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive property of any church in the world, and every system has produced men and women of the highest character”.
More than an anti-conversion law, what we need today is a conversion of hearts to follow one’s own beliefs while respecting those of others, whether believers, atheists or agnostics.
(The author is a former Chief Secretary to the Government of Karnataka)