Someone somewhere in the distant past wondering and pondering over the power of nature on earth and in the firmaments and wanting to find an explanation for the beginning of everything seen and unseen around them began to give rise to ideas of creation or origin of life which in turn gave rise to the idea of a creator and eventually to the concept of Brahman followed by myriads of mythical stories related to Brahman were formed over a period of thousands of years. Similarly the phenomenon of growth and development of all forms of life was mythologized into Vishnu. In the same way one who is supposed to be responsible for death and disintegration of all living beings was called Shiva on whom too mythologies were developed. Thus a concept of Trimurti (triple deity) and all the mythical stories around them were evolved over a period of thousands of years, into a pantheon of 33 crore gods according to popular Hindu belief.
I have chosen Hindu concept of God because Hinduism is the oldest recorded religion in the human history. The amazingly meandering mythologies woven around the Hindu pantheon is an example of the marvellous capacity of humans in creating mythical stories around creation, preservation and transformation. They were handed down to subsequent generations through word of mouth before the writings were invented. People in their leisure times used to narrate these stories about Brahma, Vishnu and Siva with embellishments to make them interesting. Some among them improvised new side stories and over hundreds of years the Hindu mythology became like a huge banyan tree with thousands of branches and adventitious roots.
Simultaneously these mythical stories were further converted into visual treats like paintings and remarkable sculptures which are easily comprehended even by uneducated people or lower casts. They could internalize the religious mysteries depicted in the paintings and sculptures and pray to their gods and goddesses for various spiritual and material benefits. They identified their gods in those pictures and sculptures and venerated them as if they are real gods. That was the beginning of idolatry evolving from mythical theories about all the gods.
The poets among the people composed mesmerizing songs and bhajans for the devotees to chant effortlessly and follow the Bhakti Marga. Feasts and festivals were assigned on different days of a calendar year and were celebrated with great pomp and splendour. Thus popular religiosity came into existence. Almost all religions, except a few, promoted real idol worship in various forms. In religions where images of gods or saints are not used they make the places of worship such marvellous pieces of architecture to which they attribute sacredness and a sense of mystery. In the broad sense anything attributed with divine presence in the pictures, sculptures, mosques, synagogues, churches, monasteries have become idols. When the pictures and statues of gods gave rise to obvious idolatry, the temples, mosques, churches, monasteries or places of pilgrimage became objects of camouflaged idolatry. Human beings are always in need of some type of objective symbols and signs to focus on the intangible divine or supernatural.
Though in the course of time these mythical stories were developed into philosophical and theological schools like Advaita, Dwaita, Dwaita-Advaita, Vishistadvaita etc. by the intellectual giants at different periods in the history, the common people remained at the mythological level celebrating their belief in the their visible man-made gods. People chose their gods individually or collectively; temples were built for different gods and annual festivals were held regularly which became a great source of income. Thus temples, churches, mosques and other religious places became centres of great wealth. Naturally different groups of people emerged wanting to have a share in the administration and management of these religious institutions. That is the beginning of socio-political involvement of the rich and powerful in religious matters. Initially kings and nobles were controlling the wealth of the religious institutions. Now political parties and governments are involving in the management of festivals and wealth. Slowly religious places have become places of economic battle ground between socio-religious groups and political parties: Invisible Injustice.
Such socio-religious and political involvement by the rich and powerful were there from ancient times. Emperor Constantine was instrumental in the spread of Christianity; Rome is not only the seat of the successors of St. Peter but also a country having a membership in the UN like another country. Emperor Asoka promoted Buddhism which is the official religion of a few countries now; Islam is the official religion of nearly fifty countries and Christianity is the official religion of many European and American countries. Further social and political rivalries are going on between different denominations of Christianity and different sects in Islam. Such divisions and distinctions are vibrant in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Besides numerous sects in Hinduism it is divided into four major castes and numerous sub and sub-sub castes giving rise to the perennial malady of caste politics. Underlying all the external pompous expressions of celebrations are the hidden agenda of controlling the common people, financial sources and political positions. Thus we see kings always maintained places of worship and priests by which they can control their subjects and exploited their labour as free service and wealth by collection of tax.
Both religion and politics aim to acquire political power and use it to fulfil their aims . However, to achieve this object, their methods are different. Religion mobilizes religious sentiments of people drummed up by idolatry in the broad sense of the word in order to get their support to capture power; while politics co-opt believers into their political ideologies. Therefore both politics and religion make attempts to undermine each other. However politicians seem to be getting an upper hand and they in many cases have become the modern idols for the people and in the place of mythologies ideologies are promoted around which the common people can be controlled and exploited. For example the communist ideology never allowed the people to develop but kept them under control. Similarly the Hindutva ideology never allows people to develop but kept them under control. In India there are hundreds of religious places where idols of different gods and goddesses are worshiped and idolatry in the broad sense is rampant. The administration and management of these religious places are highly politicized and different political parties with different ideologies are actively involved. Ram Temple and Babri Masjid and Sabarimala issue are fresh in our mind. In all these places pure religious matters are highly politicized by different political parties of different ideologies defining even the Supreme Court orders, democratic principles and human rights. Many instances merger of religion and politics is taking place and in many countries religious heads are political heads also. In the present times, kings are replaced by heads of political parties and their ideologies; there is a subtle movement of people from idolatry to ideologies though it may appear to be too mixed up. At present many politicians are idols to the people commanding reverence, loyalty and blind obedience and the road-shows of both religion and politicians look the same. We are aware of the way Hitler, Mussolini and many other politicians have become idols to people.
At present all the religions and their divisions or sects in the world are clubbed to one or other political ideologies. Secularism has been held hostage to communal politics by those who preached religious values but practiced the opposite in order to control the masses, money and other forms of wealth. If religion holds political authority, its ambition is to exploit it to fulfil a divine mission. It claims that it derives authority from divinity and therefore its mission is holy, motivated to reform society under the spiritual guidance. Politics, on the contrary, bereft of any value, directs its policy on the needs and requirements of society whereupon it obliges to change laws and system of government accordingly. But in a secular approach man is responsible to determine his destiny. He is not under the control of divinity or political ideologues to remain submissive. On the contrary, he is supposed to initiate and plan to build a society according to his vision based on the constitutional provisions and democratic principles.
(The writer is a retired Professor, XIM, Bhubaneswar. Email: email@example.com)(Published on 13th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 16)