Cinema & Bollywood · Culture & Life · Politics · Religion

Diwali, Haidar, Vishwaroopam: Religions in Competition


Last year’s Vishwaroopam and this year’s Haider, as we know, were mired in controversies related to religion: some Muslims accused V’pam of being anti-Muslim and some Hindus deemed Haider to be anti-Hindu (and ‘anti-India’ too, apparently). Seen through rational glasses, however, those were simply attempts by some sections of India’s two main religions to outdo each other in displays of infantile immaturity and medieval madness. Interestingly, both these accusations were made before the films released, before they were even seen by those who were screaming hoarse. Now when the dust has settled, the critical and commercial successes of both films (their RottenTomatoes and IMDB ratings are 83%/8.9 and 89%/8.8 respectively) speak volumes about their quality, about the general public’s mature sensibilities, and about the absurd thinking of those who wanted the movies scrapped.

‘Hurting religious sentiments’ may well be the most-published phrase in Indian news over the last few years. Every week or two there’s someone or the other who opposes something because it somehow hurt their religious sentiments and of their brethren ‘all over the world’. Intolerance and what can be called ‘competitive religiosity’ are cropping up in India in many different manifestations, with both Hindus and Muslims toiling hard to get the better of each other. If a Hindu community hoists saffron flags over their homes, the Muslims flash green ones; if a Muslim leader says something outrageous, Hindu leaders go ahead and do something atrocious; if Hindus play loud music late into night during festivals, Muslims crank up their mosque loudspeakers very early in the morning. As if through some recent secret change in the diktats of their religious texts, showing off one’s religion and religious affiliations has become an important faith-based activity for Indians.

Over the years, rational citizens have been getting increasingly disheartened over how celebrations of Hindu festivals are turning more and more cacophonous, garish, and environmentally awful (e.g. playing the ‘murderous’ song Bheege Honth Tere to appease the Lord during Ganesh Chaturthi). Of late, Indian Muslims and Buddhists too, perhaps as a result of some subconscious intimidation by their lavish Hindu countrymen (and despite the fact that historically their religions have been the very models of simplicity and modesty), have entered the desi fray to score the highest decibels and the densest carbon footprints through religious activities. In this tussle of intolerance and one-upmanship, no one is finding the time to sit back, relax and introspect.

Some days back the Health Minister of India urged for a ‘silent’ Diwali this year. The sensible politician was concerned about the heavy health toll that noise and air pollution have on senior citizens and children. In an ideal world, his appeal would have been hailed as a milestone for a country where politicians are known to shamelessly cater to religious sentiments. Alas, while many Indians did welcome his statement, there were also many others who came up with interesting and ludicrous counter-arguments. Why don’t you ask the Muslims to tone down their religious celebrations too?, they asked. This thus is India, where even a simple health and environmental issue is turned into an ugly ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ fight; where mature adults indulge in childish behavior of “No Mamma, first tell him not to hit me!”; and where out-celebrating your festival compared to others is more important than ensuring the safety and well-being of people around you. As if the ‘caste’ egos were not enough, we’re now nurturing and watering religious egos, so enormously inflated that no amount of rational argument succeeds in deflating them.

There is this concept of ‘being the greater person’. Hindus and Muslims are currently in an intense though latent confrontation on the issue of celebrating religious events — eyes locked on eyes with neither ready to blink. In such a case if neither blinks at all, the menacing impasse just goes on forever; which is why the one who gives up first is the ‘greater’ or the wiser among the two. Now let’s imagine a utopian world. A Muslim council in some Indian town convenes a meeting to discuss how the community in general and senior citizens in particular are being inconvenienced with the early morning azans being played on loudspeakers. Imagine that sense prevails and they decide to scrap the loudspeakers and decide not to create any public inconveniences in the name of religion. In addition, they also don’t wait for their Hindu counterparts to “first assure that the Navratri celebrations too will be toned down” etc. Their only agenda is being tolerant, rational and humane (insaniyat, as they would call it).

In this modern globalized world where we simply cant escape inter-dependence, that is how problems should be solved, What will happen here is, even if not immediately, but sooner or later the Hindus of that city will be shamed into attenuating their own overzealous religious celebrations. The same will happen the other way round if it’s the Hindu leaders who blink first. This is also roughly what the Joker, to his great dismay, finally learnt in the Dark Knight.

It is pertinent here to ponder a bit on the origin of religion itself. The circumstances in which humans live have changed phenomenally since we first came upon the idea of religion. In those old days when we were just aimless people with all the time in the world to think (and over-think), religion gave us some purpose and a sense of stability. It was developed as a ‘way of life’, as a rough guide, as an ideal means to achieve an end, which was living a good life. Humanity’s sad phase started (and still continues) when we made religion itself the end and the very definition of a good life. We entered a phase where the only thing worth doing in life (and killing and dying for) was to follow unquestioningly some religious text. We ignored the fact that the text, however sacred one might consider it to be, was obviously recorded and written, and then even modified countless times over, by error-prone humans. Thankfully for us, most major religions underwent phases that we commonly refer to as ‘enlightenment’, where reason and rationale started intermingling with faith.

The problem with current religious leaders and zealots is that they are still romantically wishful of the pre-enlightenment era in this super-modern world; quite like Argus Filch, who missed the ‘old punishments of hanging students by their wrists from the ceilings’ in the enlightened modern world of Headmaster Dumbledore. Today’s India, however, has no intentions of going back to a primitive life. Despite our neighbor Pakistan writing a Constitution that declared it an Islamic republic, our founding fathers and mothers (very very wisely) did not make religion a basis for the Indian nation: as per our splendid tradition and culture, we committed to an all-encompassing, neutral Constitution. It is these awesome notions of tolerance and neutrality that make some religious sections in India uncomfortable, and they frequently try to hog the limelight through one or the other act of absurdity.

Thus, we often come across anachronistic fatwas of some Muslim clerics and ridiculous Hindutva theories of people like Subramanian Swamy. We also see extremists and fanatics wreaking havoc when a book discusses religion in a new, unfeterred way, when a movie deals with the uncomfortable aspects of a religious leader, or, as presently, when a modern-minded minister urges us to tone down Diwali celebrations. Sensible as the appeal is, it remains to be seen how many listen to him: how many of us are willing to be rational Hindus & Muslims, responsible Indians, and righteous humans all at the same time. Sitting here at a 12,000-km-distant vantage point, I can see India being easily the most powerful nation in the world, if only that triple balance was achieved by most of us.

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