Protecting Your Faith

For the purpose of this discussion, let me record the following assertions: I live by a spiritual faith that gives meaning and purpose to my life; this faith belongs to a spiritual tradition that is thousands of years old; and the context that once sustained that tradition appears to no longer hold sway, which puts the unchanged continuity of that tradition in doubt.

From this, it appears that I face a fundamental existential threat. The question arises on what I should do to protect my faith. An immediate reaction tends to be that it is the changing context that is the source of the threat, and I must act politically to fight the threats to the context I perceive my faith as needing, so that the society to which I belong can revive the circumstances that once nurtured its spiritual traditions.

This is the reaction that dominates today’s news. In India, the Hindu Right has captured power and is making efforts to discard secular constitutionalism and make the country a Hindu nation. In the United States, a conservative and evangelical faction is seeking to stack the bench of the Supreme Court so that law can be brought in alignment with religious belief. Across Europe, right-wing parties that propose an anti-immigration stance they claim will preserve the purity of European tradition have not yet captured power but are gaining in vote share. And across the Islamic world, many governments, religious institutions, and conservative political movements pursue the privileging of orthodox Sharia law over modern constitutional law.

The critique of these develoments has tended to come from the viewpoints of democracy, human rights and secularism. I do not dispute this critique, but I feel it is not productive. It is founded on rationality while seeking to critique a matter of faith. There is no common ground on which the two sides can engage with each other for their epistemological axioms do not overlap at all, situating the debate within a perpetual antagonism that will always evade resolution. An end to the debate is only possible by suppression through a political or military struggle in which one side renders the other powerless. To resolve this, we must construct a discourse that engages with the issue of spiritual faith.

There are two directions from which to approach this challenge. One is a critique of the philosophy of secularism that confines religion to a private realm kept separate from matters of governance. While there are very good reasons for keeping religion out of politics, the fallout of secularism is the excision of transcendental meaning and purpose from public life, and this is equally problematic. This is an important, complex and nuanced issue that we must take on, but I will not do so here, reserving this discussion for another day. What I will do here is take on the other direction from which we must approach the issue; one that centres on the question, “Will a political struggle to protect my faith actually produce the result that is sought?”

To enter this question, I turn to one of India’s great spiritual teachers, Swami Vivekananda, the chief disciple of the 19th century mystic, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and founder of The Ramakrishna Mission. He is a figure frequently cited by the Hindu Right for a multitude of reasons: his speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 which greatly enhanced the global recognition of Hinduism as a significant religion; his frequent articulation of India as the geographical territory that is the source of Hinduism; and his proselytising an assertive Hinduism, having famously remarked that playing football is preferable to a technical study of the Bhagavad Gita, for one throws oneself into the game with the full energy of one’s being, and engaging with spiritual truth is pointless without this enthusiasm and commitment.

Those who cite Vivekananda to validate their views tend to overlook an incident late in his life when he travelled to Kashmir about three years before he died. He records a visit to the Devi (Goddess) temple Kshir-Bhavani, and excerpts of his writings on this visit are reproduced in the book “Swami Vivekananda on Himself” published by Advaita Ashrama, a branch of the Ramakrishna Mission. Initially, Vivekananda is deeply distressed by evidence of the temple having been damaged and desecrated by Muslim invaders in an earlier era, and writes, “How could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance! If I were here then, I would never have allowed such things. I would have laid down my life to protect the Mother.” Then the Devi speaks directly to him, it is not clear whether it is in a dream or a vision, and Vivekananda is transformed, writing, “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now! All my patriotism is gone. Now it is only ‘Mother! Mother!’ I have been very wrong. Mother said to me, ‘What, even if unbelievers should enter My temples, and defile My images! What is that to you? Do you protect Me? Or do I protect you?’ So there is no more patriotism. I am only a little child.”

Vivekananda’s epiphany revealed that his initial distress over the desecrated temple was far from religious faith, actually springing from a worldly ego that falsely inflated his sense of self to the level where he was capable of protecting God, failing to realise the truth that he is always under God’s protection.

The claim could be put forward that a protection of faith comes from the desire to protect the worshipper rather than the worshipped, fellow humans who are being defended rather than God. The sentiments of ordinary people are at stake: people who are hurt if their god is blasphemed; people who wish to worship in those places they feel are most holy and feel that they are not able to do so; people who feel unsettled in their own worship by the contradictory practices of others. But the resilience and permanence of a religious tradition springs from its ability to transcend worldly affairs. By locating the tradition’s future in the comparative successes it can win in the material world, the followers of a faith limit the experiences of worshippers, dragging them out of the potential of transcendental space and time into the highly limited terrain of profane space and time.

Moreover, history never stands still and contexts keep changing. A human body can never remain healthy if it is forever sealed within a sterile environment. A body living amidst diversity acquires immunity that builds resilience, whereas a body that demands the perfect environment is susceptible to the smallest infection. Similarly, a spiritual tradition that demands a supporting worldly environment to survive reveals an inner fragility and insecurity, instead of an inner security of belief that transcends profane constraints.

The resilience of a spiritual tradition can come only from the inner anchoring of its believers, and if I wish to protect my faith, this inner turn is crucial. A political struggle to protect faith shifts out of this inner anchor to do actual damage to the faith it seeks to serve, for it will inherently imply:
* A demeaning of the status of the divinity being worshipped down to a level of requiring human protection.
* A subjugation of the faith’s spiritual understanding by worldly constraints.
* An inner fragility of the faith that permits easy subversion by the profane.

A strident call for public action to protect a faith will over time serve to undermine the very cause it claims to plead.



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