Friday, October 01, 2010

The multireligious past

Rioting and bloodshed was expected when the Indian Supreme Court announced its verdict on ownershup of the land in Ayodhya where Hindus believe Ram was born, and a mosque (the Babi Masjid) stood for over three centuries before a Hindu mob destroyed it in 1992. In the riots which followed the destruction of the Babi Masjid, 2000 people were killed, mostly Muslims. Fearing a repeat of this, the government apparently stationed an extra 200,000 state and federal policemn across the state.

So far, there's been no rioting. The Supreme Court surprised everyone by deciding that the land should be co-owned by the Hindu and Muslim communities. (Hindus get the use of 2/3 of it, including the place where the Ram temple and Babi Masjid stood.) Intransigent folks on both sides have been huffing and puffing (including no small number in the reader's comments section of the Times article on it). It seems at first a Solomonic judgment, in the pejorative sense, but it may prove Solomonic in a different way. If Solomon's apparently callous call to cut a child in two succeeded in identifying the true mother and exposing the imposter, this judgment might succeed in identifying two rightful parents.

The basis of the judgment, apparently, was historical evidence that both communities worshipped together in this space for centuries, until the British Raj segregated religions in the 1850s. This shared religious past is something historians of religion know about. A study of religion based in Asian, especially South Asian, rather than European experience would give you a very different sense of how religious traditions interact. It would lead you to expect coexistence (if not always peaceful) and devotions crossing religious lines - Hindus venerating Sufi saints, Muslims celebrating Hindu holidays, etc. (It happens to this day.) This story can't be told without attending to power, of course - the Babi Masjid was built on the site of an earlier edifice by a conquering power, for instance. But power alone can't tell the story.

Devotion goeth where it listeth. "Religion" - that European Enlightenment category, defined by what it excludes - has a hard time following, often giving up in exasperation and judgment: true religion, it insists, is pure, not "syncretic." The history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the Indian subcontinent since the Raj shows that more than ink is shed when such conceptions of religion predominate.

A model of religion - or shall we call it religiosity, or piety, or even spirituality - which recognizes that the seeker of power or meaning or whatever will observe communal boundaries only in the breach could change one's view of a lot of things. Like the blessed confusion of contemporary American religion, for instance. Perhaps it's not an exceptional phenomenon, possible only now and only here, but a return to form of a quest deformed by understandings of religion from the age of nations and empires. Perhaps it is not syncretism and pluralism but purism and exclusivism that are the exceptions.

As for Ayodhya, one hopes the memory, or the experience, of this tolerant religiosity remains strong enough to silence the ideologues. Indian secularism builds on this experience, and this tolerance.

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