Monday, May 20, 2013



‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a quotation by Karl Marx has often been used by the more intelligent and morally authoritative amongst us when we want to denigrate that section of the population in whose lives God and religion play a prominent part of their sustenance. We attribute blind faith, superstition and casteism as being major factors contributing to all the ills in society. But let us look closely at the full quote of Karl Marx- ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

While casteism is deplorable the way it has been practised over the centuries where a clear demarcation has been made between a superior class and an inferior class of humans which in turn has resulted in exploitation and hatred amongst us, it was never intended to be so. We are all born as humans and in that sense born equals. But we cannot escape the fact that we do not choose the surroundings in which we were born, we have no role in choosing our parents and we are born with constraints with respect to our physical attributes and mental abilities. So does everyone have equal opportunities? The answer is no. The strong have always dominated the weak whether by their physical or mental superiority.

The division into classes is not peculiar to any one religion, whether it be in the Upanishads or Plato’s The Republic’. They all have looked at fitting people into society as per their abilities. In that sense we may understand it better when we relate it to our own present existence, not everyone can be a boss. Imagine the chaos that it would create if that were the case. Promotions, entrance exams etc don’t they create a class distinction? You will agree that it cannot be otherwise. Having created an upper income, middle income and lower income groups do we find it easy to mingle among ourselves? How often have we invited a person who is starving, inside our house and fed him? Maybe we shall give him some money and ask him to have some food elsewhere. His presence is not desirable inside our homes. They are the under privileged and how has this happened, we may only say ‘God knows!’.

Why this vast disparity which ranges from the billionaires who have created empires and reside in their affluence to the manual scavenger whose life depends on cleaning up the excretions of the more privileged amongst us? Though we have moved forward in eliminating this type of demeaning existence, the class differences are bound to exist. They can be never eliminated. We can only become more humane in our approach to our fellow beings. Why blame religion? Aren’t we ourselves to blame?  While we can intellectualise and blame God and religion for the injustices being perpetrated on our fellow beings, how many of us will be really able to sacrifice the comforts that we enjoy now? It is man’s innate nature to dominate and to achieve that he will not hesitate to distort what otherwise could have been a good intention. That is what history is all about.

Let us once again look at what Marx said – “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of a soulless world”. Anguish of the human condition has been the cause for a leap of faith to God as Kierkegaard would say. It was anguish that forced Siddhartha to move away from all the worldly pleasures that he was used to and seek the meaning of life and the way to deliverance. When finally realisation dawned on him he became the ‘Buddha or the enlightened one’. It was the fear of death that drove Venkataraman away from his home at the tender age of sixteen to seek the truth and he became Ramana Maharishi. History is replete with such examples of seekers of truth and deliverance and who came to be regarded as saints. It was when Buddha chose to spread the message of the path to self realisation through his disciples that Buddhism was born. Such people have appeared at various stages in the history of mankind to reiterate that deliverance is possible from the miseries of the human condition. Not everyone is a Buddha.

The man on the street does not understand nor is he bothered as to what seeking the truth or deliverance means. He is only looking at something that will ease the miseries that he faces in his day to day living, something that gives him hope for a better tomorrow or will sooth his immediate pains. Try explaining to him that you can find God within one self or God is an abstract concept, he is not interested. For him God is the idol in the temple, worship of which will give him the benefits he seeks or the solace that has been eluding him. So why deny him his faith as being blind. Religion affords him that solace, that sense of hope and belonging. That is where, what Marx said has so much relevance.

While talking about the origin of religious beliefs Hume says that it is the fear of death accompanied by man’s desire for immortality and fear of the many forms of human misfortune that has given rise to belief in God. He says that the roots of religion are in human feelings. There is no dispute regarding this, but for Hume, being the empiricist that he was, believed that our ideas reach no further than our experiences and we have no experience of divine attributes. His views that there is nothing beyond sense perception was in direct contrast to the rationalistic view of Descartes for whom it was through reason alone that one experiences and understands the world. Both views found a synthesis in Kant’s ‘priori and a priori – knowledge gained through sense experience combined with the innate ideas in ourselves that give rise to a complete understanding of the world of things- ‘the world as I see it and the world as it is.’

One may accept or reject the idea of a God as being responsible for the creation of a world which we are still trying to understand, but I guess both are plagued by the idea of termination and a quest for the meaning of life.

I recollect my observations on my walks along the roads and streets of this city. I have invariably found that there is always a crowd of people in front of the government run liquor shops. There you find the wretched and the miserable waiting for their turn at the counter to get their supply of liquor, most of them belonging to what we refer to as the lower strata of society, spending their hard earned money in a bid to remain on a perpetual high, to escape the realities of their present state of existence. They end up destroying their families apart from themselves. The state runs these shops because this is the highest income generating activity for them. In an indirect way they have contributed to the destruction of families. I have asked people why the government has not taken initiatives to curb the sale of liquor especially through such shops. The feedback I get is that apart from the revenue part of the entire issue, is the fact that the minute you shut down these shops there will be mass suicides as the addiction has become so acute. In trying to understand the problem I have also tried to analyse the behaviour patterns of these people. These are people who are out in the blistering sun the whole day long doing heavy manual labour, scavengers etc, who at the end of the day overcome by the hardships of their existence resort to a balm to soothe their aching joints and to comfort their ailing minds. What starts off as an escape from the harsh realities ends up as a severe addiction which destroys them.

Why I digressed from my main theme is to reiterate the fact that religion is opium that soothes and does not destroy. I have seen multitudes at the temples, there is one next to my house which is more than a thousand years old, who come there with a prayer on their lips and hope on their faces. They perform the rituals in a diligent manner and seek to transfer the burden of their everyday living on a God who they believe will take care of them. They go back to their homes with a renewed strength to face their problems. Here families coalesce and are not shattered. It is here that religion plays its part.

Marx’s statement does not mean that he endorses the concept of religion but what he said reflects the reality of the human condition. He refers to the human as an oppressed creature in a heartless world and in a soulless condition. You could say that this condition is what he wanted to demolish. For him the division of labour into specialized jobs has dehumanizing and evil results. He says “For as soon as labour is distributed, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood. The division of labour chains everyone for life to their respective confining activities.”  Marxism is a fundamentally materialist philosophy which assigns the task of knowing all truth to science. Matter is accepted as the beginning and ending of all reality. Marx calls communism as ‘positive humanism’. In his view the state, the family, law, religion, morality – all these institutions are forms of human slavery to the money- God of capitalism. So communism calls for a total revolt against the human condition to restore equality and removal of class distinctions. Philosophy had to stop interpreting the world in endless metaphysical debates, in order to start "changing" the world. So we can see where one stands with respect to God and religion where Marx is concerned. Marxism caused major upheavals and communism spread. But as we review the course of history and look at it from where we stand today it is human greed and the desire to dominate that seems to have ultimately triumphed.

Why I thought it relevant to talk about this is because religion has worked and so has God in holding together the moral fabric of the society in which we live. They have been symbols of hope and a source of strength to the multitudes who inhabit this earth. It is not God or Religion which have contributed to the ills of the society in which we live, it is we alone with our own perversity and greed who have contributed to the misery that is existent. As I said earlier all humans are born equal but one has to accept the fact we are not made equal. This is the truth whether it is acceptable or not. It is not that all theists are bad or all atheists are good.

So when we stop to ponder as to why this disparity exists and why we are each made in a different manner, we start searching for a solution. There are two things that can happen here – one, we believe that we are a process in the cycle of creation which is endless and so there is no such thing as final termination or non existence. Two, we believe that there is nothing beyond death and this is the only life which we have and are conscious of, for one does not really ‘experience’ death. It is only ‘being and nothingness’ as per the existentialists. Whatever life we have we should live it in an authentic manner.

Both viewpoints have their positives. In the first there is belief in the existence of a God and a hope of a reward for a good life lived. This definitely is an incentive and a solace that there is a life beyond death. This would explain man’s quest for immortality ever since he appeared in this world. The second viewpoint believes that one has to live an authentic life in order to justify one’s existence and how does one live an authentic life, only by creating, leaving behind something that will continue to live after his non existence. There is no God here nor is there a need for one. But there is one factor that is common to both viewpoints and that is the state of ‘anguish’.

Life is governed by dualities, we have the privileged and the under privileged, the strong and the weak, the handsome and the ugly and the list is endless for every thesis there is an antithesis and ultimately we have being and nothingness. Very much like electricity, there will be no current if there is no potential difference, the river does not flow if there is no gradient, so also life flows on only because of these dualities.

Accepting the existence of differences from individual to individual and that all of us are not alike as a reality how do we make this world a better place to live?  This I guess is a very difficult task, not that it has not been tried over the ages by great reformers. If we can at the individual level try to uphold the basic tenets of humanity, that of compassion and leading a moral life, it would be a great contribution to the betterment of human existence. This is what every religion teaches us. Let us leave aside God for the present, may be we shall discuss it later.


Vijay SP said...

Incisive thoughts.

I appreciate the way you've built your argument, Mr.Subbu.

Religion does play the soothing 'opium' like role to alleviate the miseries due to the man-made inequalities.

But sadly, religion is also a cause for a myriad conflicts and violence. We might make a case for religion from an individual perspective, but from that of a society, religion seems to foster greater illusory feelings of superiority (of one religion over the other), and a collective defensiveness.

Defensiveness has an evolutionary role in protecting and perpetuating the human species as such, but when many human groups get defensive, all that is left is a fractured, fragmented humanity.

At the roots of religion lie the basic tenets of humanity, compassion and seeds of morality but seldom do the opium-seekers truly understand this. They prefer hovering at the surface.

Anonymous said...

Life is but leveraging. In a leverage scale for every point on one side there is an equal and opposite point on the other side. If we shrink the difference we end in the middle where there is no opposite point, we cannot say whether it is positive or negative, this side or that side. In short it is the point surpassing all dualities. It is the absolute thing which we are striving to achieve!

vaikuntam said...

It is not so much religion, as organised religion, that gets criticised. The objection is to have other human beings interpreting God's word. The Church or the Temple became large organisations with great power vested in the office holders before whom you had to bow. This led to the bitterness.

In personal and social life the role of religion has been so profound that if you take it away little will be left of what we call of our culture by way of food, festivals, music, poetry, art and implicit design which are religion suffused.

When people say no religion no caste, I do not know whether they realise what they give up in the process

Anonymous said...

As I read your musinga I am tempted to say it is time to review the Bhagavad Gita and inernalize the concepts of atman(soul) and karma(duty) and see if it helps explain the reason why the current state of the world exists as you describe it and the floundering people that live in it.

gssubbu said...

Ram Chandra Sekaran says - Life is but leveraging. In a leverage scale for every point on one side there is an equal and opposite point on the other side. If we shrink the difference we end in the middle where is no opposite point, we cannot say whether it is positive or negative, this side or that side. In short it is the point surpassing all dualities. It is the absolute thing which we are striving to achieve!
Yesterday at 8:36am · Unlike · 1

gssubbu said...

Pratap Singh Rathaur says - There is no debate more useless than the one about whether or not God is there.Sheer wastage of time.Even our scriptures candidly say at the end "neti,neti,neti...".God is an idea and God will survive only as long as He remains an idea.So if this idea,in abstract form or as translated into the form of a sculpture,brings solace,hope and comfort to masses, what is wrong with it?But nothing is completely harmless.Some of the rituals arising out of religiosity like 'sati custom', treatment of widows,cicumcision of females,mischievous godmen etc., have to be firmly put down.It has, however, to be conceded that a substantial part of our priceless and unique civilizational and cultural heritage is the product of our religion--the Sanatan Dharma,which covers a much broader canvas than the English word religion connotes.

gssubbu said...

Ram Chandra Sekaran says - When we say 'neti, neti -Not this , Not this' there is another person on the other side to say "yeti, yeti - Yes this Yes this'. And there is another one to say man is God's idea!

kishor kulkarni said...

Religion was probably "invented", or rather, it arose out of a need for a code of conduct for peaceful coexistence of people as a community. It came into being when the communities were small enough and did not exactly have any "secular" governance structure. Although there could be a "chief", he would probably not be as powerful by himself to be able to control all in his "community" (tribe), if it was only the physical prowess. So, for the chief to be able to control his people, he had to invoke a superior power and claim himself to be the prophet of the superior power. For this, it was convenient to have the concept of the superior power as one that would grant wishes to those who were “compliant” and punish those who transgressed the code.

So, it seems true that “man invented god.” Since religion and god were man’s inventions, they also underwent changes as time progressed and as the changes suited the prevailing situation and the “needs” of the religious heads so that they could retain their hold over their followers.

Thus, religion had its roots in the needs of community living and hence it necessarily has been an organised concept.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is a completely individual concept. It goes into all kinds of questions like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Where did I come from?”, “Where will I go after I die?” etc, that are essentially having “I” at its core. Spirituality is, thus, a contemplative “inner journey.

Varsha said...

I personally think God and Religion are two different things. Religion and the practice of rituals, belief in a superior being, the promise of being rewarded in an after life were all ways and means to keep the masses subjugated. There could be no debate, no question, no argument. Everyone had to simply obey, be scared and follow blindly whatever was told to them by those who laid down these rules.
Those who had the power to control the minds of the masses became superior to the rest of the people.
Caste system was also introduced by Manu who differentiated people on the basis of their origin from various parts of the body of God. There had to be a hierarchical discrimination of human beings. Sadly the people who are now called the Scheduled Caste were outside this caste system, they were 'ati shudra'. The Shudras could be touched but even the shadow of an ati shudra was enough to defile the caste Hindu.
This treatment of a category of people is totally unacceptable as they were treated inhumanly. Try and imagine how people born in this caste would feel.
Religion has brought about more harm than good. Religion and rituals teach us to blindly follow whatever is told to us without for a moment thinking and rationalizing. Can a dead person actually partake of all that is prepared for him/her at his Shraddha? Can the gau-dan actually help the dead person cross the Vaitarni to cross over to Heaven? Who benefits from all these rituals?
All those students who pray to God to help them pass an exam learn very early in life the art of bribing. They tell God to help him pass and in return he will offer prasad or whatever....
The basis of most ills in society are due to the practices that have entered our lives in the garb of Religion.
It is an opium which keeps almost everyone in a trance.