Among the Believers

Still from Sir Raja II performance
Nikhil Chopra, Still from Sir Raja II performance, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, I often read about the profound disagreement between Mahatma Gandhi and his disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru. Both these leaders of the Indian freedom movement wished postcolonial India to be a multireligious state. But Gandhi, a devout Hindu, could not conceive of politics without religion. And Nehru, an agnostic liberal with a distaste for religion, who became India’s first prime minister, wanted to keep the two strictly separate, especially after Muslim leaders demanded, and won, from departing British imperialists a separate homeland for Indian Muslims.

To many educated Indians, it was clear who was right. Nehru’s vision was modern and secular, shaped by his awareness of Europe’s brutal religious wars as well as of the swift rise in the 19th century of secularized Europeans as masters of the world. Nehru hoped that, as in Europe and America, secular education in India would expose millions of people to the virtues of science and reason, diminishing the power of religion in the civic sphere and turning it into a private indulgence. Helped by industrial technology, India would amass economic wealth and state power, and catch up with the West-led march of history, all of its citizens equally placed to pursue individual happiness.

As for Gandhi, his plea for religion in politics seemed backward and incoherent. He appeared to have fallen victim to his own beliefs, when, a few months after India’s independence in 1947, he was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu activist who wished to make India a militant nation-state and to strangle at birth the new Islamic state of Pakistan.

In the decades since Gandhi’s death, many Indians, including myself, believed that Nehru’s secularized India would partly fulfill the great new promise—of a rational political order—made to humanity by the revolutions of the modern era. We were shocked and bewildered when in the 1980s and 1990s an aggressively religious and right-wing political movement rose to power in India.

The Hindu nationalists used the folksy symbols of Hinduism even as they struck deals with big businessmen and multinational corporations. They pointed to various terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist threats to India, and promised to restore the national virility that a “liberal and secular elite” had apparently sapped by pampering special-interest groups and promoting a morally lax culture.

Many of these claims were exaggerated and deceptive, when not outright lies. Nevertheless, millions of educated and relatively affluent Indians voted repeatedly for the Hindu nationalists.

How did people professing an antiquated faith come to dominate such institutions of the secular civic sphere as the political executive, the legislature, and even the judiciary? How could their crude religious rhetoric attract educated middle-class people? Or, how did people who were claiming direct access to God come to control a world that their ancestors had made after removing religion from politics and plunging into the adventure of science and reason?

These questions, which I once heard asked in India, are now echoed in the United States. What almost all of them assume is that religion is an irrational residue from the superseded past, and that a secular view of life is its best antidote. But they underestimate the extent to which even the most fervent believers in traditional religion belong to, and are shaped by, their irretrievably secularized world.

In the days after November 2, living in New York, I often heard this lament: If only some Americans, such as farmers in Kansas, had kept their self-interest in mind, they would have voted for John Kerry. In this view, enlightened selfishness, the apparent motor of modern and secular nation-states, becomes the cure for faith-driven irrationality. But many Americans did vote out of self-interest, and they voted for George W. Bush, and felt blessed by God for doing so.

Plainly, selfishness, whether enlightened or not, is wholly compatible with religious faith today. Believers and atheists alike in the United States embrace the secular ideals of work, leisure, and consumption. These ideals lie at the heart of the modern nation-states that emerged at the expense of small, tradition-bound societies in the 19th century, and came to exalt individual freedom over collective allegiances. They invisibly drive economic and political systems around the world; when thwarted, they plunge the world into terrible violence, as the unprecedented wars of the last century proved.

What they do not have is a high moral meaning: upgrading to a new car or computer is a poor substitute for the all-encompassing sense of the sacred and the possibility of self-transcendence that religions in the premodern era offered. In the hearts and minds of those who work hard to fulfill it, the secular view of life constantly needs legitimacy, possibly through attachment to a higher cause. For many voters, the choice was not between faith and secularism, but between two types of life devoted to personal prosperity: one such life with religious sanction (Bush and the Republicans) and one without it (Kerry and the Democrats). In the purely secular parties and politicians, voters see their own narrowness and naked self-interest—and many recoil.

For millions of people in the last century, the utopias promised by communism, postcolonial nationalism, and, then, more briefly, globalization, met the need for suprapersonal legitimacy. The millenarian rhetoric of the evangelical Republicans, and the Hindu nationalists, now fulfills the same discontented search for transcendent meaning.

Such rhetoric gives to the inescapably secular lives of many middle-class people a quasireligious sanction. Of course, they do not make anyone more austere or compassionate. It is often pointed out that the supporters of Hindu nationalism, currently enjoying a consumerist boom in the Indian economy, are far from the ascetic life that their spiritual traditions advocate. “Act dispassionately, without any thought of success or failure, and renounce the fruits of action,” the Bhagavad Gita counsels—while the Indian middle class feverishly pursues success, longing for electronic gadgets, designer clothing, and superpower status. By the same token, the God-fearing Americans in the red districts have few qualms about the exorbitant price the world pays for the American way of life.

But these commonplace perceptions tell us not so much about the hypocrisies of religion as about the triumph of secularism. Traditional religion may still regulate human behavior in tribal societies in the forests of India or Africa. But it has long ceased to be the main source of authority for the pious Indians and American citizens of modern nation-states.

The moral thinking and action of these consumers and producers of the global economy are shaped primarily by their overlapping allegiances to their family, class, sect, region, and nation, and by their participation in the large invisible movements of trade and investment around the world. For them, traditional religion serves mainly to legitimize whatever acts appear necessary to achieve wholly materialist and secular goals.

The old gods are indeed as dead as Nietzsche proclaimed, and this is true also for the middle-class Islamic fundamentalists who fight to control the sources of secular power—heavily armed nation-states, weapons of mass destruction, enormous deposits of oil—created or discovered in the modern world by the triumphs of science and commerce. Their loud invocations of medieval Islam are only another form of ideology: what people say to hide from themselves and others their real fears and desires.

Understandably, many people blame religion for all the ills of the world. But, as Gandhi suggested, it may be wiser to realize how the men claiming divine sanction only work out—if often more crudely than their agnostic counterparts—the nihilist logic of a purely secular morality: that nothing is sacred in the battle for worldly power, and that nation-states with economies built around the endless multiplication of individual desires are likely to wage the most destructive wars in order to impose or preserve their hegemony.

Living through the great moral disasters of modernity—Western imperialism in Asia and Africa, the world wars between rival nations and empires, and the rise of totalitarianism—Gandhi could see how the civic spaces of nation-states, which had been marked off as a secular realm, were increasingly dominated by elites swearing by the cold, amoral rationality of economic self-interest and national security.

It is why Gandhi wished to reintroduce religion into politics. This sounds as perverse now as it did to the many Indian admirers of Nehru. But then religion for Gandhi was inseparable from the practice of austerity, tolerance, and compassion.

It was a source not of personal legitimacy but of an ethical and spiritual life: a kind of perpetual self-scrutiny that seemed to him more urgent as the political and economic systems of the modern world steadily institutionalized the immemorial human forces of greed and violence. Gandhi wished to complicate with self-doubt and spiritual anxiety the calculations of politicians, technocrats, and strategists. “Those who think that religion has nothing to do with politics,” he once said, “understand neither religion nor politics.”

Gandhi paid with his life for his effort to infuse into modern politics the human virtues increasingly absent from it. Nathuram Godse, the fanatical Hindu nationalist, killed Gandhi soon after the latter forced Nehru’s government to share the assets of undivided India with Pakistan. In a passionate speech in court, Godse accused Gandhi of harming India by being soft on Muslims and by introducing such irrational things as individual conscience into the realm of realpolitik, where, according to him, only national self-interest and military vigor counted. It tells us something about our own secularized selves that such worldviews as Godse’s appear as conventional wisdom even as we long—and only God knows how—for some sign of the individual conscience among our political elites.

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