Religion Versus Morality

(Photo: Hartwig HKD / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Excerpt from Agnostic Khushwant: There Is No God, by Khushwant Singh (Hay House, 2011). Reprinted with permission from the late author’s son, Rahul Singh.

From Chapter 9. Religion Versus Morality

There is a trading community of north-western India and the adjoining areas of Pakistan that is renowned for its scrupulous observance of religious rituals as it is for its unscrupulous methods of business. To this community are ascribed the following lines in Potthohaaree (or Pothwari) dialect, spoken in and around the districts of Rawalpindi and Campbellpur:

Koor vee aseen mareney aan,
Ghat vee aseen toleyney aan,
Par sacchey patshah
Aseen naan vee teyra lainey aan
(Lies we often tell,
Short we do often measure,
But true Lord,
Your name we also take.)

These lines pithily sum up the divorce between the practice of religion and the precepts of morality that bedevils the Indian society today. It would be instructive to know why and when this divorce took place and whether there is any possibility of bringing the two together again. In order to do so we need to examine the origins of religion and its subsequent development.

First, the genesis of religion lies in the fear of the unknown. While fear continues to be the main reason for the hold of religion over the ignorant masses, the desire to know the truth about the unknown remains the chief preoccupation of religious philosophers, who want to know how life began, its purpose and the possibility of its continuance after death. All this came to be summed up in the concept of God as the trinity of the creator, preserver and destroyer. It was at a later stage of civilization that religion extended its sphere of activity to include making laws for society. This came about when it was discovered that the fear of the unknown God was a more effective means of preventing men from hurting each other, from stealing each others properties, slaves or wives than the scaffold or the lash.

Secondly, having established a precedent, religion further extended its sphere by making rules of social intercourse. For example: who could marry and who could not; the number of wives a man could have; and even prescribing rules of diet and hygiene as if they were divinely ordained. In this period of development came the laws of Solomon, Moses’s Ten Commandments, the Code of Man, the concept of halal (just) and haram (unlawful/forbidden) enunciated in the Holy Quran and the tradition of the Prophet (Hadith). Later religions like Sikhism likewise evolved their own sets of dos and don’ts, which were spelt out in their Rahatnamas. So, a whole lot of traditions were built up by different religious groups: Catholics could not eat meat on Fridays; Hindus were forbidden from eating beef; Jains could not consume flesh of any kind or any vegetable grown under the earth; Jews and Muslims could eat no pork; Sikhs could not eat non-jhatka meat or take tobacco in any form. None of these rules could be regarded strictly as within the purview of religion, but since religion provided self-imposed restrictions, in due course, they assumed dominant roles in their respective religious groups.

The third development vis-à-vis religion was introspective: a looking within oneself to examine one’s own behaviour to make a personal balance sheet of one’s own conduct. Had one been unfair in dealing with others or succumbed to some temptation? This usually took the form of meditation, prayer, telling the beads of the rosary and other similar practices designed to make one better as well as restore peace of mind.

When a new religious system came into existence, the three functions were performed by the founder. After his death they required the services of three different people: the speculative by the philosopher; law enforcement by the priest – qadi or mullah; and the introspective by the guide – guru or peer. As society advanced from the medieval to modern times, the state gradually deprived these functionaries of their religious duties. The role of religion in human conduct began to be diminished. At the same time, since religious theories about the origin of the universe and after-life failed to convince an increasingly sceptical generation and scientists admitted their limitations in probing these mysteries, soothsayers, armed with their paraphernalia, including sky charts, palm impressions, playing cards and even tea leaves and coffee cups (which they claimed helped them look into the past and future), came into their own; the astrologer took over from the astronomer and the palmist from the futurologist. These charlatans gained widespread acceptance by passing themselves off as men and women of religion. As in the world of commerce, so in the world of religion, bad currency drove out the good.

Depriving religion of its law-making and law-enforcing functions was carried out with greater thoroughness and with more serious consequences with the passage of time. The state became the law maker, the law administrator and the final arbiter. Civil and criminal codes replaced religious codes leaving out of their purview pointless prescriptions about diet, ritual and external forms, which became the principal preoccupations of organized religions. Thus, religious censorship in the form of ostracism came to be confined to trivia: If you ate flesh, garlic, onions and so on, you would not be regarded by Jainis as a non-Jain, if you ate beef, you could become a Hindu outcaste; eating pork (by the Jews or Muslims) brought on your head the wrath of the rabbi and the mullah; and clipping hair and smoking (by a Sikh) could lead to denunciation by the Khalsa Panth. But when it came to aspects that mattered like murder, rape, arson, robbery, stealing or seducing another’s wife, it was no longer the fear or religious censure that was the ultimate deterrent but the hangman’s rope, solitary confinement in a prison cell and a policeman’s baton. This was a great pity because the self-restraint that religion had inculcated was gone, and when administration of law and order fell into desuetude (as in India in recent years) criminal instincts, which religious persuasion had kept under control, began to resurface.

People committed crimes because their consciences were undisturbed; they learnt to square their lying and cheating by paying lip service to God, by displaying external symbolism and performing rituals. Moral values went completely haywire. Lying, which was condemned as a sin by religion but not punished by secular law (unless on oath in court), became common. Deviations from what were regarded as normal pattern of behaviour in matters of sex assumed exaggerated importance. While in the advanced societies of the West, adultery and homosexuality came to be regarded as people’s private business, with us Indians they became matters of public censure. A ‘godless’ West liberated itself of sexual inhibitions but learnt to be more truthful; a ‘religious’ India learnt to forgive liars and cheaters but condemned lechers and sodomists. The cleanest bill of moral health that could be paid to an Indian by Indians was his being naadey da succha – having the purity of the pyjama cord. Paradoxically, with the loosening of the hold of religion, we also lost our respect for women as mothers, sisters and daughters and incidents of ‘eve teasing’ and rape increased.

There remains another aspect of religion: an individual’s personal equation with himself or herself. If he or she was unhappy or if his or her mind was disturbed, he or she sought guidance from his or her guru and, according to the latter’s instructions, chanted appropriate mantras, did yoga asanas and meditation to bring peace to his or her tortured mind. In the West, these functions came to be largely performed by the psychiatrists, although some godmen and godwomen flourished.

It will be evident from the foregoing discussion that the role of religion in present-day Indian society has shrunk to minimal proportions. Instead of bringing the best out of human beings, religion now brings out the worst in us by providing facile means of forgiveness through performance of pilgrimage or some trite form of penance or the intercession of godmen. We have to either give a totally modern reorientation to religion or scrap it altogether.

A country as vast and as populous as India, and with such a high proportion of illiterate and deprived people, can never abolish religion; nor can it afford religion being perverted. There is enough tolerance of spirit among Indians of all religions to accept each other’s concept of God and allow each other to individually pursue the quest for peace of mind. What has faded into the background and needs to be restored to its legitimate primacy is religion as a social phenomenon setting out rules how people should conduct themselves towards their fellow human beings. This I suggest can be done by re-elevating Truth in all its dimensions to the status of God: as an abstract concept as another word for God; as the principle of behaviour towards one’s fellow beings; and as the touchstone of one’s conscience. It is only when this many-splendoured Truth becomes the object of our worship, our code of conduct and the healing balm for our souls, that religion and morality will become reunited as two sides of the same golden coin.

Excerpted from Agnostic Khushwant by Khushwant Singh. Copyright © 2011 by Khushwant Singh. All rights reserved.

Khushwant Singh died on 20 March 2014 at his Delhi-based residence, at the age of 99, as India’s best-known writer and columnist. He was founder editor of Yojana, and editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, The National Herald and The Hindustan Times. He was also the author of several books which include the novels Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Delhi and Burial at Sea; the classic two-volume A History of the Sikhs; and a number of translations and non-fiction books on Sikh religion and culture, Delhi, nature, current affairs and Urdu poetry.

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  1. Thanks for your great pic & video. It is only when this many-splendoured Truth becomes the object of our worship, our code of conduct and the healing balm for our souls, that religion and morality will become reunited as two sides of the same golden coin.

  2. "Depriving religion of its law-making and law-enforcing functions was carried out with greater thoroughness and with more serious consequences with the passage of time." Nicely said. Thanks for posting.


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