Impressively, the country’s constitution is secular, prescribing equal tolerance of all religions and allowing all to practice what they believe. Now, however, there is a change. For the first time, there is a concerted effort to make the country officially endorse one religion and frown on others, especially one or two that are held ‘foreign.’ Also, for the first time, vandals who illegally wrecked a sanctuary have been officially allowed to build a sanctuary of another faith in its place.
What was Reformation? It was a powerful movement in the sixteenth century that arose spontaneously when the Catholic Church forced its doctrine on people and ignored their misgivings and suffering. It led to the creation of an alternative, the Protestant Church.
What are the lessons we gather from this striking event in world history?
The first lesson you learn is that if you fight too hard for an institution or a faith, you unleash the search for an alternative. The Reformation produced two churches instead of ‘the church.’ The people who dogmatically say “This is the only dogma we will allow in this land” are going to turn off a lot of other people who may not dare to protest, particularly if the government doesn’t allow them to speak up, but they will soon turn away. They will vote with their feet.
The other dramatic lesson is that we need to realize that, though we believe in certain things strongly, other people’s belief in other things is not a disaster. The Catholics and Protestants thought one another evil and perverse and fought endlessly. They generated hate and killed a lot of people. They did not change others’ minds and did little to gain support for their cause.
The Reformation also teaches that the more you insist on doctrinal purity, the more you create an impulse for pluralism. You can hate the idea of eating beef, but if you hurt and kill people for buying or eating beef, you are creating a huge force for a movement in the opposite direction; there are thousands, including hundreds of Indians, who consume it every day. The world thinks it comical that an ancient civilization focuses on such trivialities when their pious forefathers relished beef with gusto.
In a country like India where hundreds of disparate communities have lived together amicably, another lesson from history is relevant: intolerance leads to indifference. There will be a sizable number of decent people who will be loath to turn on their neighbors or friends just because they profess a different faith. They will then become indifferent, not only to the officially canvassed faith but also to all kinds of faith. Secularism will begin to look more appealing.
This lesson is particularly meaningful because there is already a distinct decline in the new generation of an unqualified belief in traditional religion and its hallowed practices. Aztecs believed in human sacrifice; the past generation of Indians accepted animal sacrifice; now the old Nepali festival of Gadhimai, where a half-million buffaloes, goats and birds are slaughtered, repulses even educated Nepalis. The excess of religious zeal, especially when officially blessed, leads to a marginalization of religion itself.
If not just the Reformation but the entire European experience is any guide, an uncompromising prioritization of religious concerns dents and damages the concern for religion itself. People start thinking of religion as a charming antique to which the old could pay occasional homage, but it cannot be a living, vibrant element of modern life, to which the young and progressive should pay the slightest heed.
The most unequivocal lesson of the Reformation seems to be that the dogmatism of faith leads to slow but sure disenchantment with faith itself. It fosters, inevitably, an attraction to counter dogmas – of science, technology or something else that appears as true ‘enlightenment.’
Very simply, history tells us intolerance creates reverse intolerance and is a hopelessly losing proposition. Indians simply have more to lose because we have taken centuries to build an image of broad, liberal religious acceptance and we seem now poised to crush it in a mammoth hammer-blow of religious bigotry.