Saturday, 11 August 2007


An Ethical Response
Saju Chackalackal•
Fundamentalism is a worldwide phenomenon; though historically identified to be originated (as a special trend of thought) in the USA, among evangelical Christian groups, it had existed as part of human dynamics from a very early age. Indeed, the force of fundamentalism has become so widespread even in the modern era, an era which boasts about better communication facilities and broader and deeper researches into various dimensions of reality. Modern methods of education have spread far and wide, but the clutches of fundamentalism seem to be on the increase. As modernism has given rise to postmodernism already, initiating an era of openness and an all round promotion of human creativity, educated people foresee a world that surges ahead towards the unseen and untraversed horizons. Yet, certain trends in our society keep pulling the same humanity, part by part, or as a whole, to certain antiquated understandings that humanity had gained, sometimes thousands of years ago, curtailing it the benefits of continued and collective human search into the nature of truth over a long period of time, either by way of religious or scientific experience.
Although fundamentalism as a formal branding of an ideology or a set of ideologies is of recent origin, I tend to think that it must have been an attitude prevalent within the human society when ideologies began formulating their tenets and started asserting their viewpoints without regard for others, and further when one ideology began to threaten others either by way of power play or by way of geographical proximity and antagonism that are visible in any pluralistic culture.
Fundamentalism, in general, perpetuates obscurantism and remains backward-looking and extremist in its approach to individuals as well as societies that do not form part of themselves. James Barr lists “narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism, and sectarianism” as characteristic features of fundamentalism as it exists among Christian churches. Moreover, as T. N. Madan, who has made a masterly analysis of the fundamentalist trends on the Indian scene, puts it, “fundamentalism always is a double-edged sword: while it brings the like-minded closer together (through their precisely defined beliefs and clearly laid-out programmes of action), simultaneously it separates them sharply from those who do not belong with them…”
Fundamentalism cannot be restricted to any one particular group. In general, fundamentalist tendencies have been prominently noticed among religions that assert the central place for the revealed texts of the sacred scriptures, especially Christians and Muslims. However, it is unfair to claim that these two groups alone share fundamentalist viewpoints. A closer and impartial look at the doctrines and practices of various religious groups would indicate that almost all of them share it in one way or another. This is not to say that all religions are fundamentalist; but, it is a fact that no religion is immune to it. That is, it is not necessarily a religious problem, but a problem resulting from a particular human tendency to insulate itself from both internal and external threats which cannot be squarely faced through an intelligent (genuinely human and genuinely religious) mechanism.
Further, fundamentalist grouping occurs when some persons belonging to a religion or an ethnic origin, or any other identity begin to feel the necessity of augmenting a self-consciousness at the exclusion of others, probably as a result of certain real or apparent threats either from outside or inside forces. It may also result from certain repression of the autonomy of one or another particular group, mostly in the wake of a weakening of its own inner power sources or due to the unilateral assertion of another entity that cannot be reckoned with in the normal course of events. As the fundamentalist orientations begin to aggressively assert their exclusive identity, they begin to insulate themselves against others, to the extent of even asserting that they alone are the depositories of truth. Usually, this takes place as a result of an identity crisis that prompts them to an excessive inward looking and reinforcement of their self-identity with some militant thrust, so much so that they wouldn’t mind even taking recourse to violent means to reassert their identity resulting from the newly constituted self-consciousness. A great difficulty with this process is their perception of the other as a real threat that needs to be either eliminated or, at least, quarantined. If this tendency is pushed to the extremes, especially with the back up of religious ideologies, it would naturally develop antagonism against every other person or group that does not subscribe to their point of view, leading to further fragmentation, isolation, and alienation. However, though fundamentalism involves traces of communalism, theocracy, revivalism, and anti-secularism, etc., as an ideological position, it cannot be equated or identified with any of the latter.
Religion is an instrument for human wellbeing in relation to (and, in most of the cases, with its centrality accorded to) the Divine, or the Supreme Being, or God. It provides us with an environment or ambience that is necessary for initiating an ongoing interaction and integration between human beings and the Divine, and among human beings themselves and with the whole of creation. The ability of a religion to augment human wellbeing depends upon its capacity to elicit a spontaneous response from its votaries by way of enhancing every aspect of human and cosmic existence. The spontaneity referred to here is very essential, as a voluntary response emerging from proper knowledge is the cornerstone of any action that is uniquely human. Without ruling out the possibility of proper religious initiation and instruction into its fundamentals, it could be said that any attempt on the part of any religion, or religious authority (individually or collectively) to force certain teachings or doctrines upon an individual believer goes against the very spirit of being human and being religious.
There is an ideological content to fundamentalism, and this aspect is said to be very crucial in its relation to religion. The ideological content, as T. N. Madan identifies it, has three important components: (i) rootedness in a historical experience, (ii) emergence of a comprehensive or totalizing blueprint for living and action, and (iii) the rhetorical form. These components contribute a strategy for an ideology to initiate a pattern of control over those who subscribe to it and, through them, on others who do not. In fact, a look at the contemporary religious phenomena in relation to the fundamentalist tendencies indicates that these constituting elements are well employed in the existing relationship between the sacred and the secular dimensions. As religions turn out to be dominant expressions of ideologies, the rhetorical form employed by these forces to enforce a totalizing blueprint with its foundation in the unchangeable historical nucleus empowers the religious functionaries (such as prophets, priests, scriptural specialists, etc.) in relation to the centres of temporal power (i.e., political establishments of the time). It is this alliance between the religious functionaries and the seats of temporal power that indicate possible deviations from the strictly religious orientation.
The hand-in-glove relationship that we find between religion and fundamentalism can better be explained in terms of an unwarranted and undue idealization of the origins of a religion for certain benefits which are not strictly religious. In the wake of certain internal or external threats that a religion faces and certain rational challenges that the leaders (or sources of authority) of a certain religion cannot contain, it tends to motivate the latter to take recourse to idealizing the origins of that religion in an extreme form with the hope that this would sort out the issues for good. By and large, this move to idealize the origins and the claim of orthodoxy being tied to such an ideal would bring dividends to those in authority within the religion by way of barring or eliminating every attempt towards progress and transformation of systems. As the origins are made into the exclusively sacred model par excellence, any bid to transform and to move forward taking into account the changes within social and cultural scenario will be shunned as extremely unviable and, sometimes, dangerous to the identity of the religion and its faith content itself. This tendency pushed to the extremes, denying any idealization outside its sacrosanct precincts, with certain militant practices of affirming an exclusive possession of the truth would make such a religion ideologically fundamentalist.
Religious fundamentalism accords a higher value and priority for doctrinal aspects of the religion even at the expense of intelligibility and human transformation. It tends to create a culture in which what is accepted as right within its own domains is that which is accepted as unchallengeable truth. True fundamentals of any religion are important for its institution and maintenance. However, being unreasonably selective with regard to the identified fundamentals, giving them exclusive primacy at the exclusion of many others (like love of God and fellowmen, and the ensuing ideal of service, at least within Christianity, or loving compassion in Buddhism) is a challengeable one. Thus, they attempt to idealize a few fundamentals (at the exclusion of others), exaggerating them to undue proportions and according them the highest value without providing any rational or theologically viable justification.
Interestingly, many of the fundamentalist religious groups tend to argue that the teachings that they impart to their followers is the only true one; in fact, they propose an outright rejection of the teachings of all others, baselessly claiming that none of them could be right. Usually, this is done by taking recourse to a narrow interpretation of their scriptures and traditions, and by implying that a true understanding of these religious sources is available only to them, and them alone. They have no difficulty in claiming that truth is exclusively available to them, as if all those who do not belong to their religion or sect do not even deserve to be treated as human beings, that reason and revelation are definitively known to them at the exclusion of all others. Then, salvation that is facilitated by that religion will be available to none but to those who subscribe to their teachings and practise them literally (meaning blindly).
Literal conformity to the doctrines identified as fundamentals can be identified as a hallmark of religious fundamentalism. In fact, they not only insist upon the conformity to the fundamentals in their lives, but, with far more seriousness, they insist that everyone else should follow the same pattern of life and the foundational doctrines if salvation is to be attained. They tend to believe that their knowledge about salvation is definitive and final, thus making it a universal claim. That is, the rest of the humanity should see and approach salvation exclusively through their microscopically narrow perspective. Although it is the strong assertion of the fundamentals of a particular religion that primarily makes it a fundamentalist religion, it is its overarching antagonistic attitude against every other religion or faith that makes it most dreaded in the contemporary society. Moreover, it must also be kept in mind that the antagonism that they inculcate among its members is an all-enveloping one; it covers various spheres of personal and social life, such as ethnic, linguistic, cultural, etc.
Unverifiable claims resulting from a direct link with the Divine constitute a characteristic mark of most fundamentalist groups. They tend to look for people who make these claims, and accord them a divine seal, although both the claim and the confirmation can be challenged based on their impact upon the community and the individuals’ and communities’ interaction and approach to other communities (‘the tree is to be known from its fruits!’).
Fundamentalists do not encourage self-criticism, though they would involve in meticulous other-criticism. The basic attitude is that ‘I am ok’ and ‘you are not ok’. One problem with this type of attitude is that these persons would never be able to change themselves in any of the so-called fundamentals, while they would adamantly insist that everyone else should change and accept their points of view. As they lack the impetus for self-criticism, they continue to perpetuate obscurantism and remain backward looking and extremist in most of their approaches.
Against the Enlightenment dictum “think for yourself,” fundamentalism implies that there is no need of thinking at all. What they claim is just that the thinking has already been done, if at all that is required. What is feasible now is to accept ‘the essential position/teaching’ wholeheartedly, without thinking further about its intricate dimensions. The invitation is just to follow the leader/s, so that everything would be alright and the followers would automatically be eligible for salvation; furthermore, according to them, only those who accept the doctrine unquestioningly will inherit the ‘kingdom’. In the case of many of the fundamentalist groups, they make this a condition for earthly wellbeing as well as heavenly salvation. This is reinforced by a fear factor that they instil among those who listen to their ‘wisdom’. What they implicate is almost like this: “join us, and then alone you could be one of the chosen ones of God” and “you cannot be saved without us.” Lack of proper informed outlook and an overdose of fear generate a peculiar mental situation among individuals that suits and perpetuates fundamentalist viewpoints, and it spreads faster and wider. Here it must be said that fundamentalism commits a mistake against humanity in that it supports the maintenance of ignorance and fear, although the nature of humanity is to thirst for more and more knowledge and to be more and more courageous as it grasps the reality better.
With a view to realize the universal concurrence to their point of view, which is impossible given the diversity enjoyed by humanity, fundamentalists resort to employ political pressure tactics. As religious authority is practically limited to a few domains, fundamentalist forces that are bent on universal practice of their pattern of thinking, gradually take recourse to political domains. A joint activity of religion and politics is the most deadly weapon in the hands of the fundamentalist forces. Together they would control every facet of human life, both at the individual and societal levels, by butchering creativity and sagacity. They succeed gradually, as they do not shy away from any opportunity to grab power and from making use of any possible mechanism in this regard. Moreover, their conviction that they alone represent the truthful position leads them to oppose every other person who holds a different point of view; they are even said to be taking recourse to physical force (with their political muscle power) to eliminate anyone who wouldn’t yield to their ideology and designs. In this context they would even take recourse to power-politics in order to effect a fundamentalist take over of many core institutions so that they can continue to perpetuate their vicious designs without any challenge from within or without. In fact, this tendency had been visible among various religionists in the use of inquisitorial methods (this was very obviously practised by medieval Christianity) to guarantee that no dissenting voice comes up from among the intelligentsia or ordinary faithful.
Although God is accorded with omniscience and omnipotence, fundamentalism, it seems, denies the power of God. For, every attempt on the part of the fundamentalist is to project himself/herself as the sole power that is essentially capable of delivering all that God wants (but as they think) to be done. They are so sure that “God is with us,” and with us alone, excluding any possibility of the same God being with others in any circumstance. In fact, here they enclose God and his power in a cage that they design to protect God and his designs. Apparently, these fundamentalists seem to be much more powerful than God himself! This has a dangerous and unbecoming side too. That is, when the God is said to be with us, that too unconditionally, we would tend to justify anything that seems to be right and good for us, irrespective of the case in point. This is what we witness these days from the suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist groups, whether they carry out the bombings in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, UK, or USA. Further, it is also observed that the people with fundamentalist attitudes even tend to justify hatred and violence against those who do not endorse their causes. This is in contradistinction with the very goal of religion.
As they spread hatred among the members of humanity, instead of enhancing bonding among them, they scatter them as best as they can through their vicious ideologies and cruel practices. Indian society is a best example in this regard. Fundamentalist forces from different religions, especially Islam and Hinduism, though both are known for their ideal of peace and harmony, incite sentiments of hatred among people, thus distancing each other first, initiating even violence and killing, which will then unleash an unceasing cycle of violence and human sacrifice. The result: peace and harmony among religions is only a mirage! Ironically, instead of the heads of these religions condemning such acts and their perpetrators, some of them promise the greatest reward for those who shed blood and take lives of the members of the opposing camp (most of the recent alleged public appearances of Bin Laden – mostly through leaked video clips or audio messages – continue to make this point. He is categorical in asserting that all those who take on the western forces, especially those who sacrifice their lives for this ‘divine’ cause, will inherit the heaven and fullness of life).
A concrete task undertaken by many fundamentalists is that of status quo maintenance. Instead of challenging individuals and communities in the wake of unjust practices, these religious groups tend to affirm whatever they have been perpetrating. Even cruel and unjust practices like slavery and caste system have been not only externally approved (by Christianity and Hinduism, respectively), but were said to be justified by their very sacred scriptures, the authentic records of sublime divine revelation. Justifying slavery to the slaveholders and approving various demeaning practices of subjugating the lower castes by the Brahmins are said to be the easy way out to keep the glow of fundamentalism glowing strong, as it would continue to support and safeguard the interests of those who wield religious and political power.
Fundamentalism causes stagnation within the society by way of promoting various practices that would curtail human development. The Southern Baptists in the US are said to have fought to retain the practice of slavery in the 19th century and to maintain social segregation in the society in the 20th century. Surprisingly, both these were fought on biblical foundations! While the society was progressing towards establishing equality and justice within its social relations, a fundamentalist Christian religious group struggled to retain the status quo, and to maintain inequality and injustice, surprisingly in the name of Jesus Christ and his ‘Good News’, which had clearly announced the kingdom of heaven where liberty, equality, and fraternity, would prevail. This model is irreconcilable with the claims made by these religious fundamentalists. We find the same tendency among some modern Hindu interpreters as well. Dayananda Saraswati and M. K. Gandhi, for example, had advocated the practice of caste system in different forms, claiming that it constitutes the ideal form of social stratification conceived and promulgated in the Vedas. Though both of them have claimed to have eliminated unbecoming aspects of the caste system based on birth or heredity, their theories were new incarnations of the same unjust social system, which would never treat human beings equally. The new interpretations of these modern revivalists of Hindu caste system had religious foundations. To my mind, an unjust social stratification, given the authentication by a sacred scripture, would continue to perpetuate oppression instead of paving the way for the liberation of those oppresses classes. In fact, despite their awareness of the horrific injustice done to the lower castes for thousands of years, we find both of them attempting to idealize the origins (by referring to their origin in the Vedas). I would suggest that much more than the basic concern for the sacred revelation or human liberation, these moderns were trying to capture dominance for the ‘orthodox’ traditions of Hindu way of life, which is a clear indication of fundamentalist ideology being in vogue.
The self-imposed walls that separate them from others could emerge from the onslaught of certain powers that cannot be withstood either from within or from without. Probably, this results from the self-imposed rigid boundaries that finally tend to isolate them not only with regard to their ideology, but also with regard to every other aspect of their lives. The psychological, cultural, and social barricades that they construct around their group finally tend to provide them with an identity that acts apparently as a lifeguard in times of crises. “Fundamentalist movements appear to be characterized by a tendency first to redefine tradition in the light of perceived contemporary challenges and only then to give the call for a return to the fundamentals of the faith.” However, given the helplessness of these groups to creatively respond to the given situation, the only possible way out to retain their identity is to reassert their own self-identity at the exclusion of all others. Instead of a healthy inclusive understanding, they would finally get trapped in an exclusivist understanding of almost every aspect of human life.
The fundamentalist tendencies are found to be creeping in the religious, cultural, social situations, especially of the marginalized groups. Many who have been marginalized by the powerful assume fundamentalist tendencies to insulate themselves from the powers that are unjust. As the fundamentalist framework is accepted as the norm, and as they begin to infuse the life of a community with fundamentalist perspectives/values, they wield more power than what was otherwise claimable for them in their normal circumstances of life. This, in the process, makes the marginalized into marginalizers: they just push almost all who do not subscribe to their fundamentalist framework to the margins; as they move away from the margins to the centre, they tend to eliminate even the margins for others!
Sacred scriptures of various religions have been instrumental in motivating religious followers to live a good life by performing right actions; that is, in general, we can say that scriptures have succeeded in providing an effective moral orientation to many. However, if we take into account some of the happenings in the history of humanity, which are said to be having their foundations in the scriptures, we cannot but claim that they are basically founded on fundamentalist readings and interpretations of these scriptures. For example, take the case of the caste system perpetuated in India and the establishment of Israel as a geographical national entity (with the political support of the ‘developed’ world).
Classifying a society in one way or the other is normal for the efficacy of social living. However, a classification of society leading to a rigid social stratification based on birth, and its perfect perpetuation over millennia in the Indian society resulting from a re-reading and interpretation of the Vedic sources (i.e., the Purusa Sukta) and the subsequent codification of an ethico-legal framework in the Manusmrti, both of which are given to the subsequent generations as divine ordinations, set the platform for the fundamentalist tendencies to flourish. The rigidity of the social stratification went to the inhuman extremes of even suppressing any upward move from the subaltern levels through unchallengeable religious, cultural, and political injunctions that seemed to shamelessly favour only those who remained on the top of the social ladder. This social ladder, in fact, emerged by the evil motives of the upper castes to retain and perpetuate their unmerited status in the society, for which they had even taken recourse to modifications and reinterpretations of the scriptures (which was universally and categorically binding on all Hindus) to that effect. Looked at from a modern point of view, it is impossible to deny the fact that the codification of the law in the Manusmrti was, in fact, an attempt on the part of the then religiously and politically elite to perpetuate a social structure for their benefit. Such a structure was made viable and acceptable among the masses by way of ascribing divine ordination, which any orthodox Hindu would not challenge or overthrow. Over a long period of time, this was bequeathed to generations, and most of them accepted it unchallenged; and it can also be assumed that all those who attempted to challenge it were branded as unorthodox and, hence, were thrown out of the system itself, thus assuring the maintenance of the rigid pattern to the advantage of the upper castes. As the scriptures and religious affinities are manipulated to serve the interests of a particular class at the expense of the human dignity of another group, without accommodating any flexibility whatsoever, it encourages me to brand it as one of the long lasting but disgraceful episode of practising fundamentalism in an extreme form.
A similar dynamics seems to be operative in the case of establishing Israel after World War II. It is true that there are references in the Bible that Israelites were the chosen people of Yahweh, and that He had promised them the land. When we first read of the Hebrew people, they are nomadic tribes little different from other tribes living around them. When they entered Canaan, or Palestine, they came as clans and patriarchal tribes with their flocks and herds. The revelation or their group consciousness that Yahweh has promised them the land of Canaan is, primarily, a wish on the part of a nomadic people, which was greatly accentuated by the continued pronouncements by their subsequent leaders and prophets. In fact, from political and geographical points of view, they were a landless people, who staunchly believed that their God and Protector, Yahweh, is powerful enough to provide them with whatever they did not possess. The biblical prophesies, in turn, play a pivotal role in enhancing the group consciousness of this nomadic people. The biblical imagery of a land of plenty is gradually transformed into a political entity, and this is pushed to a geographical identity in the course of time. In fact, the realization of a political and geographical identity for the people of Israel has a two-pronged strategy. A landless people – who felt so oppressed by others, wherever they were – developed a collective political will, not necessarily based on their political might, but precisely on a religious inspiration based on the OT revelation. The new generations of Israelite people began to interpret these biblical passages to mean that they had the right to claim a land, as per the descriptions contained in those biblical passages. But, did it have any other backing than mere ‘revelation’. Here, I draw on a fundamentalist reading of the biblical passages carried out by the vested interests of the people of Israel, with the backing of the political might of the US and the British in the post World War II scenario. A fundamentalist interpretation alone would not have succeeded; but, the moment it could harness the political will of mighty nations, Israel became a political and geographical entity. Some may argue that it was precisely resulting from the political alliances of the World War II. However, without downgrading it, I tend to think that a fundamentalist reading and interpretation of those biblical passages alluding to the wish of establishing the nation of Israel, as the cherished promise of Yahweh, was central and crucial for the realization of the present Israel. It was not for a few years that these nomadic, despised, and un-wanted people of Israel had to remain landless, but for thousands of years. The chance of survival for any promise is very limited if looked at from an ordinary human perspective; this is all the more so when it comes to a collective will to await the realization of a distant promise, which seemed to be totally unrealistic, given the history of Israel. Yet, as a people they survived, not necessarily depending on their physical strength, but the ability of the leaders of this community to provide a fundamentalist interpretation of the biblical passages referring to the promise of a land of plenty, the land of Israel. Although some wavered now and then, as a whole, the people of Israel succeeded in keeping track of the promise, and to chart out an action plan for the realization of the same, even if it required irreligious means and unholy alliances. It is here the fundamentalist tendencies of the move to establish the Republic of Israel in the 20th century become obvious.
Purity of doctrine as it is conveyed through the written word of the sacred scripture becomes centrally crucial and un-negotiable to the fundamentalists. They attempt to freeze the divine revelation and its meaning and relevance to a single cultural milieu and linguistic tradition. The purity of revelation is apparently maintained in fundamentalist religious groups by way of assuring that interpretations are given only by those who would guarantee the pre-conceived purity, without in any way inviting critical scholarship. The same strategy would be maintained in religious instructions as well, so that only the conservative intellectual positions are passed on to the new members. Further, those who unquestioningly accept these instructions would gradually form part of the bodies responsible for planning and decision making, thus ensuring that at every level the same conservative doctrinal position is maintained, thus doubly ensuring that their religious position does remain the same irrespective of who enters and exits.
There is likelihood that a scriptural religion falls into a fundamentalist reading of its sources and history if the theological perspectives are not integral or balanced. Some religions accept and perpetuate only a ‘surface’ or literal reading of their scriptures. There are other religions which do not even permit to translate their scriptures into any other language than the original; though it is, in fact, translated, it is never accorded truthfulness, as a translation is supposed to be deficient in conveying the original revelation received in a particular socio-cultural milieu and linguistic framework familiar to those who received the ‘revelation’. Accepting the fact that there are certain expressions unique to a cultural or linguistic tradition, I am reluctant to concede to the claim that a sacred scripture loses its original value in translation. In fact, every reading is a re-reading, and involves a re-interpretation opening up new vistas in understanding the content of the revelation. Any re-reading and understanding, whether it is done in the original language or otherwise initiates a process of understanding the truth in relation to the living milieu of the one who reads or hears the content of revelation. If this is so, naturally a translation is taking place during every re-reading. If a translation takes place in the case of every individual reader in making sense out of the text of revelation (and definitely the content of the revelation itself), how can any religion categorically deny the possibility of a linguistic community attempting to translate that text into its language by employing categories that have emerged from its own existential contexts. In fact, I hold that only such a translation by the people and a re-reading on the translated text that would make the content of the scripture more at home than a mere literal or ‘surface’ reading of the same in the original language. The word of God, if it is the ‘word of God’, would naturally be capable of expressing itself in more than one form, and in more than one language. In fact, the human medium is the most vibrant medium to communicate the word/revelation in a dynamic and creative fashion. Lest, revelation would cease to have any existential relevance! Moreover, it would not succeed in opening up new vistas in the life of the people, whom this revelation addresses. If this is curtailed, a religion may succeed in maintaining its sacrosanct revelation, but sealed away for archives; even if made use by the people with fundamentalist orientation, they would be useful only to destroy humane sensibilities. If these same scriptures be of any vital importance to human society, it must be creative and pro-active within the living milieus of the people.
Religion is only a pawn in the hands of those fundamentalists who are intent on capturing power through any means. They have a preferential option for a particular religion (mostly in the form of a few selected fundamentals) as a strategic measure to ensure that power sources are tapped without any break even if that would involve ethnic, cultural, or linguistic backlashes among the people.
In certain societies, particularly those pluralistic societies divided in terms of a numerically large and politically assertive majority and a hapless and helpless minority, a homogenizing tendency may arise, as a result of the ongoing assertion of the majority. Under the guise of certain real or apparent threats, usually blown out of proportion by certain vested interests, the majority would attempt an all-absorbent tactic or a homogenization of ideology and practice. As the minority’s existence would, thus, be endangered, it would resist every attempt from outside; however, a politically well-placed majority would initiate processes to bring around the minority to the designs of the former, thus threatening the very identity and existence of the minority. As it is quite likely that the minority would not succeed in the upsurge of the majority in this regard, even within a democracy, they would take to fundamentalist orientations and practices so as to assert themselves and to see through their way; as fundamentalism does not stop with mere ideological propositions, but extends its grips upon every facet of life, including motivating their members to self-sacrifice for the sake of the cherished identity and values, it would counter every move from the majority, even by taking recourse to violent and fatal means, thus destabilizing the whole society. Sadly, both the majority and the minority seem to be playing an all-losing game, as these unwarranted assertions from both sides turn out to be antagonizing and alienating each other constantly.
A typical example for the above mentioned deadly dynamics could be found in the Indian society, where the Hindu religious majority and the Muslim religious minority, in many places, create an unbecoming and irreconcilable situation. Most of the riots in the post-Independence era have resulted from the antagonism between these two communities. As the minority had been the losers many a time, they tend to reinforce their vitality by way of resorting to stronger fundamentalist orientations, and would try to attract more and more people to these streams of religion. While the Muslim minority begins to re-assert itself, the Hindu majority would feel threatened all the more, and their inability to mobilize more hands and heads to fight for their causes naturally warrant further extreme views to counter the former. Fundamentalism, especially along the line of religious ideology, will naturally attract more people, especially in the Indian subcontinent as by and large people still continue to be practising their religion. Instead of binding together people either within a religion, or between/among different religions, these unhealthy tendencies, and idealization of these extreme positions by the religious heads who are supposed to be animating people along the core values of religion, finally create a wedge between religions; here practising religion, for many, becomes quite a pointless concern. Then, religion becomes pseudo-religion in its approach to reality and realization, and such a ‘religion’ would tend to reinforce fundamentalist tendencies, finally making these religious practices divisive and irreligious to the core.
In fact, the perpetuation of their fundamentalist ideology for the sake of holding on to the reigns of power requires that conflicts emerge and they continue to exist. So, although many of the fundamentalist forces would project the practise of their ideology as the sole source of emancipation from all ills and evils that we experience in our personal as well as social life, they would not address the issues at hand; instead they would continue to abet more conflicts, but through subtle means, so as to make sure that the votaries of their ideology do not identify the source. Strategically, they would project their rivals and their ungodly ideologies as the source of every evil as it is encountered. So, we can say that the fundamentalists employ a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand, they succeed in depicting the rivals in a very bad light, as they are the source of every ill; on the other, they could hold on to the power among the votaries, as the ills in the society are never got rid off. Naturally, then, they adopt an eternally viable game plan, to deceive and incarcerate them perpetually.
The contemporary Indian society is a typical example for the above dynamics. Among different cases available, the strategy adopted by the Hindutva forces may be taken for analysis. Those who are actively advocating a religious nationalism in the name of Hindutva are making attempts to give shape to a homogeneous national unity purportedly based on the fundamental religious identity of the majority religious community, i.e., Hindu identity. Hardcore Hindu nationalists have rallied together to form a typically double-pronged strategy to take control of the Indian polity. This includes making every community that is technically identified as non-Hindu into a foe and the source of every evil that India faces in the present. The fundamentalist strategy that is adopted by the Arya Samaj, the RSS, and other Hindutva forces seems to provide us with a type in which they categorize people into two camps: ‘we Hindus’ and the ‘others’. This division, though succeeds in maintaining the stronghold of the Hindutva forces, really weakens the unity and sovereignty of India as a nation (though it is not a concern of these forces at all). The fundamentalist dynamics running through the ideology and practice of Arya Samaj and the RSS and the consequences thereof are well-captured by T. N. Madan as follows:
Savarkar’s momentous declaration … has in recent years acquired the undisputed status of the manifesto of Hindu fundamentalism, which is totalitarian in relation to those forcibly grouped together as ‘We Hindus’, and exclusivist towards those stigmatized as the spiritually alienated ‘Others’. Savarkar diluted Dayananda’s emphasis upon respect for the scriptures and replaced it by an overwhelming stress upon culture. In the process, the notion of the ‘chosen’ or ‘special’ people that is characteristic of fundamentalist movements was broadened as well as sharpened as a political concept. Dayananda’s Aryas were called upon to defend the true faith and the true way of life; Savarkar’s Hindus were instructed about their pre-eminence as the ‘first’ citizens of the land by virtue of their cultural identity.
While promising to free Indian nation as a whole from all these problems caused by the ‘others’, they succeed in garnering the vote bank to serve their fundamentalist interests, but not necessarily the interests of the people.
To understand the fundamentalist rhetoric employed by the Hindutva proponents further, we shall have a look at the approach adopted by Golwalkar, the second supreme guide of the RSS, who maintained that the RSS is only a cultural organization concerned with national rejuvenation. It must be noted that the nation referred to here is the “full-fledged ancient nation of the Hindus” united by geography, race, religion, culture, and language. From among these five, he would highlight the culture, or the ‘national culture’ as the important one, of course, placed only after religion (dharma), though it is not clear what exactly is meant by religion in his teachings. In fact, he would list the quest for God realization, the samskaras, the purusarthas, self-restraint, and altruism as the key elements that constitute the Hindu culture. The formation and spread of the RSS clearly indicate that the culture and politics were obviously integrated in one unit, to which the powerful nationalistic Hindu religious substratum was added, with an intention of providing the unshakeable public support of the majority. Golwalkar stated this alliance in unambiguous terms:
The non-Hindu people in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and revere Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu nation, i.e., they must not only give up their attitude of intolerance and ingratitude towards this land and its age-long traditions, but must also cultivate positive attitude of love and devotion instead; in one word, they must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights.
It is sufficiently clear from the above and the ideological pronouncements of various RSS leaders that “the ultimate objective of the RSS is political domination through cultural homogenization.”
It must be said at this stage that what the Hindutva campaigners attain in and through their ideology and activity is not national or cultural integration of the people of India, but ultimate disintegration of Indian ethos and national unity. In fact, they are only paying lip service to the cause of the nation; what they primarily aim is not the establishment of a culture conducive to the people of this land, who have been accustomed to a pluralistic perspective with regard to religion, culture, language, etc.
In the name of correcting certain historical wrongs, these Hindutva fundamentalist forces instigate ordinary Hindus to take recourse to certain measures that would lead them as well as the rest of the society into deeper troubles. As I have stated elsewhere, “religious fanaticism is not only a misguided and exaggerated reaction to certain historical wrongs, but also a conscious but ‘blind’ adherence to the tenets of a religion or belief system that is made to be the axis of manipulating other adherents for certain vested interests which are diametrically opposed to the generally accepted and articulated central principles of relationship and communion among humans and with the transcendent cosmic reality.”
Emerging tendencies among people that seem to be fundamentalist arise from a fear factor; any one who is afraid of another is said to be asserting a total separation from the object/event/person that causes fear. The efforts of the Hindu fundamentalist forces under the auspices of the promoters of Hindutva in India as the only natural choice for everyone irrespective of religious affiliation can be seen along this line. Though a politically and religiously assertive force, the fear factor among the ordinary Hindus is whipped up. As V. D. Chopra has put it,
… the RSS and the VHP are trying to convince the lay Hindus that they are “under siege” and that there is an international conspiracy to reduce their number through conversion! The whole propaganda is to intensify a perception of threat among the majority community with a view to inciting aggressive hatred against the adherents of other religions. The high watermark of this demagogy is the assertion that India should be declared a Hindu state because then alone would secularism, democracy and non-alignment be safe.
The fear factor seems to be ensuing from a total alienation of oneself from the other; any attempt for an encounter, which would take away that fear factor, is shunned away, and as a result only alienation is further deepened without any prospect for enriching understanding, peaceful co-existence, and creative collaboration.
Further, oppression of a large segment of the population continues to be the rule of the day in the Indian society, which is very much caste-ridden. Though Indians are aware of this longstanding problem within the Indian national consciousness, and despite a lot of efforts to contain it, Hindu caste ideology continues to be strong and all-pervading even in the twenty-first century India. According to Ambedkar, “caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind. The destruction of caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.” Through the practice of a religiously reinforced social stratification over a period of many millennia, Indian society has become a victim of the caste consciousness. Further, the recent fundamentalist interventions from among the high caste Hindus, mostly related to the Hindutva project, make a forced attempt to bring about a consciousness that is freed of this problem. The intent of this apparent ‘annihilation’ of caste is only to serve the Hindutva interests of the upper castes, by way of numbering the lower caste people as Hindus for serving political designs. Without initiating any change in the notions and practices associated with the caste consciousness, these Hindutva forces woo the lower castes: once again, only to serve their interests!
In fact, over the years, the upper castes have believed that the lower caste people have been created and sustained by God to serve their interests, and their interests alone. In the process of affirming this with religious sanctions the upper castes unleashed oppressive structures that have been in existence in our society for millennia. It is observed in our Indian situation that socio-cultural degradation and economic deprivation co-exist, and mutually contribute to the worsening of each other. In most of the cases we experience that lower the caste, greater is the poverty and deprivation at all levels. Modernization, involving technological progress, urbanization, etc., continues at a greater pace in India within the framework of democracy; although economic benefits have been fetched by these – but largely restricted to the upper and middle classes, mostly situated in the cities – none of these trends have been successful to radically alter the practice of social stratification based along the caste lines. The domination by the upper caste members and the cumulative oppression of the Dalits, for example, have not yet been eradicated from a highly caste-ridden Indian social life.
Not only the Brahmanic scriptures but also a good number of later interpreters of these scriptural sources, including some of the contemporary reformers like Dayananda Sarawati and M. K. Gandhi, have directly or indirectly contributed to the perpetuation of their lower status, as their teachings did not succeed in removing the degradation legitimized through religious doctrines which were treated as fundamentals of Hinduism.
In fact, as I look at it, the lower caste people were so desperate that they could not even unite among themselves, and the upper castes have taken advantage. We shall not ignore economical and developmental issues, directly related to the political alliances and the strategic planning of different governments. As it is succinctly captured by K. C. Abraham,
The fight becomes intense when the resources become scarce, or one group finds itself alienated from the mainstream, or is losing in the game. What we see in India today is a kind of political process in which regional and other groups are struggling for their share of the cake. No one seems to be succeeding and there is constant rivalry, and clashes born out of disappointment.
As the oppression and exploitation have gone to such an extreme that in the modern times the people belonging to these lower strata of the society have become self-conscious and conscious of their rights, strength, and dignity as human beings and members of the society so much so that they are finally motivated to come together and make their existence asserted. As this move begins to assert itself for the first time within the Indian social structure (which has complacently accepted the degradation of these people) we cannot expect a smooth landing at every level. It is calling for a definitive break from the oppressive past and inhuman structures, both of which have been accorded theological and ideological foundations by the varnasrama dharma produced and perpetuated by the Brahmin dominated Hindu religious ethos. A religious justification of the status quo in terms of the ancestral calling and caste duty (scripturally claimed to be having the metaphysical foundations in the very nature of God whom they all worshipped) along with graded levels of ritual purity or pollution (applicable as per the hierarchically maintained social stratification) was instrumental in unjustly perpetuating the socio-cultural, economic and political degradation in the name of caste on a large portion of Indian society.
As the upper castes begin to realize that their designs are being dismantled, they take recourse to every available means – regardless of whether they are right or wrong – to perpetuate the status quo, naturally, to their advantage. Further, as the oppressed members of the society also foresee a reluctance on the part of the oppressing groups to concede to them their dues, the whole approach may take the form of a power struggle; in fact, it is a power struggle, but a legitimate one at that from the side of the oppressed. Even if there is no militancy in that, those who are at the losing end in this power struggle (i.e., the upper castes) will definitely make it feel like a militant move, so that they can get the support of the political machinery, which is mostly controlled by them. The concerted effort from both sides would convert the people belonging to the lower strata of the society into a militant movement; at the same time, the upper castes would look at it with a wane hope that they would succeed in curtailing every move of the lower castes. However, as the lower caste members become more and more conscious of their plight, rights, and the oppression that they have been enduring for long would only augment their collective struggle. This is what is witnessed in India by the organization of the Dalits, though maintaining divergent religious affiliations. In fact, members of various oppressed classes are joining hands in this fight for their dignity and rights. Their determination cannot be broken, and they will win their cause by accelerating the networking beyond religion and region, among the lower castes, outcastes, the oppressed, and those who continue to suffer injustice in the society.
Any amount of antipathy that the upper castes and all the political machinery and media tend to create through propaganda would fail in this regard, as the anger of justice denied over millennia would shoot up the human spirit that cannot be restrained or suppressed. Indeed, there are certain forces that may try to subvert their rightful moves by way of injecting fundamentalist ideologies. This could also be a move resulting from their despair. When the majority community, that too which is apparently powerful from every angle – specifically religiously and politically – asserts its strength against the lower castes, even a fundamentalist ideology that gives them a better edge would be naturally welcomed. Interestingly, the upper castes drawing support from their religious scriptures and political will, even to augment their unjustly gained status, interpret their moves as orthodox and right; all such moves, according to their own reading, would not involve any fundamentalist tendencies. However, the move from the lower castes, the Dalits in our contemporary India, which tends to draw on their collective religious consciousness, and asserting their will (even though not on par with the might of the upper castes) is easily branded as militant and fundamentalist. This is mostly a strategy adopted by the upper castes to contain any move that would thwart their strategies, and to perpetuate the unjust social structure which was designed thousands of years ago, when the social consciousness of people had not developed on par with the present day.
The sad part of the story is, as both these parties (and any other that wants to have a share in the goodies) continue to blame each other for the present plight, as both parties strive hard to achieve their respective goals, they tend to reinforce the fundamentalist tendencies in both camps, thus closing the possibilities of change and justice. Both camps continue to be desperate; as the despair increases, their stands become externally more tough and violent, but internally quite weak. If this tendency were to continue, both parties would only lose the game: they need to play a winning game, for which both parties should be open enough to address the issues involved squarely, and should involve in a common search for solutions. Both parties trying to resolve the issues by taking recourse exclusively to their own sources, disregarding and destabilizing the other would only augment social chaos and further alienation, which in turn would create more room for enforcing and propagating stronger versions of fundamentalism.
The preceding discussion has concentrated more on cultural and caste conflicts resulting from a fundamentalist ideology and practice. As the fundamentalist ideology is so rampant that it does not stop its influence in any particular segment of life, but is all-pervasive. Indeed, without any doubt we can say that the same trend of thought and action is visible in perpetuating and exploiting ethnic and linguistic identities. The ongoing strife between the Tamil and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the occasional spurts between Kannadigas and Tamils in the name of language are just two examples in this regard. Although these issues are not directly religious, but only ethnic or linguistic, a closer look at the developments indicates that they are blown out of proportion the moment religious dynamics are brought into them. They have become complex as there are religious fundamentalist factors getting involved. Interestingly, these fundamentalists do not resolve the issue, but complicate it as much as possible so that they can, through it, serve their vested interests.
A culture or tradition that is secluded from others, or one that builds an unbreakable shell around itself, will have no dynamism, and will be gradually dissolving in itself. Take the case of a living organism: it is considered to be vibrant and living to the extent that it is capable of interacting with other organisms that surround its habitat. Let to itself, it will only die out; the moment an organism adopts a static state, it is considered dead. The equilibrium that we would apply to a living organism does not mean stagnation; an organism has to be alive in terms of its ability to take in and give out: that is the dynamism that makes an organism an organism. If not, it will be gradually moving to decay. Moreover, it should be able to integrate all that is needed for its growth; closed in on itself, it may not able to supply all the nutrients that are needed for its growth and blossoming. The ability of an organism to integrate the best from its ambience will enable to surge upward in its existence, and in making itself contributory to the good of the creation. I think it would be legitimate to apply the situation of a living organism to the case of linguistic traditions, ethnic groups, cultural patterns, and religious ideologies. I do not consider any of the above as inert and material; instead, all of them are human in origin, and very much human in character and in their continued existence. They are human dynamisms that constitute vital arteries of a human society. Then, naturally, all of them are part and parcel of the living organism. If so, we must see to it that their life is not only maintained passively, but must be catered to in a very conscious and active manner. Being part of human dynamics, they shall contribute towards the wellbeing of human society only insofar as they remain open, and involve in creative interaction with others: other languages, other ethnicities, other cultures, and other religions. In this context, if they should succeed in making human society alive and active, they should not see each other as potential enemies; no one shall threaten others by way of a totalitarian approach. All of them need to be brought together based on the great Indian ideal of samanvaya, a symbiosis, integration.
In most of the conflicts listed above, what stands out clearly is the unwillingness on the part of the fundamentalists to involve in self-criticism and soul-searching. Moreover, due to continued brainwash a good number of followers of these movements stop to squarely look at the issues involved; it so happens especially because the leaders do not entertain it. So, both the leaders and the followers concentrate more on the factors that divide the society: they do it in terms of constituting their unique but unalterable identity. In doing this, they ignore the fact that there are innumerable aspects that can infuse and maintain unity among various segments of the society, provided we are open to them. Although what unites us are stronger than what divides us, fundamentalist leaders are bent on underlining the dividing factors so that they can manipulate and exercise control over others, and let them dance to their tunes. Sadly, given these trends, conflicts abound in the society and a solution will not be immediately in sight, as there are various levels at which many people entertain fundamentalist tendencies. Facing these conflicts essentially requires cultivation of a valid ethical perspective through proper educational strategies.
The analysis that we have carried out in the foregoing sections indicates that with regard to fundamentalism there are real issues to be tackled. Fundamentalism being an ideological position practised and promoted by vested interests to further their designs to grab and maintain power at all levels of human existence, tackling this phenomenon would primarily require testing whether the position they adopt and the actions they involve in are morally right or wrong.
Ethics is a philosophical discipline that attempts to critically evaluate the moral judgments that human persons adopt in being and becoming human through their actions. In fact, by virtue of humanity, all of us are moral beings, i.e., all of us follow moral judgments in carrying out various actions that are performed with knowledge and volition. As our human actions are divided into right and wrong, whereby they could be categorized as moral and immoral, respectively, we need one or the other norm to decide whether a particular action is right or wrong. In the history of ethics, therefore, we come across with various ethicists and traditions – religious and non-religious – having developed ethical theories, which provide us with a norm or a set of norms to facilitate moral judgment. As there are a number of ethical theories, all of them claimed to be valid by their originators or proponents, and dealing with all of them is not feasible in any given context, I propose to choose from among them only three representative theories to facilitate an evaluation of the fundamentalist ideology and practice, namely (i) Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, (ii) Utilitarian Ethics, and (iii) Kantian Categorical Imperative. They are chosen in terms of their philosophical prominence and their ability to carry out moral judgment in a rather effective manner. Let me make it clear that these theories have very little in common with each other; however, I have chosen them to show that even if we adopt diverse ethical viewpoints, it is practically impossible to justify the fundamentalist position as a morally viable one.
For Aristotle, ethics cannot be confined to a definitive norm as a shortcut to moral sensitivity (NE, I.3, 1094b), as is available in the constitutions or statutes of a nation or organisation. In fact, mastery in ethics requires both the exercise of our rational capacity and involving in characteristic (habitual) activities that befit human nature. He insists that “we … do all that we can to live in accordance with the highest element within us; for even if its bulk is small, in its power and value it far exceeds everything” (NE, X.8, 1177b). According to Aristotle, what makes an action right is its virtuousness, which includes volition and deliberation, leading to being practically wise (NE, V.9, 1142b). The exercise of virtues in a habitual manner leads a person to happiness. It implies that a vicious or an immoral person literally has nothing to live for, and he/she might be better advised to commit suicide. The basic position leading to this conclusion holds that viciousness constitutes only unhappiness. Those who cannot control their desires are said to be people with weakness of the will (akrasia). Following the Aristotelian pattern, I would classify the fundamentalist leaders under those who suffer from weakness of the will. That is, though they seem to be having received rigorous discipline (as in the case of the RSS leaders), their obsession for power and for exercising indiscriminate control over others and their affairs indicate that they are incapable of exercising rational control over their own desires.
Given the understanding of Aristotle’s basic ethical position, the exercise of rational control over every human affair is an essential requirement. This is not to be restricted to the leaders of a particular group, but should be carried out by every human being. As being practically wise involves voluntariness and continued deliberation in a given situation (i.e., calibrating one’s practical reason to properly respond to a given situation), no definitive pattern, especially issued by another person can be followed blindly. Further, the importance accorded to virtue in Aristotle’s ethics indicates that any extreme is to be avoided. Although there cannot be any clear cut demarcation of what is the mean, what is meant by his system is that each individual should be able to discern the mean by himself or herself after having taken into account different aspects of the issue in the light of reason. Such a position rules out a permanently acceptable ‘fundamental’ norm in Aristotelian ethical understanding. The ideological position adopted by fundamentalists, in general, indicates that the fundamental norms are already established, and individuals have only to see that these fundamentals are practised; they have no right to further reason out or deliberate about whatever is identified and promulgated as fundamental. Thus, we find that the very foundational position of fundamentalism cannot be maintained from an Aristotelian perspective.
Fundamentalism is said to be not bothered about those who do not subscribe to their fundamental positions. A close observation of their policy and activity, as we have already seen in the previous section, indicates that they are quite egoistic, so much so that they are concerned only about their in-group members; moreover, they rule out any of the privileges accessible to them to others (see the statement of Golwalkar). However, Aristotle’s ethics is not egoistic in the sense of advocating constant, self-conscious, and deliberate self-seeking behaviour. According to Aristotle, you should be concerned about your friend for his sake, i.e., not for yours. What Aristotle is concerned about is human flourishing. The advancement of individuals or communities should be judged only in terms of their capacity to contribute towards the happiness of the whole society through right thinking, right willing, and right acting – all these constituting virtue. If the happiness accrued from something would adversely affect the wellbeing and flourishing of the rest of the society, then, naturally it needs to be further scrutinized. According to Aristotle, if an agent is virtuous, he will perform virtuous actions in the correct way, i.e., knowing what he is doing, choosing them for their own sake, and doing them from a well-grounded disposition (See NE, II.4, 1105a).
The general understanding of the good, according to Aristotle, refers to the organic unity of a complex whole that is to be established through the characteristic activities of human being/s. However, we find that the mode of action adopted by the fundamentalists distort the realization of good by incapacitating any possible realization of organic unity in a given society. They are bent on keeping the society divided to serve their vested interests on a permanent basis.
“Nothing overmuch” is the counsel that Aristotle imparts for the right moral living. This is a call to avoid any extreme, in thinking, in choosing, and in acting. Fundamentalist groups do adopt extreme positions, at the level of their emotionally charged intellectual deliberations and volitions. Even their closed approach towards the identification and promulgation of the ‘fundamentals’ as definitive once and for all goes against the importance accorded to human reason and its ongoing search to realize the good. Fundamentalism, to my mind, fails miserably in striking the balance between the extremes, and thus their activities would not qualify to be virtues in the Aristotelian sense of the term. Then, the immediate question to be asked is, whether their approach and actions qualify to be among vices. Indeed, due to the stringent policy adopted by the fundamentalists, they develop a characteristic activity or habitual pattern of action. Aristotle’s insistence upon achieving a harmonious development of all human capacities (from the viewpoint of the harmonious growth of an organism) as that which enables us to be good indicates that the fundamentalist insistence upon generating a culture of self-sufficiency, dividing the whole society into ‘we’ and ‘others’, and the latter being denied access to the resources that support wellbeing well fit in his understanding of vice. Thus, from an Aristotelian perspective, I am forced to say that fundamentalists, in general, are people who involve in vicious actions, and are therefore immoral in their thinking, deliberation, and action.
Utilitarianism, founded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and practised by many, including Peter Singer, being the most prominent contemporary proponent of utilitarianism, is a system of moral principles that set utility at the centre of every moral deliberation and choice. In continued attempts the utilitarian philosophers, including Bentham, have tried to offer rigorous explanations as to understand utility, and to offer more pertinent explanations and orientations for moral practice. Initially, it was understood to be usefulness in promoting pleasure and avoiding pain. According to Mill, utilitarianism is
the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.
From this initial hedonistic explanation of utility, utilitarian philosophers have gone a long way, and now they subscribe to a new understanding of ‘preference satisfaction’ to explain the central doctrine of utility. That is, “insofar as a person happens to have preferences that go beyond (or even counter to) that person’s hedonistic pleasures, satisfying those preferences is nonetheless a source of utility for that person.” This accommodates a pluralistic notion of morality, and makes room for anyone to have his or her preferences, but with the provision that happiness of the maximum number of people must be augmented through particular actions. So, as the preferences of individuals are fulfilled, such actions would be accorded with moral values. This indicates that utilitarianism is basically a consequentialist theory, meaning that the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is determined not by any inherent principle, but only by referring to what derives from it: if the consequences are good (maximisation of pleasure and minimization of pain), then the act would be judged right; if the consequences are bad (minimisation of pleasure and maximization of pain), then the act would be a wrong one. From this perspective, if we want to be moral, we must involve in those actions that would bring the most benefit to the humanity at large. This is an invitation to set aside our self-interest and to involve in actions that would enhance the good of the whole.
Given the context of this study, when we apply the utilitarian moral perspective upon the fundamentalist actions, we could easily see that even a utilitarian standard does not permit its practise. Although I have reservations against the utilitarian theory, its central principle implies that the larger interests are to be taken into account in deciding the course of action.
Whatever its application to the purely private case … the utilitarian doctrine really comes into its own in public settings. When our actions will affect various people in various different ways, it is the characteristically utilitarian conclusion that the right action is that which maximizes utility (however construed) summed impersonally across all those affected by that action. That is the standard that we are to use, individually, in choosing our own actions. That is, more importantly, the standard that public policy-makers are to use when making collective choices impinging on the community as a whole.
Then, the fundamentalist tendency that decides exclusively in terms of the good (maximum pleasure and minimum pain) for its own in-group members goes clearly against the utilitarian moral practice. If the pleasure is to be maximized for the maximum number of people, the deliberation and decision of anyone should bring to focus the greater good. In the context of India, naturally, then, whether it is the issue of cultural or caste conflict, utilitarianism indicates that both the minority and the majority shall see to it that they bring in the other as well into calculating the greater good. An implied problem is the orientation of the majority: they may claim that we are the larger group, and therefore, our calculation must be accepted in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number. Although, the numerical factor is right, the implication of utilitarian philosophy is clear enough. The issue is not who actually makes the counting, but how that counting is made, and what is its final consequence.
I do admit the fact that there lurks a danger in the majority community holding on to the utilitarian principle to justify its point of view. Many a time utility is understood in an exclusivist manner, implying that what is useful (in terms of maximum pleasure and minimum pain) to me or to my group shall be the norm for a moral decision making. However, I tend to think that even if the doctrine of utility could be viable, it must cater to the larger society, not merely in quantitative terms, but qualitatively.
The third moral principle with which we test the moral rightness of the fundamentalist point of view is Kantian categorical imperative. The philosophical orientation of Kant is perfectly clear from the preface to his masterpiece Critique of Pure Reason:
Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and law-giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination.
Kant does not let go any institution unchallenged, especially when it comes to controlling human affairs. Human reason is the ‘compass’ with which we have to deliberate about anything that is initiated in the human realms. Actions are considered to be worthy of humanity only when they are performed according to the objective moral demands of a given situation, in which the role of moral motive (ensuing from practical reason) is of vital importance. Here, it is necessary that our wills are subjected to the rules of the good will so as to bring all our voluntary actions into harmony in a universally valid manner. The rule that initiates and maintains harmony among human wills is the moral law, which is otherwise known as the categorical imperative. It is the fundamental principle of all moral reasoning and acting, as “everyone does, in fact, decide by this rule whether actions are morally good or bad.” Kant insists on the necessary and universal character of the moral law, which according to him, would allow no exception, categorically requiring universal obedience as such. The basic and general form of the categorical imperative is as follows: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” The implication is pretty clear: the subjective principle with which one person does an action must be necessarily universalizable; if not, it cannot have any moral worth. Conversely, he holds that a transgression of duty (meaning moral obligation) can be found out from the fact that the maxim with which a person functions cannot be universalized.
Apart from the first formulation, Kant proposes certain alternative formulae, according to which a moral agent is to be treated always as an end (never merely as a means) and should be respected for the capacity for self-legislating the universal moral law. If human beings are treated merely as means for attaining certain interests of anyone, and if his/her capacity for self-legislation (ensuing from the rational capacity expressed in terms of the good will), then it is a clear evidence that those actions are immoral in nature. All these formulations clearly indicate that both the perspective and the plan of action adopted by the fundamentalists cannot be justified as moral. In fact, many of the actions carried out by them could be easily condemned as immoral, if we strictly follow the Kantian paradigm of morality. For example, the very motive of an action adopted by the fundamentalists is said to be sectarian in nature: they normally address the good of the in-group members only; those who are categorized as ‘others’ are not at all considered in deciding what is good for the in-group. This is a clear violation of the ‘universalizability’ criterion, which forms part of the foundational formulation of the categorical imperative. Whether it is political or cultural hegemony, expressed through the age old caste system or the Hindutva, or the linguistic and ethnic conflicts resulting from the same type of ideology, all of them lack a universalizable foundation; then, both their motivation/intention and their actions cannot stand the test of the categorical imperative. Moreover, in a good number of individual cases, it could be easily found to be violating the requirement of treating human beings as ends; the fundamentalist forces are proud in treating members of the opposing groups merely as means to serve their private interests. Examples abound in the Indian social context: the lower caste and outcaste members being forced to perform menial jobs, like scavenging and handling the corpses; the attempt on the part of the Hindutva proponents to manipulate the minorities, including the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the Dalits as part of Hinduism so as to augment their political domination, etc.
Further, in any group that subscribes to the fundamentalist ideology, as we have already seen, the fundamentals are already made once and for all, and everyone, except the leader, has to just accept them blindly, and follow the footsteps of the leader. The capacity for rational thinking, personal choice, and legislating for oneself is unacceptable to these leaders, as this would challenge the fundamentals, and would initiate diversity. In fact, diversity is not admissible as per the fundamentalist strategy. All these indicate that the underlying intentions and overt actions of the fundamentalists cannot be judged to be morally good; instead, a Kantian judgment would be definitive: they are immoral, as they violate almost all fundamental requirements of being morally good in and through their being and action. To put it differently, Kantian judgment would claim that fundamentalists are those who act against the very human nature and human reason, thus relinquishing the right to continue to be human: they consistently and continuously violate humanity, and thus become vicious in the process of perpetuating fundamentalism. Even if it does not involve any action, Kant would insist, it involves an evil disposition, which is more pervasive and dangerous than a particular action/s. Fundamentalism, therefore, is a human evil that needs to be checked and eradicated through the generation of a good or virtuous disposition.
To conclude this section, I think, I shall also draw your attention to one more ethical theory, a theory based on the Gospel values cherished and practised by Jesus Christ. As a Christian philosophical perspective is very much possible and real, a Christian ethical point of view can be entertained, especially to evaluate an all pervasive evil tendency called fundamentalism. It shall enable us to critically evaluate the issue at hand and see whether fundamentalism is a right ethical alternative.
The Gospel ideal could be summarized in a kernel statement: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk. 10:27). Jesus’ teachings made it clear that loving oneself, loving the neighbour, and loving God should be on par with each other; they are integrally related to each other. Moreover, practice of the Christian ideal is epitomized in the person and life of Jesus Christ, who had lived a life of kenosis, or total self-giving: it proposes an ethical ideal to be lived in a community constituted by reciprocally loving human beings. His self-emptying and self-giving were not negative values, but very much positive. He had sacrificed his own life for giving life (a new life, or a qualitatively enhanced life, at that) to the entire creation. If this cherished model is accepted as the foundation of Christian ethics, naturally, fundamentalism has no way for a justification, especially because it tries to grab power for those who are at the helm of affairs, even if that would cost the lives of many. Obviously, it is antithetic to the ethical ideal that Jesus has bequeathed to his disciples. Although holding on to certain fundamental teachings is essential for being and becoming Christian (especially based on the Gospel models), it does not imply that a manipulative strategy can be justified even for the sake of living a Christian life. Living the Christian ideal would necessarily mean living a life of self-giving, making sure that the life of the other is enlivened and enhanced. Moreover, Jesus’ way had always a preferential option for the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized (the Dalit). If any ideology would just trivialize these preferences, then, naturally, that would not fit into the pattern of life proposed by Jesus. Given the above narrated ethical ideal (basically a religious ideal, which would be subscribed, primarily based on a faith affirmation of individuals and communities), Christian moral principles would invite the fundamentalists for a metanoia, a holistic conversion, or a change of heart, in and through which an unflinching commitment to the cause of the downtrodden and the marginalized would be called forth, sidelining and annihilating neither the majority (even if that is possible) nor the minority, but having an all-accepting and integrating perspective of self-giving love.
The above evaluation of fundamentalism through the yardstick of various ethical theories indicates that neither as an ideology nor as a practical system of action fundamentalism could be morally validated. Even without siding with any one particular ethical system, which could be done with a little effort, we can easily affirm that fundamentalism is morally bad. Countering it, therefore, has to be done not merely through political action, but through a conscious effort on the part of enlightened people to inculcate a value system that would make room for plurality and integration, but without endangering the role of individuals, various self-identities, etc. Acquisition of moral power and moral practice, therefore, shall be identified as the most powerful humane mechanisms to counter all ills associated with religious fundamentalism.
Various ethical theories maintain that education is of paramount importance if a society that is sensitive to the moral values is to be given shape. Apart from regulating unruly desires, as Aristotle and Kant would put it, formation of proper and valid moral outlook can result only when people are instructed as how to distinguish between right and wrong, and to be motivated to follow the right path of moral virtue.
Easy moral practice may be facilitated by being brought up in a prosperous household (not strictly referring to material prosperity), being given a solid education, and surrounded by attractive role-models. Virtue is a matter of getting it right within particular spheres of human life. It rests partly on the development of dispositions towards virtuous action through habituation, which will be guided by parents, teachers, elders, etc.
As we look closer at many of the conflicts resulting from fundamentalist ideologies, it is obvious that they all involve sinister strategies to harness power at every level of individual as well as social existence. Further, as they define the target only in negative terms of eliminating those ideologies or groups that are fundamentally against them, those who control the affairs will never cease to have control over others; nevertheless, these manipulative leaders would never enjoy total control. However, this vicious cycle is to be broken, if humanity were to re-establish its sagacity and supremacy. Normally, as is visible from history, no one would succeed to eliminate opposing camps altogether on a permanent basis; even if success is experienced at one point by the fundamentalist forces, one person or a group of persons cannot shut the door to truth permanently. Human ingenuity is such that whatever is said to be the boundary – affirmed by any type of authority – is traversed and new horizons are opened up, at least, by the succeeding generations. This is not a theoretical conjecture, but a historical fact. However, it does not mean that we should, then, leave fundamentalist forces to themselves saying that one day they all would crumble. Human beings or societies that are aware of the excesses of fundamentalist forces must rally together to restrict their advances, both among the educated and the uneducated. Instead of adopting a negative strategy to directly fight these fundamentalist forces – which would only give better edge for them to flourish by way of their emotion-building strategies – what I suggest is equipping the individuals and groups to counter this menace by way of a conscientization process, which can be well done through proper value education.
Fundamentalism has flourished in different parts of the world at a time when either the public education system had failed, or else the vested interests had restricted access to education to a few, mostly belonging to the elite classes, and strategically denying access to education to the members of the lower strata of the society. This is found to be verified in almost all religions and cultures. The best example would be the restriction of Vedic education exclusively to the dvijas (twice born); moreover, there are scriptural injunctions within the Vedas that had consistently and methodically ruled out any possible access to education by the members of the lowest caste, Sudra and anyone from the outcaste. Indeed, these efforts initiated by the codifiers of the ‘sacred’ scriptures (Sruti) and the ‘sacred’ traditions (Smrti) were consistently maintained by the priestly and ruling classes, both of whom had a lot at stake if all had access to education.
A trend among the fundamentalist forces in the arena of education is to perpetuate indoctrination instead of education proper. Indoctrination is an attempt on the part of the priestly and ruling classes to use and misuse the mechanism of education to instruct everyone in the view of life and way of life already accepted by them without any critical reflection. Conscious and intelligent reflection is not at all expected of anyone within the parameters of indoctrination. Blind and unreflective acceptance of any doctrine is an unhealthy practice for a human being, much less for a religious person, as religion calls for a definitive faith assent, not merely a refusal and rejection of reason as a human endowment. Education proper must initiate those at the receiving end in the art of human reflection, which should have an open process of critical and creative interaction with the instructors as well as the content of instruction. In fact, nothing will be accepted merely because it has been uttered either by the instructor, or any dogmatic authority.
Instead of aiming at the maintenance of status quo, proper education should facilitate a critical perspective on anything that is presented to the students. One strategy employed by fundamentalism is to present certain statements as just definitive, unchangeable, and unchallengeable conclusions; they start with conclusions and would try to put forth certain premises that would lead us to the conclusion. However, the proper procedure, if it is open to the human dynamics of thinking and critical reflection, must move in the reverse direction: it should start with valid premises, and then to conclusions, and to assent to them if they are true and convincing.
If this procedure is adopted, naturally, the grip of fundamentalist forces would weaken. As these forces are aware of this fact, they would fight to retain their control both at the policy level and at the execution level. However, it must be the concern of the society as a whole, and the government in particular not to lose control on liberal education. Education is worth its name only when it succeeds in enabling everyone to open up their worldviews and vistas of life in a creative manner, imbibing the spirit of change in a proactive manner, and welcoming the possibility for a new life, although this dynamic life vision would involve also certain risks. Only dead or inert matter would fit into the mould of another; living is dynamic and vibrant, and restricting it to a mould designed by others of the bygone era would only curtail the human spirit from its noble potentialities. Indeed, it would not only be a denial of justice to humanity, but to the supreme spirit, who has created the human spirit to soar to the unseen and unimaginable heights of existence: that is an invitation to be human, and the fundamentalist forces shall not be given the edge to curtail and kill it.
Education must enable us to see the tricky strategies employed by the fundamentalist forces. Once understood to be deceptive in nature, many would try to be cautious in responding to such forces, and at least a few would strive to expose those deceiving agencies and their strategies, which would, in turn, assist others to move on an enlightened path to love and liberation, which are said to be the ideal foundation and goal of any genuine religious movement or institution.
A crucial event in liberating people from the clutches of fundamentalism shall be catechetical instruction. Every religion has one or other form of religious instruction. Most of the organized religions have a planned programme to initiate the neophytes into the religious teachings of a particular community, mostly done through a class of religious teachers. Although quite welcome is the procedure, many a time this technique can turn out to be counterproductive if the instructors have already become fundamentalists. A fundamentalist would always conduct instruction in religion by way of imposing religious doctrines and practices in an unquestioning manner. Many of them present their religious teachings from the point of view of their fundamentalist conviction, and would interpret the original sources to suit their ideology. A possible resolution of this problematic situation is to invite these new members to go to the basic sources; they should also be helped to distinguish between the essentials and the accidentals within the accepted core beliefs and practices. If they are given the tool to do this, and if they are encouraged by the enlightened in the religious societies, gradually, grip of the fundamentalist forces would decline. This can be further enhanced by teaching these religious students the scientific technique of reading and interpreting religious sacred scriptures and traditions. Critical reading and reflection would, then, be part of the mental framework of all the followers of a religion. Instead of diminishing the value of a religion, such an approach would only enhance its core value and would deepen the faith experience of the followers.
Fighting fundamentalist tendencies among Indian Christians can be done by initiating the church leaders into critical theological training. Biblical as well as theological scholarship has gone a long way in understanding the foundations of Christian faith and in maintaining a balanced as well as creative outlook on Christian fundamentals, without sacrificing the basic tenets of the Christ-mystery. However, the good fruits of this scholarship will not be understood and appreciated by the church leaders if they are not given access to critical scholarship. A mere traditional catechetical discourse is insufficient in this regard. They must be given proper theological training, which, to my mind, also presupposes a solid philosophical foundation. Initiating church leaders to sound philosophical theories would give them ample opportunities for critical and creative thinking, and to appreciate the new and creative theological avenues opened up by the critical scholarship. This would not only give them theological opening, but would also give them a better edge to see through and to successfully fight the unsound reasoning put forth by leaders of some other fundamentalist or conservative Christian or non-Christian groups. If given this training, these leaders would be able to involve in a rather integral understanding of Christian teachings and would offer more creative interpretations of the foundational sources, thus inviting people within their reach or under their leadership to gain a proper understanding of Christ mystery and Christian living, with sufficient space for personal and local creativity and responsible response.
Education should impart a proper understanding of the very religious reality. A critical attitude towards religion is an essential requirement in the contemporary Indian situation. Anything promulgated by a religious head need not be accepted as final; the religious follower should be able to critically look at it, and then assent to it. Although this is the ideal, our recent experiences in the subcontinent with regard to the issues related to religion indicate that people are emotionally charged easily, especially when it comes to the matters of religion. I tend to think that this is due to the lack of proper education (and the resulting maturity) that would enable them to distinguish between the essentials and the accidentals. It is true that there is a core religious experience in the foundation of any religion worth its name; however, this does not mean that the whole corpus of a religion is static. In fact, religion is a human reality that attempts to respond to the higher or sublime levels of existence. If it is a human reality, naturally it has to be a progressive one. What Wilfred Cantwell Smith has stated about religion is worth recalling: A religious tradition is “a part of this world, it is a product of human activity; it is diverse, it is fluid, it grows, it changes, it accumulates.” Without disregarding the element of continuity within any religious tradition, it must be said that the followers of religion must be trained to keep the proper balance between tradition and continuity, so that the dynamism that is part of being human can be safeguarded. As our analysis has already indicated, any inordinate swing, either to the side of tradition or to continuity, without each other, would keep the fundamentalist forces active. Religion and state, therefore, have a responsibility in instructing people in the art of integrating religious tradition and continuity to keep the flames of religion glowing for enhancing and ennobling the human spirit.
We live in a world where the ugly face of fundamentalism is visible through various entities and subtle practices, though it is extremely difficult to distinguish between who is a fundamentalist and who is not. Yet, it is the need of the hour that we are conscious of these ideological currents that pervade a whole lot of human affairs and organisations, so that individually and collectively we could distance from them.
Degeneration does not happen overnight; but if we are not vigilant enough, any human system, including religion – the sublime expression of human aspirations – can easily fall into a state of degeneration. Hence, strategies, including ethical reflection, moral formation, and ongoing educational endeavours must be initiated to assure that human society remains finally footed in its time-tested universalizable values.
The importance and value of human powers, especially reason, should be highlighted in our attempt to check fundamentalism. Religion, in and through various distorted affairs initiated by persons in authority (with fundamentalist orientations), has become a source that denies the right of human reasoning. Without denying the importance of mystery, which makes a religion akin to the spiritual reality, religions have to become more accountable to people, which can be done only when human dynamics are to be justified based on rational principles. Many practices perpetuated by religions are human in nature and, therefore, must be brought under reason’s scrutiny. This necessitates an open acceptance of human elements within religions, and then to chalk out an action plan in relation to the existential reality, by reinterpreting the revealed sources – not for the sake of the fundamentals, but for retaining and re-living the spirit conveyed through them – wherever it is called forth.
Once the rule of reason is re-established, irrespective of the person and position, naturally, many practices could be brought under the scanner of public scrutiny. The subtle play of political power which has become the most destructive element of fundamentalism in recent times, especially because of the twinning of religion and politics, should be curtailed at the very inception. A good number of conflicts emerging in our contemporary society can be traced to fundamentalist roots perpetuated by one or the other. As we retain the human face of religion, it is possible that an element of political power will have its say in its affairs. However, an open and sincere search for the foundational spirit that can be understood and appropriated dynamically in various times and places should play as a check to the distortions resulting from a fundamentalist alliance between religion and temporal power. We are in need of a religious renaissance that would go beyond the boundaries of particular religions. This renaissance is to be initiated by (truly) religiously oriented/realized persons within different religions, though not much can be expected from many heads of religions, as they function more as temporal heads than spiritual.
From the point of view of the marginalized, subaltern, the Dalit, etc., integral life should be facilitated so as to accord them legitimate independence and life-giving interdependence based on their own human dignity, validated both individually and collectively. As the course of action would be changed through a reaffirmation of their existence, it could pave the way for a new history, a new power structure, and a holistic liberation.
It is necessary that various human groupings entertain an interactive strategy. A thrust upon one’s own ideology and practice at the exclusion of all others will gradually give rise to a generation that would be closed to all others; instead of this, what is called forth is to consciously strive for developing a generation that involves in a give-and-take policy on an ongoing basis. No human entity, including religion, is perfect in itself, and all are involved in a constant search for the absolute. Therefore, whatever is good and life-enhancing in any system must be accepted and appreciated; all who realize the positive value of the existing systems or entities shall see that they are taken to further heights of human perfection.
As we live in a pluralist society, what we need is not the fundamentalist strategy of isolation and exclusion, but integration and inclusion, not by chopping off all differences but by facilitating differences within the matrix of an integral unity. For, what we approach is a living reality, which is dynamic and growing. However, lived encounters and shared experiences among various groups that identify themselves exclusively are missing almost at every level. If these powerfully motivating and animating encounters and experiences could be re-introduced, indeed, we would be able see the twilight at the end of the tunnel. So, we partake in the earnest yearning of the venerable Rsis of our land:
Asatoma sat gamaya
Tamasoma jyotir gamaya
Mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
Om Santi, Santi, Santi!
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