Friday, April 23, 2010

Religion among the Downtrodden

William Dalrymple's latest book about India is Nine Lives, which tells the stories of nine holy men and women. Wendy Doniger wrote a great review in the TLS back in January, which I just read. The characters include a dancing Sufi, a holy prostitute, a Buddhist monk, a naked Jain, and blind a minstrel who sings with a wandering sect of "Bauls", or "crazies." The striking thing to me was than most of these people entered religious lives after undergoing great personal pain -- they became refugees because of war or natural disaster, watched their loved ones die, were beaten, raped and abused by their families. In religion, they found both a place of safety, and a path to joy. Says the minstrel of his singing, "It makes us so happy we forget what sadness is."

On the other hand, many of the conflicts that turned them into refugees were between Hindus and Muslims, and other suffered savage persecution because of their low caste.

I read these things and I ask, what is religion? Is it not, sometimes, a sort of distillation of what is most powerful in human emotions? Is not a religious hatred an intensified and ritualized hatred? Is faith, maybe, the most optimistic sort of optimism? Is the believer's joy, sometimes, the most ecstatic sort of joy, a joy that justifies even the most awful and persecuted lives?

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