Irrationality of belief

We curb our scientific temperament and the ability to be curious once we grant finality to the word of a mythical entity.

Self-proclaimed godmen along with their coterie of sycophants who back them and validate their claims have always been ubiquitous to India. This phenomenon is not problematic in itself until the sycophancy is exaggerated to the point of absurdity as has been witnessed in the series of events that unfolded in the wake of the brave court verdict last week against the Dera Sacha Sauda head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The followers of a man who was adjudged a rapist after thorough legal proceedings that were carried on for 15 years and took more than 200 court settings, held the country hostage with shameless acts of violence and arson.
The most astounding fact is that these miscreants were mostly well-educated, wealthy and socially prominent. These blatant acts of intimidation were thus, not executed by a simple-minded, gullible populace. This begs the question as to how rational individuals succumb to such ghastly irrationality. Was their overzealous reaction to the verdict truly irrational? There are multiple explanations for the violence that ensued on the streets in Ram Rahim's support. There is an economic angle which compelled people to react in such a manner and there is also a political angle which provoked the violence to spread as much damage as it did.
Dera Sacha Sauda has over 40 centres spread around India which is served by its 60 million-odd followers, as it claims. Even if the latter number is exaggerated, the following is not insignificant and a threat to their operations by the arrest of their leader puts many livelihoods at risk. People serving at these centres and making a living out of them will be affected by the verdict. A lot of followers also benefit from the group's social welfare campaigns. Although this does not explain a violent reaction, it puts rationality into their seemingly irrational acts.
On the political side, Dera Sacha Sauda followers account for a huge vote bank. Ram Rahim has always publicly backed political leaders and has been a determinant factor in electoral outcomes time and again. His political heft allowed him to gain the highest level of security cover that the country has to offer. Therefore, cracking down on his followers does not make much political sense.
But more importantly, there is the larger issue of a rigid belief system at play that has been established since time immemorial, which frowns upon any kind of questioning. For Dera Sacha Sauda followers, the establishment of their sect has been quite recent – only dating back to 1948. It is not a religious ideology in itself since it merely encourages selfless service by people irrespective of their religious faiths. However, the problem of an absolute lack of logic, reason and a scientific curiosity to question is consistent with any other religious ideology. Therein lays the root of conflict in the likely scenario of some entity, like the state, questioning their spiritual leader's fallibility.
The Vedic system of thought never penalised questioning of an ideology and was quite flexible to interpretation and practice. It never formulated the idea of a physical God but propagated the supremacy of the five elements that could explain creation. The land of that time was so open to ideas that it allowed the existence of the Carvaka philosophy of materialism that rejected supernaturalism and held perception, empiricism and conditional inference as proper sources of knowledge. Therefore, it rejected the idea of a God or a soul since they could not be directly perceived.
Such philosophies flourished because religion allowed itself to be subjected to questioning. That ended once the finality of the God's word was ensconced by prophets, who claimed to be its carriers. Soon after, the environment of questioning witnessed an abrupt demise. The prophet's words were final and undebatable. In such a case, the entity questioning it is the enemy; the one calling him a rapist thus submits to blasphemy. This perception resembles those prevalent in the animalistic domain where belief in one's ideology is supreme and the one opposing it is worthy of attack; in last week's case, it was the state. Can religion not be called regressive in such a scenario?
We've virtually curbed our scientific temperament and the ability to be curious once we have granted finality and supremacy to the word of a mythical entity. The land of Carvaka became a land where rapists, murderers, and abductors are worshipped and fought over; an ideology that stands without a logical premise but instead rests on a blind faith in the real-life Pied Piper. It is leading us into a void into which we're mindlessly dancing. Inculcating an environment of questioning without getting offended at others who retrospectively question back is the key to tune out of that music.
As long as India does not accept the threat that it poses to itself with the growing rigidity in religious beliefs, any kind of development will be hollow and at the mercy of a "Messenger of God." IANS
(Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. Chirag Yadav, senior researcher at the Institute, contributed to the article. The views expressed are strictly personal. )

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