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Books On Religion And About It: Critical Reflections

Amiya P. Sen

It was a perplexing moment when the editors of TBR asked me to comment on a book on religion that had been important in its time and continued to be so in our own. This request, I have to admit, made me more acutely aware of the distinction that ought to be made between a book on religion and about it. At least in the context of Hinduism (however debatable that term might be), a book on religion or more generally, a text motivated essentially by a religious inspiration or consciousness does not appear to have been produced in a long time. On one level, surely, this indicates the state of sustained uneasiness or discomfiture that most contemporary Indian intellectuals share with regard to religion. There is both fear and deep distrust, not to speak of an outright debunking of the ‘religious’.1 The nation-state in India, as it appears to me, remains deeply conflicted in its approach to religion or the religious consciousness. On the one hand, it views religion as a potential source of disorderliness and civic conflict and sets constitutional limitations on matters like public religious instruction or propaganda. On the other, it views a religious consciousness as part of abiding Indian values. Men like Tagore and Gandhi appear to have considered patriotism itself to be a spiritual virtue. When deliberating on the question of whether or not religious studies ought to be made a part of higher education, three successive officially constituted bodies: Radhakrishnan Commission (1950), Sri Prakasa Committee (1959) and Kothari Commission (1964) have adhered to the view that there ought to be something close to an ‘Indian National Religion’ which was vital to good civic life and inter-faith harmony. The problems here are two-fold. First, the study of comparative religion as consistently recommended by such bodies is in itself an anachronistic agenda. In an environment which remains complexly plural, why, as one may well ask, should religions be at all compared? Second, the Indian state also appears to have uncritically adopted an older Deistic view which requires religion to be singularly bereft of all ritual and dogma. A religion so sanitized would indeed be eminently suitable as a ‘National Religion’ but functionally quite incapable of winning over people who will not as rigidly separate matters of faith and practice. Further, the recommendation that religious studies be taken seriously, at least in our institutions of higher learning, has itself ...

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