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Images of religion
By Nanditha Krishna


After two weeks abroad, I returned to the sound and fury caused by the government of Tamil Nadu's ordinance prohibiting conversion by force, allurement or fraudulent means. Good friends of mine in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of South India, have told me how the behaviour, particularly the methods of conversion, of many new Christian sects has embarrassed them. The use of force and financial allurements for conversion is a fact, and I have come across many instances in the course of nearly three decades of work in rural India. Senior Church leaders have even expressed their opposition to these methods in public. The new ordinance does not take away the right of a person who makes a considered decision to change his faith. The current protest is ridiculous and obviously political, considering the fact that only anti-AIADMK. parties have joined the fray.

Meanwhile, the supreme court has ruled that religion may be part of the curriculum. This ruling has silenced those who claim that religion breeds violence. Religion has been a force for good, for the improvement of the individual and society. However, it is important to ensure the integrity of the information and the communication methods. We must distinguish between Religious Teaching as done by pathashalas, seminaries and madrasas and Teaching About Religion. The first should be restricted to religious teachers; the second is essential for people to appreciate the beliefs of others.

While the Christians and Muslims have been at war since the Crusades, medieval Roman Catholics and Protestants also fought each other. But most religious wars were, in reality, fought over land, power and wealth. Even aggressively missionary nations like Spain and Portugal went to the Americas for wealth and territorial expansion. Islamic conquerors were themselves looking for land and wealth. Religion has been a cloak of respectability for the adventurer.

Each religion has a great message. Hinduism teaches the doctrine of nishkaama karma, or duty without desire for reward, and the suppression of the ego. Buddhism's message is one of right conduct and living. Christianity emphasises the importance of love, compassion and service; Islam, the brotherhood of man and Jainism, compassion to all creatures great and small. The fault line in each religion is the result of social developments. The Rig Veda, the oldest and most sacred book of the Hindus, does not speak of caste (the Purusha Sukta is a later interpolation). Later, caste was decided by occupation, not birth, and was changeable. Yet caste became the curse of the Hindu religion, a medium to monopolise skills and knowledge and suppress people. The Buddha established a few rules of good conduct. Buddhism was established as a new religion after his lifetime but became so rich and corrupt that it self-destructed. Jesus Christ was a Jew who tried to clean up his religion, Judaism. He never preached another religion - if he were reborn, would he call himself a Jew or a Christian? Today, missionaries and conversion define religion. Islam means peace, but cruel despots and terrorists have changed that meaning. By teaching children about the evils of each religion, what do we want to do? Turn them into atheists? That would be an ideal leftist agenda.

Ideally, religion should be a personal matter, taught at home. Unfortunately, with the breaking down of the joint family and both parents going to work, this is no longer possible. Schools must step in and teach moral values. The argument that existing schoolbooks have enough information on the Buddha, Kabir and Nanak is no argument. Religions such as Hinduism and Judaism do not have a single founder, which does not mean that doctrines should not be taught. As the supreme court has said, value education must ensure equal respect for all religions. The problem is that religious sects produce books that boost their own and put down others.

Tolerance of other religions implies putting up with what we dislike. We need to pass on to integration. The God we worship is an individual choice, born of an accident of birth; the culture we practise must be common and identifiable. A good example of this is seen in Kerala where the Onam festival is celebrated by almost everyone. When the Zoroastrians asked for permission to build a temple to preserve their sacred fire, the Raja of Surat gave them absolute religious freedom, but demanded that their dress and public customs be locally compatible. When our cricketers appear on the field, their blue uniform is a unifying factor. We root for our new age religion and its practitioners. Values are incomprehensible without the support of appropriate images. One textbook defined communal harmony with three schoolboys, Ram, Rahim and Robert Hindu, Muslim and Christian distinguished by their turban, topi and hat respectively! I would have defined their commonness by a shirt and shorts for each.

The artistic traditions of religions were used to teach the difference between good and bad. The scenes of the life of the Buddha in early Buddhist monuments were intended to serve as role models. The walls of Hindu temples are decorated with the stories of gods and goddesses who defeated demons, the message being that evil will be destroyed. The Chola bronzes of Nataraja send out an image of peace within ferment. Shiva's face is a picture of detached calm, even as he destroys evil and creates a new world, encircled by fire, dancing to the beat of the drum, fire in hand and the demon of ignorance squirming beneath his foot. The walls of temples were carved with images of Portuguese visitors and Arab traders, of Brahmins honouring the Buddha and Buddhists worshipping Hindu deities. While different occupations are portrayed, the obnoxious system of untouchability is never shown in Indian art. The religion was obviously not proud of this social development.

Art was used to send out messages by other religions too. The Cross is the defining image of Christianity, a reminder of Christ's ultimate sacrifice. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Pieta convey the message of the tragic inevitability of the Crucifixion. Even an image-less religion like Islam promised paradise in the exquisite decorations on the walls of mosques and tombs. In Persia, the Sufis reproduced the life of Prophet Mohammed in exquisite miniature painting.

Today's popular art is produced by media images - cinema and television. After the Akshardham Temple incident, the most poignant images were of a qawwal singing of the need to build temples and mosques and trust in god and Hindu and Muslim women demanding a stop to further bloodshed. On the other hand, when the television beams images of killers identifiable as belonging to a particular religion and dead bodies of people of another religion, it sends out a very negative message. Media images of gun- and sword-toting Muslim fundamentalists or trishul-wielding Bajrang Dal members are not conducive for harmony. This is what fundamentalists are aiming for - negative messages that will elicit a negative response from the other community.

Images are very important in shaping society. Indian cinema, in the '50s and '60s, sang songs of communal harmony. The people responded accordingly. Unfortunately, the Hindi films of that period also portrayed smugglers and vamps as Christians. That image stuck. Then came the '80s and the cinema portrayed a world of angry young men and contract killings, gang wars and the underworld. Most of the mafia and contract killers are shown to be Muslims. These are the new images, and we know where they have led us. The streets of our cities are filled with cinema posters that carry negative messages. The media shows nasty images for news and sales value. They may be true, but they raise temperatures.

Art imitates life as much as life reflects art. Images, be it in the precincts of a temple or in a newspaper or in a cinema hall or beamed via satellite, shape ideas and behaviour, and their impact is severe. It is thus imperative that today's popular art carries the message of peace and good social values. The written word is read by very few - it must be accompanied by images that are seen by millions. Religion has preserved so many good values for millennia. With the judicious use of images, it can become a powerful force for social good.

Nanditha Krishna is Director, C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai and can be contacted at nankrishna@vsnl.com



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