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Invoking God
by Bharat Jhunjhunwala
March 25 2003


US President George Bush is quite certainly a deeply religious person. Mr Bush was a heavy drinker in the early phase of his life. A report in the Newsweek says that he could be obnoxious at parties. He later joined a Bible-study group. Slowly worship grew on him and he kicked-off the habit after his 40th birthday. "It was 'goodbye Jack Daniels, hello Jesus'," said one of his friends from those days. Now Christianity and Jesus have become integral parts of Mr Bush's life. 

The famous "Axis of Evil" was originally phrased as "Axis of Hatred" but Mr Bush replaced it with "evil" as it had a more Christian ambience. "If people want to know me," said Mr Bush during his campaign for President, "they've got to know that's an integral part of my life-my acceptance of Christ." 

This religious attitude runs through the Bush presidency. Bible-study groups are held frequently in the White House. He has provided Government grants to teach abstinence to school-going teenagers and cut grants to NGOs that promote abortion. Why is it then that such a deeply religious person is being perceived by the world as a tyrant lusting after Iraqi oil? 

The difficulty is that devoutness and righteousness are two different things. In other words, bhakti can go with adharma. Two examples will make this clear. 

The Christian Crusades in the 11th to the 13th century were based on a similar worshipful attitude. Christians had been persecuted in Palestine and made to flee to mainland Europe. The "famine and plague-ridden" peasantry, says the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, was oppressed by the nobility and was anxious for foreign conquests. In this situation Pope Urban II exhorted Christians to take up arms to reconquer Jerusalem. Deep religious fervour permeated all sections of the population. Participation in the Crusade was said to have great spiritual value for the individual crusader. The result was that for 300 years Europeans waged relentless wars against the Muslims in West Asia. A large number of people were killed and cities pillaged. But in the end Palestine remained in Muslim hands. These wars are, in part, responsible for the aversion to war that is presently being seen in Europe. 

Worse, the Crusades had degenerated with time. Movements directed against the political foes of the popes too were termed as "Crusades". British journalist Victoria Clark writes in her book, The Far-Farers: "A Journey from Viking Iceland to crusader Jerusalem that notion of a 'soldier of Christ' changed during the Crusades. The earlier meaning was that of a monk battling inner demons. Now Christ's soldier was one who was waging bloody wars against Muslim infidels. The worshipful attitude and commitment to Christ was pervasive throughout this period. Devotion to Christ did not prevent such a perversion of the true message of Christ, which was love and compassion." 

Another example from closer home is more expressive. One of the chief disciples of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was Nag Mahashay. Those were the times when the British were plundering India and killing the freedom fighters. His biographer Sharatchandra Chakravarti says: "Nag Mahashay would respectfully honour the Government servants. He used to say that the King's powers were working in them. The divine mother is unhappy if they are disrespected. He used to say - The Queen has been born from a part of the shakti, by her punya alone the people will be happy." Here we have a devout disciple of Ramakrishna bowing equally devotedly to the Queen who was exploiting and impoverishing the Indians. 

The common point in both narratives is that devout commitment to a God - whether Jesus or Shakti - is not a guarantee that one is on the right track in worldly matters. Thus both Mr Bush and his opponents claim they are fighting in the name of God. In his State of the Union Address the US President declared confidence in "the loving God behind all of life and all of history... May he guide us now." Clearly Mr Bush has an inner conviction that he is doing God's will in fighting terror and Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden is an equally devout Muslim who exhorts Muslims to rise in the name of Allah and expel the Americans from West Asian soil. 

Devoutedness to one's own God leaves no space for dialogue with the opponents. Bhakti does not answer the worldly questions of politics. 

Raja Ram Mohun Roy had clearly grasped this problem. In his first book, A Gift to the Monotheists, he wrote: "I have traveled in many areas of this world. I have seen that generally there is consensus about one God or brahman, but there is no agreement in the specific features of that God and religious principles. I have thus concluded that every sect follows some devotional practices that which are acquired by training and habit. The followers of these sects follow their ancestors. They are ever willing to question the beliefs of other sects though their own ancestors made mistakes like other people. Thus these sects are either all true or all false. If they are all true then their mutual differences are not explained. If they are all false then none can be followed." 

The problem can be resolved only by acknowledging that the "one God" manifests in various ways, which, though mutually incompatible, have their own merits that are rooted in their specific circumstances. The Mandukya Upanishad (1.1-3) makes this distinction between the iswara and brahman. Iswara is the specific manifestation of the one brahman at the level of the individual. 

Every religion loses its moral sanction to wage war on others at the level of the iswara because it is incomplete or less than the whole. In this context Mr Bush's morality becomes questionable. In 1993 Mr Bush claimed that only believers in Jesus go to heaven. Similarly he has said that the US has been "chosen by the God and commissioned by the history to be a model to the world." These pronouncements smack of a new crusade. This conflict cannot be resolved by recourse to one's faith howsoever true it may be, for every faith or sect makes a basic folly of dividing the world into "us" and "they". If there is one all-pervasive God then he cannot be divided. 

It's time that all religions of the world sit together and acknowledge that none has exclusive claim to God. Every religion will have to accept that its iswara is as much his manifestation as the iswara of others. The inter-religious conflicts cannot be, therefore, resolved by reference to one's iswara. We will have to use our discriminative capacity to asses whether a particular action is beneficial for the whole world. It will not do, therefore, for President Bush to try to combine "American interests" with religion. Religion has to be para-national. Human history has many examples of needless wars made under the false belief that one's iswara is the final authority. Jesus, likewise, cannot be the final authority. If Mr Bush still wages war in the name of Jesus, he will rightly be called a "hired Christian thug" as done British playwright Harold Pinter.  



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