It is time to put to rest the ugly controversy over a Meitei Christian pastor’s insensitive and scornful remark about a religious practice among several indigenous communities in Manipur, including the Meiteis, of cleansing the body of bad spirits associated with death by sprinkling water over the body and pathway with a leafy stem of a sacred tree – tairen – and then step over a small bonfire at the gate while returning home after cremating a dead clansperson. Among the Meieis, the practice is to also take a dip in a public pond before going through this ritual mocked by the pastor, then take another bath in their courtyard, change into freshly washed clothes, then repeat the ritual of sprinkling clean water with a tairen or tulsi leafy stem before stepping into their homes.
While this ritual may have become routine and somewhat redundant in the modern era like so many other traditions do, especially to those habituated to seeing only what is on the surface, the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the scare it created should have opened eyes of even hardcore sceptics to a new meaning of the practice. All COVID appropriate behaviours that the best virologists prescribed, which all who believe in science followed, were very strongly reminiscent of traditions such as this. The ritual indeed is symbolic of sanitising the body of any possible agents of death after handling a dead body, so that one’s home and hearth come under no threat from the grim reaper to the extent possible. Moreover, even if some traditions have become no more than routine in a different era, as Topol said in the classic 1971 Broadway production, “Fiddler on the Roof”, without traditions, we will all be fiddlers on the roof unsure and insecure of when life might lose its meaning.
While the pastor has a right and freedom to speak or advocate what he believes in, there is no question about it that in the modern liberal sense of justice, he has no right to disparage any other belief system. As the often-repeated thumb rule goes, one man’s freedom to swing his fist ends where another man’s nose begins. Not recognizing this limit has been the cause of some of the most bitter and endemic conflicts in the premodern world. There can be no better demonstration of this reality than in the Christian world of Europe in the 17th Century when after four years of negotiations, the two Treaties of Westphalia were signed in 1648, to end what is now known as the 30-year war in European history, and among the most important features of these treaties is to give freedom of faith to Catholics and Protestants, but under no circumstance allow them to infringe into each other’s spheres of beliefs. These treaties, as all serious literatures on the history of democracy tell us, is treated as a foundation of modern liberal notion of national sovereignty and secularism. All democratic countries, including India, has inherited this Westphalian spirit to make freedom of belief a fundamental right of all its citizens, but also makes it a legal offence to be disrespectful of other belief systems. The pastor in question may have therefore committed this legal offence, but that is for the court of law to decide. That this liberal spirit of secularism is increasingly being disregarded by the powers that be today in India is another very serious matter altogether.
While there can be no doubt the pastor went far beyond the briefs of law and those of public decency, the response to his boorish comedy has not been too healthy either. When somebody or a community becomes too sensitive to even the clownish remarks of a jester, it betrays among others, an innate insecurity and weakness of the person or community. If they had the inner strength and stability, no amount of senseless imbecile criticism would have shaken their faith in themselves or their belief system, and they would instead have been more ready to laugh and dismiss the stupid joker. But contrary to this, a good section of the Meiteis have responded in extremely bellicosity, openly threatening death and destruction to the pastor. Where is the need to respond to a deluded clown in the manner, and more than this, they should know that the law forbids such hostile threats too. It is also surprising that given this grave situation and the open call for taking the law into their own hands by some organisations, the government has remained silent. It is equally surprising that there have also been no sane voices calling for moderation amongst the state’s intelligentsia. What is being compromised in the process is the Weberian notion of the state as keeper of monopoly over all legitimate violence, and in the process encourage public vigilantism, mob justice and kangaroo courts.
On a wider canvas, it is also interesting that a value system once exclusive to the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are now slowly being absorbed and internalised by religions outside of this circuit. In this religious group, the ideas of apostasy (discarding one’s religion to favour another), blasphemy (speaking disrespectfully of one’s own religion) and heresy (interpreting the teachings of one’s religion which goes against the official and orthodox interpretation of it) as grave crimes deserving the severest penalties such as by burning to death at the stake, was a norm. They also once believed theirs was the only way and all else were heathen needing to be salvaged through proselytization into their religious folds.
This was once the basis of bitter conflicts even within the Abrahamic religious family. The Medieval Crusades of the Christian world against Islamic world, the widespread anti-Semitism in the Christian and Islamic worlds, and indeed the 30-years war in Europe, are evidences of this. Of course, now the new culture of liberalism, tolerance and secular values have sobered the Western Christian world, except in pockets of orthodoxy. The other Abrahamic religions too have undergone sea changes but not so much as the Christian world, and among these other faiths, the idea of apostasy, heresy and blasphemy as grave crimes still have more currency. Amongst Christians however, there is now a new constituency of new converts among whom there is still the tendency to inherit the Medieval orthodox values of the religion, making them see only the followers of their new faith as deserving salvation, while all else are deemed condemned. This is exactly how the neo-convert comedian pastor in the current controversy can be characterised as.
This scenario is unlike most, or all of the non-Abrahamic religions which were once more a way of life, therefore flexible, accommodative and assimilative. However, the predominance of one Abrahamic religion – Christianity – followers of which once colonised nearly the whole world is expected to have a profound influence on the indigenous world they colonised. Imminent scholar and psychologist Ashis Nandy noticed this in his 1983 book, “The Intimate Enemy” how even Hinduism, though professing to be opposed to Christianity, was coming to progressively resemble Christianity during the colonial days. He even went as far as to term new Hindu institutions such as the Ramakrishna Mission as the new Hindu Churches because their structures and ethos exuded those of Christianity. If today’s right-wing push of Hinduism are to be also considered, with versions of the Abrahamic apostasy, blasphemy and heresy coming into it in the forms of ghar wapasi, love jihad etc., Nandi’s observation three decades ago can almost be considered prophetic.
Going further still into the past, once upon a time in the history of humankind, no religions existed. Indeed, once upon a time, Homo Sapiens were no different from other animals. As Bill Bryson speculates in his “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, if dinosaurs had not disappeared because of a cataclysmic event of a meteor hit on earth, the creatures that ultimately evolved into humans may have remained not much bigger than house lizards living on trees in perpetual fear of predators. Even after dinosaurs disappeared and human ancestors descended to the ground and began walking on two legs, they were still not the dominant force in the animal world until about 60 to 70 thousand years ago when scientist believe the Cognitive Revolution happened because of a unique gene mutation in the Homo Sapiens.
This mutation put Homo Sapiens not just above other animals but also other human species now extinct such as Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthal. Yuval Noah Harari has a good summary of what the Cognitive Revolution did to Homo Sapiens in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. First, it gave them the ability to create and understand symbols, therefore they were able to develop complex languages; Second, they developed the ability to understand event beyond what are immediately within sense perception; Third and importantly, they also acquired the ability to create and believe in fictions, and not just this, but collectively believe in the fictions they create and unite in large numbers along these fictions. The birth of religions amongst modern humans is attributed to the last of these abilities the Cognitive Revolutions gave them. We know how people who have never met each other can come to believe they are one along ideological and religious lines. No animal, other than humans are gifted with any of these qualities. The point is, let humility be the rule. Nobody is superior to another innately or by the faith they follow. Let all be good humans, doing no harm and living in the spirit of live and let live. Wherever any particular religious group chooses to believe they will go after they leave this world, let that be their private affair.
In the meantime, let the government assert its authority guaranteed by the democratic principle its helmsmen have sworn by. Let it forbid, on the pain of punishment, puerile jokers provoking other people’s faith to promote their own. Conversely, let it also warn, again on the pain of punishment, all those who are threatening to take the law into their own lands, and remind all citizens that the law is in the hands of the government alone and not anybody else’s.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author