Religion, Spirituality and Concern for Social Justice
by Swami Agnivesh
Training people to practice justice is a basic religious calling. Only true spirituality can lead us out of darkness and untruth to the light of truth and justice.
Spirituality and religion belong to each other. However, they begin to part company as soon as religion degenerates into ritualism and obscurantism. The goal of spirituality is social and personal transformation. Spirituality alone has the resources appropriate for it. In contrast, religion tends to be the status quo, and often it becomes an ally of the oppressors. Spirituality, because of its commitment to justice, seems subversive from the perspective of a ritualistic and status-quo religion.
It is in respect of social justice that the gap between religion and spirituality becomes the widest. Godliness expresses itself as a passion for justice. Justice is the outworking of truth. God is Truth. Truth as applied to the human situation leads us to the conclusion that all people are of equal worth in the eyes of God. It is precisely out of this truth that the passion for justice or the righteous indignation at injustice is born.
The commitment to social justice arises because of the concern for the victims of injustice. It is equally inspired by the concern for the health and dynamism of the society at large. Injustice is to society what chronic disease is to the human body. While the practice of religion at the popular level may limit itself to meeting the needs of individuals, spirituality cannot stop short of the wholeness, cohesion, and dynamism of the society. A society imperils its own vitality and progress by putting up with the forces of injustice and oppression. It is because systemic injustice has been endemic to the Indian context that we have lacked social and political vitality for more than a millennium. The vast human resources of India have remained frozen on account of socio-cultural injustice, mainly in the form of the caste system and concept of "untouchables."
Compassion is one of the most authentic expressions of spirituality. Compassion involves "standing together" with the victims. It points to a state of empathy and identification, both of which are ingredients of relationship. It is only from a spiritual viewpoint that we can see the thread of humanity that connects the oppressed with ourselves. From a secular and worldly perspective, they look so unlike us that our compassion remains unstirred. Religion, as is now notoriously well known in the Indian context, aggravates the alienation between human beings and social groups. It functions mostly as a suppressant of human compassion. Spirituality, in contrast, is a catalyst of compassion and an inhibitor of cruelty. And compassion cannot but cry out for justice.
In the Indian context, an undiluted commitment to social justice is the most effective means for the renewal and regeneration of religions. Needless to say, all religions are, at the present time, deficient in their concern for social justice. That is also why they are being increasingly marginalized from public life. Spirituality and the social justice concomitant to it are the most convincing proof that the religious tradition is alive and relevant to its human context.
Stereotypical Hinduism is a world-denying faith. This is not true of the Vedic faith. The Vedas are instilled with a passion for justice and human greatness. They are a call to the practice of the Dharma, the quintessence of which is social justice. The Vedas are bright with the glow of true spirituality. It is this light that we need to regain at the present time. How can we put up with Himalayan injustice and exploitation inflicted on millions of our fellow human beings over centuries and yet claim to be the inheritors of the greatest spiritual heritage that mankind has ever seen? Our passion for God has to find its authentic expression through our compassion for our brothers and sisters who suffer through no fault of their own. Social justice is a call to bear true witness to God by freeing all of his children from the shackles of poverty, social degeneration, economic deprivation, and de facto political disenfranchisement.
All religions must now unite in waging an epic war against the forces of social oppression. The political goal of spirituality is the liberation of the hostages of every society and culture. Those who want to deflect attention from this truth may provoke false battles. A commitment to truth, which, according to Gandhi, is the essence of Hinduism, alone can ensure that we do not fight wrong battles in the name of religion and discredit it under the pretext of doing it a favor. A religion that turns a deaf ear to the cries of the people will consign itself to the outer circles of irrelevance.
Paradigm Shift from Escapist Religiosity to Proactive Social Spirituality
Religions are meant to help people to cope with life. They are a call to individuals and societies to transform themselves: they are thus the foremost ally of the human species in our quest for dignity, meaning, and fulfillment in life. That being the case, religions contradict themselves when they retreat from the lives of the people. Religion is a call to engagement rather than escapism.
Historically, religions have emerged from the furnace of human life. The engagement with suffering, and not indulgence in affluence, has been the stimulant for the spiritual evolution of our species. But suffering will not result in spiritual deepening if religion is allowed to be escapist.
Human existence is now under unprecedented pressures. There are evident signs of moral decay everywhere. Oppression and injustice abound. Storms of change rage everywhere in the global community. Their effects are especially acute in non-Western societies, where traditional religiosity is being imperiled by the force of materialism and hedonistic consumerism.
Even as materialism mounts and the agonies of social and personal life aggravate, people are increasingly turning to ritualistic and escapist versions of religions. Religiosity has increased rather than decreased in recent times. This religiosity serves as an adjunct to the prevailing system and not as a resource for transforming peoples and societies.
There is no dearth of religiosity in India. On the contrary, we are suffering from a surfeit of it. Ironically, we are even suffering on account of our religions. Though meant to be a cementing force, religions have of late become sources of division and alienation. Instead of nurturing and ennobling our humanity, the communal passions unleashed by religions are corrupting our native goodness.
Hate, rather than love, is being preached and practiced. Injustice, when sanctioned by religion, is more difficult to combat and contain. This is a serious threat to the health and integrity of our social life.
The need of the hour is to shift from religiosity to spirituality. Rituals, dogmas, and communal interests belong to the surface of religions. Spirituality composes their deeper core. Justice is the essence of spirituality. In a legal sense, justice is mostly a matter of redressing individual and at times collective, grievances. Spiritually, justice calls for the creation of wholesome conditions of life and the affirmation of basic values whereby human beings are helped to attain fullness and find fulfillment in life. Spiritually, justice has a social foundation, for we are social creatures.
Spirituality is not a matter of some formulas or dogmas. It is a dynamic phenomenon that expresses itself through an ongoing engagement with the human predicament. Escapism is an outright denial of spirituality. While religion may be hijacked by the oppressors, spirituality is, and forever will be, the resource and refuge of the oppressed. It is also, in the final analysis, the hope of the oppressor, for it is only a spiritual revolution that can help one to rediscover one's misplaced humanity.
India has been a melting pot of religions. Unlike the West, India has been marked by religious plurality for centuries. But three limitations have forestalled this unique situation from eventuating into a spiritual revolution. First, the ritualistic and formulaic approach to religion gained the upper hand. A shallow religiosity was fostered in people that saw religion in isolation from their day-to-day lives and the aches and pains of their society. Life was lived according to the demands of the world: its politics, economics, culture, and so on. Periodically, one returned to religion almost for repair work so that one's pursuits did not suffer. Religion was not meant to impact and transform the given situation. It was to subserve the interests of the status quo so that the situation did not get out of hand, especially on account of divine displeasure or human discontentment. This kept religion and life in separate watertight compartments.
Second, religions themselves functioned in separate and mutually exclusive spheres at a safe distance from one another. While there was no serious hostility, there was no active cooperation among them either. They shared little in common. As a matter of fact, attempts were made to preserve the dividing walls between religions, as this has been more beneficial to the dominant powers at all times. This called for a focus on the surface (where differences abound), to the total exclusion of the inner core, where the spirit of oneness resides.
Third, the secular rhetoric further legitimized the dichotomy between religion and the social public life by insisting on the privatization of religion. Religion was to be tolerated only in the private domain and was an unwelcome trespasser into the public space. In this advocacy, secularism saw only the specters of religion and was blind to the treasures of true spirituality. It envisaged social engineering and nation building as value-neutral enterprises wherein only material resources were relevant. Practical experience and the witness of history prove convincingly that this outlook is an invitation to disaster. To see this for what it is, we need to look at the present scenario through the eyes of the victims of the current scheme of things.
The reconstruction of India since attaining independence six decades ago has faltered for want of an adequate spiritual culture. Our politics is more communalized today than it was in the fifties. The oppression of the powerless continues unabated. Social, religious, and economic justice is not available to the dalits and the lower castes. Millions live sub-human lives. The poor and the lower castes continue to be socially degraded, alienated from the fruits of development. Our society is becoming more and more violent. The apathy of those in authority toward human needs and avoidable suffering continues. National priorities do not reflect human needs and social realities. The voice of the powerless is becoming feebler and feebler. The invisibility of the poor has reached unprecedented proportions in the wake of globalization.
Training a people to practice justice is a basic religious calling. Individuals and societies have never been, by nature, committed consistently to justice. The eagerness to secure justice for oneself is seldom matched by the willingness to do justice to others. This imbalance results from entertaining vested interests that make us blind to the balance and harmony of the total context. Objectivity, the ability to see the truth, is basic to justice. For want of this, we succumb to the delusion that we can thrive at the expense of others. Only true spirituality can lead us out of this darkness and untruth to the light of truth and justice.
As the spiritual culture of a society declines, the burden of the resultant social digression falls squarely on the poor and the powerless. The concern for the well-being of those who do not have the muscles to fight for it themselves is essentially a spiritual one. In its spiritual core, every religion exhorts us to be kind and generous to the needy, to be compassionate to those who suffer, and to stand by the oppressed: for we all belong together and are equally the children of God. On the contrary, all human institutions and systems are dominated by individual and group interests that seek to tilt the balance in their favor. Unless continued spiritual vigilance is exercised, therefore, injustice and oppression could overrun a society over a period of time, as has been the case with our society. Gandhi's self-identification with the poor and the untouchables was an expression of his spirituality. Independent India succumbed to corruption proportionately as its religious vision was abandoned.
The need of the hour is not a divorce between religion and politics, as is advocated by the secularists. The need is, on the contrary, to make the state and society alike conform to the mandates of spirituality. While religions must be judged in terms of their current practices, they must also be evaluated in terms of their core spiritual visions. High-lighting the contradiction between the two is the prophetic task of our times. This unveils the need to reform and renew religions as well as to regenerate the spiritual foundations of our society. It is such a purpose that underlines the founding of Religions for Social Justice, whose goals are:
(1) to build a healthy society free from exploitation and oppression of every kind, particularly arising out of the caste system, the concept of untouchability, and gender inequity; and
(2) to emphasize applied spirituality in the religious sphere so as to make religion a dynamic force that empowers people and transforms society.
Today religion is politicized and politics communalized. In this process, the people in need are lost sight of. The ascendancy of vested interests threatens to splinter our society and cripple our country. Avoidable suffering and deprivation mount. The foremost need of the hour is a spiritual regeneration so as to imbue progress with social justice and moral passion. Religions for Social Justice is envisaged to be a people's movement to attain this end.
The very first program undertaken under the auspices of Religions for Social Justice was a multireligious pilgrimage to Manoharpur, where the Australian missionary and social worker Graham Staines and his two children were burned alive on the night of January 22-23, 1999. A group of fifty-one religious leaders, representing the major religious traditions of India, visited Baripada and Manoharpur in Orissa in the wake of this event, which wounded the very soul of India. It sent the message loud and clear that, irrespective of religious difference, no one who is spiritually sensitive can approve of atrocities and all must acknowledge the glow of the spirit wherever it is found. Spirituality must, and does, rise above communal loyalties. In the large-heartedness and spiritual generosity of a Gladys Staines, who spontaneously forgave the assassins of the murderous mob, do we find a reflection of the divine, no matter what religions we follow. Through the several articles published after the pilgrimage and press conferences, this message was articulated throughout the country, and it had a powerful national impact.
Again in April 2002, a Multi-faith Pilgrimage of Compassion comprising seventy-two religious and spiritual leaders of various faiths visited Gujarat State in India when that state was seething with communal bad blood and the state-sponsored genocide of Muslim men, women, and children.
A year later, in 2003, this same group undertook intensive campaigning in four other states of India, under the banner of Adhyatma Jagran Manch (Forum for Spiritual Awakening). The challenge was to save these other states from the virus of Hindu fundamentalism and from a politics of hatred and violence.
Very recently, in November 2005, a similar interfaith group under the leadership of the World Council of Arya Samaj traveled the length and breadth of the land from Gujarat into Rajasthan, into Delhi, Haryana, Chandigarh, and Punjab, in order to create a spiritual awareness of gender justice to combat the scourge of the abortion of female fetuses.
And as recently as March 2006, we organized a March of Solidarity with Hindu and Muslim victims of a terrorist attack in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares).
This proactive social spirituality found its first expression in 1981, when a sustained movement was launched against the modern-day slavery called bonded labor and child labor. It continues today under the banner of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, which has brought about the release and rehabilitation of around 175,000 victims of contemporary forms of slavery. I took this battle against slavery to Nepal and Pakistan and then served at an international level as chairperson of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 1994 to 2004. This struggle from a profound spiritual perspective is being intensified in various parts of India. It is proving very effective in arousing compassion for the unborn girls who otherwise are being mercilessly slaughtered in the millions in India alone. This preference for sons is rampant in some other countries as well, such as China, Korea, and others, where the declining sex ratio is causing grave social concern.
Religions for Social Justice is aimed at creating an active forum for uniting the various religious traditions that flourish in India. Their scattered existence, insulated both from the burning issues of the times and from one another, is the root cause of their ineffectiveness in creating a society based on a foundation of justice and peace. Given the needs and challenges of today, the dialogue among religions cannot be limited to words and concepts. Religions must discover a shared agenda to promote the good of all people and to safeguard the health of the society. This will effect a paradigm shift from conflict to cooperation, from communalism to spiritual humanism, through which religions will become a constructive, rather than a destructive, influence on societies and nations.
It is to this glorious goal that we must all commit ourselves.
Swami Agnivesh, who has spearheaded movements for the protection of human rights in India, has served as chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and of Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labor Liberation Front). At present, he also acts as working president of the World Council of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform organization.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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