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Columns - Coming to Terms


What colour is your religion in a dark room?

D. Murali

SAFFRON splashes being all too visible on the cover pages of magazines, we had better come to terms with religion, that is busy these days litigating rather than pontificating. Religion is "the belief in and worship of a super-human controlling power, especially a personal god or gods," explains Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It is the pursuit of interest followed with great devotion; for example, you find readers religiously tracking what is happening in the ongoing case. An overdose of devotion can turn into obsession, as in the case of fitness freaks; so, you can endure people as long as they don't allow their religion to morph into a maniacal fixation. Religiose sounds so much like verbose and bellicose; it means excessively religious and when such protesters take to the streets, cops may have to turn the water hose on them.

Thus, being religious is okay and so is religiousness. "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain," is a quote from the New Testament.

However, religiosity, rhyming with atrocity and monstrosity, is an overdose. Beware of zealous fervour turning religion, a system of faith and worship, into `religionism'. Religion has many contenders to the throne, chief of which is science, as a quote of Thomas Szasz would show: "Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic."

It is the irreligious who are indifferent or hostile to religion. On Being a Real Person, by John Buchan says: "An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support." As if to concur, in The Man who has Everything, E. 8

Y. Harburg wrote: "For a halo up in heaven I have never been too keen. Who needs another gadget that a fellow has to clean?"

George Orwell describes the `embittered atheist' as "the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him." Somerset Maugham wondered, "I don't know why it is that the religious never ascribe common sense to God," while Woody Allen kept looking for some indication: "If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank."

Gods, therefore, are put to some of the toughest tests (such as, if you exist, make our friar freer), and are given liberal cuts (such as when crumbs from the dirtiest of loot show up as charity, be it in atonement or as plain thanksgiving).

Religion, according to www.etymonline.com is a state of life bound by monastic vows, from Latin religionem meaning `respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods.' It cites Cicero, who had derived the word from relegare, meaning "go through again, read again," from re (`again') + legere (`read'), something you would find in a lecture. The later meaning was to use the word as creating a `bond between humans and gods', while yet another `possible origin' is religiens (`careful'), opposite of negligens.

Encarta can take you on a tour of the word's history. Origin of religion is: "12th century. Via Anglo-Norman religiun, from Old French religion, from the Latin stem religion — `obligation, reverence' — of uncertain origin: probably formed from religare (see rely)."

Rely is from Latin religare `to tie back,' from ligare `to bind'; this is also the source of `ally' that originates from Latin alligare, literally `to bind to.' Ligament, so necessary to our movements, is from Latin ligamentum, from ligare `to bind.' Other related words are liable, liaison, lien, and oblige.Wikipedia educates one on the different approaches to religion: Function-based approach, based on Hebrew thought, is a broad definition of religion, as encompassing "all systems of belief, including those that deny the existence of any god". The form-based approach, or Greek thought, may not appeal to rationalists because it defines religion as "any set of beliefs which makes claims that lie beyond the realm of scientific observation"; and there are the `physical evidence', and `organisational' approaches too.

Religion can be exclusive like news reports, inclusive — like jumbo gift packs, pluralistic — resembling supermarkets, or a syncretistic cocktail.

The taxonomy of religion can be as complicated as income-tax provisions because classification is done based on the number of gods, their gender, and so on. The site www.galactic-guide.com offers an interesting coding scheme by Warren Kurt von Roeschlaub, according to which Buddhism is `1J7M-2Z2B'. How?

The first digit is for the number of deities; next is a letter — A for `all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent', D for `neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, but just kind of there', I for `whoever happens to be leader of the people at the time,' and so on; the next digit for what to expect after death — such as `everybody goes to a nice place', `nobody goes anywhere', `only people who deserve punishment are reincarnated,' and so on; then a letter A to Z to indicate how far the religion is organised, ranging from `very organised' to `chaos', and so forth. For Hamlet, it was "sweet religion" that made "a rhapsody of words," but it is Cardinal Pandulph who defines the word in King John, as that doth make vows kept. At present, "hearts are severed in religion," as the clown says in All's Well That Ends Well. Or, is it, as a stranger says in Timon of Athens, an instance of religion groaning? In the same play, the Bard writes: "Piety, and fear, religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth," and elsewhere, closer to reality, "This yellow slave will knit and break religions." Romeo can be more categorical: "When the devout religion of mine eye maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires; and these, who often drown'd could never die, transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!" Iachimo's comment in Cymbeline, "I see you have some religion in you, that you fear," seems to fail in exalted places, where one is reminded of Gloucester's words in King Henry VI, part I: "Name not religion, for thou lovest the flesh."

To resolve your dilemmas, read Love's Labour's Lost where Biron asks: "Or keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools. For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love, or for love's sake, a word that loves all men, or for men's sake, the authors of these women, or women's sake, by whom we men are men, let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths. It is religion to be thus forsworn, for charity itself fulfils the law, and who can sever love from charity?"

With action in courthouses, Bassanio's queries in The Merchant of Venice too could be relevant: "In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt but, being seasoned with a gracious voice, obscures the show of evil? In religion, what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament?"

On a different tack, one wonders if the colour of religion would show in a dark cell.

ComingToTerms@TheHindu.co.in

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