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What Is Religion?
BY: V. Kumar Murty
The Role of Religion
This is a question that, in one form or another, can be heard as the subject of discussion amongst laymen as well as scholars. Whatever we may understand by the word 'religion', it is clear that it has had significance, impact and relevance for human life. Swami Vivekananda says,
'Of all the forces that have worked and are still working to mould the destinies of the human race, none, certainly, is more potent than that, the manifestation of which we call religion. All social organizations have as a background, somewhere, the workings of that peculiar force, and the greatest cohesive impulse ever brought into play amongst human units has been derived from its power. It is obvious to all of us that in very many cases the bonds of religion have proved stronger than the bonds of race, or climate, or even of descent. It is a well-known fact that persons worshipping the same God, believing in the same religion, have stood by each other, with much greater strength and constancy, than people of merely the same descent, or even brothers.'
Before we discuss the question of whether we need religion, we should first try to understand what we mean by 'religion'. The word 'religion' is understood in different ways. Some think of it abstractly and others think of it more concretely.
A human being is a social entity but also an individual, and that individuality goes beyond the psycho-physical level.....
Abstractly, one may discuss it from an anthropological, psychological or sociological perspective. Anthropologically, some ask whether humans are 'hard wired' to form some concept of religion? Is it something that we cannot avoid? Is the concept of 'God' simply an outcome of our neurological construction? Some think of it from a psychological perspective and ask what relation it has to the various layers of mind. Others quickly transform it into a sociological question and ask about the benefit to society, or the lack thereof, of the concept of religion.
There are others who will discuss this question more concretely, by identifying the word 'religion' with organized religions. Individuals or communities 'belong' to an organized religion and they are considered 'practitioners' of that religion. For the most part, this 'practice' refers to following certain observances, and this 'belonging' refers to acceptance of a certain dogma or doctrine. People belonging to that group refer to each other as 'believers'. Those who argue in support of the necessity of organized religions will point to the benefits that have accrued to individuals and to the world through the institutions of religion. In particular, they will refer to the charitable service rendered to disadvantaged people or to those who are victims of natural calamities. They will say that it is because of institutionalised religion that individuals and communities have been able to cope with personal or natural disasters.
On the other hand, those who argue that we do not need organized religions will point to the harm that such institutions have wrought. Some will argue that the history of institutionalised religion is one of divisiveness and fragmentation of society, and that it has generated violence and bloodshed resulting in major loss of human life.
All of these perspectives and discussions have their benefits, but also significant drawbacks. When we discuss religion as a sociological phenomenon, we tend to divorce the individual from the equation and restrict attention to society as a collective. When we discuss it from an anthropological perspective, we sanitize the human being into a laboratory specimen. When we discuss it from the psychological perspective, we tend to equate, and thereby limit, the individual to the plane of the psycho-physical. When we discuss it from the perspective of organized religions, we tend to equate life with external action. All of these perspectives have something valuable to teach us, but their common limitation is that they do not address the entire spectrum of life and existence. A human being is a social entity but also an individual, and that individuality goes beyond the psycho-physical level. We need an analysis that takes the whole human being into account, and the whole of existence.
To Be Continued
About the author
The author is a Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto. He gives regular lessons to young students' group attached to the Vedanta Society of Toronto.