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Punjabi Society and Religion

Punjabi Religion 1

At an individual level everyone should have the absolute freedom to accept or reject any idea or belief, including the belief in God. When an idea or belief is forced upon people with the help of social, political and economic power, it is an attack on the freedom of the individual and at the same time it is harmful to the society at large. However, to see it as such is only possible when members of a society are able to think freely.

After the British left India, people who thought rationally on the lines of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and others like Nehru, may have had the conscious desire to keep religion and state separate. According to Nehru:

“The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled us with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it.”

However, in free India, the opposite has happened. At this time in India and particularly in Punjab, it is impossible to find any separation between religion and state. Religions are so powerful and influential in political matters that to view it critically is to invite danger. As a consequence the Punjabis have, so it seems, lost the ability and desire to see religion and politics separately. Religion is inclusively discussed from a perspective on how it can be improved rather than examining its usefulness or to lessen its influence.

For various reasons writers and intellectuals from the Sikh background display this tendency more than others. Most of these people do see the negative role played by religion in general but they feel differently when it comes to the Sikh religion. Granted, it is comparatively a new religion and it offers some useful social advice. Originating as a criticism of Islam and Hinduism, Sikhism rejects many practices and superstitions of the former two religions. It criticizes casteism and talks about social equality to a certain extent. Based on this criticism Sikh thinkers believe, or rather want to believe that things like social equality, gender equality and a scientific approach to life are already contained in the Gurbani. They feel that there is nothing wrong with the religion itself, the only difficulty is to convince its followers to live their lives accordingly. A critical analysis of the Sikh scripture may prove otherwise. Even if it were true, they fail to pay attention to simple fact that followers of Sikh religion are only a very small part of the total population of the world as well as that of India and Canada. If all followers were to live their lives according to the holy granth, which doesn’t seem possible in the contemporary economic order, how would they convince the other 98%? Would they use the same tactics used by other religions in the past to increase their influence?

The control of religion in the Punjabi community, like many other communities, is so complete that the word used for an atheist – nastik – is equivalent to a swear word. It is no surprise that from the morning loud speakers in every village of Punjab to the large gatherings of religious folks in Surrey or Yuba City, the environment thunders with the sounds of believers but you only hear once-in-a-while a small murmur of the atheists and that from organized groups such as the rationalists. Sikhism is a religion that is visible everywhere, including the Punjabi media. Interestingly, it wasn’t always like this. The tradition of rejecting God is very old in the Indian thinking. According to Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya:

“Of all our major philosophies, only the Vedanta (with some reservation) and specifically the later version of the Nyaya-Vaiseshika were theistic. By contrast, Buddhism, Jainism, Purva-mimamsa, Samkhya, Lokayata and Nyaya-Vaisesika in its original form were philosophies of committed atheism. Thus the stupendous importance of atheism in Indian wisdom can be questioned only by disallowing the largest majority of the significant Indian philosophers representing it.”

Punjabi writers and thinkers are aware of this tradition but in the face of harsh opposition they downplay its importance. At this time the largest number of Punjabis not only ignore this issue, they simply like to believe that there is no such issue. Perhaps something like the Japanese proverb has happened to them: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ The real possibility is that most Punjabi writers and intellectuals neither believe in God nor think that religion is beneficial for society but they don’t share their views for the fear of social isolation. It seems to reflect what 19th century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill said about his society at the time:
“The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete sceptics in religion.”

In this regard, still the best-known document is Bhagat Singh’s article written in October 1930, few months before he was hanged – Why I Am An Atheist. The popularity of this article maybe due to the high regard for Bhagat Singh, but it is hard to find another piece by a Punjabi written with a clear, direct and scientific approach. In 1927, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell gave a lecture “Why I am not a Christian’, which was later published under the same title. To this day Christianity has not recovered from the blow delivered by Russell. Similarly, this one article of Bhagat Singh has given more trouble to the religious people in Punjab than anything else. Every effort is made to erase the memory of this writing and lessen the sharp pain continuously caused by it.

There are many people who would like to permanently erase the views presented by Bhagat Singh in this article. All kinds of misinformation are doled out year after year about it. More often than not, the matter related to Bhai Randhir Singh and Bhagat Singh’s meeting in jail is raised to sow seeds of doubt in people’s minds that Bhagat Singh changed his views after the meeting. The reality is that he actually wrote the article in response to suggestions by many people, including Randhir Singh that he should pray in his remaining life on this earth. Even the people from the left keep silent about Bhagat Singh’s ideas on religion in order to remain in the good books of people.

It will be wrong to suggest that no one else has written on the issue of god and religion in Punjabi. Thinkers aligned with the left movement and especially the rationalist movement in Punjab and those connected with the Dalit movement have written and are actively writing on the issue. But for different reasons, these writings shy away from directly dealing critically with God and religion; in fact in some instances they create the sense that religion is a good thing for society. Most of their attention, and rightly so, is focused on the superstition, blind faith and problems related with the caste system. Hope is that solutions can found to these problems without tackling the question of faith. Willingly or unwillingly the blame is placed on the shoulders of people instead of in the thought and life philosophy taught by religion.
Sadhu Binning, a bilingual author, has published more than fifteens books of poetry, fiction, plays, translations and research. His works is included in more than fourty five Punjabi and English anthologies. He edited a literary Punjabi monthly Watno Dur and now co-edits a quarterly, Watan. He is a founding member of Vancouver Sath, a theatre collective, Ankur and various other literary and cultural organizations. He sat on the BC Arts Board from 1993 to 1995.

Punjabi Religion 2The tone of Punjabi literature since the beginning of 20th century has been very progressive and global in its approach. It has shown concern not only for its own people and their problems but the problems faced by the whole of humanity. This influenced came from the movements like the Ghadar originated on the West Coast of North America based on the experience of Punjabi immigrants who came here to better their lives like everyone else. However, during the 1980s the struggle of Punjabi people against the federal government in Delhi was turned into a religious fight. Additionally, the big global events like the fall of Soviet Russia caused the progressive movement in Punjab to loose ground. As a result the contemporary Punjabi literature is more concerned with the havoc caused in personal relations due to the pressures created by the capitalist system than looking at the actual causes. In itself it is a good thing that proves that Punjabi writers are not alienated from their community, but it does show the limits of current Punjabi literature. Someone just reading Punjabi literature has a small chance of improving one’s knowledge about the evolution of humans and society. Yes, there may exist many books in Punjabi to obtain information about natural and social sciences. However, to create a desire in readers to know about their environment or to see things in a more critical manner is the responsibility or should be of creative literature. Punjabi literature has not imagined any heroes or created any dreams for its readers, especially young readers, outside religion, politics and economics. Much more can be said in this regard, the main point being that Punjabi literature is limited to depicting the problems faced in personal relationships. It seems that not only average Punjabi readers, even Punjabi writers do not read consciously to gain knowledge and to learn about science. Writers who do not read are much more harmful to a society than readers who do not read.

Numerous things in Punjabi society stop an average individual or a writer from expressing the idea of not believing in god. For example, Punjabi wisdom tells us that one should not mettle in other people’s matters, especially related with one’s faith. In every walk of life including and especially education, much more emphasis is placed on showing the utmost respect for religion. Being respectful to religion and to elders is considered the best quality one can have. Included in this quality is the unwritten yet must follow rule of never to question either religious beliefs or one’s elders for anything. The evolution of humans up to now tells us that no development is possible without raising questions. But in Punjabi society one is strictly taught from the early childhood never to question one’s elders, religion or religious leaders.

In addition to the above education concerning the sanctity of faith, Punjabi mind is also under constant pressure from the historical events like 1947 and 1980s where much suffering was caused by religious conflict.  The influence and the memory of pain of these horrible events is such that Punjabis unconsciously as well as consciously refrain from discussing anything controversial related to religion or god.  This is not a very healthy situation. While each religion constantly repeats that all religions should be respected, at the same time it is drilled into each believer that their religion is the supreme in every aspect and for that reason it is forever in danger from others. Every religion is always in the process of fortification to protect against this self imagined relentless danger. Rationalist voices are also seen as part of this outer peril. Those forever waving the flag of ‘dangers to Sikhism’ see the free thinkers as the main enemy. During 1980s the Sikh extremists killed a considerable number of left activists and writers. As a result few writers and intellectuals who are otherwise free thinkers and rationalists dare to say anything related to god and religion.

The same is expected from the people involved in the ‘popular culture’ to inject new ideas into community’s ethos using their creative talents. But the opposite is the case. Punjabi newspapers are filled with material that sings the praises of god, religion and religious leaders. They are always critical of people for not following the scripts as they are supposed to. There is hardly any criticism of religion and questioning the faith in super natural powers. One can especially see this behaviour among people active in the Punjabi film and music industry. Popular singers and actors not only display non-stop devotion to the almighty god in their films and songs but in their casual conversations as well. All big-ticket singers start their concerts with one or two religious songs. Many have issued cds and dvds of their religious songs and display huge posters made in different religious costumes. This is especially the case with those entertainers that are otherwise considered vulgar and salacious. Almost all Punjabi radio and television programs in Canada start with religious shabads hymns. Where in other societies, we see that creative artists often either lead or become strong part of the infusion of new ideas into their cultural communities, in Punjabi there is a total lack of this tendency at this time and the only object of the creative activity is personal fame and money. Whenever we do hear something resembling criticism in their songs and films it is directed towards people who veer away from their religious traditions. All Punjabi artists including the Bhangra players follow tradition of touching or bowing to the ‘earth’ before entering a performance or the performing area. Even the Kabbadi players do this ritual before a match and sing praises of the guru in the case they are the winners. Interestingly, many Punjabis, seriously or non-seriously sprinkle a bit of liquor to the earth before drinking.
Like most other cultures Punjabis consider the fear of god the most essential part for being ethical and moral. The possibility of being good does not exist without the fear of god. Many thinkers, especially in the West, such as Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Richard Dawkins and others have rejected this view from a scientific approach. According to this line of thinking, humans are naturally good and they need to be in order to survive in a group setting. Religion and god actually make it harder for humans to be noble. Every religious person believes that his or her god is the true one and above others. A person who dislike or see others below him or herself cannot be considered a truly good person. In each religion, along with the mainstream, there are numerous smaller groups holding slightly different views about god and how to please him. For instance, according to one estimate there are 34,000 different groups in Christianity and they all consider others to be on the wrong path. Similar situation exist in other religions. These groups are seen as cults by the mainstream that holds more political and economic power. All groups do their best to achieve the ultimate political and economic power. Seen from these perspectives, religion does not help people become good and more understanding towards other human beings.

Why Talk about Atheism?

For centuries Indians/Punjabis have lived with economic and social insecurity and have often been ruled by foreign powers. These conditions have shaped a distinctive characteristic that would like to ‘solve one’s problem’ using ‘any means’ necessary.  Consequently, corruption has become an inseparable part of life. There is corruption and hypocrisy in every aspect of the society. Even people who are genuinely conscious of these phenomena and clearly see this as a very negative and destructive attitude are not bothered by it to the extent that they will actively try to do something about it. In other words they tolerate it. There is little evidence of real social responsibility among Punjabis. Continuous religious preaching in all religions does little to remedy this social illness. However, it does lessen the guilt one feels for not being able to do something when demanded by the situation. One can easily see the function religion play in order to keep the system going. In contrast, when we look at those societies where people take responsibility and religion is kept out and away from institutions like politics and education, those societies, without a doubt present better living conditions for all humans. In the last few centuries science has played a leading role in the development of human societies, though not all development is positive. Religion has tried to block the advancement of science at every stage. According to Bertrand Russell:

“Throughout the last 400 years, during which the growth of science had gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position they have taken up another. After being worsted out in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for it is.”

The Roman Catholic pope has recently, in 1992, offered an apology from the Church to Galileo who claimed that earth revolved around the sun. Though this battle between religion and science has been fought mainly in Europe, the whole of humanity has benefitted and is benefitting from it, including Punjabi society. Like everyone else, Punjabis eagerly use conveniences provided by science, scientific approach to life is rejected with the same eagerness. Majority of Punjabis including writers feel comfortable with religion and god. In their views, there are many other issues that should be written and talked about. Why get into these complicated and ‘risky’ areas? Can’t we do without it? There are already so many divisions in the society, why add another one by introducing whether god exist or not. There is some merit in these views; however, the difficulty is that many of the problems faced by the Punjabi community are connected with this issue. If there is serious desire to see Punjabi society become a healthy and just society then these issues cannot and must not be ignored any longer.

One cannot describe contemporary Punjabi society as a developed modern industrial society; still it differs from many other societies in the third world. Sikh religion is comparatively new and the influence of myths and superstitions is not as strong. Punjabis living in the diaspora since the beginning of the last century had considerable influence on the economic and intellectual life of their people. This influence was most visible in the modern Punjabi literature. However, for the last few decades this trend has changed. Now more and more people have gone back to writing religious poetry and fiction related to religious issues. There have been efforts to even rewrite the history. For example, arguments have been forwarded to claim that the Ghadar movement was actually a movement for the Sikh homeland and the left forces hijacked it. In many aspects of life, Punjabi community stands shoulder to shoulder with other communities of the world but its poverty is self-evident as far as intellectual activity is concerned and main cause seem to be unnecessary and excessive focus on religion.
Before the explanation provided by science about nature, the diseases and so on, humans needed to make sense of these phenomena. The concept of some invisible superpower was one answer. Humans could only think in terms of their own reality and as a result their imagined super power – god – resembled what was the most desirable and most feared qualities of humans. They imagined that they could change the mood of this entity by praying or by offering sacrifices. These explanations and practices eventually became organized religion that we see all around us. It has been the most essential aspect of any organized society and part of the ruling establishment.

Before the industrial revolution, whenever the rulers became too oppressive or religions didn’t provide the security to people a change was needed which came in the form of a new religion that promised to right the wrongs done to the people. The Protestant movement and the Sikh religion can be sighted as two main examples of this. We can see this process continue in societies that are not yet fully industrialized. The protest in these societies often takes the shape of a religious protest. It is either in the shape of a conflict within an established religion or the disadvantage population going towards something totally different. For example, the struggles by the Dalits, the most oppressed people under the Indian caste system in place for centuries, is still being waged on religious lines. In some places Dalits are fighting within the Hindu and Sikh folds that they are part of and at other places they are converting to Buddhism or Christianity. More often than not people’s genuine protests for better economic and social conditions are turned into religious fights as it happened in Punjab during the 1980s.

Huge amount of energy and time is wasted on these issues without any real achievement. Religion can be useful to provide momentary security and comfort at a personal level but history shows us that at the societal level it has been comparatively more harmful. Contrary to the popularly held belief, religions do not unite people from different parts of a society but set them up against each other. People who hide behind god and religion exploit people economically, sexually and in numerous other forms. This situation should be of concern to caring people in all societies, especially, it is a serious situation in the contemporary Punjabi community. One casual look at community’s any weekly newspaper in Vancouver or Toronto will give you enough evidence of how widely people are exploited by the mystics and faith healers of all kinds. This is only possible because people have been told to believe and not to question from day one of their lives. This needs to change.

Should a conscious individual, especially a writer, have any responsibility towards its society in a time like this? Should writers and intellectuals keep quiet in order to be respected and loved by the people instead of coming out with what they know and feel should happen? John Stuart Mill in the middle of the 19th century gave a call to his countrymen:

“On religion in particular, the time appears to me to have come, when it is a duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have, on mature consideration, satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false, but hurtful, to make their dissent known.”

About The Author

By Sadhu Binning

Sadhu Binning, a bilingual author, has published more than fifteens books of poetry, fiction, plays, translations and research. His works is included in more than fourty five Punjabi and English anthologies. He edited a literary Punjabi monthly Watno Dur and now co-edits a quarterly, Watan. He is a founding member of Vancouver Sath, a theatre collective, Ankur and various other literary and cultural organizations. He sat on the BC Arts Board from 1993 to 1995.

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