Religion and Faith: Leaders and Followers

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The Wheel of Dhamma depicting the Buddha teaching his first lesson in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh.

ON DRIVE with Sham Samaroo
November 3, 2023

Karl Marx believed religion to be the opium of the people. Is it religion or is it the leaders the guilty party here? History has shown that often it’s the leaders who use religion to indoctrinate and subjugate their followers, and enrich their coffers. Religions are simply different paths leading to the same destination whatever, whoever, one perceives that to be. Practiced well, can religion be a force for peace and love among peoples in the world? Is it possible to have faith in a higher consciousness; in some unseen force? Emmanuel Kant showed that we cannot go beyond reason. Others argue that that is exactly where religion takes a stand, and seeks something higher than reason through faith. Still others disagree, saying that that is just pie in the sky, wishful thinking. But its proponents point out that it is not just blind faith. It is a belief that entertains, only, the possibility of finding something higher than reason through faith.

Of course it is quite easy to poke holes in religious beliefs because they are often shrouded in myths and legends. For example, there is the belief in the historical existence of the holy land and its chosen people, which begs the question: At what point in history did God become a real estate agent? Another belief talks of the angel Gabriel and a journey to Jerusalem in a dream. Sounds like a fairy tale? Then there is too the belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet another belief holds of the existence of numerous gods and deities. Each of these beliefs requires, to some degree, a suspension of disbelief – a leap of faith, if you will (no pun intended). Does that mean that they are untrue? They may or may not be. It all comes down to one’s belief, one’s faith, doesn’t it? The mind is its own place, says John Milton, and can make a heaven of hell, or hell of heaven.

The Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first lesson after gaining enlightenment.

Marx’s position on religion, like so many of his theories, was a half-truth in search of its other half. So what/who is the other half? The evidence is overwhelming. Many of its leaders use religion as a tool to indoctrinate and enrich. While in Varanasi I visited the city of Sarnath about seven miles away. Traditionally, it is believed that this is where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, gave his first teaching after gaining enlightenment. The Buddha taught a new philosophy, a new way of life to end suffering in the world. But with the death of the Buddha the movement gradually faded. Some hundred years later, Buddhism gained a new lease of life during the Ashoka dynasty. The Hindu king, Ashoka, erected a stupa (monument) in Sarnath in remembrance of the Buddha and that first lesson. In time, the story became the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon and the words stupa and shrine became interchangeable. Was that by chance or were the words sermon and shrine purposefully used to give Buddha’s teachings the imprimatur of a religion? Did the Buddha, who was from a Hindu family, ever saw his philosophy as a new religion? There is absolutely no evidence of that. That came later with the subsequent leaders of Buddhism after the movement gained a rebirth under King Ashoka. Could it be that the leaders understood that by calling it a religion it would attract a larger following?
The love of money is said to be the root of all evil and countless religious leaders have proven that time and again. They fabricate rules, practices, and rituals that have little or nothing to do with religion or faith. Instead these rules and rituals are advanced, nay sanctified, for monetary gains and/or to keep their followers in subjugation. Why did the Sanhedrin leaders sought Jesus’ death? According to the scriptures, from the moment Jesus threatened the purse strings of the money-changers he was a marked man. Jesus said: ‘My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves’ (Exodus 30:11-16). Jesus, the Prophet, was threatening the profits of the leaders.

The Gandhi Charkha Museum in New Delhi

Similarly, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, the Pope issued the famous Papal bull excommunication him, and after that his life was always in danger. Why? Simply because Luther said that man did not need an intermediary, a middle man, between him and God; that man could appeal directly to God. The Papacy saw this as a challenge to the lucrative practice of Indulgences within the church. The practice of Indulgences was – get this – you can earn remission of your sins through a corresponding monetary payment. In other words, salvation became bound up with money. Mind you, there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong if one is moved to make a contribution at one’s place of worship. But that is a far cry from purchasing salvation.
Does the wearing of the burka, the full covering of the body have something to do with religion? History records that back then the covering of oneself was a practical necessity because of the sandstorms that tore the flesh off the body. At some point, it seems it became religious attire promoted by the leaders who were all men. Was this simply a rule to keep women folks in subjugation and submission? In the Hindu faith, there is the caste system promoted by the leaders, the Brahmins. Gandhi called it, “this crime, an evil, a blot on the name of Hinduism”. We see it in Guyana also where the Brahmins, the so called “higher” caste, try to pull rank and social status on their fellow Hindus. These supercilious numbskulls conveniently ignore the fact that all claims to superiority were lost when our ancestors, irrespective of birth or caste, were herded like cattle into the hull of the slave ships. There, the castes intermingled with each other, or to use the clinical terms – they eat, pisx, shxt, and fornicated together for months on the passage to British Guiana. Though the caste system is still evident in parts of India, I also saw that it is changing rapidly. The younger generation subscribes to the Gandhian philosophy that a person’s caste is determined, not by birth but by his dharma – by the life he leads. Something my eldest sister often told me.

The church door in Wittenberg Germany on which Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517

Though religions have been used and abused throughout history by ambitious, and in some cases, fanatic religious leaders, at times aided and abetted by politicians, can religion continue to be a force for good in our world? The consensus is supportive but recognizes the challenges too. Perhaps, as a first principle, followers should hold their leaders accountable. It may be perfectly acceptable for one’s faith in a higher power to transcend the bounds of reason, but one’s faith in the leaders, his fellow man, must be dictated by reason alone.

*Acknowledgement – My ancestors supposedly were from one of the “higher” castes, the Kshatriyas. But that has never meant a thing to my siblings or me.