Author: Girish Balasubramanian.
It has been almost four months since the first case of CoVid-19 was detected as per the official sources in Beijing, China. However, unofficially it has been well over six months since the outbreak of the deadly virus.
As on date, almost the whole world is in the midst of a major Coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing has gained politically correct usage, courtesy the dreaded Coronavirus. Even as the medical fraternity look for answers for a cure for this dreaded virus, the only visible precaution as of now seems to be social distancing and isolation. The effect of this pandemic is to such an extent that world leaders have been forced to change their way of greeting – what used to be a firm handshake has now turned to a ‘Namaste” – forcing the world to recognize the divinity in the other person at least symbolically. Many countries in the grip of this major pandemic have chosen different ways to combat this dreaded virus. For instance, England decided to test the ‘herd immunity’ method and learnt a lesson the hard way while their European counterparts tried by enforcing total lockdowns.
Amidst all this uncertainty and stress, refuge in the divine becomes an actively sought out means of feeling solace. However, this pandemic caught places of worship off-guard. With social distancing becoming the norm, and shutdowns being enforced, the question was whether places of worship should remain open, and whether devotees should be allowed to come for worship or service. Different approaches can be seen in handling this question. In an earlier article, we have understood religion and why religion is adharma. The key take aways for understanding religion are that it has:
- An external God
- A Holy book
- A messiah/prophet to whom God’s sayings were revealed
- History Centrism
- Non-debatable truth claim – that can loosely be translated as my way or highway.
The question also is how does one approach the divine/Ishwara/God under these extraordinary circumstances – here I am using all the three interchangeably – but it is to be noted that God cannot be equated with Ishvara/Bhagwan or Brahman.
With the background of difference between Religion and Dharma, I further propose to present some of the reasons behind the collective responses to CoVid – 19 of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, the three largest global communities with respect to the faith with respect to their places of worship and how Hinduism’s response is very different. This attains more significance especially against the backdrop that close to 30% of the CoVid-19 cases in India are from a “single source event” (As there are orders by the Government of India to be secular/politically correct – I’m refraining from naming the source).
Instances of such single source are not an isolated occurrences particular only to India – they can also be traced to Malaysia – the Tabligh Akbar, and South Korea – Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
There are reports that Church services are yet to be suspended in United States of America. While the Pope held his services in Vatican, one of the holiest places for Christianity, to an empty church, the Church of Holy Sepulchure was also closed around March 26th.It is also interesting to note that Mecca and Medina, considered the holiest places for Islam, were closed by Saudi Arabia around 19th March – when they had around 274 confirmed cases.
Closer home many temples have decided to remain closed for public darshan be it Tirupati, Vaishno Devi, Kashi Vishwanath or the Puri Jagganath temple. The famed Rukuna Rathyatra of the Shri Lingaraj Mahadev in Bhubaneswar was called off due to the CoVid-19 pandemic. Celebrations of the return of Ram lalla were muted this year at his birth place Ayodhya.
Amidst all of this it is worth noting that Hindus in general have abided to the rules/restrictions imposed during the lockdown as far as mass gatherings for religious purposes/dharmic purposes are concerned. The commonality between Islam and Christianity is that both are desert cults and congregational faiths. And they have decided that common rules are not meant for them. Thus, exceptions and violations to the global lockdowns are emanating from the Abrahamic faiths not only in India but also around the world. Hence, despite the strict government orders, the Abrahamic faiths find it necessary and compelling to attend church services or prayer at the mosque on a Friday. So the question that needs to answered is, what is so special about the congregations that compels the individuals to risk their individual and family’s well-being? The Cambridge dictionary defines Congregation as – a group of people who have come together in a religious building for worship and prayer. Congregation word is coined from the Latin word – congregare meaning to collect into a flock.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) defines congregation as – Any local gathering of believers for worship. This can be thought of as a more inclusive term for church, since many religious traditions use different names for their place of worship. Usually this refers to a building or physical structure, but it also could refer to a more fluid group of people without a specific building.
Since this is a meeting usually for worship, one can infer that it would be voluntary. If we go by the basic principles of economics, assuming rationality of an individual, the question would be what would the individual get in return for being a part of such a congregation. Thus, other than being places of worship and reaching out to God, they also act as places which provide the participants with mutually beneficial goods/services. The participants who fail to attend have a fear of missing out (FOMO – in today’s parlance). This also probably also explains why Javed Akhtar, the famed Bollywood script writer agreed ONLY to Tahrir Memood’s request to Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband for a fatwa asking them to close the mosques owing to the pandemic and not the government’s – while the government order clearly states that ALL religious places were to be shut down.
Besides, there is a Holy Book which prescribes a compulsory visit to the place of worship, and failing to do so would earn the ire of God.
In stark contrast the Hindu community did not have any qualms in closing their temples, keeping in mind public good. Dharma can be conceptualized as a set of rules and regulations and Dharmic actions would result in the universal welfare – which probably explains why the devout Hindu has chosen to allow closure of the temples. Not only has the community accepted the closure of temples, but they have also decided to suspend some of the festivals which have been going on since close to 1000 years. It is also to be noted that for a Hindu, it is not mandated in any scripture to visit temples compulsorily, rather the Darshana in the temple is actually a meeting with the Divine. This divine can also be reached from the confines of one’s home. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths/congregating religions, a devotee does not visit a temple in search of material benefits. It is a totally different matter that in these times of crisis, at many places the temple administrations have stepped forward to help individuals who are hungry and without employment. From the Dharmic context, satsang comes closest to the congregation that we talked about earlier. However, the ingenious Hindu has also made use of technology here and there to conduct online satsangs as is being done by Sri Sri Ravishankar, the founder of the Art of Living, an international non-profit educational and humanitarian organization, which conducts online meditation. Similarly, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Foundation also reaches out to his followers through live webcast.
To summarize, I contend that the failure of the Abrahamic faiths are their nature as congregating religions. Consequently, they have had limited ability/success in completely shutting down their places of worship, the injunction of which stems from the holy book and the consequent fear of inviting the wrath of God as well as the FOMO on the material benefits. For the Dharmic, divine is within and can be approached in many ways – as quoted in Brihadarnyaka Upanishad “अहं ब्रह्मास्मि”.
Girish Balasubramanian is an budding academic associated with the Xavier University Bhubaneswar. He is an Electrical Engineer an holds a PhD in Management. He is an avid traveller and likes to experience varied cultures. He also likes Carnatic music, Ghazals and Kabir’s dohas. Read More…
 Taken from Rajiv Malhotra’s book Being Different.
 Chapter 5 ‘Sanskrit Non-translatable’ – Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra.
Featured Image Credit: – https://www.twinkl.co.in/resource/t-t-7234-places-of-worship-display-banner.