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THE CONNECTION BETWEEN RELIGION AND POLITICS

Swami Prakashananda has asked me to speak on the topic, “The Connection Between Religion and Politics.”  I wondered why he chose me. I thought it might be because I am that complex human being who presents a challenge for many persons, in that they find politics to be incompatible with a religious orientation, and would prefer to see the politician and the religious person as two distinct individuals. I want to tell you that the compatibility challenge is also one that I have not found an answer to, but I remain convinced that involvement in the political affairs of my country is important if those things which contribute to a better quality of life for citizens are to be secured, and as well if this society is to function upon a foundation of values that expresses itself in good governance is to be achieved. Indeed, may I say that religion and religious ideals have strengthened my resolve as a politician. As a Hindu I subscribe to that stream of the Hindu tradition that emphasizes action in society karma yoga (action) and dharma (righteous/ethical conduct). Both of these in my view find their expression in politics. Politics is karma for the sake of a better society. Dharma is about the ethical boundaries within which karma takes place.

 

                       The basic question for me is: How can you improve the standard of living and standard of life of people if you do not become actively involved in contributing to the policies and laws that guide decisions that affect people in a democratic society? It is an issue that faced Gandhiji about which he remarked as follows:

                      “I felt compelled to come into the political field because I found I could not do even social work without touching politics. I feel that political work must be looked upon in terns of social and moral progress. In a democracy no fact of life is untouched by politics.

                        For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concern nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth. For me, God and Truth are convertible terms, and if anyone told me that God was a god of untruth or a God of torture, I would decline to worship Him. Therefore, in politics also, we have to establish the kingdom of Heaven.”

                        Having and exercising a voice is crucial. If it is, that modern day societies are governed by political parties in Government, as is our case, and, if further, the “winner takes all” syndrome dominates political governance, then as a Hindu, committed to the principle of dharma (ethical conduct), you should find it hard pressed to sit by and see injustice, inequality of treatment and poor governance, without doing something to change it. In a society like ours where there is a clear division in terms of political behavior between the races, the tendency of race based political parties to secure the interests of their own is a real outcome. The situation for Hindus in Trinidad is made even more complex by the fact that Hindus have supported parties which except for one particular excursion into Government in 1995, Hindus have remained mainly  in opposition. As we well know, in a first past the post system opposition politics can prove to be very futile. A Hindu by his beliefs subscribes to fairness and equality of opportunity, to ethical conduct and to integrity and morality in public affairs, to dharma. Where conditions exist in a society which undermines these, it is the duty of a Hindu to not sit by as a spectator but to intercede. Politics and the power that is derived thereof  influences, and one may say may at times even determine the physical, social and economic landscape of the future and as well the distribution of wealth and opportunities. The position of Hindus in political life today has a lot to do with how Hindus traditionally delegate authority to politicians who rarely serve their cause after election, and especially in opposition. Hindus have a duty to themselves to lead themselves  and as well other like minded persons committed to the nation’s welfare into government or alternatively, to abandon the policy of delegating politicians to act on their behalf and instead begin to forge political alliances that would serve the social and economic interest of the society as a whole. If the goal of religion is the happiness of the people, then politics is the vehicle for at least the secular happiness that people want, the vehicle for a higher standard of life and a higher standard of living. The fulfillment of such material goals is understood as an aid to focusing on the ultimate goal of liberation (moksha).

 

                        Hindus in Trinidad, though they have done well economically and academically, they have not been able to affect governance and create a political environment within which space they feel very comfortable. They have done well, despite the politics. Taking advantage of opportunities afforded by the state and persevering through sacrifice, they have educated their children out of poverty and the cane fields It has been due to their vision, ambition and determination to advance themselves. This attitude towards self improvement and the advancement of their status has been inspired by their religious ideals. The ideal of Hinduism is excellence. The reason why Hindus have not been able to affect the quality of governance is very simple. I have given you one reason, the policy of delegating authority for their political welfare to others. Secondly, it is all about the “crab in the barrel” syndrome. Unless the ideals of personal sacrifice, team and  selflessness are made  living values in the lives of our politicians, and unless there is a demonstrable commitment to “lip ideals” of unity and people first, marginalization would continue to be felt whether real or perceived, and as well the opportunity to shape the future through the quality of governance would be stymied.

 

                        Hindus and their religious leaders must now come forward as they have never done before and demand of the politicians who have office as a result of generations of loyalty and support, that they act in the interest of all the  people, Hindus and non Hindus alike. The fate of this country is not dependent on any one group but on all groups. The Hindu sees all human beings as equal and deserving of equal treatment. The Hindu must fight equally for a Christian and a Muslim and a Baptist and a Pentecostal and a Bahai as he would fight for a Hindu. This is the right and duty of religious leaders whose first commitment should be the happiness and prosperity of the people. A religious leader would be failing in his duty towards his followers, if he does not intervene and ensure that the political welfare of his followers are secured. What is the value of religion if it cannot cause to be changed the conditions that prevent security and happiness in a society? Sure enough, religion is intended to foster faith in God and in oneself, to be courageous, to become a better human being, to live a human values based life. However, a religion that is worth its salt would be a religion that inspires action on the part of its followers to fight against the moral and social ills of society by engaging the governors of the political system.

 

                        To quote Gandhiji again, “I claim that human mind or human society is not divided into watertight compartments called social, political and religious. All act and react upon one another. Human life being an undivided whole, no line can ever be drawn between its different compartments, not between ethics and politics.” Religious leaders have a duty to point out to politicians that they must conduct themselves guided by the spirit of Yagna, which is to sacrifice one’s best skills and resources for the benefit of the community  and to do so without attachment. This is the clarion call of Krishna in Bhagavad Gita. The following quotation is instructive.

“One should leave a single person for the sake of a family;   for the sake
                         of a village he should abandon a family; a village he should renounce for the sake of a country, and for the sake of his soul, the earth.”                    
The Hitopadesa (600-1100 A.D)

One has to congratulate the Maha SAbha for fighting issues that should have been settled long ago had politicians imbued with a sense of justice acted as such. Too often we allow our politicians to excuse inaction by the question, “How it go look?” rather than by the question, “What is right?” I refer to the struggle of the Maha Sabha to obtain a Radio License compared to one being given within twenty four hours to a well known supporter of the then government in power. I refer to the struggle of the Maha Sabha for equality of treatment in a secular state by having the highest national award changed from the Trinity Cross. Today we still have in a supposedly secular Parliament the use of “Amen” at the end of the Parliamentary prayer. Where are the Hindu voices in Parliament, or are Hindus only worth a vote? Having noted the struggles of the Maha Sabha, it is disconcerting to say the least that Hindus do not put forward as they should their views on national issues, bringing to bear their religious position on these matters. For example, what is the Hindu position on the death penalty, on abortion, on policies dealing with the distribution of houses, on the Government’s failure to provide information on scholarships granted through the Ministry of Community Development in what appears as a shrouded programme of affirmative action. Where is the Hindu voice on matters of the environment and climate change? Where was the Hindu voice with respect to the recent attempts by the Ministry of Education to change the way parents picked places for their SEA children? If the Hindu voice was strong, would Government have been able to dismantle Caroni as it so easily did and with it shatter the lives of so many? On a more wider scale, where is the Hindu voice in Trinidad that speaks out to the Indian Government with respect to Ram Sethu, the recently discovered bridge built by Hanuman and Nal and Neel to bridge India and Lanka? In all of these matters, what does religion teach us, ask of us? And if we fail to act, is religion then of any worth?

                        I am powerfully reminded of  the despondent Arjuna in Bhagavad Geeta and the Lord’s re-education of his heart. He used every excuse available to him not to engage in battle with an army amongst whom were his friends and family.

                        Bh. Gita Chapter 2: 31-34

                        “Again looking at your own duty as well, you should not waver; for there is nothing more welcome toa Kshatriya than righteous war.

                       Happy are the Kshatriyas, O Partha who obtain such a warfare that comes

                       unsought as an open door to heaven. But if you will not wage this righteous warfare then forfeiting your own duty and honour, you will incur sin. People will ever recount your infamy. To the honoured, infamy is surely worse than  death.”

                       How does our religion inspire us to perform our duty? Our religion does not teach us to be cowards but to fight for righteousness. Where is this battle to take place. Yes, it is a personal battle within each of us as we struggle to ward off irreligious tendencies in our own behaviors. But at the level of society, how can we continue to be inactive when our very lives and institutions that govern us are under threat, if not from bandits and rapists, but also from corrupt officials. How can we be politically inactive when Mark Presscott and Vijay Persad vanish into thin air, when Pixie Lakhan is found brutally murdered within walking distance of her home, when a grandmother in Macaualy is murdered for her jewellery by cold blooded bandits, when taxi drivers are kidnapped and murdered as they seek to work honestly, when the murder rate goes to 540 plus in one year. Where is the Hindu voice that allows the denigration of our cultural traditions by allowing devotional songs to be called “hot chutney?’ Why have we not walked into radio stations and demanded a stop to this brutality by those radio station owners who claim to be pushing the culture. Why have we allowed so many rum songs to degrade the Indian person giving rum drinking a celebrity status? Why do we continue to place our Ramayan Yagnas on radio stations that are so disrespectful to us as Hindus? Why do we allow this de-culturalization to take place? This is also a form m of murder, cultural murder. In the culture of a people resides their way of life, their traditions, morals and rules for ethical conduct, their dharma. WE must strike out at music that batters our way of life. To rise up would be to say something of who we are and what is the destiny we wish to create and uphold. Dharma protects those who protect dharma. This is what our tradition teaches us. Freedom must not be at the expense of another person or another group’s human dignity.

 

                       By our inaction, we are allowing the forces of unrighteousness to govern our lives. We are becoming willing subjects. We can’t beat them, so join them. Is this what our religion teaches? Far from it! Our religion declares that action is greater than inaction. Act we must! We are reactive not proactive. Someone has to die of dengue in Caroni before we force the hands of the authorities to act decisively. Is this what we are doing to ourselves, succumbing with death?

                       We can’t beat them because we are failing to heed the lessons of our religion. When Lord Rama could not gather the resources to search for Sita he formed an alliance with Sugriva. Hanuman became the go between and as the Ramayan indicates, Hanuman having described the circumstances to both sides concluded an alliance of mutual benefit. Are our Hindu leaders learning anything from our scriptures? When Dasrath on one particular morning was putting on the crown, Tulsidas records that he felt as if the grey hairs over his ears were whispering to him that the time to hand over power to Rama had come. Are our leaders learning anything?

 

                       Today, our political representatives are fearful of speaking truthfully to our political leaders. We must remember the famous statement in Sundarakanda of Ramayan. Ravan asked his Ministers to to tell him what should be done in light of the approaching army of Rama.  They laughed and submitted, “Don’t be uneasy. You experienced no difficulty in conquering demons and gods.  Of what account then are these men and monkeys?”

                        Tulsidas then wrote,” When a Minister or a physician or a guru, these three speak pleasing words for fear or hope of reward, the result is that the kingdom, health and faith are all quickly destroyed.” Selfishness and attachment to power and position is our downfall. Hinduism teaches truth in communication. It was Gandhi’s way, the way of truth that vindicated him always.

                        We are fast becoming a society of fence sitters, of spectators to our own plight, fearful of demanding from our leaders answers and solutions to the myriad of social problems that are now part of national life. We are fearful of losing our jobs, our contracts, our lives. We have made an internal pact with ourselves not to interfere in the internal affairs of our country. We have become selfish. We have employed people by way of our right to vote to manage the affairs of our country in our interest. We are failing miserably at the task of evaluating their performance and demanding a better return on the investment of our vote. We have forgotten that we are the managers of the politicians whom we have charged with the responsibility for good governance. We are allowing our narrow self interests as groups, whether ethnic, business or otherwise to rule our capacity for rationality and rational thinking, thereby sacrificing on the altar of self interest our future happiness as a nation. We have for one reason or the other become too complacent to our plight. We have become too distant in terms of our necessary involvement in the management of our country’s affairs. Because of that complacency and a ‘leave it to them attitude’ we have witnessed the collapse of institutions (including the judiciary) that are needed to guarantee a better quality of life. We have become too concerned with which group holds political power rather than choosing the best people and making them accountable for how power delegated to them is used. 

Driving past Tarouba in South Trinidad, there is an area where butchers slaughter sheep and goat for sale. Last Friday, as I drove past that area, as usual there were the butchers in their makeshift stalls plying their trade. Carcasses of sheep and goat were hanging from the ceilings of the stalls awaiting buyers. Around the stalls, and a mere five to ten feet from where the carcasses hung were goats and sheep tethered by strands of rope awaiting slaughter. I could not help but notice the animals feeding as if they had no worry in the world. There, a mere five feet away from where they continued to feed were the carcasses of their kind, who minutes ago were also feeding alongside them. As I drove, I wondered about us as a people. Little did those animals know or appreciate that within an hour or so their lives would be snuffed out and they will be no more. They continued to feed. 

This scene caught my attention, for what I saw was my country and its peoples and leaders. I saw a country where the people are being butchered fully within the sight of each other, but yet there is inaction on the part of the very people whose lives are in danger. I am not here talking about the daily murders due to gang warfare. I am talking about the butchering of decent law abiding citizens who are seeing their hopes being dashed by leadership inaction and collapsing or collapsed institutions. When the havans of the sages were being destroyed, Sage Vishvamitra came to Dasartha and asked for Rama and Lutchman to go with him . Dasratha sent them though he was emotional. When evil persists we must rise to destroy it! At Tarouba, I saw sheep and goat destined to die and I wondered whether the same fate awaits our citizens. I also saw a country where the people are being fed on the largesse that is available by way of the bounty of gas and oil prices, where profits are being made, where business is good, and where the people enjoying the bounty have become immune and blind, have become complacent to the point of ignoring the signs of danger that now are no longer lurking in the distance and in the darkness but have arrived and have boldly taken their seats of honor amongst us. The disease of complacency complicated by inaction is the most dreaded social disease now prevalent in our country. Hinduism does not preach inaction!

 

                       Jatayu was not indifferent to the plight of Sita and sacrificed his life to save her from the kidnapper Ravan. Hanuman on his way to Lanka was given the opportunity to rest but stated, “how can I rest while the work of Rama remains unfinished?”  What was the work of Rama? It was the destruction of evil in all its manifestations, including Ravana and the freedom of Sita. Sita the kidnapped is today symbolic of all of us who cannot walk the streets as feely as we want, under house arrest by the criminal gangs and an unenthusiastic administration, under house arrest by a failing judicial system which takes many years to dispense justice. In the meantime we live in fear. Where is the Hindu voice that decries the failure of the judicial system to act speedily?

 

                       What is the goal of religion? Religion, is meant to ennoble human beings by inculcating in them such noble values of love, truth, compassion, justice and  service to humanity.  

                        Politics is the art of maximizing people’s wellbeing, which is also its spiritual vocation. So it has to be imbued with the values that religion teaches. It is for this reason that religion and politics cannot be divorced from each other.

                        What then is the problem between religion and politics? Whenever the commitment to people’s welfare declines and politicians become parasites, they tend to use religion for purposes of legitimization without the willingness to abide by religious ideals and values. The managers of religion, famished as they are for power and glory, fall to the temptation of cultivating politicians, often unmindful of the cost involved. The result is that politicians use religious leaders who, in turn, use politicians. Between them they corrupt both religion and politics. So, in point of fact, what we see today is not the mixing of religion and politics but the skeletons of both rattling in a demonic dance of corruption and irreligion.

 

                        Swami Prakashananada asked me to speak on the connection between politics and religion. I want to end with a short story. But before that what kind of action is required to engender the change. Firstly, action that is taken must be in conformity to Hindu ideals. In the case of Ravan, Rama sent envoys to speak to him in the form of both Angada and Hanuman. Persuasion is a valid form of action and could take the form of forums. Persuasion must be rationally founded and positions must be researched and stand the test of scrutiny. In a multi religious and multi ethnic, multi cultural society it must serve the national interest. Secondly, Hindus must become more active in politics. They must enter the Parliament and Local Government and use the system to influence the direction of the society. Thirdly, they must work within the laws to secure justice, like the Maha Sabha has done. Fourthly, they must propose a new agenda for change based on one of the most powerful examples ever, Ram Rajya of Sri Rama. Fourthly, they must abhor the use of violence to achieve change. The damage done through violence for change is often irreparable.

 

                       There was a king who ruled his kingdom wisely. He spent his time trying to improve the lives of his subjects. One day the king decided to see for himself how people lived in his kingdom. Early one morning, dressed as an ordinary citizen, he secretly mounted his horse and rode into town. The citizens were still not out in the streets. The king stopped at one place where the dirt road was narrowing somewhat. He tied his horse by the side of the road and then dug a hole right in the middle of the road. Therein he placed a metal jar wrapped in a piece of cloth. Then the king brought a stone that was lying on the side of the road and placed it on the hole, completely covering the hole. The king then mounted his horse and went up a nearby hill. Hiding behind a tree, the king looked down at the stone in the middle of the road

                       A farmer was the first to appear. He was driving his cart with fresh-produce for the vegetable market. He saw the stone in the middle of the road and thought to himself, “It looks like this stone has been lying here in the middle of the road for some time but the people here are not bothered about removing the stone to one side. Each person thinks only for himself. People here are so lazy!” And the farmer carefully drove past avoiding the stone.

                        A little while later, a policeman was seen walking down the road. He was looking smart in his impressive police-uniform. He was walking and looking at the headlines in the newspaper. He tripped by the stone and very nearly hit the ground. He thought about the carelessness of the people, spoke some angry words and went away.

                       Then a milkmaid came along, singing aloud to attract the attention of the residents in nearby houses. She had one milk container on her head and another she carried by her side. Making her way down the road, looking to the left and now looking to the right.

                        Her foot hit the stone and she lost balance. The milk container on her head fell to the ground spilling all the milk. The milkmaid said that the people of this town are so thoughtless. How can they leave such a big stone in the middle of the road and not worry about it? Don’t they know that people can get tripped by the stone! She collected her milk pot and went away.

                        Some merchants came down the road driving their horse-cart at high speed. One wheel of the cart hit the stone and some goods fell on to the road. Looking at the stone in the middle of the road, they said the people here are so useless. Who knows for how long this stone is lying in the middle of the road but no body takes any notice of it! No one takes the trouble to remove this stone from the middle of the road! Mumbling some swear words the merchants collected their goods and drove away.

                        A newly qualified Brahmachari (student) came walking down the road. As soon as he saw the stone in the middle of the road, he remembered the lessons he was taught by his Guru (teacher). His Guru had taught him that his first duty is to himself. If ever his life was in danger, then he must try everything possible, to preserve his life. Higher than that is the duty to his family. If ever it became necessary to give up his life to save his family, then let it be so. Higher than that is his duty to the community. If he has to sacrifice his life, and sacrifice his family for the good of the community, then the interest of the community comes first. Higher than that is the duty to the nation. If it calls for the sacrifice from the individual, his family and his community for the good of the nation, then the interest of the nation takes precedence. Higher than that is the duty to the whole of humanity.

                        The Brahmachari immediately removed the stone from the middle of the road. There underneath the stone he saw this bundle wrapped in a cloth with a hand-written note fastened to the cloth. The note read:

                       “ This stone was placed here by your king. Whoever takes the trouble of removing the stone, thereby thinking about the good of the people, can keep this metal jar and its contents. And the king would like to meet this person.”

                        The Brahmachari opened the metal jar and was amazed to see that it was filled with gold coins. He was very pleased.

Next day the Brahmachari went to meet the king. The king could make out the good character of this Brahmachari. He was noble-minded and unselfish. The Brahmachari would give rather than take. A person with such charitable heart is a credit to the human race.

The king made the Brahmachari his chief minister who helped the king rule the kingdom for many a long years.

And the example set by the Brahmachari taught a valuable lesson to the citizens of this kingdom. They changed their attitude from ‘taking’ to ‘giving’. This attitude they applied in their personal life, family matters, community affairs, and in their national life. Now every body was so courteous, so very thoughtful and caring for the needs of others. The kingdom prospered and became a veritable heaven on earth.

 

                       Maybe I should add something on Ram Rajya……………….

BY SURUJRATTAN RAMBACHAN

         DELIVERED AT THE CHIMMYA  ASHRAM  DECEMBER 30TH 2008.

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