When I was little, I used to think that people who performed elaborate rituals and ceremonies, spent long hours memorizing and reciting scriptures and talking about them, donated vast amounts of money to priests and places of worship, kept regular fasts, travelled to places on pilgrimage, wore special “religious” clothing and sported special markers indicating a “pious” identity were all really very “religious” people.
I saw them as especially “holy”, set apart from the rest of humankind.
Maybe, I suspected, they had a very special link with God, that others, including I, didn’t.
Mavbe, I used to be greatly in awe of such people. At the same time, it also made me feel very inadequate. After all, I didn’t do all the many “religious things” that they did. The short, hurried prayer that I said before meals and at night, before going to bed, was nothing compared to the many “religious things” that these people were known for. I was definitely not remotely as “holy” as they were.
At least that was what I used to think.
Almost half a century later, it’s wonderful to see how my opinions have changed—on a great many issues, including on what it means to be “religious”.
Being “religious”, I used to think, was all about doing certain “religious things”: saying certain prayers (in a certain specified way and at certain special times, and, often, in certain special places and “holy” buildings), reciting certain litanies (in a particular “holy” language and style), making certain offerings, performing certain rituals, travelling to certain “holy” places, sporting certain external symbols, wearing certain special dress, eating certain foods and abstaining from others, avoiding eating on certain days. And so on.
It wasn’t I alone who thought that this was what being “religious” was all about. Most people I knew thought quite the same way. Being “religious”, it was believed, was essentially about doing or performing certain “religious” acts, rather than being a certain way. It was all about the “religious actions” that you did. How you were as a person—the quality of your being—didn’t seem to matter much, or even at all, compared to the “religious actions” you did.
You could be a very kind and gentle person, and could even love God deeply in your own, unannounced, way, but if you didn’t do the “religious things” people thought “being religious” entailed, not many would consider you “religious”. Contrarily, if you had, for instance, a foul temper, or if you were cruel to your wife, kids and home-help, but if, at the same time, you did some of the many “religious things” that people thought went with “being religious”, they’d all marvel at how very “religious” you were!
The “religious things” or “religious actions” one did were considered an end in themselves, the very core of “being religious”. That’s how religiosity was widely understood.
Maybe it’s still the case even today.
Fortunately, I’ve passed through and out of that phase now. I definitely don’t discount the importance of “religious things”—prayer, pilgrimage, reading scriptures and fasting, for instance. In fact, I recently started doing some of these things myself. They are a crucial part of my life now, and I know they are, or can be, greatly beneficial in helping one connect with and recollect God. I recognise now how important these things are for many of us (myself included), to keep our ever-wandering minds focussed on God, to remember Him and to thank and praise Him.
At the same time, though, I’m now aware that these actions are not intended to be an end in themselves. They are meant to be only a means—an important means, nonetheless, and indispensable for almost all of us—to serve a higher purpose: to communicate with and relate to God and to lead the sort of life that God wants us to.
Making what are conventionally thought of as “religious actions”, such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and rituals, into an end in themselves, rather than considering them as the means they are meant to be, is, I think, a form of idolatry which many of us do not care about, or even want to recognise.
If you consider the seemingly never-ending rivalries of different sects of religionists, you will discern that it is often linked to this form of idolatry. Much inter-religious strife is about rival claimants squabbling about the supposed supremacy of one set of “religious actions” over others. A group of people who claim to follow one religion insist that the set of “religious actions” that they perform—their particular method of prayer or fasting, for instance—is the only one favoured by God. Their rivals argue on exactly the same lines as well. The scene is then set for interminable inter-community conflict. Often, this sort of conflict occurs among competing sects within the same larger religious community or tradition—squabbles, that can sometimes been very bloody, over diverse understandings or ways of performing the same set of “religious actions”.
This sort of conflict, between people who claim to follow different religions or different sects within the same broader religious tradition, often happens when we miss the form of “religious actions” for their spirit, when “religious actions” are seen as an end in themselves, and no longer a means, and when people turn these actions (whether they recognise this or not) into idols.
A great deal of pseudo-religious authoritarianism is also rooted in such idolatry. Often, men who claim to be “experts” in the knowledge and practice of “religious actions” exploit their presumed “expertise” in such matters to exercise dictatorial control over others—in the name of God. People who are made to believe that a punctilious performance of these “religious actions”, down to the last dot, is essential to please God easily allow themselves to be completely controlled by such folks.
Related to this is the great sin of what is called “spiritual pride”. It, too, is often inextricably linked to the idolatry that often results from thinking of “religious actions” as an end in themselves, rather than as a means. We can be easily led to delude ourselves into imagining that we are very “pious”, and, therefore, superior to others and particularly close to God and destined for heaven just because we dutifully and unfailingly perform a vast set of “religious actions”—even if these actions do not transform our character at all. Simply because others don’t perform the same set of “religious action” as us or as often as we do, we can be tempted to look down on them and to be filled with pride. Rather than helping us in any way, this sort of idolatry can actually make us even more sinful people–vain, smug, supercilious, self-righteous, and dismissive of, and hostile, to others.
God, different religions tell us, does not need anything at all. And this includes our prayers, our sacrifices, our pilgrimages, our fasts, our special “religious” dress and markers of identity, and so on. Such “religious acts” are something that we might need, but not God.
But why might we need them?
We might need them to help us lead a truly religious life. Their importance lies in being a means or vehicle through which we can remember, adore and glorify God, express our gratitude to and praise of Him, to turn to Him for guidance and help, and so on. They can help us lead God-centred lives. Each time we perform them, we should be led to think of God. But if we make these valuable means into an end in themselves, if we convert them into idols, we lose completely their actual significance. Sometimes, we can even make them take the place of God in our lives.
“Religious actions” can, then, definitely be important, but only if we remember what their actual status is meant to be. If we remember that they are a means, and not an end in themselves, we won’t just pray, for instance, at certain specified times of the day or week, but will allow our prayers to lead us to lead prayerful lives. Our prayers can help transform our entire lives into a prayer. In this way, if God wills, all our “religious actions” can lead us to be transformed into more God-conscious people, filled with love for God and His creatures.
A truly prayerful life isn’t just about the many “religious actions” that we might do. Rather, it’s about the quality of our inner being: the sort of person that we truly are.
The value of our “religious actions” lies in how they work to transform our very beings. If they help us transform into the sort of people God wants us to be, if they help enable us to feel, think, say and do as He wants us to, they serve the purpose for which they were intended. If not, they are, I think, simply a waste of time!
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