If lakhs of Naxalites were to block all the roads between Haridwar, Delhi and surrounding areas for nearly a month, virtually shut down Meerut and other nearby towns, torch a few dozen trucks, buses, tractors and petrol pumps and block the bridges in retaliation for the deaths of a few of their colleagues in road accidents, the Government would have responded with alacrity and the army would have acted with an iron hand.
But if these vandals were on a mission of religious piety no political party would dare to interfere.
The season of the ‘Kanwarias’ is upon us again. An estimated seven lakh devotees will block most of the roads from Haridwar to their home towns and villages in a 300-km radius during the lunar month of Shravan.
They are called Kanwarias because these saffron-clad devotees carry small pots of holy Ganga water on their shoulders on a bamboo pole called a Kanwar (pronounced ka-VAD). For the most part, the short pilgrimages are pious and peaceful but for the advent of a new custom of ‘Dak Kanwars’ with groups of running Kanwarias, who run in relays to quickly get to their destinations.
While one devotee runs with the pots on his shoulder, the rest of his team follows on motorcycles, buses, cars or other vehicles and are violently angry if their passage is delayed or stopped.
So for four weeks from late July, it will be nearly impossible for children to get to school in this area or for mourners to take the ashes of their departed for immersion to Rishikesh or Haridwar. Ambulances will become virtually immobile, fire brigades, police and other emergency vehicles will find it difficult to operate.
This custom was almost unknown a decade ago and was transplanted here during the period of BJP rule from a similar custom that began many years earlier in Sultanganj near Bhagalpur in Bihar. This annual migration with its raucous religiosity is a very far cry from the quiet spirituality of true religion.
The custom has no place in any of the Hindu scriptures but has become a popular act of piety in which both the devotees as well as the numerous supporters providing them with food, refreshments and shelter believe that they will gain ‘punya’ or good karma for a “better” next life. Professional priests also encourage many sit-at-home donors to hire Kanwarias to earn punya by proxy for them.
Priests of all religions have for many centuries exploited gullible devotees by persuading them that they would earn many otherworldly rewards in exchange for donations, pilgrimages, fasts, sacrifices or austerities. With surprising speed, new religious customs explode.
Soon even the less credulous succumb to the comfort of going with the flow rather than face the possible wrath of the heavens, the anger of priests or the public by challenging the authenticity of such customs or by defying the demands of devotees.
Paradoxically such customs were not the command of the sages, prophets or founders of any religion. None of them had asked for temples, mosques or churches let alone the colourful trappings or demonstrations of religion with sacred robes, triumphant flags, loud religious music or colourful processions.
But power corrupts and the priests of all faiths are intoxicated by the power that religiosity gives them. Politicians happily support religiosity that can serve their political agendas. With amazing speed, the social and moral ideas of the founders become lost in an ocean of meaningless rituals and superstitions. Outward form becomes more important then inner substance and religiosity masquerades as religion.
But curiously, it is at this stage of the most feverish religiosity that religions have collapsed. History shows that new reformers disgusted with empty rituals, superstitions and the arrogance of the priests have always appeared to break away to become the founders of new faiths.
Zoroaster and Buddha, disgusted with the sacrifices of the old Avestan and Vedic priests, founded simple new faiths. Jesus, horrified by the excesses of Jewish priests who had made their house of prayer into a ‘den of thieves’, founded Christianity. Muhammad, appalled by the sacrifices to 365 idols at Mecca, founded Islam.
Martin Luther appalled by the ridiculous ‘indulgences’ of Catholic priests, who offered places in heaven in exchange for donations founded Protestantism. Guru Nanak contemptuous of the empty rituals of Brahmanism founded Sikhism. Dayanand Saraswati disturbed by more recent Brahmin excesses, founded the Arya Samaj to try to bring Hinduism back to the purity of simple Vedic concepts.
But the insidious influence of ritual and superstition is difficult to eradicate. Many millions of insecure or gullible people are easy prey. Rituals, penances, processions and offerings packaged as joyous distractions cost much less than the effort of understanding and practicing the deeper moral, social and philosophical tenets of religion.
So populist priests and charlatans thrive and ritual and superstition have crept into all the practiced forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths.