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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

Might of Religion Revalidated in Myanmar

Monday 22 October 2007, by Samit Kar


Religion is usually considered as a tranquillising force. It dulls the pain and suffering of the teeming millions and leads individuals to a world of mystic glory. But in reality, religion does have a great power—which may even lead to a great turbulence and initiate mighty social change against the commanding heights of an autocratic regime. The recent development in Myanmar and the sustained movement of the Buddhist monks and nuns have exposed the limitations of the apparently strong military regime of this country. The way the United Nations, the US Government and the UK Government have expressed their firm solidarity with the agitating monks have left men to wonder whether a change of rulers in Myanmar is in the offing.

There is a further apprehension that this combine may have plans to dislodge the military government and create a defence base at this strategically vantage position in order to extend its sway over the entire lucrative South-East Asia. Therefore, their penchant is more for the market rather than to protect democracy in a military nation. But as a whole, it may establish the paramount power of religion—much in violation to the long standing perception that religion happens to be a tranquilliser in the psyche of humans.

It indeed has the intrinsic capacity to wreak havoc to the societal equilibrium—causing great social churning and often leading to a remarkable social change. It did happen in Poland and in many other countries and now it may be the turn of Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General, senior authorities of the US and UK governments in a significant appeal to the neighbouring countries surrounding Burma urged that all should come forward and extend their maximum possible co-operation to the peaceful protestors—an appeal, basically intended to excommunicate the military regime of this country from the other South-East Asian nations. But interestingly enough India and Russia have rubbished away the idea saying that the entire happening in Myanmar is their internal matter. China has solidly objected to any form of economic blockade, an idea mooted by this combine perhaps with an ulterior motive.

The monks, with strong patronage from various Western international fora, have been agitating for the last few months demanding protection of democratic rights, safeguarding humanitarian values and extension of democratic rights to one and everyone in Myanmar. Till now the military junta of Myanmar is yet to get any support from any nation. In a way, the protestors have already started enjoying a big international camaraderie including three vital pivots, the UN, the UK and US governments extending their full support in unequivocal terms. Therefore, the military junta may ultimately prove to be a fragile outfit and make way for the initiation of a government led by religious monks and nuns—a governing outfit based on religiosity.

Religion is often understood as a system of belief, practice and ritual—signifying a particular way of life. The persuasion of a way of life is not always similar in magnitude, especially considering the component of belief. Religious beliefs often become stereo-typed and, in some cases, enmeshed in orthodoxy. Orthodoxy germinates intolerance and in some distinct cases animosity towards other religious affiliations with a strong sense of belongingness. The sense of belongingness or togetherness was more distinctly observable in small scale societies—with members having a close face-to-face relationship, residency within a particular neighbourhood and simplicity of life remaining an important hallmark. Therefore, religion, though a crystallising force, is not always a great tranquilliser. But the popular idea regarding religion is just the reverse.

In modern times, the features of religion do resemble the characteristics of a primary group— considering the strong in-group bondage among the members of some religious groupings. These groupings not only have a strong internal cohesion, but a bitter feeling of hatred is also noticeable in a few cases. Religious intolerance is thus an integral part of religion—though it is not a rule that all religious groupings pursue a similar nature of orthodoxy and intolerance.

The power of religion is considered to be of supreme value. Religion is understood to be a force which can make a man emboldened with the power of spiritualisation and can make him an engine of social change. It can make a man undergo change—both internally and externally. Internally speaking, it can make transformation of understanding of the self possible and the transformed self may be able to play a virtuous role to posit a social change towards a desired destination. The role of religion in conditioning the social structure is not always without debate. Some critics have argued that religion was able to lead society towards a new social order. It does have the power to create and recreate society ceaselessly. But the role of religion was not equally acknowledged by every school of social thought.

Social thought stands clearly divided on the question of the role of religion. There has been a clear absence of unanimity in understanding the nature of social impact of religion. But there is a universal discord in judging what role religion plays in society. This discord was not only seen in the ideas of social theorists and their interpretations, but in creating a wide gulf between the apparent unified body of knowledge of social science. The principal dividing line between Marxian Sociology and mainstream Sociology was found to mainly rally around the issue of religion with Karl Marx and Max Weber clearly giving the lead. The role of Emile Durkheim was no less important and stands to provide the primary lead in mainstream Sociology.

Marx’s understanding of religion was specific and monolithic. Religion is the opium of the people, he contended. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature. It is heart to the heartless, soul to the soulless and it (only) temporarily dulls the pain which the working class suffers in the yoke of capitalist exploitation. Religion is a philosophical veil in the hands of the owners of the means of production and the basic tenet of religion teaches the working class only to render meek submission and relentless obedience. Thus, Marx understood that the struggle of the working class against the inhuman exploitation should also be related with the wider struggle against religion—whose only mission is to make the subjugation of a class-dominated society appear rational and logical.

Contrary to the understanding of Marx and his followers, the first crack in the socialist world surfaced in Poland—a next-door neighbour of the erstwhile Soviet Union—in 1981 when Lech Walesa gave leadership to the Polish Solidarity Party with the principal demand to render the Polish working class with the right to participate in the religious activities of the Christian Churchhood. For example, they began to demand attending Sunday Church-masses, a right which they had been stripped off after the ascendance of socialism in Poland following World War II.

When Poland was virtually torn into pieces with violent protest-demonstrations of the working class with the demand to gain free access to the Church—which they were not getting since the emergence of socialism in the late 1940s—the initial reaction across the world was anything but mixed. The socialist world tried to rubbish away the demand—calling it a product of the machinations of the capitalist world. The capitalist world, on the other hand, tried to uphold these developments in Poland as a new journey to a great beginning—leading to the fall of socialism—the wish which ultimately materialised within a relatively short span of time.

Amidst such claims and counter-claims, Lech Walesa was able to soon prove his undisputed strong base within the fold of the Polish working class and the might of the Polish Solidarity Party became a matter of fact. Walesa became the President of Poland and the rot within socialism gave a green signal for a great journey ahead. The great strategic power of monopoly capitalism was getting marginalised vis-à-vis religion, and an apparent medium of subjugation. Myanmar is repeating this history. The impact of the strategic power was successfully negated by Soviet socialism in the two great World Wars.

The Soviet Union as a superior socialist power was often equated with its undisputed superiority in the realm of defence and space research. The capitalist world tried to check the Soviet march towards the attainment of a big success. But it failed. But the failure of capitalism to provide a check to the Soviet Union and its socialist allies was found to be successful with religion emerging as a handy weapon to offer a potent destructive force to set the pace for disintegration of mighty socialism and paving way for the growth of a market economy in its place. It is not easy to believe the unthinkable potency of religion— remaining latent in human psyche as a thoroughly disguised force and yet its power is so enormous that it could torment the colossal superiority of a gigantic socialism which the US strategic power was unable to contain. This social fact depicting an unfathomable power of religion needs a new relook. Religion, in apparent terms, is a conservative force. But in reality its strength is virtually limitless. This is not a contention but a proven fact.

The German Sociologist, Max Weber, in his seminal essays did point to the efficacy of religion in the rapid spurt of industrial capitalism. He said Protestant ethic is the main catalytic factor in the spread of Western capitalism. Emile Durkheim and Weber have detailed out the immense contribution of religion in various spheres of societal development—much to the chagrin of the Marxists. The social facts in Poland and Myanmar have perhaps made many a Marxist to have a rethink on religion. Is the might of psyche becoming a more dominating force in place of human collectivity under the impact of the state-of-the-art technology where collectivism is making way for staunch individualism to blossom?

The author is a Reader, Department of Sociology, Presidency College, Kolkata.

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