"Today’s Bengali youth is no longer afraid to express his religious self," said an article in The Telegraph yesterday. It quotes a lecturer in Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) prestigious Presidency College who says his students are much more religious than he and his peers.
The lecturer, Prasanta Ray, who studied political science in the same college in the 1960s, says: "We were more secular. We grew up being exposed to a Marxist critique of religion — religion as a source of oppression, a justification for exploitation. In fact, in Bengal, education in the social sciences was modelled on the western value system — rationality, objectivity, scrutiny, secularity."
I myself was a student in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1960s and ’70s and remember the leftist ethos very well. It was the rich and the hippies who joined the Hare Krishna movement. While religion was very much a part of the lives of the poor and the middle class above a certain age, it was not something we discussed among friends when we were young. I did attend prayers with my relatives and have always believed in God, but when I mentioned those prayer meetings to my friends, some of them laughed. Religion did not matter very much to my friends who were more interested in cricket, literature, arts and culture and the social sciences.
Ray is right when he says our education was modelled on the western system, but he is being too simplistic when he equates the western system with "rationality, objectivity, scrutiny, secularity." If that was all the West had to teach, there would be no Christians in America or Europe. The beauty of western education is that it allows us the freedom to think and believe what we will: it does not insist there is no God but one or that there is no God at all.
If religion is indeed taking hold among young Bengalis once again, they are experiencing the same resurgence of faith that is being reported from America and the Muslim world.
British media of a certain persuasion tend to extol the fact that Britons are less religious than Americans as if it is something to be proud of. They blame the Christian right wing as well as Muslim militants for the current violence and intolerance.
But religion also teaches love and compassion. And can rationality explain everything? For that matter, how objective can we really be?
Sceptics sometimes ask if one has seen God — or if there is God, why does He allow so much suffering and violence in the world. I don’t know. I can only pray to God and hope He listens to my prayers. I say He but as a Hindu I am as likely to pray to a goddess. Maybe for the same reason I turn to Mother Mary. That may make me a bundle of contradictions, but at least I don’t insist my religion is superior to others’, a sure prescription for hate and violence.
Religion is the opium of the masses, said Marx. The poor and the helpless pray to God because they see no other way to get what they want, say some. That’s certainly true of me. God knows I have no alternative but to pray to God. It may be a sign of weakness but what is religion but acceptance of a higher power? I pray to God for the same reason I love being with my wife and my son and chatting with my friends. They are all we have to comfort us.