If we believe media reports, around Rs 200 crore was spent to celebrate Durga Puja in 4,000-odd puja pandals across Kolkata this year.
Durga Puja celebrations have become sophistically competitive across West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some other States. Puja pandals are made with innovative themes with state-of-the-art technology to attract people.
Some puja committees even attempt to engrave their names in the Guinness World Record. Bishnupur Durga Puja Mandap of Guwahati erected a 101-ft-long idol of Durga made of bamboo, spending approximately Rs 15 lakh for creating the record. It is observed that the number of puja pandals is increasing by the year. Laxmi and Kali Puja follow Durga Puja and we experience the same competitiveness in celebrating them.
In our country, there are millions of places of worship for various religious groups. Indians spend at least 30% of their energy and time in worshipping Gods. People of India donate more generously for construction of temples, churches or mosques than for relief of flood or disaster-affected people. Even the government is keen on holding religious ceremonies like Raksha Bandhan, Namami Gange or Namami Brahmaputra.
The resurgence of religious activism in recent times is a new experience in India, even as the number of non-believers or atheists is increasing across the world. According to the 2012 WIN/Gallup International Survey, the number of atheists is on the rise across the world, with religiosity generally declining.
The non-believers have outnumbered the believers in Norway, where only 37% people believe in God. The rest are either atheists or agnostic. The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the American population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4%.
The least religious nations, according to the study, are China (14% are religious), Japan (16%), Czech Republic (20%), Turkey (23%), Sweden (29%), Vietnam (30%), Australia (37%), France (37%), Hong Kong (38%) and Austria (42%). Figures on the religious landscape differ in different studies; however, the trend holds across all studies.
Atheism and Agnosticism
According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were not religious, 3% were convinced atheists and 3% were unsure or did not respond. Ironically, India has a long history of methodical study of atheism and agnosticism.
Atheism was part of ancient Hindu philosophy in India. Hindu philosophy is divided into two major schools – orthodox and heterodox. While the orthodox school conforms to the Vedas, the heterodox school rejects the Vedas.
Eminent Indian philosopher Debiprasd Chattopadhyay in his book ‘Indian Atheism’ sums up the status of the God in Indian philosophy as follows – ‘Of all the major philosophies, only the Vedanta (with some reservations) and specifically the later version of NyayaVaisesika were theistic. By contrast Buddhism, Jainism, Purva Mimamsa, Samkhya, Lokayata, and Nyaya-Vaisesika in its original form were philosophies of committed atheism. Thus the stupendous importance of atheism in Indian wisdom can be questioned only by disallowing the largest majority of the significant Indian philosophers representing it.”
Many churches in England, Canada and other western countries have either closed or are offering limited services for want of devotees. This happens as the income and standard of life have been elevated in these countries. In contrast to the West, in India not only new places of worship are coming up with increasing number of devotees, many spiritual gurus and godmen are flourishing too.
The exposure of the malicious and criminal character of some these obnoxious gurus have failed to dim their followers’ faith in them. Places of pilgrims and religious places are attracting more people. The faith industry is flourishing in India.
A section of wealthy people is generously donating their ill-gotten money to various places of worship. Some religious bodies run by controversial gurus are increasing their wealth by leveraging advanced communication technology in managing fundraising, their assets and devotees. It is a strange phenomenon that while people of India are becoming poorer, Gods are turning richer.
What do the religious institutions do with this money, gold and other assets donated by the devotees? Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi earns around Rs 12 crore every year. Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust – which administers the Shirdi Temple, has a yearly income of Rs 600 crore. The Ajmer Sharif Dargah’s annual income is reportedly above Rs 200 crore.
However, these religious institutions hardly contribute to the relief of disaster-affected people. Instead, some of them spend money in organising shanti jatras and prayers for flood or earthquake-affected people.
It is time to think if our obsession with religion is adversely affecting us, as we spend a considerable amount of our energy and time in worshipping and other religious activities. China is a fast-growing and large world economy where 86% cent people say they are not religious and 50% say they are atheist. Japan is another such economy where only 16% people say they are religious.
It is not necessary that people have to be atheist or be non-believers for progress. However, to foster development in a country, intensive involvement of all the stakeholders is a must. Devotion and perseverance of people towards development and progress can be achieved if we spend most of our valuable time for achieving progress.
In fact, as per Hindu tradition, Karma (actions or deeds) is the Dharma (religion). If it is so, why should we not spend more time and energy in engaging ourselves in productivity for the progress of the nation?
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)