Monday, March 2, 2009

Changing nature of religious following

One of the more interesting recent developments in our religious landscape has been the sharp increase in the numbers of pilgrims visiting the major temples and other popular religious sites. This has also coincided with a spurt in the popularity of certain festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi, Holi, Dussehra and Diwali, and increased youth participation in these pilgrimages and festivals.

The more popular explanations of these trends claim that Indians have become more religious as they try to find their anchors and spiritual moorings that have been dislocated by the fast pace of modern lifestyles. However, I am inclined to believe that these trends have their explanations in more real world developments happening around us.

The technological and economic developments of recent years have made information and awareness about various things and issues pervasive and transportation much more affordable. Coupled with this has been the spectacular economic progress which has increased people's disposable incomes. The result has been that many times more people find it easier, affordable and imperative to make these pilgrimages. If previously people used to go to Tirupathi once in five years, today they visit once every three to four months! As with other similar modern trends, more people going on pilgrimages begets more people to follow suit!

Similarly, there has been a sharp increase in people undertaking pilgrimages which involve the abstinence and penance for a few days or weeks. Apart from the aforementioned issues, there may be a religious and spiritual dimension to this trend. In a fast moving world, the followers consider the limited period of penance and abstinance mandatory for these pilgrimages as a convenient way to cleanse and absolve themselves of their pent up spiritual and religious guilt.

An approach to religious practice that takes into account the practical realities of everyday lives and focusses on loosely following the more universal of rituals, practices and festivals, as opposed to a strict adherence to the scriptures and religious word, can be defined as "diffuse" religion. An approach that involves strict adherence to rituals and scriptures, and abstinance and penance, typifies "thick" religion. In many ways, the former is more inclusive, while the later more exclusive. Inclusiveness brings along with it the numerous advantages of "network effects", that helps rope in people in increasing numbers.

The "thick" religion is not likely to make much progress in, leave alone winning new recruits, retaining its existing followers. In contrast, a religion (or dimension of the religion) that focusses on the inclusive aspects offers numerous attractions to its followers, besides the flexibility and freedom.

Festivals like Diwali, Holi, and Ganesh Chaturthi have a collective celebration and entertainment dimension that often over-rides the strictly religious and ritualistic dimension. They are classic examples of characteristics of "diffuse religion". The popular symbols associated with these festivals - crackers, colors, and processions - provide an opportunity to have collective fun and enjoyment, obvious attraction to everyone, more so the youth.

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