A China Guy Goes To India (3): Religion

As we were preparing to set off on our India trip last month (earlier posts here and here) , sitting in a local airport, I happened to be reading a story in The Economist which referred to India as “the world’s most religious country.” I let those words flow through my brain and settle somewhere in a back recess, not sure of what to make of them. Is that true? How can we know if a particular country is the world’s “most religious”? And how does India compare to China in this regard?

The characterization returned to me as we traveled through several states. We went to a couple of Jain temples, one frequented by successful businessmen in busy Mumbai and the other the magnificent Ranakpur Temple.

We also saw innumerable Hindu temples and shrines, large and small, ornate and plain. I was most taken with the small, road-side shrines, obviously frequented daily by many, many believers, dedicated to one of the numerous Hindu gods: Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, or Hanuman, expressed as a monkey, or others.

Most mornings we were woken by the Muslim call to prayer.

In short, it is true that religion, in many forms, is widely practiced in India and, I would venture, such practices are more deeply ingrained into the daily life of more people there than is the case for the different religious environment in China. India, then, may well have a claim to being the world’s most religious country; China does not.

Right away, however, we must accept qualifications to any comparison of contemporary religious practice in China and India. While it is true that the twentieth century was especially unkind to religion in China, we should not believe that China is inescapably irreligious. Anti-Confucian May 4th modernizers turned away from “superstition” and embraced “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy.” The Maoist regime brutally assaulted practitioners of virtually all religions: Buddhism, Christianity, religious Taoism, Islam. But, for all of the repression, religion has come back into Chinese life since the economic and social-cultural opening that began in 1979. Or, to put it another way, religion never went away but is in a better position to express itself now. Religion, in other words, is a part of many Chinese lives today.

But the general impression that India is “more religious” than China may still hold. This might best be seen in the modern, urban elites.

In India, Jains and Parsis are very much in evidence in the business sector. Jains, whose fervent non-violence turns them away from much conventional agriculture, have a significant presence in the world diamond trade. Parsis, though today faced with serious questions about how to maintain their distinct religion, have long been key players in Indian business. And Hinduism is, I believe, sufficiently flexible and tolerant to adapt to the changing conditions of globalization. What I learned of Hinduism in the last few months is that it encourages personal choice in deciding which god or gods to make primary in one’s ritual practice. There is no singular liturgy or orthodoxy that absolutely must be practiced. Indeed, some religious scholars suggest that Hinduism is better understood not as a single religion but as a universe of various religious ideas and possibilities. If you want to make Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, your primary object of worship, (which might fit nicely with the culture of global capital) that is fine. Thus, from a variety of perspectives, urban, technologically savvy, globally mobile and modernized Indians can, and do, comfortably reconcile their worldly behavior with their spiritual beliefs.

My sense (and I could be wrong here) is that there is less tendency among contemporary Chinese capitalists and cosmopolitans to turn to religion or spirituality. Stories about about moral collapse and anxiety are still quite common in China. The Confucian revival, and the success of Yu Dan, reflect the search for something meaningful, something spiritual, something, it would seem, religious. But a significant part of that search moves in a more secular and rationalist direction. As I have argued elsewhere, Confucianism – and perhaps philosophical Taoism – can be interpreted in non-religious ways. That is not to say they can never be religious, but just that they don’t have to be religious. Scientific rationalism can, and does, serve certain religious purposes as well (i.e. as a source of meaning for some). In short, a significant portion of the answers to the moral crisis in China are not religious. It is likely, then, that religion will not expand in China to an extent equal to the cultural space it now occupies in India.

Don’t get me wrong – religion is growing, and growing in a big way, in China right now. But if I were to bet, I would put my money on the proposition that China, twenty five years from now, will still not be as religious as India.


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