Oh My God: Has religion become a business?
Question: What is the Vedic perspective on the movie Oh My God?
Answer: It has delivered an important social message by highlighting people’s blind belief in self-serving godmen. By raising sound, sensible questions about issues that most people unthinkingly accept, it has forced many people to think. At the same time, it concludes by swinging the belief pendulum too far. That pendulum is normally situated on one extreme of blind belief in everything religious, and the movie swings it to the other extreme of blind disbelief in everything religious. The problems it has underscored are real and grave, but their solution lies not in rejection of everything religious but in education of what is actually religious so that people can come to the balance of intelligent, discriminating belief.
Question: The movie doesn’t reject everything religious. It conveys that God is good, whereas the middlemen between people and God – the godmen – are bad; they make a business out of peoples’ faith in God and use that money to live in luxury.
Answer: Even if we agree with this point for discussion’s sake, then who will tell us that we don’t need any middle-men? In the movie, the hero takes up that role. By thus giving us the message that we don’t need any middlemen, he ends up acting as a middle-man. Therefore, the statement that no middle-men are needed to approach God is self-refuting because those who convey such an idea are themselves middlemen.
Question: But the hero rejects the role of a middleman by beheading his own image that people were about to worship.
Answer: Even in that rejection, he is acting as a go-between by telling people that this is not the way to worship God.
Question: But then the hero is not making a business out of acting as a middle-man, as are the godmen.
Answer: Agreed. This is the real issue: not the necessity of middle-men, but their qualifications.
The hero had to study the Bhagavad-gita and other holy books for a month to gain some understanding of their import. If someone has to gain a deeper understanding so as to be able to teach the scriptures systematically, won’t that require more time? Won’t such people who are essentially acting as teachers require their bodily necessities? Isn’t some financial arrangement needed to take care of such teachers? Is that making a business out of teaching?
Question: Can’t they earn their own living, and also study and teach as a side-activity?
Answer: That idea basically means we don’t consider the scriptures worthy enough for serious study. When people do medical research, they study scientific books and make the medical knowledge available for the general public. Essentially their activities are similar to those who are doing scriptural study, who are, so to say, scriptural researchers. Do we tell medical researchers that they earn their living through some other profession and do their medical research as a side-activity? No. If we as a society are ready to contribute to maintain medical researchers, then why shouldn’t we contribute to maintain scriptural researchers?
Question: But medical researchers contribute tangibly to society by promoting physical health. What does scriptural research contribute to society?
Answer: It contributes to society by providing principles and practices that promote the mental and spiritual health of people. It enables people to feel peaceful and satisfied. Mental satisfaction is such an important need of people that a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry caters to it. And the relief and pleasure that entertainment offers is usually not even connected with reality; it is based on misidentifying with an illusory world. Scriptural research offers us rejuvenation and inspiration that is based on the deepest and the highest truths of life. And the scriptures even offer us meditation techniques by which we can purify ourselves and thereby experience peace and strength not just occasionally as in entertainment, but constantly.
Question: But many godmen live in stinking luxury at the cost of the common people.
Answer: That’s sadly true; many people have made religion into a business. That’s why we need a basic level of education to understand who are actually connecting us with God and who are usurping the position of God by themselves living like Gods. Those who are truly devoted to God don’t need worldly things for enjoyment. The Srimad Bhagavatam (bhakti pareshanubhava viraktir anyatra ca) mentions that bhakti is characterized by an internal and an external symptom. Bhakti enables a person to experience God internally and thereby become detached from all other pleasures that are not connected with God. The primary among such disconnected and disconnecting material pleasures are meat-eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. If we find those claiming to teach scriptures indulging in these pleasures, then we should know that their own connection with God is tenuous and so they cannot help us much in connecting with God.
As authentic spiritual teachers have to function in this world for sharing God’s message, they may use worldly utilities like cars and cellphones. These are not luxuries, but functional necessities. Authentic spiritual teachers don’t need these things for themselves; they are satisfied in their own connection with God. They use these things just to connect us with God more effectively.
Question: But why do we need to spend so much money on expensive religious rituals in temples while beggars are starving outside the temples? Wouldn’t God be more pleased if his starving children – those beggars – are fed?
Answer: It’s certainly sad to see anyone starving. In a spiritual culture, the state officials as well as the wealthy would have a spirit and a system of charity by which the needy would be taken care of. And they would also have gorgeous worship of God in temples.
Certainly, the needy should be cared for, but are caring for the starving and worshiping God opulently mutually exclusive? Is the second really causing the first?
Questions that assume this may well be simply emotional manipulation of public opinion against religion. If we are truly concerned about starving people, then why do we target expensive religious rituals alone? Why not target the billionaires and trillionaires who spend millions on their wardrobes and perfumes and outside whose mansions also beggars are starving?
The expensive rituals are a part of a comprehensive spiritual culture that fosters selflessness among people. If people started living according to this spiritual culture, they would become vegetarians; they would stop killing other children of God – the animals – just for satisfying their tongues. Numerous surveys have shown that the land required to feed one non-vegetarian person can feed up to ten vegetarian people. Large quantities of fodder need to be fed to the slaughterhouse animals so as to get just a small quantity of flesh. If people became vegetarian, all the land used to grow fodder would become freed to grow grains for human beings. If the whole world became vegetarian, then there would be no shortage of grains for anyone; in fact, surveys indicate that ten times the present population of the world could be fed.
Similarly, if people participated in an authentic spiritual culture, they would give up drinking alcohol. To make alcohol, so much land that could be used to grow grains is used instead to grow sugarcane. If people stopped drinking alcohol, all that land would become free to be utilized for feeding starving people. Those nonbelievers who are truly concerned about starving people – let them stop giving moral lectures to believers and do something practical first. Let them become vegetarians and teetotalers first.
Most nonbelievers will not do that. Why? Because it is a matter of pleasure. They don’t want to lose the pleasure of eating meat and drinking liquor.
The various religious rituals are a part of a spiritual culture that educates, inspires and empowers people with a higher happiness. Once they experience the higher happiness, they become free from the drives that bind them to lower materialistic pleasures like meat-eating and drinking.
Question: The idea that these rituals provide happiness is just a sentimental belief.
Answer: The idea that guzzling liquor down one’s throat provides happiness is also a sentimental belief. In fact, it is worse than a sentimental belief; it is a suicidal belief. It makes people behave like lunatics, thereby leading to so many accidents caused by drunken driving. It also causes so many health problems, thereby leading to painful death.
By comparison, the religious rituals, at the very least, don’t harm anyone in any similar way. They provide a higher happiness that frees people from the desires for pleasures like meat-eating and intoxication that are harmful to others and harmful to themselves.
Question: But don’t religious beliefs make people intolerant and violent, and cause wars?
Answer: If religious beliefs were the cause of violence, then all the places in the world where there was no religion would be free from violence. The two places where atheism was tried out on a mass scale in recent history are the former USSR and China. And what was the result? The number of people killed in these two countries during their atheistic regime was 7-10 times more than the casualties during both World Wars I and II combined.
Apart from violence in general, let’s look at wars in particular. In the two biggest wars in recent memory, the two World Wars, religion was not the driving issue. The same holds true for many other wars like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Indochina war and so forth.
When people are self-centered and power-hungry, they wage wars and incite others using whatever ideologies are convenient. Religion offers one such convenient tool.
To prevent such misuse of religion, we need to provide philosophical education on a mass scale to help people understand what true religion is. If people truly became religious, they would become devoted to God, see all living beings as their brothers and sisters in his family and thereby promote harmony, not violence.
Question: But still God doesn’t need the expensive rituals that are performed in temples.
Answer: He doesn’t need them; we do. By expressing our love to God, we deepen our relationship with him, just as a child by giving a birthday gift to the parent deepens that relationship.
And the gifts need to be offered according to the stature of the person. We spend millions of rupees to arrange for the reception of the President of American when he comes to India. Then if the President of all Presidents, the Supreme Person God himself descends, shouldn’t we offer him a reception befitting his stature?
Question: But God is not present in the idols in the temple. He is present everywhere, isn’t he?
Answer: Certainly, he is present everywhere, but is he accessible to us everywhere? Water is present everywhere in the air as water vapor, but can we just hang out our tongue and access that water whenever we feel thirsty? No; we need to go to a tap. Similarly, though God is present everywhere, we can experience his presence in an accessible form as the temple Deity.
The need for an accessible manifestation of God is indispensable. Even in the imaginary storyline of the movie, God appears before the hero in a materially visible form and protects him in miraculous ways. Only on seeing this form does he get converted. Thus, even a skeptic who rejects all material manifestations of God needs a material manifestation.
In real-life unlike in a movie storyline, God doesn’t appear personally to each one of us – at least not till we are adequately purified. So those saintly people who have seen God as he actually is in his original eternal transcendental form have described that form to us. Moreover, the scriptures tell us that we can and should depict God according to that description, for if we worship him devotedly he will accept our worship. A movie scriptwriter may fictitiously make God speak that Deity worship is unnecessary, but that statement expresses the opinion of the scriptwriter, not the will of God. To know God’s will, we have to refer to the scriptures. And the scriptures strongly endorse Deity worship. For example, the Uddhava-Gita (Krishna’s instructions to Uddhava) comprises the largest philosophical section of the great devotional classic, the Srimad Bhagavatam, and it includes one full chapter (11.27) wherein Krishna enjoins Deity worship.
Question: But are all rituals actually glorifications of God? When priests tell the general people that that they will suffer in various ways in future if they don’t perform certain astrological rituals to appease Saturn etc, are they not acting like hooligans who threaten people with a gun and extort money from them?
Answer: Not necessarily. They could be acting like doctors who are alerting patients about how sicknesses will afflict them in future if they don’t take remedial treatments now.
The key question is: who is the cause of the sufferings? In the case of extortions, the hooligans are themselves the cause; they will inflict sufferings on those who don’t pay extortions. In the case of sicknesses, the doctors are the helpers in preventing the sufferings that have their cause elsewhere, in infection by germs, for example.
Similarly, the Vedic scriptures inform us that various sufferings come upon us due to the law of karma which is basically an expansion of the law of cause and effect that we intuitively accept in our daily life. All of us carry past karmic infections that will cause us to suffer in due course of time. An educated eye is needed to see how certain symptoms are precursors to future problems; the difference between physical diseases and karmic consequences is just the difference in the kind of education needed.
At the same time, not all religious rituals are necessary, just as not all medical prescriptions are necessary, as was highlighted in the episode of Satyam eva Jayate about malpractices in the medical profession. Suppose that program had concluded with a message: “Good health is good, but doctors and treatments are bad.” Such a message would be practically useless. How can sick people develop good health without doctors and treatments? The more rational and beneficial message is: “Beware! Not all doctors and not all treatments are good; get educated and trained to separate the authentic from the unauthentic.”
The same principle applies in the field of religion too. If people are given the message: “God is good, but religious teachers and religious rituals are bad,” then it leaves people with no practical way to connect with God. So their experience of God will stay hallucinatory, as would sick people’s experience of good health. The idea that we don’t need any support systems to approach God reduces faith in him to a phantasmagoria that has little reality, potency or utility.
The more rational and beneficial message is: “Beware! Not all people who assume the role of religious teachers and not all the rituals that go on in the name of religion are good. Get yourself educated and trained to separate the authentic from the unauthentic.”
In fact, this was a warning that Srila Prabhupada consistently gave through his talks and writings. But he also guided people away from the two extremes of blind belief and blind disbelief to the balanced middle state of intelligent, discriminating belief. That is the state all religious seekers and practitioners need to attain.
(Extracted from the author’s upcoming book “Oh My God or Oh Your God? Questions and Answers”)