One of the consequences of modern globalization is that we are all being forced to reconsider the external elements of our respective faith traditions. The religions of the world took birth in different countries and each of them is consequently overlaid with the cultural aspects of that part of the world.
Climate, landscape, diet, customs and local history have all influenced architecture, sacred language, clothing styles and political perspective. Theology, too, no matter how pure the original knowledge, becomes incrementally adapted to human needs and prevailing customs.
As religions move beyond their tribal roots and regional origins, its members and community leaders are being confronted, time and again, with the need to decide whether to retain every aspect of their tradition, or to acclimatise and adjust their religious practise in its new home.
When the Jews were dispersed from their lands in AD 70, and the focus of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, almost completely destroyed, they were forced to consider new ways to worship, and new methods to preserve their ancient traditions, far from their homeland and the origin of their faith.
Similarly, when early Christians ventured to India, they were forced to consider whether their Roman and European traditions sat well with the local population, and what should be sacrificed for the sake of their message being fully assimilated, as was their wish.
Some things must, unavoidably, be jettisoned as excess baggage and some things adapted if the distinct religious community is to survive. Yet it would seem that some things – essential aspects of the theology, for instance – must be carefully protected if the religion is to continue to exist at all. Full cultural assimilation may completely swallow up a unique religious tradition causing it to disappear, along with any contribution it offered. The questions confronting religions today, spread as they are around the globe yet wishing to preserve themselves, is which aspects can be sacrificed and which carefully guarded?
I lived in Africa for two years, and part of my time was spent with the coastal people of Mombasa in Kenya. Many of them were a mixed race, descended from both Arabian traders and local tribes, and the majority of them were Muslim. With eight hours of sunshine every day and equatorial temperatures hovering in the eighties, our mutual light cotton clothing made sense. The men wore white kikoi and small caps known as walai. The women mostly wore black bui bui and a hijab on their heads. I wore a light cotton dhoti and a kurta shirt.
But in freezing London, wearing a thin cotton sheet around one’s legs doesn’t quite make climatic sense. I have years of experience to testify to the impracticality of such attire on all but warm spring and summer days. And it has not proven its suitability for driving a car on a rainy winter day, let alone for riding a bike. It does, however, form a connection with my religious antecedents.
Those religious antecedents were living in a hot country, though, and the connection is now largely anachronistic: in Bengal, the home of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, dhotis are hardly ever seen these days, and worn mainly by a small group of people on special occasions, not for daily wear. The ubiquitous trousers have long replaced them in many parts of India, although the southern version, the veshti, is still common.
In the cooler climate of London, the black bui bui, or the all-in-one burka, no longer serve to protect a woman’s skin from the scorching sun. Without its climatic purpose, that form of dress also becomes a somewhat impractical body covering.
Similarly the fur hat or shtreimel of the orthodox Jew, particularly when coupled with a thick black woollen coat, and worn in the flaming heat of a Jerusalem noon, serves no climatic purpose. In its Polish and Lithuanian homeland, however, and at the time of its origin in the 18th century, such garb was both highly practical and the height of fashion.
Exoteric and Esoteric
Clothing says a lot about how we think, and wearers of such garb may do it because it connects them to an important part of the world and an important time in their religious history. That’s fine, and everyone, within reason, should be free to dress as they wish, for the reasons they wish. But ultimately, the clothing is part of the exoteric inheritance of that faith tradition – the outer shell or cultural package – and as such could be given up with no great loss to the much more important esoteric aspect.
Of much more concern than clothing are the other cultural practises that have been inherited by religious people. But at this point in history we are cautioned not to be too hasty to judge another’s culture. After the war, the world was confronted with the great tragedy of what can happen when human beings allow an ideology of misplaced categorization of human beings to influence entire populations. Millions died as a result of having their ethnicity or religion determined to be less than human. One of the results of this on the intellectuals of Europe was to usher in a form of thinking in which the very notion of a hierarchy of civilizations was considered unconscionable. No longer would so-called ‘postmodern’ thinkers, construe the people of the world to be divided into categories such as ‘primitive’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘civilized.’ Instead, everyone would be considered equal, and equally deserving of respect. That viewpoint has influenced a generation of anthropology, sociology and other branches of scientific social analysis.
Yet with the hit-and-miss record of the achievements of science, and widespread doubt that the so-called ‘first world’ is really any happier than the ‘developing’ or ‘third world,’ there is a tendency for the average thinker to consider that all branches of human beings must be equally happy, whatever their level of technological development. In one sense that is true and we often find the unlikely opposite to be more accurate: that people in undeveloped countries have happier lives. Extensive research conducted by the United Nations recently found no correlation between industrial development and happiness of the population generally.
Yet our civilization is not sustainable without some form of judgement of human behaviour, both individual and collective. Some human beings do bad things to others, for instance, and we subject their actions to the rule of law and often lock them away so they cannot do bad things to any more people. We don’t consider them less than human, but we consider them a danger to the rest of the population. So we remove them from our civilized society – in order that our society remains civilized. In this way, contemporary society continues to make judgements on groups of human beings while simultaneously paying respect to the idea that all are equal.
Many years ago I was on a sacred walk in India. My travelling companions were a diverse range of people from all over that huge country, including one elderly man from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He told me of his homeland, a chain of 572 tropical islands lying more than 1200 kilometres out in the ocean, but still a part of India. There were all kinds of exotic flowers, fruits and creatures there, he explained, with some of the largest butterflies in existence. It sounded fascinating, and for a few minutes I had already added a visit there to my bucket list. But then he almost casually explained the prevalence of cannibalism there, and particularly so on the island where he grew up.
I learned that India also has ‘tribes’ that live in the jungle, just as South America has in its own jungles such as the Amazon. It was the first time I had been introduced to the notion of India having jungle tribes, sometimes known as adi-vasis, or ‘original inhabitants.’ “You should not go there,” he cautioned, “it will be dangerous for you.” Despite my European tendency to ascribe nobility to these jungle tribes, I also had to make a value judgement based on the potential harm that might come to a fleshy white man wandering around alone trying to spot enormous butterflies. My categorization of human beings had to be based partially on a hierarchy of perceived threat to life, and the cannibal tribes of Andaman and Nicobar were crossed off my list of friendly folks to visit.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t like them, you understand, its just better that they live there and I live here. I have nothing against them per se, but I have to say that, as civilizations go, I can’t help but consider that cannibalism is something of a marker of being somewhat less advanced as a human being. And yes, I do realise that comment might offend some people.
So when we consider cultures and types of civilization embodied by certain tribes of the earth, I do think we can have in mind some kind of scale ranging from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced.’ It may not always be accurate or impartial, but at least it may serve to help us make discernment when we need to. And discernment in the field of religion is particularly important because religion influences behaviour.
As my regular readers will know, my daughter Tulasi is a midwife, and has lamented many times the situation of young women she encounters who, at an early age, were subjected to the torment of genital mutilation. We are told that this is not a part of Islam, but a part of a tribal culture from parts of Saharan Africa and Arabia. As such – and if it has nothing at all to do with Islamic theology – it must be firmly rejected as something injurious to health that should have no place in our country.
There is nothing wrong with better use of our faculty of discrimination in matters of religion. Discrimination is not a negative use of reasoning after all, it is one of the marks of a truly civilized life. But it must be based on accurate information and have no prejudice involved. Only when we can understand the difference between a cultural accretion and a vital spiritual principle will we all be able to understand each other and move slowly towards a unity of faith.