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Beyond religion? Why Rev Thampu's new book serves well as footnote to religious texts

By Rosamma Thomas*

“Religious traditions are like the trellis that you make around a sapling to enable it to grow. But when it begins to grow, it reaches a point where it starts pushing away the trellis itself,” Swami Muktananda said, when he met Rabbi Rubenstein, who had begun to fear that he was falling off the Jewish tradition.
The first chapter of the book “Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity” by Valson Thampu, who long taught English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and served as college pastor and principal, is titled “Why shed religions?”
“In comparison to religious leaders, unbelievers and heretics do less harm,” writes Thampu, explaining that those lacking in faith leave God alone, and thus enjoy a more robust chance of being surprised by the discovery of God’s love and compassion. Religions serve to mark identity, whereas faith is abstract. The invisible can scarcely serve as an identity marker.
Thampu sees the need to outgrow religion so that the soul can wake to freshness and freedom, stripping away the chains that come with rigid observation of rituals. Thampu explains that to Mahatma Gandhi, religion was a resource that could be channeled into the freedom struggle; he notes the Gandhian use of religion, to hint that it remains a resource yet, even today, when it is manipulated for political power.
When gods are confined to places of worship, such places do not connote the presence of God – what they indicate, importantly, is that the gods are excluded from the warp and woof of life, Thampu writes, challenging ordinary practitioners of religion who might find solace and comfort in ritual practices.
This reviewer was recently at the Aranmula Parthasarthy Temple in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, where she watched in awe the vast numbers of lamps along temple walls as the sun set.
The trance one can enter into on hearing the drummers and the conch-blower at this 1000-year-old temple, where the River Pampa flows gently beyond the northern wall, is hard to describe.
Thampu concedes that joyfulness and stimulation of the human spirit are necessary parts of worship and faith, but stresses the need for reason in religion.
Valson Thampu’s new book is not the sort of text one must attempt to read cover to cover; that is quite an impossible thing to do, since this is a text of some density, requiring intense concentration.
This reviewer took a long while to figure out that the book was not meant to be consumed whole – it is in reality a plea against consumption; and which book with nearly 100 pages of endnotes can be glugged down in one swig?
Like with the Bible or any religious text, what the reader must do with this book too is dip in at random, and read just a little. Thampu’s is a book that serves well as a footnote to religious texts.
---
*Freelance journalist based in Kerala

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