Each religion is unique in its own way, offering certain ideas and ideals, but the trouble that modern societies face with regard to religious fundamentalism seems to be similar. In Eastern faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, there is an inherent openness and tolerance due to the possibility of dissent, thus leading to more iterations and reformations. The Western monotheistic faiths have lesser possibility of dissent, yet there have been many attempts at dissidence and reformation. In the modern context, the possibility of raising questions is almost a requirement, but not every faith is open to it.
Different though the various religions might be, we always find a group of literalists who are unwilling to accept any change to the original writings. On the other hand, we always have a group of rationalists who are unwilling to grant any merit to the ancient works. To bridge the gap between tradition and modernity (for the lack of a better phrase) we need people who can empathise with both groups - the Rabindranath Tagores, Joseph Campbells and Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world.
But is it so hard to find a balance between the traditional religious principles and modern secular values? Whether or not it is difficult, it definitely requires some effort. Only an objective examination of traditional texts will tell us what is relevant today and what is not.
Nearly every religious text has passages that range from outright absurd to sublimely wise. But that's hardly surprising - even in a badly written novel, we can find a line or two that is brilliant and in a Nobel Prize-winning work we can find a passage or two that is banal. Quite often, people of the faith don't know/want to know about the absurd parts while the non-believers don't know/want to know about the wise parts. Let's take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of religious texts.
In the Torah, Leviticus 19:10-18 speaks eloquently about the code of conduct for all people (help the poor, be honest, love thy neighbour, help the needy and the handicapped, and so on) but just two chapters later, Leviticus 21:16-21 suggest that God hates handicapped people. In Exodus, chapter 20, we find several of the commandments (thou shalt not kill, honour thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not steal, and so forth) while Exodus, chapter 21, has no problem whatsoever with slavery and lays down detailed laws for dealing with slaves.
In the New Testament, John 8:32 says, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free". In Luke 19:27, as part of a parable that Jesus narrates, he says, "But those enemies of mine, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me".
In the Qur'an, 2.83 says that one should do good to one's parents, relatives, orphans and the poor; speak kindly to all people, observe prayer, give alms. But Qur'an 4.89 says that you should not befriend infidels unless they convert to Islam; if not, you should capture them, kill them wherever you find them, and don't take them as helpers or friends.
In many texts of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scriptural canon, we find such extremities and contradictions. For example, Manusmṛti 5.147-8 suggests that women should not be given independence and 3.17 prohibits a man from an upper caste marrying a woman from a lower caste. The same Manusmṛti in 12.85 makes one of the most beautiful statements embodying Hindu thought: "Among all dharmas, the greatest is self-knowledge. It leads to immortality." We find similar examples in the Vedas, the Puranas, the Darshanas, as well as in the Tripitakas, and in Jain literature.
Religious texts are also quite rich in sex and violence. Today there is much clamour to ban pornography and pleas for stricter censorship, but I wonder how they'd deal with religious texts? Ezekiel, Chapter 23 (from The Old Testament); Revelations, Chapter 17 (from The New Testament); passages from the Qur'an (2.187, for example); passages from the Bhagavata Purana; and stories from the Charitropakhyan of the Dasam Granth are full of sexually explicit content that wouldn't make the cut with the Censor Board. And the lesser said about the violence in these texts, the better.
It becomes evident therefore that nearly every religious system has the following:
a) Contextual insights, laws, and rules that apply to a specific day and age,
b) Rituals and traditional practices, and
c) Universal wisdom that applies to everyone at all times.
The people of the faith must discard the contextual part as being irrelevant (this includes, among others, slavery, death punishment, gender inequality, homophobia, caste system) and simply adhere to the law of the land, which is the new contextual aspect. The ritualistic part has to be redesigned or re-casted in light of the universal wisdom so that it becomes relevant for today (for example, get rid of animal sacrifices, and instead chant a prayer or offer something else). The universal wisdom part should be preserved, nurtured, and shared with the next generation. In a few hundred years, both the contextual and the ritualistic aspects will undergo another reformation but the universal wisdom will remain as it is.
Of course, the question arises, how do we truly know what is contextual and what is universal. In general, anything that divides in contextual, anything that unites is universal. Exclusive is contextual, inclusive is universal. Lifestyle is contextual, human values are universal. Culture is contextual, aesthetic relish is universal. Language is contextual, human emotions are universal. Dealings and trappings of the material, physical world are contextual. The joy and consciousness of the inner, spiritual world are universal.
1. Bühler, George. The Laws of Manu - http://sacred-texts.com/hin/manu.htm
2. The Bible (King James Version) - http://www.biblegateway.com
3. Nooruddin, Allamah. The Holy Qur'an. Tr. Omar, Amatul Rahman and Omar, Abdul Mannan. Hockessin: Noor Foundation - International Inc., 2002
4. Sreekrishna, Koti. Unpublished article on the analysis of religious fundamentalism.