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Religions : faith and revolution

When we talk of religion in this chapter, we are only concerned with the essence of religion.

1. The Essence of Religion
Wach writes : “However, the mistake must be avoided of defining ‘religion’ in arbitrary fashion, in identifying it exclusively with ideas, rites, or institutions, which are subject to change and transformation, instead of conceiving it as that profoundest source from which all human existence is nourished and upon which it depends in all its aspects : man’s communion with God. Let us end with the witness Carlyle has borne. ‘It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the Church creed, which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign, and, in words and otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not at all ... But the thing a man does practically believe, and this often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others; the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to the mysterious Universe; and his duty and destiny there; that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest.’”1

2. Positive and Negative Roles
Religion has played both a positive and a negative role in history, and on an extensive scale. It sanctioned hereditary rights, hierarchy, oppression, slavery, caste system, and what not. One fact stands out for everyone who reviews the history of society under the viewpoint of its interrelation and interaction with religion. Religious motives may work positively and negatively. They ‘build up’ and they ‘pull down’.2 “But to accuse religion in general of siding under all circumstances with the existing order of society — sound or sick — means to fail to distinguish between its nature and its forms.”3

The important thing about a religious belief as pin-pointed by Brinton, is “that under its influence men work very hard and excitedly in common to achieve here or somewhere an ideal, a pattern of life not at the moment universally — or even largely — achieved. Religion attempts to close in favour of human hopes the gap between what men are and what men would like to be; at least in its youthful, fresh, and active phase, it will not for a moment admit that such a gap can long exist”.4
Any way, we are by no means attempting a dissertation on the subject of ‘Religion and Revolution’. We are interested only in those contributions of religion to the revolutionary cause which would help us understand the Sikh movement.

3. Humanitarian Values
The most significant item shared by religion and revolution, which makes them sail in the same boat, are the humanitarian values. It has been seen that the very raison d’etre of a revolution is the abolition or radical reconstruction of a de facto system of stratification in favour of the downtrodden and the oppressed. A revolution, thus, aims at closing the gap between what their actual condition is, and what it should be. This is what makes revolution idealistic, and its concern for the poor and the weak makes it humanitarian.

Now, humanitarian values are the very life-blood of religion. It is Judaism that gave birth to humanitarianism,5 and most of the great religions that followed were deeply concerned with the fate of the sick, the weak, and the oppressed. “Wherever patriarchal relationship of power and coercion determined the social stratification, but especially in the Orient, the prophetic religions were able, in connection with the aforementioned purely practical situation, to create a protectorate of the weak, i.e., women, children, slaves, etc.”6 Even the later Jewish prophets hurled their ‘Woe be unto you’ against those who oppressed and enslaved the poor, those who joined field to field and those who deflected justice by bribes. These were the typical actions leading to class-stratification in the ancient world, and were intensified by the development of the city-state (polis).7 “Jesus nowhere explicitly states that pre-occupation with wealth leads to unbrotherliness, but this notion is at the heart of the matter, for the prescribed injunctions definitely contain the primordial ethic of mutual help which is characteristic of neighbourhood association of poorer people. The chief difference is that in Jesus’ message, acts of mutual help have been systematized into an ethic with a religious mood and a fraternalistic sentiment of love. The injunction of mutual help was also construed universally, extended to everyone. The ‘neighbour’ is the one nearest at hand.”8

In fact, “Prophets systematized religion with a view to simplifying the relationship of man to the world, by reference to an ultimate and integrated value position”.9 And more often than not, the injunctions of the prophets included, directly or by implication, exemptions from further compliance with the moral and legal precepts of the traditional order, since obedience is now to the rules of an infinitely higher one. This road leads to confrontation with the status quo, i.e., with established systems of stratification in their different forms. Buddha did not attack the caste system directly; but, by substituting merit for birth as the basis of society, he had shaken the ideological base of the Brahminical society. The Bible is full of good revolutionary doctrines.10 The political implications of Protestantism had much to do with the overthrow of the old concept of hierarchy in the secular field as well. Where Calvinistic Protestantism was powerful, hereditary aristocracy and kingship were either greatly weakened or abandoned. In fact, the Reformation is part of the general process of social change in which the four-class system of peasant societies began to break up in Europe.11 In Max Weber’s opinion, no other religion had influenced the course of human development in quite such a revolutionary manner as had puritanical religiosity.12 About Islam, there is no doubt, that it did not hesitate to carry the mission of the Milat (essentially that of human equality and brotherhood) as far as Spain with the help of arms.

4. Liberty and Equality
Human liberty and equality are either humanitarian values, or basic human urges, or both. In any case, these deserve separate mention, because these urges have played such an important role in revolutions.
“Equality and inequality of conditions are among the regulative principles most often stressed by Tocqueville. Any given society must be dominated by one, and only one such principle.”13 In other words, any inequality is bound to lead to strain and tenstion within a society.
Whatever other causes of revolution in general might or might not be there, the basic urges of liberty (shared even by animals) and of equality were always found to be associated with a revolution. The sum and substance of Hannah’s thesis is that revolution in its most enthusiastic form is to be understood as the quest for freedom.14 “Freedom, that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm, is the motivating principle of all revolutions.”15 “Revolutionaries have always believed that they have risen against oppression.”16
Gorky perceived in religion a spirit of human brotherhood.17 Socialism shared with religion a thirst for justice and equality out of religio-social tradition going back to Moses.18 “Religion is an integral part of human psychology; striving for the brotherhood of man; denying of self-interest.”19 Religion cannot exist without a strange form of love. Not to calculate; to give everything for the sake of life and living man.20

5. Behavioural Similarities
In addition to humanitarian values, there are many other important features common to religion and revolution. Brinton finds many similarities in the behaviour patterns of men inspired by religion and those of secular revolutionists. “Now this insider, it would seem, finds in his devoted service to the revolution most of the psychological satisfaction commonly supplied by what we call religion... Since both Jacobins and Bolsheviks were violently hostile to Christianity and boasted themselves atheists or at least deists, this analogy has given a great deal of offence both to Christians and their enemies. For the Marxist in particular, this assertion that his behaviour has similarities with the behaviour of men under the acknowledged influence of religion, is like a red rag to a bull. Actually, to judge from past experience, it would seem that large numbers of men can be brought to do certain very important things, of the kind the communists want to have done, under the influence of what we call religion, that is, some pattern of more or less similar sentiments, moral aspirations and ritualistic practices. Marxism as a religion has already got a great deal done; Marxism as a ‘scientific theory’ alone would hardly have got beyond the covers of Das Kapital and the learned journals.”21

To discern the element of religion in the behaviour of ardent extremists is not to deny the existence of economic motives. “The whole point, indeed, of the three revolutions we are about to analyse, is that religious enthusiasm, organization, ritual, and ideas appear inextricably bound up with economic and political aims, with a program to change things, not just to convert people.

The insiders in all three of our complete revolutions, and indeed to a certain extent in the fourth, the American Revolution, seem to have wished to put into life here on earth some of the order, the discipline, the contempt for the easy vices, which the Calvinists sought to put there.”22

The Jacobins were in principle against gambling, drunkenness, sexual irregularities of all sorts, ostentatious display of poverty, idleness, thieving, and of course in general all sorts of crimes.23 That the Bolshevik leaders were almost all ascetics is perhaps common place. Lenin was notably austere, and contemptuous of ordinary comforts. Indeed, the general tone among the high command of Bolshevism was in those early years that of a consecrated and almost monastic group. They felt, as the Puritans had felt, that the ordinary vices and weaknesses of human beings are disgusting, that a good life cannot be had until these weaknesses are eliminated. Early, the Bolsheviks prohibited the national drink, vodka, and almost all the first Soviets took steps against prostitution, gambling, nightlife, and so on.24

Our orthodox and successful extremists, then, are crusaders, fanatics, ascetics, men who seek to bring heaven to earth. For the Jacobins, this heaven was the Republic of Virtue, which was Robespierre’s ideal. After the dictatorship of the revolutionary government, this perfect republic was to appear; and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, would be more than a slogan. The Russian heaven is the classless society, to be attained after the purgatory of the dictatorship of the proletariat has slowly put an end to the worldly miseries of the class struggle.25

The religious parallel may be pushed a bit further, “Our revolutionists are convinced that they are the elect, destined to carry out the will of God, nature, or science ... The opponents of these revolutionists are not just political enemies, not just mistaken men, grafters, logrollers, or damned fools; they are sinners, and must not merely be beaten — they must be wiped out. Hence the justification of the guillotine and the firing squad. For our revolutionists display that vigorous intolerance which in the logic of emotions, as well as in that of the intellect, follows perfectly on the conviction of being absolutely, eternally, monopolistically, right.”26

6. Universalist
Perhaps the most important uniformity in our four revolutions is that as gospels, as forms of religion, they are universalist in aspiration, and nationalist, exclusive, in ultimate effect. They end up with a God meant indeed for all mankind, but brought to mankind, usually a not altogether willing mankind, by a chosen people.27 The atrophy of patriotism is a marked feature of revolutionary periods. A Christian Roman loved a Christian barbarian more than a pagan Roman and shed few tears when in its later days the Empire was invaded by Christianized barbarians. In the wars of religion during the Reformation, French Protestants welcomed the invasion of France by German Protestants, and French Catholics betrayed their country to the armies of Catholic Spain. The same thing was true in the other countries invaded in the religious wars.28

In other words, a marked feature of revolution is that revolutionary ideology transcends sectionalism and regionalism, and is universal in character.29 The Russian Revolution, as is well known, was universal in principle. Tocqueville writes : “ Usually men become committed, with all the ardour, energy and staying power they are capable of, to only those causes that have aroused passions connected to their self-interest. But, however intense these passions, their effect will be limited unless the cause is made legitimate by joining to some cause that serves all mankind.

“It is honour to human nature that we need such a stimulant. Do you want to see what man can achieve ? Then join to the passions originating in personal interest the goals of changing the face of the world and regenerating human species.

“This is the history of the French Revolution.”30

It is again to Judaism that the birth of Universalism is traced;31 and relative to earlier forms, the historic religions are all universalistic. “From the point of these religions, a man is no longer defined chiefly in terms of what tribe or clan he comes from or what particular god he serves, but rather as a being capable of salvation. That is to say that it is for the first time possible to conceive of man as such.”32 It is significant that the loftiest and most comprehensive concepts of community, those of a universal character, have become possible only through the widening and deepening of religious experience, much as the secularization of these ideas and ideals may have obscured the story of their emergence and evolution to modern man.33

7. As Integrating Force
Religion has been the greatest single factor in the integration of society.34 Religious experience, being fundamental, constitutes the basis of communion of a most intimate character, boring deep into the beds of impulses, emotions, and thoughts which are common to all men. The subjective religion has at all times proved potent enough to unite or integrate people who are otherwise widely separated by differences in descent, profession, wealth, or rank. A study of the social status of those who followed the prophets, teachers, and founders will reveal the surprising social heterogeneity of the motley groups, who became one when in a common religious experience. It is not necessary that the objectification and formulation of this experience will lessen division and separation, but undeniably greater leeway for such inferences is offered by an articulation of the expression of religious experience.35 Religion can produce vertical cleavages in society cuttting across, as in sixteenth-century France, more normal bases of stratification : “Religious belief alone, no matter whether it was held with fanatic conviction or for political expediency, could bring together the divergent interests of nobles, burghers, and peasants over areas as wide as the whole of France.”36

It has already been seen that religious motives may work positively and negatively. But, “It is our thesis that the constructive force of religion surpasses its destructive influences. Fundamentally and ultimately, religion makes for social integration though it should definitely not be identified with its effect. We have tried to show that social integration is not the ‘aim’ or ‘purpose’ of religion. Religion is sound and true to its nature only as long as it has no aim or purpose except the worship of God. Yet, wherever genuine religious experience as the concentration and direction of the best that is in man sparks, nuclei are formed which are integrated into a close unit primarily what they consider holy. These nuclei tend to grow. In the process of this growth they will absorb, modify and destroy what opposes the realisation of complete integration of a particular or universal religious community... Our thesis of the pre-eminently constructive force of religion is confirmed by repeated attempts, movements, and processes aimed at a reintegration of the religious fellowship, illustrations of which we found in abundance when reviewing the history of the great founded religions.”37

There is no way of verifying such generalities but all the same there is a strong impression that the degree of social equality and human brotherhood achieved by Islamic Milat, taking into consideration the diversity of races and climates as well as the period of time covered, remains virtually unsurpassed. This social integration went hand in hand with the political expansion of Islam. “Religion, then”, writes Bellah, “provided the ideology and social cohesion for many rebellion and reform movements in the historic civilizations, and consequently played a more dynamic and especially a more purposive role in social change, than had previously been possible.”38 And, we hope to show later that the Sikh revolutionary movement would have been inconceivable without the social cohesion brought about by the Sikh religion among the disparate and hostile castes.

8. Comment
Revolutionary ideals and goals are based on humanitarian values, and the historic role of religion in giving birth to these values cannot be denied. Judaism is the first humane and universal religion, and thirst for justice and equality goes back to Moses. It is religion which first affirmed faith in human destiny, human dignity, human equality, and human freedom. Again, it is religion which first raised its voice against oppression, exploitation and slavery.

It has also been seen that there is so much in common between revolutionary motivation and a truly religious approach. Values such as devotion to a universal humanitarian cause, concern for the downtrodden and the poor, self-denial, selflessness and self-sacrifice in pursuit of a humanitarian goal, etc, are as much indispensable to revolution as to religion.

These significant coincidences, which have survived the vicissitudes of ages, are unlikely to be just accidental. Despite many divergences, there appears to have been some basic unity of approach, at least in two respects, which somehow overrules the differences. To repeat, as Brinton has put it, “The important thing about a religious belief is that under its influence men work very hard and excitedly in common to achieve here or somewhere an ideal, a pattern of life, not at the moment universally — or even largely — achieved. Religion attempts to close in favour of human hopes the gap between what men are and what men would like to be.”39 The same can be said, more or less, of revolution in its own sphere.

Secondly, religion and revolution are both universalistic. Universalism has a transformative vision. It uplifts men, who come under its spell, above the narrow grooves of self-interest, or sectional and regional interests, may be for a short duration.

In any case, the predominant and significant features of both religion and revolution are their ideological pulls. Mass movements, which so long they come under their spell, are a class apart from those governed by environmental factors, whose human fulcrum is the hard-boiled, self-centred, and aggressive being described by Thucydides.

In the background of the discussion we have had so far, we can now proceed to examine a rare historical phenomenon, where the religious and revolutionary streams blended into one — the Sikh Revolutionary Movement.



1. Jaochim Wach : Sociology of Religon, p. 383.
2. Ibid., p. 381.
3. Ibid., p. 281.
4. Brinton, p. 203.
5. Christopher Read : Religon, Revolution and the Russian Intelligentsia, p.81.
6. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 214.
7. Ibid., p. 50.
8. Ibid., pp. 272-73.
9. Ibid., pp. 69.
10. Brinton, p. 276.
11. Ibid., p. 283.
12. Robertson, p. 305.
13. Friedrich, p. 80.
14. Hannah Arendt : On Revolution.
15. Camus, p. 76.
16. Hagopian, p. 59.
17. Cited by Christopher Read, p. 87.
18. Ibid., p. 81.
19. Ibid., p. 79.
20. Camus, p. 10.
21. Brinton, p. 202.
22. Ibid., p. 205.
23. Brinton, p. 6.
24. Ibid., p. 207.
25. Ibid., pp. 210, 214, 215.
26. Ibid., p. 214.
27. Ibid., p. 216.
28. Lyford P. Edwards : The Natural History of Revolution, pp. 122-23.
29. Ibid.
30. Oeuvres (M), 11, ii, 349-50; (B) ix, 118 (cited by Friedrich, p. 94).
31. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 18.
32. Robertson, p. 277.
33. Wach, p. 377.
34. Ibid., pp. 6, 13, 110, 383.
35. Ibid., p. 234.
36. H.C. Koenigsberger : Estates and Revolution, pp. 225-26 (Quoted by Hagopian, p. 38).
37. Wach, pp. 381-82.
38. Robertson, p. 280.
39. Brinton, p. 203.



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