In the ‘Age of Coronavirus’, fear has gripped most people as they confront the possibility of death. In response, many people have turned to religion as a possible source for hope and resilience. After all, both the Creator and the virus are invisible to the naked eye. Priests and religious leaders have used this instinctive, almost primordial impulse, in order to manipulate and maintain power over their congregations. Doomsday stories abound from all over the world about preachers and quacks from various religions offering “cures” for COVID-19, and in some cases, even claiming that mere faith is a “vaccine”.
In India, even the prime minister’s initial call for a ‘Janata Curfew’ suddenly took on religious overtones, as it entered the bewildering world of social media. The call to bang pots and pans as a way of thanking medical staff and the civil and police services, became touted as a way to “kill the virus”, through the vibrations that the din would produce. No one paused to ask why other ailments could not be also treated thus.
Beyond Superstition, Using Religion to Think More Broadly About the World
Some Muslims, through linguistic acrobatics that would perplex the most accomplished philologists, have tried arguing that coronavirus was somehow linked to the Quran. Others publicly boasted about how their five-times-a-day ablutions would “protect” them from corona. WhatsApp messages and social media posts have gone viral heralding the end of days, and amongst many Muslim groups, 29 March 2020 has been stipulated as the “beginning of the end of days”. I have taken due note and put a reminder on my phone calendar in case I forget.
However, beyond this superficial and superstitious world of religious irrationality, many people have also tried to use religion and scriptures to think more broadly about the world, the problems that we face, and what a post-pandemic world might look like.
In Christian theological literature, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are thought to signify war, death, pestilence, and famine. Although not in the form of four horsemen, both Judaism and Islam also forewarn that the end of times will be close when these four calamities afflict the world, when good will be mistaken for evil, and when leaders become oppressors.
A verse of the Quran speaks of a time when its message would be disregarded. Ahadith or the sayings of the Prophet, claim that one sign will be that ‘ulama, religious scholars, will be at the forefront of leading people astray. Others mention that ‘there will come a time when only the outward form of Islam and the Quran will remain and though people be far from the essence of religion.’
Thinking Critically About the Systems That Govern Us
The Bhagavata Purana of the Hindu canon speaks of the Kali Yuga, the last of the four ages of the world – as a stage in which liars will govern. It claims that ‘as the earth will become crowded with a corrupt population, whoever among the social classes shows himself to be strongest, will gain power. Wealth will be the only measure of success, and many will think themselves Brahmin by merely wearing the sacred thread. He who is clever at juggling words will be thought of as a learned scholar.’
As opposed to most religious traditions, which think of historical time as regressing, the modern notion of time is one in which the future is one of infinite progress. Harvard academic Steven Pinker tries to make an empirical argument about the decline of violence amongst other things, to make a case for the progress. In other words, for the world being a better place.
Indeed, overall there is a case to be made for technological and material progress alleviating poverty, but at the same time, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that we do need to think more critically about the systems that govern us. Even if one were to take the various eschatological traditions of these religions as simply metaphors, it becomes clear that perhaps there is also some wisdom in them.
It’s Up to Us to Change a System That Glorifies ‘Productivity’
Both Abrahamic and Hindu eschatological traditions predict a moral decline as a marker of the end of days. In a way they are forewarnings of a time when society becomes unhinged from principles in a blind desire to acquire power and money. War has indeed become the most profitably industry in the world. Pestilences and diseases abound as we systematically destroy nature and our environment. Food is still scarce in many parts of the world due to inequities and inequalities of a market driven by debt. In India, as in many other countries, millions face the prospect of hunger at a time when the entire country is on lockdown. All over the world the people are faced with the prospect of death.
The Four Horsemen have arrived again, as they periodically have done during the course of human history. It is up to us as to whether we decide to change our priorities.
It is up to us as to whether we change a system that conceives of a human being’s value solely in terms of their productivity. It is up to us as to whether we introduce periodic lockdowns or bans on vehicular transport in order to let the world breathe and heal.
It is up to us as to whether we invest more in health, education and basic welfare or whether we spend money on weapons that have clearly been made redundant by a virus that we cannot even see.
Post Corona, Will We Have Moral Strength to Say ‘No’ to Inequalities Around Us?
It is up to us as to whether we begin to live more sustainably and locally or we continue to worship at the alter of unbounded materialism, by accumulating more debt. It is up to us as to whether we think beyond borders or whether we let national, religious, ethnic and racial differences dictate our politics.
Historically speaking, many religious and ideological movements have begun in moments of crises, and they have started by resolutely saying ‘No!’ to the status quo.
It is another matter that they also eventually fall prey to the same mistakes. However, the current pandemic has given us an opportunity to say ‘No’ to the world as it exists today. It has given us a chance to reflect on and reimagine our future. Once the ‘Age of Coronavirus’ passes, will we have the moral strength to say ‘No’ to the inequalities and inequities that surround us?
(Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an Indian historian, political scientist, poet, writer, and assistant professor in the dual fields of history and political science at Ashoka University. He tweets @Mahmudabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)