The Significance of Religion in ‘A Passage to India’
E.M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ is a literary work which operates on two levels simultaneously- personal and impersonal. Scenes involving the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters alternate with scenes vocalizing the voice of the omniscient narrator, who directly addresses some of the heavier issues which lie at the heart of the novel. The theme of religion operates in the same way. On a larger plane, it enables Forster to deliver social commentary by supporting the themes of colonialism and ethnic relations. His portrayal of the tensions which exist within the different segments of Indian society foreshadows historical events which occurred years after the novel was published. However, each of the three major religions is also portrayed as a philosophy through which man makes sense of himself and the universe around him. The presentation of its effects on individual characters enable Forster to explore philosophical concepts such as infinity and head vs. heart. The reactions and personal values of the adherents of each religion, in turn, reinforce the other themes of the novel, connecting everything to Forster’s grand vision.
On a socio-historical level, religion is portrayed as a divisive force. The sections ‘Mosque’ and ‘Temple’ are separated by the section ‘Caves’, representing the gulf which lies between the Moslems and the Hindus in India. The Marabar Caves are associated with the idea of negation- the trip to it is said to have “challenged the very spirit of the Indian Earth, which keeps men in compartments”, and ends in disaster. Its insidious presence, both in the structure and throughout the novel nullifies any hope of unification between the Indians and the Moslems, despite Dr. Aziz’s heroic battle cry at the end of the novel (“Hindu and Moslem and Sikh shall all be one!”). Almost a quarter of a century later, the partition of India into the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan justified Forster’s premonitions. Meanwhile, the sole Occidental religion, Christianity, is conspicuously absent- not just in the structure, but in the rest of the novel as well. The Oriental places of worship are described in detail by Forster, and are the locations of important plot events (e.g Dr. Aziz’s first meeting with Mrs. Moore). The mosque and the Hindu temple are both evoked in concrete terms while there is no mention of anything Christian built on Indian soil. The religion appears only through characterization and biblical references, both of which do not leave lasting impressions. Thus, Forster hints that Christianity, and by extension the British colonialists, have no place in India. Despite their attempts to subjugate the Indians, they will never be able to establish themselves permanently in the country. Again, Forster’s prediction was accurate. In 1947, India obtained its independence from the British, 23 years after the publication of the novel.
The description of places of worship also illustrates the central contrast between the attitudes of the English and the Indians- the former are rational and reserved, while the latter openly show emotion. Both the mosque and the Gokul Ashtami festival are described through the usage of imagery, and evoke a sense of the spirit behind the religion. Dr. Aziz’s quiet appreciation of the beauty of the mosque (“…the contest between this contention and dualism of the shadows pleased him…”) and the various sensations he experiences vaguely (e.g the amateur orchestra, the smell of jasmine flowers) create an impression of stillness, showing how Islam is a source of solace for the emotional Dr. Aziz. His recitation of a poem shows how he connects with Islam from his heart. The Gokul Ashtami festival is described differently- it is a vibrant burst of color and motion, with a myriad of sensations described one after another. There is a sense of collectiveness- even Professor Godbole’s vision is tempered by his interactions with other characters (e.g talking to the drummer, his colleague disentangling his pince-nez). Although the vitality of the festival and the scene at the mosque convey different atmospheres, both are brimming with feelings. Christianity, on the other hand, is never shown in practice (except for Adela’s brief prayer on the morning of the trial). Only the formal trappings of religion, such as biblical quotes and missionaries, appear, which is reflective of the English people’s rationality. Religion, despite being something personal, is not close to their hearts. The exceptions are Mrs. Moore and, towards the trial, Adela Quested, but they find it unable to calm their mental turmoil.
The first religion which appears in the novel is Islam, which is portrayed as a religion reveling in past glory. This is shown through the characterization of Dr.Aziz. The decay of Islam is one of his favorite topics, and he possess a wealth of knowledge about the Mughal emperors of the past, such as Akbar and Alamgir, which he usually brings into conversations with Fielding and the Englishwomen, impressing them with his passion. Nevertheless, the Moslems in the novel do not follow their religion blindly. Certain Islamic ceremonies such as circumcision prevail- others such as polygamy, are rejected by educated Moslems. Traditional religious values are thus tempered by Western ones. Dr. Aziz initially rejects his arranged marriage as he was “touched by Western feeling…disliked union with a woman whom he had never met.” Adela’s question about polygamy was akin to asking him if he was civilized, and made Dr. Aziz feel insulted. He felt a greater need to defend himself as monogamy was a new conviction. As the novel progresses, Dr. Aziz’s initial zest for Islam wears off. The Shrine of the Head and the Shrine of the Body at Mau go against Islam’s forbiddance of idolatry. Dr. Aziz, although initially scornful, soon accepts it, even bringing his children to visit it.
Despite Islam’s seeming lack of endurance, the Moslems in the novel consider themselves superior to Hindus. They use various unflattering adjectives (e.g “flabby”, “slack”,) to describe the Hindus. Dr. Aziz criticises Mrs. Bhattacharya’s false invitation to the Englishwomen on the grounds that they are Hindus, then ironically proceeds to make the same mistake himself. The engineer, Mr Syed Mohammed described Hindu religious fairs with contempt, and Dr. Aziz once rapped a Brahmany bull (which is sacred to Hindus) with a polo stick, enraging Panna Lal. This lack of respect for other religions is one reason why the chasm between Moslems and Hindus are so deep. Each thinks of the other in terms of their religious identity, and not as individual people. Dr. Aziz reconciles with Mr. Das but thinks of him as a Hindu first, while Mr. Das thinks “Some Moslems are violent” without considering whether Dr. Aziz himself falls under this category. The herd mentality is too strong to allow the continuation of the brief unification brought about by Dr. Aziz’s trial. Nevertheless, Dr. Aziz himself finally seeks employment in a Hindu state, because his hatred of the British is stronger than his dislike of Hindus. He still makes flippant comments about Hindus, but is less harsh (“… he hoped that they would enjoy carrying their idol about, for at all events it did not pry into other people’s lives.”).
Like Islam, Christianity is also presented as a religion which erects barriers between people, despite the presence of biblical quotations which encourage mutual acceptance. This shows the hypocrisy of the Anglo-Indians, who do not practice what they preach. “In our Father’s house there are many mansions” is the message preached by Maurice and Mr Sorley, the two Christian missionaries, yet the Anglo Indians treat the natives with contempt, dehumanising and humiliating them. Mr McBryde’s wife expresses her opposition towards missionaries, ostensibly because she sees the Indians as inferior beings, and so unworthy of heaven. The Anglo- Indians are not particularly religious- they seem to ignore the missionaries, whose lack of resources is shown by their living beyond the slaughterhouse and travelling third class on the railways. Ronny Heaslop embodies the typical Anglo-Indian attitude towards religion- the “sterile, public school” brand which lacks practical application. It is part of the Anglo-Indian identity and not a way of life (“Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but objected when it attempted to influence his life.”) However, because religion is meant to serve as a moral guide, the textbook version of it, which focuses on clear divisions between good and evil, is not enough in India, with its lack of explicit boundaries.
The only person who can be considered a ‘true Christian’ in the novel is Mrs Moore, who is one of the most spiritual characters. Her loving acceptance of the wasp and her consideration for the Indians (“God has put us on Earth to love our neighbors…”) shows her inherent good nature. However, even she fails to find solace in Christianity. The phrase “poor little talkative Christianity” is used, foreshadowing Mrs. Moore’s disillusionment with the religion. Its tenets are not vague- on the contrary, Christianity is the most organised religion and is associated with churches, Chaplains and missionaries. However, the word ‘talkative’ implies that its teachings are merely rhetoric, since the deeper side of divinity, that which is unknown and incomprehensible to man, is not addressed. Mrs. Moore thought more about God in India, but out of the familiarity and structure of English society this offered little consolation. The echo in the Marabar caves gave Mrs. Moore a vision of negation, where man is powerless to influence anything around him. As a result, she realized her own insignificance, and became bored of living. Similarly, Adela Quested took to prayer after the Marabar incident. It was ineffective, however as she had not reconciled her feelings and her intellect. Christianity places emphasis on rational moral codes without fostering true spiritual understanding. It is a reflection of the Anglo-Indian character; logical to a fault and unable to apprehend the “muddle” of India.
In contrast to Islam and Christianity, Hinduism is religion portrayed as a unifying force, and one which is not hindered by racial barriers. Mrs. Moore is a Hindu at heart (“then you are an Oriental”). As a result of her simple kindness towards all creatures, Mrs. Moore is Indianized as a Hindu Goddess, “Esmiss Esmoor”- she is symbolically elevated to the spiritual plane of which she had been acutely aware. Mrs. Moore’s spirit is also carried on through her two children, Ralph and Stella Moore, whose instinctive appreciation for Hinduism is further evidence of the religion’s inclusiveness. All the major characters ( representative of the three religions) appear in the final section of the novel- Adela’s voice is heard through her letters and Mrs. Moore’s, through Ralph Moore. Images of peace and harmony dominate, as even Dr. Aziz (who is initially skeptical) is caught up in the joyous mood of the worshipers, and behaves kindly towards Ralph Moore. The atmosphere of togetherness is further strengthened by the description of the procession, which unites people in devotion and eventually reunites Dr. Aziz and Fielding as well, when their boats collide in the water and with some of the devotees. Thus, Hinduism presents the possibility of connection between people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Hinduism focuses on the unification of man and God through love and the equality of all creatures. This is shown through Professor Godbole, the main representative of Hinduism in the novel. In the heat of the festival, he has an almost divine glimpse of Mrs. Moore and the wasp. Like a benevolent God, he finds it in himself to love them equally. “It does not seem like much, but still, it is more than I am myself,” he thinks, of the two. This is reminiscent of Mrs. Moore’s appreciation of a wasp on her coat peg, exhibiting the simple acceptance which is at the core of Hinduism. Professor Godbole acknowledges that he can only do so much, as a tiny part of the universe. Yet Mrs. Moore, in spirit, and the wasp which he saw, together, are part of the wider universe and so more spiritually linked than he is. This is contrasted towards the Christian missionaries’ rejection of the wasp (“We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing.”) Hinduism emphasizes spirituality instead of rules and formality, although there are caveats, such as Professor Godbole’s dietary restrictions. Ironically, the inscription “God Si Love” on the temple wall was spelt wrongly, although the Hindus actually practiced the biblical phrase.
For Hindus, God is not an inaccessible figure high up in the heavens. He is a force which flows through the blood of all living beings. The games played during Gokul Ashtami, such as feeding the deity butter, may seem bawdy and tasteless, yet it shows how God is thought to be close to His subjects. Hence, he is given human attributes such as the enjoyment of playing games. They do not just pray to God, but see themselves as a part of Him and the wider universe. Hinduism also contains an acceptance of the unknown. Professor Godbole’s ‘song of the unknown bird’ had everyone spellbound, from the Anglo-Indians to the lowly water chestnut collector alike. Its haunting quality emerged precisely because it could not be identified, yet it touched their souls. This parallels Ronny and Adela’s failure to identify an unknown bird. Their uneasiness points to an inherent need to classify things, instead of feeling and appreciating them, as they did with Professor Godbole’s song. There are things outside the boundaries of human understanding, and knowing this is the key to apprehending infinity. The cosmos is so immense hat nobody can fully penetrate its mysteries. Mystical events such as Professor Godbole’s vision and Ralph Moore guiding Dr. Aziz to the Rajah’s statue proves that there are unseen forces at work. Trying to ‘label’ things will only result in confusion, which is what Adela experienced when she entered the Marabar caves, leading to her false accusation of Dr. Aziz.
Although Forster seems to favor Hinduism over the other two religions, setting an entire section against the backdrop of the Hindu festival at Mau, he is careful to present its drawbacks as well. There are divisions within the religion itself, between Brahman and non-Brahman. Strict rules also exist for Brahmans, such as the touch of a non-Hindu requiring another bath. Hindus are also not averse to arguing with Moslems. Their protest over the Moslems cutting of a branch of the sacred pepul tree to facilitate the paper tower procession during Mohurram, is an example. Nevertheless, Hinduism is portrayed as the most accessible of all the three religions, and the most suitable for establishing mutual goodwill.
In conclusion, Forster maintains a delicate balance between presenting his authorial opinion and allowing the reader to draw his/her own conclusion. He uses religion to highlight the problems of colonial India, but leaves room for interpretation. None of the religions are presented as the perfect solution but neither are any of them presented as the root cause of the country’s issues. Rather, they are a reflection of the communities’ mind-sets. Forster combines his examination of religion as a socio-historical factor with religion as a means for self-actualization. The former focuses on the collective attitudes of a community while the other deals with spirituality on a personal level. This enables him to make a subtle distinction between religion and its followers. While a religion’s teachings may be morally adequate, an individual who does not follow them would receive no benefit. In the end, religion is subjective and inextricably linked to human nature, the vagaries of which Forster explores in detail.
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E.M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ is a literary work which operates on two levels simultaneously- personal and impersonal. Scenes involving the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters alternate […]