Today’s Rebellion is Tomorrow’s Orthodoxy

By K S Venkataraman


It is one of the paradoxical twists in all reform movements all over the world — whether religious, social, political — that the rebels rising against the orthodoxy in their times eventually end up as a sect by themselves, or a subset within the system. They create their own traditions, and after a few generations, are constrained by their own orthodoxy.

Gautama Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha (or the Awakened One) for his followers, was a social critique and rebel in his time.  He defied many conventional norms of this time in matters of social order and faith.  A few centuries after the Buddha’s death, his followers split into the Teravada and the Mahayana. They further split into the Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Yogachara, and Madhyamika schools, each having its own traditions and observances, with each buried in their own definitions on Buddhist practices and doctrinaire differences.  Many of these schools eventually fizzled out in India.

The Sri Vaishnavas of Tamil Nadu brought about rebellious reforms in the 11th century. Several decades after their founder Ramanuja’s death, they morphed into their own inviolable orthodoxy and broke into two groups — the Northern and the Southern sects (Vada Kalai and Then Kalai in Tamil) — with doctrinal differences, with each sect ending up having its share of temple properties and assets. They have taken their fights — some of  them may appear trivial to outsiders, for that mater, even to many insiders — all the way to the Indian Supreme Court.

The Veerashaivas, after rebelling against the caste system in the 12th century, are today a caste by themselves. The Sikhs too, who  defied the caste system in 15th century to become a separate religion, internalized the caste system de facto.

Jesus of Nazareth was a social and economic rebel in his time.  After his death on the cross, his followers venerated him as Christ, meaning Messiah or the Anointed One. And calling themselves Christians (or the followers of the Messiah), the religious leaders of the faith, throughout history in later centuries  developed their own orthodoxy on many social, political and cultural matters  –  Even on matters related to science such as whether the earth or the sun was at the center of the universe.  The Vatican’s position was that earth was the center of the universe since Man was the best creation of their God, Yahweh in Hebrew.  On theological grounds and dogma, the church declared that earth was at the center (geocentric theory).  The condemned Galileo who correctly argued that the sun was the center of the solar system.   In the following centuries, Vatican also took its stand against anesthesia, blood transfusion, contraceptives, organ transplants, and stem cell research, only to be overridden by common sense.

Eventually Christianity too broke into many groups: from the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox sects (Russian, Syrian, and Greek), Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Quakers, Mennonites… … These divisions were based on political, social, and/or doctrinaire differences.

In India, the atheistic Communist movement offers another fascinating model. India’s Communist Party was formed to fight feudalism, inspired by the 1917 Russian Bolshevik revolution in the Czarist Russia. In response to the souring relationship between Soviet and Chinese Communists in the 1960s, Indian Communists split into CPI (loyal to Russia) and CPM (Marxist), loyal to China.

Soon the atheistic CPM, like a religion, splintered into countless groups — Naxalites (Charu Majumdar), Naxalites (Pulla Reddy), CPI (Marxist-Leninist), CPI (Maoists), Revolutionary CPI… …  See the long list of Communist Gotras (clans) here:\Communist-Gotras.  With their patron saints the Soviet Union now dead for nearly 3 decades, and China abandoning its socialist ideologies and becoming capitalistic, Communists in India are drifting away and gasping today to be relevant in politics.

Religious, social, political, and economic reform movements are like hurricanes, starting in nondescript spots in oceans with nobody recognizing them. Moving through warm ocean waters, they become large masses of swirling clouds with immense energy. They make landfall with great force causing enormous damage, and move inland, only to lose their strength and dissipate into smaller clouds causing only drizzles. After some time, the next hurricane arrives.   ♣

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