Hinduism comes of age in Britain

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The words "idol" and "idolator" have a pleasingly old-fashioned ring about them. They belong with "begetting" and "smiting": words which can no longer be taken seriously, no matter how seriously we take the activities they describe. In fact begetting and smiting are the stuff of newspapers. They are fundamental human drives. Is it not possible that idolatry, worship, might be too?

Yesterday afternoon, 17 painted idols were marched through the streets of Central London, from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. They came from the Neasden Mandir, an extraordinary Hindu temple which has been raised in an unprepossessing suburb in north-west London, and were paraded through the heart of London to welcome them to their new home. They were followed and venerated by a crowd who believed them truly magical and infused with the divine. As the chanting procession passed along the streets from which the Empire once was governed it made a powerful symbol of the ways in which Britain is losing its religious establishment and becoming in this as in other respects a more American society, one in which all religions are esteemed more or less equally.

Of course, this process still has a long way to go. In Britain there is still a great deal left of the old religious establishment. And outside the cities there is no important organised religion but Christianity. Yet the procession of the idols down Pall Mall will deepen and increase the vague feeling that Christianity in these islands is faltering and other religions, especially Eastern ones, are gaining strength.

To some extent this impression is justified. The procession would have been unimaginable 50 years ago let alone a century ago.There are far more Hindus and Muslims in Britain now than there were then and they matter a great deal more. The new temple in Neasden is a remarkable building by any aesthetic standard and it will probably become one of the sights of London.

It is also a socially impressive statement. It proclaims that we have a prosperous and self-confident community in our midst. The closer you get to this message, the more impressive it appears. The generalised glitter resolves into intricately carved marble. The impression of opulence resolves into some very large numbers. The temple's materials may have cost no more than pounds 3m. But the labour that went into them would have cost a vast amount had it been charged at Western market rates. It is in the labour of volunteers that the real wealth of the sect resides.

But there is nothing specifically Hindu or even non-Christian about such idealism and energy. The past couple of decades have shown an extraordinary revival of religious energy around the world, at the same time as the great secularising machine of the world economy has become ever more powerful. Often these revivals have taken violent and disturbing forms: it is hard to find a war anywhere in the world today that does not have a religious component. One of the remarkable things about the Neasden Mandir is that it is an almost wholly benign expression of religious fervour. Its opposition to the IKEA superstore just across the North Circular road remains symbolic and geographical only. Indeed to some extent the two are symbiotic, since the temple has been largely funded by prosperous Gujerati trading families.

Amongst other things, the temple is a monument to family values. Religions play a huge role in preserving and strengthening family life; families, in return, are the medium through which religious beliefs and practices are usually transmitted. Almost all the religions of the world, for example, can make common cause in defence of marriage. In this context, Eastern religions in this country may have a slight advantage over indigenous Christianity, since they can more easily strengthen, and to some extent define, the communities in which families function. This is far less a Hindu or a Muslim (or a Polish) country than it is a Christian one; but that makes it easier for the Hindus, Muslims or Poles to stick together upholding their own values.

Religions may broadly agree about the family but that is about all they do agree on. The great generalisations about the importance of peace, mercy, justice and so on may be great but they are also very general and in their particular application religions differ endlessly among and between themselves. If I behave unjustly, will I go to eternal torment, to oblivion, or merely to reincarnation as a pig? If you then eat the pig, will God mind? These questions cannot satisfactorily be placed on one side. For religions, like everything else which has grown organically, are not wholly susceptible to rational dissection. They must have an element of the untamed and irrational if they are to survive, which protects and nourishes their more gentle teaching as bark protects a tree.

So a state that takes religions seriously must have some way of choosing between the claims of religious truth when these are incompatible. This is not a choice that can entirely be avoided by any state; it can certainly not be avoided by treating all religious expressions as mere matters of opinion, as the Rushdie affair showed.

There is one answer built in to the British constitution, such as it is: there is a presumption that the teachings of the Christianity, as interpreted by the Church of England, are actually true. This is thought so important that no one who does not subscribe to the belief may become head of state. But it is thought important by a tiny minority of the population today. Even inside the Church of England, few Christians believe that the church's established status should mean very much, or constrain either church or state in any significant way.

So that answer has failed. It no longer plays on the public stage, just as people no longer say "begetting", or "smiting" and "idolatry". Yet we still need to deal with the consequences of sex, and fighting, and religion, and whatever replaces an established church must somehow hold up an idea of public truth.