When I hear the oft repeated assertion that one is an atheist or an agnostic, I am reminded of my own turbulent brushes with faith over the decades.
It has been an eventful journey, sometimes painful and at other times exhilarating, going all the way from implicit faith, to skepticism and rebellion, to questions and arguments, to an extended period of agnostic theism, and to implicit faith yet again. Though I believe that one’s faith is a personal matter and not meant for discussion or dissection, I wanted to share this special journey. Maybe it will help someone out there.
As a child coming from an orthodox and ritualistic family, I had gone through the entire gamut of religious rituals — visiting temples and taking part in sundry religious activities. This included classes of Bhagavad Gita chanting, shloka classes, doing bhajan and going on prabhat pheris in the chilly Nagpur winter mornings — among other things. One had no say or choice in the matter, but I enjoyed most activities as any child would, even showing off my talent in these classes. My faith in God was so implicit that I was certain that He would somehow protect me from all dangers and problems.
So when even after frantic appeals to God, I found the street dog still chasing me, or when the teacher asked for the homework copy which I had forgotten to bring — I didn’t for a moment question His existence or berate Him for letting me down, but believed that it was only by His grace that the teacher had just scolded and not punished me or that the dog had just chased and not attacked me.
As I entered teenage I was beset by confusion, doubts, questions and of course, half-baked knowledge of everything including religion and God! I discarded all my prayer rituals and adopted a superior stance because I believed that I knew everything about it. Hadn’t I gone through the religious drill and found it wanting, a pain even? Temples with their commercial approach, put me off them completely. And, when I heard bigots extolling their own religions and abusing others, I was put off the idea of religion too. A permanent sneer took residence around my mouth and eyes when matters pertaining to religion were discussed. Fortunately I didn’t sneer at God or question His existence, even during the most cynical phase of my life.
At the height of my cynicism, I had had the temerity to even question my father’s devotion. After all I could think of God without any prop, while he needed his murtis and pictures. Didn’t that make me qualified enough to question his faith?
‘Do you actually think of God for three hours when you do the puja? I can meditate on God even if I pray for one minute,’ I told him, the superior tone and sarcasm scarcely masked.
Anyone who was steeped in ritualistic worship, would have been offended and angry. My mother used to be. But father’s reaction and reply took me by surprise.
‘You have really attained gyan if you are able to do it and are infinitely greater than most of us who need an image, an idol or a place of worship to be able to meditate on God. As for the elaborate puja, if it keeps me busy for three hours, what is the harm? Otherwise I will drive your mother crazy sitting at home’, the last said with a smile, as he had retired recently.
I looked up at him quickly to see if he was being sarcastic, but he was not. He meant every word in his infinite wisdom, for he must have seen through my bravado but felt that I had to find my own answers and that I would, eventually. His reply should have humbled me, but I am ashamed to say that it didn’t — drunk as I was with my ‘enlightened’ state! If anything, it only made me cockier.
I grew up, got married, had kids, went through the ups and downs of life — all of which toned down my cockiness. I had by then realised the power of prayer. Articles and scientific study reports affirmed the same and these appealed to my ‘scientific’ mind. I prayed to God when I felt overwhelmed, I prayed when I was happy. And I taught the children to pray too. They had the freedom to pray in whichever manner they wanted but they were taught to acknowledge a God. After following all the rituals during festivals and important days half-heartedly for a few years post marriage, I finally told my mother-in-law that I didn’t want to do them because I didn’t believe in them. She, like my father, was understanding but unlike him, was disappointed and upset for a while.
I had started my slow descent to earth. I still didn’t go to temples and didn’t do any religious ritual save the lighting of the lamp in the puja, but stopped mocking those who did. It was the beginning of the slow transformation. I soon realised that I was but a miniscule dot in this vast universe and that I knew next to nothing about anything. What is it they say? ‘The more you learn, the more you realise you know nothing.’
I believed that I was following the path of karma that Swami Vivekananda advocated as I busied myself with the job of life. Here too, my ego was supreme, as I thought that I was in control while going through the daily routine, working outside and inside the home. It was a while before I slowly began understanding that I was able to do all I did, only with God’s help. With this realization, finally came some humility, I am glad to say.
I remember another conversation I had with my father during this phase.
‘Why does God let good people suffer so much? Is it true that those who reject Him are punished?’
‘What has God got to do with your own deeds?’ father asked me. ‘He gave you the power to think and act, didn’t He? You are only reaping what you sowed, not just in this life, but also in many other previous lives. And no, He does not punish anyone. It is your own fear and negative thoughts about your transgressions that invite retribution on yourself.’
That sobered me up further, making me realise that each one of us is responsible for our actions and it is in our hands to shape our lives both in this and the next birth. God merely helped us along.
In the following years, first my father and then my mother-in-law passed away. I had become older and hopefully slightly wiser. But I had no one to bounce my questions off. They both had had similar faith but diametrically different ways of reacting to questions on God and religion. One encouraged them and the other exhorted implicit faith and felt that questioning the age-old beliefs was tantamount to blasphemy.
So by trial and error and of course, tribulations, I came to realise many things in the past decade or so:
- I realized that God doesn’t ask for anything except devotion and faith; how you show it is entirely up to you. I modified my prayers, began going to temples as I realised the powerful vibrations in them due to the faith of those who came there, but I avoided the crowded ones as I needed space and peace to commune with my God.
- I realized that too often the words religion and rituals are used synonymously and interchangeably whereas they are NOT. Rituals were put in place to bring a measure of discipline to a person’s life and even a cursory examination of those would make one realise it. But unfortunately they have been distorted beyond recognition and reason. This has only served to alienate the questioning individual from religious rituals and consequently from religion and God. So when someone says he or she is an atheist, I take it to mean that they are merely saying that they are against rituals, especially after speaking to many of them.
- As a corollary of the above, I realized that looking at the rituals and being put off God is like missing the wood for the trees.
- I realised or rather rediscovered the power of chanting when I am disturbed or in doubt. It is one of the forms of prayer in every religion. I have seen just as many Muslims, Buddhists and Christians chant, as I have seen Hindus do it. I have personally found its efficacy on countless occasions. The monotonous cadence and rhythm have the power to calm and ground me when I am distraught or even disturbed.
- I realised the meaning of secularism – not in the hypocritical political sense, but in the true sense. I find it comforting when the mulla at a mosque runs the peacock feathers over my head and back while chanting or when a priest makes the sign of the cross over me while invoking God’s blessings — just as much as I find it gratifying to receive prasad in a temple. I realised that these are all manifestations of the power of God, meant to soothe the disturbed soul.
- I realized that the state of women has little to do with religion per se. Centuries of (mis) interpretation of our scriptures has resulted in the degeneration of the society and the status of women. When something as secular and recent as our Constitution can be twisted by our wonderful Parliament to suit the mood of the day, is it any wonder that our ages old religious texts have been literally mauled by vested interest groups? It would be a great mistake to let them or a few fanatics turn you away from spiritual pursuits.
- I realised that rejecting something without experiencing it or understanding it is like saying that a dish is sour or bitter by just looking at it without tasting. I had done this mistake during my ‘enlightened’ phase — when I rejected religion without understanding anything about it, because of some unsavory experiences taken out of context.
Today I do puja and go to temples, but I do it out of my own will and understand why I am doing them, finding solace in the rituals that I have created for myself. What is more, I have returned to my childhood state of utter faith in God and His powers after a long and eventful journey of discovery and understanding. And let me tell you, coming full circle has never been so satisfying!
In conclusion, I want to say this: Don’t ever be tempted to reject or condemn something without trying to understand or experience it, to the best of your ability. This has to be a personal discovery as every experience necessarily is, and therefore is bound to be varied. I rediscovered implicit faith; you might discover nirvana. But the most important thing is to open our minds as we go through the journey, soaking in the experiences along the way and then deciding if we want to accept or reject the findings. Till then let’s hold our peace and let the world be.
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Picture Credit: Swati Maheshwari