When I hear the oft-repeated assertion that one is an atheist or an agnostic, I idly wonder if they just mean that they are anti-ritual-of-the- Hindu-kind. And though I never proclaimed myself as such, the statement leads me to reminisce about my own turbulent brushes with Hindu dharma over the decades.
My journey has been an eventful one, sometimes painful and at other times exhilarating, going all the way from implicit faith, to questions and arguments, to skepticism and rebellion, to an extended period shorn of religious rituals, and finally to implicit faith once again, as I complete my circular journey.
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. This had been a stand-alone piece, but I have decided to add some events that I had only mentioned about in the original, but had passed over. Maybe recounting it all will help someone out there who is grappling with dilemmas similar to the ones I had dealt with. So, I have made this my opening article of the series. Please read and share your thoughts and experiences in the comments so that other readers may benefit from our experiences.
This post had the honour of being selected by my friend Beloo Mehra to feature on her blog Matriwords in three parts, embellishing it with stellar quotes and thoughts from Sri Aurobindo and Mother’s writings.
As a child coming from a devout family that set great store upon religious rituals, I had gone through the entire gamut of them–visiting temples and taking part in sundry religious activities. This included classes of Bhagavad Gita chanting, shloka classes, attending bhajans and going on prabhat pheris in the chill winter mornings of Nagpur–among other things. One had no say or choice in the matter of participation, but I enjoyed most activities as any child would.
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 Rama, I still found the street dog chasing me, or when the teacher asked for the homework copy which I had forgotten to bring, despite my frantic prayers that she should be absent–I didn’t for a moment question blame Him for letting me down. Instead, I firmly believed that it was only by His grace that the teacher had only scolded and not punished me or that the dog had stopped at chasing, without attacking me.
As I entered the teens, I was beset by confusion, doubts, questions and of course, half-baked knowledge of everything including religion and God! Ironically, in the face of my ‘knowledge’, all the doubts were suppressed. I discarded all my prayer rituals and adopted a superior attitude because I believed that I knew everything about religion and God. 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 of other\er religions extolling their own and abusing others, I was put off big time. I wore a permanent sneer when matters pertaining to religion or rituals 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 skeptical phase, 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, mantras and pictures of deities. 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 one day, the supercilious 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 gnanam if you are able to do it and are infinitely greater than most of us who need an image, a vigraha or murti, or a temple 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 pompousness, 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 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 other religious occasions 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 also started my slow descent to earth around that time. I still didn’t go to temples and didn’t observe any religious ritual save the lighting of the lamp in the puja, but stopped mocking those who did. It was the beginning of the transformation, albeit slow. 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 and busied myself with the business 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 began understanding that I was able to do all that I did, only with Divine help.
With this realization, finally came some humility, I am relieved 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 karma?’ Father asked me simply. ‘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 paapa karma that invite calamities and hardships on yourself.’
That sobered me up further, making me realise that each one of us is responsible for our actions and that, it is in our hands to shape our lives both in this and the next birth. God merely helps us along by giving us the strength and the wisdom to cope with events.
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 ideas 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 age-old beliefs was impertinent and disrespectful, to say the least.
I realised it pretty late in life not to reject or condemn something without trying to understand or experience it, to the best of my ability. This is a personal discovery as every experience necessarily is, and therefore 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 picking up the lessons from the one or rejecting the ones from the other.
Let me sum up the truths I realised along the way as I wandered through these paths over the decades:
- God doesn’t ask for anything except devotion and faith; how you show it is entirely up to you. I have modified my prayers, started going to temples as I realised the powerful vibrations in them were healing, but I avoid the large and crowded ones as I need space and peace to commune with the Divine.
- ‘Religion’ and ‘rituals’ are not synonymous or interchangeable. Rituals were put in place to with a specific purpose by our ancestors. For instance, funeral ceremonies often are theraupeutic, and even a cursory examination of those would make it apparent. By proclaiming to be an atheist, most are merely saying that they are against rituals—more specifically Hindu rituals. I also realised that to be put off the Divine, looking at the rituals, is like missing the wood for the trees.
- We are entirely at liberty to reject or adapt the rituals that suit us. Which is what I have done over the years. From completely rejecting every ritual, I picked and chose, as from a smorgasbord of them and formed my own set of rules and rituals. I have not imposed them on my family, as they are individuals capable of creating their own if they choose to.
- I realised that Hinduism is the most democratic religion, perhaps the only one in the world. One can practice, not practice, be ritualistic, be agnostic or even be an atheist and still remain within the religion without fear of being excommunicated, penalised or punished in any way or persecuted for blasphemy. That is because it is a dharma and not a dogma. It is like being born to a set of parents–you can’t deny the parentage no matter what.
- I realised or rather rediscovered the power of chanting. When I am disturbed or in doubt, I automatically begin chanting a mantra for that occasion. I have personally found its efficacy on countless occasions. The monotonous cadence and rhythm of the mantras have the power to calm and ground me when I am disturbed, even distraught.
- I realised the meaning of secularism–not in the hypocritical political sense, but in the true sense. Most importantly, I understood that I didn’t have to be defensive about my dharma.
- I realized that the state of women has little to do with Hindu dharma per se. Centuries of (mis) interpretation of our scriptures has resulted in the degeneration of the society and the status of women. It would be a great mistake to let such interpreters and commentators on the one hand or a few fanatics on the other, to turn you away from spiritual pursuits. Haven’t we had women galore from vedic times till some centuries ago, when they rubbed shoulders with the best minds and intellectuals, being rishis, queens and more? Try to find out more from authentic sources before judging and parroting western slogans on the empowerment of women. This is from someone who learnt it the hard way.
- 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 had rejected Hindu dharma without understanding anything about it, because of some unsavory experiences taken out of context. But never in my worst cynical phase had I turned my back to it or wanted to try another path.
To conclude, today when I do puja and go to temples, I do it in my way, out of my own will and understand why I am doing them. I find solace in the rituals that I have created for myself. An orthodox practitioner of these rituals might find them wanting in substance and form, but they are offered sincerely and with love, and I know my Deities accept the offerings.
What is more, I have returned to my childhood state of utter faith in God and His powers after a long and bumpy journey of discovery and understanding. And let me tell you, coming full circle has never been so satisfying!