Universally, the chief
indulgences of adolescence are cigarettes, sexual fantasies, atheism, the
Russian nihilists, alcohol, marijuana, and ennui, usually discovered in that
order. I have often cursed god for denying me its main luxury and arguably
To the Western mind, familiar with The Beatles, Osho and Steve Jobs, Indian spirituality is synonymous with sex and narcotics. Sadly, the truth (in lower case) is less exciting. Religion makes the headlines in India either when there are communal riots, or when “godmen”—as “gurus” with a large following of bored housewives, unemployed men, and foreign tourists style themselves—are arrested. In its more mundane moments, religion is about dragging oneself to places of worship, sighing about destiny, and making wisecracks about the epics. I, for instance, am quite fond of saying it shouldn’t surprise us when “godmen” are arrested: the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are all about sex and land acquisition, which are the charges regularly levied against these bearded millionaires. While I admire godmen for their business acumen—nothing guarantees returns like the quest of the middle class and tourists on welfare money to find themselves—I’ve always delinked them from my idea of religion.
Despite my best efforts, I have failed in my search for a gripe against Hinduism. The problem is that no one knows its rules, and every self-proclaimed expert is contradicted by another (if not by his or her own self). This is perhaps because Hinduism is not so much a religion as the collective beliefs of the most coherent people who lived in the land south of the Indus River, from which the word “Hindu” derives. If these people chose to tell whoever documented their religion that they followed a certain set of rituals, chances are that they would have been believed. I know I would have messed with the heads of the curious outsiders. When Oprah Winfrey did her rather disastrous rounds of the country, I wished someone had told her the apple was the holy fruit of India, and that one must bow down to it and walk ten steps balancing it on one’s head before going on a journey. That would have made for good television.
But I digress.
The easiest aspect to take issue with would be the caste system. However, there is no Hindu scripture that speaks of caste as inherited. The four varnas—Brahmins who were educators and priests, Kshatriyas who were warriors, Vaishyas who were traders, and Shudras who took care of the menial work—seem to have started off as job options. The main beliefs in Hinduism find parallels in the Greco-Roman, Nordic and Egyptian faiths. Like them, it preceded Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and therefore wasn’t given a chance to develop grouses against them. It doesn’t even contradict Darwin’s theory of evolution. In fact, the ten avatars of god, collectively known as the Dashavatar, have Vishnu (the Hindu equivalent of Zeus, if you will) taking forms that seem to reflect evolution: Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, Varaha the boar, Narasimha the half-lion and half-man, Vamana the dwarf, Parashurama the warrior, Rama the righteous man, Krishna the player, Buddha the ascetic, and Kalki the destroyer of evil. So, to me, evolution was orchestrated by the gods.
Worst of all, Hinduism is convenient enough to accommodate the most lethargic, and hedonistic, souls. I’m not aware of any stipulated fasts. Hinduism doesn’t ban any mind-altering substance. The gods don’t seem to have thought much about sexual orientation or appetite. In the ancient literature of the region that is now India, people often cross-dress and transition from one gender to another. In one of the sub-plots to the Dashavatar, Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman called Mohini. Shiva, another god, lusted after this female form, and they made a baby before Mohini re-transitioned into Vishnu. The idea of karmic causality makes life easier, partly by saving one a lot of gloom over “why me?”, and partly by sparing one from the obligation of helping others (unless one wants to collect brownie points for reward in a future incarnation). There’s apparently a concept that “hell” is in fact earthly life, and things can only get better. I’ve never been troubled by existential angst or the big questions about what happens after death. I’ve never cared about where the world is headed. From my sketchy readings of Hindu scripture, it appears the Dashavatar see themselves through a cycle, followed by Pralaya—a great flood that will engulf 10 of the 14 worlds—and then go through a re-run. The cycle persists until the Mahapralaya destroys all 14 worlds. And then the grander cycle is rebooted. Yes, one would think Samuel Beckett thought up the tenets of Hinduism.
My lack of
motivation to rebel against a religion with esoteric rules would not really
trouble me, if it weren’t for the fact that theism is terribly out of fashion
among India’s liberals. Either you’re with Richard Dawkins, or you’re with the
religious fundamentalists. The impact of rationalism on religion came home to
me when I overheard a conversation between elderly women at my gym. During the
recent floods in Uttarakhand, a boulder had fallen at an angle that channelled
the waters away from the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, where the idol stands.
“What do you say to that?” one lady asked another. The other giggled, embarrassed. “What can I say? Maybe there is a god. Or ... I don’t know. Maybe it’s just coincidence.”
Now, this is the Indian equivalent of a group of churchgoing Italians surmising that the Madonna’s tears may be caused by a plumbing problem. I also hear that the theory of reincarnation, which I have always taken for granted, has caused enough doubt in the minds of Indians to make Dr Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters a bestseller in this country. To say one is not an atheist is to say one condones the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque by a right-wing Hindu group, or the retaliatory bomb blasts by Muslim terrorist outfits.
I often find that people struggle to reconcile my irreverence with theism. I don’t capitalise the word “god”, because I’ve always thought of Vishnu as a dude. The image of him that comes to my mind is from the illustrated children’s series, Amar Chitra Katha, which comprises stories from various Hindu epics and scriptures. In the imagination of these artists, he is a blue-coloured, rather handsome chap, reclining on a multi-headed snake that coils itself into a bed and offers him shade with its many hoods, while his wife massages his legs and thousands of celestials stand in attendance. He has style. One can almost see him smoking a pipe, as a celestial waits with a refill of tobacco.
As for Shiva, I think he would be amused himself that people worship his penis (pardon my Sanskrit, but that’s the lingam for you). Once, a Muslim journalist friend had to travel to Amarnath, where a lingam that is believed to have formed naturally from the ice draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. The Amarnath pilgrimage goes on for two months, the only time of the year that the high reaches of Kashmir are accessible.
“The roads were still slippery, and I was scared I’d die trying to reach the fucking lingam,” he said, and then looked guiltily at me, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, the participle was appropriate,” I replied.
“I’m just irritated because my butt hurts,” he added.
“Dude, what the hell did you try on the lingam?”
“I meant because of the mule ride! Damn it, don’t you Hindus go to hell for saying things like that?”
Probably not. I’ve
never thought of god as vengeful, keeping track of my good deeds and bad deeds.
I suppose he has a secretary who jots them down, and makes me pay for them in
another life; karmic causality is, as I said, convenient. The existence of god
doesn’t rob me of free will either. I don’t think of him as a puppet master so
much as a set-changer in a play that stars me. The only thing I’m sure of, with
the religion I follow, is that it allows me to say I don’t know.
I do envy the
certainty of people who know god doesn’t exist, who believe that the theory of
evolution nullifies the idea of a god. But I don’t envy the dilemma that
presents itself to this lot. While some are sure we evolved from single-celled
organisms, and the process was set off by a series of chemical reactions, they
tend to draw a blank when asked what they think set off the chemical reactions.
Some of them concede the existence of a “power”, but not a “God-God”. Does the
term “power” make people feel more comfortable than the term “god”? Does making
him a nameless, faceless, genderless object—or, even better, concept—make their
ideas more logical? Does it shift their ideas out of the realm of superstition?
When I’m asked about my theory of the form god takes, I honestly tell people it draws from the Amar Chitra Katha. If I had to imagine the heavens, or the higher worlds, the first image that pops into my head is Douglas Adams’ planet-manufacturing room from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I suppose the gods and celestials are round about our height, but if they wanted to add some razzmatazz to the show, they could grow into giants, somewhat like the angels Philip Pullman describes in the His Dark Materials trilogy.
When I tell them this, my interlocutors are somewhat horrified. “You think the gods look like people? That they are people? That the stuff in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata really happened? That someone split one foetus into a hundred babies? That there was a ten-headed king?”
I’m not sure of the specifics, but I do believe they happened. Perhaps the ten heads were a figurative representation of Ravana’s expertise in several fields. Or perhaps he was a rare breed of conjoined decaplets. Or perhaps someone decided to mess with troublesome kids who wanted a story, and told them a fantastical one. Maybe the hundred sons born to Queen Gandhari in The Mahabharata were not so much a split foetus as births outsourced to surrogates. I like the ambivalence of not knowing where we came from, or where we are headed.
Recently, an atheist friend of mine spoke about her daughter’s ideas of god. She was shocked when her child said, “Mummy, I’m going to ask god to make me your baby again next time.”
“Really, you’re going to ask god? How do you know god is there, sweetheart?” she asked.
“Because I love him so much, he has to be there, Mummy,” the child replied.
The anecdote took me back to my own childhood ideas of god. All my life, I’ve heard stories that validate the existence of god, and songs that assume the existence of god.
My maternal grandfather’s journey to a hilltop temple, when his wife was struggling with a complicated delivery, is often recounted in my family. He had left after the doctor told him that, at best, either his wife or the child would survive. It was a temple for Hanuman, the monkey god. As he sat praying, a horde of monkeys descended from trees on to the roof of their home. He returned to find his wife and daughter alive and asleep.
Every significant event in my aunt’s life—her engagement, wedding, hospitalisation and death—were marked by the presence of monkeys. I would eventually visit the same hilltop temple my grandfather prayed at. As I thought of my aunt, whom I was inseparable from as a child, a couple of monkeys appeared and tugged at my jeans. I was thrilled, until they found the peanuts they were looking for in my pocket, and made off.
All the forms of
Indian music I have known—Carnatic of the south, Hindustani of the north, and
Rabindra Sangeet (a collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, set to music by
the poet himself)—are devotional. Their spiritual element often coincides with
the idea of Divine Eros in Plato’s Symposium. In many songs, god
takes the form of a lover and vice versa. I would later discover that Tagore
did not subscribe to idol worship; for at least part of his life, he was an
agnostic. I now know dancers and musicians who are atheists, but are able to
separate their art from their beliefs.
I did have an experience that assured me once and for all of the active presence of god. It occurred at the famous Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati. If I didn’t dislike the word so much, I may have described it as a “miracle”. The temple is usually crowded and ushers push pilgrims on to keep the queue moving. One often has to wait hours, sometimes even days, for a glimpse of the idol. One rarely gets to spend more than a few seconds in the sanctum sanctorum. Someone in my family had managed to get permission for five people to sit in on a puja—a ritual—that would last 40 minutes. I was chosen as one of the five, since my twelfth standard examinations were around the corner, and my family has traditionally bribed the Tirupati god with time, money and rituals. I had caught a chill, and could barely focus on the puja I had wormed my way into.
I’m really sorry, but my mind isn’t here, I thought mournfully, addressing god, as I do when I’m annoyed either with him or myself.
I felt the impulse to swallow, and sensed a lump dissolve in my throat. My chill seemed to have gone. I looked at the idol in surprise, and for a moment, everyone around me seemed to disappear, and I felt a warm radiation emanating from the sanctum sanctorum. I waited for the chill to come back, and I waited to find out I had been hallucinating, but neither happened.
I rarely tell this story, because I know the counterarguments. I could play devil’s advocate myself, really. Atheists and agnostics often want to know what makes one believe in god, but they don’t usually want to listen, or be convinced. I’m familiar with the scepticism on their faces, and the objections they will raise. I myself don’t know enough theology or theosophy to debate, and I doubt anyone else does. A belief, by definition, pertains to something that isn’t proven. I don’t feel the need to prove the foundations of mine.
at having been unsuccessful in becoming a card-carrying atheist would have
remained material for the odd quip, if the floods in Uttarakhand hadn’t forced
me to delve deeper into the idea of theism. It wasn’t so much the occurrence of
the floods itself as the reactions I saw on my Facebook and Twitter feed that
provoked the contemplation.
It was the fact that
among the people whom I respected enough to “follow” or knew well enough to
accept “friend requests” from, were those who saw the floods as a triumph for
scientific and rational elite. There were those who came up with witticisms about the plight of the pilgrims who were trapped in the floods. One of the ugliest tweets I came across went, “It’s ironic that the relatives of the pilgrims are praying for their survival to the same gods whom their families lost their lives trying to visit”.
Now, I don’t frequent temples. I have even felt violated by the security checks at some. At Ayodhya, where a shack has been set up to mark Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Lord Ram) at the site of the Babri Masjid demolition, I was patted down so thoroughly by security women that I felt assaulted. At the Akshardham temple in Delhi, I was so upset by the intrusiveness of the checking that I walked out without entering the sanctum sanctorum. The only other place where I have been so thoroughly checked has been at an auditorium where I was emceeing an event which the President of India was to attend. Apparently, god is as sensitive a target as the President. The only temple I visit nowadays is the one at Tirupati, and that is usually to fulfil my end of a bargain: I often strike deals with the god in there. “Please let me be able to recover all the data in my computer, and I’ll climb up the hill,” I promise rashly. As I get older, there have been times when I’ve wondered if I’d rather not lose the novel I’ve been working on than put my legs through an uphill climb spanning 3,600 steps.
Even so, I find it horrifying that anyone could be so callous as to think it “served the pilgrims right” to lose their lives or health in a natural calamity. I find it horrifying that it could be so easy, when one’s convictions are different, to mock those who risk so much to go to faraway temples that are barely accessible. Can we gauge so easily why people should want to rush to Kedarnath in the monsoon, or why they should want to go to Amarnath when the weather is hostile and there are terror threats? Can we judge them for the risks they take, without knowing the reasons for their taking those risks? When they do go to these places and something goes wrong, does it prove that their gods don’t exist, or that they don’t care enough for their devotees, or that they are powerless to protect these pilgrims?
How, I wonder, can people who believe themselves to be rational be so smug as to gloat over the misfortune of those whom they deem less rational than themselves? We are quick to identify indoctrination and religious extremism. However, atheists can edge towards fundamentalism, too: secular fundamentalism. To some atheists, all theists are fundamentalists and guilty of religious intolerance, and the world would be a better place if they were lost to floods.
It is dangerous to confuse the two. Often, I find that followers of any religion tend to be more respectful of the beliefs of others than atheists are. A Muslim friend refused to ask his Catholic girlfriend to convert and marry him in an Islamic ceremony. “Her god means as much to her as our god means to us,” he told his family. They accepted the argument. When I was doing a story on the LGBT community in London, I came across the Metropolitan Community Church, which caters to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Christians. I attended the Sunday service and was offered communion. It didn’t strike me that this was the custom of another faith until a colleague asked me about how I reconciled it with my own religion.
I’m not sure whether
it is the presence of god, or the conviction of people who believe in god, that
moves me in certain places of worship; well, in all the places of worship where
I’m not groped and treated like a prospective human bomb. In the grand churches
of Europe, I’ve found myself marvelling at how much faith it must have taken
for people to hang precariously from these roofs, painstakingly etching and
painting scenes from the life of Christ. At the mosques built by Mughals in
India, I’ve wondered at the Quranic carvings on high walls and inside domes,
looking up at which can give one vertigo. In ancient temples, built block by
block in an age bereft of technology, I’m struck by the patience of people who
waited decades for their vision of a monument to materialise. I’m intrigued by
the link between human effort and faith. Perhaps the gods come to these places
because we will them to. Perhaps every time a child paints a version of god,
perhaps every time we mould a block into our idea of god, he or she enters it
another challenge. Am I a “believer”? The word seems too life-affirming for my
dystopian self-involvement. Am I a “practising Hindu”? I’m not sure what I
practise. I find it hard to convince atheists that the fact that I am a Hindu
does not make me a bigot. My spiritual convictions are complicated by the fact
that I don’t believe in the “oneness of god”, or that all religions essentially
say the same thing. As far as I know, they don’t. Most of them say drastically
different things, and our perceptions of our respective gods are drastically
different too. We have different origin stories and different ideas of the
Grand Finale. Perhaps we’ll find out who was right when we die. Perhaps we
won’t. Either way, we won’t come back to tell. And even if we do, the atheists
won’t believe we’re back, since they know we only disappear into a vast
nothingness when we die.
The only thing my search for atheism has left me convinced of is that I am never going to be an atheist. The rigid definition makes me uncomfortable. The absence of options makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how I define my religion, but I know I’m open to several truths. I know I’m open to discovering that my truths were lies. I know I can laugh at the irony of the “miracle” that I experienced at Tirupati having been accessed through the privilege of knowing the right people.
I know that I don’t need validation through labels; I may not be a Scientific Rational Intellectual, I may not be an Intrepid Questioner of Faith, I may not be a Proud Atheist. I know that if it is rational to question a set of ideas, it should be equally rational to acknowledge that people have a right to their own answers. I know that I would rather sympathise with people who have lost their relatives in floods that empathise with those who know better than to believe in god.
My search for atheism is a dud. But it has given me the only answer I needed: that it’s all right not to be right.