God and me
The only instance I remember of my dad hitting me was when I refused to say my night time prayers. It is one of my earliest childhood memories and a surprising one. Because the person who was most influential in inculcating religion in me was my mother, not my father.
I prayed everyday right through my childhood up until I left home for life in a hostel. Most evenings I sat before a lit lamp in the pooja room, singing prayers I had learnt from my mother and reading religious books. I remember the temples I went to regularly and where I broke coconuts or performed archanas on significant birthdays. Mostly these were rituals I followed quite blindly. But sometimes they were bribes and sometimes deterrents to horrible things. I did not enter the puja room or a temple when I had my period. It was an unquestioning world I lived in. There was no dichotomy in my mind between religion as I practiced it and the books and writers I loved and studied or the politics I followed (I was quite sympathetic to the communist cause).
I am not sure as to when exactly it was that I became aware of a dichotomy. Maybe it was when I met for the first time people who were so confident about the non-existence of god. College mates who thought not going to the temple on your period days was regressive. And family members who used my religion as a means of driving a very divisive political agenda. And by the time I read Richard Dawkins, I had already begun to feel the ambiguity about religion I most definitely feel today.
It is hard to explain. I sometimes find immense peace in reading those thousand names of Lakshmi, the Bhagavat Gita, Valmiki's Ramayan, a ritual I follow by rote everyday. The last time I went to the Padmanabha temple in my hometown, I was quite literally moved to tears when I stood before the idol. My mind still goes to the devi in my ancestral temple in times of stress.
But more and more, I find myself looking at this whole spirituality business as a crutch in an increasingly stressful world. And now there are even more forms of it to tackle - the new age gurus with answers to all of life's problems, the vipassana centres, the strangely hypnotic 'secret' to happiness, all of that multi-million dollar self-help industry. I ask myself when does ritual become superstition, whether it is at all possible to truly know and believe in things beyond the rational, the tangible, the here and now. I ask myself if I would not be better off spending my time and energy in doing things that make me the best me that I can be, today. Honest hard work, perseverance, goodness as human beings - shouldn't these be enough for happiness? Isn't blind belief truly scary? And if belief is not blind, can it really be belief?
It haunts me; this question of religion and its significance in my life. I push it away and it keeps coming back. Years of conditioning do not go away in the face of rational arguments. And reading Nadeem Aslam's God and Me in Granta brought all that ambivalence rushing back. Skepticism is a good thing, I tell myself. At least it gives the world one less thing to fight over.