Do we really need religion if all it does is alienate us from each other?
God as a creature of religion is a human invention!
Of the nuns at Srirangam and why the world needs prayer, not religion!
Pray, pray, pray. Not in the name of religion. But in salutation and gratitude to a Higher Energy, to make the world a better place.
This story in The Hindu yesterday – Nuns’ visit to temple causes flutter – caught my attention. I found the furore over the visit of the nuns to the Srirangam temple quite unnecessary. What was appalling was the clarification offered by the Tamil Nadu government – through the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department – that the nuns were “politely asked to leave the temple as they were in their religious attire” and that the “nuns did not take out their rosaries and pray”. Reading the story, I told myself – “Gosh, when is the world going to grow up and be inclusive?”
Let me hasten to clarify that I am not against any particular religion. In fact, I am against the concept of religion itself in the first place. Also, while I do acknowledge the presence of a Higher Energy and believe wholesomely in the power of prayer, I am totally opposed to the popular idea that God is to be worshipped in a “place of worship” and only through practising religion and through being ritualistic.
To be sure, I too have visited several places of worship seeking inner peace and clarity on the meaning and purpose of Life. Initially, I did find the energies equally uplifting wherever I went. Whether it was my native shrine in Palakkad, the Mangottu Bhagavathi kaavu, or the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty at Ajmer or the Vatican or Tirupati or Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in New Delhi or Sai Baba’s samadhi at Shirdi. But these visits provided me only temporary spells of relief. Very soon the impact of a place or its energies would wear off and I would be left thirsty – seeking “something” that was at the same time undefinable and elusive. Besides, I realized that far too much effort was required to be invested in seeking and worshipping God – through practising rituals and religion. And the outcome of the effort was always inadequate – it left me incomplete and unfulfilled. So, as my quest for inner peace intensified, I found my interest in religion waning.
The problem I had was not with any religion in particular but with the idea of religion itself. I discovered that it is religion that gives certain people the power to manipulate, the license to divide and the freedom to hold followers (of the religion) as hostages. These so-called “high priests” of religion use fear to make people toe their line. I find the whole idea that you must fear God ridiculous. Why would you fear a creator who has created you as a human in the first place; all of us have been created, none of us asked to be born; so, isn’t the human form a gift, a miracle? Think about it. You may well have been created as an inanimate object or as an animal or bird or plant – why are you created human? When you understand this dimension of your creation, you will awaken – as I did – to the futility of religion. Creation, the Higher Energy that powers the Universe, just created humans. We humans, through employing our insecurities and desire to control each other, invented religion and the idea that God a) must be feared and b) is found only through ritual and in a certain place. Ever since religion was invented a large mass of humankind has remained divided – and enslaved – in the hands of a powerful few – all in the name of fearing God and practising religion! We thrust religion upon each successive generation – surely, no new-born chooses a religion, it is mostly “embraced” without choice; and the few that choose a different religion in adulthood are driven by their own quest, their own insecurities and their fears. So, the slavery to religion continues.
Just look at what religion has done to our world. It has divided humanity. It has made us intolerant of each other, it has led us to kill, plunder and spread hatred and disharmony. And that’s why I believe totally in spirituality. Now, religion and spirituality are not one and the same. Religion is mass-driven, fear-inducing, ritualistic and plain regressive. Spirituality, on the other hand, is deeply personal – to each one their own – and celebrates the idea of being human, of all of us being one. Spirituality is the flowering of inner awareness – it is understanding that if you have been created, you will be looked after, provided for and cared for; that this journey in the human form is temporary; that while you are here, you must be happy, be inclusive, be loving and be giving to all around you. In spirituality, as I understand it, there is no God to “go to” or “fear” – you just surrender to a Higher Energy, you acknowledge the impermanence of every thing, including this human form, and trust the process of Life by being eternally grateful for your being human and for this human experience. Prayer, in a spiritual context, to me, is this act of total surrender in eternal gratitude.
So, pray, pray, pray. Not in the name of religion. But in salutation and gratitude to a Higher Energy, to make the world a better place. Which is why I believe the nuns must have been allowed to pray at Srirangam. Or menstruating women must be allowed to pray in Sabarimalai. Or anyone must be allowed to travel to and pray at Mecca. Not that these “places of worship” must be democratized but because religion must be done away with. What the world needs today is a lot of prayer by a lot of humanity – and clearly not religion!
A hairdresser and a Guru
When you are ready and willing, you will always be pointed in the direction you must take.
“Do we necessarily need a Guru to initiate us into Self-realization,” asked a reader yesterday. I have myself asked this question before; and I keep getting asked this question often too.
We must first understand the meaning of Guru. Guru really means ‘remover of ignorance’ – ‘Gu’ means ‘darkness of ignorance’ and ‘Ru’ means ‘remover, one who removes’. So, as I have experienced and learnt from Life, anyone or anything, that removes your ignorance, or helps you to become aware, or that which awakens you to a truth, is a Guru. So, a Guru is not necessarily a someone who has matted hair, is ritualistic, has a followership and has an ashram or a retreat. To me, a Guru, is a teacher. And since I am really, continuously, learning from Life’s experiences, I consider Life my constant Guru, my ever-present Teacher!
Now, to the next part of the question. I feel the word and the concept of ‘Self-realization’ is over-rated, and therefore, unnecessarily complicated. ‘Self-realization’ is simply the awareness of the transient nature of Life. I have written on writer Shreekumar Varma’s idea of happiness in my Sunday column, The Happiness Road, for DT Next. While conversing with Shreekumar, who is a scion of the Travancore royal family, he shared what his grandmother, the erstwhile ruler of the state of Travancore, used to say about Life: “I once had a kingdom, then I had a palace, then I had a house and now I have a room.” “This awareness”, pointed out Shreekumar, “is key to leading a simple, happy Life – that nothing and no one is going to be yours or with you permanently.”
I will add to his learning that this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ is. Which is, you are not this body, you are not this human form, you are not the qualifications you have, you are not your position, your title, your bank balance, your relationship, your property, your grief, your worry, your health – you are none of those. In a basic, practical, simplistic context, you are just your breath. Everything and everyone who is around you is with you only because you are alive, you are breathing. Once you die, where does your breath go? It just becomes one with the Universal energy. I wouldn’t even complicate this discourse with the concept of soul, atman, and such – I am just sharing what I understand. To me, everything matters only because of this breath, only because of the fact that I am alive. Life is only jab tak hai jaan! This means, live your Life to the fullest, as long as it lasts. Utilize the opportunity of this lifetime within the lifetime of the opportunity. When you go, you are going to take nothing with you. So, don’t cling on to anything or anyone – practice detachment in every moment. This realization, this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ really is. As you can see, it is downright simple.
Now, do you need a Guru to awaken you to this truth? The answer is simple. Do you need an alarm to wake up in the mornings or do you wake up on your own? Both possibilities exist. Those who are used to bio-rhythm, will be woken up by their body clocks. Those who need a wake-up call will respond to an alarm. And then, there’s the third category, those who are not sleeping at all, they are pretending to be asleep. They can never be woken up. So, a Guru really steps into your Life when you are ready and willing. As the Buddhist saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And that Guru will not necessarily be a scholar or a religious leader or a God-person. It need not even be a person! A book can be your Guru, a movie can be a Guru, a Life experience can be a Guru. And there can even be a combination of Gurus – different people, things, events coming together to remove your ignorance, to wake you up and to point you in the direction you must take.
A genuine Guru will not advise that you follow him or her, will not insist on any ritual or prayer, will not champion that you fear a God. A true Guru awakens you to understand the impermanence of Life, and therefore invites you to celebrate yourself and to be happy. A Guru is an enabler, who helps you unshackle yourself and sets you free.
I used to regularly visit a hairdresser named Ramalingam at the erstwhile Taj Residency (now Vivanta by Taj) in Bangalore. I was a lot younger then and had a lot of hair. I was also an angry man – aggressive, impatient and quite rabid. One day, when Ramalingam was working on my hair, I received a phone call from my accountant saying a particular client payment, which was overdue by six months, was unlikely to come in for another week. I just took off on my colleague over the phone – I raved, ranted, screamed and literally shredded my colleague verbally. Ramalingam stepped back as I went ballistic. And when I got off the call, I gestured to him brusquely to continue with his work. As he resumed, Ramalingam whispered into my ear: “Sir, losing your cool like this is no good. This is not the sign of a mature leader. You are a very capable man. But you are letting your anger ruin you. Intelligent living doesn’t call for big intelligence. It requires common-sense. If you can learn to be in this world and yet be above it, untouched by its pulls and pressures, then you are a true, evolved leader.” Ramalingam’s words strangely did not anger me or hurt me. In fact, they gripped my conscience and woke me up from my stupor. It has been over 15 years now. I am still a work-in-progress. But my journey of channelizing my anger and my spiritual quest – both – began that day sitting in that salon chair. I was Arjuna that day and Ramalingam was my Krishna. He was my first Guru – he removed a part of the ignorance that I was steeped in and, set me off on glorious path where I have experienced freedom, inner peace and happiness – despite my excruciating material circumstances. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal)
On this path, whoever I meet now or whatever comes my way, is a Guru. I know I have miles to go, but I know there will always be a Guru to light up the path, every step of the way.
It is time we expunged God and religion from our social fabric
Affiliation to a God or a religion or a ritual is a personal choice.
The administrator of my apartment block’s facilities came by the other morning. He wanted a contribution of Rs.100/- that the apartment owners’ association was collecting to conduct a puja and distribute prasadam to the poor and needy. I told him that I don’t make any contributions in the name of God, religion or rituals. He seemed a bit lost with my reply. It was evident he wasn’t expecting that response from me. So I explained to him that I preferred in celebrating the God within each one of us, in bowing to humanity than being part of any practice that was divisive and bred either a superiority complex or instilled fear among people. My perspective was lost on him, surely. I guess he must have gone back and simply reported to the management committee of the association that I refused to pay up. And the members of that committee may have drawn their individual inferences from my decision.
But I couldn’t care less.
I am fine with feeding the poor and needy. We must all support and be there for each other. But why bring our efforts under the umbrella of religion? Why bring God into the picture? God is a personal concept. Affiliation to a God or a religion or a ritual is a personal choice. And that’s how it must be. Inviting God into our social contexts, into culture, is what’s messing things up. Which is why I ask, why color any socially relevant, beneficial initiative with this God thing?
I see it like this. I am not sure if there is “a” God like the way it is popularly perceived. But I do know that there is a Higher Energy that is powering the Universe. An Energy that is clearly beyond human comprehension. So, if we just offer whatever we do to the Universe, to this Higher Energy, it is enough. Why do we want to label this Energy? Simply, the breath that each of us takes, what keeps us alive, is the same. You don’t live any longer or problem-free because you have a Hindu breath or a Muslim breath or Christian breath. In the grand, beautiful, inscrutable scheme of Life’s design, religion and God, are totally irrelevant. It appears to me that humans have invented religion and God to control each other. So, no God or religion for me please, thank you! I simply surrender to this Higher Energy a.k.a Life and I am humbled being able to serve humanity in my own, limited, small way.
I certainly believe the time has come for us to stop complaining about the rot in our social fabric and culture and instead do something about it. Anything that pits one human being against another on the grounds of God, religion, rituals, caste, race or creed, must be expunged from the face of this planet. My thinking and effort may be too irrelevant, and laughable too, but at least it makes me happy that I am able to make a small contribution to make our world a better, inclusive, pluralistic, place.
Abandon the God idea as it exists, embrace Godliness!
Celebrate the essence of God than seek God’s physical presence.
The Kerala High Court has overruled a bureaucrat’s decision to allow women to wear churidars at the famous Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. I believe the bureaucrat K.N.Satheesh, the Executive Officer of the temple, was being very progressive when he made that decision on November 29th. But the court ruling only proves, yet again, that in India we seek to protect and perpetrate gender biases in the name of tradition and culture.
I don’t want to go into the long list of instances of gender bias unleashed against women and their right to worship at religious places in India – Sabari Malai is a case in point, as also the general thumb rule that women having their periods should not enter a temple. Clearly, at the core of all the arguments seeking to protect culture and tradition is a diabolical male chauvinist effort to deny women equal rights.
My view is that God is an over-rated idea. I don’t deny that there is a Higher Energy. And you may call it God. But to box God into a religion, into a place, into a gender, into a socio-religious and culture specific framework and hold humanity to ransom basis tradition and orthodox practices is cruel. If God created the Universe and all of us humans, what right does one set of those humans, the self-styled mandarins who administer and control religions, have to deny other fellow humans the joy of worshipping their creator?
The only way forward for humanity is to abandon the God idea as it exists. And embrace Godliness.
I simply love Mother Teresa’s idea of God: “I believe in person to person. Every person is Christ to me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment.” This is the core idea on which she served humanity, so selflessly, all her Life. Osho, the Master, explains this concept beautifully: “I say there is no God, but there is Godliness. So I destroy God as a person. God is more like a fragrance than a flower.” Essentially, this means, we must celebrate the essence of God than seek God’s physical presence.
But society, tradition, culture, religion, dogmas – all these and more – want you to keep searching for God in a physical form. They want you to go find that form and confirm God’s presence. But the truth is God has never been found; God is still missing! Even so, the folks running religions want you to keep searching so that they can control you. Just imagine, as John Lennon beautifully pleaded in 1971, if we had a world where no one believed in religion and everyone stopped this search for God! Now, who stands to lose? The seekers or the administrators of religion? See, there you already have the answer – this is why the God theory is going on getting propagated. So that you and I can be controlled, generation after generation after generation. Think about it. Why does God, the creator, need propaganda – after all, God created the Universe. And God’s biggest advertisement is this beautiful, bountiful world that we have. Yet, there is so much propaganda about God, important, about fearing God: don’t wear churidars here, don’t enter there, you can’t enter a place of worship when you are menstruating, you can’t eat this, you can’t drink that and on and on. Why? So that that the propagandists, in the name of God, can keep you and me under their thumb.
Tragically, instead of believing in ourselves, and our own Godliness, we tend to, out of fearing God, believe the propagandists. The weaver-saint Kabir tried to awaken us, way back in the 15th Century, when he sang:
“Moko kahan dhoondhe re bande
Main toh tere paas mein
Na teerath mein na moorat mein
Na mandir mein na masjid main
Na Kabe Kailas mein
Na main jap mein na main tap mein…
Kehat Kabir suno bhai saadho
Main toh hoon vishwas mein”
This means, “Where are you searching for me (God)? I am not in a pilgrimage or an idol, nor in a temple or a mosque, not in Mecca, not in Kailash, not in mantras nor in penance…I am in your faith.” What he said then is so, so, true even today. I hope the women who are being denied entry into the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, and the judges of the Kerala High Court, who passed that order disallowing churidars, pause to reflect on Kabir’s verse again. The former then may find solace and the latter may find perspective.
But, clearly, for a better world, the idea of God as a physical presence has to be abandoned. For this we humans must embrace the essence of God, the Godliness in each of us. And this begins with respecting our women first. Because, without women, simply, there can be no humanity.
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If we drop the fear, that we have cultivated in us, of an external God, we will be free
Don’t be God-fearing. Be God-loving.
A young friend wrote me a mail from Kerala. She wanted to know if fearing God served any purpose.
I smiled looking at her mail. I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend in a dimly lit bar in Saidapet in Chennai some years ago. My friend bought me a few drinks that evening. But he did not drink.
I knew he had had a problem with alcohol in the past. He had struggled to quit it for several years. In vain. Until, as he told me, “Sai Baba appeared in my dream and ordered me to quit.” So, he had been off alcohol for years. I asked him if he was enjoying the abstinence. He confessed that he hated it. But he said he was “scared of Baba’s wrath” if he violated the “order” and so he motivated himself each time to stay away. Which is why, he claimed, he often entertained friends so that he could have the “joy of being in a bar”. I told him, at the cost of sounding rude, that he may have got off alcohol, but he was still “alcoholic in attitude”. I said, “Don’t do anything out of fear. Baba may have given you the right direction – because you indeed had a drinking problem. But there’s no point fearing him. By doing that, you are only suppressing your innermost desire out of the fear that you will be otherwise ‘reprimanded or punished’. Act freely. Drink responsibly, drink with awareness, and you will never overdrink. By abstaining, and craving, you are only creating a context for you to slip back. One day, when your resolve will break, let’s say when you are angry with yourself or with the world or even with Baba, your suppressed desire will explode and you will hit the bottle again!”
That evening, my friend politely refused to take my advice. And I appreciate it. To each one their own.
I strongly believe that the human mind tries to trick itself by bringing the fear factor into play in most situations where individual actions require justification in a social context. The mind revels being gripped by fear – of someone or something. Fear of God, especially, is a convenient way to justify decisions relating to personal choice. In fact the whole issue of morality is debatable and is governed by this kind of fear. For instance, many believe that to have an extra-marital affair is a “sin” that “God will never forgive”. Some see eating non-vegetarian as sinful. Others think that drinking alcohol will tantamount to being disrespectful to their religion. And some think of women in their menstrual cycle going into the kitchen or a prayer room as sacrilegious. My humble view is that morality is like body odor. It’s intensely personal. And if it is not dealt with properly, honestly, by the individual concerned, it stinks. Period. I don’t see any role for (an external) God to play in any of our human choices – especially those that are driven by our very human, sensory cravings! Therefore, if we drop this fear, that we have cultivated in us, of an external God, we will be free.
The only person you are answerable to is the one you see in the mirror. The only voice you must heed is the one you hear from within. When you operate from the core of loving whatever you do – be it drinking, be it eating meat, be it having an active sex Life with multiple partners, be it choosing to pray to a Higher Energy the way you want to and when you want to – you will experience a great inner peace. Because in doing all of that, and more, you are going with the flow of energy from within you, from your individual Godhead.
So, please don’t be God-fearing. Be God-loving. That too, love the God, within you. Heed your inner voice. And do only what gives you joy. It is only when you run scared that you run confused. Where there’s confusion, how can peace prevail?
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True prayer is non-ritualistic and non-demanding – it is ‘the’ reward you seek!
In prayer, be grateful and offer yourself to the Universe.
I know someone who is never available for any conversation or meetings. Every time we try to connect with him he’s either at work (which is for about 5 hours a day) or he is performing poojas, worshipping. He runs a small business and by his own admission, performs 8 prayer rituals a day, in three spells, over 12 hours. “Are you happy,” I asked him one day. “Hardly. Business is tough. A lot of money is stuck with debtors. I am continuously in prayer trying to seek a way out,” he said.
This man’s confession substantiates the case I am making – merely being ritualistic is never going to solve any problem for you. Yet, to each, his or her own way. Especially in matters concerning faith and prayer. But Zen offers a beautiful perspective on prayer. And it is worth thinking about and understanding.
Zen Buddhism says that true prayer is when no petition, no wish, is made, when no assistance is sought, but when mindfulness is practiced. Through such practice, you offer whatever you have, a flower, an incense stick, or maybe even yourself, to something higher than yourself. What can be and is greater than you? Creation. Creation is the Higher Energy. So, offering yourself to Creation, makes you be one with the Universe. When you offer yourself you are expressing your gratitude for your creation and everything that you have. You are saying – “You created me. Thanks. I am offering everything I have, mindfully, consciously, with all my being, to you.” That’s when you truly unite with the Universal energy and are soaked in its brilliance and abundance.
The popular notion that prayer is an appeal to an “external, invisible” God is a by-product of how religion has come to be practiced over many centuries. Maharishi Patanjali had demystified this in one of his works, perhaps at the beginning of the Common Era, where he equated God to be a mere clothes peg. Just as you would hang a coat on a clothes peg on the wall, we have been taught to pray looking to a “non-existent” God. He says, God is an invention, because, if God isn’t there, who will you pray to? But just as you would have learnt to hang your coat elsewhere if there were no clothes peg, you must learn the value of prayer, and develop the ability to pray, in the purest, truest sense. When you pray, as a means of complete surrender to Creation, then you don’t need a God, you are the prayer and you are one with who you pray to. God, he says, is for beginners. Like when you are learning cycling, you need the small wheels on either side of the bicycle’s rear wheel to help you balance. But once you have mastered cycling, you don’t need those two small wheels jutting out – you discard them and that helps you ride freely. So, it is with prayer. The more you learn to pray, unconditionally, humbly, as a thanksgiving, the more peaceful you become.
True prayer is totally non-ritualistic and non-demanding. It imposes no conditions. It asks for nothing from you – not your time, not your offerings. You don’t need to fast nor do you need to give up or abstain from anything! It is not what you do out of fear (that God will punish you if you don’t pray) or out of greed (I want this or that – grant me my wish!). It is always about being in the moment. The moment that you choose to offer your gratitude to Creation for all that you have and are endowed with – that moment itself is your prayer. You can be anywhere in that moment – you could even be seated on the potty! Also, there is no price to be paid in prayer and there are no rewards to be claimed. When you pray, you pray. And that prayerful moment, when gone through with all humility and gratitude, is itself the reward, the treasure, the fortune!
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Live Life for what it is, with what is!
Don’t try to overanalyze Life. Just take it as it comes.
This is what I told a friend who wanted to know what’s the method I practice to live my Life with “so much equanimity in the midst of so much strife”. I added that there are no methods or mantras to live Life. Each one chooses a way and, over time, they keep reviewing, refining, reinventing that way till they come to the point where they are ‘just being’, they are immersed in the present moment, with no grief about the past and no expectations from the future or no anxieties about it.
My friend insisted that there must be a method and our Life’s Purpose is to find that method. I simply said, “That’s your way brother, go with your sense of your way and it will eventually bring you to where you must be.” My friend dismissed my perspective saying that I was being “very spiritual”. “Spirituality”, he said, “is very abstract and what the world needs are logical, practical insights.”
I simply smiled back. I am sure, over time, my friend too will discover that spirituality is deeply personal, simple and practical. It is not religion. Religion, as it is practiced today, has methods and mantras. It is ritualistic and holds you hostage, reminding you constantly that you must be God-fearing. Spirituality, on the other hand, is simple. It is merely the flowering of inner awareness. This awareness sets you free. This awareness helps you understand that all Life is impermanent, and that, therefore, you must not squander this lifetime. It champions living in the moment, ‘just being’ and celebrating Life!
People often miss any spiritual perspective because they find ‘just being’ a very difficult thing to do. They want to be in control of Life. But ‘just being’ means sitting back and watching the magic and beauty of Life being in total control. So people see spirituality as ‘beyond’ them because they are so caught up in the quagmire of worry, anger, guilt, sorrow, suffering and the ‘earning-a-living’ syndrome. They have an ostrich-like mentality – their heads are buried deep in their ill-formed beliefs. Their minds are closed – although there’s so much grace, so much abundance, freely available, they are still focused on what they don’t have, steeped in scarcity. Kabir, the 15th century weaver-poet asked us to think: ‘What if a fish said it was thirsty?’ Wouldn’t that be the stupidest of situations? Won’t you tell the fish to go re-examine its brain? How can a fish be thirsty when it is always in water?’ Quite similarly, the human mind is being foolish by seeking peace outside and by not looking within. By not allowing this flowering of awareness to happen from within. So, you conclude that you can’t be at peace, you refuse to look within and choose instead to be enslaved by your self-imposed limitations. Only when the awareness within you blooms, only when you understand that you can be in control while controlling nothing, only then will you see the Master in yourself.
This understanding is elusive because, while being profound, it is, at the same time, too simplistic. That’s why, it doesn’t come to everyone – especially when they are employing their education, their logic, in trying to make sense of Life. The truth is Life doesn’t conform to any framework or rules. Least of all your logic. Clearly, there are no methods or mantras to live Life. It is simple – and uncomplicated – when you unquestioningly accept its paradoxical, often inscrutable, nature. So don’t dissect or analyze Life – live it for what it is, with what is!