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!
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.
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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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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The God debate is a wasted one. The issue is never about God – it is about you and me!
I read this interesting story in The Hindu the other day. The paper’s Resident Editor for Mumbai, Sachin Kalbag, shares how he recently survived a near-death experience. He talks about how a set of “coincidences, seemingly, contributed to the ‘miracle’ of him being alive today”. Please do read the article. Sachin raises interesting questions on the God theory, the role of prayer and also explains his point of view well enough to remind us that we may never find the answers we are looking for.
Whether or not you read Sachin’s story, whether or not you believe in God, the questions will remain. Who powers the Universe? Who created you and me? Why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people? Why isn’t Life fair or predictable? Yes there are explanations for everything – if you study metaphysics, human evolution and philosophy long enough you will find everything logically laid out and reasoned. Yet, there is an inscrutability that governs our lives. In Sachin’s case the inscrutability is over a series of ‘coincidences’ that appear to have conjured up a ‘miracle’ for him. In my case, the physical act of surviving in a cold, brutal world, my Life laden with debt, often with no money and no work, is unexplainable and inscrutable. Truly, this is a miracle – in a worldly, material sense of the word too. And I have been, with my wife Vaani, experiencing this miracle for 8+ years now.
If you look around you, there are millions of people living miraculously like Sachin is or like we are. I have come to realize that there are two points of view possible – one that makes you believe that everything, and everyone, is a miracle; and the other view that holds that nothing is a miracle. My views on Faith have evolved through my awakening (thanks to the cathartic experience of enduring our bankruptcy) that everything around me, within me, is a miracle. I only see miracles. For instance, I believe if I can write this blogpost, if you can read it, if you can understand it, process it and internalize it, well, that’s evidence of a miracle that is happening. In the present continuous sense.
Even so, I don’t think of God the way we are encouraged to think of him or her. To me this God theory of an energy outside of us, as someone residing some place else, doesn’t cut any ice. I sure do believe that there is a Higher Energy, that is far more intelligent than us, that powers this Universe. I know that it is the same Energy that powers us too, through this lifetime. So, my Faith has evolved from being religion-centric and God-centric (God as a person, as someone who has to be feared and worshipped per rituals prescribed by religion), to being Life-focused. I look at Life as a great teacher, as a giver of this experience – that’s peppered with ample adventure and abundant learnings – called this lifetime. When I do encounter blind-spots when I don’t know what’s going on, and when I don’t know what to do, I simply surrender to Life and offer myself to be led. This is how I pray. To me, since I was created without my asking to be born, I know and believe that when I pray, when I surrender, I will always be provided for and cared for. This is my belief. This is my Faith.
Therefore, it is irrelevant to ask if God exists. The issue is not about God. The issue really is with your awakening. Do you realize that you don’t – and can’t – control (much of) your Life? When this realization dawns on you, all questioning will cease. And you will approach everything with enthusiasm (interestingly, the word comes from the Greek en-theos, en = within and theos = God; so enthusiasm = the God within!), seeing everything as a miracle. Perhaps then you will agree with me that what you need to get through this inscrutable Life, is neither fear nor devotion, but surrender and humility!
Does it make any sense being everyone’s go-to person when people only come to you with their wants – often supporting a morally and financially corrupt ecosystem, that too in your name?
This morning’s papers are full of pictures of Sachin Tendulkar, his wife Anjali and Telugu superstars Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna visiting the famous shrine of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati yesterday. I have no information if these VIPs got a special darshan at the temple which overtly champions equality and ostensibly administers an efficient, impregnable queue/visitor management process. But seeing those pictures reminded me of my several visits to Tirupati and how, over four years of going there, I was weaned off my desire to go after God!
Almost 15 years ago a friend of mine, sitting at the Westminister bar in the erstwhile ITC Park Sheraton Hotel (it became the Crowne Plaza Hotel last year), told me that if I wanted business success I must take to worshipping Lord Venkateshwara “religiously”. He cited how the country’s top business people unfailingly went to Tirupati to pay obeisance to the Lord. “Have you ever wondered why their businesses are more sucessful than yours or mine,” he asked me, adding quickly: “That’s because they are blessed by Balaji, Lord Venkateshwara.”
I found my friend’s logic unputdownable. And so, on the first day of the immediate quarter that followed, Vaani and I went to Tirupati. We had not been there in over two decades. And so we had no idea of how to secure the tickets for darshan or how the queue system worked. After a lot of traumatic exploration – read running from pillar to post; that was also the non-internet era, so we had to literally scavenge for reliable information – for five hours we got our tickets. As we snaked our way into the Vaikuntam queue complex, we were appalled when, after three hours of barely inching forward, our queue was halted. Even as we were wondering why we were not making progress, we found Anil Ambani and his wife Tina, walking breezily past us in the adjacent, barricaded, queue lane. I was livid. Even then, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) advertised that it practiced an all-are-equal darshan policy. So, I was even more piqued that the TTD was not keeping up its own promise. But I knew I could do nothing to challenge what was going on. So, I did the next best thing. I worked over that quarter and quickly cobbled together a network of influencers within the system who I could tap to have our special darshan “arranged” even at short notice. For the 17 quarters (that is, four years) that followed, Vaani and I got “great darshan, with extra-time in the main sanctum sanctorum”, at Tirupati.
But eventually, we stopped making that pilgrimage to Tirupati for two reasons. One, our own spiritual evolution happened and it clarified to us that the God we seek so desperately is within us. We realized that we found meaning and value in spirituality and not in religion. Two, every visit to Tirupati – or to any place of worship that reeked of crass commercialization (and most places, sadly, are that way) – left me more disturbed than at peace; the behavior of the self-proclaimed representatives of God was appalling, they appeared to be no better than vultures that avariciously pecked away at corpses. During my mouna sessions (daily practice of silence periods) I examined the guilt that was gnawing within me. I realized that I was feeling so because I was literally ‘bribing’ God to give me an appointment; I was imploring God to prioritize me over hundreds of thousands of others who could not afford the ‘bribe’. Over time, mercifully, this guilt transformed into an awakening, a realization that God must not be chased, that God need not be searched for, that God must not be either feared or bribed. And that’s how I weaned myself away from wanting to go see God in a place that’s outside of me. Let me tell you, I have never experienced, in 48+ years, more Godliness and inner peace than I have in the last eight years that I stopped visiting places of worship!
So, this morning, when I looked at the pictures of the VIPs’ visit to Tirupati, all these thoughts came gushing. I have nothing against God, godmen, representatives of God, religion and the many, many people who still believe God resides in places of worship. I only feel sorry for God, as in the human definition and interpretation of God! Being God, I guess, must be pretty stifling. Imagine being God and being locked up in an unventilated, dark place, when you can’t even move! Imagine how you will feel if the only people who come to you are those who never ask you how you are or offer gratitude for what you have already given them, but only ‘want’ something for themselves! Imagine people using your name to divide each other! Imagine having to watch helplessly as ritualistic and gender-biased restrictions are imposed on women even though you created them with the same love and compassion as you created men! Imagine being God, won’t you feel sorry for yourself?
Only when you realize that Life happens inspite of you, and not because of you, will you see the divinity that shapes the Universe!
Two interesting things happened yesterday. My good friend Jyotsana Podaar pinged me on Facebook and posed me this question: “I wonder if Life is a divine enterprise or an ad hoc illegal arrangement…Your take on this please?” I found her question very intriguing and promised myself that I would write this blogpost exploring it today. Later last evening, Vaani and I watched this brilliant bio-pic on mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887~1920) called “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (Matt Brown, Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons). The film explores the unique friendship that evolved between Ramanujan and his professor at Cambridge University, G.H.Hardy. In one scene in the film, Hardy, an atheist, asks Ramanujan how does he get his mathematical theories? And Ramanujan replies that he doesn’t know exactly how, but he believes that it is through the grace of his Goddess, Namagiri: “To me, an equation has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.” Hardy rejects Ramanujan’s perspective saying: “I can’t believe in God because I don’t believe in anything that I can’t prove.” And Ramanujan replies: “Then you can’t believe in me because I believe in God.” I found both my inspiration to answer Jyotsana’s question and the answer itself in the Ramanujan-Hardy conversation!
To me, the question is not whether there is God. The questions really are how we look at God and where are we looking for God?
The very fact that I am able to communicate my thoughts and you are able to understand them to the point of either accepting or rejecting what I have to say is evidence of divinity. Clearly, there’s a Higher Energy that powers the Universe – and this Energy is more intelligent, more smarter and more compassionate than all of us here! I see this Energy as Life itself. It is only because we are alive that we can experience Life. So, to me, Life is my God, my teacher who amazes me, surprises me, and takes me onward from moment to moment, teaching me continuously through each experience that I am put through. If we understand God as the Life Energy that keeps us alive and helps us experience the myriad facets of this journey called Life, we will see divinity in us and all around us. It is only because we are looking for God outside of us, and have allowed religion to divide us in this avoidable quest for God, that we are not able to find God. I totally relate to Osho’s perspective when he says that there’s no God really, but there’s Godliness in all aspects of creation – including in you and in me!
So, to me, the thought that “your God is within you” is neither abstract nor clichéd. It is the complete proof that Hardy unfortunately kept seeking and never found! Often what makes me rediscover the divinity in me, in times when I am feeling low and beaten, is the sense of gratitude that I have when I pause to reflect and consider that I have been created human – someone capable of receiving the H1N1 virus – and that I have not been created as the swine that spreads the virus. For, if Life had willed it otherwise, I may well have been born a swine and not human!
I don’t debate or argue the presence of divinity anymore – to be sure, I once used to! I only debunk the idea of fearing God and looking for God. There is no search required. And there is no need to fear God. So, I am God loving – I love the God in me, I love me. Period.
Just to clarify Jyotsana’s question further, illegality, legitimacy, success, failure, victory, defeat, gain, loss…all these are human labels. I believe that your divinity – and mine – thrives on a plane that is purely beyond all human intellect and imagination. So, let’s not even bother discussing it to understand it. We simply can’t. The best way to know the divine is to continuously experience it and celebrate it in you and in everything around you. Remember: You ‘are’ only because of your divinity!