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!
10 years or 20 years, you have to go through what you have to
There’s no escaping bearing your cross.
The other day, at a mall, I bumped into a gentleman who used to supply stationery for several years to our erstwhile (now bankrupt and defunct) Firm (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal.). He’s an elderly Muslim – always warm and very affable. He was keen to know why Vaani and I had not been in touch with him. I quickly told him our story – of how our business had gone bust and how we have been going through a “very painful yet spiritually awakening phase” for the past 10 years.
The man beamed a benign smile through his white, flowing beard. He said: “AVIS bhai, I have seen in Life that everyone has to go through a 10-year phase which is often grueling. In our faith, we believe that this 10-year-phase belongs to Allah. You just offer yourself to Allah – to be tried, tested, shaped, molded by Allah! When you go through this challenging phase early in Life or in your middle-age, you are better off. If it comes to you in your old age, you will find it nearly impossible to endure it. Now that your ‘decade of trial’ is over in your middle-age, watch how your fortunes turn, see how Allah rewards you!” He gave me a hug and blessed me before setting off on his way.
I stood there and watched him disappear among the crowd at the mall. Over a cup of coffee later that afternoon I reflected on what the man had told me. He meant well. And he spoke from personal experience – having dealt with a cancer striking in his family twice and having resurrected a business that had almost gone bust.
Even so, I am not sure I am convinced that Life can be straight-jacketed into cookie-cutter models. I have understood that each of us has to go through what we have to go through. There’s no escaping bearing your cross. Some have to go through a 10-year phase, others have to go through longer, or perhaps shorter, spells. Astrology does provide some perspective – you can at least know how long a certain phase will last. But, on a spiritual plane, what is the point in having that information when you can’t do anything to alter the course of that phase or of your Life? So, my learning is this – just pray for fortitude, for inner strength, for courage, accept your Life for what it is and keep ploughing on.
I am reminded of a message that I got from Swami Sathya Sai Baba some years back. That night I was feeling beaten and felt I could no longer endure the pain of pennilessness, the grief of what we were going through and the guilt and anger of what I had possibly caused. It was a Friday. And out of sheer exasperation I went with Vaani to the weekly Sai Bhajan. My young friend Kumar, through whom Swami speaks, came up to me and gave me a poster saying “Swami wants you to internalize this message.” The poster had the following message on it.
I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to solve.
I asked for prosperity and God gave me brawn and brains to work.
I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome.
I asked for patience and God placed me in situations where I was forced to wait.
I asked for love and God gave me troubled people to help.
I asked for favors and God gave me opportunities.
I asked for everything so I could enjoy Life.
Instead, He gave me Life so I could enjoy everything.
I received nothing I wanted, I received everything I needed.
I believe I got that poster that day because I needed to receive the message it carried. I am not a great champion of the popular theory around God. But I do know that a Higher Energy guides our Life. Important, over the past decade Vaani and I have come to relate completely with the poster’s message. We have seen this again, and again, and again – “We have received nothing that we wanted, but we have received everything we needed”. And so we remain soaked in gratitude and humility.
This is why I truly believe that no matter what you are faced with, you must always go with the flow. Whatever comes your way, embrace it. And whatever be the tenure of a challenging phase in Life, remember, you have to go through what you have to. Go through it in total acceptance, in complete surrender. Because every experience unfailingly teaches you to be happier and stronger.
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.
Don’t blame any religion or community for the way your one ‘friend’ is behaving
Your friends’ attitudes are what you need to review when associating with them, not their economic backgrounds or their religious affiliations.
A former colleague, who is also connected with me on Facebook, posted on his wall that he was deleting a bunch of his Muslim friends. Reason: he felt they were anti-Hindutva. Facebook seems to have promptly deactivated his account. And I don’t blame Facebook. I think it is high time we dumped parochial perspectives and embraced a purely human outlook to people and Life.
First, let us understand who we can call a friend. Just because you grew up knowing somebody, it is not necessary that they must share your opinions or outlook. It does not also mean that they don’t have a right to change over time. What is important is to know that just as you are entitled to your opinion, others are too. And just as you have changed, others have changed, and will change, too.
I learnt this lesson the hard way. A school buddy and I went drinking three years ago. When, after the drinking bout, which involved downing several pegs of whiskey and vodka between us, he insisted on riding his motorbike to go back home, I stopped him. He got angry with me, asked me to mind my own business and slapped me. I still stood my ground and, much to his chagrin, asked a cop – who had joined us by then – to seize my friend’s vehicle. The cop seized the motorbike, issued a charge to my friend, asked him to pay a fine and collect the vehicle the next day. Although I did not have money with me, I still arranged for the fine amount to be reached to my classmate the next day. He had his vehicle released, using the money I sent him, of course, but he launched a tirade against me in the online school group we were both part of; he unfriended me on Facebook and sent me a mail saying that I must, in future, mind my own business. I was distraught. I acted to save a friend from committing hara-kiri and in the process I seem to have lost his friendship. That’s when another classmate from school, who knew both of us, called up and told me this: “Don’t worry about losing his friendship. You must know that some people are probably not worth being friends with, because they are no longer the same people we once knew.”
Over time, I came to understand and value this perspective immensely – people will change and your friends will change too. If their attitude to Life – which is, their value systems, social outlook, personal integrity – is not in sync with yours anymore, you need to learn to quietly move on.
So, in such contexts, where – and why – does religion come in? Just because one Muslim friend, or a few, have a non-secular outlook, it doesn’t mean all Muslims are that way. Or for that matter how can we ever say that all Hindus are secular either? I believe any argument that bases itself on religion must be expunged. We already have geographies and nationalities dividing us. We also have racism to deal with. So, why do we need religion in the way now?
Let’s not color our personal relationship choices basis divisive factors and forces. Friendship is where there is dignity and space provided to each other. Friendship is when you can speak your mind and not be judged. It is when you can agree to disagree. Friendship is when empathy thrives. And true friendship does not get colored by race, economic background or religious affiliations. If these do get in the way, evaluate the so-called friendship. Review if the person you are connected with is truly a friend. Please don’t blame any religion or community for the way your one ‘friend’ is behaving. That’s one fresh, divisive issue our world can do without!