Why is there so much suffering in, and around, us – despite so much emphasis on religion and rituals?
We were with some friends yesterday. And the conversation slowly wound its way to us sharing notes on the inscrutability of Life and the power of prayer and surrender.
A friend threw up these questions: “Is ritual an enabler for prayer? Is it necessary to be ritualistic to realize God – and happiness and equanimity? And does any ritual aid the process of surrender?”
Now, those are important questions. And I believe the answers, as I have gleaned from learnings from my lived experiences, lead us to a deeper, better, understanding of Life.
We must realize that we have all been created without our asking to be born. This is a choiceless birth for each of us. So, we must recognize that there is a Higher Energy, Creation, that has given us this human form and has given us this opportunity to experience this lifetime the way we are experiencing it presently.
I see this Higher Energy as Life itself. And I humbly submit to its intelligence, to its might and to its grace.
Some look upon this Higher Energy as ‘God’ – and their religious conditioning gives this ‘God’ a name, shape or form. But clearly, there is no disputing that there is a Higher Energy that powers this Universe, that has designed, and is administering, the cosmic Master Plan. Otherwise, why would you and I be human? We may well have been created as a less endowed species in the animal or plant world or even be an inanimate object – after all, they were all created too, without any of them asking to be!
So, to me, there are only two states to be in – eternal gratitude and total surrender. In fact, it is when these two states are maintained in unison, it is when they confluence, in us, in our view of our world, that true happiness and equanimity can be experienced and sustained.
Prayer is nothing but a way of expressing gratitude – Thank ‘you’, Thank ‘you’, Thank ‘you’! And prayer itself denotes surrender – I don’t know, I don’t understand, so I give myself up to ‘you’. The ‘you’ here is the Higher Energy, Creation.
This is all there is to Life. It is simple, easy to understand and easy to practise. The truth is you can never understand the mind of Creation. You simply cannot understand Life. At best, you can be forever grateful for who you are and what you have, and in complete surrender, flowing with Life for what it is.
We however complicate this process of flowing by resisting what is, by bringing in our logic, desire and expectations. Much of all human distress stems from our wanting our Life to be a certain way – to be different from what it is. As long as we want something, in a certain fashion, we will suffer. And that is what is happening to – and in – all of us.
The human mind, when it is suffering, is like a smoldering cauldron of myriad, uncontrolled, often wasteful and debilitating, thoughts. And religion, as a means of suggesting a method to calm the mind, to weed out debilitating thoughts and emotions, recommends rituals. The larger idea is that the rigor of ritual – in spirit and activity – will help you learn the value of gratitude and surrender. Deep at the core of all rituals, across religions, is this idea of complete, total, surrender. But what have we been conditioned to believe? Practise rituals to cleanse your sins; be ritualistic or you will be punished by ‘God’; if you want your prayers answered, your wants fulfilled, follow this ritual or that; rituals can banish your ‘bad’ phases and so on and on. Bottomline – we have been fed loads and loads of garbage in the name of religion and rituals. Which is why, despite all the rituals, despite all the religiosity in us, many of us are still unhappy, fearful, worried and are suffering endlessly!
So, my answer to my friend’s questions was this: “Do you normally need any apparatus to help you breathe? Not really. But, if your body systems are weak, well, you do need a ventilator. Similarly, do you need a method to practise gratitude and be in total surrender? Surely not. For, if you understand that being created in this human form is a blessing, you can only be grateful, you can only be in surrender. But if you don’t realize – or reflect on – this blessing, well, you then need a method, a device – a.k.a ritual and/or religion – to help you along. But, clearly, no method can help you live happily – in gratitude and surrender – unless you are willing to flow with Life’s Master Plan, for you, the way it is.”
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.
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!
Love the Higher Energy that powers the Universe. If you want to call this Energy God, please do. But please be God-loving, not God-fearing!
A story on Vaani and me broke on the popular media platform for entrepreneurship YourStory earlier this week. We have since been inundated with messages from people seeking perspective on dealing with their Life situations. One gentleman shared how his already struggling small enterprise got burdened with debt. His father passed away last year while visiting his pregnant daughter in the US. Traumatized by her father’s demise, the man’s sister developed serious complications with her delivery. The man said he had to travel to the US and stay on there to assist his sister. So the last rites of his father had to be performed in the US. The family decided to also do the elaborate rituals that follow a person’s demise. The man had to borrow from his family and friends and ended up spending Rs.20 Lakh on performing the rituals! One thing led to another – his business folded up, his income stream dried up and to keep his creditors at bay, the man started borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. His debt stands at Rs.1 crore now and he doesn’t have money to buy groceries!
I can completely empathize with the man’s plight. I have been there and I often end up being in a penniless state every once in a while – even now!
With due respect to the gentleman’s belief systems, I would like to question the validity of rituals and religion in Life. I wonder why we want to perform rituals for a deceased person at such high costs? I have nothing against the economic model of priests and all those who call themselves representatives of God or religion. To me, it’s a business model that must thrive like any other. So, the model’s mandarins will market rituals as a must-do and the way they convince their customers – people like you and me – is that they play up the “fear-God” angle. Especially when it comes to rituals related to someone’s death. I have heard that carefully crafted and articulated pitch: “You have to do these rituals to keep the deceased’s soul at peace, to do your duty as a blood relative of the deceased and for the welfare of the generations that will follow you in your clan. If you don’t do these rituals you will be sinning and God will punish you and your family.” The moment God’s dark – vicious – side played up, the ignorant, unawakened, gullible fellow voyager capitulates. And so rituals get done and that’s how the religion-ritual economy thrives!
At this point, let’s step back to understand Life better. Obviously there’s a Higher Energy that has created all of us. That Energy, without doubt, is inscrutable. Yet there’s something definitive and visible about this Energy: it promises nothing and demands nothing. So why fear this Energy? Think about it. You have been created without your asking for it. You will live as long as you will and then you will die. Death is a certainty that you are born with. And have to live with. So why fear death? And why fear an after-Life that no one has ever come back to talk about? Similarly, when someone dies, why brood over their death or mourn endlessly? Why perform rituals fearing incurring the wrath of this Higher Energy? Why not just celebrate the Life of the deceased by doing what the person loved doing a lot? Ask yourself, if you would still do the rituals you do – or are made to do – if you were implicitly convinced that the Higher Energy, that you call God, need not be feared? If you would still do it, then go on, stay ritualistic. But if you would rather not do it, then I rest my case.
Simply, any form of fear must be dropped. You and I have been created to live a full Life and enjoy it. You are not here to fear anything – not even your impending death. So love your God, the Higher Energy that has created you, than be God-fearing! Anything that holds you hostage and makes you cower in fear must be abandoned – and that includes religion and rituals.