Band, Baaja, Baaraat Aur Toast!

Use every occasion to celebrate those who mean a lot to you – it will mean a lot to them!

Yesterday we watched a short video shot at the engagement ceremony of our niece Priyanka. In the video, Priyanka takes time to thank everyone who’s made a difference in and to her Life. She is honest, grateful and very compassionate as she pauses to reflect and share her innermost feelings about her mother, brother, grandmother, fiancé and the extended family!

This is refreshingly different from what traditionally happens at Indian family occasions – most certainly among TamBrahms – like engagements and weddings where families invest all their time and energies in performing rituals and in being subservient to ‘those that make the most noise” in the name of “protocol and respect”. For instance, the girl’s side are always the underdogs at these dos and the members from the boy’s family must always be pleased, their whims pandered to and even their unstated demands must be magically understood and met! Until the last decade, I don’t think TamBrahm weddings were fun. People were always either trying to please the other or find fault with the other. Resultantly even if the boy and girl were in perfect sync with each other, they too were on tenterhooks because they didn’t know when the next explosive situation between their families would erupt! Nett. Nett. No one enjoyed themselves. The celebration was always superficial and never real.

But in this decade, a growing, welcome, trend is emerging.

Eulogy Vs ToastI think this generation of people, in their 20s, has developed a couldn’t-care-less attitude to what others feel, say or do. And I think this irreverence is most appropriate when it comes to dealing with senseless gender-based protocol, inequalities and egos. So, of late, I see a lot more youngsters at our weddings, engagements, baby-showers and such events really celebrating. Important, people are pausing to use these – and other occasions – to talk about each other. To share what they feel about each other and what they mean to each other. After all, what’s the point in eulogizing someone at their memorial service when they won’t be around to hear what you have to say? I feel there is great value in telling people how much they mean to you when they are still there. Surely, it will mean a lot to them.

Slowly, but surely, gender-based protocols and inequalities, in the name of tradition, are also being done away with. At our friends’ son’s wedding recently, the entire family from the boy’s side – all of them accomplished musicians – performed a fusion medley on stage celebrating the girl and her family. In a TamBrahm setting, and in India where the girl’s family have always been treated as doormats, it was really, truly, inspiring to see this change.

I wish that the force be with people like Priyanka, her generation, with families such as our friends’ and with all those who will embrace this new way. I believe family get-togethers and events like engagements and weddings must be used to raise a toast to those that have touched your Life. Even a death must not be mourned in grief or sorrow. Instead the way that Life was lived must be celebrated. True celebration does not come from rituals and protocols it comes from camaraderie and having fun being together. Hope this trend picks up momentum, becomes a wave and drowns everything anti (to it) in its wake!

Teach your children how to keep the faith and to be grateful

Faith, not religion, and being grateful, not ritualistic, are the keys to facing Life’s upheavals.

When I was raised, there was an effort, naturally, to mold me in the classic TamBram culture of being God-fearing and ritualistic. I first resisted that attempt – not entirely to challenge the existence of a Higher Energy but more to rebel against my parents – but soon, as I graduated to adulthood and began a family with Vaani, I developed my own method for communion with divinity. I retained my secular and pragmatic, non-ritualistic, outlook to Life even as I visited places of worship seeking inner peace, answers to existential questions and often to simply recharge myself. Over time, I came to the understanding that religion is completely avoidable – in fact, it is my personal opinion that it must be treated like a narcotic, it should be never tried and must possibly be banned on the planet! I also understood that the real God is the one that is within, your Life source that keeps you alive and going. It is the same Higher Energy that powers the Universe that is in you, in me. So, in effect, you are the God you seek. So the right way to be is to not be God-fearing but God-loving! Which is why, as I have realized, it is very, very important to keep the faith in yourself. Swami Vivekananda sums this up so beautifully: “He is an atheist who does not believe in himself.”

I believe it is the responsibility of all parents to raise their children with this understanding of Life and champion the relevance of faith in today’s times. Faith is not what you have in an external agent or resource. Faith is what you fundamentally have in yourself. It is the awareness that if you have been created you will be looked after and cared for. It is this awareness that can help anyone get through Life’s upheavals and crises. Surely no one’s Life is going to be free of problems and challenges. No one is going to get through Life without facing at least one situation that defies logic and human problem-solving skills. It is to deal with such a situation that we must teach our children the value of keeping the faith in themselves – which is, really, in the Higher Energy that has created all of us! Indeed, the presence of a teacher – someone, who can lead and coach without bringing in religion or rituals – will be highly valuable here. But the absence of such a person is never going to stall one’s inner evolution and awakening. Faith is so unique and intensely personal that when there is faith anything – a.k.a miracles per the world – is possible!

We must remember, however, that faith works miracles only when you develop and retain an attitude of gratitude. Even in the gravest of situations, if you are grateful for the Life you have – at the most elementary-yet-profound level for simply being alive; remember, you are having this experience only because you are alive! – you will find that Life will always open doors. You may not often find all the solutions you are looking for, but you will discover newer ways and means for experiencing Life, for facing your situation and for lasting yet another day.

hqdefaultAs parents we have to teach our children the right values no doubt. We must give them the freedom of choice to live their lives their way surely. But, in addition, we must also teach them how to keep the faith and how to express their gratitude for this free, unsolicited (none of us have asked to be born!), limited-period gift called Life. Protecting our children from going through their upheavals and learning curves in Life will never work. Each one of us has to bear our own cross. So it is for our children too. We can be there for our children, we can be with them, we can walk with them every step of the way, but we can’t live their Life for them or instead of them. The only way our children too can evolve and grow up to be better human beings, more resilient and compassionate, is by learning to keep the faith that all is well and to be grateful for whatever is, the way it is!   
 

Don’t fear God and be ritualistic trying to escape ‘sin’

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!

love-and-fearAt 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.

What I learnt chasing Foo Dog figurines

Superstition always leads to fear and worry. Or just the opposite may happen too.

The other day a friend visited us. The conversation hovered on Vaastu and Feng Shui for a while. Then we talked about the merits and demerits of following rituals and believing in superstitions. After my friend left, I reflected, with amazement, on how I had grown out of “investing” in Vaastuand Feng Shui. I have nothing against these practices – I strongly believe they are sciences in their own way – or those who follow them. To be sure, I was, until a few years ago, very superstitious and heavily reliant on Vaastuand Feng Shui to determine how – where and with what – I must live.

Once, while on a three-day trip to Bangkok, Vaani and I spent over three-quarters of a day, in Chinatown, searching for Foo Dog figurines. Foo Dogs are the ancient sacred dogs of Asia who guard Buddhist temples – our Feng Shui consultant had advised us to get those figurines so that our home could be “protected”. Imagine, hunting for Foo Dog figurines in Bangkok, when there are possibly so many more entertaining, enriching, energizing things to do in that amazing city?!


Over time, with the practice of daily silence periods, I realized that relying on “external reference points”, however scientific they are or may have then appeared to be to me, are signs of a weak mind, one that is not self-aware. The ones with courage, I discovered, are the ones that know themselves. And if you know yourself, I soon learned to ask myself, why do you need to lean on a crutch __ a talisman, a figurine, a ring or a number? All these crutches are ostensibly to help you navigate better through Life. But Life is not the issue. It is your fear which is weakening you. And the best way to deal with fear is to look it in the eye and face it! These crutches cannot possibly help you face your demons, your fears. Never!

My evolution and learning has also taught me that what scares you often has the power to liberate you. Almost all of us have a good luck charm, a lucky number, and believe in something, often absurd, that we have been conditioned to. Nobody wants to do anything with the number 13 for instance. Or we prefer our favorite colors or numbers. There’s a view some people hold that if you bang into a piece of furniture when you are leaving to get something important accomplished, you must treat that as an early warning sign of something terrible that’s on its way. People that champion a scientific temperament will reason against this, intensely. And which is why those who want to believe in superstitions and premonitions will resist all rational arguments, however reasonable they may be. But here’s a simpler take. If everything is an event in this lifetime, a mere data point, including your birth and your impending death, and since the soul is imperishable, eternal, then what consequence does a furniture that comes in the way or a cat crossing your path or a mere number have?

In anyone’s Life, three things are absolutely inscrutable:  birth, death and soul. Now birth is without choice, death is unavoidable and the soul is not visible. What else is important when these three dimensions of your Life are beyond your control? When I look back, I feel that being superstitious, being ritualistic and being wedded to mere methods does make you fearful. And lonely. When I let go of whatever was controlling me, I felt free.

Enjoy being liberated. It’s a beautiful world out there. A stumble here, a fall there, a number here and a cat there, nor Foo Dogs figurines at your door, can make no difference to you, if you choose to feel the air in your lungs, being present in this – the only certain, happening, available, magnificent, miraculous – moment of your Life! 

Death is a celebration: accept it when it comes calling!

Death is not something negative. There’s no point in you fearing it. It is the only constant about Life!
Ever since my father-in-law’s passing away a few days ago, there have been scores of rituals that the family is being asked to follow. I am not ritualistic but in the context of the extended family’s preferences, I am having to live with whatever’s going on. I find it particularly ridiculous that people want to ‘purify’ our living space (my father-in-law passed away at our home). The reason given is that the ‘negativity of death’ needs to be driven out of home so that we can live without its ‘ghastly shadow’ looming over us. So, we will go through an elaborate ritual that will, in the sweltering heat of Chennai, leave all of us drained and consume a full day! This is apart from the several days of rituals that my brother-in-law has undertaken to perform as part of the obsequies.
I see all this as avoidable. I am not saying that rituals don’t have meaning. They may be very well-intentioned. But I would much rather celebrate the departed person’s Life than conduct rituals. For instance, my father-in-law was a career teacher. It would warm his soul surely if an endowment to educate needy children was set up in his name and memory. My wife and I had set up one in my mother-in-law’s memory a few years ago – but owing to our bankrupt situation, we have had to pause the activities. If we had the means, this is what we would like to do for my father-in-law too. And let me hasten to add that rituals don’t come cheap anymore – and rightly so; after all priests are also knowledge workers and so their time and inputs must be duly compensated. But the moot question is – do we want to do something that no one enjoys, understands or will remember or do we want to invest in a creating a lasting legacy that will remain a celebration of the departed person’s Life?
Also, how can a navagraha homam (an elaborate ritual to appease the nine planets) drive away the shadow of death; how can it ‘purify’ a living space of death’s ‘influence and negative energy’? Also, why is death seen as a negative event or energy? The unalterable reality is that death is always an integral part of every Life. The moment you are born, your death is waiting for you. The truth is we are all speeding towards our death – albeit at different speeds. You can’t escape death. You can’t avoid it. You can’t postpone it. It is your most logical, inevitable, destination. And death may perhaps not even be an end. As the proponents of the law of karma believe, death may just be the beginning of yet another, unknown, journey. By fearing death, by imagining it to be a negative aspect of your Life, you are only being immature and unintelligent.
I also find the entire gamut of rituals very discriminative and gender-biased. I had a rather ugly debate with the priest when he would not allow my daughter – my father-in-law’s only grandchild available at the time of the last rites being performed at my place – to light the fire to be taken to the cremation ground. The priest’s argument that women must not participate in the funeral rites and that they must not visit the crematorium did not cut any ice with me or with my wife and daughter. They did go to the crematorium to see off my father-in-law. And I am proud that they went ahead and did what they believed in!  
My personal view is that the only necessary process to be undergone when someone dies is the act of cremation or burial. Beyond that we must ideally spend every resource in celebrating that person’s Life. Investing in rituals because you hope to drive away or keep at bay the influence of death is a redoubtable choice. As Osho, the Master says, “Death is not an enemy. It is a friend. It is an absolute necessity for Life to be.” Isn’t it beautiful? It surely inspires me to live Life celebrating death and accept it when it comes calling!