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!
Vaani and I are incredibly blessed that Mother Teresa touched our lives in the most serendipitous and miraculous manner.
In today’s blogpost, I reproduce an extract from Chapter 10 (‘Follow Your Bliss’) of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal (Westland). The extract (in purple text below) recounts an anecdote from our Life on how Mother Teresa’s blessing reached us – and how it continues to guide us with our Life’s Purpose.
On Saturday, April 11, 2009, I got a call from Philip Sir, a client and dear friend from Kochi, Kerala. Philip Sir had last visited Chennai in January 2008 to look me up when he had come to know of our situation. He had given me ₹1000 ($20) and said, given his own circumstances and priorities, he couldn’t afford to help us more. He requested me to accept the money as his humble Vishu Kani nettam. He is a big man, Philip Sir, about 15 years older than I am and in his kind eyes, I saw a graceful energy drench me with a blessing, as I accepted the money. That money helped us last a week as a family!
He had also given us a Life-saving engagement by paying for my airfare and inviting me to conduct a day-long workshop with his team at a small processed-foods company in Thrissur, Kerala, in February 2008. He said his company could afford only ₹10,000 ($200) as fee to us but agreed to pay it in cash at the end of the session. We were so cashless that I didn’t think. I just grabbed that opportunity. That money, when I brought it back from the trip, helped us buy groceries and last the rest of that month! He was also generous enough to offer me a chauffeur-driven car to visit Guruvayoor and our native family deity in Athipotta in Palakkad district, Kerala, while on that trip. Although I have evolved, thanks to this experience, and do not see great value anymore in pilgrimages and temple-hopping in times of distress or otherwise; at that time, those visits were important: to believe, to know that a Higher Energy would take care of all that it has created! Of course now, I do know that the Higher Energy resides within us.
Within you. Within me.
For those reasons and others, when Philip Sir called that Easter weekend, I was happy. He said he had been, minutes before calling me, in front of Mother Teresa’s tomb, at Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata. He had been serving as a volunteer at homes run by the Missionaries of Charity, during Lent that year. That Saturday was his last day in Kolkata. He was returning to Kochi transiting via Chennai. He wondered if he could drop in at home for breakfast on Easter Sunday. I told him that he was most welcome!
I picked up Philip Sir from the airport. At home, we had a sumptuous breakfast of hot idlis, sambar, coconut chutney and molagapodi with yennai. His flight to Kochi was not until later that afternoon. So, we moved into our study. Philip Sir wanted to know how we hoped to fix the business and our lives. I told him that the 14 months since we had met had been a great learning experience. I said my daily practice of mouna gave me clarity and we now knew why we had been created on this planet. We now knew what our Core Purpose was.
Philip Sir smiled and asked what that Core Purpose was.
I got up and went to the white board and wrote the following words in blue marker ink: “To awaken people to the new way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
Even as I explained what the ‘new way’ was, which is spiritual empowerment, serving, right thinking and growing intelligently through Life, Philip Sir rose from his chair. He took a red marker pen from the holder and walked up to the white board. He placed a big huge ‘X’, on the word ‘new’ and wrote the word ‘right’ above it. The statement now read: “To awaken people to the right way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
As Mom and I looked on, obviously perplexed, Philip Sir went on to deliver an impromptu sermon: “When you say ‘new way’, AVIS, you are saying you invented it. Did you? Of course you did not. Spirituality is as old as mankind. Or older. You are merely sharing a way that you found and which has worked for you. AVIS, be humble. No matter what happens in your Life, stay grounded. You or I or Vaani create nothing. We cause nothing. Neither our successes nor our failures. We are merely executors of a cosmic will. You have been put through this experience to learn from it and you want to share this ‘right way’ with others. By all means, do so. You are an amazing speaker. I have heard you. You have the ability to transform how people think. I have experienced it myself. My only wish for you is, no matter how successful you become, never claim any of that success as your own. You are only an instrument.”
So saying, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled up a very small re-sealable zipper storage pouch that had a rose petal in it. The petal had not dried completely and I could see its purple-pink hue as Philip Sir held it up.
He said, “Yesterday, when I said my last prayers at Mother Teresa’s tomb and bowed to take her blessings, I was reminded of you suddenly. I don’t know why. So when I took a petal for my wife and family, I decided to take one for you and Vaani as well. Here it is. I am not sure I understand what I am doing. I am not sure you understand either. Maybe the reason will manifest much later. For now, accept this petal as a blessing from an apostle of service. May you both overcome your problems and may you too serve humanity, touching lives and making a difference.”
Mom and I were in tears as we received the petal. We hugged Philip Sir as he bid us goodbye. I dropped him off at the airport and haven’t met him since that Easter Sunday of 2009. The petal still sits on my desk, safe in the tiny re-sealable zipper storage pouch. Both are inside an old plastic film roll can.
What I learnt from him, through him, is now a prayer that I say to myself each time I am leading a workshop: “I am but an instrument. Whatever the audience must learn today from my experiences, let that learning happen. The message is not mine, the stage is not mine. I am a mere microphone. And no microphone can take credit for the message!” That my bliss has the blessings of one of the noblest of all creations in the history of humankind – Mother Teresa; overwhelms and sobers me, each time I am in front of an audience.
Note: My Book is written in the form of letters to my two children Aashirwad and Aanchal; so in this extract, I am actually sharing this anecdote and learnings with them. Mom is Vaani; I call her Mom!
This morning as I read about Mother Teresa’s canonization coming up at the Vatican, my thoughts went back to this anecdote. I cannot but marvel at how the Universe always sends you a message, long, long before something has happened. We received a ‘rose petal’ years before we had even thought of sharing our Life lessons in a Book. And when it eventually came about, my Book, interestingly, is named Fall Like A Rose Petal – the title is inspired by a Sufi story that Osho used to say! Reflecting on all this, I feel humbled, I feel blessed and I feel grateful for the miracle of this lifetime that I have had so far…
Make your entire Life an offering to the Universe, and you will be the prayer yourself.
Last evening I was caught in the middle of an artificial traffic jam caused by motorists thronging a Shirdi Baba shrine. The mess was artificial because it was time for the arathi and everyone inside and outside the temple was shoving, elbowing, honking and pausing to catch a glimpse of the deity. Chaos is a mild word to describe the situation, it was complete mayhem!
And I caught myself thinking – do we really need to be so demonstrative with prayer and worship?
To be sure, my perspective on the subject too has evolved over the years. There was a time when I wore rings on my fingers and visited temple after temple seeking solutions to my problems and answers to my questions. I visited Tirupathi on the trot for 17 quarters, on the first day of each quarter – Lord Venkateswara was the corporate deity, as I had understood, and paying obeisance to Him at the beginning of each earnings cycle was mandatory. I visited Tiruchendur and Sabari Malai once every year. I even went with Vaani to Tirucherai, to offer special prayers to the Runa Vimochana Lingam (the Shiva shrine dedicated to debt relief). I have also visited Ajmer and gone to the dargah of the Garib Nawaz, Khwaja Moinudeen Chisty, there. I have been to the Vatican and to Velankanni, to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in New Delhi and to almost all the churches and temples in Kerala and Goa. I have visited Shirdi several times and, at one point, I even used to fast on Thursdays – considered to be Sai Baba’s special day. While I did feel energized at each of these ‘pit-stops’, I still found something missing within me. I was still restless and disturbed. Worry, anger, grief and guilt haunted me despite my best efforts to be pious and prayerful. And I always wondered, ‘Why was I not finding inner peace’?
It was my practice of mouna – daily silence periods – that led me to understand that peace came from within and not from any external source – however holy and haloed the source is hailed to be. I realized that our conditioning has led us to look outside of us than within us. There is a popular notion that we have, thanks to our upbringing, that prayer is an action that requires a time, a place and certain necessary and sufficient conditions. Each religion preaches worship through prayer differently. Therefore, while all of us have become adept at praying, we have become completely incapable of living! Even when in prayer, the mind is distracted, often anxious, fearful and disturbed!
How can merely, mechanically, by rote, chanting a mantra or reciting a hymn, compensate for intelligent living? This is my humble, personal view – born out of my own evolutionary experience. Over the years, I have learned that your entire Life, the way you live, think and work, can be prayer if you understand that this lifetime is a gift and that you must forever be grateful to Life for this experience! Choosing forgiveness over angst, love over hatred, postponing worrying than postponing happiness, serving over seeking deservance, gratitude over expectation and making each moment count are all ways in which you live your Life prayerfully. When you do this, repeatedly, over days and months and years, you become the peace that you seek.
This doesn’t mean that Life will not serve you any more problems. There will be problems; perhaps even more than you would imagine! But you will be able to deal with each of them effectively, efficiently, because you are now anchored in peace. It is only because you relegate peace and prayer to a specific time, and do it with a ritualistic obsession and not with deep fervor – immersion in the moment – that you don’t escape fear, worry, anxiety, guilt, grief and suffering. But if you make your Life your prayer, being grateful for all that you have, you will be always soaked in peace!