Why I refuse to call myself a Hindu

Can we just be human, pleeeaaassse?

My good friend Girish Pradhan was stopped from entering the famous Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore yesterday. The temple authorities wanted to ascertain that he is a Hindu. Girish sports a beard and apparently that’s why the “clarification/proof” was sought.

I have been thinking about this episode ever since Girish’s wife Weena posted a status on Facebook last afternoon. And interestingly, adding to the discourse brewing in my head, I ended up watching a Subhash Ghai film “Black & White” (2008, Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Anurag Sinha) on TV last night. The film deals with some searching questions on Hindu-Muslim unity, on how a terrorist is born and why most acts of terrorism are led by Islamic fundmentalists. While the film was engaging for most parts, it didn’t quite answer all the questions it raised. And that is the problem. No one seems to have the answers – even though a majority of people think peace, think secular! We are all, as well meaning citizens of the world, stuck in a situation where a few people hold us to ransom with their anti-human ideas of religious fundamentalism.

Before this post is conveniently misinterpreted and given a communal flavor, I must hasten to confess that I was born to Hindu parents. But I refuse to call myself a Hindu. My religion is humanity. Period. And Life is my God. In fact, later this month, on 29th April, Saturday, I host famous dancer Zakir Hussain on my popular show – The Bliss Catchers – at Odyssey Bookstore, Adyar. Now, Zakir is a Thirupaavai Upanyasam expert. Had Zakir and I tried to enter the Kapaleeshwarar temple, and if we were asked to prove ourselves as Hindus, undoubtedly, Zakir would have won himself an entry ticket! And I would have failed miserably – I don’t wear my poonal (sacred thread), I don’t know any shlokas and, of course, I may have well refused the test. To me, a God who resides in the smelly, dark, sanctorums of a temple, or for that matter who is ensconced in any “place of worship”, watching over apathetically, even as people fight each other in the name of religion, is no God at all.

Clearly, we cannot afford to be like God. Not anymore. We must not sit back and allow the rot to happen. I believe each of us has a responsibility to heal our world. I am not even talking of healing the entire world. I am suggesting we begin with our small Universes, our circles of influence.


First, we must make religion irrelevant in our actions, in our pronouncements, in thought. Let me explain. I have another friend, who often brags that he prefers keeping his second apartment locked up, but he says he will not give it to Muslim tenants. Such thinking must stop. Religion, if at all it must be practiced, is a deeply personal affair. And must be kept that way. Flaunting your religious belief is what makes it relevant. And when there is a mass relevance, fundamentalists seize advantage, they want to induce fear, control you and brainwash you. Some of them take it to a destructive level – they turn barbaric and murderous. Sadly, this is what is happening around us, with alarming frequency. Second, let us understand the difference between divinity and God. Divinity is Life’s way of expressing itself – you will find divinity in a sunrise, in a raindrop, in the stillness of a valley, in a bird chirping, in a child’s eyes, in you, in me and in every aspect of creation. God, on the other hand, is a human invention, who does nothing to save the world from anarchy and extremism. Yes, there is a Higher Energy that governs, guides, nurtures and protects all of us. And we are all created by that Energy and we carry that Energy in each of us. So, to me, every form of creation is God. I don’t relate to God again as one Supremo who resides in a designated place of worship. This theory and its belief is downright divisive and abhorrent. Finally, can we just soak in the essence of this immortal song from Yash Chopra’s directorial debut Dhool Ka Phool (1959, Manmohan Krishna, Mohd.Rafi, N.Dutta) “Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalmaan Banega, Insaan Ki Aulad Hai, Insaan Banega…”? Sahir Ludhianvi’s inspiring lyrics remain relevant to this day – can we just be human, pleeeaaassse?

I know millions of people out there echo these sentiments that I share here. The time has come for all of us like-minded folks to step out and speak up for humanity. My prayer is this: let’s stop being closet secularists. Only when we make religion irrelevant in the public domain, can we make religious fundamentalism irrelevant and powerless.


“Faith is the key to live happily!”

‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday we feature the 73-year-old Ghatam maestro, Padma Bhushan and Grammy winner, Vikku Vinayakram!
Photo by Vaani Anand
Vikku Vinayakram’s home in Triplicane in Chennai houses his study-cum-meditation room on the second floor. The room is sparse for most parts. Huge portraits of the seer of Kanchi, the Paramacharya or Maha Periyava, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswami (1894 ~ 1994), in different styles, adorn the walls – from posters to paintings to stained glass works.
In the middle of the room, on a colorful rug, a jamakaalam, sits a Ghatam. It is a souvenir that a ghatam-maker gave Vikku. It has Vikku’s face carved out in the clay. He doesn’t prefer talking about that Ghatam though – “The person who made this was over-enthusiastic. Out of affection for him, I have retained this in my study. I had him make another one with Maha Periyava’s image; that one’s in my Poojaroom.”
The Grammy Winning Planet Drum Team
Photo by Vaani Anand
The shelves and cupboard tops, and even some cartons, are full of awards that Vikku has received in his over 60 years as a performing artist. He wants to show Vaani and me his Grammy memento – which he had won in 1991 for playing for American percussionist Mickey Hart’s (who once was part of the band Grateful Dead) Album, Planet Drum; the Award was for the Best World Music Album that year. But Vikku can’t find his Grammy memento among all his other awards. He manages to locate a plaque that all artists who played for Planet Drum have signed on the occasion of winning the Grammy. What Vikku says when his search for the Grammy memento yields no result is deeply spiritual and awakening: Parava illai! It’s okay! It’s here somewhere. For sure. What is important is that I enjoyed myself playing for Mickey Hart and with the other artists. The process of playing the Ghatam, to me, overrides any recognition that I have got.”
Photo Courtesy: Internet
Now, the man who’s saying this is the world’s best Ghatam player. In fact, he’s credited with putting the humble Ghatam on the world music scene. He’s always played with all-time greats in Carnatic music – Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.Balamuralikrishna, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Santhanam and M.S.Subbalakshmi (not a complete or exhaustive list). And he’s played with many Hindustani music stalwarts too – Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Shivkumar Sharma and Amjad Ali Khan (not a complete or exhaustive list). More important, he’s among those first artists from India who were bold enough to experiment playing world fusion music despite a very strong, conservative, classical orientation. In the 1970s, Vikku played with English guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti alongside Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L.Shankar (Violin) and Ramnad Raghavan (Mridangam).  And then, of course, came Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum – and the Grammy.
But Vikku is untouched by all this glory. As he sips filter coffee from a davara-tumbler, he nods his head furiously when I suggest to him that he must be very, very content with himself – what with a “lifetime in music and an era in greatness behind him”? “No saar. Your question needs review. The Ghatam has been around from the time of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is the only instrument that is made from the earth – one of the five elements, one of the pancha bhoothas. Who am I to take credit for making the Ghatam famous or for all this glory that has come on account it? I am most content playing good music with good people for good people to enjoy and energize themselves. I consider myself to be a postman, a messenger, a mere instrument for music to reach people. How can any instrument take credit for the music?” he asks.
Photo Courtesy: Internet
To understand and celebrate Vikku’s humility better, his story must be told in some detail. Born along with his sister, Seethamani, as a fraternal twin, Vikku’s original name was Ramamani. His father, Harihara Sarma, a Mridangam artist and teacher, was advised by soothsayers that only one of the two children would survive; if both had to survive, one of them had to be given away in adoption. Sarma chose to give Ramamani in adoption to his favorite deity – Lord Vinayaka. And so the name Vinayakram came about! Although Sarma lost one of his fingers in an accident, he taught young Vinayakram to play the Ghatam by giving him beat-based instructions orally. Sarma’s only vision was that Vinayakram play the Ghatam so well that the instrument becomes famous across the world. “My grounding comes from my father’s vision. He did not urge me to play well for money or fame. He always taught me that music and the Ghatam are much bigger than me,” reminisces Vikku.
The big break came when a 22-year-old Vinayakram was “accepted” by M.S.Subbalakshmi’s husband T.Sadasivam to accompany them on a US tour in 1964. Owing to the Indo-Pak war that intervened, the trip was postponed; but it eventually happened in 1966. That was the first time any lead artist was willing to allow the Ghatam as an accompaniment on the world stage. That tour gave Vinayakram a feel of what it means to play music to a global audience. It also gave him his nickname, Vikku, which has since stuck on. “My father’s advice that music is divine, that it does not have boundaries and is not limited by styles and languages, resonated with me so much on that trip. Just the experience of performing with MS Amma was so transformational. Ghatam owes its gratitude to MS Amma for giving it global stature,” he says.
Vikku has been very faithful to his father’s advice. He has always chosen music over anything else in Life. In the mid-70s, when he received an invitation from John McLaughlin to perform with Shakti, he was on the verge of accepting a “permanent” job as an All India Radio (AIR) artist. Choosing the AIR job meant a steady income and job security. Going with Shakti meant short-term financial gains but infinite joy! Vikku chose joy! “I learnt the value of inner peace and joy from MS Amma and ‘Veena’ Balachander. Both of them told me, like my father always did, ‘do only what gives you joy’. I simply followed their advice. Today, when I look back, I am glad I did what I did. I would have never been happy with anything but playing my music, my way,” he explains.
Photo Courtesy: The Hindu/Internet
Isn’t Life as a musician, despite all the highs it offers, pretty unpredictable in a practical sense? The income is not consistent. And then there is age – and the question of staying relevant in an ever-changing world. How does Vikku deal with these factors? His one-word answer is ‘faith’. He says you have to have faith that a higher energy will take care of you. To Vikku, that higher energy has always been the Kanchi Maha Periyava. “His grace is immense. It has guided me thus far and I have implicit faith that it will stay with me forever,” he says. He shares an anecdote to amplify this point. Vikku was recently diagnosed with an eye condition that required a neuro-surgery that would necessitate that he cannot play the Ghatam for at least 18 months. Vikku says he just “could not accept the medical advice that I must not play the Ghatam.” “I went into my Pooja room and prayed to Maha Periyava. I left it to him. Then I went for my final, pre-surgery, tests. And the tests came good! I would not need a surgery, the doctor told me. Now, how do you explain this? Everyone is searching for God. I have seen God in human form – and that is Maha Periyava,” he says.
As we get ready to leave, he adds this simple – yet so profound – perspective: “Nambikai – faith – is key to live happily. With faith comes nimmadhi – inner peace. With inner peace comes anandam – happiness. I have always had total nambikai. So even when worry arises or sadness comes, I invoke my faith. SaarAmma…desires ruin happiness. You can keep on desiring this and that and achieving this and that. As long as you are on this vicious cycle you will always be unhappy. Take Life as it comes, with whatever it brings! Drop your desires and all you will be left with is anandambrahmanandam. Happiness – total bliss!”

As we stepped on to the street to find transport to take us home, Chennai was getting flooded by a torrential downpour. I wasn’t worried that we were not going to find a way to get back – Chennai’s notorious for public transport failing when it rains heavily! I was thinking of what kind of an evolved man he must be who doesn’t really agonize that he can’t find his Grammy Award memento! To be sure, Vikku lives the philosophy of a desire-less state that he spoke about. And that’s why he’s so simple, grounded, happy and at peace with himself. Undoubtedly, he’s a rockstar in his own right, but one who’s obsessed only with his music, and never with the trappings that rockstardom brings along with it – the Grammy included! 

Enjoy, Experience and Learn from the Journey of Life

This whole lifetime is, at one level, meaningless. There’s no success. And no failure. When you die, you take nothing, not even memories of your experiences.  
You may wonder what’s the point in living – earning, creating, saving – when you can’t take anything or anyone with you when you die? But this is the truth. This is the way it is. None of us knows what’s after death. So, we can only ensure that we live this one Life that we have well. This means we treat everything that comes our way – sadness, joy, love, anger, fear, passion and peace – with respect, with acceptance and with gratitude. In his immortal poem “The Guest House”, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet says, receive both Life’s sorrows and joys with respect, greeting them at the door “laughing” and “invite them in”, for each has been sent as a “guide from beyond”. There’s only one reason that I believe there is to describe why we go through so many experiences in our Life – and that reason is to teach us to be humble. What education, success, fame and money do to us is that they all make us, even if subconsciously, arrogant. We start gloating over how well we have planned out lives, how much we are in control and how well we have crafted our own tiny worlds. And then, in one fell swoop, Life changes everything. It’s like a wave that comes and sweeps away a sandcastle that a child has built on the beach. For some of us, these waves come multiple times and with each blow, with each upheaval, we become more and more humble.
Ustad Zakir Hussain
Picture Source: Internet
Those who have understood Life and the way it works, will have learnt also to be unswayed by whatever is happening to them. Neither grief nor glory can move them. I recently read an interview that Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain gave ‘Times Life’. He was asked how he dealt with being a celebrity and how he would deal with losing all his fame. His reply is so beautiful, so awakening: “I am a figment of everyone’s imagination. That’s what I am. And I know that I’m the dog today and I’m having my day. And there’ll be someone else to take over and really, there’s no problem in that. I’m not going to be the famous number one Tabla player all my Life. I took over from someone, did I not? And someone else is going to take over from me. And there’s no problem at all, as far as I’m concerned. Because, I am not the best. There is no best. You know, someone once told a maestro after a show ‘You were perfect today’ and the maestro replied ‘I haven’t played good enough to quit’. You know, that’s a very profound statement. In other words, if I had done what I think is the best I can do, I might as well hang up my boots. There’s nowhere else to go. So, there’s no perfect. You will never reach the horizon but that doesn’t stop you from enjoying and experiencing the journey, learning from it.” 
That’s all there is to Life. Keep enjoying and experiencing the journey, learning from it, every step of the way. Don’t cling on to anything. Neither your sorrows nor your joys. Take everything as it comes. If possible, during the time that you have here, on the planet, touch another Life, make a difference. That’s the only way to create meaning in an otherwise meaningless Life! Because, when it ends, when death comes, your lifetime will be a memory for those who knew you, and for you…it may, well, just mean nothing.