The Reluctant Hindu: What does my religion mean to me?

I am a Hindu. Typing this feels strange since I’ve been privileged enough to not have this facet of my identity hinder my existence in any way. But for the purpose of this story, that is all I am going to talk about – being a Hindu.

Growing up in a devout Tamilian family, our Gods formed a pretty important part of the days; the morning ritual of lighting the lamp and agarbathis, arranging freshly plucked hibiscus and jasmine flowers from our garden on idols, muttering hurried prayers before setting off to work and school. Our puja area was a simple kitchen cupboard kept permanently open with a wooden shelf beneath it to place the lamp on.

I remember the holographic Saraswati printed on a thick plastic board and how her eyes danced with the flickering flame, creating a psychedelic haze. Her importance was drilled forcefully into our heads as we piled textbooks in front of her with the hope of better grades. We don’t seek knowledge, just nothing less than a 70% please? Apart from the several cluttered idols and haphazardly plastered pictures of Hindu deities, a little Mother Mary statuette stood out somberly – hollow and plastic, wearing blue robes and filled with holy water. She was with us courtesy of the Christian influence on my mother’s childhood from her boarding school. My mother still believes in the power of the Novena prayer. 

As children, we were never forced to pray or go to the temple. We didn’t learn any shlokas or bhajans. I read the Mahabharat and Ramayan in my late 20s and learnt the Gayatri mantra only after my daughter did at her school. Even the annual trips to Tirupathi felt like fun family picnics where a whole lot of us boarded trains, had cold bucket baths at 4 am before we set off for darshan and waited in bone-crushing queues for hours. In the few seconds we finally got to stand before the elegantly adorned Vishnu in his dimly lit abode, really all that went through my head was, “I don’t know what to pray for.” Usually at home I asked for specific things for myself, my family, a few close friends and wound up with a generic request to help the world which I hoped would be enough insurance to cover whatever I missed out on. But standing in the presence of an energy I couldn’t understand, I always left overwhelmed and muddled.

Whether they intended it or not, my parents let us build our own faith. We were allowed to ask questions about customs and even challenge them.

They were pretty lax about most matters except atheism. “Everyone has to have faith in something.” my mother would say. Every time I tried to argue about why we needed religion to get us to be decent human beings, she’d narrate stories about random aunts and uncles who had once declared their indifference to the Gods and were now paying the price with utmost devotion. Clearly fear was an essential part of her faith, which she tried to pass on to us.

We each have our own canvases where we get to paint our interpretations of religion and God. But it’s a lot of work and can get ugly. I questioned my family’s adherence to Vaishnavism. Why were we dividing faith? How could the way one smeared a tilak across their forehead ascertain their allegiance to specific sets of principles? Why couldn’t we just embrace all our avatars for the wholesome meaning they represented? History told painful stories of conflicts between Shaivites and Vaishnavites. I wondered what the point of it all was when clearly being a good Hindu didn’t necessarily translate to being a good human being.

Not having a ritualistic set of beliefs imposed on you can be a double-edged sword. I went through the phase of questioning practices, fighting with my mother over why I couldn’t go to the temple on my period. Every time I brought up the logical aspect of how a biological process could deem us unclean, she rebutted with  “That’s just how it is.” And where once I was thrilled in being able to use my monthlies as an excuse to bunk temple visits, now it bothered me that my supposedly liberal family continued to cling on to these archaic ideas.

I would seethe with anger watching the amount of wastage propagated by supposedly important rituals; we threw trays of cooked food into pyres as offering to the Gods, donate ridiculous sums of money to temple trusts and learned pundits, pour gallons of milk and ghee as part of daily idol worship. We were basically willing to do more for our Gods than each other. 

Tired of trying to make sense of what it meant to be a Hindu, I stopped praying and visiting temples. I concluded that believing in a Supreme power above me was enough and I didn’t need a map to follow a path and that Marx was right about religion being opium of the masses – a pointless addiction (my own interpretation – there are several others on Marx’s quote).

It was the birth of my child and the subsequent emptiness that propelled me to find something to hold on to. I entered a dark phase in my life where I felt like a failure and there was no one to turn to. And although family surrounded me and friends were ever ready to help, it just wasn’t enough. I can’t explain that feeling of utter despair that comes out of nowhere like a fog with no roots or purpose. It settled on me and I went through my days mechanically, functioning just enough to take care of the child that depended on me, but crumbling within from the effort taken to pretend to be okay. I’d wake up and keep everything needed ready for her and spent the rest of the time watching television, forcing myself to eat something healthy just so I’d have enough milk to feed her, showering late in the afternoons after cleaning the kitchen and putting her to sleep.

One gloomy evening, I decided that something had to change. I took out the puja utensils that had been tucked away for a long time and cleaned them. There was a whole bag of agarbathis sent by my parents – jasmine, rose, sandalwood. I filled a little lamp with oil, twirled a cotton wick, dipped it in the oil and lit it. Watching the steady flame, a strange calmness washed over me and I felt comforted for the first time in a while.

I got into the routine of a morning bath and lighting the lamp and a pair of agarbathis. I liked how the house smelt, fresh and hopeful. In the evenings I cleared the ashes of the burnt agarbathi. This routine brought structure to my day and gave me something to do for myself that did not revolve around my daughter’s needs. I prayed for myself in a vigorous way that I’d never done over the years where it had always been for doing well at work or studies, wanting peace in my family, wishing little things for happiness, wanting a healthy baby. Now it was all about me. God, please help me. Please help me fix myself so I can be whole. I don’t know who you are and whether all these ways we’re trying to get to you even makes sense but I can only hope that caring enough to believe in someone or something that can’t be seen is enough.

Later that year, I shaved my head at Tirupathi as a gesture of gratitude. For years I’d watched pilgrims do it and had never been inclined until it suddenly felt like something I needed to do to gain a fresh start. As I sat in the tonsure hall with my head bent before the man who placed the fresh blade on my scalp, I wept. I didn’t know why I was crying but it just felt like a part of me was leaving with my hair, a part of me that needed to go so I could move on with my life and make sense of a world I was losing touch with.

Some people I knew commented, “Oh, we didn’t know you were religious.” Others went on to tell me about the hair wig industries that thrived off silly people like me. I got dragged into conversations about how it was all a scam. I agreed with them but then gently told them that everyone bought into it in different degrees and who were we to judge. Maybe the opium did work after all.

Religion has become an industry; a combination of tools to galvanize people for worthy and unworthy causes & a beacon of morality to induce goodness. My journey to figure out what it means to me continues. Last month my daughter had a nightmare and when she needed something to re-assure her, I gave her a laminated card with a Hanuman prayer. I used logic to comfort her but in the end it was the idea of an ambiguous protector beneath her pillow that made her believe she’d be safe from terrible dreams.  I’m sure there are a dozen better ways to re-assure a child but sometimes we choose what’s easy and what once worked for us.

Over the years, my perceptions have changed depending on my state of mind. I have oscillated between indifference and acceptance. I find the concepts of karma, prakriti and dharma fascinating but am still very ignorant of how they’re being made relevant to Hindus in today’s world who continue to use pujas as a short cut to reach God. When I hear Mahishasuramardini, I feel a powerful connection with the suppressed rage within me. The Vishnu Sahasranama that my father got me hooked on to by playing every morning in his study fills me with peace and nostalgia.

I think a lifetime is too short to figure this all out and every time I find some answers, there are more questions that sprout. Perhaps my mother was right on how fear converts us to believers and how the older we get, our beliefs grow because we have more consequences to worry about. But what I am certain about is that questioning aspects of my religion does not make me any less of a Hindu.

What I am enjoying at the moment is immersing myself in fascinating stories from mythology. Like the tale of Kali ma fighting the demon Raktabija who multiplied from every drop of his blood shed so she could only defeat him by lapping up all his shed blood with her tongue before they fell to the ground. Then there’s the story from the Mahabharata about how Abhimanyu got stuck in the Chakravyuha because he’d learnt only part of the escape route while in his mother’s womb. 

Once I was walking with my daughter in a department store and she pointed to  a showcase filled with fragile glass and ceramic sculptures of Ganesha and Radha-Krishna and said, “Oh look mama – so many Gods! Ammamma loves them so much. We should get her one no?” I laughed and thought about how much easier it is to buy into the idea of God when you’re little.

I’m a Hindu, part of a majority that isn’t doing enough to stand up for India’s secular essence, feeling slightly ashamed whenever I chant a prayer that is being used somewhere else as a weapon of destruction. I feel stifled by this label and the habits it entails from me at times. And I know I have to watch for that thin line that is easy to cross, where you begin to believe that your way is better and best, blocking out other stories so you don’t have to open your mind and allow it to be curious.

Given the political climate of our country now, religion has become less about faith and more about politics. This ruins the chance to celebrate our diversity and learn lessons from each other’s own experiences and values. I don’t know what to make of it all. Vitriolic parties continue to use poverty and history to push people to choose emotions over facts, hate over understanding. And the biggest tragedy is that most of them believe that that they don’t have a choice but to buy into stories fattened with agendas.

But what can I really do?

Ironically, nothing but pray.

(cover image courtesy – Unsplash)

2 Replies to “The Reluctant Hindu: What does my religion mean to me?”

  1. “Not having a ritualistic set of beliefs imposed on you can be a double-edged sword.” Relate relate relate.
    I loved the read and can relate in very different ways to what you have penned here. Once upon a long time ago when I got caught at one of my naughtiest prank to date far far away from my family in Switzerland, all I could do in my moment of vulnerability was ‘pray’ and that’s when it hit me…we need to hang onto something in our most lost moments….
    Getting close to my spiritual side comes in spurts and I’ve tried to raise at least with one of my junior me’s to have a little bit more exposure to the ‘Gods’ and their world. The freedom that we have been brought up with to create our own spiritual identity is a gift that lets our minds explore ask and be. And I am thankful to that in leaps and bounds.
    Loved the read Sangs😍

  2. In India people are being brainwashed left right and centre. Glad to read that there are few people who still hang onto secularist values. Sadly, as time passes, optimism fades. Only true Hindus may save India.

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