My parents were great believers in ritualistic form of religion. So communication to God was formal and structured. Father spent a good part of his waking hours offering prayers in an orderly manner. So prayers commenced after bath. It followed a set routine. The family knew the time table and arranged their affairs accordingly. My mother, who left us many years earlier to father, completed her morning prayers (after bath) and then commenced cooking. I remember sitting over her back when she used to prostrate to God. The time set apart to God obviously ate into cooking period. I used to help her every day in some way or other. I recall her vocally expressed thanks and the appreciation in her eyes for this service even after a gap of forty years. During rest of the day, she used to read several religious texts. To them, God was an invisible presence, very much close by, to whom they were communicating on an ongoing basis. Their belief seemed unquestioned.
However they did not compel me or my elder brother to emulate them or follow any set pattern. I once overheard our father explaining to his friend that he would prefer us to find our own ways to communicate with God. We performed Sandhyavandhanam every day and the rest of the prayers were done sporadically.
I went through a phase of disbelief in rituals, skepticism in the kind of beliefs we held, wondered whether God really wanted us to go through the hoops we did, I was sure the ritualistic approach is a blind one and there are better approaches.
Then my world changed. I got married, Devi and Anand were born. We were SITK (single income two kids) before either of us reached 25. Now, kids have their own strategy to ensure that our attention do not get diverted to other pressing worldly matters. They bawl loudly at unexpected moments for unspecified reasons. They fall ill at uneven frequencies. Taking them on long travel is a stressful affair, especially for emigrants. In 80s (1980s for those born thereafter), the number of trains from Mumbai to South India were minimal. Railways issued card tickets and entered our names in long registers. We had to stand in line at VT Station (CST now) few months earlier. It is not possible to predict whether the children would fall ill in between September 12 to 19 of that year. Children nappies consisted of old clothes torn in rectangular shapes and dried on train windows. Income levels were such that it required the equanimity of our sages (Vyasa, Valmiki and others of similar ilk) to be satisfied with it.
It is obvious that in such circumstances any serious looking ailment attacking the children would cause serious mental and monetary imbalances in the family economy. God, in his wisdom, decided that Devi’s digestion ability should be tested in real time and natural environment when she was ten months old. So on the way to a well known temple in Tamil Nadu called Palani, Devi’s digestive apparatus decided on a “tool down” strike and semi finished products started coming out . We were already on way in a rickety bus. Devi decided that playing possum would be the best way to retain whatever strength the body had. By the time, we reached the temple and were before the deity (a beautiful one which attracts thousands of devotees every day) we were in tears and certain that her life was ebbing. It is hard to forget the moment when we were sitting before the deity and Devi was lying unconsciously in our lap. Padma and I did not know what she was undergoing, whether she will wake up and display her great prowess in full throated wail, or not. Any parent would give anything in this world; make any promises to hear that wail once again. I too made certain promises to the deity and God relented (just like my boss who allowed me half day leave for tomorrow and full day for the next day). Devi in due course recovered.
The story is not unique and most parents would have undergone similar ones. The only point is that when we are in extreme stress and have nowhere to turn to, the natural inclination is to emulate what we have seen in our more vulnerable or impressionable age . Does this mean that we just repeat the steps blindly and hope for the best? No. Each individual evolves his or her own belief over a period of time based on their own experiences. A lot depends on how much they question their own beliefs and value system and refine their attitude and approach to abstract concepts on which religion and religious beliefs are based.
One common refrain I hear is that God is all over the place, one can communicate with HIM/HER at any time or place (Broad band WIFI Connection 512 or 1064 KBPS) – somewhat like on line communication through Facebook. This is an extremely attractive concept. It requires no rigor, effort. Or discipline. In essence, it simplifies lot of things. It assumes God’s presence at the other end or a recording facility which God will access at leisure (no delete button conceived). I too use this communication tool when some corporate God remembers my existence and calls me for some unknown purpose. As a measure of ‘abundant precaution”, I have a beautiful photo of my namesake Lord Hanuman, which I had clicked in Belur Temple in Karnataka. I have “advised” my Department colleagues (other colleagues can fend for themselves) to seek appropriate blessings before commencing any risk laden activity involving erratic and uncertain superiors. So Lord Hanuman has blessed many of our official documents and taken us to Corporate Lanka and Back.
Logic informs that God cannot hang around waiting for India’s population (other countries do not matter) to offer prayers in order to bless them. May be, He would be repeating Rhett Butler’s dialogue in Gone with the Wind “frankly my dear, I don’t; give a damn” at times to pesky applicants. Then, why do we recite long prayers in mostly less or not understood languages for hours? Who is the entity or the form at the other end listening to our communication? I have no answers to this. I have come to a conclusion we do it for ourselves. It is a sort of catharsis where we try to empty our mind of all the stray and negative thoughts, tell God of all the “issues” we are facing, try to ask him for solutions for temporal issues. (I want promotion, daughter/son’s horoscope does not match at all with any suitable person, my bitter enemy got promoted to next level and he now looks through me or smiles sarcastically….) At the end of it, mind dredges out all our negative and sad emotions and leaves us with a confidence to face the world with a “tomorrow is another day” approach.
Another view I have (unsupported by any “clinical data” as mentioned by US FDA to Ranbaxy) is that offering prayers or meditation in whatever form on a consistent basis is another form of strengthening the mind and emotions. It is easy to swing to extreme levels of ecstasy or sorrow. But it is difficult to contain emotions at such pivotal moments. I recall reading an anecdote about Sardar Vallabhai Patel. He was a lawyer by profession and was arguing in a Court. He received a chit of paper, which he saw and put it in his pocket. He completed the arguments and then proceeded to fulfill his duty emanating out of that chit – which said that his wife had just expired. While that kind of iron strength is unique, the ability to withstand extreme situations is what distinguishes one human being from another.
Kamalhasan – a Tamil Film Star- made an interesting remark- “it would be nice if God were around”. The unstated portion is that He is unfortunately, not around. I admire this view as it accepts that each individual is responsible for his/ her actions and its’ results. It is pointless to blame fate, past birth and so on. It is difficult for most individuals to accept this view as given and live accordingly. At some point or other, most of us have always blamed fate, circumstances, past sins and so on and rarely our own actions.
I have believed that the morning and evening prayer time (evening is difficult as we are in Office and night is too late) is time set apart for ourselves as an individual- exclusive of our family , bosses ,friends, siblings and so on. We are indulging ourselves by doing nothing concrete except sitting in our prayer room before God and telling him what we feel like informing Him- be it prayers or be it our innermost feelings. There is a Chinese saying which says ‘do you have the patience to do nothing?’ Offering prayers is one form of eliminating many other activities of mind and body and then focusing on one emotion. While we do it easily for an assignment consisting of reading 30 densely packed PPT or printed pages, given at 7.25 p.m by our boss, we do not try to bring the same focus for our own benefit. I find that very ironical as we easily admire others who have great focus on what they are doing.
I always debate within myself whether we use religion and God as a crutch or a support or as an inner strength or out of habit. Perhaps it is each of it at different points of time.
Since God has modernized His Head Office, I am sure he has read it online and is smiling (as I hope the reader would) at our naiveté.
Do you agree?