I woke up to the sound of a series of prayers being played on a phone. They were coming from the lower berth; I was on the top one. I had boarded a train at 4 am to reach my field area. I checked the time. It was 7 am. I had slept for 3 hours. “Why the hell doesn’t anyone have any civic sense”, I muttered in disgust. I looked down to see 3 middle aged women discussing their experiences of going on pilgrimages throughout their lives. One of the ladies described an experience of how her family couldn’t reach the top of Vaishno Devi because of unfavourable weather conditions last summer. “God doesn’t want us there yet, what other explanation can there be?”, she asked the other lady.
“Excuse me, could you please reduce the volume on the phone” I told one of the ladies grumpily.
She looked up, observed me for 3 seconds, wiped the smile of her face and eventually reduced the volume. I could tell she wasn’t happy.
When I was 10 years old, my mother taught me the gayatri mantra (an Indian prayer) and instructed me to chant it every night before going to bed. I did, for a month, after which it stopped being fun. When I turned 13, at the advice of my aunt, my mother took me to an “agent of god” (a godman), despite my strong disapproval, to “formally start my education” in praying. I continued praying for a week and then stopped. Again, it wasn’t fun, and I had no interest in pleasing my elders anymore. Till I turned 18, I had no knowledge about god, religion or superstition. I still don’t, at least not enough.
In Jamai, where I stay, I have had the privilege to experience how people celebrate festivals. On one such occasion, Ganesh Chaturthi, I was invited by my colleague to accompany him and his family for ganpati visarjan. I willingly agreed. The whole town was full of energy that day, with every group carrying one statue of Ganpati to the same local water body that we were going to. On reaching the spot, we waited for our turn. There was one man standing in the waist deep water, taking everyone’s statue and putting it in the water, along with other prayer material. The water was filthy, given the fact that everyone disposes off their tid bits in it, and now the statues and prayer materials. As a ritual, when one group is done, the man in the water would sprinkle some of it on the people. “It’s like diseases being sprinkled on people”, I thought to myself.
While I was observing the group in front of us, 2-3 men suddenly took off their shirts and jumped in the water. It sent chills down my spine. I felt disgusted. When our turn came, I stepped back to maintain a distance of at least 10 meters from the shore. I couldn’t believe what I just saw.
A few days ago, a co-fellow, who is placed in another block level town, Harda, went to a temple to pray. She was minding her own business, when the temple priest and a few other women started to criticize her ways of praying. Apparently, she “did not know how to pray”.
After the Ganpati Visarjan incident, I did not feel like being a part of any other such festivity for a few days. But then came Durga Puja. This town has something about it, it doesn’t let anyone feel excluded, even if they want to. On the last day of Durga Puja, I saw the exact same thing; Different groups of people carrying statues of Durga towards the water body. They were dancing to loud music. I happened to be passing by one such group, when I heard something startling blasting on one speaker. In my vague memory, it translated to something like this – We are Hindus, if anyone says anything against us, we’ll kill them. I really appreciated the energy of these people and the whole town up until this point. I shook my head and started walking.
I have no issue with people’s culture or the way they celebrate festivals. But certain things are very hard to miss. Like when someone tries to criticize one’s method of praying (what is the point of praying, if not to find peace, hope and belief in something. Who are we to “teach” anyone how to pray?) or tries to push their agenda of nationalism in the name of god. As history tells us, the latter has only started wars. Wars that have taken millions of innocent lives.
God is not great.
Simant has tried to put his perspective on god and religion through his experiences. He would love to have a further discussion in the comments section below.