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Monday, February 29, 2016

Intolerance or Ignorance

As anybody in India can vouch for this, our favorite topic these days seems to be about our Tolerance or Intolerance whichever side you want to take. I have been thinking about it for quite sometime now and have a myriad of thoughts and opinions about the political aspect of it but, this post is not about that. This post is more about my experience growing up in secular India and how religion, God and our secularism have shaped my way of life.
I was listening to Smriti Irani's latest outburst in the parliament and when she read out some sections of the History textbooks being used in schools today, I began to wonder how much of the history taught in school I still remember and how much of impact it had on me. Sadly, the answer is "very little". I don't remember much of the history I was taught in school, I only remember bits and pieces that I seemed to have gravitated towards for one reason or the other.
Like many millions of children in India, I was also exposed to "Religion" and "Hinduism" through the rituals and customs followed at home. Like many kids at that time, there was not much room to question and reason things out and we took a lot of these rituals for granted as the way of being "Hindu".
Since we as a family were dealing with my mother's health issues right from when I remember my childhood, I used to question and ponder over why God was not answering our prayers and what is it that we did in the past to deserve this and what we have to do now to have him "fix" this issue now. So, even before I understood anything, I developed this fear towards God and felt I had to follow the rituals/customs for Him to take care of mom.
There was this one health scare with mom and she had to be in grandma's place for an extended period of time to get investigated and treated while we were at home in B'lore with Dad. During this time, there were some men and women from the nearby church that got in touch with mom and started telling her how Jesus can help salvage the situation. One of the ladies was one of her treating physicians and so it was easy for mommy to trust her. These people started visiting home regularly and conducted group prayers for mom. I distinctly remember seeing all of them praying loudly when we came to visit her during holidays and was very scared. I was about 6 years old then and started listening attentively about this other God who supposedly will fix it all. I remember them saying things like Jesus would punish anyone who would worship any other forms of God other than the Holy Father. They told us watching movies means we would lose our eye sight as punishment, going to temple means we would lose our legs, etc., We were taken to these public meetings saying some miracle would happen and that people with several chronic, life-threatening illnesses would get cured. I remember going there hoping to see one such miracle happen on mom. Of course, no such thing happened. Mom got over that episode and we got back home but, those interactions with the church people left me with more questions and emotions ranging from fear to complete defiance. I remember how mom and dad embraced all of this so beautifully. They started reading all the scriptures including the Bible, English translation of the Quran along with the many other Hindu Vedanta literature and teachings of various Gurus. Looking back now, I think they started their deeper spiritual quest then. Mom's health issue was the necessary impetus for them. We had the most inclusive/secular puja room with pictures/idols/symbols from all faiths. Our bookshelf at home included the scriptures from various faiths.
For sometime I played along but, as I got into adolescence and the urge to rebel kicked in, I just grew more and more apathetic towards God, religion, rituals and used to remember "Him" on and off and participated in rituals just to get them over with. Since mom and dad were not very ritualistic at home, this indifference in me went quite unnoticed.
I never had the time or interest to dig deeper and understand what religion was, what Hinduism was all about, what the various forms of worship mean or any such thing. I was just being a typical teen focused on my academics, career, friends, life, love, fun, romance, etc., One thing that helped was the strong role models we had in mom and dad in terms of always having a steady moral compass to know right vs. wrong. I also had mom as my sounding board for any dilemma and never really felt the need to know more about religion or God. I think I am not an anomaly here, most people in my generation are God fearing and more ritualistic, some others are indifferent and only a few take the pain to read and go deeper to develop an informed belief system.
After marriage, when I started my own family in another country is when I started giving this more thought - what really is the culture I want to pass on to my children.. is it merely the rituals that we follow around festival time? Does being Hindu mean we have a certain idol in our puja room and follow a certain ritual while praying and celebrate certain festivals?

Over the last few years, as I began reading and exploring more- Vedanta, Dvaita vs. Advaita, Essence of Bhagvad Gita, teachings of various Gurus - Shirdi Saibaba, Jesus Christ, Sadhguru, Ramana Maharshi, etc.,  I am beginning to appreciate the breadth and depth of Hinduism and how it is not just a "religion" but, more a way of life, how one can be a Hindu and still worship any form of God, how it is more a framework for a spiritual way of life and less about the actual form of God and how most rituals have a scientific or societal reasoning reflecting that time.

Back to the question of tolerance vs. intolerance: My family's experience is a perfect reflection of us being secular, inclusive and tolerant but, without full understanding of one's own belief system. Being in India, it was (still is) not unusual to mingle with children and families following different faiths. So, having had close friends following Christianity, I knew (later) that, the Bible doesn't really say Jesus would punish all those who go to a Hindu temple or watch a movie. Why those seemingly well meaning church people had to use fear to "convert" us is something I am not gong to attempt to answer. But, think of those who are not fortunate enough to be born in the kind of family I was born into or have the exposure that I had, they would probably grow up with this distorted understanding of religion (one against the other) and end up as either God fearing or rebelling in the name of God.  However, it is because we as a nation, are inherently tolerant and inclusive that there is scope for alternate belief systems being discussed and "conversions" from one to other even happening. It has taken other countries many many centuries before they even gave another belief system a honest hearing. For most Hindus, God and religion is always part of life in the form of some rituals (in some families more than that) and living along side and accepting people of other beliefs is also just as much a way of life. The original ethos of our Indian society was built on the principle of Unity in Diversity with religion and God being a personal choice (To each their own). We intuitively knew when to fight for perfect alignment and when to let each one make their individual choice. When Government started interfering with religion, and political parties started using different sections of people as vote banks, things got muddled up and the real meaning of religion and God in one's life lost its meaning and religious affinity became a way to get some "special status"

I think the real issue at hand is not that of Intolerance but, that of Ignorance. How can we get to a point where our people understand the distinction between Religion and State and why no Govt (or organisation) can treat you differently based on who you consider God or not. Is there a better way we can teach the true essence of  Religion, Hinduism/Spirituality to our people without dividing them in the name of God?  I am beginning to comprehend and appreciate the real essence of Hindutva: ie., the quest to know God, quest to know one's true self is not something that can be easily taught or learnt but, has to be experienced through life only. I feel somehow over generations this very essence is lost and the Hindu way of life has been reduced to just some Gods we worship and rituals we follow which seems a huge huge loss in transmission.
The various mythologies, Amar Chitra Kathas do a good job in introducing some aspects and portraying moral values in an captivating way but, is that sufficient? How do you think we can do a better job in at-least injecting a healthy dose of curiosity in our children so they question more and start their quest earlier? 


Anita said...

Awesome read as usual. To the point. 4.5 ****

Anita said...

Good question micks! I have no answer but would love to see experts give their input on these questions.
How do you think we can do a better job in at-least injecting a healthy dose of curiosity in our children so they question more and start their quest earlier?

Paro said...

Very nice writeup. Recently, I heard something about religion that made quite an impact on me.
It said - "Religious identity is an oxymoron because you can become religious only if you lose your identity". I thought that was wonderful! Cheers!

vasantha said...

Well said

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