I sit in a roomful of people chanting. Eyes shut, palms together in absolute concentration. They are keeping time with each other. Pitches that began on different scales have now homogenized into one mesmerizing incantation. I am at the back of the room, constantly tucking and untucking my legs beneath me uncomfortably, until I too start swaying with the chant.
This group, congregated in upmarket South Delhi, practices a form of Buddhism. It's a faith-based practice that I've observed from the periphery for over a decade, watching my sister go through the motions and gradually become stronger & stronger in her belief until it became interwoven into & inseparable from every aspect of her life. I, meanwhile, have consistently resisted it. Today I have been invited to attend a discussion meeting by a dear friend of mine.
After the chanting is over, ladies from the Women's Division of the practice begin to read passages from prescribed texts, then discussing & interpreting it in their own way, applying the teachings to their own experiences. It is powerful to hear how faith moved them out of personal hells into a more hopeful place.
These are privileged people - we are privileged people. At least, materially speaking. We are all educated to a fair extent, we're aware of the smorgasbord of faith-based options that lie out there. Yet, we choose to spend our Sundays here. Chanting, studying philosophical texts and reconnecting with our insides.
Afterwards, some of the members ask me how I feel. They impress upon me how the practice has revolutionized their lives. They interpret my resistance as a pit stop on the way to becoming a true believer. Although their words convey that they don't wish to coerce me to join, their reluctance to understand the nature of my resistance & accept it, begins to alienate me.
Unlike several people who are now part of this practice, I have no catastrophe that needs solving. Nor do I feel completely lost for answers or devoid of hope. Over the years, I have developed my own little system of faith (yes, yes, evolved after undergoing certain 'catastrophes') - one that I find very difficult to explain to others, one that is a combination of the mystic and the very earthbound rationale that accompanies intense introspection. It's a mish-mash of many different ideas I picked up along the way. It requires the stringent discipline that most faiths require - especially when ones circumstances are truly in the crapper and none of the sunshiny promises of 'keeping the faith' seem to be making good. So far, so good. As much as I can tell, having a system of faith which doesn't begin & end with the individual self, has not killed me yet.
In short, I don't yet understand how being part of this particular practice (or any school of organized faith) will benefit me any more than what I'm doing now. At the same time, I can't understand how people go through life without following some system of faith.
It is Eid in India. More importantly, it is Eid in Srinagar. On this day of religious importance, certain political leaders have decided to carry out a peaceful rally through the streets of the city. Thousands end up converging at Lal Chowk. As this peaceful rally progresses, pent up rage is deftly channelized (or let loose) into violent intent. By lunchtime, images of burning buildings fill television screens, the way black smoke is filling up the beautiful Kashmiri sky.
One wonders: Did everyone do their Eid prayers before leaving home to join the angry mob?
Someone built a temple. Someone broke the temple, murdered innocents and built a mosque. Then someone broke that mosque and murder followed again.
Someone set fire to a train. Before we could know who or what or why, a city - no, much more than a city - was in flames.
Three years on I am in a cab being a driven by a man, who wishes to take me through a ghost-town, razed to the ground because it was inhabited by a religious minority. I don't know why he thinks it's a tourist spot. He's hardly trying to highlight the tragedy (whose echoes I still hear in these abandoned galis). He seems quite matter of fact about it all when he says, "No Muslims came back.".
"Like the pest-control guy," I think, then stop. I don't know anything about this man or his life to judge him.
Here in this city, development & religion are strangely interlinked. I have heard about this phenomenon, now I am seeing it first hand. To the residents, it is a matter of mere, unquestioned routine. To me, it is sinister.
Meanwhile on Twitter, where I live out this other life, there are strong, very persuasive & highly well-informed voices that question religion & the idea of God. Their absolute certainty (seem familiar, this certainty?) confuses me. With the result that I no longer know what I thought I knew. What does religion mean? How does one define God? Here, religion sounds (to me) like a needless organ - like the appendix - that's now gotten infected and needs to be done away with. No relevance, no importance, no requirement any longer. Banish it now and stand by for world peace, gender equality, alleviation of poverty & all-round freedom from general acts of human stupidity.
I walk the periphery of this group too. Of course it is ridiculous for me to infer what being an 'atheist' means from a microblogging site that forces ideas to be condensed into 140 characters.
Perhaps, I am too lazy or too uneducated to know better: whatever the reason, I don't belong here either.
I am driving through Orissa. Deeper into the villages, one finds that religion is not a matter of choice or opinion. It informs how people live, behave & get from one day to another. There is extreme poverty here and very little faith in the State as a machine that makes their lives easier. The articles of India's Constitution (that document the rest of us hold so dear, so indispensable to our society's functioning. That book, which is occasionally twisted & misused but is inherently true and - yikes - 'good'.) mean very little here. The instruments of the State built on this book also hold little meaning (especially when this law is often invoked to exploit & undermine them).
The only law here is the law of religion. These gods, goddesses and mythology are machines that make lives easier. When all else fails, it is this faith that people turn to, to get from one day to the next. It is this faith that they perceive as the harbinger of good things. And yes, it is this faith that probably gets twisted & misused as well.
In this context, I struggle to find the relevance of arguments like "Yes, it is a convenient belief to have but is it true?".
At around age 25, I began to seriously study my life & the world that I had built around me. By age 28, my building projects seemed to come crashing down for lack of a solid foundation. It was - to put it mildly - a complete, tectonic shift in all that I knew to be valid.
The idea that I was the primary mover & shaker of my life was something I held dear. But was I to be the only mover-and-shaker? I wasn't so sure anymore. Mostly, I realised, because I was exhausted. I could no longer understand how one could possibly do this job of living one's life, absolutely alone, while crazy things beyond ones control kept happening. Who's got the remote? I thought I did. Don't I? Do I? Can I change the channel please?
And so I chose from a menu of 'truths'. I went down the list and decided to pick & nibble from all the items available. A little bit of reading (yes, some self-help books too), a little bit of therapy, a little bit of Vedanta from my college days, a little bit of syadvada, a little bit of science and a little bit of what the atheists & agnostics say. A LOT of what my own instincts were telling me.
As I said, I've come up with a system that seems to work for me. The journey that I have undertaken to develop this system has led me to believe that 'faith' lies somewhere between convenience & what the combination of my mind & heart says.
For me, it is tiring, meaningless and eventually dangerous to find & live by one practice or one belief system that promises to 'apply to all'. I'm just not built that way. So now, because I have the luxury, I shall go out searching some more.