For days now, our newspapers, television screens and internet feeds have featured images and reports from the devastating landslides and floods in Uttarakhand. However, there is one thing that troubles me more than the news. It is the fact that my Facebook and Twitter timelines often contain witticisms about the plight of the pilgrims. Among the people I respect enough to follow or know well enough to Facebook-befriend are those who are treating the floods as some sort of triumph for the scientific and rational elite.
One of the ugliest tweets I read went something like, “It’s ironic that the relatives of the pilgrims are praying for their survival to the same Gods whom their families lost their lives trying to visit”.
It’s easy, when one’s convictions are different, to mock those who risk so much to go to faraway temples that are barely accessible. Why should people want to rush to Kedarnath in the monsoon? Why should people want to go to Amarnath when the weather is hostile and there are terror threats?
And when they do go to these places and something goes wrong, does it prove that their Gods don’t exist? That they don’t care enough for these devotees? That they’re too powerless to protect these pilgrims?
How can people who believe themselves to be rational be so smug as to gloat over the misfortune of those they deem less rational than themselves? What right does anyone have to stand judgement on pilgrims, the risks they take, and the reasons they take those risks?
While we’re quick to identify indoctrination and religious extremism, we are not as wary of secular fundamentalism. And several of those who brand themselves atheists are edging towards secular fundamentalism.
Why, I wonder, do people find it so hard to admit that we simply don’t know where we came from and where we’re headed?
I often find myself in a club of one when religion comes up. When I’m asked whether I’m a “practising Hindu”, I find it hard to explain that religiousness isn’t bigotry. That it has to do with the way I was raised, the school I went to, and my personal beliefs and experiences.
Sometimes, the next question is about the “experience”. What is it that makes me believe in God? I used to try explaining, but found that most people didn’t want to listen. They wanted to debate, to play Devil’s advocate. I don’t know enough about the subject to debate, and I doubt anyone else does. A belief, by definition, pertains to something that isn’t proven.
Even more often, I’m asked whether I’m “religious” or “spiritual”, whether I believe in “a God-God” or “a Power”. Does the term “Power” make people feel more comfortable than the term “God”? I don’t see God as a nameless, faceless Power, or as some kind of light. I do believe in God, and I don’t know whether I’m right. I don’t know how many arms and legs and heads Vishnu or Shiva or Brahma and their spouses and their celestial subjects have, but I do have images of them in my head. The images are sometimes from my favourite temples. More often, they’re from the Amar Chitra Katha books I read as a child. Honest.
Then, of course, my interlocutors stare at me in disbelief. “So, you think the Ramayana actually happened? The Mahabharata actually happened? That someone split a baby into a hundred babies? That there was a ten-headed king?”
I do believe they happened, but I don’t know the specifics. Maybe the ten heads are symbolic of Ravana’s expertise in several fields of learning. Maybe he was some sort of conjoined birth. Maybe someone decided to mess around with the kids at home, and told them the wrong story. I like the ambivalence of not knowing.
My spiritual convictions are complicated by the fact that I don’t believe in the “oneness of God”, or that all religions essentially say the same thing. As far as I know, they don’t. Most of them say drastically different things, and our perceptions of our respective Gods are drastically different. We have different origin stories and different ideas of the Grand Finale.
Does that mean I think Christianity or Islam or any other belief – including atheism – is wrong? No. It means they don’t suit me. That does not make me a militant Hindu. Hinduism is the religion I’m most comfortable with because it seems the vaguest and least dogmatic to me. It allows me to say that I don’t know. It allows me to reconcile Darwinism with religion.
Once, a Muslim acquaintance asked me, with a laugh, how many Gods I worship and how many hands they have. The question was offensive, and didn’t deserve to be dignified by a response – not even a sarcastic one. When I ignored the intended barb, he asked, seriously, “But you do believe God is One, right?” I don’t know. I haven’t had the chance to count the Gods, or their limbs.
Maybe we’ll find out who was right when we die. Maybe we don’t. But it should be all right to not know. It should be all right for people to believe in science and religion.
When news of the disaster in Kedarnath broke out, I overheard some of the women at my gym discussing it. “You know how the shrine was saved?” one said, “A boulder fell across, blocking the flow of water to it. Now, what do you say to that? How do you explain that?” Another replied, “What can I say? There is a God, maybe.” “No, there’s no maybe. This proves it.”
Now, these people are aunties whose conversation (which is loud enough for me to unintentionally eavesdrop on) is mostly about cooking and husbands and children’s schools and colleges and attitudes. When did they start feeling the need to justify their beliefs?
A week ago, I was at a book discussion on Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. To my surprise, the debate was less about the reliability of hypnosis than about the idea of reincarnation. Reincarnation is a concept I’ve taken for granted all my life. One of the others pointed out that it was “our generation” that is beginning to question the things older people were “afraid to”.
Why have we given ourselves these labels? The Scientific, Rational Intellectuals. The Intrepid Questioners of Faith. The Proud Atheists. People have questioned things for a very long time. But there are some things that don’t have answers – or, have answers that aren’t accessible to us right now.
If it is rational to question a prevailing set of ideas, it should be equally rational to acknowledge that people have a right to their own answers.
It should be rational to understand that it is cruel to joke about pilgrims dying because of beliefs that one believes to be wrong.
It should be rational to see that something that deprives us not only of humility, but humanitarian empathy for people who have been through something terrible, doesn’t make us better people.