I was born and raised a Hindu, embedded with a moral compass that drew largely from the Hindu religious tradition, given its pointers to the good and wholesome way to live my life, the virtues to imbibe and vices to eschew. I grew up among friends and neighbours, a mix of many religions among them: Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Muslims and Jains, as also Hindus that came from different parts of the country and did many things differently from us. I was naturally inclined to accept and respect them all. Healthily curious, I explored their faiths and customs too, never feeling that they were alien to me or my humanity. And while I wasn’t keen on the rituals, ours or theirs, I appreciated the values that made sense to my evolving being and notched them on to my compass. The consequent melded morality sufficed for conscience while I trundled on through life.
My parents were staunch believers, as were both my sisters, both older than me. All would gather around the deities in our pooja corner, sing aartis and share the prasad on all the major festival days marked on the Hindu almanac. My mother would read the scriptures, light the diya, offer the flowers, tulsi, durva and haldi-kumkum in her daily pooja, recite the shlokas in prayer and teach them to us too, in devotion to the gods that presided over her and our existence. My father would join in with reverence, bringing the idol of Ganapati home on the Chaturthi, hoisting the beautifully decorated Gudhi on our new year, doing a Satyanarayan pooja to offer special thanks to the divine forces when they had been particularly propitious, hang up the akaash kandil or lantern on the first night of Diwali and so on. He was a ruthlessly logical scientist, demanding proof of every this, that and the other, but never disbelieving of Ganesh, Ram, Krishna, Mahadev, Lakshmi or Saraswati and their individual and combined powers over us and the universe at large. The entire pantheon of gods and goddesses sat very comfortably in his rational and inquisitively searching mind and life.
And yet they were all happily accepting of that diversity of religions that surrounded us, appreciative of the different cultural expressions they came with too. As also accepting of my choosing to remain a sceptic, often irreligiously so. I would, when I was inclined, chant the prayers with them (more often lured by their musical cadence) and listen in to the complex stories of mythology, but never with belief. I was never coerced to subscribe to their beliefs, nor disparaged as the proverbial black sheep because I didn’t. They knew that I was still searching, reluctant to conform without conviction. So, I knew which shloka to recite in the evening or which before sitting down to a meal, how to celebrate every festive day, and so on, and I did some of it as part of our shared culture. As something that grew from our roots through our line of ancestors, rather than as an attempt to connect with any form of divinity. I was loyal to my tribe, if nothing else. I was also always aware that I could just as well be lighting candles or decorating a crib for Christmas or covering my head and bowing to the west in namaz before partaking of iftar had I been born differently. That while it was all different it was all ultimately the same. And that we all knew that.
That we didn’t, became clear as I grew. The realization that everyone wasn’t as secular as my folk brought an unpleasant awakening, then disillusionment and finally a lasting frustration. That many brandished scars from hostile run-ins with others, and that many more stood up in shrill solidarity with them, didn’t gel with my innocently myopic worldview of peaceful co-existence. As I read through the newspapers that came home, I discovered that many lived but were adamantly determined to not let live. And that made me uncomfortable, shaking my faith in humanity. Then the questioning set in, searching through historical precedents, the stories of persecutions and annihilations, of terror and suffering, of wars and cruelties, holy crusades and unholy holocausts, and the genesis of it all: religion itself, in all its alternative avatars and distinctly different practices. While one’s faith may teach one of the unique universality of God, there is a wariness, if not aversion, amongst his followers if others choose to call him by another name or worship him differently.
The cynic in me suspected that if it hadn’t been religion, it would have been something else, anything else. All humans originating from the same pool of the species, migrating in waves through the millennia, appropriating different parcels of the globe, settling, evolving and brewing their own distinct ethnicities in relative isolation from others. Blinded into an arrogant belief that theirs was the only right way to live, and anyone else’s wrong as an indisputable corollary. Suspicious of others, fearful of them, rather than curious and receptive. Othering in practice, strongly and clearly, compulsively too, as if it were in our DNA. While we had exited our caves eons ago, our primal instinct to hunt and fear of being hunted remained alive and kicking, the othering then exacting its toll in human lives. As I was loyal to my tribe, others were to theirs.
The aggressive othering suits some, I am aware. Earlier it gave the imperialists and colonialists the buttressing rationale to camouflage their greed with, their condemnation of others as heathen or infidels or savage, legitimising the destruction of their settlements and heritages, and at times seeking to expunge them from the face of the earth, an earth they believed was theirs for the taking. The othering continued through the churning centuries, enabling political climbers to manipulate communities and mobs and nations, tilt them this way or that, expanding and consolidating their majoritarian power base, progressively marginalizing all others. Or conversely, stoking the minorities’ fears of persecution and wedging them further away from the mainstreams. Now, I fear it’s all brazenly out, the hatred and the fear of all others, as also the drive to redress all wrongs, past and present, real and imagined. Everyone from all edges of the unholy spectrum is fighting, hollering about the exclusive sanctity of their own particulars, their god, modus of worship, custom, language, diet and on, retrieving powers and privileges they believe were rightfully theirs, screaming to restore their original occupation rights to land and all that stands on it, including places of worship. And bidding peace and coexistence a speedy road to hell.
Redressal is the buzzword today. We are in the grip of a fervour to rewrite history, literally, resurrecting some of the forgotten, unmasking some of the hitherto admired as villainous, demolishing what was built by others as they had demolished what had been built earlier. Ripping off the band-aid of collective amnesia that covered old wounds and making us wince and writhe again, fanning our lust for the reciprocal pound of flesh. But history, as we read it, has always been pliable, written with one slant yesterday, written with another today, and waiting quietly for time and tide to turn to be written all over again.
But we were not a Hindu nation, not when we became free. Despite the blood spilled in gory Partition, we were encouraged to remain secular. To be respectful of all others, including those whose ancestors had once marched upon us, or who had converted, either influenced by their proselytizing zeal or as an expedient to secure survival. If not peaceably tolerant, then at least grudgingly so, letting me grow up in that convivial mix. That was the intent in the constitution that we chose to be governed by, that defined us to be a secular state. The secularity that was the inborn hallmark of my family and many more like ours.
I remember my Hindu family and neighbours sipping eggnogs and relishing a slice of cake, wishing everyone else, Christian or not, a happy Christmas. Or trotting over to a Muslim friend’s place and joining in their festivities on Ramzan Eid, exulting at the sliver of their moon. Waiting for our Parsee neighbour to share her aromatic dhansak with us, inviting her to partake of our feast on Diwali. Baisakhi, Papeti, Easter, Eid, were as integral to our social existence as Diwali and Dussehra. The faiths they spring from too. They still are, I would like to believe, as are their practitioners. I may not be religious, but I am respectful of everyone else’s right to believe and practice as they wish. And remain where they wish. I would rather religions be practiced only in the privacy of homes rather than in the public domain, altogether avoiding their inimical jostling. But that’s my unsolicited opinion.
Where will this end? When will all wrongs be righted and all grievances assuaged? And what then? Will we rest in quiet peace, fulfilled at last? I doubt that. I fear that we have fallen in love with hating, that we will find and legitimise avenues and targets to spew the bile that continues to bubble within us. Religion has been a major segregator, but it is not the only one. The othering is multi-pronged. And hypothetically though completely logically, after we have eliminated our present others, we could draw finer lines and other some amongst us, and then some more, until each of us is distanced from all in solitary confinement. Humanity lost.
Bah! That’s just ridiculously far-fetched, dystopian gloom and doom. The world won’t come to that because it can’t afford to. Everyone needs everyone else, especially in this globally spun web of commerce that we seek to survive in, prosper through. And won’t the good, just, truthful and merciful that all the saints, mullahs and sadhus praise to their respective heavens, and that firmly point north on my moral compass, prevail? As they do in all the mythologies scripted everywhere? Or is that merely unquestioning faith? Anyway, I hope they do.
Amen. Alhamdulillah. Tathastu.