Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One thing I learned is to never underestimate is India's fertility and creativity with religion.

It was the morning right after I landed from USA the previous night and as I walked into the drawing room, I saw a mini-snickers bar and a couple of Nestle Raisinets lying in front of the idols as a naivedyam (an offering) to the Gods right next to an lighted agarbathhi (incense stick). In all probability, this seems like the handiwork of my mom. She is the only one who gets up early, takes a bath, walks into the prayer room where the idols of various Gods are kept, mutters some prayers, lights the sacred lamp ("deepam") and makes an offering to God. 

The offering is usually something sweet and tasty, and signifies us sending paperwork to the Almighty for blessing the food that we have planned to eat in judiciously large quantities later. I brought a whole bunch of American chocolates to share with my kin. And my mom never hesitated a bit to offer the Gods a taste of these chocolates first thing in the morning. Snickers and Raisinets, Jeez … What could she do but blush when I asked her, "I hadn't known that God could develop a liking for American chocolates overnight …

That's religion in India - so improvised, so extemporaneous ...

Dude, people just come up with arbitrary stuff when it comes to religion here. They'll pray to anything. They will pray in any way.  It doesn’t matter one bit. What God did you pray to?  Whoever was around …  What prayer did you seek? Whatever came to my mind … What offering did you make to the deity?  Whatever was in my pocket … I mean, it’s sweet … sure-shot. He’ll like the prasad  …  

Apparently, as long as you do the needful around sacred places, that’s all that counts. All else are mere place-holders, which God, what prayer is whatever works for you. It’s charming to watch, I tell you.  The archetypal Indian devotee can be talked into imagining anything as divine. Let’s say, he is walking on the road and sees a bunch of people gathered around, praying to a coconut with a smiley face sticker pasted on it along with a priest who seemingly, is reciting Sanskrit incantations hailing the pleasurable texture of the fibrous, husky mesocarp of a coconut and it's near spiritual ability to scracth an itch in the most inaccessible part of our body
or  the enchanting moistness of the eggless coconut cake topped with cherry vanilla frosting. I bet you anything as long as chanting is in Sanskrit and other people are looking on in a serious manner, he would stop and bow a humble nod at the coconut. I bet that.

Any object can become God here. Frankly, we are running out of objects now. The engineers at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) are worshipping the car engines much to the amazement of their clients in Detroit. Already Sachin Tendulkar, every river, every hill, every valley, every stretch of land that is not involved in any real estate litigation, any animal form that is a direct threat to an unarmed human being, any tree that is outlived your great-grandmother - all of them have already been turned into sacred symbols. All this is in addition to the scores of mythological Gods like Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Saraswati etc. we had for generations. 

In a strange way, even the Time-dimension is prayed to … ok, I got that from opening sequence of the Mahabharat series on Doordarshan but hey, the most comforting thing you can say here to anyone going through a tumultuous phase in life is “Sorry, man ... you are going through a bad time” and be done with the conversation. There is a whole industry based on helping you select supposedly auspicious times and making sure you wreck an important activity by starting it at the wrong time. It’s almost innocently beautiful. Isn’t it? 

The Gods had to be everywhere – in the imaginative, material and the metaphorical realms. After all, with all that omnipresence and omniscience dope, the least anyone with that kind of powers would do is have some fun … be a master of disguise … walk around us in a million costumes  … Like He thinks He can fool us on that ? Pfff …“ That’s how we got millions of Gods – all of them being mere human representations of the one true, infinitely-powerful, eternal divine presence … I am talking, of course, about “The Force” from the Star-Wars franchise created by George Lucas. Anyway, the ease with which the devotee is able to instantaneously transcend the physical forms or any rationality and dissolve away to imagine himself in the presence of the divine is astonishing. 

The most epic moment in my India trip this time is chancing upon a Christian church having morning and evening aarti to Mary maata (Mother Mary). The church-goers must have mildly complained, "HEY, how come we meet only once a week and all others get to meet every day? “. And Lo! The simple logic of market forces ensued. It doesn’t matter if Sunday is designated the (Christian) God's day. It doesn’t matter if it’s biblical or not. In this country, we like it, we do it; the more of God, the better. Hindu and Muslim counterparts of the TV based Christian evangelicals have sprouted up like beans that have been soaking overnight. The channels 56 through 64 on my television set are now delivering sermons all day with a stock-market ticker at the bottom and live cricket scores on the bottom-right corner so that you now don’t have to change the channel for other “important” distractions. 

Not just that, we have Christian couples worrying about kuja dosha in their horoscope (Example: Lawrence Babu) and consulting Hindu astrologers who are more than willing to oblige. Some of the best Bollywood music these days is inspired from the qawwali tradition of the Sufi Islam. Following the tradition of 48-day Ayyappa mala or the month of Ramadan, scores of cults have emerged and adopted their own observation period where devotees resolve to not wear foot-wear, consume alcohol or meat and sometimes, go even as far as shunning away unwashed underwear for a whole month. 

It's bonkers out there, man. It’s like these religions are mating with one another to spawn new forms, exchanging ideas, styles, forms and structures to practice their faith and engage their devotees. Of course, if you put them under spot-light and ask them, they would get defensive and never agree to have lifted anything from anyone. But, it’s all out there, folks … it’s all out there … When you travel the real country-side of India, you witness this phenomenal process of evolution of customs, rituals, culture and religions.

Every time I visit my hometown, the number of cults and temples double or triple around the area. The sense of competition between the myriad groups on who can put on a good show and attract pilgrims rivals the competition between tech companies in Silicon Valley. My brother and I were walking on the banks of river Godavari and we spotted what seemed like a heavily-lit boat sailing in the middle of the river. Upon looking closely, we realized that there was a religious ritual or a ceremony going on. 

There was the whole facade: semi-clad priests, idol of a God decorated and adorned with expensive jewelry, bright lights, incense smoke, ringing of bells, chanting of Sanskrit/Telugu hymns, hundreds of devotees – all of them aboard a cruise boat. Now, I have seen casinos on cruise boats. I have even heard of cruises advertising an "alternative lifestyle" themed vacations … well, alternate lifestyle is an euphemism for gay/ nudist preferences … but, here it's a religious congregation cruise? Tip of my hat for whoever came up with that idea. And that's not it. Check this out: on the shores where we were standing was a huge LCD projector showing a live telecast of whatever was happening on the boat. Excuse me, but are they put on a frickin’ open-air live show of a religious party happening on that cruise boat? Holy smokes … The kind of money that gets thrown in into these kinds of things these days is simply mind-boggling!!!

People tend to take religion very seriously around here partly because it helps knock out your social life and spiritual life with one stone. If God doesn’t exist, the whole prayer thing is never wasted because you had good food in His name, sang some songs, even danced a step or two, spent time with favorite friends and family, feel that you have accomplished something by performing some rituals and it all works out. If He indeed exists, Oh! Dear daisy-headed darlingsDon’t you see? This is happening … they are up in line for a better next-life with all the prayer credits earned through sincere devotion and moral living (Yes, the Pascal's Wager is not a problem at all ... ). 

It’s really a genius proof-of-concept design for practicing religion, if you ask me. Of course, it gets annoying from time to time. Especially with all those irritating religious ring-tones characteristically distinguished by a below-average, minimally-exceptional musicality that people have on their cell-phones to advertise their faith in a newly-joined cult or when some moron decides to sit in an auto with a loud-speaker in his hand and goes around town reading from a religious text.

Then it struck me. Religion is not simply a passing indulgence in this country, it's an industry. It is an economy. The scores of people whose livelihood it supports – people who sell idols, coconuts, incense sticks, camphor, bananas, flowers, garlands, books of hymns, interpretive texts, calendars, special religious services like archanas, special pujas to pray to God to give you enough sense to not damage this new just-bought vehicle with your reckless driving, merchandise like rings with magical stones, talismans, yoga classes, media - bhajan music CDs, religious music set to latest hit movie item-songs, videos of ceremonies, ringtones, pre-prepared packets of naivedyam offerings like sugar crystals, chaat-mixture snacks for the devotees to chomp after the temple visits - the list goes on and on. 

You would think that with cell-phones, internet and a globalized world with its free information flows, people would realize the truth about God's existence and act rational and reasonable about religion, but you couldn't be more wrong. Religion is this gigantic super-organism that simply embraced and used the technologies for its own purposes of expanding its outreach. Every major temple nowadays has a website that live-streams the events that goes on there. You could shop religious paraphernalia and by the way, they accept all major credit cards. They hire PR personnel, shoot advertising campaigns and support charities. Forget all what I said and just listen to this one thing: The recipe for the Tirupati ladoo they give out as prasad is patented. Ok? Yes, protected under intellectual property rights. If we still think, religion is bunch of voodoos getting together and having a nice time, we got to check our premises. Religion is major business. The religious establishment in the country sure knows what they are doing. The question of "Should we have religion?" now seems suddenly ludicrous when you look at it as full-blooming industry with such an employment potential. Millions of people and associated small-businesses earn their livelihood through the rampant religious blitzkrieg and extravaganza.

The filthy banks of River Godavari
(Courtesy: The Hindu)
Of course, like all things around us, it comes with a heavy price. My hometown of Rajahmundry has over 50 good temples but not a single decent library. The filth generated around the temples and shoved into the glorious river of Godavari is a sight of chilling horror. An ever-growing bed of debris of human waste, discarded plastic, trash, coconut-shells, rotting banana peels, ashes from rituals is a breeding ground of pestilence probably serving as recreational golf courses and vacation resorts for all sorts of flies, mosquitoes and viruses. 

Religion pays no taxes, moves crores of rupees among them, owns and maintains swathes of real estate and remains vastly unregulated and unaccountable to any higher power. Once we recognize that this is an organization registered like any other corporation legally bound to pay taxes and respect laws, maybe we can expect some discipline from these temple managements to clean their mess. Not just that, all the money that flows into religion comes at the cost of other necessary amenities for the area: public funding for decent hospitals, good schools, libraries and so on. 

All the schools and hospitals are now privately-owned and bleed the middle-class and the poor out their savings. However, as it has always been, the ruling class rather feed the spiritual weakness of people that makes them instant celebrities than concentrate the slightest bit on doing some kind of permanent good. 

Religion in India grants spiritual hope to crores of people, fosters wonderful relationships with people and community, creates a sense of fulfillment by the way of performing frequent rituals and above all, provides great justifications for eating good food and not showing up to work. On the dark side, it remains what it has always been – a major agent for propaganda and corruption. 

All this romanticizing about the pluralistic culture we have and the gentle archetypes of the Indian devotee can always be effortlessly threatened for it is our own sentiments and attachments that makes us vulnerable against religion making it the easiest manner to divide society along communal lines. The national-award winning Marathi movie Deool is a unsettling portrayal of the dark under-belly of how politics, economics behind religion in India work their machinery to benefit the certain ruling few atop the food chain. I totally recommend that movie.

But … But what are people going to do but turn to God? Life in India can be so chaotic. You can’t trust the police. You can’t trust the lawyer. You can’t wait for justice. Heck, you can’t even trust the traffic. We are one of the worst in the world with respect to girls being raped on the roads and people being hit by drunk-drivers. It’s all fine and dandy as long as everything is going well. But when things start to go wrong, where you can’t have faith in any physical systems, the metaphysical becomes the only refuge. 

Neglected these days by the mainstream economy that is becoming increasingly centered on the cities, haplessly waiting for some jobs to trickle down towards them, what are people going to do in the country-side to remain hopeful? What are they going to do when we are letting Walmarts and FDI spring up to tearing down the remaining economic foundations of the Indian hinterlands? 

Hundreds of Lakhs of people function in the non-urban India as middlemen who buy wholesale and supply bulk quantities of various items like soaps, pulses to small-sized retail outlets and general stores around the area.  When a supermarket comes around and starts offering competitive prices for bulk quantities, these middlemen are going to be weeded out. What are they going to do next? May be some of them will supply coconuts near temples. That's of course until the Walmart declares a Sankrathi and Dusherra deals on coconuts … 


Twilight Musings said...

Glad to hear about religious enlightenment. :)

Two things to note. Religion has always been a huge industry. It is for nothing Tirumala was richer than Vatican and richest temple (until Padmanabha swamy temple revealed more riches). Even the hair is sold in auction. In some ways, religious tourism has encouraged some kind of facilities and economic activity near popular temples always. (Renigunta - near Tirumala, had rly junction + airport since forever)

Second, Hindu temples are already maintained by Government. They are not independent entities. That's why you see CM of AP giving pearls/coral stone to Bhadrachalam or appointing different religion EO to TTD (until protested by devotees, that is).
So, don't be under the impression that Government isn't profiting indirectly from all this religious mania. It is just when it comes to "trickle-down" Govt. service, it works as good as "trickle-down" economics. :|
Nothing is happening "at the cost of" something else.

Personally, I think there is some genetic inheritance to this mania. I can't resist naming inanimate objects, and once you name something, well.... :)

g2 said...

One of your best...

Sash! said...

@Twilight: Totally agree. Religion is a part of our society and yes, there is an economy around that always. But, have you visited, of late? My god, at least the coastal Andhra is blooming with temples and religion. There is no other economy there & all small-scale/cottage industries have been closed (incl. something related to us) ... and yet, we have temples, churches etc. mushrooming all around when you have no jobs in the area. This is a fascinating contradiction. As an example, we now have an Ayyappa temple (Thanks to SPB) on the shore of Godavari and a huge construction for "Godavari Mata" - whoever that is ... What we are seeing is a start-up culture among religious cults in this part and that's different from having an unsurprising economic system around an institutional punyakshetram or a devasthanam ... like I said, you have got to see it in action ...

Again, agree that the government is involved in managing the temples but even an electricity board or RTC has to obey some basic civic laws and can't damage the infrastructure around ... i am merely calling for some standards to regulate and keep in check the trash spewed by these temples and not leave them lawless because they ... "ooh ... they are divine stuff ... "

adhi sangathannamaata ... :)

@g2: aadaab aadaab ... :P

purnima said...

I thought that people in India should learn to worship work but i think with the emergence of big names in the business line as you have mentioned they should worship for work which turns it finally making money out of worship.Religion has always been a major issue in India whether its worship to the idols or the messengers of Gods who have more followers than the later.People would like to donate to an organisation which is linked to a religious cause so that they can get 'punya' in return to the donation done.Everything is give and take relationship.I have seen people picking up papers on roads and cleaning the toilets in the premises of the messengers of gods but they never bothered to stop littering the public roads or bothered to use public toilets instead of using the walls on the side roads.Finally the whole thing is that its all based on ones own profit in doing anything.Even prayer to god should bring in profits directly or indirectly.

Twilight Musings said...

Ah. I see your point. It is about new/imported/invented cults.

What you see as contradiction, makes perfect sense to me. But, lets see if that makes to a blog post.

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