Sonu Nigam’s tweet last year regarding the use of loudspeakers during Azaan (the Muslim prayer) generated a storm of controversy. Various groups battled in support or against the singer, and it isn’t hard to guess which group belonged to which faith. But in all this brouhaha let’s not overlook one important point: pollution, air or noise, has no religion.
The havoc we wreak in the name of religion! During Ganesha we pollute our lakes, during Eid we slaughter animals on a large scale, during Diwali we pollute the air and during Christmas we cut down thousands of trees and generate millions of tonnes of additional garbage. The UK alone throws away enough wrapping paper to go around the Earth twenty-two times!In addition, religious extremism often serves as a divisive factor between communities; divisiveness which frequently escalate into violence.
My mother has always been extremely religious. Thanks to her, my brother and I could chant the Gayatri Mantra way before we learned the alphabet, and for the longest time I couldn’t sit through a flight without a fervent recital of this holy grail of mantras; my faith in God often hitting an all time high just before I went hurtling through the skies. Religion had been instilled in our psyche so deeply, to think outside of it seemed inconceivable. So when I first met someone who didn’t believe in God, I was scandalised. It had never even crossed my mind to doubt the power of prayer, or the existence of God.
Then early one morning, as I was driving to the club for a game of squash, I stopped at a signal. My eyes rested on the vehicle in front; a truck decked in kitschy splendour. Crooking my neck I gradually made out the words written in hindi: Karm hi Puja Hai. A good deed is a prayer in itself. Deep, coming from a truck which normally just asks you to Horn OK Please. Those words had such an impact on me, I could feel my attitude towards prayer changing. Now, from prayer being an end in itself, I started to focus more on doing good in whatever little way I could, and to pray, just to play safe!
Haven’t we all noticed how the same people who ration the supply of milk to their help, empty packets of it on a Shivling every Monday? Milk, taken away from a calf to feed a human, was ultimately poured down the gutter. Wouldn’t giving it to a malnourished child have made Lord Shiva happier? I started questioning the logic of the way we pray. We’re constantly asking God for something – be it health, happiness, admission into that college or a Mercedes Benz. Are we afraid God will punish us if we don’t pray enough? Do we think he’s put us on this earth so we can spend all this time telling him how great he is? Does he crave devotion in the form of rituals? Why this constant desire to appease God in this manner?
I had a close friend who fasted on Mondays. It is a fast Hindu girls often observe when praying for a good husband. Although I never fasted, I’d accompany her to the temple, and would watch as she’d pour a glass of milk over the Shivling. What a waste, I’d think and regularly teased her. Who thought about husbands at the age of sixteen or seventeen? Apparently she did, and there was no shaking her faith. She carried on fasting every Monday for the next few years, until she got married. A year after her marriage, she jumped off the floor of her high-rise apartment in the city of Atlanta. So much for her good husband.
I have nothing against religion per se; it’s just not for me. However, there is no denying that it does have great qualities. It gives faith, strength, hope, and serves as a positive force in millions of lives. A belief in God makes it easier for us to accept what life throws at us. We don’t feel quite as lost if we believe God intended for this to happen; it’s all part of the plan. We pray. If our prayers are answered, we thank God. If not, we believe God is testing us and somehow find the strength to carry on.
However, when religion stops being about our relationship with God is more about the paraphernalia associated with it, when boundaries between religious freedom and large scale environment damage start blurring, when religion creates more problems than it solves, we need to take a step back and put things in perspective.
We don’t need all these rituals to reach out to God. All we need do is close our eyes. And perhaps, do a good deed. After all, karm hi puja hai.