Monday, August 14, 2006

Virtual Rituals

A few days ago, a colleague who sits in the next isle of cubes wrote me an email,

“Arundhati, I am observing Laxmi vratam, would you come to my house for the pooja on Friday evening?”

“Sure, I’d love to!” I wrote back.

“Sweet! But hey, make sure you don’t have your period then…”

“Make sure!? How can I make sure?” I wrote, bewildered.

“Now, that’s your problem right? Hehehe!!”

“Hmph!! I will let you know on Friday.” I wrote, frowning.

“Hey, seems like you got mad! Don’t be mad, please. I don’t believe in this too you know, but what if the Gods get angry? So, I don’t think its appropriate! You understand, right?” She got slightly defensive.

No, I could not understand this. First, I was annoyed she had written me an email instead of walking over to my cube which is about ten steps from hers. And, second, this period business always throws me off the handle! I could not believe well educated, careerist women like my friend were still hung up on these beliefs. I have always believed that periods are, perhaps, the holiest of secretions of our body!

I could not go to her pooja after all. I did not make sure I did not have my period. In fact, it was as if I made sure I that I had it on that day! No regrets, I thought, I’d rather have my period than go to a pooja I did not believe in. But this episode made me wonder, are we following traditions just for the sake of following them or do we really believe in them?

In the traditional Indian society, innumerable rituals were celebrated throughout the year. Tradition mandated observing of many fasts and penances, poojas and festivals. If one thinks about these closely, one notices that these festivals and rituals were sequined in the lifestyle of the old Indian society, which was mostly agrarian. In fact, what you eat, what you wear, what rituals you perform, what rules you follow was all based on the current season and the agricultural produce available at that time.

The forefathers of the society made these rituals a part of the religion, probably in an effort to make religion part of life. Every festival, every ritual was to have a spiritual basis to it. The feelings with which these were to be celebrated were those of devotion, universal love and reverence towards life. The penances and sacrifices done while following the vratams were to purify the mind and control greed, lust and other disturbing tendencies. The main aim of these activities was to establish harmony and brotherhood in the society.

However, in the recent years, the Indian society has undergone a rapid change from a predominantly agrarian society to a predominantly modern one. In time, these rituals have morphed into dogmas. Blind beliefs, caste system and gender segregations have crept into what was once a pure and joyous way of life. The true spirit of religion has been lost and rituals are often followed without truly believing in them. More often than not, these occasions are used to show financial muscle or social clout. Instead of creating a harmony in the society they have ended up creating disharmony.

With the rapidly changing social landscape, one wonders, is it appropriate to follow the traditions for the sake of it? How can we tell that what we are following in the name of culture is what it was really meant to be? Do we ever wonder if the original thought has been tarnished by blind beliefs?

Although I was annoyed at my friend, she did make an interesting point – what if the Gods get angry, she had said, indicating that God was someone whom we should be afraid of. Isn’t it interesting that instead of love of God, what we have in our minds is fear of God?

These days, religion has been commercialized in many places. The other day I had gone to a temple near my house. This is a big temple which houses many deities worshipped at different places in India. In a sense, the idea behind this place is wonderful as it brings us expatriate Indians from various parts of India together and reminds us the we are one people. Many devotees come and worship the Gods to feel peaceful. However, one day I noticed that outside the temple, a priest sat at the counter, collecting money for Abhishekas – a special type of pooja. Above him, a hoarding read, “Pay for Abhisheka of two deities and get the third one free!” They were even offering a discount if one booked the Abhisheka through internet!

Really, what is important? This ritual of Abhisheka or the feeling with which it is done? If the feeling is pure, does it matter how we worship the God who loves one and all? And if we do choose to follow the ritual, do we make sure we do it with utmost purity and humility or does greed and commercialism creep in unknowingly? If you are going to pay for the pooja, would you not inevitably think what would give you the greatest bang for the buck? You would want more attention, if you gave a greater donation. You would want a special darshan, a more royal treatment before God. In all this commercialism, the real meaning of the religion is all but lost!

During the Ganesha festivals, the idols of Ganesha are stacked in the grocery stores just like the vegetables and spices. Sometimes, there is dust on the idols and even cobwebs around the place where they are kept. People who go to buy them first check the price, then turn the idols this way and that to see if there is a snag. They select the best idol they can get for their money and put it in the grocery cart with the rest of the grocery. The idol is placed in a plastic bag irreverently with dal and rice. It is then taken home and set up for pooja.

Seeing this sight in one of the grocery stores made me miss the little ceremony we used to have when we brought the Ganesha idol home. In the small town that I grew up, Ganesha festival would be celebrated in every house just like it was done in ours. Our father or uncles would go to the shop to get Ganesha’s idol and we children would follow them enthusiastically, forming a little procession. Before going to the shop, we would all make sure that we were properly bathed and wearing our best clothes. The feeling we had was as if we were bringing home someone who is very important.

“Ganapati Bappa Moraya!” we used to sing, in the praise of the lord, as we brought him home, covered under a silk cloth. The idol was then set it up in a specially decorated spot ceremoniously and pooja was performed.

For the next ten days, Ganesha would be the most celebrated guest in the house. The whole household would gather in the mornings and the evenings to sing the praise of the God. The sounds of mantras would resonate through every household in the town, along with the fragrance of incense and camphor. Lord Ganesha’s favorite foods were cooked and offered to him during the pooja. And this food was later consumed by the family in his name.

Then, after ten days, the idol would be taken to be immersed in water. As we took out another procession to see off the lord, we would sing

“Ganapati Bappa Moraya, pudhchya varshi lavkar ya!” Hey, lord Ganesha, please come sooner next year!

After the ceremony, we would come back with a heavy heart. It was as if a dear friend had gone away from us.

These days, celebrating the Ganesha festival has become a group activity. Various groups compete with each other to show off their decoration for their Ganesha. Who bought the biggest idol? Who spent the most money? These questions seem to be more important that the festival itself.

When I see on TV the lewd dancing, loud music and the fistfights that happen these days in the name of celebration, my mind fills with sadness. Really, where have we lost all that? Where is the love, the simplicity, the humility, the reverence? Where is our real religion?

Today we live in the virtual world – a world which is fast losing touch with reality. We email our friends, not talk to them. We send our brothers Rakhi greetings. We use evite to invite people to our parties. We decline these invitations through the same site. We can download pooja programs and follow the rituals. We even visit websites of various temples to pray to the Gods.

However, despite this, we have not lost our blind beliefs. Still, somewhere, we believe, I am a Bramhin, I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Catholic. All we want to prove is that I am different from the other, that I am better. Just like everything else in our life, our religion, which is, first and foremost, being human, has lost it’s reality. It has become virtual!

Here’s hoping that we get out of the clutches of the virtual rituals and wake up to the real beauty of humanity.

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