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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Of Religion and Faith

This past Sunday (the 26th of February, 2006) was Mahashivarathri, and around the country it was celebrated with much fanfare and revelry. What is this festival? Well, it is a celebration of Lord Shiva where worshippers fast the whole day and stay up all night to show penance for their sins.

The fasting and losing sleep is done to appease the deity in the hopes that he will forgive your sins. For those of us who are more curious, here's what Malini Bisen has to say about Mahashivarathri. From this article, you will see that there are several variations, or numerous ways in which this festival has come to be celebrated across India.

Speaking of variations, I happened to go to the temple that day because, if nothing else, it was a special day. Now, originally, the plan was to make it for the puja early in the morning to, you know, start my day out just right...but that didn't quite happen. No matter, I still made it to the temple for the morning puja, and although I didn't stick around for the entire thing I did keep a clear mind and ask God, in whatever form he was present there that day, to be with me and to give me the courage to see each new day through. After all, it's always nice to have a "master planner" by your side to show you how he envisions the bigger picture and to show you how he unfolds things, eh? The day went off without a hitch, and my heart was much more at ease. About what? Well, about life in general, I guess. There's a lot to be said for faith in your life...but I'm going to save that for another post.

The temple that I visited is about a minute's walk from my house, and I like going there because it's nice and small. What do I mean by that? Well, the "big" temples in India like Tirupathi or Guruvayoor are powerful places, no doubt, but they tend to get thousands of visitors every single day. I don't mind the people, I just mind the lethal combination of body odor and hair oil. And I don't care how many of the ladies are wearing jasmine flowers in their hair, but that sweet smell only adds to the nauseous intoxication of the first two ingredients I mentioned. And sure, it's all part of the experience to wait around indefinitely and to see "the lord", or her/his representation in the form of an idol, but that's an aspect of faith that I've questioned. I mean, why throng places to see God when God is all around you? Well, that's psychotic reason number one for not liking to visit bigger, and more well established temples in India. The second reason is financial...surprise, surprise.

Very briefly, and because I don't want to go into this in too much detail in this post, I've noticed that the way a priest treats a worshipper who comes to the temple is largely dependent on one of two things:

  1. How often the person comes to the temple (i.e. how familiar thie priest is with the person)
  2. How much money the person offers the deity
It's not too astonishing a fact I suppose, but there isn't a reason why this should be the case. For example, and even at this little temple near my house, I've noticed when I give ten rupees or higher as an offering, I get more blessings from God. Whatever do I mean? Well, a person who gives a couple of rupees gets a couple of flowers that have been blessed by the god and a small packet of holy ash. I end up getting the same plus a small banana which has been blessed. And this hasn't happened once or twice, it's happened every single time I've gone to this temple. This is the case in most other temples, and like other existential anomalies that afflict mankind, it is readily accepted by the Indian public. And about everything that the worshipper receives being "blessed", the idea is that this stuff has been offered/given to the god before being given to the worshipper.

Well, this leads me to an image of the flyer that was circulated around the neighborhood for Mahashivarathri Puja celebrations.

Now, the first time I saw something like this my reaction was, "A flyer? Dude, what next? A website where you can make puja payments by credit card?" However, and many flyers later, I've accepted the fact that this is how information can be disseminated in a community keeping cost and effort to a minimum. But what struck me most was the different kinds of pujas or "homas" that a person can take part in. It's not how much they cost, but the fact that there can be different amounts of worship, or involvement for each and every person for an associated cost that is willingly borne by the priests that strikes me as being, well, a little too convenient. Anyway, to each her/his own, right?

And speaking of Mahashivarathri, or attempting to at least, it's more than apparent how little I know about it myself. Frankly, I'm not surprised that I know so little about it because through all the legends and the "granny stories" I've always shared a more friendly camaraderie with God...albeit with loads of respect. My own religious education has been from whatever answers I've received to questions I've asked, or from the several Amar Chitra Katha illustrated classics that I read as a child. That's about it, so let's not even go anywhere near having read the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. I mean didn't I say that I "didn't stick around for the entire thing"? Isn't that me adopting a casual or "convenient" approach to my religion?

Ultimately, that's what I believe religion, in its day-to-day use, is; an institutionalized faith. But faith is a very private thing...and institutionalization is what leads to "the right way" of doing something. More importantly, it leads to the "big" temples that I spoke of earlier to become financial powerhouses in their own right. For example, and according to this source, the Tirupati Balaji Temple that I spoke of earlier has a "turnover" of more than INR 750 crores every year (that's close to USD 169 million)!

But that's enough about that. Didn't I say that the day went well and that I had a warm, fuzzy feeling inside? I believe that God watches over me and allows me to make mistakes, while protecting me from other evils that I may or may not have the power to withstand. And I believe that this God is universal, although s/he may go by numerous nomenclatural variants. After all, like Shirdi Sai Baba said, "Sabka Malik Ek" which in English means "We all have the same master".

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