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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hinduism: Religion or way of life?

In my last post, I tried to recreate online the contents of an illustrated narrative that my grandmother gave me: Shree Tirupati Balaji's Life Story. I am not in any way affiliated to the temple at Tirupati or Lord Venkateswara, I do hold him in high regard and give him the greatest respect as I do any other deity. Still, when I told my grandmother that I was going to be posting the contents of this book to my blog - however she made sense of this new fangled technology - she seemed to indicate to me that it was a good thing because God would bless me for sharing his story. Her first concern, however, from the moment she gave me the book, was that I should learn some part of my religious heritage; a concept that becomes slightly more alien to me with each passing day.

I've done my fair share of pilgrimages, or at least made my fair share of visits to "big" temples in South India. I've been to Guruvayoor Temple, Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple, Madurai Meenakshi Temple, and even the Shiva temple at Chidambaram. I've visited all manner of "lesser" shrines too, to have to grade them so, but I have always found that I am much unimpressed with what I see there. Aside from fascinating architecture and throngs of devoted worshipers, much of the rituals are the same. It's the same sort of physical set up with an inner sanctum and sanctum sanctorum. And this, dare I call it "standard" nature of a place of worship is true of any institutionalized religion which has rules, codes and all manner of ritualized practices. But really, what does it mean to be "Hindu"?

The legacy of Hinduism comes to us with thousands of years of knowledge and experience. As a layperson looking at this astounding legacy, I see a transformation of what was once animism into a more formalized body of core beliefs. Also as a layperson, I am well aware of the joke of Hinduism boasting more than 30,000 Gods and Goddesses. Still, there is far more than the worship of numerous idols that makes up this rich religious heritage. There is the wisdom of knowing how to live in harmony with one's surroundings, or even, being able to utilize nature and elements of nature to promote personal health - not as one-time measures to remedy a problem, but as an essential way of being. But, aside from these general observations, it still evades me how knowing all the stories and following all the rules makes me a better Hindu, with a view towards being a better person.

The other day, I happened to watch most of an episode of a soap opera which was based on and titled "The Bhagavad Gita" ("Maha Bhagavatham" in Malayalam). From what I saw, the innate issues of a failed human existence seemed to plague the Gods as well, issues including but not restricted to greed, jealously, deceit... And, as far as I know, such motifs are found in most other ancient religions as well, the Greek and Roman faiths, for example. I mean, if nothing else, the ancient art of storytelling to illustrate the righteous, virtuous existence is as much a part of any holy book as are the content of the stories told. The episode that I happened to see was about Lord Krishna's wives, one of whom was lured into trying and winning Lord Krishna all for herself, whereas the other was trying to perform a ritual as homage to the greatness of her Lord. In then end, the first wife failed to garner the Lord all for herself, and risked losing the Lord altogether in the bargain. The only way out of this predicament was to ask the second wife to perform the ritual she had intended, and after being given enough screen time to admit her folly, they all lived happily ever after. The moral of that story was pretty obvious, but I don't know if I'm all the more grateful for having seen it on TV. Not like I was going to read it, but in some strange way I seem to have been party to The Gita for Dummies, or something like it.

Still, to come back to my main point, I seem to think that in this day and age, people are more concerned with clinging to the stories than trying to imbibe what they stand for. In fact, contrary to when I was a child, and being constantly beaten into submission to honor what is right and to toe the line of an honest, hard-earned living, kids these days are applauded for their fighting spirit and getting-ahead-at-all-costs attitudes. Nothing particularly wrong with this, it's just that going with my search for the essence of being a true Hindu, future generations having access to, or being forced to learn stories that form the basis of their religious culture is not at all what being Hindu is about. There are no living examples of any of the virtues espoused. The gods of the modern era are sports personalities, business big wigs and movie stars. The main virtue of the times is survival at any cost, however one defines that word. There is no move to identify ways to relieve stress through meditation, or to follow a prescribed diet based on ancient knowledge of the passing of seasons. No. For that, we have doctors and hospitals. These stories of the Bhagavad Gita are just stories. They are forever relevant as ideals, don't get me wrong. But it would be sad to say that they are what define practitioners of Hinduism.

Religious stories are part of the culture of that religion. Faith, is the unbridled force that guides people to or from a religion. So, while on my next visit to a temple I am sure to see the same dance of priests with the almost discordant cacophony of chanting along with billows of smoke, I'm going to be wondering what it is that I'm doing there. Am I being a good Hindu by paying tribute and observing these practices with the utmost respect? If yes, so be it. It's a bit shallow for me. But, like the "blues" we ascribe to a Monday morning, or the fervor associated with the coming of a weekend, some days I am more "religious" than others. The faith? Well, that's another story entirely.

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