By Riti Das Dhankar
It’s that time of the year again. The festive time when the marketplaces buzz with colorful goodies, the roadsides teem with vendors selling clay-diyas (lamps) and candles, the garment shops bustle with the ‘latest’ designs, and most of the people you come across appear to be simply happy.
I like all this: the smell of clay-diyas, the glittering display of goodies, the slight chill in the morning air, and the feeling that winter is just around the corner. I like the lightings that people put up for decorating their homes. I like to see children wearing new clothes, walking around proudly and carefully, so as not to crumple them. I like wishing people on Eid and Diwali. And I love the food!
Sadly, it’s also that time of the year when I am asked a lot of questions which I don’t really know how to answer. In fact, the sheer fact that such questions could be asked dawned on me pretty late. I get asked these two questions the most: first, (this one with annoyance and dismay) why don’t you do any puja on diwali? And, second, (with surprise) how can you eat at a Muslim’s house, that, too, halal meat?
I usually tackle the second question first, since one can answer it logically. This is also something I believe in truly and completely. I eat whatever is served to me, smells good, looks good, and, finally, tastes good. Answering the first one is a bit difficult because it never seems to convince anyone. I just say that I am an atheist. To me, it’s a complete answer. To others, it appears like I believe in Satan, because I don’t worship the ‘actual’ God.
The answers to these questions reflect the reality of my life and that is the way I have lived my life. To me, it’s a perfectly normal state of being. Since others tend to think that I am ‘abnormal’, I often reflect upon why and how I reached this stage.
As a child, I was taught how to walk, how to eat, how not to pee anywhere and everywhere. I was taught my name, the names of my parents, the city I lived in, the name of the county, and so on. While teaching me these things, my parents completely forgot to teach me about the religion I belong to, about the religions I don’t belong to, and how to pray.
I grew up playing with children whose names were Rajesh and Rayana. I wished everyone on Eid and Diwali. On Eid, I went to other people’s places to eat a sumptuous meal and, on Diwali, I ate at my own place. I was a happy kid and, as long as I was fed well, I never bothered to go into the specifics of religion. At one point of time, I wanted to change my name to Razia, since it seemed fancier to me.
I remember the communal riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. I was about 5 year old then. By listening to people’s conversations, I knew that two groups were fighting: the Hindus and the Muslims. In retrospect, that’s the first time I paid close attention to these two words. And that was my introduction to this new dimension of life based on religious identities.
Growing up, learning things, and absorbing knowledge, I learned I was neither a Muslim nor a Christian. I was born, to simplify things, in a Hindu family. But, I soon noted a difference between my family and other Hindu religious families. I never reached school with a red tika (mark) on my forehead; my mother never asked me to pray; my parents never spoke to me about fearing God. Not believing in an idol, not praying, and not calling myself a Hindu as a measure of pride came most naturally to me.
I never felt the need to ask my parents if there was a God or not. However, I did ask them on a number of occasions whether they believed in one and listened to their answers. By this time, I was a teenager and knew the significance of the difference the names Rajesh and Rayana held. I knew there was a difference between halal and jhatka meat; I knew eating beef was a sin for one caste and perfectly fine for others; I also knew while some ate pork, for others, it was an unclean thing not to be touched or had.
In college, I had a good circle of friends, who I accompanied to gurudwaras , dargahs, and temples. The ‘peace’ and ‘solace’ people often speak about experiencing at these places seemed very unreal to me. I found the temples very noisy to experience peace in any form. The gurudwara and dargah provided an environment of quiet and, hence, proved to be good places to reflect upon life. To me, these places were like trees providing shade, cool breeze, and quiet. I concluded that the religious places provide an environment that enables individuals to think and reflect. That is not because these places are divine but because every human wants a psychological assurance in times of crisis and something or someone to believe in, in times of predicament.
I shared these thoughts with my friends and the people I knew. I was then introduced to a new concept: God is within each one of us. I was baffled. I failed to understand why the concept of a God, of an almighty, was attached to almost everything one did in life. It was like religion and God were an inevitable part of our lives, something without which the human race would be doomed and there would be no sense of justice and morals. I was quick enough to understand, whenever justice and morals were spoken about in a religious context, there was a talk of rewards and punishments. Doing good meant enjoying an afterlife in heaven and doing bad meant burning in hell. This caused a dilemma in me. As far as I know, nothing can be proved without evidence and there is no empirical (or otherwise) evidence of an afterlife, which most religions endorse with a certainty. Probably they speak about an afterlife to inculcate fear and hope for a better life in another world. After all, we all grew up listening to fairy tales! For me, there was no afterlife. I simply couldn’t believe in the existence of heaven and hell.
I thought if there are rewards and punishments to entice us to be good and do good, it implied that most religions assumed that human beings are incapable of knowing the difference between good and bad, fair and unfair, and just and unjust. At this point in my journey, I was introduced to the concept of conscience. This, I could understand. Since I was a philosophy student, I was forced to read about Buddhism, about Charvak, and about various other theories of human existence. Slowly, I started enjoying them; I particularly enjoyed and loved reading the philosophy of Charvak. He made the age old superstitious practices look ridiculously silly. Without giving offense, his arguments stated meaningful and obvious facts logically.
I could relate to philosophy because it didn’t speak of religion but about the practice one adopts. I took to philosophy because it didn’t talk about the unseen, mystical being and another world but relied more on a person’s mind and conscience. I could relate to people who spoke and worked on the concept of good, not in terms of rewards and punishments, but in terms of human nature. You could say I learnt that religion need not be our sole source of morality and ethics. I found my answers, finally. I knew where I stood. I could now explain why I didn’t believe in God, instead of simply mumbling that there was something wrong with the concept and getting ridiculed for my answer.
Observing the trends around us, I can see the staunchness, emanating from belonging to particular religious groups; the intolerance is increasing; the open debates, which are so needed for an individual’s understanding, growth, and knowledge, are snubbed. There are demands to ban a movie for portraying a Hindu princess married to a Mughal king; to change the name of a character in a movie because it was the name of the Prophet’s wife. When someone grows a beard in a specific manner, the person is instantly linked to a particular religion. People ask me, sometimes politely and, at other times, a bit angrily, to go to a specific butcher’s shop. People ask names and, then, dig more to know the surname to identify a person’s caste.
Unlike the majority of people who have suggested to me that I start believing in God, I have never asked anyone not to. I believe that the Homo sapiens have a fairly advanced thinking process. Every human being can think, can reason, contemplate, and accordingly make choices.
My philosophy teacher once asked the class what the word ‘good’ meant. For me, the answer was simple: something that is beneficial to me and not harmful to others. That concept, I think, can solve most of the problems in the world. Although that might not be the answer to the world’s suffering and the violence but that can definitely be a start.
Ms. Riti Das Dhankar is a freelance writer. She is doing her PhD in Psychology from Jaipur, where she completed her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology.
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