Monday, November 19, 2012

Religion and be contd

As a child, my grandmother told me tales from Hindu Mythology. She believed  them to be true and at that point in time, I did too.

I dont remember at what age I started questioning the stories but I think I must have been pretty old by the time I started questioning them! A part of me, still believes/wishes that the stories are true!

When one  is exposed to seeing the  Ganesha with the elephant head, right from the time one is born, one simply accepts and does not question, "How can a man have an elephant head?" A common feature in Indian households is children growing up, listening to mythological stories from the tender age of three, four or five, when they still believe that these stories are true. These children who see the  photoes and idols of the various Gods, since birth and heard the mythological stories ever since they can comprehend, accept these tales as true  and it takes a really  long while before any of them start questioning these tales.

Today, in India,  majority of the Hindu adults, even those who are educated and are 'scientists'  still hang on to their beliefs about God. They carry their beliefs  about mythlogical   stories, the beliefs in astrology and Pooja and so on  in one part of their brain while simultaneously carrying on their daily work in whatever research or modern scientific work they are doing to earn a living!

What amazes me is the ability that millions or billions of people have developed to have these opposite belief systems in one head and live a life without being overwhelmed by  the cognitive dissonence caused by their dual belief system!

 I myself have this dual sets of beliefs, one rational and the other based on religious faith which I accept without demanding for rational explainations or scientific proof. I am writing this article now,  because of a new dissonence I have been experiencing ever since my husband got this new obesssion
about getting a Saligrama, preferably from the Kali Gandaki river in Nepal.

I have always wanted to own a Saligrama ever since my grandmother told me that the Saligrama is a black stone which  has been carved to look like the Vishnu Chakra  by the diamond teeth of the Vajra keeta (worm which can carve stones with it's teeth). I was facinated by the idea of a mere worm having teeth strong enough to carve through stone!
Two decades ago, I had browsed at the pavement stall of the saffron-clad men who sat outside Mysore Bank at the Kempe Gowda road and Avenue road intersection selling Saligramas. But I had never bought any as I kept wondering if the Saligramas were real or fakes carved out of granite.

And then, decades later, I learnt that these Saligrams are not stones carved by the Vajra keeta worms as I believed; they are simply fossils called Ammonites, which were once  sea creatures, millions of years old, turned to stone over time . Thanks to the shape of the sea creature, it has the  'Vishnu Chakra'  shape. The battle raging in my mind is this: One part of me wants to believe that the Saligrama is indeed the stone carved by the Vajra Keeta and Vishnu lives in it and if you have the Saligrama stone at home, you will have good luck.  On the other hand, the rational side of me has accepted that  it is a fossil. The acceptance of the stone being a fossil and not a stone carved by a worm or the acceptance that Lord Vishnu does not live in this stone has  deflated all  feelings of excitement!

Each 'scientific explanation' or 'scientific discovery' has deflated my joy and excitement about the mythological stories I have read or heard. The science simply kills the romance and excitement and it kills  some happiness and ? innocence in me. Each scientific discovery grieves me. Here are a few times when I felt a severe sense of is like when a child discovers that there is no Santa Claus or the tooth is like  when a child loses his sense of wonder when he discovers the science behind the magic trick which he had just enjoyed.

I had believed in the existence of the Naga Ratna,(the precious gem, found on the head of the King Cobra!) thanks to the the stories I read in the Chanda mama, stories in Indian mythology and the other stories I had heard from my grandmother. Then I realized that there is no gem in any part of the cobra's body, whether it is a King cobra or ordinary cobra, whether it is a male or female cobra. It was so disappointing to discover that! But it was also very amusing to see Naga ratnas for sale  on the internet!!! I am not the only fool in this world! There are a few gullible ones too who are ready to shell out money to buy the Nagaratna!

At one point in time, I had believed in the stories of Vikramaditya and was fascinated by the number of times he cut off his own head and offered to Kali and she brought him back to life! There was also something fascinating about the evil people like Rakshasas who hid their hearts in a bird or an  animal and did not die until the particular  bird or animal which had his heart was killed. This is also from many Vikramaditya stories.
I had believed and (maybe I still do) in astrology and  also believe that wearing certain gems will help avoid bad fortune and attract good fortune! I still strongly believe in Shani gala and keep praying to Lord Shani to stay away from me! Unfortunately, there is no Shanimahatma temple in Toronto to visit and pray to Shani and ask him  to back off from my loved ones!

What else???  I don't remember whether I believed or disbelieved in the stories from Ramayana and Mahabaratha but some stories really moved me and fascinated me. I loved the Mahabaratha especially and have the read the one by C.Rajgopalachari many times.
 I did not like Krishna much as I was put off by his promiscuous behaviour but liked the stories of Shiva a lot. I think I did believe  that Shiva lives in the Himalayas on Kailas Parvat for a pretty long time(If he does live there, can he please, prevent the Chinese from invading India?)

There are some stories in mythology, for which,(for whatever reason), I willingly suspend rationality and passionately wish the story to be true! I consciously resist any questioning and simply accept the mythology. Maybe, it is because, I want to believe in magic once in a while....maybe, the belief that there is a God who has miraculous powers, gives me hope and faith....or satisfies some need in me..the need to believe that there is some power, superior to men and this power cannot be controlled by men.....maybe there is a side to me which wants magic and rejects logic.....

I reject rational thinking and accept myths, especially when I go to holy places or temples. For that period of time that I am in the temple, I fully believe in the story about the origin of the when I visit Tirupati. Is this a way to avoid cognitive dissonance? Maybe. But my brain, automatically switches off the rational and questioning side and switches on the God-believing side! I pray with complete faith (my prayers are always "give me that give me this" and nothing else); I believe that I will have good luck if I eat the prasada and drink the teertha;  I have a sense of peace and satisfaction and my anxieties are completely vanquished for a few hours or days after a visit to a temple or a pilgrimage. I feel good when I buy the stuff sold outside temples such as photoes or idols of God, etc and keep them at home. Of course, this feeling of well being wears off after some time, but at the time, it feels great! Like a drug to a user maybe!

Some temples in particular, bring on the belief in God and suspension of rationality more strongly than others. The three temples where  I feel really devout are the Basavanagudi temple in Gandhi bazar; the Kaadu Malleshwara temple in Malleshwaram and the temple just outside Lal Bagh. I think the  reasons I feel devout in these particular temples is the simplicity of these temples at least when I last visited them simplicity I mean that  they have not been modernized and had their age-old charm;(I did hear my my relatives that the Basavanagudi temple is undergoing it may not longer have it's beauty..In India, when they renovate something old, they do a horrible job)  these three temples are not crowded and are peaceful and one has the space and silence necessary to contemplate; last but not the least, the priests in these three temples appear dignified and do not seem as materialistic  as the priests in other temples. The older the temple, the less modernized and less crowded it is and the less greedy the priests appear, the more attractive teh temple is to me.  I cannot even express, how immensely attractive the abandoned temples are to me! One can never find abandoned temples in India...the population is so much and people are 'so everywhere'. When I say abandoned,  I am referring to temples in remote places, with few visitors and which appear quiet and rundown. Temples which are empty as the priest has gone home and you have the temple, all to yourself, if you go in the afternoon. The two temples in my village are like this....there are no priests, one temple is open at all times(it has no doors), there is nothing inside except a couple of clay oil-lamps and 4 stone pillars representing Narashima(maybe, if they had an idol of Narashima, it would get stolen!). There are peepul & neem  trees outside and a Garuda kamba. The leaves rustle in the breeze and one can hear the koels or crows when one is inside the temple or the distant sound of people talking or cattle mooing. These village temples are quiet and peaceful, empty till the evenings when women come in to light the lamps or men come to gamble in the temple (they should not be gambling in the temple premises but where can they sit in the night? They like to sit in the temple, on the  granite slabs, outside the tiny sanctum-sanctorum. Much to the anger of the women, they take the oil lamps out of the sanctum to their gambling game for visibility; some 'Punyatma' put a light bulb a few times in the temple but the bulb  got burnt out by the voltage fluctuations or stolen)

There are lovely abandoned/almost abandoned temples on top of mountains surrounding my village which are quiet and have an old-world beauty and charm...but unfortunately, these abandoned temples do not have idols (the idols  have been stolen or removed...I do not know) and I dont really feel devout without an idol to focus my prayers on. However, these mountain-top temples are great for ambience...they are made of granite slabs and pillars; there are no people at all except a few young hikers from the city on weekends; the granite have a yellow pateena on them caused by ? mud and ?rainwater...there is silence except for the winds and the distant sounds of buses. One can sit in these temples and meditate for hours in peace. But as I said before, I don't feel 'religious' in these temples..I  feel peaceful, relaxed and enjoy the scene. In these temples, I have to fight the contempt which comes unbidden into my mind ...What kind of a  God is this guy  who could not even prevent his idol from being stolen? How the hell can he protect me?

Often, the economic aspects of temple put me off God and religion completely. I am so disgusted by priests who demand money. I know that they need money to live. But there is some part of me, which irrationally expects all priests to be disinterested in money and focussed on spirituality. I wish, that the economic aspects of temples and religion was streamlined and also made invisible to me...I want either priests who are truly spiritual and not materialistic  or at least an illusion to be created where the priest appears to be focussed on the Pooja and nothing else...

I cannot express how disgusting I find the crude behaviours of priests and how unforgivable I find the news about corruption in temples. It makes me wonder about God and his existence.
Maybe I am a person who has unrealistic expectations from temples and my friends say, after all,  priests too are human beings like you and prone to err.

Below is a small shrine just outside a temple on top of Mulayanagiri hills in Karnataka. I love the simplicity of this and the aesthetics. This is something which truly inspires the spiritual in me! My friend who visited took this photo.

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