Tuesday, February 08, 2011

My experience with religion

For the first 20-25 years of my life I was a pretty religious person. This blog post tracks my experiences in religion.

I suddenly found a great attachment to religion in 2nd standard. The bullock cart for taking us all to school would wait outside, while I will be chanting Kandhar Sashti Kavasam for half an hour. My teacher did not know what to make of this; she had to wait outside too.
My hope at that time was that I would become a holy man. This lasted until I saw Sri Vidhya in 4th standard (not the actress). I had joined a new school and there was a divine girl named SriVidhya. For the next two years that I studied with her, I do not remember chanting Kandhar Sashti Kavasam.

At that time, performances known as "Kathakalatchebam" were famous in Tamil Nadu. Krubanandha Vaariaar, one of the most famous performers, used to draw huge crowds. He would talk for 10 days about the Ramayanam or Mahabharatham. I call them performances because they were not solely devotional. Vaariaar used to joke a lot; sing; and would have danced if his size had permitted. Sukhi.Sivam, who now talks in television about the evils of coke cans, used to be young and funny then.
WE used to go to a lot of these performances. One of the more devotional and serious ones were by a person named Krishna Premi. He had disciples and a retinue following him ; and so he was more like a "swamiji".
I was very inspired by him (by that time SriVidhya was gone - my parents put me in a gents school). So one day while we were walking to listen to him, I decided that I would ask him my question. My question's inspiration was taken from Vivekananda's question to Ramakrishna(and Nachiketas's question to Yama). "Some say there is God; some say there isn't. What do you think?" (for context - I was in 6th standard at that time)
A bunch of people were standing before Krishna Premi and they were falling one by one at his feet. I was impatient - I was afraid I would forget the exact question. In my mind the time for self-realization had come. I would ask him the question, he would answer it brilliantly. And then he would deserve to take me as a disciple. I may even end up in Chicago.
I approached him and nervously said, " Some say there is God; some... "
He nodded his head and said, "Ok" and moved on to the next person.

At some point in this whole deal, I decided that I knew a lot about religion. I felt that I had crossed the stage of the masses who have to deal with Bhakthi,offer prayers and had to make pilgrimages etc. These foolish people actually did not realize what Vedanta says! I decided that I would follow the Vedanta and Bhagavat Gita and all that.
In this, I was helped by my family. My parents were getting into Vedanta themselves. Discussing Vedanta with different people is an exercise in increasing intensity of self-righteousness. When two middle-aged Vedantins of the 20th century met, their conversation went like:
V1: That is why I have given up all ties to my children. I tell my son, you go to college or become a peon, I don't care. I have no attachments.
V2: Why just to children? I have given up ties to my wife. After my duties are done, I will just leave for (usually Himalayas or Kashi)
V1: Come on, wife and children are not the only ties. I told all my relations....
and so on. They try to beat each other by how much they have given up "attachment". I have not seen one guy (it is always guys) from this circle actually go to Himalayas. They all stuck around until retirement; complained about pension; and are now generally Green Card holders and spend their time watching Asianet for some reason.

My family was also into Sanskrit at this time. I discovered this one day when I came back from playing outside and found a strange conversation at home:
My dad: But ..., you have too much Kshaathram in your voice.
My brother: No, I don't have any Kshaatram
Mom: You are always talking with so much Nishtooram

What the hell? What is Kshaatram? Who is Nishtooram? And they were all talking as if they all knew these words. I did not ask them, of course. I just managed to sneak in weird words myself (such as NiratcharaGutchi) into our conversation. At some points, I would say 50% of the words we used made no sense to each other.
It was just a phase.

In the newspaper Hindu, Khushwant Singh wrote an article that dismissed the idea of reincarnation. I got upset at this and spent one full day brooding about how to answer Khushwant Singh. That is how I developed the "Law of Conservation of Souls".
You see, the Bhagavat Gita says the soul can neither be created nor destroyed. That is similar (in my mind) to saying energy can neither be created nor destroyed. My letter to the editor of The Hindu had the following passage:
"According to the Law of Conservation of Souls, a soul is neither created nor destroyed. But we do know that there are a lot more people and souls in the world now rather than earlier. Where did all the new souls come from? They must be coming from other alien civilizations in distant stars, which are getting destroyed all the time"
They must have had a good laugh in the editor's room about the alien stars.

As a Vedantin, when I went to temples it was pure torture. On the one hand, I wanted to pray fervently about getting marks in Plus 2 exams; or getting at least one neighborhood girl to be my girlfriend.
On the other hand, as a Vedantin I was supposed to realize that all desire is futile; god is myself; and so the neighborhood girls do not exist.
Everything is Maya!
So I would go into the temple and one part of me would be praying and the other part would be like, "Excuse me, why are you praying to yourself? Hello?"

Finally I broke down and decided to go full metal into Devi Bhakti. I started doing 4 hour poojas every Friday waking up at 4 AM. College was missed many times, but what is college before the wishes of my goddess? I went pretty deep into the whole thing; I learnt a lot of theory in Devi worship. When I got into the bus at Nungambakkam and went to Mylapore, I would close my eyes and start praying for every temple along the way. There were a LOT of temples.

So my religious exploration had taken me from meaningless chanting; to Vedanta and philosophy (without gaining any good knowledge of either); to something pretty close to Bhakti. I was in engineering school by that time, and had to get a job. My times of exploration had come to an end.

I do pray from time to time, a short prayer thrown to the universe, just in case someone is listening. It is always a specific prayer about some immediate thing (such as praying for my client to be in a good mood). I am completely comfortable with that.


Chris said...

Putting religiousness aside, do you believe there's a God?
I mean, sure yeah, I sometimes sent a little prayer up now and then when I was scared of flunking, but I'm no closer to understanding who exactly I was sending it to.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Chris, no. I don't think there is a god. And I don't think there is a soul.