More on religion

According to the Hindu calendar today is three years since my mother passed away. If I were religious, or if I were to bow to pressures from religious relatives, I would have performed a “shraadhha/tithi” today. Instead, I’m home, leading a rather normal life. In spite of it being a Sunday today, I’m actually working (I coordinate schedules with my wife, and for some reason she chose to take off this Friday and go to work on Sunday, so I followed). I’ve eaten breakfast and a very normal lunch.

Every year, twice a year (it’s remarkable that my parents’ death anniversaries have a phase difference of about six months), I begin to get requests from relatives – mostly uncles and aunts but also from the wife – that I need to “do my religious duties” and perform the shraadhhas. The last few occasions, I complied. However, as I’ve explained in this post, I’ve gotten disgusted with the general quality of priests around and decided that it’s not worth my while to enrich that community just because someone tells me it might help my parents attain salvation in their afterlives.

Since I flatly refused to do the shraadhha this time, the last few weeks have had more than their fair share of religious discussions compared to earlier. I’ve been asked how I know that priests mis-pronounce. When I say that my limited knowledge of Sanskrit is enough to identify the mispronunciations, they suggest that I try different priests. I then talk about the number of different priests I’ve encountered over various Shraadhhas over the last few years, and about how not one has really said the mantras well (except for the family priest who conducts weddings, etc. but shraadhhas are too small-time for him).

Then comes the clinching argument from my relatives – that even otherwise irreligious people like my father did their ancestors’ shraaddhas without fail. And it is at that time that I start questioning the whole purpose of the Shraadhha and trying to ascribe a believable reason for it. I argue that if the intention is to remember the deceased, I don’t need one day a year to do that since my parents come in my dreams practically every other day. The intention might have been to get all the descendants of the deceased together, but then I’m the only descendant of my parents and I’m “together with myself” all the time.

Then they try and convince me to perform what I can classify as “lesser evils” – such as giving raw rice and vegetables to a priest. I’ve done that once before and considered it to be such an unpleasant experience that I don’t want to do it again. And then I question how it will help. And the argument goes on.

So for today, finally I submitted that I’ll put food out for the crows before I eat, since in the Sanatana Dharma crows are supposed to represent your ancestors. After much haggling, this seemed like an acceptable compromise.

Later in the evening yesterday, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it is to be a Brahmin and why Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian.

Sometimes, when I don’t think enough I think it is ok to admit to the whims and fancies of other people just so that I don’t piss them off. But then when I do think about it, I find it ridiculous that saying a certain set of songs with certain pronunciation and intonation will have some bearing on my life. I find it incredible that feeding some random so-called Brahmins will help provide peace to my deceased parents.

Growing up with an ultra-religious mother and an atheist father, I never really “got” religion, I must say. In fact, the first time when I thought about religion was when I read about parts of America not believing in evolution (this was some 4 years back) – it was incredible that some people were so deluded that they didn’t accept something so fundamental. It was around the same time that I read The God Delusion (not a great book I must say – could’ve been written in < 20 pages), and the beliefs of the devout, as it described, shocked me.

It was around this time that I realized that some (nay, most) people actually take it seriously that if you pray for something it increases your chances of getting it. It shocked me to believe that some people believe that chanting a certain set of songs (mantras are just that, in Vedic language) will improve your life without any other effort on your part. It shocked me that people actually believe in afterlife and rebirth. By this time, my father had passed away, and this wasn’t a topic about which I could have a rational discussion with my mother, so I let it be.

Some temples (of various religions) make me feel calm and peaceful, and I love visiting them. There are temples which look so good I think they need to be preserved, and I make reasonably generous offerings there. There are festivals that I consider fun, and I celebrate them enthusiastically. We had a fairly large doll display at home this Navaratri. We burst fireworks and ate lots of sweets this Diwali. Last year we hosted a Christmas party. With some friends, I raided the kebap stalls in Fraser Town during Ramzan. We set up a little mandap at home for Ganesh Chaturthi, and displayed my collection of Ganesh idols.

But the concept of before-lives and after-lives and rebirth? That of prayers sans effort making a difference? That you need to feed some so-called Brahmins who can’t recite mantras for nuts just so that your parents attain peace in the afterlife? I find it all absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t put food out for crows – I find no reason to believe that my mother has transformed into one of them, and that that particular crow will come looking for food today. I haven’t worn back my sacred thread as promised yesterday. I think my cook had put onion and garlic in my lunch today. And life goes on..

Tithi hotels

A new and fairly lucrative business has developed in Bangalore over the last 10-15 years or so. An uncle of mine likes to call them “tithi hotels”. They are basically institutions that undertake contracts to help you perform the annual death ceremonies of dead ancestors (according to Hindu tradition, you are supposed to remember the dead on their death anniversary every year by performing a set of ceremonies. In kannada it’s called “tithi”) .

So conducting a tithi is fairly painful business, but until these tithi hotels came up, it was all supposed to be done at home. One had to get cooks, for there are restrictions on what can and cannot be cooked for such ceremonies. And then, one has to find a priest, and two “brahmins” who are supposed to be fed. And it’s a fairly messy affair and dirties up the house, and to put it mildly, not very pleasant.

These tithi hotels offer all these services under one roof. They arrange for the priests and the “brahmins” and the food, which is prepared according to exacting standards. And they provide a venue for you to conduct the tithi, and they even arrange for crows and cows to whom you feed the “pinDa”.

While doing my father’s tithi earlier today, I noticed some stuff I hadn’t really noticed today. So the two “brahmins” I spoke about – one is supposed to represent god and the other represents your dead ancestors, if I get it right. The former is “worshipped” wearing the sacred thread the right way, with rice, and doing things clockwise whenever there is circular motion involved. To “worship” the latter you wear the sacred thread the wrong way (right shoulder to left waist), use black sesame seeds, and performing all circular motions anti-clockwise.

My cousin, who is married into a family of priests, reliably informs me that several of her relatives make a living out of being “brahmins” at such ceremonies, where they take on the role of “god” and someone’s ancestors interchangeably, and collect a nominal fee (I think the tithi hotel I go to pays the brahmins 250 bucks a sitting) and a lunch heavy enough to last them the day. In fact, at my mother’s tithi last year one of the brahmins was an auto-driver, and he had taken a break from his driving duties to play god and collect his fee and lunch.

This business of tithi hotels is only bound to grow, since the population is increasing, which also means that the population of dead immediate ancestors is increasing. And I think the rate of growth of population is faster than the rate of growth of various forms of atheism, so this seems like a good business to be in. Actually this business has undergone some changes in the last 20 odd years.

Earlier, there used to be some large-scale tithi hotels, where they would do several tithis on the same premises, with priests and brahmins jumping from one to other and multitasking to cater  to a large number of clients. As you would expect, these places knew little about concepts such as hygiene (I’ve been to and conducted tithis in places like these, and haven’t understood at all the “cleanliness” (maDi) that is supposed to be associated with religious brahmins). But they think commercial and exploit economies of scale to provide tithi services at a reasonable cost.

Of late, these have been supplemented by “standalone” tithi hotels, which do only one tithi per day, thus ensuring greater cleanliness (though tithis continue to be messy affairs) and privacy, and allows you to invite a larger number of relatives to the tithi. Oh, and the one that I go to (twice a year, once each for my father’s and mother’s tithis) does serve up a damn good lunch.

Oh, and I don’t get this, but every tithi hotel I’ve been to has been largely staffed with Gults. Wonder why.

Axioms and fear

So it is around the time when I’m taking part in religious ceremonies that I question my religion, or lack of it. That’s when I need to interact with priests regularly, and sometimes talking to them is frightening. What is most frightening is their level of belief in certain things that I find absurd.

Every major religion is founded on a basic set of axioms. These axioms are designed in a way that they cannot be disproved scientifically.

Sure, there is no way to prove these axioms either, but then given that religion is the “defending champion” it has fallen upon the atheist to disprove the religious axioms. But the way these axioms are stated makes it extremely hard to disprove them. The best that most rational people can do is to call the axioms “absurd” and leave it at that, but that does nothing to convert people on the fence.

For example, take this concept of rebirth and reincarnation which forms the basis of a lot of Hindu thoughts. I find it absurd, and there is no scientific way to prove it (especially since the “universe” is so large since you could be reborn as any species). But there is no scientific way to disprove it either, which is what gives the proponents of this axiom more mileage.

The other thing I observe is that the easiest way to propagate religious thoughts is to create a sense of fear. Stuff like “say your prayers daily else god will punish you”. And then there are some selective examples (with heavy bias in selection) given of people who didn’t make the right religious noises and hence had to suffer. When faced with all this, the young child has no option but to comply with what the religious elders are telling him.

Then I realize that the way you are “taught” religion is extremely absurd. Growing up, you are simply taught a set of processes that you need to go through, without ever going to the significance of any of them. Even the axioms that form the basis of the religion are not exactly taught. In some cases, even the parents would have simply “mugged up the religious practices” and are in no position answer when kids ask them questions about these practices.

For example, when I read Dawkins’s book a couple of years back, I was shocked that there are people that actually believe that there was some “god” who created the universe. I’d always taken evolution as a given. Similarly while talking to priests yesterday (my mother’s first year death anniversary ceremonies are going on) I was shocked to find they actually believe in rebirth, and life after death. Of course, I do believe in Live After Death and think it’s an awesome album.

I just hope I’ll be able to inculcate a sense of questioning and rational reasoning in my kids, and help them protect themselves from blind faith.

Frequency of Temples

Earlier today, I realized that each temple has its own “frequency”. Frequency of doing the pooja and giving the mangalaarathi and tirtha and collecting offerings from the visitors. If I can generalize, I can say that the more popular temples featuring “standardized deities” are more likely to have better turnaround time in conducting poojas and archanas.

So I have based this study on two data points. On one hand, there is the Ganesha temple in Jayanagar 4th block (intersection of 30th cross and the diagonal road and 7th main; opposite Maiya’s). This is an extremely popular temple and draws thousands of visitors every day. And you must note that Ganesha is a “standardized deity” –  he is perhaps the most common deity across Hindu temples (if you count each avatara of Vishnu as distinct).

And this temple is quick. Despite getting hundreds of visitors every hour, the priests there work hard to serve everyone in quick time. The Mangalaarathi is held at a frequency greater than once every five minutes. Thus, you can just walk in, watch one round of mangalaarathi-and-bells, take the mangalaarathi, put in your offferings, drink the tirtha, go round and round, sit down for a minute and get on with your business, all within ten minutes. Maybe this efficiency (apart from the awesome location) is what gets this temple so many visitors.

Towards the other end of the spectrum is the Subramanyeshwara Temple in VV Puram that I visited it this morning. I had to get some pooja done there in order to kick off my wedding preparations (Subramanyeshwara is our “family deity”; one of the several reasons as to why I’m named my name) and went in at around 10 am. There was already a decent crowd there and I duly purchased my archane slip (oh how much I loved getting archane done when I was a kid – if not for anything else but to get the sugarcandy prasada) and tried getting the attention of one of the priests (there are several there) only to find that they wouldn’t accept the chit for another hour or so (the idol was being bathed at that time, and being scrubbed using one of those brushes used to clean brass instruments).

Considering it’s not too far from home, I duly disappeared and appeared an hour later, and by now the crowd was larger. I had to get my large frame between a considerable mass of people in order to reach a priest and hand in my archane slips (one for the self and one for the fiancee; I had purchased both during the first visit to the temple earlier today). And some further minutes later, there was a grand round of pooje after which they brought the mangalaarathi plate. A cycle time of a full two hours!

I don’t know how popular this temple is (I’m told it’s pretty popular), but I suppose one reason it doesn’t attract as many visitors as it might is because of the time commitment it demands. Due to the large pooja cycle time, only the most committed and devoted visitors visit the place. Maybe the temple loses out on contributions because of this, but maybe gains in terms of having only the more devoted devotees, which gives it an increased “average puNya per devotee”. And it is a choice that the temple and its priests have made, and I’m sure they have good reasons for the same.

Oh, and keep in mind that Subramanya is an uncommon deity when it comes to temples (definitely not when it comes to naming one’s kids).

PS: The tirtha they gave at the temple today was milk-based, which I think is quite messy since temples don’t really have places to wash one’s hands. Water-based tirthas are more appropriate since they can just be wiped on to one’s head after drinking.

PS2: I like it when the archane is done in front of me, when the purohit asks me for the details (name, gotra, nakshatra) rather than like today when it was all written on the chit and they performed the pooja inside. I like the personalized service of the former case.

PS3: To bring up a now-taboo topic, have I mentioned that Ganesha is a stud and Subramanya is a fighter? Just sayin’