On Religion

Last Thursday thereĀ  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.


I’ve never been the religious type. I seldom go to temples. I seldom go to temples in my own city. I do visit temples when I’m traveling, but that is more as a tourist attraction. I’ve been to Tirupati once (Boxing Day 1991) and to Mantralaya twice and am not keen to visit either place again. After my first visit there in 1990, I would consider the Annapurna templeĀ  in Horanadu (near Chickmagalur) as my favourite temple. This was until a year ago when I visited it again and got pissed off by the crowds and formalities.

The amount I contribute to the Hundi in temples is also highly variable, and a direct function of how much I like the temple. I consider my contribution to the Hundi as my contribution for the upkeep and maintenance of the temple, and in support of the temple’s activities (for example, I tend to put in a higher amount in temples which serve free food). If I don’t like a temple, I just make a token contribution of Rs. 2 or Rs. 5 and flee. Also, I usually make my contributions to the Hundi, and not to the plate that comes along with the mangalaarathi. This is to ensure that the priest doesn’t kult my contribution.

Some temples do end up making me feel spiritual. It is hard to describe that feeling but let me tell you that it is the same that I felt when I smoked my first cigarette (and decided that smoking was too addictive to take up as a hobby and abandoned it). It is that feeling of inner calm. It is that feeling of being at complete peace with oneself. Sadly I haven’t felt that way at any temple since I started earning, else that temple might have been blessed with a fat contribution from my wallet.

I find the temples in North India too noisy. I remember literally running away from the ISKCON temple in Delhi six years ago because I thought it looked like a discotheque – loud devotional songs and people dancing. Today I went to a couple of temples near Connaught Place and it was similar – loud bhajans on one side, astrologers sitting all around the temple, and general disorder everywhere else. There was no way that temple could offer any peace or calm or any spiritual benefit. I fought with my mother when she insisted I should contribute at least Rs. 10 to the Hundi.

My contribution to temples is also an inverse function of its popularity – I usually contribute less at more popular temples because I can freeride on the rest of the visitors’ contribution. If it is a smaller temple and if i like it, I feel more responsible to contribute towards its upkeep.

And when I go to a temple, I always get archane done. That way, I definitely get some sugar candy!

And why do I not want to go back to Tirupati? Because I think it is too crowded to offer any kind of spiritual benefit. And Mantralaya? The last time I went there someone got a special pooja done in my name and as “prasad”, the swami there threw a towel on my back, and then threw an orange and asked me to catch it. I find that demeaning and don’t want to go back there again. Oh, and I wasn’t let in to the dining hall since I wasn’t wearing my sacred thread.