Well, for once, the dictionary definition of religion sends mixed signals here! Let me explain why.
The archaic definition of the word literally translates to the belief in and worship of superhuman controlling power, akin to a god. But, the modern dictionary also defines it as ‘A pursuit of interest followed with great devotion’.
Now, do you see the issue? On the one hand, religion needs to revolve around an actual supernatural ‘power’ such as Vishnu, Jesus, Odin, Allah, or the slightly more metaphorical power of Mother Nature. While on the other, we could form a religion just by converging on the pursuit of casual Fridays with great passion!
So, I am a Hindu by birth. My religion has absolutely no shortage of godly figures, and I am not one to complain! If the numerous gods provide a paid holiday at least once a month throughout the year, who am I to question the supernatural? But as far as religion goes, I don’t think the gods are the reason that I identify myself as a Hindu. I won’t go so far as to label myself an atheist, but it has been apparent to me for a long time that faith is a gift that I am yet to receive.
What’s the difference between the two? Well, an atheist would probably consider Lord Hanuman as the outlandish imagination of an acid-ridden artist.Lack of faith is a lot more subtle. Sure, maybe someone by that name and with that deformity did exist several years ago! Was he supernatural? Who knows! You hang on to your beliefs, while I wait for the supernatural to come knocking someday!
But then, what makes me identify as a Hindu and be a part of this religion? For me, ‘religion’ is the pursuit of two things – a reason to meet people and connect beyond the routine, and to explore food that is almost exclusive to festivals that inadvertently tie back to religion! I know; sounds whimsical right? Let me illustrate
Case in point – Diwali. I am in no way convinced about the whole ‘return to Ayodhya’ storyline, however realistically Amish may have portrayed it in the Ramchandra series.
P.S. He hasn’t yet published the final book that chronicles the triumphant return of Ram, but I guess it will have SOME reference to Diwali.Here’s hoping that his explanation is slightly more nuanced than Ayodhya lighting up like a… I was going to say Christmas tree, but that just won’t work here, will it?
I like Diwali because it is an occasion to meet people whom you would usually avoid with a ten-foot pole. Nope, just kidding! I wouldn’t meet THEM especially on Diwali, which is incidentally the perfect occasion to revive distant acquaintances, reconnect with out-of-touch friends, and reinvigorate close relations. Not that you can’t do the same in any of the other 51 weeks, but the collective understanding and tolerance that this festival fosters only makes the task so much easier. For instance, when you walk up to a person on Diwali and say,
“Hey! Happy Diwali! It’s been long since we had a drink together! Wanna meet up this Saturday?” 99% of the respondents won’t say no unless of course, they don’t drink!
Scratch that conversation! When in India, during Diwali, stick to ‘chai’ and maybe venture into the ‘samosa’ area if you’re feeling adventurous. Most party animals turn teetotalers come Diwali, and with such vengeance!
The second thing that I pursue in religion is, without a doubt, food. Well, it may suffice to say that I am in search of good food every day, but festive food takes the pursuit up a notch in India!
Take the Ganeshotsava for instance – irrespective of my belief in the elephant-headed God, I do believe in eating as many juicy ‘modaks’ that I can until my stomach can take no more! And yes, with a healthy topping of pure desi ghee.
Or consider Holi, where I probably do not believe the story with Prahlad (re-incarnation of Vishnu) and Holika, but sure do believe in the delicious ‘puran-polis’ that mom makes at home, which are once again, consumed with copious amounts of ghee.
You must have realized by now thatA. Most Indian festivals are about the triumph of good over evil, similar to the three-act storyline in every Marvel movie ever!B. Ghee is like the Indian equivalent of olive oil in Italy. We cook with it, douse our desserts in it, dust our bread with it, and if there’s nothing else, eat a spoonful of it for well-oiled joints in the modest winters that we call ‘cold’!
But you get the drift. I like religion because it gives me festivals, and the festivals allow me to connect with people with far lesser difficulty while hogging food items that are too delicious to be had one at a time, but too inappropriate to be had throughout the year!
So, does that make me a religious person? How important is my faith in this debate?
Well, according to Oxford, as long as I pursue an interest with devotion, I am every bit as religious as the person who visits the temple everyday! The absence of faith does not make me any less of a Hindu!
I still light diyas at home, and I hang up the sparkling lights in my balcony. I go off meat for at least one day during Diwali (can’t do more than that!) and make the customary visit to the temple on D-day. And I honestly enjoy most of these activities, because it’s an equal joy to share in the faith of people who are blessed enough to have it.
But does my practical approach to religion mean that I am not worthy of it?
The issue is when we try to define religion as a one-size-fits-for-all paradigm. When really, what makes us religious, does not have to be one thing at all! We’ve got enough gods, festivals, and customs that can appeal to us at an individual level.
So, why choose one?