Sunday, October 7, 2012

Trusting Faith

It was August of 1999. We had just moved to Newcastle from Toowoomba, Queensland. After starting Australian life in Melbourne four years back, this was our third move to third state. Without being staunchly religious, my upbringing with Hinduism defining our way of life, I really did not miss the visits to a temple. But with young children, being so far away from our foundations, there was a sense of being foot-loose and a concern of not being able to instill some sense of cultural heritage in our two boys. The term “Culture” often becomes synonymous, rightly or wrongly, with religious rituals so that “faith”, the basic ingredient of any religion, often becomes secondary. My experience with ritualistic rigidity in India had left me a little weary of the institutional nature of any religion, but both myself and my wife, were fortunate enough to be brought up in families that in spite of being devout Hindu, allowed every individual a freedom of being a believer without performing rituals set in stone. It was that introduction to the "democratic" nature of Hinduism at a very young age that allowed me to see the "Satya" (truth) beyond rituals. Rituals are like clothes that dress up “faith”, the soul of any religion. Faith is defined in a dictionary as “belief that is NOT based on PROOF”. Science being my profession, it was difficult to accept anything without proof. However, what helped us to trust their belief in their faith was our elders' practicing Hinduism more than preaching. Our upbringing helped us to realize that while rituals are important, more important is to understand the element of faith within religion. We were indeed, determined to give our children the same choice.

There were sporadic visits to different temples on special occasions that exposed our children to our heritage. However, as Hinduism is quite flexible with ritualistic practices, there was a concern that lack of a communal exposure to our faith may not provide sufficient evidence to our children that trusting someone’s faith can also work for you; similar to what our parents had done. Mainly because there was a difference. We grew up in India in an environment where Hinduism was a major denominator and exposure to cultural heritage hard to escape. Growing up in country Queensland, they were not likely to have that opportunity. While there was no argument that they will determine their own faith as our parents left it for us to determine, we believed providing sufficient opportunities will allow them to make informed decisions. Strange as it may sound; it was all about keeping trust in our faith!

We were invited to a monthly Pooja (congregation) in the temple managed by the Vedic Samiti of Newcastle, located in Cardiff South. While a beautiful idol of Lord Krishna and Radha was housed in the shrine, the walls were adorned with pictures of many other deities. What struck me instantly, perhaps the first temple I ever visited, was absence of a dedicated Poojari (priest). That also meant that the temple remained closed most of the times, and there were no daily or indeed regular rituals performed in front of the deity. The rituals on the pooja day included praying together followed by a couple of speeches or discourse by community members and discussions before sharing prasad (food offered to God and accepted as His blessings). Perhaps the most enchanting feature of the program was participation of children who were encouraged to speak about Hindu culture and/or religion. Giving children a platform where elders sat and listened to them even though the stories were well known to them, was a sign of paying equal respect to every human being, old or young, the basis of Hinduism and certainly, any other religion. It also showed that exposure through practicing rather than preaching is likely to develop belief within young minds more easily; something that had attracted me to the faith as a child in the first place. It was also an opportunity for us to get introduced to the Indian community in a new place. Humans being social animals, this was very helpful especially for new comers like us, as it gave a snapshot of the local Indian community. The temple, I found, provided spiritualism through praying communally; a well established family tradition for us. From there on, it was not hard to settle down within the new community.

Over next few months we came to know more about the temple and Vedic Samiti, the organizing committee or the trustee board and the owner of the property. The Vedic Samiti that manages the affairs of the temple is an elected committee from within the membership. The pooja day is scheduled once a month, preferably on first Sunday. Annual roster of volunteers is drawn up from among the members who share the responsibility of preparing food, manage every pooja day and clean up after wards. Since there is no designated priest, the temple remains closed most of the times and there are no regular rituals performed in front of the deity. However the temple premise is available to any member of the community at any time they want to offer prayers in private. There is a minor charge for annual membership per family, and maintenance cost is managed through other voluntary donations from visitors on every pooja day. This temple is very similar to a personal temple that exists within almost all Hindu homes, certainly in ours. The personal nature of practicing Hinduism also becomes very apparent here, even while being a communal place of worship.

What has continued to draw me and my family to this temple is a less ritualistic nature of the congregation. Indeed, I feel that ritualism has been replaced by spiritualism in this temple. Worship or religion or indeed faith, is a very personal thing. It provides an opportunity to every individual to avail some time in a busy day-to-day life to connect with one’s self; perhaps go beyond physical aspects of life to a spiritual one. If rituals are expected to be followed, explicitly or implicitly, and are followed with rigidity, they tend to become chore. Eventually, this can turn one away from faith or spirituality, which I believe, everyone feels the need for, at some stage in their life. I also believe that entrenched conviction about inflexible nature of rituals is a first step towards religious fanaticism and goes against the belief within any religion. We see with a lot of trepidation, that the world today is becoming increasingly less tolerant about ritualistic interpretations even though every religion basically tells you how to live in harmony with other life forms. Hence, this temple to us has been like an oasis in the desert. We participate in these congregations as often as we can and volunteer with whatever we can, without forcing our children to participate. As they have grown older and more mature, we have seen signs of the religious faith growing within them. Indeed keeping trust in our faith has worked!

Regularly I meet people, nice, decent, hard working, honest, ideal human beings who without hesitation acknowledge, that they have lost touch with religion or even God!! The very people who I believe, every religion would love to hold up as model representatives of their most basic message. Atheists, agnostics, disbelievers, whatever they would classify themselves to be; the common thread is a loss of trust in faith, God and a near total hatred for the god-men (and women), or the Guru!! Why is it that we see this growing discontent and disconnect from religion? 

I am reminded of a very famous and lovely doha (a couplet) from great sufi poet Sant Kabir :
Guru Gobind Dono khade,Kaake Lagu Paaye
Balihari Guru Aapnni, Gobind Diyo Bataay...

Translating it means:
I see both God and Guru (teacher) in front of me; who should I bow down to first? 

Thanks to him, I can see the God, so I shall bow to the teacher first.

Lovely thought and very apt. True to the message in this lovely couplet, for centuries in Hindu culture, people have been seeking guidance of a virtuoso teacher, a Guru, who will show them the path to salvation. It is an unwritten ritual in any branch of Hinduism to follow some or the other guru, a scholar, leader of a sect, an exalted personage, a PPDD (Param Pujya Dharma Dhurandhar, परम पूज्य धर्म धुरंधर). It is almost as if without hanging on to the coat-tails of such a person, a homo sapien non-the-less, one would not see even the path ahead. What has been mentioned by the wise men (and women), with a good intention no doubt, has been used by the rogue elements within the society to fleece the masses in the name of religion. It is not surprising then, that slowly but steadily, masses have started loosing  respect for such people. What is painful to note, though, is that those who feel betrayed by such "Gurus", feel betrayed to a level where their trust in the faith shakes to its core. For whatever it is worth, such gurus become a part of the group of learned and deservedly respectable scholars who represent the religion and indeed God for the followers. Not surprising then, that religion will take a hit when followers become disenchanted. More importantly, this develops a distrust in faith. While it may be like trying to blame Samuel Colt for all the deaths resulting  from a pistol, it is understandably easy to blame the only visible representative of something whose existence can not be proved but felt only by those who believe.
It is quite ironic, in my opinion, that the very mechanism that was put in place to help the masses, namely ritualistic structure of any religion, may be the reason for many people to go away from it today. In my mind, once again, the debate converges to the same point: do I need someone to tell me what is my religion, what is my faith? All my life experiences so far tell me to consider my faith as a very personal thing. Without being egoistic, I believe I should be able to work that out on my own; simply because my definition of salvation is about what I do here, while I live, rather than beyond my life. Do I worry about the so-called salvation that many religions promise if I pursue certain ritualistic path or do I focus upon my duty, my "karma" trusting my faith? I have seen many of my elders live their lives, fulfilling their promises to us, their families and to the communities of which they were products, trusting this philosophy, this faith. The acts of those gone are like a beacon to me, guiding me on my path of life. It tells me that one can never go astray, trusting faith... 


  1. Ritualism has replaced spiritualism..

    I believe there is a good and a bad side to this.. Certain rituals do tend to work along to portray and add to the sactity and meaning of religion. Religion often gets jnterfwined by the culture. For instance, touching elders feet is a ritual in itself but Vedic philosophies say that this act is a medium where positive energy in the form of blessings is channelised from elders' toes to children... Here we can question as to why adhere to this ritual when we know hugging them can be equally fulfilling. My point is there are rituals that are good that adorn the jewel of religion and tradition, whereas certain ones are just detestable and superficial. For instance , creating a society where only Brahmans are granted the rights to conduct pooja. Are we certain that any generic Pandit with no offense to the vocation is pure at heart and humanitarian as in comparison to my maid who dutifully earns a respectable living for her family.

    Tirupati Balaji in Southern part of India is one of the richest temples in this world. They have the highest gold treasury with a huge financial portfolio. It is our blind faith that make up these statistics. Would it have been a different story if these statistics belonged to an orphanage or hospital that treats the patients free ?
    My point is not about just rebelling against any practices adjoining our faith but it actually comes down to questioning them for our own good and finding a logic to justify these rituals that are more biased towards humanitarianism as a soul of our religion and faith.

    1. I'm all for placing spiritualism over ritualism because it is the rituals that divide us as people. God doesn't need our rituals, He needs only our love and obedience, which is the essence of faith.

    2. Nicely put, Susan. Absolutely true. Though I have seen that sometimes, especially in hard times, rituals give a kind of mental peace that nothing else can. This is true especially in case of death in a family. Rituals allow one to grieve and help settle the mind. Religion has its place but unfortunately either out of fear, lack of education or sheer marketting of religion, people allow others ideas to impose upon theirs. I believe religion is a personal matter and if you control it, you can manage it for the betterment of your life. That is why Hinduism is more a way of life than religion, as it gives that choice. While the main purpose of all religions is to improve the way of life; Somewhere along it has been hijacked by the power hungry humans..

  2. Well said, Viral. At your age or even before I was rebellious, simply because I did not see much value in sticking to rituals for the sake of it. If a ritual gives you happiness, it has value. Sometimes we do things to make others, whom we respect, happy and see our happiness in that. It started happening to me as I grew older. So every one's idea about life, faith changes as we grow older and acumulate experiences. If at some stage in life, one feels like becoming a ritualistic devout, so be it. In my two grand mothers, I have seen tremendous benifits of rituals. It gave them something to live for. But it is a personal thing. One needs to find out what is the defination of one's happiness first..then every thing falls in place. Today, nothing angers me, because I can stay "alipt" (detached) from ritualistic nonsense around me, but still retain my faith. I have no problem with those who follow rituals very stringently as long as they accept my "conveniently ritualistic" way of life.... :-)