No, that was not a typographical error.
I am an atheist Hindu.
How is that possible you will ask? Aren’t the ideas of atheism and religion antithetical to each other.
Well sure, maybe for some religions, but I have never come across a rule that says atheism and Hinduism are antithetical to each other.
So here I am writing about the religion I grew up with. What gives me the right some might ask. Me and the ‘sikularists’ of my ilk have spent so much time bashing the caste system, the militant aggressive Hinduism of certain fundamentalist groups. Do we have the right to write about Hinduism? What gives me the right, when I don’t go to the temple ever, and think that the Ramayana was really the tragedy of a woman called Sita?
Well the thing is, it is as much my religion as that of anybody else. And while it is true that organized religion is a huge juggernaut hurtling towards something with an unstoppable speed, with all its experts and pundits on board, religion is also something deeply personal.
I grew up listening to stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I was enthralled, as a child, at the exploits of Krishna, when I first heard the story of how Krishna managed to join the Pandavas.
The story goes somewhat like this. (I heard this a long time ago, so I may have got some details wrong):
Arjuna and Duryodhana both go to recruit Krishna on their side before the battle of Kurukshetra. While Duryodhana actually arrives early, he goes and sits near Krishna’s head. Arjuna comes a bit late, but goes and sits near Krishna’s feet. When Krishna wakes up, he first sees Arjuna and exclaims with joy. But then Duryodhana points out that he came there first. Krishna then says that ‘Duryodhana, since you came here first you definitely have a claim on me. But I happened to see Arjuna first, so he also has a claim on me. In order to do what is equitable I give you a choice… On one side is the WHOLE Yadava army. On the other I stand. Alone. Unable to bear arms for either side. Pick whoever you want.’
Duryodhana of course picks the Yadava army, thereby nailing his own coffin. When he comes back to give the news to his camp, someone (Shakuni, I think) reportedly tells him ‘You picked the 1000 sheep, and left the lion behind’.
Well Lions are legendarily lazy (given that lionesses do all the hunting), but I love the story as illustrative of the particularly wily nature of Krishna.
Something that I often wondered was, how Krishna-the-political-strategist is so different from the Krishna-of-Gokul. Are they the same person? If so, how could he forsake Radha and never call for her. Did he ever wonder how Radha was doing? Whether she missed him?
But when I read bits of the Gita (the bits that I can understand), I see that he did put into practice his idea of nishkam karmayog. After the Gokul chapter was closed, he did not look back, simply because his Dharma did not allow him to.
Another incident that comes to my mind is the first time I learnt about Pap-and-Punya. On a hot summer afternoon in Bhubaneshwar, when I must have been four, one Bhagirathi (an Oriya boy about 20 years of age) told me about what Paap (sin) was, and how we acquired Punya (I don’t know what the English translation of Punya is, virtue doesn’t quite cut it). But his idea was (and a rather crude one it was), if you did good things you got Punya and would be born as a higher life form in your next life. If you committed Paap, you would not be born as a very nice life form. And the two things tended to cancel one another out.
Now this system really made sense to me when I was four.(though I later learnt that there are far more intellectually sophisticated schools of thought in Hindusim). So the next day I was on the lookout for ‘good’ things to do. As I lay in ambush I saw a Gecko in our compound wall, stealthily approaching a moth. The moth seemed blissfully unaware of what was going to happen to it. Quixotically I stepped in, and shooed the Gecko away.
I then went to Bhagirathi and reported to him that I had done my good deed for the day. Bhagirathi was pleased at his pupil’s sincerity, but delivered a crushing blow to me by saying ‘But you deprived the Gecko of its food! It will have to go hungry now.’
That was when I, as a four year old, realized how complex right and wrong were. It is sad that so many people, baying in the name of religion, don’t understand this simple truth that was evident to a four year old child.
I also remember going to the temple every evening as a child. This was the red brick Ram-mandir in Bhubaneshwar. It had a lot of shrines dedicated to different Gods. The Rama shrine was the biggest of course, but I never took to it. Firstly because it was big and impersonal, and secondly because even as a child I did not like what Rama did to Sita. But my favourite was the Krishna shrine, because I loved the god, the Hanuman Shrine, because no one visited him much, and I felt a little bad for him. I am very ashamed to admit that I went to the Shiva Shrine simply because the pujari used to bribe me with sweets. But hey! I was seven.
Later ofcourse I saw Shiva as the radical God that he really was, and some what of a destroyer of the status quo. (Primarily because he just destroyed stuff when he got mad, so the status quo had to be very careful, as one Daksha learnt when it was to late). I will now go to a Shiva shrine gladly. Bribe or no bribe.
One particularly sweet memory is that of listening to the story of Mahishasur-wadh in Oriya on a cassette player. My baby sitter and indefatigable housekeeper had this tape that he loved playing. In the afternoons I would sit by his side and listen to him play this cassette till the point that I had memorized it.
I remember why Durga was created, and how she was empowered. I remember listening to how Mahishasur taunted her till a great battle ensured, and how she killed the demon.
Ujjal Chakraborty, an uncle of mine, gave this a beautiful interpretation. He designed a Durga idol once, for a pandal in Kolkata. The Durga was a tribal girl, armed with beautiful birds. Wearing a white saree with her dark hair flowing, she was slaying the colonial conqueror. The demon was a European man, come to drain the country of her resources, and Durga was a slip of a tribal girl, standing up to him..
So yes, Hinduism is as much my religion as that of anyone else. To me it was never an insecure religion. You could believe anything you wanted, you could form your sect, have your beliefs and it would embrace you and your new ideas. Its beauty was that it did not need to discredit others or make them feel small, to be big (I doubt any religion does, but then I am not an expert). But this was the religion I grew up with.
And slowly I began to read history. I learnt about the caste system and the terrible ways in which some castes were exploited. I also learnt about how wiser, greater men than most, tried their best to fix it. I learnt about the unforgivable horrors of the partition, and the lie that two big religions could not co-exist. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Partition)
After that I got bitten by a radioactive bat and turned into a ‘sickularist’.
Of late focus has shifted away from this tolerant beautiful Hinduism. People feel the need to assert it aggressively. I don’t know if I have a right to comment on that, since religion is deeply personal. But such chest-thumping distracts one from the beauty of the religion, its many nuances. I just wanted to show you, dear reader, what this religion can be.
I can say no better thing about it, than the fact that it lets me be an atheist Hindu.