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Something very cool happened this year, possibly the only cool thing about religious events. On Sept 11, 2010, Ganesh Utsav, the Jain festival and Eid all fell on the same day. Of course there was mayhem in the city in terms of noise, traffic and chaos, and there were enough nostalgic elements in the city that found it “so lovely” that bright celebrations were sparking all over. However, the point is that special days can be one and the same, they can be celebrated differently, but we lay too much importance on the rituals surrounding the festivals rather than the point of the festival. Fasting, doing ‘darshan’, breaking the fasts, wishing people, it keeps people busy and makes them feel good about being busy in the religious way, but it really leads them nowhere. What changes from one month, one week or one day to the next?

Here are two examples of ritualistic followings which I know from close observation. All the other followings, world-over, are equally ritualistic in their own way and all boil down to the same conclusion.

Ganesh Chaturthi
You bring a Ganpati murti (idol) home, most often decorated in toxic colours and invite people over to take blessings, leave money behind that gets distributed amongst undeserving priests or among street children who use it for drugs and alcohol, immerse the idol in the already toxic water after a lot of banging and singing on the street, creating massive amounts of noise pollution that will probably even deafen the Gods.
– The soft muted music that was to bring one closer to the divine in terms of shlokas and words with meaning, have been replaced by loud DJ-driven music that play the latest techno and raucous bollywood hits, where youngsters get together and dance inebriated on the streets, blocking traffic and hassling all the people in the neighborhood.
– There are neighborhood collections of donations – not for improving society, but to provide funds for the DJ, alcohol, trucks and idol-trappings.
– The colours, paint and glitter used on the idols is killing our marine life, and even though it is on an idol of worship, it doesn’t miraculously save our marine life and water. It enters our eco system and poisons us.
– During these house visits to take blessings – it becomes a means for social gathering, where people attempt to be on their best behavior, but people being people end up discussing the most inane things in front of their revered idol. Such as gossip about other people and needling those with opinions.
– While the idol is at home, one must abstain from non-veg food, alcohol etc in its vicinity. There are those so addicted to these items that they can’t wait for the idol to leave and be immersed, so that they can go back to their daily drink.
– We use offerings to the idol as a means of eating anything – sweets are offered to the idol (apparently rich sweetmeats please the Gods – wasn’t that just a ruse for priests to make away with these sweetmeats?) and that becomes ‘prasad’ – blessed by the Gods and that can be and should be consumed by people generously.
– In the homes, as there is increasing staff problems during this festival (most of the staff leaves to go to their home town to celebrate), war breaks out at home because these sweetmeats MUST be made at all costs to ensure that the right offering is done.
– Most of the staff, who struggle to make ends meet, borrow money to buy expensive idols and celebrate this festival as a means to please the Gods. They have yet, in all these years, not got any form of deliverance; but the quest continues. They will leave a cushy job that doesn’t allow them to take full leave during Ganesh Chaturthi, even if it leaves them jobless and in debt.

While the sentiment and faith is indeed strong and full of conviction, to what end is this being done? Are they leading a better life (not materialistically, but morally)? Does it tell them that there is a way to the divine, and it should be followed with a desire to do good, less harm and a genuine improvement of the soul? Or is it merely a way to party in the name of religion?


The Jain Paryushan
Jainism is a way of life – a strict means to leading an austere and controlled existence, which is supposed to be devoid of unnecessary trappings of religious rituals. The result of the influence of Hinduism into the sects of Jainism and the growth of the Jains as a moneyed class of people, has lead to a strong dilution of the original principles and made it chance for Jains to carry a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. In this week, called Paryushan, Jains practice abstinence – from certain foods and if possible, fast as well. It is a means to build the will power of the mind and to control the body’s urges towards baser instincts by solidifying the mind’s role in the decision-making. While in concept it works, it has led to many people doing this half-heartedly, because they have been cajoled into doing so by family. There is no desire to withhold for a greater purpose of mental peace, rather do it to prove to the other that they weren’t ‘bad’. There is no whole-heartedness in this desire. While Jains believe in stringent non-violence, they follow the principles according to their convenience: don’t eat garlic, potatoes and onions (because as underground roots they contain more living organisms than those growing above the surface), but appear to be unconcerned by silk and leather goods, where one silk sari kills multiple silk worms. During their festival, it becomes mandatory for others to visit those who have fasted, making it a mad rush on the one morning from one ‘parna’ to another. These parnas where the fastee breaks his/her fast with some very simple food, becomes taxing to the household as they need to take care of the fastee and provide for food for the visitors. In certain families there appears to be a display of wealth in the lines of a wedding ceremony, with jewelry and clothes et al. Austerity and control over material desires anyone? During the week, as the fasts continue, the evenings are given up to religious discourses, where you listen to a priest talk about why these things are important, being a better person and leading a better life. Maybe the hunger deadens the brain cells, but the people who attend these discourses, look absorbed by the ideas and often find themselves in meaningless material pursuits a few days later – the kind that involve fighting over money within the family. The week over, people wish each other ‘Micchami Dukkadam’ which means if I have hurt you in any way in the past, please forgive me. This universal ‘Sorry’ makes everything okay and allows people – a nice ‘get out of jail free’ card – to go back to their ways until the next year’s apology. And the week over, people rush out in hordes to every restaurant and eat to their heart’s content. Abstinence, abstinence.

Every religion and festival leads to the same thing: leading a better, more moral life and being a good person. At the end of the day, all the rituals do is misguide us into thinking we are becoming better merely by performing them, but until we change from the inside out, we remain shallow and hollow and fake. These are just external trappings that do not fix attitudes and mind-sets, rather give people excuses to be whoever they like, whilst making it okay by performing these rituals. The ritualization of religion – the strongest example being Hinduism and all its varied sects and facets, has mired people into believing that rituals will take one towards a better life, towards deliverance. Rituals are like drugs – they have a feel-good factor associated with them, which make you think you’re feeling good, but actually lead you deeper into the mire of a material world from which you can’t escape. The more you do it, the more you are afraid of what life will become when you stop doing it. The more you do it, the more your mind gets weakened, gripping the rituals as a means to a better end, not being able to do without.

If we snapped out of the weakness of relying on rituals to make us feel like better people or to prove to the world that we are better people, and actually became better people – through our actions, inactions, thoughts, words, beliefs and societal and civic duties, we wouldn’t need religious rituals, just a simple philosophy on leading a better life. And life would become better – for everyone around. Rituals don’t fix the crime problem or over population, or poverty or illiteracy or unemployment or environmental degeneration or terrorism….rituals simply add to the list of mankind’s problems. If we are more humane and less ritualistic material beings, these problems would start solving themselves. That would please God a lot more than our worldly offerings.