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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




When Temple Bells Drown The Earth's Heartbeat:
Earth-Based Spirituality Versus Organized Religion

By Aparajita Sengupta

23 June, 2015

I grew up irreverent with regards to religion. My parents believe in god, and show respect to certain religious customs, but they are far from being deeply religious. We worshiped twice a year at home, but the idols that are scattered in our house mostly serve artistic (some are very poor art in my opinion, but my parents beg to differ) purposes. They are not housed together icon-style, and there is no daily ritual of feeding or clothing them, or lighting diyas or decorating with flowers or chanting hymns from a dead language we don't understand. Every year, on two special days ascertained by the almanac, we would worship the goddesses Saraswati and Laxmi at home, in ceremonies that were specially designed by my liberal educated parents, who made a point of trimming what they deemed “unjust” from the typical ceremony to device a special version for our family. The ceremonies were only half-serious. My parents would, for example, say that the main point of the ceremony was the food and hanging out with friends over it, but they were not ready to chuck out the whole religious routine. It is hard to state the ground rule for what they accepted and what they didn't, but there were some basics: no priests (because they did not believe in the caste system, and my dad was extremely uncomfortable to the idea of having a priest say his prayers for him); no special utensils, we could use pots and pans from the kitchen if they were clean (vegetarian and non-vegetarian vessels are a big deal for purists); my parents would fast, but we couldn't (they needed to burn some fat being the excuse, we could fall sick); artistic display and food was really important, but all the items necessary in a ritualistic ceremony, including flowers, a green coconut, mango leaves, vermilion, fruits, honey, ghee, five different kinds of cereal and some other things whose actual or symbolic purpose in the ritual has become hazy over time were bought and displayed.

We would get up in the morning, shower and put on fresh clothes, help baba with the decoration and ma with the cooking, worship in the evening, and have dinner with the food offered to the idols after that. The worship itself was peculiar, because we did not have a clear idea of the sequence, and would do random things like ringing the brass bell, wave the diyas, or scatter the flowers, in no particular order , while baba would insist on chanting some hymns he remembered from his childhood (I was quite embarrassed when I realized that the hymn writers were obsessed with goddesses' breasts) and ma on pressing our palms together and touching our heads on the floor at the end. There was plenty of giggling, and an ROFL interlude at one instance where baba had brought a “panchali”, a prayer book written for women observing the ritual, and ma, reading it aloud in a sing-song tone as was the custom, found that she met the description of the bad woman to every inch. The seeds of my irreverence were hence sown in trying to practice religion. I am still ashamed to admit that I was the “priest” in such ceremonies for a long time, throwing off the holy mantle only as teenager who would not put up with the outwardly practice of a religion and gods she no longer believed in. It was also quite irritating to follow ma's instructions regarding the sequence of flower-throwing and diya waving (when she ran out of ideas she would sometimes ask me to wave random things I had never seen a priest wave); she would figure out a new routine every year, and insist that that was our “tradition”. With time, even the vestiges of this sort of upbringing fell off me; I had retained, for example, the habit of including artistic idols in home decor, but gave it up when they seemed to send out the wrong message. I stopped touching my forehead every time I accidentally stepped on someone's toes, and I successfully got over the almost physical sense of cringing every time my feet touched a book.

I have always questioned and criticized organized religion, and I am often confused and pained by my liberal friends' choice to follow religious institutions, or to participate in ceremonies that specifically disempower women or minorities in the modern context. The two (possibly connected) parts of my being that are said to be related to religion, my morality and my spirituality, have been nurtured by a law-abiding, truth-speaking, neighbor-friendly family, and my connection with nature respectively. I do not know where I have come from, and I do not know where I am going. I do know I am here on a finite piece of rock for a certain amount of time, and I would like to tend, share and provide support wherever I can. My finite time and space tells me that to loot and plunder, either my fellow beings or the planet, would not give me the satisfaction of tending and curing, hence my basic spiritual awareness of my condition shapes my morality. I did not need religiosity to arrive at this position. Moving out of the city to grow my own food has recently given me more exposure to the miracles of this universe, and I think I have more time to introspect. I know I won't find the answers to my being and that of the universe, but I am happy to seek and wonder. Spirituality keeps me alert to the wonders around me, and makes me responsible in the process. It also brings a lot of child-like wonder, otherwise named happiness. Many, many people who visit religious institutions on a regular basis do not seem to be aware of the immensity that surrounds us. Our planet would not be in its current state if they did. Religion was not meant to be a tool to ask for material happiness, but when I see material craving and religiosity prosper side by side--the million holy rings on the plump fingers of the businessman who employs school-age kids--I have little doubt that religion assures the unjust that they will be safe if they honor the institution, however unethical their actions are to people or the planet.

As an inhabitant of a country deeply divided by religion, I doubt organized religion. I understand the need to seek and wonder, but I do not see why an independent thinker, aka every human being, would need to gather in a particular building, wave hands or shake heads or press palms or chant things someone else wrote or repeat words after someone to seek within themselves. I to find it hard to accept that people who bear the flags of independent creative thinking, equality, spiritual seeking, or even god, can submit themselves to the archaic motions of organized religion. All the arguments in favor of organized religion-- that it creates community, it helps the helpless and the mentally weak, it helps the poor-- are social issues that call for a change at the political as well as the spiritual level. Organized religion remains a soft campaign for ganging up, of deepening the us-versus-them divides, of retaining the irrelevant and the spiteful, and a general dulling of what could be an exciting path to seek the unknown. Even in cases where a religious institution is not actually spreading hatred (by the instances in our world, these are increasingly rare), it is obstructing the way to wider, more mixed communities that bridge gaps of caste, class or color. It might not be incorrect to say that religious institutions today remain as social and racial ghettos. Their messages might not be incorrect, but they function to segregate and divide, even within the same sect. A white gunman shooting down black worshipers in a city full of churches is an instance where organized religion is unable or unwilling to bridge racial gaps to create wider community. Religion might have been an intrinsic part of the black struggle, but the question remains whether it will ever help bridge the deep racial divide in America.

In spite of all the terror that comes out of organized religion, speaking against it is still unacceptable, even in liberal circuits. Asking people to question it is often perceived as an affront to religious freedom. In left-liberal circuits, it is far easier to berate communism as brainwashing, faculty-dulling, or power-driven than to critique religious practice. The most frequently-cited aims of religion, good behavior on this planet and recognizing what lies beyond us, the core of religion, has nothing to do with the organized practice of religion. Organized religion could in fact take focus away from the fact of our irresponsible behavior—praying does not heal the planet or distraught fellow humans, compassion and positive action do; asking for pardon does not absolve us from the crimes we commit by merely buying the things we buy, knowing more about the process of production does. In the current condition of the world, no manner of religious wisdom will make changes unless there are changes in our economic and political models. [I am in particular dilemma regarding a Pope who preaches environmentalism. I have no idea how to react, and I am not asking who's paying him. As much as I am excited by the idea of instant mass change through the influence of a religious leader, I am put off at the thought of the world changing, albeit for the better, only because a religious leader dictates his followers to make the changes. How can that be conscious change?]

When I try to come to terms with my liberal friends' celebration of religion or religious organizations, I think about my parents' approach to religious practice. Maybe shaking off religion is a process that spans generations; maybe when people recognize the problems with organized religion, and one by one components that went hand in hand with religious practice are discarded as unfair or divisive, religion might not be confined to cliques or to specific communities. Stripped of superstition, the caste system, discriminatory thought or practice against women or the gay community, generalizations to describe the Other, or jingoistic celebration of religious identity, religion might show its true core. I wonder, though, if it is worth the while of intelligent people to hold on to something and keep wanting to reform it, rather than start with fresh thought and sensibility. Maybe, like I see in my parents, it is impossible to throw it all off at once and reject internalized habits of religious practice, but trying to listen in on our planet's heartbeat on a quiet day, someone might figure out that the mysteries of the universe are never going to be solved in temples or mosques or churches.

Aparajita Sengupta is a farmer


Aparajita Sengupta








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