I remember my first visit to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1993. It was early morning . I was filled with peace as I made my way to the Mother’s Samadhi. The silence around the Samadhi ,I realized soon enough was very deceptive- there were atleast a the dozen or so people, sitting around with their eyes closed and praying. The flower decorations were some of the most beautiful arrangements I have ever seen! No body spoke and the tranquility seeped quietly into our senses awakening inner consciousness.
I went there again after a few years with my parents. I wanted to share with them the beauty of the place. But their reaction to this ambience was very different from mine. While my father was more interested in the attached bookstore selling the Ashram publications, my mother seemed almost uncomfortable with the silence and the complete lack of “having anything to do” around the Samadhi. She was relieved only when we left the place. Her complaint about the lack of a feeling of “holiness” made me take them to a Ganesha temple nearby. A medium sized South Indian temple, it was rather crowded with people jostling around to get a proper look at the idol, Amma , I knew felt good as she rang the bell , did her pradakshina, her namaskarams all the while chanting sholkas under her breath. She was beaming as the priest gave her a piece of the garland from around the idol’s neck which she dutifully cut into two passing me one while she tucked the other bit into her hair. I was happy that she was happy .
I remember a third visit to the Mother’s Samadhi a few months ago. A busload of people alighted outside the gates of the Samadhi. Out of the bus emerged women in brightly colored saris with flowers in their hair , men in veshtis and children in pavadais. Obviously, from a rural area, these people seemed baffled as they entered the area around the Samadhi. There was an elderly gentleman from the Ashram who was behaving like a school headmaster asking them to be silent and not touch the flower arrangement on the Samadhi. Someone’s mobile in the group rang loudly playing a popular Tamil film tune as people sitting quietly around the Samadhi opened their eyes looking for the source of the sound. A lady from the Ashram glared at the offender and pointed to a sign board that said “please switch off or put your mobile phones on silent mode” .
Whenever I think of these incidents I am left very confused. I do not mean to disrespect the Aurobindo Ashram or its philosophy . But I can also empathize with people who do not relate to this form of religion. What then, constitutes religion for the average Indian? Or let me put it differently- what are people looking for when they want to experience religion? What do they mean by prayer?
Let us look at a typical temple. There are certain set rules about what you do when you enter it ( with minor regional variations ). You leave your slippers outside, you buy your Archana ticket ( or you get yourself a panda/pandit if you are in northern India), you sometimes join a queue if the temple is very crowded. You hand over your puja plate to the priest, state your credentials ( name, star, gotra etc) , push others to get a better view of the god, move your hand over the karpoora arati and touch it over your eyes, extend your hand out for tirtham and bow down to get the “jatari”. You receive your puja plate and/ or vibhuti/ kumkum and then stroll around doing your pradakshina ,work out which way is east after which you bow down and do your namaskaram. All the while, you keep up your chitchat about mundane things with your companions and if you run into your friends or relatives you exclaim loudly with pleasure- your voice unnoticeable in the general din that prevails.
Is this peculiar to temples? Take for example the shrine “Velankanni” in Nagapattinam. While Christianity has a very prescribed form of worship ( with variations depending on the sect) the Velankkanni shrine is very different. The ambience is almost similar to the temple scenario mentioned earlier. People buy candles and garlands and offer them. If it is the Velankanni shrine in Chennai there are opportunities for people to touch a glass covered statue of the Virgin Mary, rest their heads against it and pray. Of course, one would have to stand in a queue for that but people obviously have a lot of patience when it comes to religion.
Some staunch Christians say that such behavior is outside the prescribed tenets of their religion. Agreed! In a country where noise gives people comfort, a silent cathedral would probably scare them! It is not just religion but also culture that people practice in places of worship. In a polytheistic culture, the Virgin is probably seen as yet another goddess. The Catholic faith, I must say has been most inclusive in this regard allowing people to express their culture through rituals that they are comfortable with.
But are rituals in themselves religion? No! . However, it is these rituals that make something as abstract as religion come alive for the average person in our country – a person who is not very educated and for whom that occasional family outing consists of going to a place of worship, dressed in their best , asking god to bestow on them some blessings and then coming out to do a bit of shopping in the shops around the temple/church, have a meal before getting back home.
While the mindless adherence to rituals may be annoying the faith behind their adherence is what drives the power that is called “religion”! It is what gives people their identity- tells them who they are which in turn gives them a feeling of confidence. No wonder, the average person gets bored sitting around Samadhis trying to chant “Aum”. We may not understand a word of those “sahasranams” that we chant but we feel good when we have finished chanting them. Task completion is an essential part of connecting with a power that we mortals do not or may not understand easily.
The Bhakti movement in the medieval period sought to bring “God” closer to the common man . Bhakti saints used the medium of music to connect with God and almost succeeded in doing away with caste based religious intermediation. We may be a secular county but religion is very closely interwoven into our cultural fabric. It is very much in the public arena and not a private matter of the citizens. But unfortunately, we have not been able to positively leverage this force of mainstream religious culture for public good . All that we seem to have succeeded in is using the concept of religious identity to define “the other” – an excuse for spreading hatred ! And hatred as we all know, is not part of anyone’s culture!