The other day I was having a chat with my partner about a dream in which he and a long dead prominent political figure were having a discussion about the future of socialism and capitalism in India and how the political figure felt quite agitated about the current condition of Indian political scenario, etc. As the content of the dream was quite interesting, we started discussing the idea of politics and its linkages to mass organised religion. While on this, the threads turned from the dream to our respective political and ideological leanings, beliefs, likes and dislikes and pet peeves and opinions, etc., and as it happens we ended up having a rather heated conversation around all of those threads. The conversation left me quite pensive about the some of the difficulties that I face when I come face to face to with “in your face” expression of what one can call religiosity or spirituality. As I looked back in my life, I could see that a large part of my spiritual or religious thoughts or ideas have been shaped by two sources ..
one is memories of my childhood and adolescence spent in a boarding school in Kolkata which was founded more than 150 years ago by Pandit Shibnath Shastri, one of the doyens of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in Bengal. While the school admitted Hindu girls like me in its fold, it followed the rituals and philosophies of the Brahmo Samaj, like the Vedic hymns during the school assembly, daily morning and evening prayers in the hostel, and regular visit to the Brahmo Samaj on significant days of celebrations, festivals and prayers.
While as a child my senses were overwhelmed by the sound, fragrance and visual of the rituals such as beautiful decoration of the prayer hall with flowers and incense, the mellifluous songs (mostly of Rabindranath Thakur, but also of others) that were sung during any prayer meetings, the readings from the works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Debendrannath Thakur, Keshab Chandra Sen and the likes and the sombre and quiet congregation which used to gather together to offer their prayer to the idea of a supreme being of the universe who was formless and was all encompassing.
The second was the memory of Goddess Kali being worshipped at my aunt’s residence and my uncle’s devotion to her. While my uncle was an artist in the Nandal Bose gharana and in many ways was a maverick, he was quite an erudite person and could hold fort for hours in philosophical discussions, especially when it came to theology and such likes. I received his company till I was six or seven years old and I remember sitting on his lap while he discussed philosophy with his friends in the living room. I remember being fascinated with the stories and fables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Ma Saradamani and Goddess Kali, that I heard from them. I also remember being encouraged by my uncle to ask questions and to take part in the discussions. All those experiences were supplemented by the family’s regular visits to the Dakshineswar Temple at the northern fringe of Kolkata.
These two seemingly opposite experiences created a peculiar mix of ideas around spirituality for me during my formative years. On one hand I grew up believing that God or the supreme being was omnipresent in every living and non living beings in the universe and hence each animate or inanimate, living or non living beings were connected to each other. This belief helped me connect with nature and other living beings quite deeply and I started to believe that since every element in this planet is connected to each other, we just had to find the connection or experience it for ourselves. On the other hand, the stories of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Goddess Kali took me to a wonderous world of bhakti, surrender, mysticism along with an intense feeling of affection and intimacy with the Goddess, as though she was my own mother or my daughter. Now, It is entirely possible that my psychologically orphaned identity while searching for inclusion, belonging and intimacy, made meanings of both these experiences in a way that made the whole universe connected to me on one hand where I could belong, and on the other, created a familial link with a Goddess who would own me as her own.
Whatever be the reasons or analysis, today when I look at the idea of spirituality for myself, I find that it is a very private affair between me and my God, and it does not necessarily seek or need any external validation of any kind.
On another plane, this also makes me tolerant of the co-existence of multiple meanings and paths of religiosity practised by people and makes it difficult for me to endorse any ideology that calls for violence of any kind, implicitly or otherwise; or believes that in order for it to exist and flourish, the contra or different ones must be extinct.
However, all of the above also has a price to be paid. As much as I believe in plurality, I also see that personally for me, I am not really sure where do I belong in terms of my faith in a social sense. While I have not defined my faith to myself except to surrender in humility, I am rather at a loss to put myself in any particular frame, lest it excludes the others. Sometimes I also see that this does not perhaps give me a sense of a root, a platform or a sense of belonging to any social group and that path can be rather lonesome at times.
I guess I am not really searching for faith but perhaps searching for a platform where multiplicity can flower without sacrificing or giving up the innate essence or basic aastha of each one.
What have been your experience of your religiosity and what have been some of your questions?