The day I killed Ram and kept his diary.
Are you a believer?
That is a question that I frequently encounter. It wasn’t long ago that such a question wasn’t really warranted. Believing was rather taken for granted, you had to make your atheism explicit. Folks would assume that you would love to have a temple on your itinerary when you were visiting someplace new. It took a lot of explaining followed by caustic judgemental glances before you could spend some time at the bar instead. Being atheist wasn’t easy back in the day.
And when I say back in the day I don’t mean it in the way my father does about the 70s and 80. I don’t even mean it the way an underworked, overcaffeinated, and uselessly nostalgic office going millennial does. I mean back in the day like 7–8 years ago, when life wasn’t so simple and everything had boxes.
Allow me to give you some background. I come from a gujarati brahmin family. My great grandfather was a rockstar when it came to the Bhagavad Gita, my Grandfather was a reputed right wing hindu pricipal of a school, and my father was a wiz kid. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a sanskrit scholar and a landlord, none of which remained for his successors to enjoy but the genes that he had to give. And my mother was a self made woman who never backed down, however strong the force. I am privileged to have a heritage but that comes at a cost, the cost of expectation.
Being the only child to my parents, by my mother’s choice, I was always given two things in ample abundance, care, and education. Women are advised to read religious books when they are carrying, with the hopes that the almighty will shower the oncoming kid with abilities that no one else ever had. Going by the way people are turning out to be today, I am sure that theory is up for revision in the next journal of religious research. Oh wait…
Anyways, so by some measure of personal deliberation and some amount of
chance, my mother was reading “Freedom at Midnight” a few weeks before I was born. And while I discredited this theory in the last paragraph, I like to think it had some bearing in how I turned out to be. All of this to say that I am a misfit, at least in my family that expects me to wake up every morning and chant the gayatri mantra 12 x 108 times. I clearly have been absconding from the duty for a while now.
With the advent of the internet and by the access that I had to it, I started finding more people who thought the same way that I did. That made me happy, made me feel that some day when I could connect with them, I would finally be free from all the irrationality that haunts me day in and day out. But as I saw more of what atheists on the internet were talking about, I started getting the more murky side of the picture. It wasn’t all pleasant, in fact, it had started becoming irrelevant and ignorant.
More people today hate on religion because it gives them an image of solidarity, than the people who hate on it because of bad experiences. I am not here to police the idea of what must be hated and what shouldn’t be but there sure needs to be this band pass filter that cuts out ignorance from my newsfeed.
As I saw more of this hollow and thoughtless hatred, I realised something about myself. I wasn’t really an atheist in the sense of the modern manifestation of atheism. I did not hate religion as much as I questioned, and doubted it. I felt religion was beautiful, I thought that it took an immense amount of talent to come up with an idea that people will believe in, propagate, and stand for, until death, and beyond. I thought it was a great testament of what human passion can achieve, however misguided, and socially inappropriate, the execution might be. It sure was evidence of an undying spark.
I am a spiritual atheist. I am not a cultural atheist. I wish to sing the sunderkand (the fifth, and the most beautiful chapter of the Ramayana, a story of Hanuman, and a fun one indeed) when I have the mood and the chance to. I would not wish for my hatred to become a reason for the generation that I speak to, to become impermeable to the wonderful literature that has been left behind. If we can’t look at Ramayan and Mahabharat as scriptures that shape us, we can sure look at them the way we look at Harry Potter, or Illiad, or War and Peace. Allow me to elucidate with an example. Here is a shlok from a prayer called the Shiv Mahimnah Stotra. This used to be something that I was read to as a child (the whole stotra, every evening, it takes 20 minutes to get through it but the melodies beautiful).
असित-गिरि-समं स्यात् कज्जलं सिन्धु-पात्रे सुर-तरुवर-शाखा लेखनी पत्रमुर्वी।
लिखति यदि गृहीत्वा शारदा सर्वकालं तदपि तव गुणानामीश पारं न याति॥
And here is what it means.
“Take the largest mountain that there is, and turn it into indigo, then dissolve it into the ocean, make it an inkpot, pick a branch off the the kalp-vruksh (the mythical tree that grants all your wishes) and turn the earth into paper that you could write on.
Give all of this to Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge and wisdom) and give her till the end of time to write. Oh lord shiva, even then, an exhaustive list of your qualities cannot be formed”
I understand that it is pompous. But it is also beautiful. It is imaginative, and amazingly so. And this is just one fragment out of everything that exists. I am not asking you to look at it as spiritual revelation. If you find that level of peace in these scriptures, good for you. All that I am asking every atheist to do, is look at them as pieces of literature, pieces so strong that they shaped our society for centuries together. Bullshit cannot shape societies, not when it is all bullshit.
Sure it is misogynistic at several levels, sure it has flaws, and begs for a class biased society. Just because I have benefitted from the class bias on a short term, does not mean I haven’t known the problems it causes or the reasons that it needs to stop.
But we need to look at things differently. I can be at peace with a society that is too dumb to understand what is right and what isn’t but I can’t live with a society that is ignorant.
Spiritual atheism, the kind that springs from a disbelief of a higher power is acceptable. A discord with cultural norms and a tendency to stay away from them should be taken as a personal choice. But hate that leads to ignorance and breeds a parallel culture that prides in considering excellent literature as hogwash and dispensable scribbles is not welcome. Should never be.
Ancient literature is a peeking glass, not only into how people in those times thought, but also as this sort of a log book, to what brought us here and what the best way henceforth should be. We went through thousands of years of evolution (both biological and cultural, one much shorter than the other) to get where we are. It would only be foolish, to discard it as a whim or a fancy.