What is the appropriate way of communicating with God? Indians talk to God in the first person. Just as we address our mother, we also use the familiar tu or tum with him. This is true also of Muslims, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qualifies his praise of God in the song Allah Hoo by saying: “Tu hi meray Muhammad ka Khuda hai (because you are the God of my Muhammad)”. Though the English language does not have such hierarchy, the word used to address God, “Thou”, is Indo-European and derived from tu.
Indians stand in formal prayer, but may prostrate to demonstrate sincerity and humility. Catholics kneel. Namaz is different in that sense and it requires the worshipper to, in turn, stand, bow and prostrate.
Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
The great Rafiq Zakaria, father of Fareed, pointed out that the Quranic injunction was against “prostrating” (sajda, from whose root we get masjid) before anyone except Allah. There was no problem with Vande Mataram, Zakaria reasoned, because it only asked for “bowing”, through vandan.
South Indians reveal the lack of individualism in our culture when they surrender through prostration before other people. They show they actually mean it by setting themselves alight in grief when their leaders die, a quite unique and disturbing example of Indian mindlessness. In some ways it is a religious act, because it demonstrates the desire for union.
A lot is revealed in our architecture. Unlike the Muslim’s mosque, the Sikh’s gurudwara and the Christian’s church, we notice that the Hindu’s temple doesn’t have a congregational space.
Why is this so? It is because Hinduism is a transactional faith and stresses our relationship with God, not with man. The very rich among us understand this, and their gift to Him at Tirupati is not cash (which might get squandered on things like feeding the poor), but baubles such as jewel-encrusted crowns, so that He will remember, and reimburse.
In India, God may be inattentive, or otherwise occupied, and so our presence must be brought to his notice with a clang of the bell.
God’s attention is also drawn by putting ourselves through discomfort: walking barefoot, rolling on the ground, wearing black, denying ourselves food. Catholics also put themselves through discomfort, wearing hair-shirts and flagellating themselves with cilices. Islam’s mystics wore robes of rough wool, and that is where the name Sufi comes from.
So this idea that God likes us to suffer is common to all cultures. It actually comes from our belief that God is merciful and benevolent. If He sees us suffering in one way, therefore, He will stop other bad things from happening to us. In that sense, the voluntary hardship of the pilgrim is a preventive action, a sort of insurance, and ultimately selfish.
Like all tribal societies, Indians practise magic. Armed with charms, threads, rings, lockets, and amulets, consulting horoscopes and rahu kalam, unleashing powerful shlokas and keeping regular fasts, the Indian arcs the universe’s bounty towards himself and away from others. He’s been doing this for 3,500 years, and yet most Indians are poor and illiterate. We might possibly be doing it wrong, but practice makes perfect.
Our children are vulnerable, and must be black-marked to repel evil (which doesn’t come from Satan, but the ill-wishes of other Indians: buri nazar).
India’s movable and immovable assets are also vulnerable to sorcery, and cars, shops, businesses and homes must be fortified with lime and chillies, garlanded photographs, lamp-lit idols and smoke. If religion means piety, this is unlikely to be religion.
Qawwali is meant to induce a trance, and that is why, like the bhajan, it’s repetitive. All music that induces trance is pantheistic because it seeks oneness, to join through surrender.
Qawwali lyrics reveal that the Indian Muslim is essentially inclusive. We can see this because though many songs are written about Ali, Islam’s fourth caliph, there is not one on the first three successors to Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. This is to not offend the Shia, who see the three as usurpers, though Sunnis revere them. Pakistan is upending this culture, and the ferocious jihadi groups are as likely to attack Shia as other heretics.
We like to think of subcontinental Islam as being Sufi-oriented and warm. Allama Iqbal spotted that our Sufism was actually a mindless pantheism. It was interested mainly in miracles, delivered by saints whose graves we go to with our constant demands. But Islam is a rational faith and there are few miracles in the Quran (except at the Battle of Badr in March, 624). Arabs forbid the worship of saints because of this absence of miracles. Sufism shows how South Asia’s Muslims, like its Hindus, are drawn to magic.
Catholics are also drawn to magic because of their belief in saints, who act as agents. It isn’t coincidental that the dominant strain of Christianity in India is not the dry faith of the Protestant, but the magical one of southern Europe’s Catholic.
Churches in India have shops outside where strange little plastic and wax items in various shapes are sold: a child, breasts, a car, a house. These are called votive offerings, and are presented to God so that he is not confused about what exactly it is that we want. The breasts, incidentally, are for those afflicted by cancer.
Because of St Paul’s instruction that women be kept silent in church, choirs are mostly made of men. This has conditioned the tone. Gregorian chant is solemn and dark, quite different from the searing passion of qawwali. The European’s God is moved by reason rather than emotion. This is not to say that all choir singing is low: There is also the very high which comes from young boys. Five centuries or so ago, these voices were preserved by snipping off the singers’ testicles before puberty, so that the voice would remain unbroken. Such singers were used mainly for secular music, and are unfairly referred to as papal castrati.
In church, the singing that is high is meant to add width to the delivery, not emotion. God must be praised and petitioned in the appropriate tone of voice. The shrill pitch of qawwali reveals the helplessness of the individual in our society, and his desire to express emotion. The bhajan is a vestige of our beautiful Bhakti movement, but unfortunately the quality of its delivery suffers because all of us join in the singing, though each of us wants something different. The right tone is not struck and that might explain why God so rarely sends His blessings to our wretched subcontinent.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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