The recent piece I wrote about learning the Sanskrit poem Shyamala Dandakam came in for a lot of criticism. As a writer, I enjoy criticism. It challenges me to re-examine my world view. We columnists tend to take ourselves seriously. Every now and then, it is fun to have our convictions turned on their head; to be upbraided a bit. The advantage of critiques is that unlike complimentary notes, they deliver a lot of content and therefore make for compelling if depressing reading. Think about it. It is really hard to write an original fan letter; after all how many different ways can you say, “I liked your piece.” With critiques, you can list point after point—Dear Columnist, First, you got your facts wrong; second, you reached the wrong conclusion; third, your stance and attitude with respect to the subject are irritating and condescending; and fourthly, your writing just plain stinks. And so on.
Holy clash: Religious symbolism can be a sign of both confidence and insecurity.
I received many such letters in response to the Dandakam piece. Each made a different point but the common thread was that people were offended by my “casual” attitude to Hinduism. They felt that I was disparaging Hindu gods and worst of all, I was not a “proud Hindu”.
Religion is serious business these days. Offending religious sentiments, whether intentional or not, is both sensitive and dangerous. As explanation to all those who criticized my stance on Hinduism, let me just say that I am still struggling to find my place in the world with respect to religion. I am Hindu, yes, but I am not sure if I am a proud Hindu. To me religion is an inheritance and a choice. I was born Hindu and I like the religion enough not to choose another and convert. But being a proud Hindu is something that I wriggle away from. I was in Goa recently and a Hindu member of parliament told me that he was a “proud Hindu within the confines of his home but outside, he was an Indian first and a Hindu last.” That sounded right to me.
Religion is one measure of identity but it cannot be the only one, especially in India where three of the world’s major religions thrive. Bensontown, Bangalore, where I used to live was populated with many Muslims. My doctor was Muslim but I would like to believe that he was a doctor first and a Muslim second or third. The grocery store that I got my stuff delivered from was owned and run by a group of Muslims from Malabar. They were pious—the shop closed at 4pm every Friday—but they were friendly, efficient, and didn’t differentiate between the Hindu and Muslim households that they did business with. Or so I like to think.
Kerala, a state that I love is full of Christians. I am close friends with several Syrian Christian families who seem in many ways to resemble my own: the link between generations, the unsparing gossip about scandals, all passed around with a tinge of self-righteousness at weddings, the obsession with food, the code of honouring your word. These are similarities. For them to preach to me about Christ and for me to preach to them about Ram would emphasize our differences; push us apart instead of keeping us together.
India today isn’t the India I grew up in. A simple example is that there are more Muslim women wearing the hijab than during the time I grew up in. This seems a symbol of self-confidence as well as a symbol of insecurity. Muslims today tend to assert their identity through religious means. I am as uncomfortable with this as I am by saffron-robed swamis who extol the Bhagvad Gita or Christian missionaries who want to save your soul. Religion in my view is a private act. Or should be. Humanity should supercede religion.
We each have many identities. As Walt Whitman said, we “contain multitudes”. Religion is one but there are others. We are each of us son, daughter, spouse, sibling, friend, and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work and I would suspect that most Mint readers are the same way. I am attracted to Hindu philosophy but not ritual. At the same time, I like Christian gospel music, Buddhist koans, Sufi sayings, Jewish literature and Islamic verse. Does this mean I am less of a Hindu? I don’t know. I thought “secular” was a phrase that I could use to define myself, but I am told that it has become a pejorative these days.
Okay, bottom line. Here is the reason I have trouble with religious identity—because it leads to prejudice. Every great religion has behaved in ways that it shouldn’t have. I am ashamed of the things that some Hindus do; I am sure that some Muslims and Christians share the same sentiments with respect to their religions. Each religion comes with associated baggage. The question is whether you are willing to take on that baggage. Many of my parents’ generation are pious wonderful people. They are also—and I say this with affection—close-minded, not out of any malicious intent but because that’s just the way they are. Be they Goan Catholic, Moplah Muslim or Chettinad Hindu, they each think their religion is the best. It defines their actions and closes off options. They want their kids to marry within the same caste; most of their friends belong to their own religion and they know little about other faiths. I for one am not willing to walk down that path. I can go out on a limb and write about a Hindu verse in these pages, but I like to think that it is not a “religious” piece.
Yes, I am Hindu but please, that’s not all I am.
Shoba Narayan is a practising but not proud Hindu. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org