I was on my way to Boi’s place. It was Good Friday and we had the day off. I had taken an Auto and there was a procession on one side of the road. As it happens in Mumbai, processions are generally contained in one half of the road, with the police accompanying the procession to maintain some order and the other half open for traffic. This one was unique because there were lots of water trucks with the procession. Not to mention April in Mumbai is quite hot and the water was a respite to the participating crowd. I asked the Auto driver what the procession was for. He was as ignorant as me. As I travelled a bit more the participation in the procession had increased with an equal number of onlookers on either side of the road. It was then I noticed the long iron rods pierced through the mouth and the tongue of the few devotees. It was no longer a few of them. There were hundreds of them. That’s the good thing about India, every thing happens in volume. I was curious as well as flinching at the self infliction of pain. I asked one of the auto guys who had stopped next to mine. He had some idea and told me it was a popular South Indian celebration. I was surprised that so many South Indians stayed in a predominant Marathi and North Indian locality.
I looked at the procession with more eager ness. There were not only men, but also women with their mouth pierced with rods about ten feet long, the weight of the rods significant as they bent around both the ends and created an arch. The celebration was part of the Panguni Uthiram festival, a predominant Tamil festival which falls in the month ‘Panguni’ (March-April). It is during this time that the marriage of Parvati and Parameshwara, Muruga and Devasena, and Andal and Rangamannar took place.
Devotees pierce their bodies as a mark of respect for Lord Murgan (Lord Shiva). The devotees with piercing were of course treated with great respect and many asked for their blessings. While some pierced their bodies as a sign of gratitude for some fulfilled wish, others did that completely out of faith or for some reason which I fail to comprehend. Religion may be the opium of the masses as cocaine is the opium for the pub going grown. The comparison may be a bit stretched but it set me thinking.
What is the importance of religion in Today’s society? Is religion and myth an important component of today’s society and is it relevant? Is religion the glue which binds the society together? Does society need a religion? What is the difference between religion faith, religion, cult and spiritualism? Can a society do without religion or as T.S. Eliot quoted “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin”. And most importantly does a society with economic sufficiency and perfect harmony still need a religion?
I will reproduce here of the discussion between Gobin, Boi and myself. Its an interesting mix of people. B is religious. I am not. I prefer to call myself agnostic. It helps me to duck all the difficult questions which my parents or my religious friends ask. Also I believe, calling myself an Atheist would be a bit of double standard. More often than not the Atheist I have met have an agenda to prove-either an “Holier than Thou “attitude or holding some kind of grudge against someone or some event and blaming it on all poor God or having ten thousand reasons on why God cannot exist. I believe that this exercise is futile and more of a blame game. G on the other hand loves to argue. God or no God doesn’t matter to him. For him fear is the cohesive force which keeps the society together.
The discussion is as follows-
Prithwish–I think religion is important for the society. It may not be as important for us as it is for the India’s large undereducated poor. It is the source of Morals and tells people the difference between right and wrong.
Gobin- If a person is hungry, it is not religion which prevents him from mugging a lone stranger on the road. It is the fear of law. Religion is not important here. It all about whether he can get away from the rule of law.
Prithwish-Religion fulfils a bigger psychological need than the rule of law. Along with the rule of the law, people need to live for a larger cause. When a parent teaches a kid that some one is watching you all the time, and it’s definitely not Big Brother or the police, it’s the fear of retribution that prevents us from taking that chance into mugging the lone stranger.
Boi-Religion is hope. You might call it the emotional crutch, but so be it. Telling people being honest and not hurting others is not good enough. Religion and the concept of heaven and hell is easier to comprehend and direct our actions for.
Gobin-Does a person dying of hunger think of religion?
Prithwish-No he does not. But as a society it makes existence much more harmonious. It gives an individual the right to believe that not killing some one is a cause larger than the societal norm set by the law. It makes an individual look up and smile and feed good about himself. That he is watched by some one who is acknowledging his good deeds. That’s the beauty of religion. It’s all effervescent. If taught in the right way it pervades the air like fragrance and can be a feel good factor.
Gobin-Why is there so much violence in some of the most religious state. Is not the sense of write and wrong some thing which should be irrespective of religion.
Boi-Its true. I don’t think we can have perfect argument for or against religion. In fact we can have more questions than answers. For example people kill for religion. At the same time it’s the belief in God and miracles which can help a person come out of difficult times. The point is when faced with a crisis; we can either blame everything or believe in miracles, that some thing good will happen. The rest is all probability theory.
The rest is indeed all probability theory. It fitted by agnostic centric point of view perfectly. Quite a convenient arrangement you would say. Neither a believer, nor a non-believer. “You are either a believer or a non believer man. You can’t be half pregnant” is what Saurabh told me.
I think I can’t be religious. Maybe I feel stifled to belong to a group. Or may be I am confused what does it mean to be religious. Is it sitting through a ceremony when the priest says that any one who doesn’t pray and is not grateful to the benevolence of the almighty will be doomed? Or it is sitting numb with a priest chanting hymns in a language I don’t understand and interpreting it in a way I can’t verify.
Yet I can’t help being overwhelmed and belittled at the huge impact religion has had over the lives of so many people around the world, the solace it has given to the helpless, the hope it has given to the wounded soul, the pacifying experience which a single chime of the temple bells can give or the soul stirring experience which a Bhajan can give us, I wonder what’s in religion that make it the irrefutable force.
In my next post, I shall cover Bertrand Russell on ‘Why I am not a Christian ‘and new age Hindu evangelism.