Is This What the Gods Would Want?

I'm trying to think back to the point when the definition or display of religion and religious beliefs in India changed -- when religion in India suddenly became a display of aggression and a matter of pomp and show. Today, it definitely is not what I understand religion to be (what I was taught that it was supposed to be), i.e. a display of faith, a thanks to the Gods and an appreciation for the world we live in and a respect for the people around us. In India, and Bombay at least, it has become more of a show than anything else. What is more bothersome is what is being done in the name of religion, the boundaries that are being crossed, the laws that are being transgressed and broken with little regard for the wellbeing and comfort of others.

My latest rant, if you would like to view this blog as that, comes at the start of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in India. Today marks the start of a 10-day period during which idols of the Elephant God, Lord Ganesha, are placed in homes and temporary places of worship erected all around the city and country. For those that don't know, in Hinduism, Ganesha is viewed as the God of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune and prayers to the Lord are invoked at the start of a new venture or even travel. The idols placed around the country range in size from about a foot or so (primarily for the homes) to ones that are 10-12 feet in height (for public display and worship). Over the years, it has been a matter of pride and to some degree even a matter of competition as to whose idol is the biggest and grandest.

Given the prominence of Lord Ganesha in Hinduism and Hindu mythology, not to mention his position as the Lord of wisdom and good fortune, it is not hard to imagine that people go out of their way when it comes to celebrating his arrival. Some people welcome him home as a gesture of thanks for the good fortune he has already bestowed on them, some others do it with the hope that his arrival will indeed change their fortunes going forward. However, this being my first Ganpati in India in many years, I cannot remember when the practice changed? I feel as though, the festival, as has been the case with the religion in this country has lost a degree of charm, a bit of its innocence. I mean, sure, there were fireworks, there was music and dancing, but it happened on a smaller scale on the day of his arrival... It was more prominent and large-scale on the tenth day or the day the idols were immersed into the ocean (that's how Hindus mark the end of the festival, by immersing the idols in the sea with great pomp and festivity). Today the large-scale fanfare bookends the entire ten-day period. Last night, we had a group that started with a procession at 8:00 p.m. that went on all the way up until 10:30 p.m., another procession that started at midnight going all the way through the wee hours of the morning and a third that commenced at 8:00 this morning, running for another couple of hours.

During all these processions, there was little regard for the surroundings... It was conducted in purely residential areas, areas where people could have been sleeping, old people may have been sick, children studying... But no, who cares? Today anything goes in the name of religion... These people must understand and accept this, and if they don't then they must not be true Hindus seems to be the popular belief. And what if you're not a Hindu who doesn't believe or follow this particular God or religious practice? Well, it seems, we've reached a stage where Hindu Nationalism pervades our politics too, where religious minorities are better served by keeping quiet. Hence, needless to say, objections to these loud, boisterous and in-your-face celebrations are going to be minimal. There is also a sense of aggression that has made its way into these celebrations and the "groups" that carry them out. For instance, as I was watching the first group of people bringing the idol at 8:00 p.m. last night, I couldn't help but notice, they were suddenly diverting traffic, yelling at the cars and drivers that wanted to make their way through. It came to a point where traffic was being sent the wrong way around. Talk about taking the law into your own hands!

Ironically, in a town and country where the police and lawmakers are very strict about noise violations late into the night and are quick to clamp down on parties that they deem "westernized" and "a bad influence on India," these religious celebrations are allowed to be carried on late into the night with little regard for people's peace and quiet. The cops will shut down a bar at 1:00 a.m.; a bar with sound proof windows and doors that is located in a non-residential area, but they dare not stop a celebration at 1:00 a.m. on the streets! I guess, anything in the name of religion and God, eh?

I'm not a religious practitioner; I follow my own beliefs and am a follower of God, but in my own personal and private way. I don't believe in shouting and yelling on the streets to display my faith. As I watched all this, I couldn't help but wonder, is this how the Gods had envisioned it? Is this how they wanted their religions to be practiced -- with little regard for others? Is religion only about shouting, yelling and showing your aggression on the streets? Isn't it about caring for others? After all, didn't religion also preach us to 'Love thy neighbor, as yourself'? If you can't respect that, then your belief, faith and religion to me are akin to that shameless dance and aggression you show on the street... Nothing but a show!

But again, when did it all change?