One of the big debates I have been having in my mind of late is how do I celebrate festivals and what traditions do I follow.
I am agnostic, wearing towards atheist. I totally admire the concept of a god at a personal level since it clearly helps you grapple with issues too large for you to understand (eg. The death of a close friend’s child. The only way they got over those days was to assure themselves that maybe god meant for things to be this way). Or how much faith can help a person (like a friend’s uncle who found battling cancer just a bit easier thanks to his belief in religion).
I also admire the concept of god for society as a whole since it really is a sort of carrot and stick that tells you to behave decently and be nice to others (or else here is your passport to hell, mister)
However, when you have intellectually decided that the concept of a god is really a bit of a crutch and a bit of direction-setting for the society, then it is difficult to cross the threshold back to being a believer. A threshold which I desperately tried to cross back to when a close friend was hit by a serious illness a few months ago. A threshold which I always thought I could easily cross when it came to it. Yet, I could not do more than utter empty and meaningless prayers from childhood, perhaps just to calm myself down.
Now that it is becoming increasingly clear that the bridge to my belief in god has more or less been burnt (who knows, it may be resurrected someday), more practical questions arise.
The most important being, how does one celebrate festivals when one is in a no-man’s land? These things never concerned me much when I was single since really it is no fun celebrating a festival all by yourself and I never even attempted to do that. With D in the picture, there is a quorum to have some celebrations at home now.
I love festivals. I love shopping for new clothes and then wearing them. I love getting together with the family. I love the smell of the feast being prepared in the kitchen, the desperate urgency to string together mango leaves and tie them to the door before the brief pooja starts, the removal of lamps from storage so they can be cleaned and lit. In short, I love all the cultural trappings associated with festivals and I have some very happy childhood memories of them.
And festivals are about both – religion and culture. Unfortunately the two are so intricately mixed up that it is difficult to separate one strand from the other. Is it possible to decorate a statue of an elephant-god, complete with a colourful umbrella and yet not feel slightly hollow about the act?
This is not a big concern when we are with the larger family. The rest of them, while not devout, are atleast still believers and can actually pray during the pooja. So it is almost like somebody else is renewing their faith and I am just celebrating with them.
The real issue is when it is just D and me.
D happens to be agnostic as well. Like me, D also loves the festival food and the celebrations. Yet, can the two of us, by ourselves, sustain the motions of a celebration without touching the religious core of the day? How do we separate the cultural from the religious? Some actions – good food, decorations, new clothes – can be easily put down to culture.
There are other actions that are not as clear. Is it religion or culture that dictates you light lamps at god’s altar? (We still have a mini-alter tucked behind the water cooler, having inherited a god’s picture each from our parents) Can you lamp lights at an altar knowing it is a mere picture and not the supreme being that the day revolves around? If you don’t light the lamps at the altar, is your celebration even complete?
These are clearly difficult questions and the answers are going to take their time coming. Or perhaps they are not difficult questions at all since millions of Indians go through the cultural motions of festivals without consciously thinking about the gods they may be invoking.
For now though, it is Diwali next week and time to shop, eat and have a blast with the family.
p.s. This is not a theological debate on the existence of god. That is a separate issue that may appear some day in this blog.