>If I told you I fast all nine days during the Navratra, would you think I’m very religious? Or would you think I’m ritualistic?
No one has ever asked me to fast. I do it of my own volition and I do it the way I want to. I do not read the Durga Saptashati and I do not eat ‘fast’ food. I do it because I believe in the female form of the supernatural powers that be and I do it because it’s a good way to detox. I do not think that if I fast, God will be kinder to me and I do not think that if I do not fast, God will be unkind to me. I do it because it helps me exercise some of my will power on my errant ways. Ideally, the fast should not just be about abstinence from food, it should be about abstinence from all vices. However, that’s not a stage of evolution I have yet reached and therefore I abstain only from gluttony.
Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because a lot is said of the Hindu religion and the rituals that come with it. And though I’m not a theologian, I think it’s not the religion that stipulates the rituals, often it’s the people who make them up. A lot is also said about rituals without differentiating them from traditions while for me, there’s a great difference between the two. I love the elaborate Dusshera and Diwali pujas not because I’m ritualistic but because they are part of a tradition that reminds me of my carefree days as a child, the happy memories associated with the festive time. It’s a tradition I would like my children to partake in because any parent would want their child to experience the same happiness that they have felt.
Perhaps, I was able to enjoy the various pujas because they were not imposed on me and we participated in them because it was a time for family bonding. Perhaps, I was able to enjoy the pujas because it was a time for us to reaffirm our faith in God and not to reinforce superstitions. I realise this because I see a lot of people around me performing a lot of rituals without the teeniest bit of faith because it is not what their faith is about. And that’s why they feel it as a burden.
However, if we do not suspect our religion so much of perpetuating meaningless rituals, we may be able to understand that rituals are often symbolic. And if we do not agree with what they stand for, we have the choice to reject them. What is the point of education and life in a civilised society if we cannot make informed choices? My parents do not feed a pandit on the shraddha of their deceased parents anymore simply because they do not see the rationale behind it. Instead, they send some food to an orphanage. If the purpose of pitr paksha is to remember and offer respect to the dearly departed, feeding the needy should serve the purpose just as well. And surely, it’s better than feeding overfed pandits. I know a lot of women who do not keep a nirjal fast on Karva Chauth and that does not mean they love their husbands any less than those who do not have water. Personally, Karva Chauth has no significance for me except as a tradition that I observe only because I do not want to offend the elders in the family. And frankly, abstaining from food on a single day comes easy to me. Perhaps, at a later stage in life, I may stop observing this fast. And I’m sure my husband will still have a long life.
But what makes rituals binding on us? I don’t think it’s so much the religion as the society. If your mother-in-law wants you to perform a certain puja, why blame religion for it? Did Hanumanji really tell his devotees to abstain from non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays? I seriously doubt. Yet, his devotees abstain from non-veg and also alcohol because for some people, abstinence from your favourite foods is a way of offering respect to your favourite deity. In that case, it’s an act of faith. But some people do it without giving so much as a thought to why they do it and regret that they have to do it. Then it’s just a meaningless ritual.
You may totally disagree with what I’ve said here and that will not make me right and you wrong or vice versa. Because no one’s faith can be wrong. And you can’t disagree with that (?)