The space that religion occupies
Snippet from a conversation with a friend “How dare he? How can they say that Hinduism is fake. There are deep meanings behind all the rites and rituals that we undertake to fulfil our vows.. You know, they just want to put us down. You too, all you agnostics and atheists, you are all against us, religious people”
This colourful yet frustrating outburst was the result of an attempt to discuss Rajkumar Hirani’s Hindi movie masterpiece PK. If you have not caught it, please do. The movie fundamentally revolves around the idea of God vs Religion and while the movie does not directly debate the existence of God, it definitely questions the validity and necessity of religion albeit often done in a hilarious yet thought provoking manner. (Basically, the protagonist is an alien who arrives on Earth is trying to understand the Earthling’s way of life) Of course, like anything to do with religion, the movie managed to offend the sensibilities of the religious crowd who have stated their displeasure in more than just one way (A simple Google search would be very illustrative of my claim) .
In my humble opinion, most people have completely missed the point of the movie. Where some saw the film as a mockery of their own religious practices, some enlightened others have come to realize that the message of the director is simple, that no one religion is better than the other. Rajkumar Hirani did a brilliant job in expressing cinematically what so many of us ‘liberals’ have struggled to do so all our lives, that there is a certain type of madness and leap in logic inherent in most religious beliefs. He attempts to dispel religious ethnocentric notions that we hold on to which is often the catalyst for conflict between religious groups aka, ‘my way of worshipping is better than yours’. He highlights the many different problems that my friends and I have repeatedly discussed about.
My favourite part though is how he also gets us to think critically about why do we do the things that we do? Who do our actions really benefit? Would God actually want us to pay him in currency to serve us?
While the movie itself was entertaining and refreshing, it was the reactions from the public that was the most educating. As I read through user comments on various editorial pieces, I realized that many of the violent and sometimes vulgar opposition to this movie was rooted in fear, fear that once we start questioning the rationality in some of our beliefs, we will eventually question them all and maybe , just maybe the survival of ‘our’ religion will be threatened. What was even more hilarious was that some of these keyboard warriors were quick to defend only their religion and its beliefs, some of them even proceeded to attack and condemn other religious groups. Very rarely, did I stumble across a lone opinion which chose to defend religions as a whole. At the end of the painful reading spree, I only learned two major things from the haters. (1) No matter what, my religion is always better than yours. (2) Do not question religion, do not analyse religion and all will be good. Thinking critically about your religious act and practices makes you a bad practitioner of the religion.
This of course did not sit too well with me. Now, growing up in a Hindu family meant that I was often tasked and ordered to observe certain rituals that I did not fully comprehend. To avoid confrontations and unwarranted attention from relatives and other members of socity, I would often just follow blindly, doing exactly what “God” required of me (actually it was what the people around me required of me). This included very troublingly, not stepping to the temple when I was having my period among other things. When I curiously and innocently questioned why a menstruating woman would not be allowed in to the temple, I received varying puzzling responses such as “You are unclean”, “Period blood is demonic” and my favourite “Just like that, don’t ask”. Some even warned me that stepping into the temple grounds or handling any prayer related items would be considered a sin and that God would inevitably find some way to punish my ignorant self (which ranged from poking me in the eye to giving me bad luck for 7 years). I think it was this closed door approach that eventually turned me away from religion. The rigidity and the organizational structure very rarely resonated with me. The inability to have open discussions about the rationale behind the rites and rituals was also equally frustrating for me. In the end, when I could not make sense of what was asked of me, I abandoned it all together. Like a child who abandons an activity which hold no meaning or interest for her.
The point essentially is this, in this day and age with the advancement of science and the imparting of critical thinking skills in the education system; it is not wise to insist on “my way or the highway”. Insisting on rogue memorization without understanding has actually never benefited many people, often resulting in misconstrued ideas and beliefs. If you cannot explain it to someone that means that you yourself, do not quite understand it. Even if we decide to put aside logic, should we be doing things that we cannot even explain to ourselves much less to another person.
Now more than ever, there is a greater emphasis on communication across various religious groups, However, there could very possible be a step that we are missing here. Maybe, It is time that we encouraged an open discourse about religious beliefs, rites and rituals. starting firstly within a religion then hopefully across religions. It is important that we understand the reasons behind the actions and demands that religions put forth to us. Who knows, a more open approach might just about reap benefits for us all, believers or not.