Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tales from the crematorium; "the done things"

[Did a version of this for M magazine’s “Freedom Songs” special]

A few weeks ago I was at Delhi’s Lodhi crematorium to perform the last rites for my just-departed nani. The sadness of the occasion was underscored by relief – she had suffered terribly in the final few weeks of a long struggle with cancer, death had come as a much-delayed release, and we had been preparing for this moment for two years – as well as by the knowledge that hers had been a full-lived life. It was an occasion that called for a few simple things to be done with dignity: giving the body a decent sendoff, allowing her loved ones private time and space to think about her.

We should have known better. At one of the covered consecration stalls outside the area where the pyre was to be lit, a pandit handed me a matka containing water and asked me to circle the body, pouring the water out as I went. This was a ritual that held no meaning for me – it certainly didn’t connect in any way with my feelings for the dead lady – but then, not having grown up in a bubble, I was resigned to the performance of a certain number of obligatory rites. As I prepared to perambulate, the pandit told me that my left hand was where my right hand should be and vice versa. Fair enough, I changed hands. But then, clucking his tongue a few times in the fashion of the hectoring school sports coach who hadn’t accepted that I would never be a competent fast bowler, he explained that my wrist had to be bent just so, with the elbow facing a particular direction. The two of us jived and twisted awkwardly until the position had been achieved to his exact satisfaction.

Having resisted the temptation to smack this supercilious pandit about the holy grounds, I began circling, but by now any chance there may have been for peaceful contemplation had been kicked into the dust. A short while later, as the pyre burnt, I was asked to throw a metal rod over the flames in a certain way. Just so. I may have misunderstood something in the instructions, for after the deed was done the man gave me a rueful look and shook his head as if to say “Well, that was dreadful, but if God decides to forgive you her soul might still find some peace.”

Following this, we went into a tent where the chief purpose of the day – from the pandits’ perspective – began to disclose itself. As one of them asked me for my grandmother’s details so he could enter them in a little notepad, he alternated his questions with softly muttered instructions to provide “daan” or “dakshina” for people who had performed various services: give me Rs 2,200 for this person, he whispered, Rs 2,000 for this one, and so forth. The singsong tone of his voice never changed. Currency notes flowed out of my wallet and into his hands. Under the circumstances, with various elderly members of the family looking on and nodding, there was no question of asking where exactly this money was going, but it occurred to me that the earlier insistence on getting the matka’s angle just right may have been a way of showing everyone present that the pujaris had earned the loot that would shortly come their way – they had been so conscientious about the details.

The whole sordid experience might have been trying even for a person of fervent religious conviction – someone who genuinely believed that these priests had a hotline to God, or that there was something cleansing and holy about the exact way in which the pot was carried or the rod thrown. For me, as a non-believer with a visceral dislike towards the following of tradition for its own sake, it wasn’t just trying: it was pointless, exhausting, even offensive. It was an accumulation of bad memories, stacked up in a domino-pile, on a day when only good memories were needed.

Nor did the tribulations end at the crematorium. In subsequent days, my mother (whose attitude towards rituals is the same as mine) and I were harried for our refusal to participate in what would have been a Karan Johar moment involving the whole family traveling to Haridwar in a large air-conditioned van, and for not wearing white clothes at an informal prayer meeting. “You think the rest of us actually believe in all these rites?” one relative even exclaimed, “That’s not the point. Going to Haridwar is the done thing.”

The done thing. Three words that nicely encapsulate one of the key side-effects of religiosity: the unquestioned, thoughtless kowtowing to tradition.

Personally, I try not to wear my atheism like a badge, or to get into long-drawn arguments about these subjects. Most of the important people in my life
have a quiet, steadfast faith in a Higher Power (happily, my daughter believes only in chicken-rice, chewies and squeaky toys) and I know I don’t have a hope in hell of influencing their thoughts. I go along with them to an extent: if participating in a Diwali puja or accompanying someone to a temple or a gurudwara makes a loved one happy, that’s more important than my Unbelief. But even non-confrontational non-believers do feel the need to draw a line on occasion, and it’s at such times that the full weight of religious hegemony comes bearing down on us.

There’s a cosy, politically correct “live and let live” theory of religion – you’ll find it on many Facebook profiles. What it means, I imagine, is that everyone should be allowed to follow their own beliefs and traditions without imposing them on anyone else. This sounds perfectly reasonable and high-minded in principle; it’s the sort of idea that has people beaming at each other, satisfied that they’ve reached an agreement on a controversial subject. But here’s the thing. “Live and let live” doesn’t necessarily work in practice. What to do, for example, when you’re a non-believer in a large family where the prevailing “belief” is that a departed person's soul won't find rest unless every member of the immediate circle participates in certain rites? Where does individual freedom and privacy go in the face of such emotional arm-twisting and familial pressure?

The answer, of course, is that religion carries with it a self-bestowed authority that overrides everything else. One has to only open the newspapers on any day to see the consequences of the frightening notion that religious beliefs deserve automatic respect, that they mustn’t be criticised or even questioned, and that violence is a legit response to those who “hurt religious sentiments”. Crippling adherence to tradition is perpetuated not just by “holy men” who profit from it and by politicians who manipulate it for their vote banks. It’s also encouraged by people who have the faculty to question but who prefer not to, choosing instead to be tradition’s torch-bearers over the generations: as we know, some of the regressive attitudes that are most harmful to the freedom and rights of women come from older women who were denied the same rights when they were young. The oppression of religious tradition is self-perpetuating.

And basic human rights are the first things to be jettisoned when this angry beast bellows for complete subservience. Common-sense humanity flies out the window. At the same Lodhi crematorium a few years ago, I saw a traumatized, uncomprehending seven-year-old boy nearly suffocating in the heat and thick smoke as he was forced to perform the rites for his mother (an ex-colleague, who had died in a road accident) simply because the elders in the family had decreed that “it was the done thing”.

I mentioned above that I’m not in the business of proselytising. But speaking in abstract terms, consider what freedom from religion and saphead tradition can do. At its most effective, it can liberate us to lead decent lives without constantly having to look over our shoulders at the great book-keeper in the sky, supposedly weighing rewards and punishments for all of mankind (no, the math doesn’t add up). It helps us sympathize better with people who lead less privileged lives, to recognize how fortunate we are and how easily the positions could have been reversed – since we are no longer permitted the self-serving cop-outs afforded by theories of Karma or Divine Justice. It allows us to see books that were written thousands of years ago as just that: books written thousands of years ago, by people whose understanding of how the universe operates was in many ways less developed than ours – not holy writs that are set in stone, never to be countermanded. (Note: even the most conservative believers don’t set everything in stone anyway; some of the content of, say, the Old Testament or the Manu Smriti is so embarrassing that it simply HAS to be overlooked in favour of the passages that are more acceptable.) And it helps us appreciate the writings of some of the great novelists and philosophers of our own times, whose work, informed as it is by modern concepts of equality, freedom and other human rights, is more relevant to our lives today.

Freedom from religious strictures allows us to be human – and humane – in ways that those who live in expectation of divine intervention, and in accordance with unbending codes, can only dimly guess at. Will we achieve this freedom anytime in the foreseeable future? Not a chance.


  1. This post SO touched a chord within me. Agree 100% with what you have to say. When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law forbade me from handling any kind of metal during a solar eclipse as she belived that doing so would result in the child being born with a cleft palate or lip. My friends exhorted me to give in to her, saying "What's the harm in going along with her even if you don't believe in what she says?" I strongly believe that it is this very attitude that helps propagate such mindless beliefs. We MUST speak up against them, however innocuous they may seem, if we are to put an end to the nonsense.

  2. I may have digressed a bit from the topic at hand: religious beliefs. However, I have had several experiences of similar bullshit being forced upon me in the name of religion. Know what I mean?

  3. Er..the first "poster" was me..i forgot to sign in.

  4. Hey Jabberwock.

    That post was really moving. (I love the line about not growing up in a bubble. As always a pleasure reading your blog, captures growing up in the 80s like no other.)

    I think at non-believers and our ilk must not put up with pretenses any more, even if it hurts elders. We do not have to be fundamentalists about our Unbelief, but we really do not have to please any one.

    Faith or personal belief is right and everyone must be allowed to practice it. Especially non-believers.

    My reaction to such situations is, if we cannot stand up to the people we know, there is no way in hell we can stand up to our beliefs to the world in general.

  5. hehehehe...there is no way in hell..hehehehe

  6. Condolences and sympathies. I suppose there was no way of putting all the blame on the departed one? That's what we did and it worked. Because sometimes families' respect for the wishes of those who've recently died exceed their respect for forms. (Intercession in the short term might work better than regular prayers which everyone knows go unheard).

  7. Anon 1: Yes, "What's the harm in going along with her even if you don't believe in what she says?" is a very common and familiar line. And admittedly, when it comes to some of this stuff there's no "harm" as such, just plenty of irritation. But cross a very thin line (or a series of thin lines) and the harm can quickly set in.

    A variant on that line, incidentally, is Pascal's famous wager: you might as well believe in God because if you turn out to be right you stand to gain everything, whereas if you're wrong nothing matters anyway. Strange idea - as if someone can just "decide" to believe (and as if an omniscient God is incapable of seeing through pretence).

  8. I think non-believers and our ilk must not put up with pretenses any more, even if it hurts elders.

    Priti: easier said than done, of course. In the past I've tried to tread very softly when it comes to doing anything that might hurt elders (especially elders who are two generations removed), but I find that I'm getting more intolerant about these things as I grow older. Today I find it much easier to say something sarcastic about religion in the presence of someone who is (for instance) droning on and on about her deeply personal conversations and "deals" with God.

    Space Bar: it's complicated. Nani was quite religious but in her last few months she made it a point of telling mum and me not to do anything elaborate for her last rites: keep it very simple and dignified, don't run about consulting pujaaris, etc. But only the two of us were privy to this, and it would have been very difficult for us to convey such a thing to the rest of the family (especially the NRI lot who had this urgent desire to do things in the most traditional, "Indian" way possible, for personal catharsis).

    At any rate, our only issue was that we be left out of the elaborate pujas and the Haridwar stuff. The others could go and perform the Nataraj dance with the ashes atop Mount Kailash for all we cared.

  9. This must strike a chord with so many people.

    As it happens I voiced my opinion on a similar occasion because it was incredibly dispiriting. A few weeks later I happened to fall quite ill. You can well imagine the comments!!!

    I am not sure if this is true but it seems to me that a certain kind of superficial religious behaviour is on the rise in India - either because as your post indicates "it's a done thing" or there is a rising feeling of insecurity about life in general and fear about non-observance. A few generations back - at least in my family - they had ultra orthodox lives but everything from weddings to funerals seemed way more low key and pragmatic. And of course those who were the first to be exposed to a new kind of education seemed bolder in abandoning orthodox practices than we seem to today.

  10. I think there is something to be said for doing the "done thing".

    The least it does is to impose a "mourning period" on us, which in my opinion is essential regardless of whether you have "feelings" for the dead or not.

    In the absence of conventions, we might as well have situations where people curl up to watch a movie a few hours after the passing of an old, "unproductive" grandparent.

    Moreover, I don't think the post-death rituals have anything to do with belief in a personal god. It is about deliberately putting yourself through unpleasant chores as a mark of respect for the departed. To me it is just as essential as the superfluous celebrations which mark happy events like marriage or house-warming.

    If mourning entails spending a few thousands on a poor priest, so be it. Atleast, it will keep me from binging at multiplexes for a few weeks.

  11. Srikanth, I think everyone's idea of mourning is different and a uniform "mourning practice" with its own - often variable - Standard Operating Procedure should not be imposed.

    In my experience funerals means a lot of relos who come over to your place and eat, shop and go to multiplexes. People continue doing frivolous things regardless of whether there are conventions or otherwise.

  12. When I underwent similar rituals recently upon the passing of a parent, I was amazed at how smart and thoroughly professional some of these priests were. They help us get acquainted with traditions that may be several millenia old, briefly transporting us to a simpler age when people were still sensitive enough to be moved deeply by the horror of the very idea of dying.

  13. The least it does is to impose a "mourning period" on us, which in my opinion is essential

    Shrikanth: disagree. Why should an artificially created "mourning period" be "essential" for everyone? If someone feels the need for it, fine. But every individual should be free to deal with the mourning (or lack of mourning) in whatever way he sees fit - that was the point of the post.

    In the absence of conventions, we might as well have situations where people curl up to watch a movie a few hours after the passing of an old, "unproductive" grandparent.

    Can you spell out what exactly is so wrong with curling up to watch a movie a few hours after the passing of someone you might be very close to, or moderately close to? (I'll avoid your reference to the "old, unproductive grandparent" because I don't see how the age or productivity of the deceased person has any bearing on what's being discussed here.)

    My mother lost her dad when she was 22. She was enormously close to him and she believes that a big part of her died with him. She spent the next few days after his death watching movies at the local hall (sometimes alone, sometimes with a close friend), staying very far away from any post-death rituals. It was her way of coping. These things differ from person to person and I'm very surprised by the insistent tone of your comment. (Note: I don't think there's anything so "essential" about the ceremonies that mark happy events like marriage or house-warming either.)

    If mourning entails spending a few thousands on a poor priest, so be it.

    Dude, the specific situation I've discussed here involves large sums of money going into the purse of a priest who, going by his general demeanor and tummy-size, was far from poor. Maybe I should have provided more details in the post, but we made separate payments to the crematorium employees who had helped us with individual tasks like collecting wood, etc. The pujaari-ji meanwhile was collecting large sums supposedly on their behalf, and it was indicated to us that the money would never make its way to them.

  14. I am not sure if this is true but it seems to me that a certain kind of superficial religious behaviour is on the rise in India...

    Anu: yes, have discussed this with friends a lot recently - there are many sides to it, most worryingly the religious jingoism and chest-thumping one sees in many Indian youngsters these days (notably the NRIs who seem to spend most of their time leaving abusive, intolerant comments on Rediff messageboards). In many cases it probably comes from insecurity about one's identity, or the need to preserve one's culture, or the need to project Hinduism as a religion that can be just as "tough" or "macho" as the monotheist faiths. It also makes me think about Mohsin Hamid's book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I wrote about here.

  15. They help us get acquainted with traditions that may be several millenia old, briefly transporting us to a simpler age when people were still sensitive enough to be moved deeply by the horror of the very idea of dying.

    Oh trust me, it's possible to be "sensitive enough to be moved deeply by the horror of the very idea of dying" and to still not care a flying fig about priests who are trying to acquaint you with (their interpretations of) millenia-old tradition. I think you're indulging in a form of Golden Ageism here. No age is ever as "simple" as it looks to us through time's prism.

    Just to reiterate: "to each his own" is all I'm essentially saying.

  16. Didn't know the NRIs were partly responsible for the charming messages on rediff!!! It kind of makes sense.

    Apart from the NRIs who are a formidable breed, in general I think as Indian move away from the difficult daily observances of the religion we also seem to be more chest thumping about these observances.

    Thanks for reminding me of the Hamid post - went back and read it.

    And the tummy size bit made me laugh - the lowly starter priests are emaciated whilst the head is fat buddha personified!

  17. I agree completely and wholeheartedly , except that I grew up in a bubble (!). Good on you for being able to write about this without dipping into the pools of sarcasm and contempt that always befall me when I try to explain my views on the subject.

  18. I was in a similar state at the time of my grandfather's death, not only the religious things I also faced a different kinda attitude of people who started talking and acting pretty normal at the crematory, also being the smallest in the family I was carrying the matka for a while which fell down accidently an I felt really embarrassed at that time...

    This write up refresed my Grandp's memory
    Thanks Jabberwock

  19. Nice post, Jai.

    I refused to go to the crematorium when my father died, because I couldn't face it, and because I wanted to be near my mother (who wasn't supposed to go). My sister performed the last rites. I never asked what happened.

    But I did go with my mom to Haridwar to scatter his ashes: hated the greed of the priests there too, but it was nowhere near as bad as you describe here.

  20. One of the most balanced and well thought out post I have read recently.
    All I can say is,I agree.with every single word.
    Many a time I have attempted to write on this ,but I feared that all that would come out is some incoherent rant.I have to structure my thoughts on this and try again.
    Brilliant piece.

  21. Jai,

    I agree with whatever you have posted , however we live in a society where you are goeverned by different strings pulling in opposite directions. I myself seethe with rage at the supposed holier than thou attitude of priests and some people feeling to be closer to God than yourself. I have been a part of such rituals where a short, greedy, pot bellied 'panda' tries to rob you in the name of God and some imaginary forefathers.

    However I still believe that a lot of religions are influenced by their clergy and these pontiffs than make a textbook on religion which you have to abide by. Your relatives and a lot of friends would than come and ask you to partake in all the religious rites as some sort of salvation practice for the departed soul. All this stems from a fear that being normal in grief is bad , you have to tear your hair , be at your hysterical best if you are a woman and be stoic if you are an Elder son.

    People in this country don't understand that your grief and pain are your own and you need to be alone to come to terms with your loss;that their is no harm in showing emotion as a man who has lost somebody he was very close to . To top it all we have the religious pundits dictating the right and wrong rituals of the world.

  22. That captures the issues so well.. and it touches a chord as well, because for me this same "Done thing" idea was hammered in by everyone I knew during the marriage ceremonies.

    Like you, as the years pass, I've grown increasingly less willing to bend over and do something absurd to "keep them happy" when every fibre in me is crying out that this is past its sell-by date.

    The assumption that the "done thing" is necessarily right and better than what you would do, is of course at the root of the problem. Captured well by the discussion about "mourning period" in hardwar vs say a movie hall.

    For people assuming the superiority of the done thing, what comes to mind is a sanskrit quote to the effect -
    Not all that is old, is good;
    Not all that is new, is bad;

    To each their own, and finally its up to us to decide how far we can go for that "own".

  23. Obedience is all that religion asks of us and it is what we give mindlessly without ever considering why. Very well written man!

  24. Thanks for this post Jai - and my deepest condolences.

    I agree with what you say and a lot of what other people have to. My dadi passed away in April - it was sudden and hugely traumatic for all of us. She was religious in her own way - it was a very individual belief, religiosity that was never ever thrust upon anyone else. Since her death was so sudden, there were no instructions or any such she had left, but of course thats the first time I realised that when you're dealing with someone else - departed, though they are - its harder to be completely nonchalant about the more ritualistic part of religion.

    We knew that my grandmother had taken pains to see that everything during the thirteen days of mourning had been properly organised when her husband and her elder siblings had passed away and we tried our best to do the same for her, as she would have probably wanted. She had never been ritualistic, so it was easier to ignore the more unsavory aspects of the funereal rites. We used the electric crematorium and I am glad that we did, though we did go to Haridwar with her ashes. It was strange because we are all grand daughters and were all very close to her so had all gone and left the pandas there in a bit of a quandary - I still remember they kept saying aren't there any grandsons and my uncle simply said no, we specialise in girls. My uncle, my grandmothers son-in-law was extremely close to her and during whatever rites happened in Haridwar was at some point told by the priest that he had no "real" relationship with my grandmother - my aunt being a daughter obviously didn't at all- so they couldn't whatever, do some of the puja related things at which point my father and other uncle simply ignored his rantings and brought my uncle and aunt to the front with them. There were a lot of people who kept telling us we should feed so many pandits everyday and so on and so forth - instead we arranged for meals to be given to the girls at the orphanage my grandmother patronized, and most of our functions were for the immediate family only - so as to avoid random sermons from outsiders.

    I also agree about this superficiality of religion and rituals these days - it's almost become a badge of honor for someone to go on this pilgrimage or to do this puja or that without actually knowing or having any feeling for the significance of anything they are doing. As just an example, I was in Benares recently - during sravan - and the entire town was over run by the kanwariyas. I was spending a lot of time with an old friend of my grand mothers - a deeply religious and hugely knowledgeable person - who never minced any words at his dislike for this new showy brand of religiosity. The worst thing he said, is that all of this is so politicised now that you can't even say anything to them because then they flare up and make you out to be anti Hindu or so and so. It's deeply disturbing.

  25. Shrikanth: Personally, I feel marriages and house-warming(s) should not be superfluous celebrations :)

    Jabb: Its difficult alright, but once you put your foot down, people get the message.

    And as you can imagine, the pressure is more on women to "conform". (Who the hell made the rule that women should not go into a graveyard?)

    Time and again I have reveled in moments when "elders" have rebuked me for lack of respect for tradition. As has been said on this page, the essence of religion can be absorbed regardless of mindless rituals.

  26. I so agree with his, Jwock. Nice post. You talk about dying. Let me tell you about birth. As mostly unbelievers, we are trying to bring up our daughter with no religious beliefs. We figured, why burden her with a set of beliefs when she's just going to cast them off at 15 anyway? Might as well start her off on a clean slate, and later on, if she figures she likes her polka dots with religion, she'll choose 'em all. Also saves us the trouble of trying to look offended whenever Bill Maher says something downright funny about religion.

    Obviously, the trouble is everyone else. Who cannot believe that we are bringing up our daughter without religion. Of course we've wound up with our fair share of holy beads, necklaces, pictures, and assorted memorabilia bestowed on us by well-meaning aunts. Even worse, we've devoted a signficant portion of her life so far answering questions such as "But WHY aren't you christening her? when's the mundan? The namkaran? Why NOT?" etc etc. Sometimes I think it might be less tiring to just get offended by Bill Maher.

    So we're seriously considering joining the Evangelical Church. Though my husband says if we want her to be President of the US, it might be wiser to join the Episcopalians.


  27. My condolences.

    Two things though. First, I think you ascribe too much to religion here. The pressures for social conformity exist independent of religion (though organized religion does use them for its own purpose). The real 'issue' here is society's need to have us behave in ways it dictates for us (and our corresponding need to behave in ways that society demands - after all, you could have told the priest to go to hell and you didn't; I understand why you made that choice, but let's not pretend it wasn't a choice), of which religion is only a symptom. In a world made up entirely of atheists there would still be 'done things', and the pressures to conform would still be the same.

    Second, while I empathize with your frustration, it's worth remembering that many people may find these rituals comforting, that they make solace in doing things properly for their loved ones, because it gives them the illusion of control. You say "others could go and perform the Nataraj dance with the ashes atop Mount Kailash for all we cared", but that's disingenuous. The others satisfaction in performing these acts comes directly from the social legitimacy that accrues to them, so that by denying them you would essentially be undermining other people's ability to find comfort in these rituals. Social norms are, by definition, all or nothing deals.

    Which is not to say that one shouldn't do away with these rituals, only that this passive-aggressive, "other people can believe what they want, why should I have to?" stand is fundamentally bogus. If you find these rituals demeaning (and I'd agree that they are) then you need to be willing to a) stand up to the social pressure to follow them and b) accept that getting rid of them will mean taking away a source of 'false' comfort for many people.

  28. P.S. I also have to protest all this fallacy of a golden age nonsense about how religion has recently become superficial. As opposed to when, exactly? Religion has always been superficial, and priests have always manipulated and exploited the pliable and gullible for their own ends. The behavior you describe in your post is not some new mutation of religion, it's what organized religion exists to do.

  29. Falstaff, I think it’s a point of argument as to whether religion has always been superficial. There have been times when religion animates a society and much of the art and literature of that period would have been derived from the religious impulse. It was taken seriously and that seriousness is reflected in the society. On a personal front, my great grandfather and his friends had a rigorous schooling in the Hindu Scriptures and an education in English – and I think this would have been true of at least some Indians at the time - and I wouldn’t dismiss what they had to say outright even if my world view is nothing like theirs. I think for their generation rituals were not simply a comfort but the natural order of things. Lastly, observances were far simpler, perhaps because people did not have money. Rituals were not entirely in bed with a culture of consumerism. In fact I remember priests being fairly impoverished till suddenly it became a lucrative profession. Like anything else how religion functions in a society changes – it’s hardly fixed or immutable.

    Priti, I went to the crematorium for my mother’s funeral with my brother and I have to say that no one stopped me. To be frank I have nothing against ceremonies per se – for the funeral it was just a few of us who mattered and it was like JB said – simple and dignified. But the rest of the 13 days was chaos when we really needed time out. But I suppose this is true of anything Indian – there always seem to a number of relatives and hangers on directing proceedings and smothering any actual sentiment.

  30. you could have told the priest to go to hell and you didn't; I understand why you made that choice, but let's not pretend it wasn't a choice...

    Falstaff: If the word "choice" is to have any meaning at all, then I assure you that I had no choice in the matter. And I don't think you understand; I don't see how you could without knowing all the facts of the case.

    No real argument with your point that human nature would find a way to spread this sort of hegemony even in a world where religion didn't exist. I have to admit that the essay got somewhat confused along the way somewhere; I felt that way when I read it in print.

    I also have to protest all this fallacy of a golden age nonsense about how religion has recently become superficial. As opposed to when, exactly? Religion has always been superficial, and priests have always manipulated and exploited the pliable and gullible for their own ends. The behavior you describe in your post is not some new mutation of religion, it's what organized religion exists to do.

    I made a similar point in an earlier comment to shrikanth. Now quit picking on my poor post!

  31. And as you can imagine, the pressure is more on women to "conform". (Who the hell made the rule that women should not go into a graveyard?)

    Priti, Anu: this is something my wife and I were discussing - that another aspect of unbending observance of "rules" is that in many cases women who genuinely want to participate in these rites aren't allowed to do so. The woman in question could be a daughter who was closer to (and did far more for) the deceased parent than any of the sons, but under certain belief systems she simply wouldn't have the option of going for the rituals.

    Szerelem: thanks for sharing that story - touches on what I mentioned in the para above.

  32. n! thanks for that comment. If I ever have a human child, this will be an issue for us as well - my wife, though a believer herself, agrees that religion shouldn't be imposed on a child, but boy, there will be serious opposition from just about everyone else in the known universe!

    That's one of the good things about having a non-human daughter - no one else takes her seriously enough to make an issue out of these things.

  33. JB I didn’t find it confused at all; I thought it was a honest reflection on how it feels to be in the midst of a death of someone you loved with its myriad pulls and contradictions.

    I find it a bit awakward to offer condolences to people I don’t know well but here they are anyway. It’s nice to know your grandmother had a full life though that doesn’t diminish sadness in any way I think.

  34. I am increasingly coming to see religion as a form of art; the rituals and architecture can be very beautiful so I wouldn’t want to do away with it. And like art, it’s getting increasingly expensive. Priests have to make a living too especially in religions where there's no mighty infrastructure to dole out salaries but I guess , given the delicateness of some occasions, they should be able to be sensitive about how to collect their fee.

    That said, standing up to any convention is bound to ruffle feathers. I discover that every day with marriage. It’s bound to be unpleasant but that’s the price you pay for being at peace with what you believe. Hopefully, after much repetition, people will get the point and back off. In an earlier post, you quoted Johann Hari on the lines off “nothing worth saying ever happened without offending someone”; maybe something similar can be said for “anything worth doing”.

    Disclosure: I’m a Believer but I think religion is just the frills. I like frills sometimes. And there will always be those who insist that frills are a must.

  35. @J'wock: I wasn't being insistent on the performance of any ritual. Moreover, there isn't a "standard operating procedure" in these matters anyway. The customs vary greatly across regions and communities.

    Also, I don't think the rituals in their present form are impossibly rigorous. I happen to belong to a "priestly" community that prides itself on its rather extreme orthodoxy. Yet, the rituals I experienced on a similar occasion were hardly an ordeal. We had the funeral rites which lasted for an hour on the day of death, the ashes immersion the following day, and a couple of two-hour ceremonies on the 10th and 12th days. That was about it. During the entire fortnight, there was nothing to keep me or anybody else from leading a perfectly normal life.

    Ofcourse, a lot of these rituals have to do with the ancient Indian's obsession with sacrifice and cleanliness, which may not make much practical sense to the modern mind. By the same token , Independence-day flag-hoisting doesn't make much practical sense either.

    Finally, there's this rather irritating notion (not on this thread) that all these rituals were devised by a cabal of holy men who're out there to make a killing out of death ceremonies.
    I think this betrays repressed prejudice against the priestly castes more than anything else.

    Most rituals have taken centuries to evolve and I'm sure that they did address a genuinely felt need at the time of their evolution. If they seem like an anachronism today, it isn't the fault of the priests. Everyone's free not to do the "done thing". There's no concept of apostasy in Hinduism.

  36. Also, I don't think the rituals in their present form are impossibly rigorous.

    shrikanth: the rituals don't have to be impossibly rigorous. For someone who doesn't have an emotional investment of any sort in a ritual, even a short ceremony can be a royal pain in the backside. Especially if you have to perform it in the presence of people who are getting all self-righteous and preachy about "what has to be done" despite the fact that they were hardly even around during the two arduous years of illness and hardship (when the rest of us had put our lives on hold).

    ...the rituals I experienced on a similar occasion were hardly an ordeal.

    You mean they were hardly an ordeal for YOU. Others might feel differently. That's all I'm saying.

    No issue with the rest of your comment.

  37. And I don't think you understand; I don't see how you could without knowing all the facts of the case.

    You're right - I don't understand. I was just trying to play nice because it's the 'done thing' when someone puts posts about a dead grandmother. So how about you explain to us exactly how you were forced and didn't have a choice, because from where I stand you sound suspiciously like just another hypocrite who likes to complain about the things he has neither the courage nor the conviction to oppose. You realize it's because people continue to countenance and participate in these rituals that they persist?

  38. Falstaff: I'm not going to bother replying to a comment written in that tone (for what it's worth, I think that comment was more offensive and blinkered than many of the rituals I've had to participate in). If you're really interested, email me and we can discuss this offline.

  39. J'wock: My apologies if you found the tone offensive. I'm sorry, but I'm a little tired of people complaining about how society makes them do things and claiming they don't have a choice. If you really feel you didn't have a choice, I think it would be useful to discuss why that is. If we want to stop perpetuating these rituals the only way that's going to happen is if people start standing up to the priests, and to make that happen we need to understand why people (particularly people who clearly find the rituals demeaning) don't do so. So if you're serious about trying to find a solution to the problem I'd think you'd want to tell us why you felt so coerced. If you don't want to, that's your choice, of course, but let's recognize that if we all sit around nodding our heads in sympathy and blindly agreeing that none of us has a choice then the problem is never going to go away.

  40. Condolences first of all.. A good post.. though I have some contentions.. There's a thin line of difference between religion/ theism and the traditions that you are talking about.. The traditions have been put in place by previous generations under the then prevailing social circumstances and many times, the traditions would have an underlying mataphor.. But, over the years those have been tampered for selfish and egoistic motives.. No God or religion would ask you to do things only in a certain way.. its only the traditions.. So, while I respect your views and apathy towards the traditions, its better not to mix religion with traditions..

  41. Jabs: Helps if you have the option of telling the 'priests' that your 'father would have hated it' - in connection with Baba's cremation a couple of summers ago. Or just make a sulky face and say 'I won't do it - hard luck; there must be a way around it - check the scriptures'!

    Also, how about a couple of thousand towards my ever-expanding belly for lugging all those 'holy logs' around at the crematorium?

    Shrikanth: Quick word - 'cleanliness', I think, should never be connected with any Hindu ritual. At least any of the North Indian Hindu rituals. Marriage. Death. Whatever... Most of it is fairly unclean in various ways. Hope you agree.

  42. Hey jabberwock, man... don't back off when we finally seem like we've gotten onto something... the question that should be raised. Falstaff's question unsettles me... And you're behaving like you've been unsettled...

  43. Falstaff: Jabberwock's protest is about being forced to comply with something he didn't personally agree with. "Force" is not just physical; it's emotional as well, and social. In the Hindu crematorium system, the "norm" is that you will go along with the priests, the rituals and the rest of the shebang. It's not a choice--it's the norm, the "done thing". It's easy to exercise a choice when you have one; not so easy to break a norm.

    It's also the question of relationship. It's easier to enforce your views if the member of your family who died was a spouse or a parent. It's almost impossible in the case of a grandparent or aunt, because then you're in the position of forcing your views on other claimants to bereavement and grief. I suspect this is what Jabberwock came up against--and as someone who believes that *he* should not be forced to comply in specific rituals, how could he force other people to respect his non-belief? That's essentially the conundrum "established" rites and rituals place us in--one reason why I hate them so much.

  44. P.S. Srikanth, I disagree with your comment that "everybody's free not to do the done thing". That just isn't borne out by the way Hinduism is practiced--try going to Haridwar, as I did with family, to immerse the ashes of a loved one in the river and try refusing the services of a priest. That's just one instance; but in general, there's very little respect for the claims of the individual believer/ freethinker/ atheist against those of the community.

  45. Jabberwock's protest is about being forced to comply with something he didn't personally agree with. "Force" is not just physical; it's emotional as well, and social...

    Nilanjana: thanks for that. You've got the general idea right, but the specifics involve private information about the family, which I'm not going to discuss in the comments section of this post - that's why I asked Falstaff to email me if he's really interested in talking about this.

    Last Anon: If Falstaff's question unsettled you, that's for you to deal with. To the extent that I've been unsettled, it's only because a blogger whose intelligence I respect showed lack of sensitivity about the various possible situations in which one might be forced to go along with something one doesn't believe in. That's all there is to it.

    My email ID is on the Profile page - you're as free to mail me as anyone else is.

  46. Shamya: since you're unemployed now, you might want to check for vacancies at the crematorium. But don't apply for the menial jobs, apply for head priest (with your belly as a résumé) - you're much more likely to get monies that way.

    Last but one Anon: I don't really get the reasoning behind "No God or religion would ask you to do things only in a certain way". Some religions did have rigid, set-in-stone origins, and if God exists why can't It be a sadistic, whimsical God that enjoys mucking about with people? But yes, there is a case for not mixing quiet, privately held religious beliefs with intrusive traditions.

  47. Nilanjana: No one is saying that breaking a norm is easy. I understand that social pressure is a powerful force. But having to contend with a powerful force is NOT the same thing as not having a choice. If you'd actually read my first comment you'd have seen that the whole hurting other people by not toeing the line thing is precisely what I say there.

    Look, you, like J'wock, claim you hate rituals. Fine. I do too. So how do you (or J'wock?) propose we get rid of them? Or is that not something you care about at all? My solution is that right-thinking people need to start saying no to priests, even if that means hurting their loved ones. If you have an alternate solution, let's hear it.

    My assumption was (and is, though I'm beginning to have doubts) that the point of this post was to actually do something about (or at least discuss some possible solutions to) these rituals, not just to allow J'wock to feel sorry for himself and get other people to feel sorry for him. J'wock has my sympathy - I was hoping he was looking for more.

    P.s. Am I the only one who sees the irony in putting up a post that complains about being coerced by social norms, and then getting offended when other people don't follow social norms and adopt the socially appropriate tone? This is why sentiment and logic do not mix.

  48. My assumption was (and is, though I'm beginning to have doubts) that the point of this post was to actually do something about (or at least discuss some possible solutions to) these rituals, not just to allow J'wock to feel sorry for himself and get other people to feel sorry for him. J'wock has my sympathy - I was hoping he was looking for more.

    Falstaff: wrong on both counts. The point of this post was not to discuss possible "solutions" to these rituals. I don't believe there are solutions that will actually achieve anything worthwhile - the last three words of the post make that clear - and I'm not too convinced it's worth the effort anyway. As you yourself implied in your first comment, human nature will find a way to lay down rules and make the majority conform to them, no matter what.

    I thought you knew me - or at least my blog - long enough to know that I don't write in order to discover "solutions" to the world's big problems. As I recall, my lazy, self-centred attitude has even been a bone of contention between us on a past occasion.

    The point of this post was also not to "allow J'wock to feel sorry for himself and to get other people to feel sorry for him". I felt inconvenienced and irritated for an hour or two in that crematorium (and a couple of subsequent occasions) - I didn't go through some kind of personal hell. The idea of people feeling seriously sorry for me based on this post makes me laugh out loud. (I even tried to inject a dose of humour into the early parts of the piece, though that inevitably fell through along the way.) Even your "My condolences" was completely unnecessary.

    The "point" of this post if any (and let's not forget that this was a magazine article to begin with, based on a specific, pre-defined theme that I was approached to do) was to share an experience and to vent a bit about something that annoyed me. But at any rate, I've learnt now that I don't feel anywhere near as strongly about this subject as you do.

  49. P.S. One last thing (and then I'll stop, I promise) - even if we accept for a moment that J'wock had no choice and was forced into participating in these rituals, it's worth asking - who forced him? Was it really the priest, this stranger who was (presumably) hired to perform a ceremony and depends upon payment from J'wock and people like him for his livelihood? Was it some amorphous religious establishment that J'wock, by his own admission, has little use for? Or was it the other 'claimants on bereavement' who put J'wock in a position where he had to go through with these rituals? How convenient to make 'religion' the scapegoat for one's anger and frustration with one's own family. And how (dare I say it again?) hypocritical.

    J'wock: My apologies for thinking you may actually want to do something to change this state of affairs. I only thought you may want to because you took such strong exception to being described as someone "who likes to complain about the things he has neither the courage nor the conviction to oppose". After your last comment, those words ring truer than ever.

  50. Falstaff: there are two ways to define "changing this state of affairs". If you use it in a personal sense, that is, my wishing to be free of these traditions (if not completely, then at least to a large extent), then yes, I do want to do something about it. And despite your repeated questioning of my "courage and conviction", I have struck a blow for this personal freedom in my own way, even when circumstances have made it very difficult. If you were to speak to some people in my non-immediate family, they'd tell you that I've been extremely difficult, pigheaded and even "disrespectful" when it comes to these things.

    But if you're using "changing this state of affairs" in the larger, change-the-world sense of "finding a solution for the problem of rituals in general", then no, I have no plans to do anything about it. And if you don't see the difference between the two definitions, I have nothing to add.

    One last thing: if you do decide to comment further (in response to this comment, or in general), avoid getting too personal. It would be a pity (especially after the relatively civilised offline exchange we just had) if I had to treat you as a regular troll and delete your comments.

  51. J'wock: I have no desire to make this personal, I've been trying to avoid that all along. Part of my difficulty in responding to this post is that the personal and the theoretical are so intertwined, and all I really want to do is discuss the general principle without dragging your personal life into it.

    So here's the thing: I'm not questioning your courage and conviction generally. I've been reading your blog long enough to know that you're perfectly capable of standing up to arbitrary tradition and being disrespectful - that's why I'm disappointed that in this particular instance you seem not to have done so, and surprised that you don't seem interested in discussing how these rituals can be opposed. If even people like you can't see their way to saying no to the priests when it really matters, then there really is no hope of ever getting rid of these parasites, which is why I've been pushing you.

    At a more general level, I think it's important that we recognize that eventually the only way these rituals are going to go away is if some people, somewhere stand up to the priests and say no. Maybe you had a choice in the matter and maybe you didn't - if your conscience is satisfied that you couldn't have acted differently then it's really not my place to judge. But putting up a post (and publishing an article) with a narrative that blames religion and the priesthood and projects yourself as a victim only serves to strengthen and legitimate the idea that people don't have a choice in these matters and makes it easier for the next person faced with a choice to cave in to the social pressure. And I can't help thinking that's unhelpful.

    So: on a personal note, while I sympathize with your annoyance / pain, I think you owe it to yourself to examine who you're really frustrated / angry with; and on a more general note, I think that, at the very least, anyone who feels oppressed by the 'done things' should think long and hard about the possibility and consequences of resisting the social pressure before they acquiesce in these rituals while telling themselves they have no choice. Saying "norms are hard to change" is easy, but it means closing the door on the possibility of change.

  52. My final word here, then I'll go and kill myself.

    If even people like you can't see their way to saying no to the priests when it really matters...

    True. In situations like the one mentioned in the post, I can't. And as I've tried to explain more than once: this is not because I secretly want to go along with what the priests are doing. But whether you want to believe that is up to you.

    ...then there really is no hope of ever getting rid of these parasites...

    YES! You've finally got it! There really is no hope! That's what I've been trying to say all along!

    ...which is why I've been pushing you.

    Now you're making me sound like a modern-day Parashurama-type, on whose shoulders rests the task of running about the planet with an axe, decapitating every priest he meets.

    ...putting up a post (and publishing an article) with a narrative that blames religion and the priesthood and projects yourself as a victim

    Like I said before, I definitely didn't intend to project myself as a victim - hate that word. If that's how it comes across, it's a shortcoming in the article.


  53. @nilanjana: I'm not too familiar with the death ceremonies in the North. As far as I know, Hindu mourners are encouraged to dispose the ashes on the banks of a sacred water body only if they can afford the time and money to go the distance.

    In my case, no priest even accompanied us to the river. The priests were involved only in those ceremonies where their skill-sets are indispensable (primarily at the funeral and on the 10th and 12th days). Which explains their high fees. On the other hand, the boys who assist in collecting wood at the crematorium cannot possibly sell their service at a premium, since their chore requires no skill.

  54. Falstaff, there is a complex situation here, regarding loss, trauma, confusion(both emotional and practical), organising to do, family members to consider. There are no easy, cut and dried 'solutions'. You sound like an articulate intellectual. But woefully and totally lacking the imagination to conjure up a crematorium, a dead body, noise, heat, people, conflicting emotions, pain, anger, and the whole thing having to be gone through.

  55. "I definitely didn't intend to project myself as a victim - hate that word."

    Victim n. One that is subjected to oppression, hardship and mistreatment.

    You wrote a looong post about how terrible these rituals made you feel, and you claim you did not have a choice in undertaking them. In what alternate universe is this not being a victim?

  56. Yes, Falstaff, I'm a victim. I admit it. You win again, as you do every one of the lengthy comments debates you participate in. I lose and withdraw, humiliated. Does that make you happy?

    Oops, there I go, being a "victim" again. How careless of me.

  57. Okay, just to clarify, since I know that last comment doesn't actually say anything: I was thinking of "victim" in this case in the sense of "victim mentality" - someone who's feeling very sorry for himself and wanting others to do the same. Should've known you'd bring out a freaking dictionary definition in response.

  58. This post tells so succintly what I exactle wanted to say all along. THNAK YOU!

    So well writen! enjoyed it thoroughly.

  59. Falstaff, sorry to inject the personal here but are you saying you *never* do things you do not believe in? I find that hard to believe of anyone unless they are living in a bubble.

    Also I don't think changes occur by simply putting down your foot down and saying "no I won't do this". More likely that JB's post may give someone courage rather than a post saying "I said f*k off, I am doing as I please".

  60. I got a bit tired of reading the comment string when it started getting personal, but I agree with Falstaff's first comment, we ALWAYS have a choice.

    I remember reading something about concentration camps and the dignity the prisoners could to still manage to keep - because they knew they had a choice, they had a choice to come out of the experience without feeling degraded. I use such a dramatic example because I think it is needed. If I can say this without offending you, J'wock, I think choice can only be exercised if we know what we are choosing between (after all religious rituals is only a step away from all other rituals), there is dire need for conviction and conviction is different from stubbornness or even rebellion because the former springs from clarity, and the latter from a 'how dare YOU impose it on ME' attitude. I am not saying that one is right and the other wrong, I am just saying that one gives you a choice, while the other doesn't.

    I appologise to you if I offend you, and I am sorry that your grandmother passed away.

  61. Falstaff, I think the most unfortunate outcome of your intervention has been to shift attention on to Jabberwock's actions and off the fairly large social problem and setting behind this sort of situation. But I guess that doesn't matter when you're too busy claiming the high moral ground to look deeper.

    The strictly personal is always easier to deal with. Faced with a relative who says they won't eat in my house because we refuse to segregate the "servants" glasses or plates from ours, it's easy to tell that relative to get lost. If it's a question of your own marriage, you can choose to edit or omit the rituals, as I did in my case.

    You're omitting the economics of the situation as well. It should be possible for a crematorium to offer just the simple rite of cremation, no frills attached, for freethinkers, apostates or those who'd like to say their own prayers. But few crematoriums will support this, since they receive a significant (and legal) percentage of the priests' fees for every funeral conducted.

    I have no idea why you'd focus only on Jai's right to refusal, exercised or not--which wouldn't, in the current scenario, have changed anything about the crematorium situation per se. If you were trying to be productive and actually force the change of which you speak, why wouldn't you suggest, for instance, a public campaign for a two-counter (priest, no priest) system at the crematoria?

    It's not just crematoria and priests. It's the assumption that rituals and prejudices passed down by religions take precedence over all else, including personal beliefs. It's the assumption that a prejudice or a damaging ritual may not be examined or questioned because it's sanctified by religion.

    Jabberwock, your post may not have provoked exactly the debate you wanted, but it has opened up new lines of thought for me at least. Thanks.

  62. If it's a question of your own marriage, you can choose to edit or omit the rituals, as I did in my case.

    Even this situation isn't so cut-and-dried. There are two people involved in a wedding and you need both of them (as well as their immediate families - assuming they haven't cut off all ties!) to (largely) agree about the type of wedding they want to have. If A wants a no-frills court wedding and B + B's family want an elaborate carnival, chances are that the latter will be the ones to get their way. That is, assuming A and B feel strongly enough about each other to ensure the wedding happens at all. (Falstaff might suggest here that A has the "choice" of backing out altogether.)

    In the above case, even if A succeeds in getting the event pared down to a two-day carnival instead of a 7-day carnival, he might justifiably feel like he's struck a minor blow for his beliefs. (Of course, people who think of this as an all-or-nothing situation won't agree.)

    When Abhilasha and I got married, both of us and our immediate families pretty much agreed to keep it simple; that a registered court wedding was fine. (I had to endure a small "roka" ceremony that I didn't care for, but that was about it.) But even with the immediate families being in agreement, I had to face a huge amount of grief from certain troublesome members of my non-immediate family, who chose to feel personally offended that they hadn't been invited for a proper ceremony. It caused a good deal of unpleasantness and my mother and I are are still dealing with the repercussions of their "hurt feelings" more than two years later.

  63. Falstaff I think lives abroad where he wont be surrounded by relatives . So it is easier for him to take a stand in isolation
    Jai lives in Delhi and after the death of his nani there must have been a number of relatives (who have come down) to deal with .
    It is not easy to cause unpleasantness and bitterness with others
    Nilanjana understood the situation well and her comments were spot on

  64. Bhaiyya falstaff, aap kis duniya mein reh rahe hain? Kripya zameen par utar aaiyye or coffee(n) ko soonghiye.


  65. Here, the first indications of an atheistic sect, just as rigid as any other. Jabberwock, the Messiah! He simply doesn't like his world view questioned. Traits apparent in... you know who all... Remember he who said, the sun is not yellow, its chicken...

  66. Anu: Of course I do things I don't believe in. But I accept that in doing so I'm making a choice. And I don't try to shift the responsibility for that choice to someone else.

    Nilanjana: You know, I don't necessarily disagree with anything you say here. I've been focusing on J'wock's alleged non-choice mostly because that's the only part of my first comment anyone's bothered to respond to. And because accepting that we have choices is the first step towards making change happen - how do you launch a 'public campaign' when opposing these rituals isn't even a choice? Wouldn't the same factors that 'forced' J'wock not to say no to the priest also 'force' him not to publicly oppose the priesthood?

    Also, it's not true that Jai's actions are all I'm focused on. My point throughout has been that focusing exclusively on the priests / crematoria doesn't make sense - people aren't being forced to do these things (if they are being forced at all) by the priests, they are being forced to do these things by social pressure from their friends / relatives. How will a two counter system help if one of them is considered 'more proper' and relatives look down on anyone who goes the new / less traditional route? If J'wock didn't have the choice to say no to the priest, he's not likely to have the choice of choosing the no-priest option even if it did exist (am I seriously to believe that there are no other cremetaria in the city, no other way for people to get cremated without going through these rituals? What about people too destitute to afford these rituals? What happens to them? - see, choices). Trying to change social customs by changing institutional arrangements is putting the cart before the horse.

    Look, (for the nth time) I'm not saying changing these rituals is easy, and I don't know what the solutions are. But I do think it's worth discussing further. And I'm not willing to take the inherently defeatist attitude that nothing can be done about it, or let that assumption go unexamined. And I refuse to be cowed down by people who'd rather believe that there is no solution (because it makes them feel better about the fact that they had to go through with these rituals) than actually discuss a solution.

    P.S. I find it interesting that in this entire discussion you choose to ally yourself with J'wock - who explicitly considers the problem of these rituals to be unsolvable and has therefore no interest in looking for a solution - and take issue with me for refusing to accept that rituals are just something we have to live with, and trying to explore ways in which they can be changed.

  67. Falstaff, get you. Though I think some responsibility does rest with others. Doing your own thing is very hard in India - even say living in your flat when your parents have one in the same town. And no matter how much you think "OK I made the decision there" there is a residual annoyance at being imposed on.

    Judging by the comments, everyone is reading different things into this post. To me it didn't seem at all like a problem/solution kind of post. And surely Jai has the right to whinge about being forced on his blog :-) Hey what would life be if we couldn't whinge!

  68. Nice write up Jab.

    I don't understand the insistence on starting a social movement here to rid the world of what you don't believe in. Personally I thought Jab's post was about 'his' irritation at being forced to do something that he didn't believe in...and it was laced with dry sarcasm to offset the outpourings condolences that is the 'done thing' when responding to the post. Oh, and I didn't get the impression Jab were trying to change the world for a better place either.

    @Falstaff: Take it easy, friend. It is easy to talk about choice when you are cocooned in your glass bubble. But sometimes we have to do certain things even if we don't necessarily believe in it. For someone so articulate, its funny you can't seem to understand that maybe...just maybe...there were other reasons - that was beyond the scope of the post - which forced Jab to undergo the 'rituals'.





    this is the only post-mortal incanting that needs to be done. Obviously it's not always the teacher.

  70. I hear you, every single word, and am amazed how fluid & well flowing your thoughts are. Live and let live...my first time on your blog & am loving' it!

  71. We had 2 deaths in our family in the last few years - in the first case, my father in law, who gave meticulous instructions for his own post-death ceremonies, was ignored - post death. My mother inlaw, being hugely superstitious and religious, insisted on doing all the bells and whistles, and while we were unhappy with all the shoshaa, we didn't dare voice our concerns. I kept quiet partly because as daughter in law I had no locus standi, and my husband kept quiet partly because as an atheist, his views would have anyway been viewed with suspicion. The main reason we really kept mum, though, was because his sisters and mother are hugely religious and needed all the ceremonies to draw comfort. Who has lien over grief? The survivors who need the ceremonies? or the deceased who wanted to avoid them? In the end, I believe it is a question of power and the believers will always have a superior standing on this because of their need and their conviction of entitlement. The non-believers will always give in because of a "why make a fuss for a day or so of misery" which stems from a kind of intellectual superiority. We do have a choice - and we often exercise it in ways that cause us angst because of the need to appease those whom we love, even if their beliefs run totally counter to ours

  72. J'wock, you will be amused to hear that for a moment back there, while reading your post, I believed you'd had a (human) daughter and was surprised that I'd not heard a whisper about such an event. It did not sound at all surprising to me that you described the little one as believing "only in chicken-rice, chewies and squeaky toys". A normal child, I thought to myself.

    Anyway. Just wanted to add my thoughts on your post. I think it shows considerable grace to swallow one's own ideas of right and wrong, one's pride and one's principles in order to do the thing that is expected of one during a family rite of passage -- not because one believes in the rituals, but in order to avoid causing yet more distress. I think, in some ways, that is harder than standing aside while saying "Ahh no! Against my principles, old fruit!"

    It seems to me, one of the problems that face all those of No Faith, is that there's no clear system to follow at the time of a death. Perhaps, at the very least, your post might encourage some of us to think about what we'd like to do for a loved one who is near the Departure Gate. Quite often, the only reason that a traditional path is followed is that no-one has any alternative ideas to offer.

  73. My sincere condolences to you and your family on this loss.
    After all the discussions here, I think the simplest thing is for each of us to clearly and proactively tell our near and dear ones what we want to have done with their mortal remains, and what, if any, religious or other ceremonies we feel are necessary.
    No one can question my rights over my own corpse, I hope.
    This would, of course, also result in the grave discomfort of people actually having to think about a time when they are no more. Which is probably a major reason for people in general going on with the 'standard' rituals.
    It is difficult not to resent the so-called well-wishers who are absent through chronic illnesses, but try and impose their beliefs after the demise of the person concerned.

  74. I'm sorry to hear of your gran's death.

    Deaths, births, weddings, it's the same thing - form over substance. And we perpetuate all this for the sake of peace/cowardice.

    Often with ridiculous outcomes. I remember during my wedding, the coconut I was supposed to carry from the 'waiting room' and deposit near the pooja fell from my hands and rolled away - quite a comical sight. I've seen people being quite keen on their sons being given a gold ring, clothes etc by his in-laws because he's performed the funeral rites, no sooner than the corpse has turned the corner on its journey to the crematorium. I've seen my grandad's well-informed sisters ridicule the priest for making a hash of the rituals (not that they were religious) and run away with the rice and other offerings in an unholy hurry. I've seen such rituals being held because the family didn't want society to point its fingers and hurl charges of 'lazy' and 'stingy'.

    Some of my grandparents didn't believe in these deathly rituals, so we sponsor some meals at a local orphanage when their death anniversaries come around. Some other people I know don't want these rituals as they disrupt their relatives' and friends' lives (who feel pressured to attend) and don't want to be cursed by them.

    For some people, of course, nothing but the whole nine yards of God-suffused rituals, death feasts and gifts, will do - in fact, I have a piece on my blog about these gifts. Anyway, most of these occasions, happy or sad, are prime breeding spaces for much bitchiness and heartburn too, I wonder what's the point of it all. How are you honouring the dead person or the occasion?

    And sadly enough, everyone wants their presence to be marked at a death but won't take the same trouble to visit when the person was alive.

  75. Moving post. There was some truth in the Big Lebowski:

    "Just because we are bereaved doesn't make us saps"

  76. I think its all very well to say, we always make a choice.. But from a practical perspective, it isin't always so clearly cut-out in front of us.. which is where I think, we "choose" to compromise.. it doesn't necessarily mean we "agree" on something. I'd say the predicament the author of this post was in, (in view of the death, the gathered/invited relatives, and most importantly, the religious sentiments that run deep), is what actually "forced" him to "go along" with the rituals.. It certainly doesn't stop him from posting his views later on, in his blog, or the magazine, and rightly so!
    A commentor has observed a supposed flaw in merely narrating an issue without elaborating on "practical" counter measures, in the sense that it is futile.. But isin't observing, and stating the consequential greviances a rather valid start?!

  77. I think there's a confusion here between Religion and Tradition.

    Both are two different things, although admittedly, intertwined at times.

    In fact Hinduism and Hindu religion is so vast and liberal/flexible, the people who practice it, interpret it in their own ways. Thus you would find rituals changing every 50 KMs in India.

    It's really up to an individual what to choose, as one of the commentator has argued. Blaming the religion itself is no good.

    It's like blaming cricket because it spawns a match-fixing/gambling industry.

    Just because those pandits were thugs, doesn't mean Hinduism is bad. Those Pandits don't represent it (even if they claim to)

  78. Kautilya: as I said in the last para, I'm talking here mainly about a (purely hypothetical) freedom from religious strictures, not religion itself. And certainly not any specific religion. (I do have views about how religion by its very nature is ripe for exploitation by thugs - and how it isn't so easy to separate the good from the bad - but that's a topic for another discussion.)

    In fact Hinduism and Hindu religion is so vast and liberal/flexible, the people who practice it, interpret it in their own ways. Thus you would find rituals changing every 50 KMs in India.

    True. I always find it odd when I hear relatives or friends say things like "If you've decided to get into the whole ritual thing, you should do it in the proper way".

  79. Radhika (not the other one in the earlier post)12:10 PM, August 22, 2009

    To me the sad irony lies in the fact that Hinduism (arguably more than most religions) is an open and questioning religion - accepting of aetheism as well. What we see proliferating around us, and increasingly so with the pesky Balaji serials - is the harder version of the Bhakti form - which demands rituals and superstition as a route to nirvana. The earlier proponents of Hindusim realised that the populace can divvied up into the 90% credulous and non-questioning, for whom a Standard Operating Manual of rituals is comforting - while the 1-2% who are more comfortable with ambiguity could take the Jnana route and be questioning of the origins of the self. (For the mathematically curious, the balancing figure adds up to the work-ethic oriented Karma Yoga type). I am always gobsmacked by the open ambivalence in the Rig Veda which says :

    Neither being nor non-being was as yet. What was concealed? And where? And in whose protection?…Who really knows? Who can declare it? Whence was it born, and whence came this creation? The devas were born later than this world's creation, so who knows from where it came into existence? None can know from where creation has arisen, and whether he has or has not produced it. He who surveys it in the highest heavens, he alone knows- or perhaps he does not know. (Rig Veda 10. 129)

  80. (continuing) - Isn't it a pity that Hinduism is not taught in all its diverse forms and beliefs so that people understand there isn't any "done thing" - you can be an Amitabh, glowering outside the temple (briefly, before his angry capitulation in the end of Deewar), and still be a Hindu - just as you can be a non-Khalsa and still be a Sikh. It is the symbolism and the ritualism that has been propagated, to the point that few "devout" Hindus are aware that Hinduism accepts much more dissent than their blinkered minds are capable of comprehending. Yet, I would not recommend quoting the RigVeda as a way out of such predicaments as Jai was in - you just get even more flak for being a "know-it-all". If there is to be a "solution", full of hubris as that sounds, it has to take the form of a greater dissemination of what Hinduism encompasses, from a very early age, and I can't wrap my mind around how that could ever be executed.

  81. Radhika: I love those creation verses from the Rig Veda myself (have mentioned them in some post or comments discussion earlier). I also appreciated the way they were used as the opening lines in the TV serial Bharat ek Khoj, which was made by one agnostic (Shyam Benegal) and based on a book written by another agnostic (Nehru). And yes, the attempts being made to convert Hinduism into a "fundamentalist" religion are very unfortunate.

    The one minor thing I'm unsure about in your comments is the Amitabh-in-Deewaar reference. To me, mainstream Hindi cinema's treatment of the so-called "non-believer" (whether in Deewaar or Nastik or whatever) has been superficial. The impression one gets is that the angry young man is "katti" with God because of all the bad things that have happened to him and his family - not that he simply doesn't believe in a higher power. This business of denouncing and shouting angrily at a statue in a temple is no different in my mind than putting flowers on the same statue.

    Also, I'm not quite comfortable with this idea that you can be atheist and still be a "Hindu" because the Carvaka and other schools "allow" for atheism as well as belief. What exactly would being such a "Hindu" (or such a "Sikh") involve? I'd rather avoid labeling myself altogether.

  82. My Deewar reference was partly a joke - I agree with you that Amitabh's refusal was more a sulky reaction than an intellectual stance. But Hindi movies have never been able to contemplate an atheist, except as some sort of amoral person. This is precisely the kind of propaganda that I am talking about - the celebration of the Bhakti Yoga over the other forms.

    I'm not quite comfortable with this idea that you can be atheist and still be a "Hindu" because the Carvaka and other schools "allow" for atheism as well as belief
    Not sure I understand your point - are you saying that Hinduism has no such funda (about atheism) or do you feel that it is an oxymoron, to call a person an atheist and yet a Hindu?

  83. Radhika: what I meant was that it should be possible to just be a non-believer without having someone smugly or patronisingly tell you, "But you can be an atheist and still be Hindu" or worse, "But even atheists are Hindus". It happens surprisingly often, and it rings of a desperate need to appropriate everything under the faith's fold - which I think runs contrary to Hinduism's basic amorphousness. (Note: the very fact that I've had such sentences addressed to me will also tell you that the people saying them automatically assume that all Sikhs are Hindus as well.)

  84. Brilliant piece, albeit a touch pessimistic. I think the world is boiling over with these closet atheists and sooner or later they will come out. Official estimates put the number of atheists at over 1 billion and there are plenty more who are suppressed by familial, social pressures. The role of religion in modern day society's life will diminish considerably within a generation, at least in countries where education and free thinking is permissible (forget the middle east though)

  85. Radhika: what I meant was that it should be possible to just be a non-believer without having someone smugly or patronisingly tell you, "But you can be an atheist and still be Hindu" or worse, "But even atheists are Hindus".
    Of course. There is no need an atheist should be forcefitted into any such label. But what I meant was that the converse is also true : there are parts of Hinduism I like, and I don't want to erase my membership of that beleif system with the expectation that if I am a Hindu, I should also be a theist. It should be possible, for those who like, say, the non-religious but cultural or knowledge or philo parts of Hindusism, or any other element, to be able to be part of that intersecting venn diagram which is both Hindu and atheist. I reject the notion that to be a Hindu one must necessarily have bought into all the other aspects. Hinduism allows me to opt for one part of its belief system and still identify myself with it, and I recognize that its longevity as a religion may well have to do with its pragmatism and willingness to morph its boundaries - better to subsume the subversive/antagonistic element, than to let it supress you. It strikes me as being a bit judgemental of an atheist who has no such identification with Hinduism in all its non-religious forms, to say (also smugly and patronizingly), "if you are an atheist, how can you call yourself a Hindu - you should just be a non-believer, period".

    For example, let's take a name. When we named our child, I automatically veered towards a Hindu name - it doesn't mean that I believe in the religious symbolism of the name, but that the name fits with my cultural understanding of myself. I got married in a dress which was both Hindu and Indian - I like some of the holiday celebrations - esp the food! (more now in my middle age than in my rebellious youth) - and I can celebrate all that without wanting to be a theist and go to a temple and do the rituals. Sorry if I sound a bit rambling, but isn't there a likelihood of atheism also becoming a tad fundamentalist and judgemental and wanting to throw out a lot of cultural goodies with the religious baddies?

  86. Jai, I am sure this is the most commented on post and I really didn’t mean to add more.

    Still, I was wondering how you would approach the post were it say a short story (I am not sure if you write fiction though of course you do review it and of course you did touch on the value of books in the post). Because of course it is rich with possibilities – social commentary? Highlight the absurd? Aim for the sentimental? What will be the character sketches etc. etc. Would the boundaries of right and wrong perhaps blur?

    Fiction (and perhaps religion?) has the liberty of departing from empirical evidence yet atheism I think requires an empirical approach. The two aren’t necessarily in conflict of course. Yet there are inherent tensions and it sort of begs the question is the purely rational life possible? i.e. will something like religion and related passions which to all purposes is fact free still persist because like say a movie or fiction it appeals to the irrational gene, to some realm of emotions (sometimes dark) that facts don’t reach? That in fact it is often fertile ground for fiction? To clarify I am not taking sides here. I work in tech and such contradictions are numerous amongst scientists :-) As I am sure must prevail in the liberal arts.

    Radhika, I think atheism in Hinduism is like it’s golden age, everyone talks about it but nowhere is it apparent.

  87. isn't there a likelihood of atheism also becoming a tad fundamentalist and judgemental

    Radhika: yes, of course it is - it's possible to get fundamentalist about anything; it's probably tied in to the basic irrationality of human nature (a point that Anu touches on in the comment after yours). I've discussed atheist fundamentalism in the past on this blog too.

    But there's one crucial way in which atheist fundamentalism is different from the fundamentalism of a strongly religious person: the former knows exactly what it would take to change his mind. A militant religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, can coolly maintain his beliefs till Kingdom Come, so to speak.

    The reason the religious fundamentalist has this privilege is simple enough: if God does happen to exist, His/Her/Its existence can be proved to the complete satisfaction of everyone on the planet. But there's absolutely no way of proving the non-existence of God. Put differently: an atheist can be proven wrong, but there's no way a believer can ever be proven wrong.

    It strikes me as being a bit judgemental of an atheist who has no such identification with Hinduism in all its non-religious forms, to say (also smugly and patronizingly), "if you are an atheist, how can you call yourself a Hindu - you should just be a non-believer, period".

    just for the record, that isn't what I'm saying. I was talking about personal choice. Speaking for myself, I might very well enjoy a lot of Hindu holiday celebrations and appreciate a lot of things about Hindu philosophy without thinking of myself as a Hindu at all.

  88. ...atheism I think requires an empirical approach.

    Anu: maybe I'm not understanding exactly what you mean by empirical in this context, but most atheists I know - even the so-called "militant atheists" - define their position as absence of belief. Besides, as I said in my comment to Radhika above, it's never going to be possible to scientifically or empirically disprove the existence of God anyway.

    is the purely rational life possible?

    my answer to that is a firm NO. I don't claim to be even 80 percent rational myself - though I do catch myself wishing that more people in the world were, let's say, at least 50 percent rational. Does that sound fair? :)

  89. Oh dear that whole comment didn't make any sense did it!

    I thought atheism is God does not exist until proven otherwise by fact based evidence. Hence those London bus ads a few months back "God (probably) does not exist"? Though that may well have been worded so as to not get sued.

    However I hear that God has a facebook page, ergo he must exist.

    50% may yet be optimistic!

  90. Ironically, the only people acting rationally in this situation are the priests. If someone is will to pay you good money to provide a service, it makes sense to provide it. And if that service consists of ensuring that things are done 'properly' then you ensure that they are done that way. It's the rational thing to do.

    The reason the priesthood endures is precisely because they have cold, rational calculation on their side and (as this comment stream amply demonstrate) the atheists have mushy, apologetic sentiment on theirs.

  91. Falstaff: so clearly there's only one way out for you. Become a priest.

  92. @lovekesh: Interesting that you quote an estimate of the number of atheists in the world, as if it were a metric of human development :|

    I guess you are probably willing to overlook the fact that many of those 1 billion "atheists" "believe" in lucky numbers, lucky T-shirts, movie-stars, political ideologies or even abstract math models among other things. It's just that new Gods have replaced the Old.

    I'm sure all of us have had heroes and role models growing up. We tend to idealize them and gloss over their shortcomings. How is that different from a religious guy idealizing a half-mythical folk hero.

    Rationality does have its limits. Try reading Paul Krugman's blog. Not even Nobel laureates are immune from the influence of ideologies and ad-hominem arguments.

    Which is why it sounds so wishful and also somewhat self-important to say "1 in 6 people in this world are atheists. Hope the ratio improves fast"

  93. just for the record, that isn't what I'm saying. I was talking about personal choice.
    heh, i wasn't making a dig at you. Your post talks of personal choice anyway.

    Speaking for myself, I might very well enjoy a lot of Hindu holiday celebrations and appreciate a lot of things about Hindu philosophy without thinking of myself as a Hindu at all.
    Sure, and I understand that. My own identification with Hinduism is a recent one, I spent much of my youth rebelling against the religiosity - but having redefined it in my mind, keeping only the stuff I like and ignoring the rest, I feel more comfy calling myself a Hindu - I rather enjoy doing that and not doing the "done" things that people expect. A customized Hinduism, if you will.

  94. Rationality often gets misinterpreted. All that rationality implies is that the person's actions are in line with his/her value metrics : goals, priorities,etc. The ardent believer is being rational when she does her pooja in the hope of salvation, as is the atheist who refuses to join in because he thinks it is absurd - so is the atheist who thinks it is mumbojumbo but participates because his value metrics put a higher priority on keeping his mum or family happy over asserting his beliefs. One's choices indicate one's value metrics - it could be argued that we are all rational, just our value metrics differ.

  95. Hi

    I am sure you'd have read 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. I'd like to hear your views on that book sometime.

    It matches quite a bit with the article theme and the conversation in the comments.

    Also, I was very pleased to learn that you are an atheist!

  96. Arvind: have written about The God Delusion here (though it isn't as expansive a review as I would have liked - it was for official publication, and restricted to a fixed word-length) as well as some of Dawkins' science writings here.

  97. So true.
    Over a period of time the nature of my faith has mutated to become catholic- I use the word as an adjective, not as a noun.

  98. why have u not written on dev birthday that is on 26th sep..

  99. Jabberwock, I just read this. A harrowing tale, really.

    I haven't read all the comments, so forgive me if this has already been asked: but did you consider simply not following the pandit's nonsensical instructions, not paying the demanded dakshina?

    i.e. suppose you had simply told the guy politely, I'll do this my way, and now I'd like to be alone?

  100. ...did you consider simply not following the pandit's nonsensical instructions, not paying the demanded dakshina?

    Dilip: as I've indicated in the post, this wasn't an option with my grandmother's relatives (siblings, their spouses and children) present, most of them very orthodox and insistent that things be done "the right way". The only result of my taking such a stand would have been a lot of noise and unpleasantness right there at the venue, and more trouble for my mother in the days to come. The instructions would have been followed and the dakshina paid anyway, only it would have been done by someone else, and my mother and I would have been left out of the proceedings.