[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.