Our country is well-known for the pomp and grandeur with which it celebrates festivals. The grand ceremonies, the exotic use of colour, the ostentatious decorations and the general joie-de-vivre, is something that draws adulations from multifarious cultures across the globe. Now, for example, it is that time of the year when the whole of India in general and the state of Maharashtra in particular, and the city of Mumbai to be exact, keeps its annual date with their favourite elephant-headed God – time for the ten-day Ganesh Utsav. It is time for the devotees of Lord Ganesh to reiterate their fraternal love towards their dear Ganapati Bappa, by playing host to Him, either in their homes or their housing colonies. Thousands of Ganapati mandals all across the state go into a state of frenzy to welcome the cherubic Lord into their hearts and homes. The ten-day festival culminates with the immersion of The Lord in a nearby water-body. During these ten days, the entire citizenry goes into a frenetic overdrive to please The Lord and the celebration which ensues is something that needs to be witnessed first-hand to be believed. Surprisingly, such outburst of zeal and devotion is visible during any festival, which in a country of our populous proportions occurs almost every month, if not every week.
But is all this religious ardour that grips us during festivals, misplaced? Have we been misusing the name of God to indulge in a bit of one-upmanship and religious bigotry? I personally do not have an answer to this, but the indications given by the so-called “followers of God” are heavily tilted in favour of a “yes”. I am not an atheist, but my concept of God is different from most others. I believe that God is an omnipresent force that exists in every human mind, and resides in every human heart – a God that is formless and has no shape or size. For me, God is a kind of Guru who constantly guides me and helps differentiate between right and wrong, good and evil, who perpetually educates and inspired me. Some call this force intuition, some conscience and some others, sixth sense – I simply call it God. Mind you, any error of judgment in choosing between the right and wrong, is mine alone. And because of this belief, I do not deem it important to visit temples, churches, mosques or any such holy places to offer prayers. If God exists in my mind and resides in my heart then it is imperative that I have a clear mind and a clean heart. This is my way of conceptualizing God but this in no way gives me the right to stop you from worshipping God the way you want to. Your way of offering thanks to God may or may not include visits to holy places and may or may not include kneeling before an idol, but I am no one to stop you from following your interpretations. I will respect every human being’s freedom to religious individuality as long as they do not break the established laws of our civilized society, and more significantly till they do not try to foist their beliefs onto me. The recent ban on meat in Mumbai to “respect” a particular religious community comes as a direct result of intolerance to such individualism. I would take this a step further and say that the untenable demand for “reservations”, (both religion and community based) are also an indirect off-shoot of such intolerance. One question to all the supporters of reservations – has anyone looked at the Parsi community? As my friend keeps reminding me, they are a community that defines the true meaning of “minority” since so few of them exist. But I am yet to see Parsis demanding special “favours” from the society – no violent protests, no demonstrations and no taking to streets. In fact their positive contributions to our country’s economy and society far outnumber their demographic numbers!
As far as I know, the Holy Scriptures of all religions in some way or the other profess eternal love and brotherhood towards fellow beings. So how is it that irrespective of the religion of people celebrating these festivals, they somehow end up in a show of one-upmanship and religious chauvinism? Could this be because God with His inestimable wisdom made just the human race and the human race with its rather infinitesimal wisdom created religion? So is this pretentious show of strength only to prove that one religion is somehow better than the other? God has never asked man to erect huge and obnoxious monstrosities in the name of pandals to host Him, nor has He asked His followers to inconvenience other fellow beings by leading processions in the name of God. The loud and unbelievably asinine movie songs that blare from loudspeakers across the city of Mumbai during festivals are saddening rather than irritating. The larger-than-life pandals, which in most cases jut out into the roads, and inconvenience not only the general public but also hinders free movement of vehicular traffic, is no way of paying obeisance to The Lord. For example, the vulgar commercialization and bizarre celebratory happenings carried out in the name of Lord Ganesh is reprehensible. The traffic disruptions and the subsequent inconvenience caused during the immersion processions are frustrating, to say the least. I am sure this was not his intention when Lokmanya Tilak started the mass celebrations of this holy festival in 1894. Similarly the brazen display of aggression and bravado during Muslim tazia processions, and the traffic disarray created during the annual Mount Mary fair is disgraceful. An average Mumbaikar can do nothing but to grin and bear it!
Is there a solution to this? I do not know, since in India questioning religion or challenging a popular religious dogma can have disastrous repercussions on the entity brave enough to do so. The thing that can change the current situation is if every individual, irrespective of their personal viewpoint and prejudice, openly accepts the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the other. Maybe boycott such garish displays of festivities, or even something as extreme as prescribing religion itself! I know my suggestions sound like the espousals of an arm-chair campaigner that is easy to expound but difficult to realize. But for God’s sake, is it not time for the reformist thinkers amongst us to junk long-held antediluvian doctrines? Do we not owe it to the human race to make an attempt to create a world where relative peace and calm does not remain just a Utopian dream? Time to clear the cobwebs of the mind…