“Maybe, Maybe Not”: Modern-day India’s Chosen Philosophy Of Agnosticism

Posted on February 20, 2011 in Specials

By Shreya Ramachandran:

Much has been spoken of about India’s modernisation process, which is personified by today’s young generation – Gen Next, as they are lovingly dubbed.

The views and beliefs of the ‘Gen Next’ are definitely morphing and evolving – they are influenced by a combination of Westernisation and the desire to lead their lives with independence from supervisation. The youth is growing more determined to make their own decisions and forge their own paths – and this has also led to the expression of highly individualised belief systems. The greatest evidence of these changes is seen in the youth’s theological philosophy. While Indians are traditionally “god-fearing” and believe devoutly in God, there is also the other end of the spectrum – complete atheists. India’s youth falls somewhere in between, adopting agnosticism – the philosophy that no answers can be given with certainty, about the existence of God.

Sumer Mishra, 22, lives with his parents, sister, uncle, aunt and cousins. Every morning, a ‘puja‘ is performed in his house, in front of the altar on which statues of Ganesha, Rama, Krishna and other Hindu gods and goddesses are placed. Prayers are given, and then the house begins with its daily chores and affairs. He cannot explicitly shun this tradition and routine, because it has been going on in his family through generations, and there must be some relevance to it. However, he also finds it difficult to be truly devoted to God – because he is not sure what ‘God’ means, or whom he is talking to when he closes his eyes and prays. He is therefore stuck in this middle ground, where he neither holds life-affirming belief nor bears an almost cynical disbelief. In this middle ground, there is acceptance that the customs he has grown up with do hold meaning.

Sumer is likely to get married with a traditional ceremony, make the two-day trek to the hilltop temple near his family’s hometown – a custom that has been a proud part of all his family weddings, and tote his first child to the same temple to shave off his locks – an offering to God. He will also avoid most of the monthly rituals that involve enlisting the services of a priest, creating a makeshift pyre in his living room and begging his wife to cook opulent dishes using saffron, milk and sugars. He might not play ‘bhajans’ or devotional songs on his iPod station every morning to stir the house awake, but he does murmur ‘Jai Ram Jee Ki’ – a hurried invocation of God- when he is stalled in a Metro train or late for an important conference meeting.

Sumer is the prototype of modern-day India. Thus, there is a compromise, of sorts, in this philosophy of agnosticism. They do not pay theological issues much thought; they just consider it a given that there will be a tendency to pick and choose a few practices, actions or ideas that point towards faith in God, and a few thoughts, views and decisions that veer in the opposite direction. There is no disharmony caused by this mini-conflict in beliefs – rather, it is comforting that they represent both old-world India and new-world India. Thus, agnosticism fits in perfectly with their lives and adds value and meaning. It is the philosophy of choice for modern-day India.