When my daughter was 45 days old, we conducted her naming ceremony. After the naming ritual was complete, our priest began to perform the Satyanarayan puja.
We are a fairly pious lot of Vaishnavites and seek any opportunity to please Lord Vishnu. Plates filled with fruits, flowers and crispy, sweet-coconut modaks were arranged next to nine little vessels of pulses, representing the Navgraha or nine planets.
A little brick platform was set up for the yajna, and the puja began with prayers to Lord Ganesha, the God of beginnings. The generous dollops of ghee spooned into the fire gave birth to a swirl of flames.
Satisfied with its ferocity, the chanting priest handed the plate of modaks to me, motioning to drop them in, one at a time. I stared at him for a few seconds in a dazed shock. Is he for real?
I felt a hard jab from behind me; it was my mother. Reluctantly I picked them up one at a time and tossed them, watching them slowly shrivel and dissolve into ashes.
“Why couldn’t we have given the modaks to some poor people instead?,” I asked my parents later. Instead of answers, all I got were ominous stares. How dare I do that- question a ritual? Question the process of appeasing our Gods through sacrifice? Who am I to challenge centuries of wisdom incorporated into our practices?
Despite all the evolution and progress we have supposedly made as a human race, we can’t seem to accept criticism on the subject of ‘religion’. Hinduism, or for that matter any religion, is, after all, an amalgamation of faith and man-made displays of devotion. We avoid the need to assess the impact and benefits of processes followed for fear of antagonising sentiments.
Before you decide to label me as an atheist, let me vehemently insist that I do believe in God. I find it therapeutic to sit down and pray to a greater being who might me be above or around me, who feeds me with hope and courage when I feel desperately lost. All I seek to question is the manner in which my religion chooses to embrace this God.
Cliched as I am going to sound, India is a country where millions of families suffer from malnutrition. While they sleep with rumbling tummies every night, why are we spilling buckets of milk over a Shiv Ling and lighting lamps and fires with packets of full-fat ghee?
Why are we making gigantic sculptures of Lord Krishna with butter and encasing them in expensive air-conditioned glass boxes? Why is the multitude of fruits placed beside idols left to rot instead of being given to beggars outside temples?
Let’s face it, as a religion Hinduism is hardly an environmentally-friendly one. With so much wastage of food in the name of ‘offerings to God’ coupled with the use of firecrackers for Diwali and the immersion of painted statues for Ganesh-Chaturthi, we’re trashing the world and its resources. We need to stop being touchy about the subject and encourage the questioning of these customs, regardless of how rooted they may be in our culture. We need to apply logic to beliefs.
After all, wouldn’t a sensible God be pleased to observe humanity serve each other better than they serve him?