Long ago, I, along with my family, undertook a pilgrimage to Tirumala, the hill temple of Lord Venkateswara. We were part of a multitude of devotees who thronged the shrine to have a darshan of the Lord. We waited in successive compartments for several hours and thereafter made our way through long barricaded paths to reach the sanctum of the temple to have a glimpse of the presiding deity.
Ever since there has been a lot of change in my thoughts and beliefs and over time I became an atheist.
After many years I relived a similar experience when I visited the newly opened IKEA store in Hyderabad. On the third day after the store was thrown open to the shoppers, my wife and I rode our two-wheeler to reach the store. As we neared the store, a ‘Parking Full’ board greeted us. We managed to find a parking space a little distance away from the store and walked to its entrance. The people who thronged the mall were sent into separate compartments based on their gender and marital status – men, women and families.
After security screening, we were directed into long barricaded paths. The sight of the people waiting in serpentine queues reminded me of my long forgotten pilgrimage to Tirumala. Though we were right in the vicinity of the IKEA ‘temple’, we felt we were far away from the sanctum and the ‘pilgrim’s progress’ was proving to be long and arduous. On the way to the sanctum, we received free water bottles to quench our walking-induced thirst.
Finally, we entered the sanctum, the glittering store which appeared to be the very embodiment of the ‘free market’ shrine, in which the various ‘avatars’ of the presiding deity called consumerism – right from gleaming chairs to feather soft sofas – were on resplendent display. Even the models of heavenly spaces called IKEA living room and bedroom were on display. While all the pious devotees of the free market appear to have been captivated by the aura of the products that seem to last for an eternity, some less pious people, who were preoccupied with narcissistic love for transient bodies, were busy taking selfies. The shoppers, armed with their purchasing power, marched hand in hand with their children, who are already endowed with the status of being the ‘evolving consumers’ armed with their ‘nagging powers’.
I and my wife, with our lower-middle class mentality strongly entrenched in our minds, were reluctant to buy any things as we don’t have any space to put them in our two-room rented apartment. And the fact that we did not bring our highly brand conscious teenage son with unparalleled nagging abilities to the mall made us heave a sigh of relief. While we were moving around the IKEA abode, we expected to get some sanctified food, the famed Swedish meatballs in the 1000-seater restaurant. As the restaurant was already jam-packed, we could not derive the satisfaction of having partaken the prasad. Finally, we both exited the store without buying anything and without even relishing the meatballs making ourselves ineligible for attaining the consumerist Nirvana.
While exiting the store, I felt that religion and the free market society have many commonalities. They both have enormous power to control the masses by distracting them away from real issues. Religion, to exercise control over the people, shepherds them towards a mirage called God and frightens them with a stick called hell even while alluring them with the carrot known as heaven. The free-market capitalism uses the same technique. It controls the people by herding them towards an elusive ‘quality of life’ and offers them the comfort of consumption even while frightening them with the prospect of not being able to earn enough and clear their debts. Both of them piously safeguard the interests of the rich and the elite while solacing the have-nots with the promise of heaven and ‘trickle-down’, which remain ever elusive. Both religion and free market cause unending misery triggering prejudice, bloodshed, bubbles and recessions which ultimately show their impact on the have-nots, and let the rich and elite go scot-free. However, the high priests of religion and free-market – the clergy and the economists – keep telling us that there are no alternatives to these two things and they ultimately lead us towards spiritual and economic salvation.
So we have another mall, a superstore, which will become another shopping-cum-hang around place for rich and middle-class urban dwellers. In the absence of parks, woods or community centers they don’t have anywhere to go to derive recreation. The only places they can hang around are the malls, where they can indulge in retail therapy to de-stress themselves. And while going on a spending spree and bragging about their possessions on the social media, they are oblivious to the fact that they are triggering the feeling of relative deprivation among the minds of their not so well-to-do peers, which has the potential to trigger societal unrest.
Whether it is spiritual nirvana or consumerist nirvana, they only offer elusive heaven and high quality of life by creating things that add only cosmetic value to our lives. The true nirvana could be attained by creating real value to the society, which could be generated by investing in social infrastructure and adopting sustainable living practices. Then only we can leave this mother earth in good condition to the future generations.