A very pious member of the church once came up to me and said “Why are you not wearing a headscarf? Do you not know that it is a mandatory requirement while attending mass?” And without ever waiting to hear my reply, she scoldingly instructed me to remember to wear it next time.
Initially, I was perturbed by this disturbing interference and my mind was bubbling with comebacks, the most important being, how could she ignore the heavy misogyny in this century-old practice. But then she never gave me a chance to speak, but this incident got me thinking about similar religious practices adjoining all religions.
I could instantly spot two essential elements in what we know as ‘religion’ today. One is the faith itself, where certain virtues are instilled as right or wrong and the second are these customary practices. If we look at it a little deeper, we can recognize how these practices are just tangible and quantifiable ways to practice the virtues itself. And the practices themselves become a mark of identity to homogenise the people of the same faith. It can closely be compared to the placebo effect.
Coming back to my anecdote in the lede, the reason why women were expected to cover their heads was to restrain any sexual encounters in a place of worship. Hair, for a very long time, was considered a symbol of great beauty. It was to instil the virtue of modest dressing in an assembly gathered for prayer and meditation.
Assessing this trend further, I could find various such practices that underline a corresponding religious virtue. For instance, I have often wondered why we have such huge wedding ceremonies. I often dismissed it for its show of pomp and wealth and even avoided them as these ceremonies had simply become a ground for gossip, criticism, and comparison. And moreover, because recently – this entire industry was hijacked by the capitalists and there were many who wanted to incentivize the entire deal.
But looking at this through the religious lens made me think how it must have been somewhere originated to signal the kith and kin of the ‘unavailability’ of the respective bride and groom. This assumption was further verified by the very evident symbolism in the north of India where women adorn a thick and deep strand of sindoor in the parting of their hair. And in the south, the equivalent practice is the prominent use of bright and fragrant white jasmine in the hair. Though forms of such symbolism have diluted through the years, we continue to wear a ring on a demarcated finger to signal marriage.
Now of course women have borne the brunt of most of these practices, simply because the society deemed it more important to signal men of the unavailable status of a woman.
These religious practices are simply an oversimplification of the virtue upheld in faith. It is sometimes funny that generations after generations continue to practice it blindly, without ever giving any thought to the virtue behind it.
In fact, we often forget what religion is all about. Perhaps this biography will remind you of the life we intrinsically live:
Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday.
Christened on Tuesday.
Married on Wednesday.
Took ill on Thursday.
Grew worse on Friday.
Died on Saturday.
Buried on Sunday.
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
This is the simplest summary of life. And religion is simply an attempt at giving meaning to life. So sometimes even those people who are atheists/antagonists forget why the right to religion is so important. Because it also includes the right to no religion. And it includes all interpretations of the faith. It simply extends the right to give meaning to life, and to share with others, the mental peace and liberty that one has found through following a particular faith or a way of life.
But in the current political climate of India, our religious freedom is on shaky ground, but whether it is upheld as a constitutional right or not, no person or army can take your faith away from you. Because any practice that is forced upon you loses its meaning when you don’t subscribe to the faith corresponding to the practice. We are always free in mind, and we are free to colour our life experiences with the faith we personally uphold.