Paramhamsa's idol at Belur Math, Kolkata
In 1995, we were banished to a difficult territory of our organization in mid-year, when our younger son was struggling to recover from the deadly PUO and had to be hospitalized also. That was when we learnt that any bloody organization was an organization, not a human being, was devilish and merciless, and we decided the 88th time to quit. But it also turned out that organizations are like the mafia: easy to embrace, but difficult to part ways with. The mafia has frank and transparent methods, but our organization, although sarkari, possessed devious techniques. Anyway.
Office work was light. We had to market our services convincingly and the market was barren. Once home from office, there was no company -initially. The house was a huge affair, going by a single man’s needs, freshly painted yellow, smelling of turpentine, with four rooms, uninhabited by man or mortal. Shortly thereafter, we borrowed a black and white TV. Our bedroom was bare and on a shoe-rack, lay the TV. Doordarshan was the staple fare those days. One would only watch programmes dear to junior, one of them one remembers, Sinbad the Sailor, with a lilting signature tune. We discovered the Ramakrishna Mission campus quite close to our office, and got attached to the grand Paramhamsa idol, done intricately in pristine white marble. In the expression on Swami’s face there is a hint of a mischievous smile, and a look of patience with mankind. Add to that the delicious tirtha, with the gentle flavour of camphor, which seems to be a trademark of Mission temples. The musicians providing accompaniment to the bhajans were particularly gifted. An hour could evaporate swiftly at the temple.
Things settled gradually. Saturday evening one would fly to Titu’s home, and be dropped by Titu’s dad on Monday mornings. But week days were lonely. Gopal told us to chant Hanuman Chalisa, which he regularly did, and mind you, he hails from AP.
That’s when an odd thing started growing on us.
Our quarters earlier were seemingly occupied by a religious tenant. There were pictures of Hindu Gods stuck randomly on walls, windows, kitchens etc. etc. Out of sheer habit one made little bows to the pictures. Both Shiva and Srihari were represented in their various Avatars. Hanuman was there. One felt one was in company! There could be no better company, of course. Examining the pictures, when moving about, one came to admire the skills of the humble painters, who imbued the faces of the Gods with interesting, metamorphic expressions that could imitate your moods. And our pooja consisted of just lighting the intoxicating ‘Ganga’ incense-sticks available at all Mission temples.
Yours truly is neither a whole-time agnostic or an atheist or rationalist or believer. We hate to admit it, but it is contextual, as we yusstu teach in our behavioral science classes. Mince, varies. But mostly we’re in an agnostic frame of mind.
We are by heart on Budhakaushika muni virachita Srirama stotram, sampurnam, reciting it in toto from the age two months. The meaning of ‘Swami Ramo matsakha Ramachandra’ now dawned on us. Twameva mata cha pita twameva, twameva bandhuscha sakha twameva! It was all there! We had read and read about this. But it had not registered. Of course the notion pervades the entire body of Bhakti literature. Tukaram greets Vitthala as Vithu, they say. The Bhagwats of Maharashtra, who count Dnyaneshwara Maharaj as among theirs, look upon God as a friend, as a wife, a husband, one supposes a spouse can also be occasionally counted as friend. Wikipedia says, the notion was also there in the Old Testament, in Isaiah What better company than God Himself! God, who is all thing to all men can also be company. The comfort, the feeling of security generated in that house cannot be described by us. Our house simply became a home! There was also the kinship one developed with Paramahmsa!
That brings us to our little, personal dharmakshetra-kurukshetra. Faith vs reason? Not exactly. It is more subtle than that. Mince, right now one can’t explain. May be sentiment vs. reason? We always believed our intuition was great, and we always felt a rustle behind curtains. That’s one part. But to what extent do we stretch our beliefs? How far do we go? Analysing our grey matter mathematically, the spot our right brain has allocated too religion can be described as a singularity: the junction where a one-to- one-correspondence cannot be established between members of one set and the succeeding one. How should a man of reason react to this phenomenon- the comfortable, cocoon feeling of being in the company of God?
Now, please read this. This is a passage from a book by one of the greatest agnostics of our time.
(Context: Mythology of the Puranas)
If people believed in the factual content of these stories, the whole thing was absurd and ridiculous. But as soon as one ceased believing in them, they appeared in a new light, a new beauty, a wonderful flowering of a richly endowed imagination, full of human lessons. No one believes now in the stories of Greek gods and goddesses and so on, without any difficulty , we can admire them and they become a part of our mental heritage. But if we had to believe in them, what a burden it would be, and how, oppressed by this weight of belief, , we would often miss their beauty. Indian mythology is richer, vaster, very beautiful, and full of meaning. I have often wondered what manner of men and women they were who gave shape to these bright dreams and lovely fancies, and out of what gold mine of thought and imagination they dug them
Looking at scriptures then as a product of the human mind, we have to remember the age in which it was written, the environment and mental climate in which it grew, the vast distance in time and thought and experience that separates it from us. We have to forget the trappings of ritual and religious usage in which it is wrapped, and remember the social background in which it expanded. Many of the problems of human life have a permanence and a touch of eternity about them, and hence the abiding interest in these ancient books. But they dealt with other problem also, limited to their particular age, which have no living interest for us now.
Common sense on our ancient scriptures. That is how an agnostic would look at this issue. The agnostic in question is woi hai- Jawaharlal Nehru, writing in ‘”Discovery of India”. For our purposes, the feeling of being fond of God, and (being fond of) our intellect, is reconciled.
That passage makes living with contradictions easier for us. Yin and yang. No more need to see the issue of veracity of scriptures in black and white. Loving Rama or Krishna need not entail carrying the baggage of believing that every Indian God was born under a mosque.
And look how pregnant with meaning that passage is. Hallmark of a classic. Just see this:
“Looking at scriptures then as a product of the human mind, we have to remember the age in which it was written, the environment and mental climate in which it grew, the vast distance in time and thought and experience that separates it from us.”
The passage teaches you to be magnanimous with Manusmruti, or Tulsidas who famously wrote ‘Dhol, ganwaar, shudra, pashu naari, ye sab taadan ke adhikaari’.
To end, here is a lovely story from the Puranas. The sage Jamadagni, our fore-father, incidentally, was an impatient and passionate man, endowed with an insanely fiery temper. Angry with his wife one day, he commanded his son Parashurama to behead his wife, that is, Parashurama’s own mother. Obedient as he was, the son carried out father’s wish with his divine Parashu, and then naturally wilted with grief. The father was touched with the son’s act of obedience and granted him a boon.
Make my mother whole again, said Parashurama.