Updated: September 24, 2020 9:49:53 am
To say that the year has been strange, would be a huge understatement. When the decade began, people were mighty hopeful that it would usher in new beginnings; that there would come a catastrophic end to many of their plans was not contemplated. But this dystopia seems to have crept in and latched on so hard, it is now being labelled as the ‘new normal’.
Across the world, we are witnessing all of humanity struggle to get accustomed to this new kind of crisis. Weddings are being indefinitely postponed or held virtually, and pregnant women are seeking tele-consultations. New mothers and their babies are being discharged earlier than usual, and festivals have become more sombre than ever.
Take for instance, the recently concluded holy month of Ramadan, which culminates with the grand celebration of the festival of Eid. In lockdown, this year’s festivities were bereft of palatable delicacies and cultural bonhomie. Or the celebration of the Bengali New Year or the Poila Boisakh, wherein, for the first time, a typical Bengali household struggled with not getting to dig their teeth into the finest biryani in town.
Festivals went by in a flash, a confused flurry, as people stayed glued to their television and phone screens, watching the numbers dance around and leap. Easter Sunday was spent in lockdown, as were the Navratris in March. Places of worship closed their doors, too, as if to suggest that even God had forsaken humans who refused to follow the norms of social distancing.
But now, there has been a ray of spiritual hope. The government has allowed the opening of religious places and places of worship from June 8, as part of ‘phase I of unwinding’. But what do devotees and people of faith think about this new development?
For 65-year-old retired HR head and homemaker Sally Varghese, this revelation has been bittersweet. Varghese, who lives in a small town called Kalady near Cochin, Kerala, tells indianexpress.com that she used to visit a small church near her house every day for morning mass, before the lockdown happened. “When I found out that a lockdown had been imposed, I felt sad because I realised the church visits would stop. But, I also understood the need for social distancing. Even the priests urged people to stay at home and pray,” she says, adding she has been praying morning and evening at home with her family every day since.
“I miss going to the church, and I do feel the difference. Now, I can only pray using prayer books and the Bible, and watch the holy mass being broadcast on television,” she continues. But now, with places of worship looking to open up once again, would Varghese be eager to return to her church?
“It depends on the situation, but I think I will not be returning anytime soon, because social distancing is crucial. Once the cases go down and things are back to being normal, I will return to the church. In these difficult times, my faith gives me the strength and the courage to face the hardships.”
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Just like Varghese, a Pune-based software developer Maitri Jain (28), too, used to visit a nearby temple at least once a week. “It was something that my husband and I used to do on the weekends. When the lockdown was imposed, we definitely missed it,” she says, adding that the couple now makes it a point to light a diya and pray in front of a small puja shelf installed in their house. “There is nothing that can match the feeling of physically going to the temple and praying there. But, we have come to terms with it in the lockdown. It was more difficult for my mother who lives in Udaipur, to start her day without visiting the temple that is situated a few 100 metres from her house,” Jain adds. Her mother would walk up to the temple every day, even though it was closed in lockdown, just so she could start her day on a positive note.
For Jain, her faith has got more to do with beliefs than actually visiting a temple. “I do not think visiting a place of worship regularly can change my beliefs. Our religion is about principles. And so, I feel that when you truly believe in God, praying at home or at the temple does not make much of a difference. It is the intent that counts,” she explains.
But, it has also got more to do with the fact that religious places are almost always crowded, and Jain is wary of returning to the temple. “I am concerned, because even when they open up, at any given time there will be at least 20-25 people inside. So, social distancing may go for a toss!”
But, this is something that does not bother Delhi-based textile designer Ashdeen Lilaowala. Belonging to the Parsi community, Lilaowala says the numbers are rather small, and there exists only one agiary or fire temple in all of Delhi NCR. “Social distancing will always be maintained because our community is small. Many Parsis live in Gurugram and Noida, too, and so it is not like we will all visit the temple on the same day,” he says, adding he used to visit the agiary at least twice every month before the lockdown was implemented.
“For me, even though I am a man of faith and I believe in God, I am not so much into the ritual of visiting the agiary every day. Having said that, I do feel nice whenever I visit it — when I see the holy fire, it comforts me. But when I am not at the agiary, I pray at home. We light diyas and wear a sacred shirt called the sudreh, and wrap a thread called the kusti. I do that every day; it keeps me closer to my faith,” he explains.
Lilaowala says the community came together in lockdown and held prayers on Zoom calls with the priests, having understood that there was no way that people could step out amid the ongoing pandemic. “The basic principle that my faith follows is good words, good thoughts and good deeds. A lot of people live by it. We are not perfect but we can all follow these basic tenets. Zoroastrianism teaches you to differentiate between good and evil. On June 8, when the agiary does open, I will not be rushing there to pray, but will visit it eventually,” he says.
In Amritsar, meanwhile, Sabina Singh, a school teacher, is waiting to go back to the local gurdwara, located three kilometres from her house. When she found out the country was getting into a state of complete lockdown, her initial reaction was that of utter sorrow. “I had cried, because before the lockdown, I used to visit the gurdwara every day, without fail. I felt that my life had come to a standstill. In lockdown, however, things have totally changed. What I have started doing is that I have started praying at home, visualizing everything that I used to see in the gurdwara. My life was hectic previously, chaotic even. But now, I can devote those extra minutes which I used to spend commuting, and sit in my room, pray, and have a conversation with God,” she tells indianexpress.com.
Singh says she feels the same kind of connection even in lockdown, and has realised that going to a place of worship is important, but not as much as realising that God is, in fact, always around. “You must have seen Sikhs helping out other people in crisis. Guru Nanak ji teaches us to follow the right path in life and help people wherever possible by sparing out one-tenth of our earnings. I will definitely go back to praying at the gurdwara, but it will not be as frequent as it used to be earlier. The transformation has occurred. The virus is going to prevail forever; it all depends on us, on how we conduct ourselves,” she remarks.
In Mumbai, a marketing-communications professional, who belongs to the Jewish community, tells indianexpress.com on the condition of anonymity that while he is not a regular visitor of the synagogue, or a Jewish house of worship, his family is. “Just like any other religion, for Jews, too, every religious event takes place in the synagogues. It is just that it is more infrequent because the numbers are too few. While some of us visit the synagogue for bigger and larger festivals, others visit on the weekends. There are certain prayers for which at least 10 Jews are to be present at the synagogue, otherwise it cannot be said. In lockdown, people have been praying at home only. I don’t think that is specific to any religion; anyone who is not able to go out, will naturally pray at home. We have prayers and religious books like the Torah that are read every day. When the synagogues open up, people will go and pray there, but the Jewish community is not that big in India. So, there shouldn’t be any problem with social distancing. The lockdown has made many of us focus more on relationships, and non-materialistic things,” he says.
Before the lockdown was announced, Delhi-based social activist Arif Akhlaq would religiously pray at mosques five times a day, every day. When the lockdown was imposed, Akhlaq improvised, because it was “the need of the hour”. “Islam teaches us about humanity, and we are told that if, because of our faith and our values, we come to harm other people, then we need to reconsider. This lockdown was needed, because when you are dealing with a pandemic, it is important that you stay where you are. Neither do you visit an infected area, nor leave one,” he says.
Akhlaq explains that mosques are important to the community. “It is believed that when we pray at a mosque, we are blessed 27 times over than when prayers happen at home. But, this ongoing health crisis is more crucial. And if we are to stop the spread of the disease, we have to adhere to the rules and regulations set by the government. But, now the government says places of worship will open from June 8; but cases are still on the rise. So, despite this new development, the members of our community and the imams have been told that we can visit the mosques only when it is absolutely necessary; it is better if we pray at home. And if at all we step out, we must practise social distancing so as to avoid crowding.”
“My faith is important to me. But I will not visit a mosque just because I want to feel closer to God. I can do that at home, too. I need to understand the situation and what it demands. By staying safe and staying home, we will be doing a great service to humanity, and that is the biggest deed. This is what I have telling others, too. When the lockdown does open, I feel people like us will be needed to educate other people on proper social distancing and other such safety norms,” he says in conclusion.
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