Last week, against the column for religion in a form, my son and I filled “agnostic”. It was official. As statues were planned and temples returned to drawing boards, 2018 was the year “God” diminished further for me.
You could say God and I have had a passing acquaintance. It was renewed most often during annual holiday visits to Vaishno Devi, but the climb to the shrine, 25-odd years ago, was more about all-night adventures with cousins through the hills, which reverberated with enthusiastic chants to the goddess every time pilgrims crossed each other down the path. The glimpse of her idol itself lasted no more than a second, as rude priests herded one along, and hence we looked forward more to a langar and being feted on returning home by elders for the “pilgrimage”. One time, father took us down a different route on the way down, and in the dead of the night, we ran into a storm and a valley surrounded by hundreds of monkeys. We made our way through in absolute silence. Why do you think the monkeys never attacked? I have always wondered. They say all that is gone now, that the roads to the hill shrine are now paved, with electrical vehicles ferrying more and more people. I haven’t returned to find out.
Closer home, God meant the naughty Krishna in his langot, the benign Ram with a bow and arrow tucked away, and the loveable Hanuman tearing open his chest. In idols that father would clean every morning, while still dripping a little water from his bath. We were dragged to family puja sessions, where we joined in loudly for the bhajans, and fought later for panjiri, the prasad that blew away at a whiff. You had to master the art of having it, keeping the bowl at just the right distance.
God took on flesh and bones with Ramanand Sagar, even if all he came up with for Ram was a boring Arun Govil. But as he and Deepika Chikhalia’s demure Sita played the part on and off TV, we were willing to suspend disbelief. Okay, God could maybe need those frozen beatific smiles and empty eyes, to get through the day, beseeched by crowds. And crowds there were! One summer holiday, the highlight was the visit of “Ram” and “Sita” to a relative’s home in Jammu. Word spread, and almost half the town arrived.
God became sterner stuff with B R Chopra’s Mahabharata, with its more complex story of greed, frailties and follies requiring us to put that image of toddler Krishna aside for a god who had to be devious, so as to be right. We were hooked. So much so that a school trip for an NTSE (National Talent Search Examination) trip in Parli, Maharashta, made an allowance for a bus halt at a dhaba, where we caught that Sunday’s episode standing outside and looking over each other’s shoulders for a glimpse. No one complained as an array of weapons in astonishing colours blazed across the screen — we had to imagine the colours, the TV was black and white. By the way, we all failed NTSE that day. None of us ever questioned if that halt did any good, though clearly someone had a bus-load of faith thinking all of us were “talented”.
But the halo soon had clouds. Before long, our gods of flesh and bone were candidates in the political field, to middling success. Even at that age, this seemed a cheap trade-off. Still, there was no 24X7 news cycle, and one could turn off when one wanted. Plus, elections were a world far removed, and politics had not yet spilled over from WhatsApp groups to dinner tables.
However, not for long. God started souring by the late 1990s as the Ayodhya movement picked pace, the images of blood-thirsty mobs started crowding in, reports of violence became difficult to ignore, and as that first hammer struck the Babri Masjid dome. Equating God with all this seemed heresy. Wasn’t God about love, mercy, treating everyone the same?
As age raises multiple walls between God and me, of disillusionment, the receding promise of a better tomorrow, lost innocence, scepticism, I have struggled to hold on to God — if only for my children — digging into memories of those hill climbs, those benign idols, those TV images, that hour at the dhaba, those books read out to us on God’s teachings, and the guilty, quick visits to temples still. In the clamour to claim Him/Her that now surrounds us, and that gathers volume and violence, God has retreated more and more into the distance. Does God need a place — any place — built on the blood of others? Isn’t God powerful enough to silence those who claim otherwise? Does God discriminate on the basis of caste, religion or gender? Does God really need courts to dictate the just thing to do? Does God need a statue? Or to be recast as a ferocious sticker on the back of cars? What kind of a helpless, puny, god-less God is that?
I don’t have the answers. But agnostics question, don’t they?