Do you have to believe in God and religion to celebrate festivals?
When I was a kid, the sleepless nights would begin a week in advance. My paati would start preparing bhakshanams and the entire home would be infused with the aroma of the savouries being prepared. On the day of Diwali, we would begin celebrations at the crack of dawn and never really stopped. The first day of school after Diwali was the worse. The only thing that comes close to that feeling now are Monday mornings.
Now, I know Diwali is close when I open the newspaper and see 3 consecutive full-page ads from e-commerce sites, all shouting out offers that I really cannot differentiate. There is a pre-Diwali sale, Diwali sale and post-Diwali depression sale. I still enjoy festivals, but a lot of my beliefs have gone up in smoke in the interim years.
We are all born believers. I never grew up in an overtly religious family. My parents, thankfully, didn't thrust any godman down our throats or make us wear our religion on our sleeve. The concept of God and religion were always at odds with me. Born and raised in a Tamil Brahmin house but schooled in a Catholic institution, I thought nothing of eating the chicken that my catholic friends brought in their tiffin boxes. And this was when I was in second standard.
I never understood the significance of my thread ceremony because neither my dad or any of other brahmin friends performed sandhya vandanam. If you wore a poonal, the one thing that people could deduce about you and be right in most cases was that you were vegetarian. I would later learn the atrocities that brahmins heaped on generations and why they are now reviled. At some point, I questioned the concept of God or a force that is watching over us, a force that is just and has our best interests in mind.
The journey from belief to non-belief is a long and arduous one. Belief is instant, non-belief isn't. Belief is like chocolate ice-cream, or Sachin Tendulkar, things you don't question. There have been many instances but two incidents from my life have had a very strong bearing on my arduous journey to non-belief.
In my first year of college, one my school friends died in a road accident. He was an extremely bright chap with cat eyes that sprung out at you. He was also the only child of a single mother who worked hard to give her son the best life had to offer, only to have it all taken away from her.
The second was a cousin who was suffering from chronic pain and decided to end her life when her two children were sleeping. When they woke up, they found their mother hanging by her dupatta, barely a feet from the ground. I got the call when I was in office.
Where was God then? Tap dancing? Acting on someone else's reverent prayer?
Years ago, we had visited Tirupati and I saw someone give the priest a 100 rupee note so he could prostrate in front of the deity for 15 seconds more. In the ensuing years, my dislike for organised religion only grew. I saw people spend lakhs on the final rites of someone when they barely even took care of the person when they were alive.
At some point in our upbringing, religion got equated with morality. As you came to the age of reason and got better versed with the ways of the world, you are subject to reading about religious figures who molest and rape their followers in the name of God and get away with it, fugitives from justice who don't pay salaries to their employees but donate crores to a temple hoping to appease the Gods. You see VIP queues in temples for people who already have more than they know what to do with, while the lesser fortunate wait endlessly for their turn.
But I have an admission to make - I love festivals. And I don't mind visiting temples as long as I'm not pushed around like some stray dog.
My wife calls me a fake atheist.
I love festivals unabashedly for three reasons:
a. The food. The food. The food.
b. It's a holiday
c. It brings people together
Festivals bring families together under the pretext of some mythological story and during festivals, god thankfully takes a back seat. I can do without the processions that block traffic and smoke and sound from crackers that give me a migraine.
In that sense, festivals and religion aren't one and the same.
Religion divides, festivals unite.
Of course I'll be celebrating Diwali this year with an overdose of sweets and family.
I'm just not sure I'll be celebrating God too.