In the next several days, I want to write about some of the rituals performed to bring rain in times of drought. But while researching, this unusual and rather inventive story caught my eye.
On June 23rd of this year, a rationalist organisation in Karnataka decided to make a point against the performance of strange rituals according to outdated folk beliefs – and more specifically, to mock unscrupulous politicians who use religion to exploit people – by organising a rather unique “ritual” in a Mangalore school.
The (openly) fabricated story given to the press was this: “Baba Narendra Dev” – better known as Narendra Nayak, the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations – decided to go on a fast-unto-death between breakfast and lunch, since there had been no rain in Karnataka in several days or so. But during that critical wait between morning and mid-day meal, Baba was visited by Devendra. The God claimed that he had not yet brought rain because there were many schoolchildren at a Mangalore school who lacked umbrellas, and would suffer if the rains came. Indra instructed: O my son, supply umbrellas to the eighty-one of them and I shall give you rain.
Nayak and his associates promptly visited the place, Gandhi Nagar Higher Primary school, and distributed umbrellas to the students. But first, they asked the youngsters to think about whether rituals, prayers, or even the act of giving them umbrellas, would somehow bring the rains, and they asked that the students think, and evaluate such claims, now and in the future.
When the newspapers interviewed Nayak, he called the “ritual” Chatri Yagya – the Umbrella Yagya, and there’s a vaguely amusing pun embedded in the name. Chatri does indeed mean “umbrella” in Hindi and several other Indian languages; a chhatri in Kannada is a rogue, a cunning fellow.
It’s possible that Nayak chose a random date and time for this event; it’s also possible he checked the weather forecasts, or simply chose a date-during-monsoon, in order to demonstrate how easily leaders might arrange “miracles” for their own ends. But while Nayak and others were striking a solid blow against religious superstition by enlightening fertile young minds, I had to laugh when I read the rationalists’ post-script: that it rained the night of the 23rd. “You see!” they explained triumphantly. “This is how politicians exploit the people!”
I do understand the rationalists’ goal: to encourage people to exercise logic and sound judgment even with religion – a realm that for many is associated less with science than with inner revelation – and to not easily trust those who claim direct inspiration or communication from God, particularly if they have an agenda that would be furthered by that trust.
I also have a suspicion that one should not use Devendra’s name jestingly – especially in any matters involving rain and/or children – as he’s a bit of a chhatri himself. And I do wonder if even a single child from the Umbrella Yagya was surprised when it rained. If it had been kid-me, I would have said nothing, just stared, and prayed quite a bit.
Everyone must have the right to believe as they will, but I personally have one problem with atheists’ and skeptics’ claims that there is no God: that those who accuse religious folks of errors – of clinging to a religious agenda and promoting it above all else, of rejecting science in favour of dogmatic claims, and of being blind to obvious proof that religion is ridiculous – often don’t realise that they commit the same logical fallacies.
Let’s assume that you have an acquaintance, a friend you call once in a while, meet occasionally for coffee, perhaps read on Facebook or follow in some other vague way. At some point, you have a job opportunity, and your friend’s strong recommendation would ensure you get the post. So you call your friend, explain your situation, and ask for a letter supporting your application.
Perhaps your friend refuses to help and gives no explanation why; more frustratingly, maybe your friend doesn’t pick up the phone after repeated calls. Perhaps you go to your friend’s home to find the windows dark; your friend obviously isn’t there, and your frantic attempts to contact him yield no result. You run out of time, and the job opportunity slips away.
In other words, you don’t get what you want, at the time you want it; your friend had the ability to help but, for whatever reason, did not. At this point, you conclude that this acquaintance does not truly care for you and is not worth further wastes of your time. Or worse, you decide, after a few abortive visits and calls, that your friend has either moved to another country or is dead.
Here’s another example, of a similar reaction but on a less personal scale. Perhaps you fish some quarters out of your pocket, feed them to a soda machine, press a button, and receive nothing. At this point you become angry, or irritated. Maybe you bang the button a few more times and then start whacking the machine. Perhaps you try to get your change back and become even angrier when the coin return doesn’t spit out your money. Or maybe you try to play it cool, and walk away; hey, it was only a few quarters. In any case, it isn’t your fault; the machine obviously doesn’t work.
The rationalists, free-thinkers, and atheists I have known, have explained the lack of belief in God by similar terms. They describe praying, performing rituals, even doing strange sorts of personal, private experiments, only to receive no answer and no proof. Therefore, they conclude that there is no God or, if S/He does exist, it’s a being that chooses not to interfere in the world – and thus, prayer or no prayer, makes no difference either way.
Coin in, candy out. If no candy, machine is broken. End of story. But God is not a gumball machine, nor are our prayers payment to God for favours solicited.
In the first example, there may be a very good reason you didn’t receive your letter. Perhaps your friend had confidential knowledge: knew that the boss was a jerk, that the company was corrupt or badly run, that the pay was less than promised or that the company teetered on bankruptcy. Maybe he was dealing with family matters, health problems, or other pressing issues that truly prevented him from even writing a simple letter. If you knew him better, you might have been privy to this sort of information. But a man doesn’t tend to reveal his secrets to an acquaintance who rarely calls except for a favour. In other words, both deep intimacy and frequent contact – a nurturing of the relationship on all levels – are needed to foster a true and lasting friendship, the sort in which mutual understanding may occur.
In the second example, perhaps something is wrong, but it may be something completely different than what you think. The little flashing orange light on your drink selection, means that the machine is out of the particular soda you want. There might have been an “out of order” sign tacked up somewhere on the machine. If you miscounted your quarters, the machine is still waiting for more input from you. But – just as in the first example – there may be relevant information that you miss, if you get angry and impatient and refuse to explore further. And even with something easy like the workings of a soda transaction, you may have a completely erroneous or biased perspective on the entire mess. The universe is somewhat more elabourate.
For those who lose patience with my admittedly-rambling analogies, then let me make some points in a simpler way:
*Even scientists know that, despite humanity’s beautifully precise scientific method, we do not fully know and understand everything of time and space! Now, our rules of science help us to understand our manifest world. But the Divine is not a simple, only-manifest phenomenon and is not required to be limited to the laws and theories that we currently know.
*The complaint that “I didn’t get what I asked for” only proves God’s indifference, or non-existence, if God is a genie-in-a-bottle, concerned with nothing more complicated than the fulfillment of our individual requests. But it seems to me that the universe is more complex and inter-related than the intersections of human desires.
*People observe the workings of the world and expect God to manifest himself within the framework of human sense-perception. Then they observe how humans react and behave, but expect God to be different from human feelings and perspectives. To expect God to be both “comprehensible within the human experience” and “completely beyond the human experience” is not consistent.
For example, we all like to be trusted. We like it when people treat us with consideration, offer us friendship, and give us the benefit of the doubt. Yet some believe that the Supreme must give appearance, answer, or action to “prove” divinity to us. We don’t like having demands made of us, especially by people who don’t care about us, and will often avoid doing what’s expected of us, just to be unpredictable. In other words, from everything we know of our collective human experience, we know that the fastest way to drive others away is to demand that they dance as we instruct.
There are some who would treat God like a gumball machine and demand a handful of gumballs before even grudgingly admitting that he might exist. How is this an acceptable, reasonable way to deal with anyone?
*Just as the rationalists saw the umbrellas as a joke, while I saw Devendra’s wit in the rain, a person who already has decided how the universe works, will interpret all that happens as proof.
I question religion frequently and know that I could be very wrong (in which case, the joke would be on me, and Indra would receive even more irony for his amusement). But what if Indra ever did directly appear to Nayak, just to prove a point? (Nayak’s first name is “Narendra”, after all!!) Even in full glory, the God likely would be dismissed as a hallucination. Perhaps a blood sugar drop from that long fast…
Regarding the concept of outdated or superstitious rites, it is true that people can be very slow to change their ways, and may hold onto traditions even when they are no longer understood. Tradition gives us a sense of continuity as a species; abandoning tradition can feel oddly like being abandoned by tradition, as if history – which we rely upon to give meaning and a sense of progress to our culture – has somehow failed us by not being timeless. As if we are somehow more mortal for having realised that our customs and actions are not eternal.
There is an archetypal power in the idea of the unbroken line, a power which leaders can (and do) exploit to maintain the status quo. (One example is that horrendous and uniquely Western institution, the factory “farm,” which shows the horrors that can be perpetuated over many generations, when people don’t question the myths they are told, or when secular concepts are mixed with religious or moral ideals.)
Nayak and many others believe that, by mocking public displays of religious fervour, the power of religion over the people’s minds can be broken. Perhaps they hope that this will help end corruption, which of itself is a worthy goal. But is religion a source of corruption, or do the corrupt seek to pollute religion? If rationalists give an umbrella to a child, encouraging him to laugh at the rites and thoughts of religion…how is that somehow better than the act of handing an umbrella to a child and instructing him to pray to Indra? Is it noble, or reprehensible, to “proselytize” for atheism in this way?
And what is to be done with people like me – people who, even after many years of education, maintain that the post-“yagya” rain could have come from a God with a distinct sense of humour?
And so my thoughts have turned to the rain-god’s grace: the loving gift invocable by rite, the measurable scientific phenomenon, and the truth that likely encompasses these two possibilities and goes far beyond what I can understand, as well.
To be continued.
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