O come, all ye faithless
A close friend’s father recently passed away.
Being the only male of the house, my friend was responsible for the rites and rituals to be duly conducted after a death.
And there were several of them, all of which he explained to me in somewhat disdainful detail, after recovering from his personal grief.
After the cremation, he was made to separate the bones from the coal and ash and collect them. He had to then visit Nashik (accompanied by a strictly even number of people), to submerge the bones in a ‘holy river’.
He described this river in words I refrain from repeating for they may offend, but in short, it was a river coagulated with bones, ash, washing detergents, dead flowers, red powder, and the collective essence of thousands of devotees bathing themselves in the same water for an assured ticket to heaven.
He had to pick from the several hundred pundits, who offered their services for a price after a good deal of bargaining, to conduct a pooja in which he was told to repeat a certain practice 400 times. Why or how this number came about, was a mystery to him, but he didn’t complain. Rather this, than throw one of his father’s bones at the back of a beggar after feeding him. (This was told to him by a pundit in Mumbai, but fortunately he wasn’t made to do it by the Nashik one.)
After half a day spent there, he vowed never ever to repeat this journey, God forbid, for other deaths in the family.
On the 12th day after the funeral, the family had to conduct another pooja at home during which the youngest, unmarried girl of the house had to be accorded respect. Lacking a candidate from the family, they had to settle for the young house help. My friend said he was almost amused at the girl’s bewilderment, when an elderly aunt washed her feet and asked for the 20-year-old’s blessings.
My friend, being a conventional, suburban, almost-atheist 26-year-old, did what he was told by the maharaj and pundits, to appease his mother and grandmother. But not out of respect or conviction for the unexplained customs ascribed by his religion.
To assuage his incredulity towards his religion’s beliefs, I shared with him one of my own faith’s baffling customs.
When my grandfather passed away last year, my nani had to follow a particular mourning ritual. For four months, the widow cannot get out of the house, cannot wear coloured clothes, and at no cost can she see, meet or talk to any men, except her closest family’s male members. I’m not sure how voluntary house arrest and self-imposed exile, help women get over the grief of losing their husbands, and I don’t care to find out either way.
I can somewhat empathise why our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations adhere to their respective religions’ rituals with unflinching faith.
In their world, they don’t find the need to question or doubt what they have been told by elders and what has been done for years on end. Even when they do doubt a particularly pointless ritual, if at all, then fear of God and society, leaves these doubts unvoiced. When youngsters try to reason with them, their standard response is, “What’s the harm in just doing it?”
Yes, I can empathise, but I can’t sympathise. Yes, we may have no knowledge about our religion’s ancient mores, but not to question them, especially when they are questionable, is not something I can do.
My friend and I felt that our generation, which is mostly a shallow, unbelieving, faithless, cynical, liberal, post-modern generation, ought to discontinue with rituals that didn’t hold meaning or value to us.
We hoped that genuine emotions would suffice to deal with the loss of loved ones, and simple, modest practices would let their souls rest in peace.
We hoped that these myriad, mysterious rituals would simply die a natural death.