I spent a while trying to write something about religious experience but it wasn’t quite happening. It was too broad ranging and not focussed enough. I thought I didn’t have anything else to say about food and religion but then I discovered an entire book about it – Food and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India by Shoba Narayan. The author comes from a family of south Indian brahmins, Vishnu worshippers on one side, Shiva worshippers on the other. In the book she visits a number of temples in India to try the prasadam, the sanctified food given to pilgrims and visitors. The temples and their respective prasads each have their own story and each chapter of the book explores different aspects of Hinduism. As a result, the book is arguably more about faith than it is about food but it is interwoven with Narayan’s many questions about her own belief, from her perspective as a ‘sceptical seeker’, as she describes herself.
This book in many ways felt like a piece of home and not just because I grew up as a prasadam eater, eating halava, kheer, rasagula and kachoris. It’s rare that I read anything that covers so many things that made up my life experiences – darshan, bhajans, puja and abhishek, ghee lamps and bedtime stories about Krishna. It allowed me to revisit stories from my childhood I loved – especially those of Jagannatha in Puri and Krishna in Vrindavana. I also gained a clearer picture of things I already knew. I was yery aware I had grown up with a very specific tradition of Krishna worship, quite different to other forms of Hinduism I encountered. (Hinduism is of course vast.) This book highlighted many things I hadn’t realised were universal to different strands of the religion.
Narayan discusses, with succinct clarity, aspects of Hinduism that I wasn’t sure how to approach. I felt a peculiar sense of relief reading her book, reading about things I rarely talk about as I think they’ll sound too strange to people; huge swathes of my life experience that have been carefully hidden. She provides context that I can hang things on and her words also gave shape to some of the thoughts that have been swirling around my head; something to contrast them against. I fear I may be piggy backing on her carefully composed thoughts and the questions she has raised. I am especially interested in her perspective as a professional woman who describes herself as a feminist, who is not as devout as her parents. In a way that feels very familiar, she talks about the impracticality of shrugging off religion, for family, cultural, social and indeed personal reasons. Faith and religion are located within the context of Narayan’s own family relationships. She remembers her grandfather’s rituals of aachman, applying tilak and reciting the twelve names of the Lord. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reciting these names as she got dressed in the early morning, putting on her tilak or sacred clay markings. Om keshavaya namaha, om narayanah namaha, om madhavaya namaha… (I also remember her listening to this Bengali bhajan in the mornings as she got ready. I heard a recording of it playing in Mississippi when I was eighteen and it took me a moment to figure out why it made me feel warm and safe.)
Visiting temples across India, the differences and similarities between north Indian and south Indian worship give Narayan pause for thought, something she reflects on in relation to her own religious experience. She is struck by the joy of north Indian Krishna temples and the proximity of worship permitted to the pilgrims, in contrast to the solemnity and distance she associates with Krishna worship in south India. She is keen to be able to offer her children a joyful religious experience, rather than the lengthy tense pujas she sat through as a child, failing to see the significance of them. This is rather alien to me, having grown with the joyful north Indian tradition of Krishna worship.
The book talks in some detail about the Hindu practice of worshipping ‘idols’, a word I hate as it sounds so colonial, so Christian, so laden with disapproval. Narayan describes statues made of marble or bronze, known in Sanskrit as murti, worshipped on temple altars, embodiments of the Lord in his many different forms. They are dressed each day, decorated with flowers and jewellery, offered multiple food offerings, ritually bathed (abhishek) and rubbed with cooling chandan (sandalwood) paste in hot weather. She recounts how pilgrims queue to take darshan of the deity of Krishna and their jubilation at the curtains opening to reveal the altar. She describes the 7:30am opening of the altar curtains at the Govind Dev Ji temple in Jaipur. We also waited to see Govinda at 7:30am each morning, except our temple was on a lake island in Northern Ireland. The island (Inis Rath) was even named Govindadvipa in his honour, dvipa meaning island in Sanskrit.
Narayan observes the pilgrims’ enthusiasm for taking darshan, which strikes a chord with me. I spent much of my life surrounded by people who were far more enthusiastic than I about taking darshan. I was used to adults talking about how beautiful Radha Krishna were, taking photos, sharing pictures from trips to other temples. As a teenager, some of my peers began to do this too but I never did. I didn’t feel moved to, so I didn’t. I was left scratching my head, feeling by-passed by a rather significant element of religious experience.
At the Govind Dev Ji temple in Jaipur, Narayan describes the women ‘lost in the song and dance of the Lord’. Although she feels unable to join them, she is moved by and enthuses about the genuine religious experience she has witnessed. Some of her comments remind me of Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists. While I normally have no interest in atheism (more of this another time), it was lent to me by a friend whose relationship with religion is not dissimilar to mine. Both books talk about what we can learn from religion and details the positive aspects of religion; needs and functions that secular societies fail to meet. Narayan comments that that faith ‘confers self-control, peace of mind, fosters relationships, increases happiness and nurtures community. Faith is the ultimate feel-good pill on this rocky road that we call life; it heals and empowers. (2020: 29). Of the uninhibited, joyful dancers she sees, she comments, ‘to achieve this kind of abandonment from the chores of everyday life, without the help of drugs, is to my mind, one of the greatest ‘uses’ of religion’. I’d certainly never thought of it that way but she has certainly has a point.
We too sought to lose ourselves in the song and dance of the Lord, in the mood of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. These experiences were the beginning of a journey, a taste of something en route to realising love of God. Whatever I have tasted has me coming back to kirtan, but it hasn’t given me the conviction to become serious about religion. Neither have I had a transformative experience to replace the rather awkward lack of conviction that I have carried through life.
From my understanding, ideas about the benefits of religion would be classed as missing the point. Religion was most certainly not just about being a good person, although that was an important element. When people told me that their religion was about being a good person, I interpreted it as an excuse to justify not engaging with it properly; a convenient reinterpretation to avoid actually following properly and to wriggle out of things that didn’t suit them. I also didn’t understand why you needed religion as a reason to be a good person. Being a good person isn’t exclusive to religion – surely you could find reasons to be a good person anywhere. I was under the impression that the purpose of religion was to surrender to the Lord, renounce your worldly attachments, realise that the world is simply an illusion and escape the never-ending cycle of birth, death, disease and old age.
In attempt to square religion and my every day life, I go round and round and round in my head. Narayan asks some familiar questions about faith – how does one ’embrace faith without some sort of proof… some sort of inner awakening or sign’? (2020: 29) Will embracing faith lead to an inner awakening? Will it come when you are ready to accept it? Yet without some sort of awakening, how can you reach a point when you are ready?
The adults often talked about awakenings and experiences that had led them to God, so I expected to have one too. They talked about having ‘realisations’, breakthrough moments of understanding that moved them forward in their faith or belief. They talked about acting on your level of understanding and not following blindly yet I also heard that you must simply accept the scripture as authority and have faith. I struggled to put all of these things together.
Sometimes I’d hear the adults talk about non-believers, especially atheists. It sounded as if an atheist was the worst thing you could be. Atheism was presented as a deliberate, arrogant, obstructive, egotistical choice. These conservative voices considered themselves to be more serious about faith, more devout than others but listening to them did not move me to want to embrace religion. I think I worried I would become like them. They were often critical of other people, judging their level of devotion inadequate and their efforts to be lacking proper intention or sincerity. I saw them as fixated on the most impractical rules, often those which sat in greatest conflict with every day life in mainstream society, insisting on the importance of obscure, impractical aspects of belief.
I also saw a fear, a bleakness, a hopelessness in some people’s belief, a conviction that the world was an awful, terrifying place to hide from until it could be escaped. I did not want to be like them, which added to my hesitancy around religion. I don’t claim to have any answers but I don’t believe that judging others, negativity, fear or anger will ever move anyone closer finding a God who offers his followers mercy and divine, eternal love. I also don’t believe that people can be criticised into a stronger faith and neither can faith be produced in someone by demanding that they believe.
Like Shoba Narayan, I feel a need to find a way to co-exist with, to incorporate religion into my life. I’m also very aware that the tone of things has substantially mellowed since I was a child. Things that were considered central to our beliefs have fallen away, now labelled as unnecessary dogma attributed to naivety or immaturity. Have the messages I carry inside me mellowed though? Am I just grinding rusty old axes? I try to focus on the positive messages, that provide light and hope but I can’t shake the voice in my head that tells me they aren’t the real thing or serious enough unless it’s demanding something impossible from you, with nothing ever being good enough. I wonder if it can be washed away with enough kirtan, where sometimes, caught up in it all, nothing else matters.
Sometimes I talk to my friends who have embraced religion or those who converted as adults. I want to ask them what they see – where do they find light and hope that sustains them and helps them deal with life? How did they find answers to life in something that to me felt like paradoxical and impossible? Many are second generation British Asians, pursuing professional careers who discovered bhakti through university societies.
Although I don’t know him, one of them is Jay Shetty, who describes himself on his website as a ‘best-selling author, podcast host, former monk and purpose coach’. I bought his book – Think Like A Monk, curious about his messages as someone who is so successful but no so far removed from my own social circle of life experiences. (The Times periodically interviews him and Facebook asks me if I want to be friends with him. He went to the school where I was on teaching practice and he attended the Business School where I work. Were he younger, he would almost certainly be attending one of the Careers module I teach.) His book however left me scratching my head. It is essentially a self-help book, a very positive one at that. It does draw on the Bhagavad-Gita but focusses on messages that somehow entirely passed me by. His book seems to promote working hard and finding purpose through your work, the latter of which overlaps with a lot of the topics and ideas I deal with in my job as a careers consultant. (It had never occurred me to link my work to the ideas in the Gita.) I can’t help thinking that Shetty is missing the point by peddling ideas of trying to improve your life and gaining material success, dressing them up as somehow spiritual. I assume however that he was trying to facilitate a soft introduction to the Gita for a modern audience. He offers people something that they can build into their lives, where they are now and I don’t feel I’ve found that.
At the end of her book, Shoba Narayan reaches a point where she feels ready to take a leap of faith and embrace the religion she has grown up with. I don’t have such a neat ending, but as a friend pointed out after reading a previous blog post, we should chant and be happy. It is said that most people can only relate to kirtan and prasadam and I feel that is true for me. If I do glimpse the Lord or find something that will lead me closer, I suspect it will be through kirtan. I began to play the violin in kirtan in October 2019 and it changed and deepened my experience of the music. At the Janmastami celebration we held in September, I felt something new, something I can only describe as a very powerful experience that left me feeling a bit bowled over. There was a very special atmosphere in the room that day. We held a pushpanjali or flower ceremony and people queued up to offer a handful of rose petals. Sat to the left of the deity of Krishna, the rose petals came at me, flying in my face, landing in my hair, getting stuck in my bow as I played. There I was in a roomful of people, all of us with our arms in the air, tears trickling down our cheeks as we sang at the top of our lungs, ‘Jaya Radhe, Jaya Sri Radhe’. (A part of me was a bit distracted by the amusing thought that we looked like American evangelical Christians.) I don’t have a name for what I experienced that day and I realised I don’t actually know what a religious experience is supposed to feel like, but I’d like to feel it again. Let’s see.
de Botton, A. (2012) Religion for Atheists London: Penguin
Narayan, S. (2020) Food and Faith: : A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India. Noida: Harper Collins Publishers.
Shetty, J. (2020) Think Like A Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day London: Harper Collins