“The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.”
— Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher, 6th century BC
My mom and dad, the foundation of my genes and memes, not only contributed to my organic structure, but they also fashioned my habits, my behaviour, my conscience and my spirituality. I believe I am exactly what they were and a little bit more, perhaps.
They were kept deprived of any significant formal education; had not earned any certificates, degrees or diplomas that they could frame and display on their house walls to impress their visitors. They were a simple couple, who raised their children within the congesting and limiting boundaries of their limited ambitions. They were the kind of people who would say, “One plain slice of bread is far better in your own home town than two, buttered on both sides, in a far away foreign land.”
When they were growing up, the boundaries between literacy and education were rather blurred, especially in the lower middle, even in middle class families. If daughters, especially daughters, could read Holy Scriptures, respond to letters, keep an account of dirty laundry handed to the washer man and count up to one hundred, they would be deemed educated.
The emphasis was not on academics, but on developing housekeeping skills, managing household resources and serving and keeping the in-laws and husbands pleased. The only message that counted and that parents drilled into their heads every living moment of their unmarried childhood was, “One day you will get married. Do not let your in-laws find faults in your conduct and our parenting.”
I believe the author of this message was the mythical sovereign of the earth, Manu, who dates back to the post-Vedic period. He laid down the fundamental codes of conduct for Indian men, women and castes in Manusmirti, the Laws of Manu. One of his laws that sets the standards of education was, “The nuptial ceremony stated to be the Vedic sacrament for women is equal to the initiation to their higher learning, serving the husband is equivalent to living in the house of the spiritual teacher (gurukul), and the household duties are equal to the daily worship of the sacred fire;” (the Laws of Manu; translated by Georg Buhler; Dover Publication, Inc.; New York; Ch. II/67; pg. 42.)
However, Manu could not be held exclusively responsible for depriving and confining women from upward mobility and to household chores. The purdah restraints, the Islamic gift to their womenfolk and to the conquered and subjugated subjects, also contributed to keeping Hindu women smothered behind veils, curtains and brick walls.
Truth is, until Islam and Christianity and their laws overshadowed India, Indian culture was free from the yoke of purdah restraints. We expressed love freely. Sex was not a dirty word. The stone carvings of the Khajuraho temple (950 and 1050), Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra (400 BCE and 200 CE) and the Sun Temple of Konark (13th century) indicate the freedom men and women had to live their lives and perform their social and spiritual dharma, earning artha (wealth for household and charity), indulging in kama (love for procreation) and working for moksha (salvation).
Mom grew up under the stern supervision of her mother during the period when social freedom was scarce. What women were not going through during Shah Reza Pahlavi’s time in Iran, Hindu women were going through thousands of miles away in India. I recall when I was a five-year-old boy, I used to see both Hindu and Muslim women going out cloaked head to toe accompanied by male escorts. Even their Tonga carriages used to be wrapped around with curtains for privacy. Following the traditions of the rulers, women could not step out of their homes unveiled and not wrapped in sheets and shawls.
As someone who came along later, I have no recollection of the time when mom joined my grandfather’s family as their first daughter-in-law. I did not see her dressed up in silk bridal saris, wearing a big bangle-sized gold ring with white pearls in her nose and red ivory bangles on her wrists. I never had the opportunity to watch and listen to her converse with her male elder in-laws from behind her long veil, or through children.
By the time I arrived, her age and financial circumstances had completely transformed her dress code: her silk saris into five-yard workperson’s cotton dhotis, her bangle-sized nose-ring into a small clove-shaped gold stud and her expensive tusk and gold bangles into glass bangles. I always saw her as a 24/7 mother and homemaker.
If mom was a victim of Manu’s and Islamic directives, dad was a victim of my grandfather’s superstitions. Dad told me he had an older brother. One day, when he was 14, in Grade 8, he returned from school with burning fever. My grandfather did every thing to help him get better. But he never recovered. His death broke his father’s heart. He believed someone jealous of his son’s progress had put an evil eye on him, and to ensure his second son (my dad) a long life, he pulled him out of school after Grade 6.
Mom and dad attempted to live their lives based on what they considered auspicious and virtuous (good and right), meritorious and sacred. They were strong believers in God, in His incarnations, in the concept of rebirth and in the outcome of one’s past and present karma. That was their recipe to righteous living.
Their definitions of heaven (swarga) and hell (naraka) were simple. Swarga was most certainly not a place where 75 diamond-coloured virgins await you after you die (after killing others), and naraka was not some specific region of burning fires and suffering where God sends sinners after death.
Their heaven is, was and always will be a clean house, where God is worshipped, is blessed with food, clean water and clothes, where family lives in harmony, free of violence, where youngsters respect their elders, and the elders love and protect their children. On the other hand, a filthy house, not blessed with the basics of life, where God is seldom prayed to and thanked for his blessings, and where family members victimize each other is, was and always will be hell, right here on this planet.
Watching them praying to God in different forms, day after day, I came to believe that devotees were like beggars. Just as beggars could not afford to be choosy about which door to knock at for alms and which to ignore, devotees, who beg God for His kindness, could not be fussy about selecting one specific version of His many forms. They have to accept Him and worship Him in every form He reveals and manifests Himself to have their prayers answered.
Mom and dad believed in the personification of God as opposed to how God is described in Islam, uncompromisingly impersonal: “la ilah illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah. (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.)” People unable to confine themselves to this idea are considered kafir.
Personification for mom and dad was a process to bring God closer to them. This made it easier for them to adore Him and try to translate His virtues into their own lives. As devotion was an expression of their personal love for Him, im-personalisation of it would be tantamount to distancing themselves from Him. This was one big reason why mom loved Sufis. They portrayed love for Him through their devotional songs. Devotion, love and music soften harsh human attitudes, she used to say.
Though my parents were not familiar with the histories of the world’s religions, they seemed spiritual visionaries. They thought if every religion had portrayed God and His attributes in pictorial or sculptural forms, as we Hindus do and several ancient religions had done in the past, it was possible the world might not have faced destruction of their temples at the hands of Abrahamic religious zealots. The works of art and religious monuments might have survived their onslaughts. Millions of innocent lives would have been saved from forced conversions, and women from rapes.
A few years ago, when my wife Tripta and I visited Catholic places of worship such as Kavala (Greece), the main port in the eastern region of Macedonia, and the place where the apostle Peter came for the first time to Greece; the monastery of St. John the Theologian in Chora (Patmos, Greece), and the impressive Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde in vibrant Marseille (France), we both experienced an unforgettable spiritual impact in the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde. Our heads automatically bowed with our joint palms raised to our foreheads in reverence and words.
“Catholics are not any lesser idol worshipers than we are,” came out of her mouth.
Cultures influence cultures. As proof, shown is an old Indonesian 20,000 rupiah bill with an inscription of Lord Ganesha, even though Indonesia is a Muslim country that shelters 23% of the world’s Muslim population (204,847,000).
There are also several grand sculptures depicting stories from the famous Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, throughout Jakarta. This, I would say is a perfect example of Muslim-Hindu interfaith harmony.
Lately, the Yazidis of northern Iraq have been in the news. I notice they have unmistakable similarities with Hindus as well. Their temples have the same pyramid-shaped gopura as the Hindu temples have. The Yazidi religious symbol, a peacock with wings spread, is similar to the Hindu god Subrahmanya’s mount. Their temple at Lalish has a snake symbol at the entrance.
Subrahmanya, the avatar of snakes, is worshipped very closely for all snake-related pujas such as Naga Panchami. The Yazidis use a symbol similar to the Hindu forehead custom of bindi or tilak during prayer.
On the other hand, we have Indian history documenting the names of the Muslim rulers who destroyed roughly 60,000 Hindu temples, looted their gold idols and built more than 3,000 mosques on those temple sites. That was illegal, immoral and unethical then, and would be construed as illegal, immoral and unethical today. A pictorial portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad is nothing compared to this plunder. Nevertheless, I say the portrayal of the Prophet is wrong, just as the destruction of Hindu temples was wrong then, is wrong today, and will be forever. Journalists have a responsibility not to provoke the faithful in the name of freedom of speech. I consider it an abuse of a right. If pictorial portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden, then don’t do it; respect the rule.
Looking at these lovely and harmonious images above, I believe the time is right for Al Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram and the many other anti-interfaith Islamic groups, and the Islamic countries that support these bloodhound terrorists in the name of Islam, to redeem themselves from their current and past sins. I am confident that those who brought me into this world and raised me would agree that an expression of mutual love and respect is the most powerful medicine to heal all invisible wounds. Listen to the Holy Quran:
The first to apologize is the bravest.
The first to forgive is the strongest.
The first to forget is the happiest.