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Festive feasts, frills and faith: the dividing line between religion and culture

When God doesn’t figure in your scheme of things like regular religious people, should you eat the pedha after the pooja?

brunch Updated: Oct 21, 2017 22:42 IST
Religious faith has always been untenable to a small section of people ever since god was invented
Religious faith has always been untenable to a small section of people ever since god was invented(iStock)

A few years ago, Aatish Taseer’s introspective travelogue Stranger to History captured a delicate sentiment quite beautifully. What is a ‘cultural Muslim’? To extrapolate – a cultural Hindu, Christian, Sikh,Parsi, Jew? Religious faith has always been untenable to a small section of people ever since god was invented. Call us the sceptics, rationalists or heretics, we’re as varied in our philosophies and perspectives as people of faith. But we all agree on one thing – there is no evidence of a divine superpower controlling the fate of humans and the cosmos. God does not figure in our scheme of things.

This position poses numerous challenges in our daily lives. Whom do you turn to in times of difficulty? To what can one attribute the vagaries of chance? What gives life meaning? Should I eat that pedha served after the office pooja or remain a conscientious objector? Now this last question keeps me up at night. And it’s not about pedhas. It’s about where one draws the dividing line between religion and culture.

I’ve seen the most ardent communists wield a pooja thali on Raksha Bandhan, citing cultural reasons. Hardened atheists wear sacred threads. Staunch rationalists revel in a Ganpati display. Satanists attend midnight mass. (Okay, I mean heavy-metal fans.) The list of transgressions is long and encompasses all varieties of faith and ritual. In fact it’s so universal that to use the term “transgressions” seems rigid and ungenerous.

In biryani we trust

Another celebrated recent writer, Alain de Botton, argues in Religion for Atheists for the good we can extract from religion to enhance our lives without miring it in dogma. He speaks of funeral rituals and festive feasts as religion’s big triumphs, and I wholeheartedly agree. Secular rituals might appeal to the brain but lack that essential visceral connect. Sometimes, you want someone to tell you to open a book to page 23, read a verse aloud, look behind your shoulder three times and warble a dirge in E-minor as a response to the emptiness of bereavement. (The example is mine.) Something communal. Something old. Something.

There is more doubt in a person of faith, and more faith in a person of doubt, than the two positions let on. Some people solidify their faith; others solidify their doubt.

Botton goes on to extol the affective quality of sacred art – how it lifts our spirits to see a Madonna and child, hear a heartrending hymn, or read a quatrain of spiritualardour. From the Ramayana to Paradise Lost, humans have gasped and sighed at stories related to the divine and supernatural. A Kishori Amonkar bhajan or a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawalli tempts the godless with an unholy faith. A stuffed Christmas turkey with a tart plum sauce, or an Eid biryani with potatoes, eggs and apricots, is a holy experience. There is no god – so must I then give up my Amonkar and Nusrat, Christmas turkey and Eid biryani, Sistine Chapel and Ramleela? If I don’t, am I enlightened or a hypocrite?

Of qawallis and thumris

One could offer that all festivals are communal celebrations that needn’t involve questions of faith, but that would be a cop out. In fact, this might be one of humanity’s most complex questions. People’s relationship with what they do not understand. And how – or whether – they fill these gaps in their understanding. There is more doubt in a person of faith, and more faith in a person of doubt, than the two positions let on. Some people solidify their faith; others solidify their doubt. And many like me, who solidly and completely doubt, wrestle with questions like, ‘What is a cultural Muslim?’

To me that answer lies in the smear of kajal and the sparkle of zari. The flavour of a shami kabab or a Faiz couplet. The voices of Begum Akhtar and Farida Khanum. The lilt and tilt of an adaab. I’m happy to add that there is an equal amount of cultural Hindu in me. Shobha Gurtu’s Holi thumris, more potent than bhaang. Deep-red kumkum bindis. Aloo-puri and chhole on festivals. The earthy charm of Diwali diyas. The ethereal splendour of rock sculptures.

But there’s no escaping the core issue: how to separate the feasts and frills from the essential beliefs? Those who scream against Karva Chauth are soft on the patriarchal basis of Raksha Bandhan, for instance. And even I judge myself harshly on enjoying a Bakri Eid feast, knowing it’s a brutal festival from an animal rights’ perspective.

It’s a difficult process, this constant sifting, with almost all rituals being backed by some indefensible principle.But done right, you’re the discerning heir of the cultural capital of the ages. And never in the doleful position of having to refuse a post-pooja pedha.

From HT Brunch, October 22, 2017

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