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Getting God on our side

Prayer is neither a ritual nor magic. It’s a basic instinct for billions of Indians who never fall short of reasons to invoke the higher powers. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:13 IST

We have to be among the world’s most insecure people.

Else, how does one explain our praying for victory in the World Cup? Not just wishing for, wanting or hoping for it but actually praying for it. Not one but many Indian newspapers wrote about 1.2 billion people praying for our winning that cricketing title. Not one but many newspapers and TV channels spoke of ‘a billion hearts beating for Team India’ totaling to one giant cardiac knock on god’s tightly shut door. A certain carved figure in Chennai going by the style of ‘Cricket Ganesa’ was a particular favourite of the praying multitude.

But prayer being a basic instinct, Pakistan and Sri Lanka did not omit the procedure. We saw a picture, actually a rather moving one, of the Pakistani team bent over kneeling on the Mohali grounds offering namaz before the game. I was admiring the even symmetry of that group’s genuflection when I realised we could not have made a similar photo because, unlike the visiting team, there would have been more than one form of prayer on our side, with some facing the east, some the west, and an unlikely agnostic in the team free to stare at his toes.

And then one read of Sri Lanka’s president visiting Tirupati to pray for the Lankans’ victory before heading for Wankhede Stadium. The Tathagata’s philosophy is about higher things; life has to be more practical. All these cricketing prayers were unselfish and genuine.

If one believes in appealing to a higher power for succour, I suppose, one could pray for certain national ends no less than for personal ones. We could pray for victory in a just war, or even an unjust one. We could pray for the freeing and coming home of someone abducted by the nation’s enemies, for the safety of a hijacked aircraft, the ending of a drought, one could pray for rains, for the recovery from illness of an iconic figure. I know I would.

I can understand at a personal, human level, cricketers’ kin praying for the son, brother, husband or father scoring a ton, or bowling, fielding, wicket-keeping brilliantly. And while the match is on, praying for his not being sent back to the pavilion before scoring a decent number of runs.

Do India’s millions feel it is their prayers that brought India its victory rather than the brilliant battle of MS Dhoni at the 59th minute in Mumbai? Conversely, do the fewer millions in Pakistan and Sri Lanka feel their prayers were unavailing for some defect in them or for being ‘defeated’ in head-count terms by the prayers emanating from the world’s largest democracy? Seeing, on TV, the two doll-like daughters of the Pakistan skipper in tears at their father’s inability to win Mohali was unbearable, accompanied as that scene was by the bursting of crackers on the Indian side by enormous gyrating adults.

I liked Shabana Azmi’s thoughtful words when, before Mohali, she said she wanted India to win, but she wanted whoever wins to win with grace. If Pakistan had won, where would our crackers have hid their faces? Or our dancers slid to? If Sri Lanka, thanks to Mahela Jayawardene’s stunning century, had lifted the World Cup instead of us, who would have garlanded ‘Cricket Ganesa’ the next morning ? Equally, will Tirupati now lose its sheen in Colombo?

I doubt if cricket will ever be exorcised of its manias and hysterias, made explicit in the flag-painted faces that twin bygone primitivisms with modern nationalisms. The de-voodooing of cricket, however, has to be part of a larger re-assessment of procedures and practices. I am now talking of India alone, since it would be courteous to let neighbours do their own soul-searching.

Elections, which are upon us in many parts of the country, like cricket, occasion frantic prayers and placatings at places of worship. But there are other sub-plots happening as well. I know of some candidates, dodging the election commission’s alert eyes, passing on cash to potential voters with a deity’s image slapped onto the wad so as to ‘seal’ the deal in the presence of divinity. A crasser exploitation of simple folks’ piety cannot be imagined. But if these divagations from our secular principles are to be corrected, certain steps will have to be taken at higher levels as well. I think the time has come, for instance, to discontinue offering persons taking oaths of office the choice to ‘swear in the name of god’ in addition to ‘solemnly affirming’. I do not think god should be brought into the picture at office-entering. Not in a secular republic, at least. A solemn affirmation, demanding of the person a truthful commitment to judgmental humans rather than to a forgiving god, will be more binding.

Likewise, I think we must re-visit the practice of lighting lamps at functions. It is moving to see a brass lamp burning quietly at one corner of a stage when a classical dance performance is on. But at conferences and seminars, lectures and book launches, with ranking dignitaries present, the ‘ceremonial lighting of the auspicious lamp’ becomes a comedy in slow motion with the dignitary trying to look as graceful as possible holding matches or candles that simply refuse to propagate their light.

I can never forget a function in Kolkata when, after many attempts with matchsticks having failed, a brave woman came forward to offer her well-used cigarette lighter to light the stubborn wick. It lit up in a trice. The custom has many awkwardnesses. Some people light the lamp with slippers very pointedly removed in full view of the gathering, making the shod look like savages. Some hold the lighting apparatus elaborately with both hands, while others, innocent of high ritual, light it with the left hand to an audible sneer from the hall. And then there are the invocations. Each one, magnetic in power and ethereal in content, is trivialised in such gatherings with time-tight people waiting for the melodious voice to conclude its labours.

Prayer is not meant to be magic or ritual. Not in our country where the occasions for it, the real ones, are unceasing. But then we are one of the world’s most insecure people.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.