"Mummy, do we worship a monkey god?" asked a toddler in Britain. Such a question can be asked to any NRI mother, anywhere. The query would be difficult to tackle on the spur of the moment. What NRI children learn in school about their religion and gods is neither sufficient nor adequate — and sometimes incorrect! They have to respond to the comments, taunts and jibes from classmates. So they fall back upon their parents to give them the background; in most cases, they do not get it.
One solution devised by most NRI communities is to enroll them in 'Sunday School' with their religious bodies where the priests or social workers conduct classes. Here they obtain a basic grounding of their religion and way of life. Simply written and profusely illustrated religious books are imported from India for them to read and learn about their heritage. Older children also access the Internet to know more. As they proceed with their schooling, they sometimes embark on 'projects' to compile information and write about their religion.
But does all this make these children — and even adult NRIs — proud of their religious heritage in the post 9/11 world? 'Profiling' or always selecting brown coloured people for thorough security checks at airports and elsewhere, getting steely looks on streets, one-word answers to their questions, unfriendly conduct — all add to their unease so much so that sometimes NRIs decline to disclose their religion at all. Anand Saxena, a NRI scientist in the US, recounts such an incident.
"A few years ago I accompanied a lady to a hospital in New York when she was being admitted for a major surgery," he recalls. "Such hospitals have to be prepared for the possibility of losing a patient and many religions require that a priest be called if the doctors think the situation is beyond their control. The standard procedure is to ask the religion of the patient being submitted for surgery. Her reply for the column marked religion was 'universal' and it took me by surprise because I had every reason to believe that she was a Hindu."
"I had known her to organise religious ceremonies (pujas) at her home and she even used to sing devotional songs (bhajans) at these gatherings. I kept thinking about the reasons why she did not identify her religion and then came to realise that there were many possibilities," said Saxena. Perhaps she did not want to be identified as a Hindu because of its misconceptions.
At one American university, a student said: "If you ask all Hindus to raise their hands in a class, almost no one will because they do not want to be associated with strange gods and unusual practices before their peers."
These issues triggered a personal quest for Saxena. Why do the dominant religions disparage and ridicule Eastern religions? Is there anything about our heritage about which NRIs may feel good, if not proud? Can NRIs follow their religion today without violating its fundamentals? Without antagonising the dominant religious followers? NRIs live in over 80 countries where they interact with people of different religions and backgrounds, do they give up their religion to be accepted?
His search resulted in a new book Hinduism A Religion for the Modern Age (Konark, New Delhi) for both Hindus and non-Hindus who are interested in the core concepts of Hindu perspective through a study of its mythology, rituals and practices. He has attempted a difficult and demanding task and the result is an academic book — not the one you can consult for instant answers. Except for chapters on religious practices and sacred stories, all other chapters deal with abstract themes. However, it has a very interesting chapter for NRIs.
A Hinduism Chronology is useful but a glossary of Hindu words is essential but missing. Perhaps a full colour paperback with hundreds of captivating illustrations from the rich Hindu heritage written in simple and clear language would tempt young and old Hindus and non-Hindus to reach out for answers. Most of all, the joy of the Hindu way of life should shine through.
The Q&A section should have at least a hundred questions — not just nine. And how does he answer the query about the monkey god? "Unlike the revealed religions of Judaism and Christianity, we consider all living beings on the same level. Humans have obligations towards other creatures because of their advanced faculties, but do not have rights to rule over them or to explain them. Divinity can just as well be in human form as that of any other creature." With this explanation, the child — or even the teenager — can hardly counter his classmates.