330 Million Gods, 2 million temples and over a thousand different traditions all associated with Hinduism. I was born into an upper caste, well to do, Hindu family - which played an important role in the way I was brought up.
I was 12 when I realized the role religion played in my life - I lived in a building full of other upper-caste Hindus. There were a bunch of families who were Christians and Muslims, but the majority were upper-caste Hindus. And it shouldn't have made any difference in the way we co-existed - but it did.
I remember when I was out playing with my friends a little later than my curfew, and my mum saw me through the balcony and called me home immediately. I made it back home in a hurry, ready for the angry taunts and speeches, but it wasn't that this time.
"Don't stay out so late with those people. You should know this much." my grandmother told me as I walked in the door. Strange. Who exactly are "those people"? So I said what I would usually say - "I just lost track of time, sorry." And that usually pretty much exhausted the conversation, but not this time.
"They are your friends but don't get too close to those type of people, they'll get you into trouble." my grandma continued. "What does that mean?" I asked, very innocently, because I was genuinely confused.
"They are not from a good background, they are known for trouble," she said and then my mother asked me to go take a shower to end the conversation. I knew Junaid had gotten in trouble before because he hit a cricket ball through someone's window - but I had more trouble under my name.
My mum came to me after dinner and she said - "Don't listen to Aaji (grandma), but be careful around Junaid and Misbah - they can get you in trouble." Again, leaving me very confused. Misbah was the sweetest girl on the block, the poor girl never made any trouble for anyone.
"Why Misbah, she's so nice to me?" I asked my mom. She kind of sighed and said - "See, they're great people, and you should be very kind to them. But they are Muslims, they don't come from a great background. They may be great friends, but don't get too involved, don't go to their house, don't stay out with them for too long. It's okay if you're their friend, but you have Eesha and Shivani who are your best friends, so stick with them!" she explained. I didn't really have any idea what relevance it had to my friendship with them but I obliged.
I kept a little distance but I made sure I was always nice to them. It was in 10th grade that I realized the intensity of what my mother had said to me. I had a boy in my class -Hamza - he was "one of the bros" as they say, with the popular group. But I noticed that they kept screaming "Allahu Akbar" and made terrorist "jokes" about him. And he took them in good spirit.
But I always felt my stomach churn whenever a comment like that came through. Then again, I guess that was none of my business. Then, came the time where we had to do a project on racism for Social Studies. And there it was, the realization that religion played an important role in identity.
I always knew that there was a certain sense of superiority that came with being an upper-caste Hindu - not because I thought that way - but because being around so many of them rubs off on you. I think my grandma is the best example to explain that, here are some lines, verbatim, that she has said to me throughout my life -
- "You're a Brahman, act like one. Dress up properly, eat neatly, clean up - don't act like an uncultured person."
- "Don't stay out this late, no respected Brahman woman does this. Please behave."
- "You're already dark-skinned, which means there aren't many chances that a Brahmin man will marry you, just use some cream to brighten your complexion, or you'll be alone forever."
- "These Christians have taken over Goa, it used to be such a peaceful Hindu land and then suddenly all these people came in and it's a mess now."
Yeah, I know. Merciless religious discrimination. But this is what she learned from her parents and family, and she lives by it.
My family, in particular, we aren't a super religious lot when it comes to rituals and traditions. We follow them scantily and we rarely pray - but when we do, it's hardcore. A hundred agarbattis and 20 different priests. But that's once in a blue moon. My parents didn't really raise my sister and me as God-loving children, but they did make try to make us Hindu - loving children. (which didn't really work)
It was these small instances that drove me up the wall, sometimes I just wanted to tell them - "If this is what Hinduism is - putting down others - I don't think you should be following it either." Which meant that I had two options - either I relearn Hinduism and do it right, or I leave it be and exclude religion from my identity.
I chose the latter.
I think religion requires too much dedication - believing that something all-powerful exists, believing that God has a plan for the world, believing that the world was created by God, praying, fasting, being vegetarian and so on. It's a lot of irrationalities that I have to accept as normal.
Don't get me wrong, if you practice any religion - I have all the respect for you because that requires discipline and maybe even a higher understanding, but personally - I can't get on board with it. I am a person with a million questions. I always have questions - and it's difficult to believe in religion when you're like that.
Seeing that religion is what made the prejudice around me so strong - I simply ruled it out altogether because I was afraid I'd be the same way - biased and with a strange superiority complex. So maybe it was just my upbringing that led to me ruling out God or religion.
Not like I haven't tried being religious - I have had my share of prayers, rituals and lifestyle changes under the name of religion - but it has just never worked for me. What really was the final push for me to become a religionless, Godless person was the fact that I studied philosophy for three years.
Philosophy of Religion really changes the way you look at religion and I think Nietzsche and Hume really sailed that boat to the end.
But a religionless, Godless existence isn't as futile as it seems - not having that fear of death, not having that fear of the almighty, not giving importance to religious identities as sole classifiers and overall just believing in yourself does more good than you think.
I think being an atheist could have just been because of my surroundings, but I'm glad I chose it - because I feel comfortable in that space of my identity.