Why does religious tension have such a robust grip on the psyche of a nation that cradles many faiths and is no stranger to dissimilarities and differences? Is religion in India morphing into a fearsome mutant devoid of logic or love?
The less religious I become, the more interesting religion seems to me. Its absolute power over the masses and its ability to create belief systems that stand the test of time baffles my mind. Raised in India – one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world – my fascination with religion began only when I moved away from it.
As a little girl growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), I never once wondered why so many different places of worship populated my city. It felt all too natural – ringing temple bells, hearing the melancholic azaan or walking into churches with beautifully carved wooden doors. Religion was an inseparable part of life and it seeped into me like everything else. I stood in line for a share of the prasad distributed in temples, and listened to the Arabic call for prayer emanating from the courtyard of mosques every evening. I marvelled at the little cross that hung around my schoolteacher Falco’s neck and worshipped Ganesh – the elephant God of the Hindus – as he sat smiling at devotees who sang and danced around him. I sat cross-legged during poojas while priests rubbed holy ash on my forehead, and inhaled the sweet smell of sacred camphor that burned bright in temple sanctums. Religious processions and festivals added some fun to my otherwise mundane existence. I lit crackers during Diwali without questioning why Sita – Lord Rama’s wife — didn’t have a bigger role to play in the Ramayana. I watched the epic television serial – Mahabharat – without once wondering why it depicted Draupadi as mere property of the Pandavas, to be gambled and lost in a game of dice. Those arrows shooting across the sky, ready to pierce or be thwarted by the Kauravas on the vast battlefield of Kurukshetra, held my attention. I almost wished Arjuna had died instead of Karna, and fell in love with Krishna, who helped the righteous win the war.