Dear Unknown Reader, I’d like to wish you a very Happy Diwali!
Just the other day, I returned from the local drugstore with a box of electric Christmas tree lights and red cinnamon-scented tea-light candles.The store had them stocked up for early Christmas shoppers, but I bought them to put up as Diwali lights in front of the foggy window of my apartment. When you live outside India, you quickly learn to trade what you used to be able to get easily for what is readily available to you.
I am a Hindu atheist. I grew up in a flexible atmosphere of spirituality shaped by Kant, Einstein, and Tagore. Now, I am at a stage in my life when I do not believe that deities actually exist in any form.
Then why the “Hindu” qualifier to “atheist”? Growing up most of my neighbors were Muslim. I went to a Catholic school. But even to this day, I culturally identify as a Hindu. My involvement isn’t dispassionately secular either.While I don’t take the concept that a goddess Durga actually lives on frosty Mount Kailash and comes down to defeat the demon Mahisasur seriously, that does not prevent me from enjoying the four days of Durga Puja. And I enjoy Diwali and Holi and Saraswati Puja too!
One of the strongest memories I have of my paternal grandfather from my childhood is of him performing the first sandhya of the day sometime before dawn. Every day, I’d be half-asleep in my bed and he would he would recite the guru strotram in his rich baritone – agyana timirandhasya gyananjana salakaya. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough to arouse my gyananjana from deep slumber!
I remember my grandfather as an intensely devout man who lived his life as ethically as anyone I’ve known. I’ve heard the story that he once hid the truth in a court of law when he was called up as a witness in order to save the life of a man who he thought had been unjustly convicted. Shortly after this episode, he contracted typhoid fever from which he nearly died. Until his last days, many decades later, he fervently believed that his near-death experience was divine punishment for his transgression.
Science happened to me. I brush it off as microbiology. As the inimitable Tom Paine remarked, “infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.” My beliefs are different from that of my ancestors. I don’t ever deny that or that I’m an atheist.
Yet, to deny my link to the religion of my ancestors would be to deny my heritage (for better and for worse). And that would be an equal infidelity on my part.
Sometimes, in their honor, I quietly recite the guru strotram.
Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban