Is there anything I believe in?
This is one of those profile questions that pop up in diversity and inclusion forms. I prefer not to tick 'prefer not to say' as it seems disingenuous. I believe in something though it is hard to categorise within those neat boxes.
I was born a Hindu and believed in something. It was not just the festivals and holy days, not just the prayers and wishing for a blessing - those were all part of my childhood! But it was more than that: I thought like a Hindu and still do. I feel a part of the universe in me; I feel the debt I incurred to the universe, and to my ancestors, at my birth, and live everyday to pay it off; I know the I came from the universe and to it, I shall return.
But few beliefs I grew up with fell away with time. The caste hierarchy, in a sublime way, was part of my social sense. I was conscious that marriage to a non-brahmin would be unacceptable. It took time, travel and engagement with more enlightened people for me to move beyond the prejudice. Also, it took me an extended stay in Bangladesh to make my first Muslim friends and my taste of beef, a taboo while growing up. Astrology stayed with me longer: Ironically, it was a moment when something was correctly predicted - my mother's death - that showed me the sheer pointlessness of such an obsession. I would love to say that the discovery of destiny made me lose interest in astrology, but the truth was more prosaic: I had to sit in a room with a few famous astrologers for a couple of hours! Finally, as I tried to move away from technical disciplines and went back to school to study intellectual history, I started to understand the scientific method for the first time in life. At that point, it was difficult to sustain my superstitions.
I don't know whether this makes me a lapsed Hindu. In fact, there may be no such thing as a lapsed Hindu, though, arguably, consuming beef would have led to ex-communication in a different era. I have maintained the Hindu cultural life, though being a solitary person, I am hardly ever an enthusiast about festivities.
So, in a way, I escaped the organised religion just when Hinduism was going through its reincarnation as a political creed. While modern life demands faith as a convenience, I found it handy not to have one. In Bengali-style, I could be eclectic: I could choose the Buddhist idea of desire as the source of suffering with the Aristotlian idea of virtue and that everyone has a purpose to live for (which is a very un-Hindu idea).
I needed a mix of faith not to guide me through the right or wrong: I found Aristotle and the stoics to be better guides than the idea of sin. Rather, it is when I got a rare moment to look up to the sky, when my self-important life of work, family, intellectual pretence fell away and I got an opportunity to contemplate how tiny and pointless all we do was, I needed some way forward. I needed an answer: Does it really matter? I questioned: Why should I get off the bed tomorrow morning if I can't make any difference?
Yes, purpose, of course, but the limits of the purpose was clear without faith. I could draw lines saying "I am building a great institution" or "making people successful", but those were not strong enough to stand up to the "so what" question. What if I don't do it? One more step - I am making a dent in the universe - and I would have been in delusional territory from which there was no escape. Sometimes demands of professional life made me think that I should indulge in such talk. Just a little, just for a while, as insincerely as possible: Why not make the claims as everyone else was making? Yet there was no escape from the realisation, if and when I made the mistake of looking up at the sky and saw our insignificance in space and time, that one couldn't really make a dent in such a glorious and vast universe.
This is indeed a philosophical question which wouldn't arise within faith. If I believed, I didn't need to know the purpose. Hinduism would focus my mind on doing my duties, making my prayers and carrying on with procreation, my species duty, but not think about what this was all for. By being outside faith made me wonder about the question of purpose in the first place.
The band-aid for such confusion is, of course, the pursuit of happiness. This is the faux purpose to bury all purpose questions. My troubles with the starry sky are easily resolved if I choose to look inside, contain myself in the travails of daily life. Looking inside, assuming that I know what happiness looks like, is easier than contemplating so many different unknowns, confronting the question of meaning as a starting point. But this is where the curse of knowing comes: Once I have seen the stars, I can't unsee them. I have already asked the question, most probably when my strong, active uncle suddenly died after a few days of fever and my teen mind was desperate for an explanation (and wanted to believe he went to heaven). I found no answers then, and not afterwards. But I can't get me back inside myself ever again.
What then is the purpose, if there is any? I realised lately that my primal Hindu mind, stripped off its gods and goddesses, its superstitions and rituals, offers me the best answer: That our purpose of life is to be in harmony, with ourselves, with other human beings, with the living world, with the universe. Indeed, that's where we came from and that's where we will go - it is the period we live is the only time for self! Bringing that self in harmony, in the quest to be one with the universe, is the purpose of life; it could indeed be the purpose of living.
Of course, this is not Hindu: Mixed up in my mind, this is Gaia. This is sublimated idea of the earth as a living organism, containing a complex and continuous dance of harmony within itself. Even when nature is red in tooth and claw, it is still a system tending to harmony; being part of the transcendence of self is our purpose of work and life.
For me, this translates into finding meaning at work. I am always striving, as I tell my friends, not for happiness but for suffering. Suffering, because transcending self, giving up control, looking to be part of the whole, are painful. This is about stepping into unknown, looking at the starry sky, accepting my powerlessness but also the inescapable fact that this gigantic universe is built around me at the same time. This is the moment of faith for me: That I don't matter, but it's me who is looking. It's within me the universe is thinking, I am making it take shape, but it's not I, but the universe in me is doing the thinking. In one, everything; everything is one.
There is no box to tick for this belief.
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