Feasting, Fasting and Festival Facts
When I was a very young child, I remember my father telling me that when the goddess Durga was prayed to with fervor and sincerity, and by many devotees simultaneously, she came alive. The remark had a profound effect on my five-year old mind and for quite a few years I watched the idols very closely during the annual Durga puja. Sometimes I felt the idol of Durga moved fractionally, sometimes I was sure I saw her alta-stained finger-tips twiddle, sometimes I felt her full cherry-red lips twitch in a secret smile and once, I could almost swear she looked at me directly out of her kohl-lined almond-shaped eyes and winked. A warm friendly conspiratorial wink.
Now that I look back, it is to my father’s great credit that he neither smirked nor ridiculed me when I told him about the incident. He merely told me, very solemnly, that it was a sign that Ma Durga was making a pact that as long as I behaved myself, she would always be there behind me as a friend, guide, guardian and would be a force to reckon with in times of need. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling to know that no matter what happened in my growing up years – illnesses, accidents, bullying at school, bad report cards, I had a secret sharer who had my back.
Much later, as a college student studying Psychology, I would learn about the powers and trickery of autosuggestion, and the intricate complexities of the human mind. As a child however, the illusion of a permanent celestial guardian carried me comfortably over the years till the late teens.
The adolescent years are known to be the most turbulent and argumentative phase in a person’s life and it was no different for me. The tirade of questions, aimed at my mother mainly, were belligerent and unending. Why should I fast during the puja days, why should I wear new clothes in the sweltering heat of October, why should I mouth meaningless mantras during pushpanjalli? Why did Kali puja involve the cruel act of a goat sacrifice? Why did people abstain from food and drink before pushpanjalli only to rush towards the chicken-cutlet stalls right after? Why did religion come with so many restrictions, paradoxes and contradictions? Why was I being coerced into the blind practice of idol worship when intellectuals over the ages had proclaimed God to be a formless, omnipresent and omniscient entity? My mother, a lady of immense patience and calm, merely smiled and informed me that one needed to become a parent to feel the full impact of religion and religious rituals.
By the time I had hit my thirties and become a parent of two rowdy boys, my dormant sensibilities had blossomed, and my religious sentiments had reached an alarming high. I read the Hanuman Chalisa with single minded concentration on a daily basis even as the boys went around breaking teeth and limbs on the football field and getting into disciplinary problems in school. I went without food and water on Shivratri and sat with my spine erect at midnight. I smashed half a dozen coconuts at temples before the board exams and half a dozen after. I wheedled, bartered and haggled unabashedly with god: help the boys crack their entrance exam and I’ll give you a brass bell, keep them out of mischief and secure seats in good colleges and I’ll donate clothes to the needy, keep my seafarer husband safe when on the high seas and I’ll distribute five kilos of mithai to the security guards.
The bartering got more and more complex over time and I found myself promising electronic gadgets, perfume, sushi and pasta to the gods. I had by then huge, framed pictures of gods, goddesses and saints in every room, compact ones of the same in my hand-bag and I carried portable statuettes of Hanumanji every time I travelled (who knew if the hotel room was haunted?). The sad thing was that my mother was not around to witness this remarkable transformation in her elder daughter.
There comes a stage for most parents when the fledglings start to leave the nest and the house turns empty. And often, in these sterile conditions the mind turns from the domestic to the existential. A tsunami of questions could rise and hit one at this stage in life, and I was similarly afflicted. Why did Halloween in the west and bhoot chaturdashi in the east fall around the same time of the year, and why were ghosts supposed to abound at both?
The history of both festivals held on either side of the globe were astonishingly similar, both claiming that the veil between the two worlds was thin on these dark nights thereby enabling the souls of the deceased to visit their loved ones. Why were temples built on mountaintops and why did visiting them give even hardened cynics goosebumps- so potent was their power?
Science proclaims that eight ancient Shiv temples are built on the same longitude although no one has still found a convincing reason for this. Why does one feel a strange magnetism in the air with the coming of autumn and why does one hear from a long-forgotten friend shortly after one suddenly thinks of him/her? Were thoughts in humans not confined to exist inside one’s head but perfectly capable of drifting out into the universe as energy, as some enlightened people would have one believe? Was the human psyche truly an iceberg then, with only the tip having been explored? Could one chart the course of one’s own life by bending the cosmos to one’s will? Was the universe a kind of mirror that merely reflected what played out in your mind? Was one the sum total of one’s thoughts and was there then undeniable truth in Rene Descartes’s words, ‘I think, therefore I am’? And why did the words ‘çreation’ and ‘Krishna’ overlap phonetically in that odd manner? Retirement from parenting is not always destined to be a cozy time when such queries rear their heads, particularly during the festival months. I could feel the strong presence of my late mother at such times, and could vividly visualize her amused I-told-you-so smile.
The leitmotif of good triumphing over evil is a recurrent one in most festivals. When lights and lamps set the city ablaze during Diwali, I now know that it’s not just a matter of merriment and mindless partying but symbolic of celebrating the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after 14 years of from exile. And after defeating Ravan. Just as lighting 14 diyas on the eve of Kali puja is showing the way to 14 forefathers looking to visit their family. A large number of festivals cluster in the last quarter of the year bonding the entire globe by gossamer threads of celebration.
As more and more people turn to spirituality as a means to holistic wellness, as traditional cuisine, beliefs and festivals revive with enthusiasm pushing back the relentless march of westernization, there is sense of completion. Science and religion were never at war, one realizes, they were always compatible and symbiotic, each enhancing the other.
Whether we are all forms of energy or not, what really matters is the universal camaraderie, the glow of lamps, the scent of incense and the chants of sacred words during festivals. The prevailing sense of kinship and a universal celebration of all the innate good within each of us. The power to transform our own lives and those of others by using our gods as the pole star for guidance looms most potent during festivals, and sometimes divinity could even be a touchstone.
To rejoice in being alive and reclaim our place in the universe, after every crisis that threatens our very existence, is at the heart of every festival, as is celebrating life with lights, love, laughter and the bounties gifted to us by nature. Each festival could lend itself to myriad interpretations and chasing these could be a lifetime’s occupation. It’s a nice thought to have at the end of the year and an important point for the list of new year resolutions. And as for whether Ma Durga really winked at me many years ago, the jury is still out on that one.