Why is God so popular?
by Padma Murughappun
(P.S. Dear Varsha, thank you for sparking my fire to start writing this piece on god. In a way, you have put me on a path to enlightenment!)
I was 5 or 6 when my parents decided to “find god” in the new, locally popular ashram which was promising enlightenment through a charismatic renewal of the existing systems. It was a movement of sorts where people attended sessions and events that were a crude amalgamation of Indian tradition and new-age pseudo-scientific dogmas. What began as a journey to find oneself quickly turned into fascination, which later materialised into admiration, dependency and finally, unquestionable devotion.
At that age, I was more concerned about finding ways to delay getting to my math homework and the soirees with my parent’s newfound god was the perfect distraction. I let myself be dragged into their shenanigans because it was the 90’s and you never questioned your parents’ beliefs, you just scorned in silence.
'Belief' was a strange word for me. I say strange because nothing I believed in ever stayed on for more than a year. I believed I would always use my teeth to chew on the chicken and chiclet but I was losing those one by one. I believed I would fit into my pyjamas for a long time, but had to throw them out in 6 months when I outgrew them. Every year I was made to sit in a different classroom, on a different floor with a different teacher. To make matters more complicated, my little brother just kept getting taller and more irksome. I didn’t know who or what to believe in anymore.
My idea of belief didn’t stem from god or in the traditional sense, from religion. I did mention the cult my parents made us follow, right? My idea of god at this point was a bearded man in white robes who spoke in Telugu, Morgan Freeman walking on the Atlantic ocean and George Burns being a bother; all of which were contrived and didn’t make sense to my 8-year-old brain. One thing I didn’t lose though, was my hope in finding my belief. And as it turns out, I had my first encounter with this emotion while hearing my grandfather’s discovery of it.
He was orphaned at the same age I was when I heard this story. The number one question that a child of eight needs to find an answer to is that of hunger. How do I feed myself now that I can’t yell at my mom about what I want for lunch? Walking the clamorous road that led to the well-known murugan temple in Vadapalani this question on his mind, my grandfather in an attempt to divert his attention from the growing uneasiness in his stomach, began repeating names of popular gods in hopes of satiating his hunger.
He started with the rhythmic chanting of Shiva's name and as he got to the third time, he hit a stone and was interrupted. Maybe I should try a goddess, he thought to himself. There was no easy mantra to summon lakshmi; guess she is a little too expensive to make herself available at your beck and call. Let’s try a younger god, maybe from some other religion? He began calling out to Jesus as he continued walking.
Now, if you have ever visited the road leading up to the Vadapalani temple, you’d know that it is wet, loud and filled with a constantly moving crowd that is easily distracted by godly paraphernalia including coconuts and bananas. But this child had nothing to give to buy and eat them in return. As he got tired from the scorching Madras sun, he found a corner and plopped himself down, wary from chanting. His hunger was nowhere close to disappearing, it was only intensifying which has now resulted in a lulling throb in his temples.
This was a busy time for the temple as devotees thronged there in hopes of having a propitious start to their day. My grandfather, a child of all but 8, was starting to lose patience and belief until he looked up and saw the universal symbol for the god muruga: the vel and started uttering his name. As if miraculously, he had found new energy in his step and started walking towards the temple. A good few furlongs later, he stumbled upon a coin, dirty yet shiny.
I imagined my grandfather's childish face beaming with delight as he told me about how he devoured a hearty breakfast after three days of tortuous starving and how he owed it all to lord muruga. After he finished his narration about finding belief in his god, my grandfather had a look of parental triumph. I looked at him confused and asked, “But why did god have to make you starve in the first place? If he had the power to make you find the coin, surely he must have the power to have saved your mom?”
Perplexed is an understatement for my grandpa’s reaction to my question. Guess he never thought about the incident that way. I could satisfy my grandfather later, I am still on my journey of finding my belief. Especially after hearing the heart-wrenching story of my orphaned, 8-year-old grandfather, I lost all the more belief in this surveillant god who only cared about your exams, job interview, who you date and what you eat; everything he cared about seemed petulant of him. Almost, human.
As I began to reflect and recall this story, another thought surfaced. Although the ashram seemed more like propaganda where emotions ran high and there was little space for any logical reasoning, there was some good happening. All the adults who went there, including my family, considered it a form of therapy. To put it more conclusively, they considered it a place for spiritual catharsis rather than an awakening. This is the place the adults went to lay down their problems in front of a self-proclaimed saviour all of which happened with its own share of theatrics: tears ran rampant, bodies swayed in the renunciation of their sins. And yet somehow, they came out of it with the belief to go on with life.
For a non-believing kid, this exercise seemed futile, wasteful even. I’d much rather immerse myself in the preachings of Kermit the frog rather than Krishna the saviour. God may be popular but it is not universal. A friend of mine once told me that a newborn baby would know just enough about god as much as the saints and the sinners do.
After many years of reading, contemplating and practising belief, at one point I found myself leaning towards love as a form of belief. Finding belief seemed quite similar to finding love. Think of the very first time you experienced it: one that made you fall head over heels in love with them, eyes twinkling, heart-thumping love, that made your mind go mushy. This kind of love needs an outlet, an entity towards which it needs to be expressed. It is spiritual, exotic and pure.
Much similarly, many find comfort in expressing their swelling belief towards an inexplicable entity that is time tested and passed down for generations: case in point, god. My grandfather found strength in giving his belief a form that guides him. My parents were simply trying to find and believe in themselves in their quest of finding god. Somehow, conversing with a statue gave my grandmother a sense of relief that her belief is acknowledged and projected towards an entity. I am on a similar path fuelled by undying hope and the internet.
After many years and many failed attempts at waiting for god to contact me (or atleast pick up my call), I realised that people don’t wait around for belief to happen because it’s a long process. For some it is in the spark of an instance but for others it takes years of trial and error. I am going to take the help of a gripping scene from the critically acclaimed show called Fleabag where the priest explains my finding more articulately:
“Love isn’t something weak people do. It's awful, painful and frightening. Makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself. It’s all any of us want and it's hell when we get there! So no wonder it's something we don't want to do on our own.”
We all want to believe and have faith simply because it tests the strength of our existence. This is why the concept of god is so popular among humans. Belief in something or someone is what makes the world go around. And that is an awful, painful and frighteningly lonely process. Whether you do it with god or a higher conscience or even yourself, keep with it and do it anyway.
Padma is an arts, culture and lifestyle enthusiast who enjoys the occasional matcha to enjoy writing better. She is also the editor of InFrame magazine.