“You are making your way in a dark tunnel, a modest group of people, not sure where the road leads to. There is utter darkness but you have hope in your heart as you believe in Him. And in that darkness sounds a refrain like a ray of light, like an oasis in an arid desert, a floating bubble of hope in a sea of calamity….
Munna Shaukat Ali, faculty at KM conservatory, renowned Qawwali singer, composer and poet had said while teaching us his most treasured composition.
I was a part of the Qawwali ensemble in KM and we had practised for around a week for one of the performances. I joked with my friends after that,
“Maine itne baar bhagwan ka naam poori zindagi me nahi liya hoga jitna is ek hafte me….khuda, maula, khwaja, Ali….!”
(I have never called upon God so many times in my entire life as I did in the past one week).
Classical music is intimately related to God as almost all the songs taught to us were hymns written in God’s praise. I was introduced to western concepts of harmony in the choir. Here the songs were mostly chorales praising the Lord. In Hindustani classical music, the bandish (composition) through which various ragas were taught to us and bhajans are about God (shaam or Lord Krishna being the favourite one). Being an atheist, it’s quite a paradox that most of my music learning is through praising God.
Shayad ye bhi uski ek leela hai. (Maybe this is also one of God’s tricks).
But this kind of role playing is an integral part of an artist’s life. From that context, the devotion and submission expressed in religious songs is quite beautiful, and its naiveté attracts me.
Because of this, I need to look no further when it comes to religious tolerance. I find beauty and peace in the devotional music of all three major religions around me. That being said, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit uneasy when I visited Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque recently to witness the Qawali performance which takes place every Thursday. It was my paranoia, I suppose, or fear borne out of unfamiliarity. I was gently chided a couple of times – once when my friend and I were sitting with our backs towards the sanctum sanctorum, and the second time during the performance itself, when I was sitting with my legs folded and toes pointing upwards / outwards, the latter being the problem.
“Adab ka mamla hai” told the dholak player sitting nearby. (It’s a matter of reverence).
The concept of pseudo secularism is being thrown around a lot nowadays which is not totally unjustified. Secularism is but indifference to or rejection of religion and religious consideration by the State and it should apply uniformly to all citizens. But I would like to skip this controversial term and rather talk about ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhaav’ i.e. religious equality (which is what Indian Secularism is based on). I think for a diverse and pluralistic society like ours, it’s really important to understand the perspectives of people of different religions, observe their customs and practices without any bias or reservations, consider them with the same affection and understanding as people of your own community / religion. Religious equality can be achieved only when there isn’t a feeling of we and the other / us and them in the deepest recesses of our mind. I would say it isn’t easy to achieve that.
Let me narrate an interesting experience in context of my idea of God. I am translating / paraphrasing the following for convenience:
“Today, I met God,” I announced dramatically to my Mother-in-law.
“You did, indeed?” she asked perplexed, knowing well about my leaning towards atheism.
“Not met as much as I saw Him. He left before I could strike a conversation.”
My parents-in-law are devout Hindu (Punjabi) Shaivites, and they follow their customs and traditions to the T. They have pujas and havans, and an in-house Panditji from a nearby temple. My father-in-law watches mythological serials based on Lord Shiva, Durga, Kali. Lord Rama etc. He can watch the same series again and again. So when I am around, I ask him a lot of questions about the various Gods and Goddesses. I am impressed to find out that he is well versed with the legends and mythologies of all the Hindu deities.
During that particular visit in October, there were unseasonal heavy showers one day. We had to go out shopping or something. So once the rains subsided, all four of us – me, my wife and in-laws – ventured out in the car. By then, there had been significant water logging in Jalandhar. My father-in-law was driving, suffice to say, he drives like a champion. At a particular junction, in an effort to overtake some vehicle, he went a bit too much to the left side of the road. He was not aware of some recent construction work being done along that road. The rear tyre of his car got stuck in a pit which he couldn’t appreciate due to submergence under water. The car won’t move ahead and it caused a mini jam with vehicles honking behind us. Now, I don’t fit into the typical Punjabi male stereotype, however, with father-in-law at the steering wheel, the responsibility of pushing the car fell on me.
Without much faith in my abilities to push a car, I got down and went to the rear end of the car. My wife and mother in law got out of the car and walked a few meters ahead to reduce the load on the car. I started pushing with all force I could muster but the car didn’t move. After a few seconds (which seemed like minutes), suddenly the car moved an inch. I turned to my right with surprise and saw that a frail looking man with unkempt hair and beard, in tattered clothes, had come to my help. It seemed unlikely that he would be affected by the jam in any way. He didn’t look like someone who would own a vehicle, nor was he dressed like a driver. Now, I would not have believed for a second that this man could push a car on his own. But either he was much stronger than he looked or I was underestimating my own strength because soon enough, the car was out of the pit. I gestured to my wife and mother-in-law to get into the car. I felt I ought to give the man something or at least thank him for helping. But as I turned around, the man was nowhere to be seen !
I finished narrating the whole incident to my Mother-in-law and concluded,
“That must have been God! Nobody saw where He came from or where He went. He was so frail that His pushing the car out of the pit seemed no less than a miracle. No one had asked Him for help and He didn’t even ask for any money. He fits the bill perfectly. And you were looking for Him all over ! ”
Of course, no one bought my theory.
Coming to my views of God, although the notion of a compassionate almighty God looking over all of us seems quite enticing, I would say it’s just too good to be true. Like world peace, equality and such other idealistic values, God is for dreamers. Although an atheist, if I were to choose a God, I would rather believe in His omnipresence, a God that exists in all the majestic, and magnificent elements of nature – the Sun, oceans, mountains, earth; phenomena like gravity, light, photosynthesis, rainbow; and natural processes – earthquakes, cyclones, precipitation etc. I would find God in the harmony of music, gracefulness of dance, elegance of evolution and all intelligent designs including the best computer (human brain), best camera (the eye) and best filters (the kidney and liver). God would also exist in unconditional love, compassion and mercy, a child’s innocence and enthusiasm, acts of good samaritans and of course, world peace !
There is no God, but only humans who sometimes act like God.