I am not an atheist. And fortunately not Hamlet either.
Most of us imagine that deep down we all know what is it that
we need to do in any situation. At least, we think we do. I do whatever I do only
if I believe in it 100%. Conviction (one of the great values handed down to me
by my parents) matters to me more than pleasing others. If I follow the former,
the latter automatically happens eventually, which is why I don’t worry about the
“pleasing the world” bit.
I lost my dad, P S Vaikuntam last week. Of course we all have our own ways of grieving, and I can’t imagine any ways of customizing grief. My siblings and I share a lot, we agree on most subjects. One of those matters happens to be religious rituals and customs. I hail from the Tam-Brahm community that goes through a grind of a 13 day ritual of obsequies. I have been through these for the many deaths in both my maternal and matrimonial homes and found these rather painful, and far from consoling. I went through the motions like a zombie when I lost my in-laws one after the other. I’ve questioned the customs but the answer I’ve got so far is: these rituals help the dead pass seamlessly to the next world. And it doesn’t end here. You need to appease the spirits (of the dead) two days a month for a year, with a four day ceremony at the end of the year, and an annual one after this. These are not to be questioned, and followed implicitly. And these rituals aren’t exactly free. They cost the moon. They have package deals too. A few lakh rupees. Wonder how the poor bid goodbyes to their loved ones. And for those who can’t stop work or have less time, you may skip some of those days in between. Once the cremation formalities are done, you have to immerse the ashes in the Ganga; if you are not fortunate enough to live near the holy river, you are permitted to go with a lesser river for the immersion. Then you may skip the rituals of some of the days upto the 8th, but have to perform the rites from the 9th to 13th day. So there is compromise of sorts permitted here, provided you load the priests with a hefty sum.
And what happens if you don’t observe these rites? You’d imagine
something on the lines of – the dead will be stuck in this world or come to
haunt you? You couldn’t be more wrong.
Wait for it.
Your children will suffer if you fail to observe these rites. You will have (physically or mentally) disabled children or if you already have healthy children, they will be doomed. You obviously don’t want to send your children to a life of damnation. Yes, you got it right. This is the fear that makes Tam-Brahms perform these rites. I know people who didn’t care if their parents existed when they were alive, but religiously performed all the rites the priest told them to do. Fear makes them do whatever they are expected to do. Knowing how everyone is devoted to their children, the high priests conveniently manipulated the gullible people into doing whatever they wanted them to do. I can’t for the life of me propitiate a God who’d punish my kids if I failed him (or her). I don’t trust such a God. The God I know is made of love and compassion. I refuse to cower to a punishing God.
A relative asked me: Why do you follow traffic rules or pay taxes? Similarly, you need to follow rules of you religion. But if I break traffic rules, it may not only be chaotic, but I could also end up dead or worse, kill someone else. That’s why we follow traffic rules. We pay taxes because the government needs funds to run the country. But who laid down laws for the dead? My religion is a way of life. My belief in God is personal, not religious. There is no evidence that Hindus have to follow these rites set by a few men. Or else, how do we explain how each of the several sects and sub sects of Hindus follow different practices.
His holiness Adi Shankra’s views on this: These rites give
children the satisfaction of doing something for their parents. The after death
rituals are a way of assuaging the children’s guilt.
But we Vaikuntam siblings aren’t trapped in a plane of guilt. We loved our parents, and made sure we made them feel loved and respected when they were alive. We are of the view that we have to love, respect and support our parents as long as they live.
How do we know the dead receive anything at all? Is there an afterlife? I also hear counter arguments – how do we know there isn’t? We don’t know one way or another. But I’d rather not go through a torture I’m not even convinced will help my parents, even if they are where the high priests believe they are.
When we lost our mother three years ago, we siblings decided to donate in a senior home where the residents don’t have children or were abandoned by their kids. We felt gratified in this. Simply because we can improve, even slightly, the life of someone who is alive. It wasn’t a onetime ritual either. On her death anniversary every year, the elders are served a feast courtesy the donors.
All this is really noble and all, our relatives say. But what about the 13 day rituals? We have been ridiculed for neglecting our duty towards our (dead) mother, and similar derision comes our way this time towards Dad. But his children do not believe in these rites, so our dad is doomed to suffer –or worse, do our kids face hell? Who knows?