Recent events have made me re-realise why I hate organized religion and crystallised, cast-in-stone rituals so much. The recent death, and the aftermath of that death, of a member of the family clarified the hate and disgust I feel at the blind following of “so called traditions” at the cost of human emotions and pain.
A man has lost his wife, his partner, someone he presumably cared a great deal for, with whom he had two children and a life. Two kids, an eight year old, and a four and a half year old, have lost their mother. The bottom has, literally, fallen out of their world. The last thing any of these people need is for some sadistic priest or a bunch of incredibly cruel rituals, to keep rubbing their faces in their loss. They are going to be very, very aware of what they have lost for every moment of the rest of their lives.
Yet, the Hindu religion, (not sanatandharma, but what has come to be practiced today as Hinduism), completely refuses to let them mourn, and heal, in peace! The Islamic or Christian funeral rites, with the burial-as-soon-as-possible-after-the-death-and-that’s-the-end-of-it ethos suddenly seem much more humane. Whatever public mourning and ritualistic behaviour is expected is only for a day, and then people are left alone to deal with their loss.
For the Bengali Hindu family, however, bereavement is not so simple. First of all there is the absolute horror of the “mukhagni”. Now, it is traumatic enough for an adult, to have to set fire to the body of someone they loved. How much worse for a child or an adolescent? Why is the community still practicing this tradition? And I don’t mean the orthodox stick-in-the-mud followers of everything that is prescribed. I am talking about a family that emigrated to Singapore, where the man is a shippie who has roamed the world, the woman dressed in pants and tights, they partied, they led fairly “untraditional” lives. So, why the insistence on “mukhagni?”
Personally, an electric cremation seems a lot better. Not only is it more environment friendly, what with so many less sandalwood trees to chop down, it eliminates the necessity of the man or the child having to set fire to the pyre. Its emotionally much less traumatic, and a lot less inhuman. But, that does not seem to occur to very many people, even in this day and age. We still do things just because “this is how they have always been done”. “Etai niyom” is the last and final word on the subject.
Just such logic is behind the following of the twelve days of Ashouwch. Bad enough that the family is dealing with loss and displacement, bad enough that the future looks too dark to even think about, on top of all that, they have to give up their daily routines! Psychologists will be the first to tell you that in times of trauma and upheaval, routine provides solace. It makes you feel as if some part of your life, at least, is still under control, and normal. And what does Tradition dictate? That the family give up cooked food, eat only boiled stuff, not go out, not work, sleep on mats, walk around without footwear, and a myriad other routine destroying things.
In an age when death came usually after long illnesses, attended to at home, by the family, these rules gave the family a much needed rest after the death. When contagion could only be avoided by quarantine, these rules made sure you were confined long enough for the infection to become powerless before you went back into social intercourse. Today, when hospitals do the work, and contagion is no longer such an issue, these rules merely end up disrupting normal life further, creating more trauma.
At the end of the twelve days of “uncleanness”, as if the death of your loved one is somehow a fault, a sin you must be punished for, there is the even more inhuman tradition of the “shraddh”. The man, in this case, sits down in front of a portrait of the deceased wife, decorated with garlands, and with enough incense burning to set off a dozen fire alarms, to complete the final rituals. Enter the sadistic priest. “Take a few minutes to picture her in your mind, think about her” he says, as if the man has been able to stop thinking about her, and picturing every word, every smile, every gesture of the woman who was his companion in life for one single moment in the last twelve days!
Then begins, and continues for hours, a drone of mantras that no one understands (maybe even not the priest himself, who is repeating by rote), mispronounced and meaningless in this day and age. A lot of food, clothing, bedding, etc is GIVEN to the ancestors, (read taken home in the bag by the priest) and the man is looking home and more haggard as time passes. He’s obviously had little or no sleep in the past few days, what with worrying about his future, mourning his loss, and wondering how to manage two kids and a demanding job all by himself.
On top of that, before he has had time to even imagine recoving, he has been required to put up with people coming in all the time to “offer condolences”, asking all manners of nosy questions which have only managed to make it worse for him. As if that was not enough, he is also in charge of planning and arranging a “shraddh bhoj” where a number of connected and unconnected people will be invited, and fed to the gills, supposedly in memory of the deceased. So while the poor man is dropping from exhaustion and muttering a lot of Sanskrit he understands nothing of, he is also constantly being asked for instructions by various decorators, caterers and sundry other people responsible for the feast!
My man, and my family, has strict instructions. If they waste time and energy on this, I WILL come back and haunt them for all eternity. Calculate how much this would cost, and take that money to an orphanage. Much better for the “shanti” of the “atma” in my opinion, and definitely better for the mourners (who will know they did something worthwhile in the person’s memory instead of just blindly following traditions) as well as for society in general (imagine how much good work could be done if all the money spent on shraddhs every year in India was to be channelised into social work instead).
Then comes the really awful part of the whole day. The son, the eight year old child, is made to sit down and perform certain rituals. As the kid is trying to deal with a totally unfamiliar language in which he has to repeat mantras, he has to perform strange actions, like fold his hands and point them in various directions and so on. As a result, quite naturally, he is embarrassed, and looks at his cousins and smiled. At this point, the sadistic priest tell an elder relative, sitting right there... (with mock pity) “He doesn’t understand it yet, he will soon. He will know what it is to lose a mother”. This to a child who will, for the rest of his life feel his immense and unimaginable loss at every turn! not surprisingly, the child's face fall, eyes fill, and the fleeting moment of lightness he had snatched from twelve days of hell fades away fast.
Then we have a repeat of the whole rigamarole of meaningless mumbling, and then the kids, including the four-and-a-half year old are forced to do a “pranaam” at the garlanded, incense infested photograph of their lost mother. To me, that’s just plain cruel and sadistic. The priest, obviously through making a living off other peoples’ grief, has long since lost all empathy and human fellow feelings. How then is having this person preside over some vague procedures that no one even GETS supposed to help? What is he doing, in the final reckoning, smoothening her path into “heaven” at the cost of torturing and traumatizing the people she left behind, and presumably loved?
Thanks a lot but no thanks, is all I can say. Chuck me in an “electric chulli”, give the money to an orphanage, and have a party with my loved ones. Drink yourself silly if that helps with the grief, get together and celebrate my life, talk about the good times with people who cared about me and whom I cared about. For pity’s sake don’t waste time effort and money on feeding a bunch of people whose first action, as soon as they leave, will be to criticize the “arrangements” and the “deceased”. And do not traumatise and torture my man and my kids with stuff i dont believe in performed by people who didn't know me and couldnt care a hoot about me!