Recently, when a friend of mine told me that she had raised it as a topic of discussion at a ladies’ get-together, I felt the topic was worth pondering upon, especially in the current times- “Are you religious or spiritual?”.
Then a few days ago, when my daughter asked me if praying to God would make her a better human, I decided I wanted to answer her in a way that my answer would put to rest any doubts she had on the subject and would not mislead her. I said very categorically, ” Praying is meant to make you a better person, because it’s a period of meditation, when you are at peace with yourself and closest to your conscience. It’s during the course of prayer, that you can be honest with yourself and accept your mistakes and think of how to set things right for all the wrong done by you during the course of the day”. This was followed by a question from her younger sister, “What if I don’t know I have done something wrong but you feel that it’s wrong?”. I simply said, ” You always know. You may pretend that you don’t or you may ignore your inner voice but it always tells you when you’re wrong. You just have to listen to it”. The older one then remarked, ” Is it essential to focus on God when you are praying- I mean do I need to stand before Him or can I just focus on anything that helps me concentrate?”.
I realized I had to tread carefully because here were two impressionable minds that wanted answers, answers to questions that I had never bothered to question during my growing-up years (simply because life was so much simpler in the seventies and the eighties); who sounded like they were rebelling but were probably just questioning. I responded “Yes, you can meditate in front of anything or nothing at all, as long as that helps you to listen to your inner voice and reminds you that you must be honest and good”. I was hoping this was the last of their questions and we wouldn’t have to continue on this topic as it seemed like the two siblings were questioning everything that I had taught them until this day; on faith, God, religion and being good. But like all mothers would understand, this was just one of those days where I, as their mother was to be badgered by a volley of questions. The next question was, ” Are you saying Atheists are not good?”. I would be lying if I said I was prepared for that one. I said “No! Not believing in God does not make one a bad person. They can be good if they derive enough strength from within to stay on the right path and be good human beings. Believing in God makes it easier to be good as you feel someone’s watching and that somebody will reward you or punish you accordingly”.
This blog is not about religion,for that is a sensitive subject and I do not consider myself fit to speak on it. This is about the difference between spirituality and religion. While I wish there was no difference between the 2 words, as there really shouldn’t be since the former stems from the latter, the bitter truth is they have become distinctly different over time. The fact is an Atheist may be spiritual while a religious person may not.
Born a Hindu in a secular country with 16 years of convent education and having lived and worked in a Muslim country, for 2 decades, has only resulted in me having immense respect for all faiths. Having friends of all faiths has made me realize that the teachings of all religions are the same- Peace and Harmony. The lack of understanding and misinterpretation results in conflicts and issues.
So, how did the difference crop up? Is it better to be spiritual or religious?
A person who calls himself spiritual is indicating that he is tolerant, more open to accepting all faiths. A spiritual person is also saying that he/she does not blame religion for differences between people and is aware that it is culture, upbringing and experiences that makes each one of us is different.
In today’s dictionary, a religious person would be one who is strongly affiliated to his religion. This affiliation may or may not make them tolerant towards other faiths. Spirituality is enlightenment for the religious.
Exposure to all religions, nationalities and cultures and an open mind that is willing to respect and accept the best of all people, irrespective of culture, gender, religion is one who may be more likely to be on a path of spiritual awareness than one who is engrossed in one’s self and looks down upon all others.
The truth is that religion was meant to help us live as good human beings, to give us strength to face life’s difficulties.
Whether you woke up one day and found yourself in a particular faith by birth or whether you followed it out of choice because of your beliefs, you will achieve peace depending on how well you practice the teachings of your faith which is to be honest, humane and to hurt no living thing irrespective of color, caste, gender, age.
The beauty of studying in India
As a child,studying in India, the difference in religion was never important. I was a Hindu child who studied in a Catholic school. Since home was in Dubai and school in Poona (India) where there was no airport, I had to fly from Dubai to Mumbai and then take the train to Poona. In Mumbai, I would spend the night or a day or two in a Muslim family’s house. They were my guardians while I was at the hostel. I was fed and looked after very well which is what mattered to me. In school, I took part in all the plays held in Church and absolutely loved listening to stories from the Bible, during Sunday classes. On summer holidays in India, I would visit the temples with equal enthusiasm and loved the sound of the conch, the smell of the flowers and burning incense sticks. I simply learnt to love the peace of the church, the temple and the darga. Thankfully, my family did not stop me from visiting any of the Holy places of worship. I later learnt in school that India is a secular country. I did not appreciate the power of the word “secular” because as a child in India, you breathe it and live it without even knowing it. It’s simply a way of life.
However, the recent spate of attacks by people on people of different religions and cultures left me more appreciative of our nation. With a population of over a billion people, despite TV channels and newspapers publicizing that Hindus and Muslims are fighting and that Christians or Sikhs who are the minorities are not getting enough importance, the truth on the ground is far from it. India has been and will always be secular. The one-off issues that rise are independent of each other or are created by political parties or others who have vested interests.
In that respect, as a country, we are far more developed than the so-called developed nations where people’s minds have become so small due to lack of exposure that they understand and accept nothing but their own faiths. With all religions thriving together, I guess, we are far more globalized than any other nation. Every child in India knows the best Biryani is made by Muslims and is waiting for his or her Muslim friend to bring them some during Eid. Every child in India waits for Diwali, the festival of lights and celebrates it with the same gusto as a Hindu child. Every child, irrespective of religion has at-least once in their life-time dreamed of wearing a wedding gown and walking down the aisle.
The benefit of being raised in the U.A.E
Growing up in Dubai, a Muslim country, I had no clue how much it really mattered who you were – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain. Our neighbors were Christians and Muslims. We celebrated all festivals together. The only thing I knew was we were humans. I watched the Christians go to Church every Friday as it’s a weekend here and I watched the Muslims gather together for the Friday afternoon prayer or stop by the road-side irrespective of the weather and pray piously at the specific prayer timing. I watched the Hindus throng at the only temple in the country which is just beside a mosque and pray with the same loud bells and songs as they do in India. I saw the Sikhs climb the stairs to the very same temple, pray to the Hindu Gods and bow at the Gurudwara which is housed within the temple. Not once was I made to feel it was wrong to practice my faith. That probably speaks for secularism practiced in the Muslim nation.
Being raised in the U.A.E, is the best experience any child could possibly have- exposure to more than 100 nationalities makes one more adaptable and more accepting of all. This country is certainly ahead of other nations, for this reason among many others, as it practices and instils tolerance of all, unlike other nations where people are so unaware of any culture other than their own that it limits their understanding of reality.
The essence of this blog
I felt the urge to write this blog because of the current happenings around the world, because of all the hatred we feel within us due to the atrocities of terror groups and because we end up blaming it on a particular religion or a particular nation. I addition to this, I wrote this blog because people now prefer to call themselves spiritual to explain their tolerance as they feel the word “religious” does not symbolize. Furthermore, I wrote this blog because of the questions my girls’ asked me which could be a question in many a child’s mind. This blog is for my girls’ and for all others’ who have often wondered about this. For my girls’, I’d like them to give them a piece of my thinking that they can always get back to when they are at cross-roads.
A call out to all parents and teachers
In this age and time, the role of parents and teachers has become all the more important and challenging. With information available at the click of a button, it’s important to teach children to be honest, to stand up for the truth, to help those who are weaker, to be generous, to be grateful, to be able to decide between right and wrong and to know that hurting any living thing that is innocent is not a mark of strength. If this be taught and practiced, then we will not see youngsters taking a step towards self destruction and in so doing, we will be able to save the future generations. If religion aids in teaching these fundamental principles, which was it’s basic premise to start with, then the goal has been achieved. If not, then we are straying away from humanity towards barbarianism. Let us not then blame anybody else because of our failure to teach young minds which was entirely our responsibility to mould. It’s extremely important to engage in conversations, discussions and answer every question patiently rather than thrust it as a rule.