From once upon a time – speaking to my Maker in poetry and prose…

When I was young, and wide-eyed and naive; when I wanted everything here and now, I spoke to my maker thus…In poetry and prose…

you hold out promises
of rebirth
like holding out colourful toys
to quiet a stubborn child
when I want something
you can’t give

and you use words
that scare me
karma, prarabdha, vasanas,
between me
and my desires

i don’t want rebirth
i don’t understand karma
all I want
is my life,
this life
to live over again

all i want
is fulfillment
of all my desires,
good or bad,
right or wrong

if you can’t give me that
give me empty words either

for of what use
is a second life?
of what use is a life
where even desire may never be the same?

do I sound like a stubborn child?
can I help that?
aren’t we all petulant, stubborn children
in the eyes of the maker,
if there be one?

is that why
my maker holds out only promises
in the way of holding out toys
when s/he can’t give us what we want?

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Does Hinduism encourage escapism?

Must one really shed attachment if one wants to attain inner peace and moksha? But what about ambition?

“Thy right is to work only, but never to its fruits. Let not fruit of action be not thy motive nor let thy attachment be to inaction” – Bhagawad Gita.

My relationship with both – my religion and my child – are much the same. Both are irreversibly symbiotic, the first because I was born into it, and the other because she was born out of me. I love both even at times when it is difficult to; and I owe allegiance to both, regardless of circumstances. How can you abandon either, child or religion?

But a good parent, and a good Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, is one who can be objective about the ‘warts’ as it were. Even so, as I set out to examine some warts that are evident to me in Hinduism’s basic tenets, I do it with a sense of trepidation.

At various stages in my life, doubts about my religious proclivities have assailed me (as they must have many). What were my true feelings towards being a Hindu? Did Hinduism encourage escapism? There is so much about it that confuses me. Beginning with the way this religion is practised. Replete with seemingly irrational rituals and indecipherable rules for worship, the same rules and rituals can be so full of meaning when interpreted in the right way. For instance, asking forgiveness of a tree before cutting it, as some tribes are known to do, reeks of meaningless ritualism. Look deeper and you find sound ecological sense in the ritual.

Hinduism also seems so escapist at times. Owning, or even desiring material possessions has always left me in a quandary. Must one really shed attachment if one wants to attain inner peace and moksha? Then where does that leave ambition? Doesn’t ambition come out of desire? Isn’t it a form of escapism to be without desire and therefore ambition?

Then again, let’s talk about wishing for the fruits of our actions. Doesn’t the Bhagawad Geeta say, “The action alone is yours, not the fruit”? Why would I act if I didn’t want the fruit?

What does my religion say about actions, right or wrong? Hinduism does not have any fixed theories about heaven and hell; it does not propound the belief of a ‘‘day of reckoning’’. On the contrary, it says your deeds in this life, good or bad are carried seamlessly into the next and you often reap, in the next life, what you sow in this. I certainly will not know what I’m paying for when I’m living out my next life. Convenient, isn’t it, this kind of amnesia? Does that mean I can sin in this life without fear? Some more escapism?

One can go on and on because Hinduism is full of such contradictions. But it is also a fearless religion, in that it lays itself open to interpretation and introspection. Look once, you will find one meaning, look again, you will find another. Each person, Hindu or otherwise, is free and welcome to delve into its mysteries and find the path and interpretation that suits him/her the best.

I have reached my own conclusions about the conflicts that have troubled me from time to time.

Right or wrong, I believe that above all, Hinduism teaches equanimity and acceptance. It equips you to deal with success, cope with failure and it teaches you the wisdom of taking the path of least resistance, the convenience of living like water. It shows you how to fit the vessel you are in at any point in time. But then I wonder, am I rationalising, am I being an escapist?

Bharathi Ghanashyam

First published in Deccan Herald 06 February 2006. More relevant now than any time ever.


The tyranny of social norms


After a gap…

It’s been a while since I visited here. Tonight, at the end of a long working day, I’ve silenced my creaking joints, defied a body that’s crying for rest; and allowed my mind and resolve to take the lead and am sitting down to do this.

I’ve got it coming out of my ears – this question, again and again. “Why do you have to do this at your age?” I’ve stopped replying now and answer with a vacuous grin, which can mean nothing or a lot – depending on who it’s directed at. If it’s a person who’s genuinely concerned for me, it can mean a lot, and I reassure them that I’m still fit and will be fit hopefully for many more years to come. If it’s a person who’s bound by social norms and believes that a woman who crossed a half-century+10 must wrap herself in a shawl, wear socks and shuffle helplessly around the house, it means, I didn’t want to be rude and ask them to ‘you know what’!

That brings me to social norms and a conference I attended a few weeks ago. During the discussions, I realised with a mental thud that we in society are tyrannised by social norms. Social norms are, as I learnt, norms of behaviour that society expects us to conform to and we do it, fearing sanctions on failing to do so. And this is why I will think twice before going to a bar or pub without a man accompanying me – I don’t want to be seen as lacking in character. This is why I will refrain from dining out with a male friend from college, if my husband does not accompany me. Or this is also why I will refrain from walking out of a bad marriage, even if I’m being beaten just short of death, physically and emotionally every other day. What will people say?  What will they think? Who will marry my daughter? And the list goes on…

Social norms are ubiquitous. There are norms for every action in life – dressing, talking, marrying, not marrying, eating, and I read yesterday, there are even prescribed norms for women and their hair – hair shastra! And they all seemed to be designed and reserved for this special species called woman, who everybody in the world is out to protect, and strangely enough, destroy at the same time. Hmm..

Am I lecturing from an ivory tower? Have I tried to change things? Have I had the courage to walk the ‘road less travelled?’ The answer is yes, and the answer is also no. I tried stepping out for dinner alone one night when I was out on business travel in Delhi, and bored of eating kathi rolls night after night, sitting in my room and watching or rather hearing Arnab Goswami screaming into my ears. There was a famous restaurant down the road from my hotel and I figured no harm could come if I popped in and popped out after gorging on their renowned tandoori chicken. How I wished I hadn’t. All the while I was there, I felt the glare and the unease of the manager, the waiters and the other diners on me, questioning, maybe judging or conjecturing too. The chicken tasted like charcoal in my mouth and I beat a somewhat hasty retreat after doing some service to it. And yet, when I went to Liverpool, UK recently, I had to step out alone for dinner and didn’t attract even a glance from anyone – my ego was shattered, but…

But there are happy experiences too. My mother, recently left alone after my brother died, decided she would have none of staying with her children. She was determined to live in the home her husband had given her and where his soul still lived. She’s managed pretty well and has managed to silence all those awkward questions that have come her way. It’s difficult though, and more strength to her.

We are seeing more examples as we see our daughters rebelling against norms, sometimes at great cost to themselves. But the churning has to happen and someone has to pay the price before things get better for women. Our support is with the women who are daring to swim against the tide and hopefully a time will come when a 60-year old will not be questioned when she wants to stay alive mentally and wants to work well beyond society’s perceptions of when she should curl into a hole and go to sleep!

Bharathi Ghanashyam